Oronsay Priory

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Site Type BURIAL GROUND, CROSS(S), PRIORY
Canmore ID 37822
Site Number NR38NW 1
NGR NR 34962 88948
Council ARGYLL AND BUTE
Parish COLONSAY AND ORONSAY
Former Region STRATHCLYDE
Former District ARGYLL AND BUTE
Former County ARGYLL
Datum OSGB36 - NGR

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Archaeological Notes

NR38NW 1 34962 88948.

(NR 3497 8893) Priory (NR) (In Ruins)
(NR 3495 8890) Stone Cross (NR) (Sculptured)
(NR 3500 8893) Stone Cross (NR) (Remains of)
(NR 3499 8890) Grave Yard (NR)
OS 6" map (1900)

The remains of an Augustinian priory, said to have originated as a Celtic monastery founded by St Columba and refounded by John, Lord of the Isles (1330-87) for canons regular. There is no proof of this, but the priory first appears on record in 1353. It was secularised in 1616 when the lands were granted to the Bishop of the Isles.
The plan of the priory is unusual in that the monastic buildings lie on the N side of the church which is simple rectangle with a narthex on the W and a mortuary chapel on the S. The E side of the cloister range includes the chapter house and the N side, domestic buildings. The W side is enclosed by a massive wall still intact. The arcading of the cloister is of two different types indicating restoration, the round-headed arches being earlier than those with the angular heads. Protruding eastward from the NE side of the monastery is a small chapel of very early character, built of rubble and slightly differently oriented from the rest of the buildings. Immediately N of the chapel is an excellent example of a monastic barn and byre built in the same style as the church, and still roofed.
The remains generally exist to gable height except on the N side, which has been badly robbed. The celebrated Oronsay Cross - a late medieval disc- headed high cross bearing the Crucifixion and interlacing, stands in a stepped base close to the SW angle of the narthex. It bears an inscription to the effect that it was the cross of Prior Colin, who died in 1510.
At the E end of the church is a small mound surmounted by a broken cross consisting of a head and a shaft clamped together although they did not necessarily originally belong to the same cross. At the time of Martin's visit about 1695 there were three crosses near the church, and the Great Cross at Campbelltown is said to have stood originally at Pairc- na-Crois near Oronsay House, before its removal in the 18th century.
Sanctuary crosses associated with the priory stood in the Strand
(NR39SE 37). The present enclosure of the burial ground is obviously a contraction of the original as human remains have been found for a considerable distance outside it. Many carved slabs from the site are in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS), purchased in 1899. The Priory and the high Cross are scheduled.
D E Easson 1957; D MacGibbon and T Ross 1897; I B Cowan 1964; J S Richardson 1927; S Grieve 1923

The Priory, broken cross and the sculptured cross are as described. The burial ground is now disused. There are some thirty medieval grave stones on display in the byre. There is no trace of a bank or wall defining the limits of the original burial ground.
Visited by OS (BS) 3 April 1974.

The ruins of this Augustinian priory are situated towards the W end of the tidal island of Oronsay, some 280m NE of the
narrow sea-inlet of Port na Luinge. The craggy slopes of Beinn Oronsay, rising to the NE of the priory, provide a
natural water-supply which in medieval and modern times made this the principal area of habitation on the island.
Oronsay House, an altered and extended tacksman's house of late 18th-century origin, stands about 25m SW of the
priory church, and 19th-century farm-buildings occupy the area immediately to the W. The monastic buildings are
enclosed by a 19th-century drystone dyke which circumscribes a roughly circular area to the E and S of the
church; the line of the boundary-wall corresponds with that shown on a plan of 1910, but photographs, taken mainly
between 1861 and 1872, show it enclosing a smaller area on the SW and NE.(Survey-drawing by D MacDonald [original plan in the possession of Lord Strathcona, Colonsay House; copy in the NMRS]. Photographs by Revd. J B Mackenzie, minister of Colonsay 1861-72 [original prints in NMRS, PA 186-187]; E Beveridge, 1922, vol.1) The foundations of two roughly parallel walls run southwards from the s wall of the priory church across the associated burial-ground, but these do not relate to the earlier alignment of the boundary-wall, and illustrations made in 1772 show no traces of enclosure-walls of any kind at that date. (Pennant 1772) At least one cist-burial has been recorded from the area occupied by the later farmstead. (W Stevenson 1881)
Summary
The earliest identifiable work is in the E range, parts of which can probably be ascribed to the period of the foundation of the priory by John I, Lord of the Isles, some time between 1325 and 1353. The precise extent of this original work is
uncertain, but the surviving evidence seems to indicate an E range with a bicameral or unicameral chapel set out on the N side of the cloister in accordance with usual practice. The rest of the claustral layout, incorporating a screen-wall to the W, (A later farm building was erected against its outer face; see J B Mackenzie photographs, loc. cit.) formed a subsequent stage in this first scheme. The original cloister-arcade, of which only the S portion survives, consisted of simple round-headed openings. The 'Prior's Chapel', which abuts the E end of the N range, and the two-storeyed 'Prior's House', which stands detached at the NE corner of the site, probably also belong to this phase of building, the latter originally being linked to the E range and serving partly as a reredorter.
The construction of the existing unaisled church on the S side of the cloister, possibly incorporating part of an earlier S
range, marks a second and revised phase of building. This work can be ascribed to the late 14th or early 15th century,
while the sanctuary was extensively remodelled in the late 15th century. Other significant modifications made to the church in the late 15th or early 16th century included the addition, on the S side of the choir, of a lateral chapel known
as the MacDuffie Aisle, and the commencement of a thick-walled and buttressed W annexe which may have been
intended as the lower stage of a tower. The Oronsay Cross, which was probably erected shortly before
1500, stands on its original pedestal 4m W of the church, while in modern times fragments of two other later medieval
crosses have been mounted on a rocky knoll on the NE side of the priory.
Three sides of the cloister-arcade were reconstructed with triangular-headed openings in the early 16th century by the
mason Mael-Sechlainn O' Cuinn. He is named on one of two inscribed pier-slabs incorporated in the existing W arcade,
which dates from a restoration of 1883. During the first half of the 16th century the 'Prior's Chapel' was extended almost
4m to the E, and the 'Prior's House' shows evidence of alteration at the same period.
There is no evidence of continued domestic or ecclesiastical use of the site, except for burials, in the immediate post-Reformation period, and by the 1620s the church had already reached a partly ruinous condition. The
earliest illustrations of the priory, which date from 1772 and 1775, show three sides of the cloister-arcade still intact and
the E range as a fairly complete masonry shell. In the late 18th or early 19th century the S half of this range was subdivided to serve as a McNeill of Colonsay burial-place, and a burial-aisle was added to the E wall in about the middle of the 19th century. Further dilapidation occured in the later 19th century but effective works of repair commenced with the restoration of the E wall of the church and the W cloister-arcade in 1883. The 'Prior's House', which had been reroofed some time after 1772, was further restored in 1927 to house the numerous effigies and graveslabs that had previously lain about the priory.(Loder 1935)
RCAHMS 1984, visited June 1977.

20 July 1971
 EXTERNAL REFERENCE

Notes c. 1350. Rubble. Roofless. CHURCH: 1st Pointed. Long
narrow chamber. Gabled. Splayed slit windows (rudimentary
trefoils). 3-light mullioned E. window. Freestone. Sacrament
House within buttress at S.E. corner. McDaffie's Mortuary
Chapel on S. side. 'Baptistery' at W. end. Narrow recess on
N. side gives access to range of domestic buildings around
Cloisters.
CHAPTER HOUSE: (sub-divided into 3 parts, including McNeill
Burial Place (with 19th century extension to E.))
REFECTORY. KITCHEN. PRIOR'S CHAPEL. CLOISTERS: on N. Side
of Church. 5 narrow round arches on S. 7 unusual straightlined
pointed arches on thin pillars (some inscribed)
on N. (Other sides destroyed.) PRIOR'S HOUSE: detached, to
N. of Prior's Chapel. Gabled.
Re-roofed 1937 to house grave-slabs, etc.
Groome.
Argyll C.C. 'List'
Pennant 'Tour 1772' Vol. 1, pp. 270-1 (ills.)
Grieve. 'Colonsay and Oronsay' Vol. 1, pp. 367-373 (plan;
ills.)
Muir 'Characteristics' p. 69.
Ecc. Arch. Vo. III, pp. 372-381 (plan; ills.)
P.S.A.S. XV pp. 113-115.
RCAHMS Vol 5 No 386 p230-254 (Plans, ills)
Ruin but with more interesting remains than any other
religious foundation except Iona in Hebrides.
Enclosed by ancient burial ground. Founded by John Macdonald,
1st Lord of the Isles as a house of Augustinian Canons.
Subsequent history obscure.
Attached to Bishopric of Argyll in 16th century.
Scheduled Ancient Monument No 287.
Information from Historic Scotland, 20 July 1971

Further details

 
Books and References

Cowan and Easson, I B and D E (1976) Medieval religious houses in Scotland: with an appendix on the houses in the Isle of Man, London
Page(s): 79 Held at RCAHMS C.3.2.EAS.R

Cowan, I B (1964) Corrections and additions to Easson,
Page(s): 2

Easson, D E (1957a) Medieval religious houses in Scotland: with an appendix on the houses in the Isle of Man, London
Page(s): 79 Held at RCAHMS C.3.2.EAS

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Charity SC026749