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An Account of Teampall na Trianaid

An Account of Teampall na Trianaid

The following is taken from a leaflet published by Teampall na Trianaid Conservation Association. A Gaelic version of the text is available here.


Teampall na Trianaid at Carinish, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is North Uist’s most significant ecclesiastical foundation.  Its precise date of origin is unknown.  The Royal Commission’s volume on the ancient and historical monuments of Skye and the Western Isles (1928) concluded that while the surviving physical evidence might suggest the sixteenth century, “the proportions of the structure are in keeping with a fourteenth century origin”.  This might seem to bear out North Uist tradition as it has come down to us via both a written history of the seventeenth century and continuous oral transmission to the present day, and which ascribes the foundation of the Teampall to Amy MacRuairi.


Amy was a member of the ruling family of the MacRuairi kindred which controlled the Uists, Barra, Rum, Eigg and parts of the western mainland from the thirteenth until the mid-fourteenth centuries.  From c.1337 until 1350, she was the wife of Iain, Chief of the Clan Donald and Lord of the Isles.  The seventeenth century history also credits her with the building of Borve Castle and St. Columba’s church in Benbecula, an oratory in Grimsay North Uist and Caisteal Tioram in Moidart.  Yet as far as Teampall na Trianaid is concerned there is definite evidence of an earlier origin.  This comes in a charter of 1389 confirming a grant of the Teampall and associated lands originally made by Christina MacRuairi.  Christina was Amy’s aunt and must have flourished in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.


For how long, if at all, the Teampall was in existence before Christina’s lifetime is largely a matter of conjecture.  The one piece of evidence comes from another seventeenth century account, the Book of Clan Ranald, the work of the famous MacMhuirich dynasty of poets and historians who served the Lords of the Isles and subsequently the Chiefs of Clan Ranald.  According to the MacMhuirichs, Teampall na Trianaid was founded by Bethag, daughter of Somerled, Lord of the Isles (d. 1164).  Bethag seems to have been the first prioress of the nunnery of Iona following its apparent establishment by her brother Raghnall around 1203.  However, without supporting evidence, the attribution of the founding of the Teampall to her cannot be accepted as certain.


The charter of 1389 reveals that Christina MacRuairi had granted Teampall na Trianaid to the Augustinian Abbey at Inchaffray in Perthshire.  Her choice of Inchaffray may seem strange, but can be explained.  In March 1306, Robert Bruce was inaugurated as King of Scots and began his campaign to free Scotland from English occupation.  Early defeats meant that he was forced to spend the winter of 1306-07 as a fugitive.  The historian John of Fordun states that it was in the Hebrides that Bruce took refuge, and that it was with the assistance of Christina MacRuairi that he was able to survive. Hence it is tempting to see Christina’s grant of Teampall na Trianaid to Inchaffray as a counterpart of Bruce’s grant to the latter of the church of Killin and the Chapel of Strathfillan, and thus as further evidence of the close relationship between them.


Christina’s grant, then, was most probably made at some point after 1306-07.  It was confirmed by her nephew, Raghnall Fionn, Chief of the Clan Ruairi, who was slain by the Earl of Ross in 1346, leaving his sister Amy as heiress.  Since, as we have seen, Amy was at this point married to Iain, Chief of the Clan Donald, and Lord of the Isles, the MacRuairi lands, including North Uist, now came under direct Clan Donald control, firstly in the person of Raghnall, son of Amy and Iain, and then, following Raghnall’s death, of his brother Godfraidh.  Godfraidh is an extremely significant figure in North Uist history and tradition, and it was he who, at his fortress of Caisteal Tioram in Moidart on 7 July 1389, and as Lord of Uist, granted the charter of confirmation in favour of Inchaffray Abbey.

Godfraidh was almost certainly dead by 6 December 1410, when his brother Domhnall, Lord of the Isles, granted a further charter of confirmation, but it would appear that at some point thereafter the connection between Inchaffray and Teampall na Trianaid was severed.  A sixteenth century rental lists the lands which had been associated with the Teampall in the charter as pertaining to the Abbot of Iona.  Iona was of course the pre-eminent ecclesiastical institution within the Lordship of the Isles.


Teampall na Trianaid is a ubiquitous element within North Uist tradition.  It is said that it was founded by Amy MacRuairi (an error, as we have seen, though tradition may simply have confused Amy with Christina MacRuairi); that the lime used in its construction was wetted with eggs to make it more durable; and that treasure is located on its north west side.  One tradition sheds some light on the curious structure known as Teampall Clann a’Phiocair, which the 1928 inventory characterises as a “house”, evidently subsequent in date (possibly late sixteenth century) to Teampall na Trianaid, to which it is connected by a passage.  The progenitor of the North Uist MacVicars is reported to have been Domhnall, Am Piocair Mor (“The Big Vicar”), who is said to have lived in the era of the Reformation.  He and his four sons held among them the bulk of North Uist’s church lands, including Carinish.  The four sons were killed at the instigation of Uisdean MacGhilleasbuig Chleirich, a member of the MacDonald ruling family, the cause of the conflict doubtless lying in the struggle for church lands which took place all over Scotland in the wake of the Reformation.  A song composed by a sister of the brothers lamenting their deaths has survived to bear out the tradition.  It seems very likely that it was from this family that Teampall Clann a’Phiocair took its name.  Some of their descendants certainly used the site as their burial ground.


The lands granted with the Teampall in 1389 were the entire land of Karynch (Carinish) and the four pennylands in Ylera between Husaboste and Kanvsorrarath.  This is important onomastic evidence.  Other place names connected with the Teampall have survived in commemoration of the fact that it, like certain other churches, once enjoyed the privilege of sanctuary within a definite radius.  The place name Fadhail na Combraig (Sanctuary Ford) is used to denote the ford between Carinish and Benbecula to the south of the Teampall and within the existence of Combraig na Trianaid.  It may be that at Cnoc na Croise Mor (the Hillock of the Big Cross) and Cnocan na Croise Beaga (the Hillock of the Little Cross) in the vicinity of the Teampall there were sited crosses which marked the sanctuary boundary, though no physical evidence survives today.  The remains of a cairn can still be seen at Cnoc nan Aingeal (Angels’ Hillock) 300 yards north east of the temple, and there may have been a cross there.


An even more famous incident with which Teampall na Trianaid is associated is Blàr Chàirinis (the Battle of Carinish) of May 1601, in which a raiding party of MacLeods were outfought and defeated by a much smaller MacDonald force led by the renowned warrior Dòmhnall Mac Iain ‘Ic Sheumais.  It has left an indelible mark on tradition, including place names (such as  Oitir Mhic Dhòmhnaill Ghlais – the sandbank of Grey Donald’s Son – which commemorates the spot where the Macleod leader was slain, and Fèithe na Fala – the Ditch of Blood – although other explanations for this name are possible) and songs, and there are people still living who can trace their ancestry back to participants in the battle.  Government and other records, including the contemporary Sir Robert Gordon’s ‘History of Sutherland’, bear out the tradition.  It was in Teampall na Trianaid that the MacLeods are said to have passed the night before the battle, which took place in the immediate vicinity.


Perhaps the most persistent tradition is that which maintains that Teampall na Trianaid was a significant centre of learning and teaching.  It is claimed, for example, that the famous philosopher Duns Scotus (c.1265-1309) received education there, and that it continued to play such a role even into the eighteenth century, its last scholar being Dòmhnall Ruadh MacDonald who was just over 20 years old when he became involved in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.  Although this tradition cannot be proven for sure, there is no doubt that the mediaeval ecclesiastical centres were also centres of learning, and this is certainly true of those located within Gaelic Scotland.  Yet tradition clearly believes that Teampall na Trianaid operated on a level more significant than this, and recent research has often demonstrated that Gaelic tradition is to be regarded as a legitimate historical source which historians ignore at their peril.


Teampall na Trianaid has suffered severe physical deterioration in recent generations, some of it no doubt due to the robbing of the site for building purposes.  Alexander Carmichael, who was actively recording North Uist traditions in the nineteenth century, states that there had been a spire on the east gable surmounted by a figure which may have represented the Trinity.  A seventeenth century source refers to a wooden statue of the Holy Trinity which was apparently kept within the church.  Several carved stones and grave slabs are also said to have been removed, although it is not impossible that some may yet remain buried on site.


Teampall na Trianaid then is the nexus of a rich complex of history and tradition – local (the MacVicars and Blàr Chàirinis); regional (Iona and the Lordship of the Isles); and national (Robert Bruce and Inchaffray Abbey).  It is this which explains its major significance to the people of North Uist, a significance which belies any assessment of its worth based on architectural merit alone, and which explains the very high degree of public concern about the physical deterioration of the physical fabric of the building.

Title: An Account of Teampall na Trianaid
Record Type: Stories, Reports and Traditions
Type: Report
Record Maintained By: CGTNT
Subject Id: 109136