Drystone chapels of Islay : aspects of chronology, context and distribution
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One often reads in the literature that the simple drystone-built chapels on Islay date from the Norse period. This researcher always felt uncomfortable about that hypothesis, and this thesis explores the possibility that some of the chapels may be pre-Norse. A hypothesis is presented for the spread of Christianity in Ireland and across the North Channel to Islay. The traditional origins of the Scotti and recent conclusions regarding the gaelicisation of Argyll are examined to establish the likely degree of communication in the first millennium AD across the North Channel. A trade/communication route from the North of Ireland to Islay and onward to Knapdale, Mid Argyll and Iona is identified. The civil survey of Islay in the genealogical tract Míniugud Senchasa Fher nAlban is shown to be unreliable as an aid to the understanding of the settlement archaeology and political geography of Islay. An assumption is made that the lands bordering both sides of the North Channel formed a homogeneous Gaelic-speaking cultural region; justification for this is offered. An analysis of length to width (L/W) ratio for the corpus of drystone chapels in Ireland is presented. The L/W ratio is found to be an effective tool for the identification of early drystone-built churches. This is confirmed by a comparison of the L/W ratio of medieval mortared churches of approximately known date in Argyll with that of churches in the west of Scotland that are generally assumed to be early. Of the 27 chapels in Islay, 17 are classified according to L/W ratio value, entrance position, and orientation, and it is argued that a number are potentially pre-Norse. Four phases of chapels are identified. The locations of two small eremitic monastic sites are identified. These are used with the distribution of Early Christian carved stones and burial grounds to establish the extent of Early Christian activity on the island in the first millennium AD. The extent of the Norse settlement in Islay is discussed and arguments presented to support a proposal that this was a peaceful plantation rather than annihilation. A number of chapels are identified that may have been founded by the Norse, however it is suggested that the majority of the chapels date from the 12th century or later. Two new chapels were found during the course of fieldwork, and it is observed that leachta, - outdoor memorials often constructed on top of non-specific graves, and frequently used as pilgrimage stations in Ireland, are more common in Islay than often assumed. All chapels are fully described, together with some sites found during fieldwork that require further investigation to confirm their ecclesiastical use in the first millennium.