Kilneuair – The Chapel of the Yew

Kilneuair is a notoriously hard to find place on the southern shores of Loch Awe in Argyll and has an ancient sacred history. The place name stems from the Gaelic words Cille Iubhair which mean Chapel of the Yew and it is said that in the 6th century St Columba built a chapel, (or rather a small oratory) here within a circular enclosure. It stands apart from the ruins of a much larger and later medieval chapel dedicated to St Columba.  There is also a belief the saint established a small monastery elsewhere along Loch Awe’s south shores, referred to by his hagiographer Adomnan as Cella Diuni, but no traces of it have been found to date.

The ancient 6th century building next to the later medieval chapel
The ancient 6th century building next to the later medieval chapel

Unfortunately no yews are to be seen at Kilneuair today. However, its historic connections serve as a prime example of how the yew is embedded in the material and spiritual history of Scotland, and is worth looking at more closely.

Remarkably, considerable remains of the chapel are still to be seen, built in a drystone technique which uses no mortar to bind the stones and is a fine feat of ancient masonry. Many stones at the corners of the gables are decorated with geometric carvings, though whether original or added later is hard to tell. Usually early Christian stone built monastic cells were plain, as seen from many examples in Ireland.

The eastern gable of the oratory with its curious ogee arch window

The difference in size between the two buildings shows the earlier one was not meant to hold a congregation as such, and probably served more as a personal space for private prayer, meditation and singing psalms in the tradition of Irish Christianity. The circular enclosure, delineating the sacred space around the chapel, was probably used for open air preaching to a gathering of people. There are the remains of an early medieval cross base here, suggesting it was indeed used as a preaching place. If there was a large yew here, perhaps more than one, there would be ideal and natural shade and shelter for a crowd of people.

The western gable of the oratory
The western gable of the oratory

St Columba is known to have had a personal retreat on Bernera, a tiny tidal island off Lismore in the Firth of Lorne. He created his ‘cell’ under the boughs of an immense yew later felled in the 18th century by the Campbells of Loch Nell. He also preached at this spot and allegedly to hundreds of people as his fame grew. Given this scenario on Bernera suggests that his relationship with Kilneuair was on a similar basis, in that it was both a personal retreat when required, perhaps from the affairs of a nearby monastery as mentioned by Adomnan, but also a place where gatherings took place. His relationship with the yew on Bernera is celebrated in a stain glass window in the church on Lismore, a church known as the Cathedral of the Isles.

Some examples of the decorated stones
Some examples of the decorated stones

When St Columba arrived on Iona, there were no trees on the island and wood for fuel and construction purposes had to be imported by boat. The name of Iona itself stems from a mistranslation of the word Iuna as written by Adomnan and it means ‘Place of the Yew Trees’. In The Sea Kingdoms by Alistair Moffatt he states that:

“It appears that Iona is a mis-rendering of Ioua, which comes from iogh, the Gaelic word for yew tree.”

Some examples of the decorated stones

In mythology Iona was once the home of Fer-Hi, the foster son of the Gaelic sea god Mannanan. Lismore had a monastery created by St Moluag before the foundation of Iona and its influence in the early Christian history of the region is seriously overshadowed due to the later fame and reputation of St Columba. What is significant here is that Iona was not enough for St Columba’s spiritual needs and this is demonstrated by his creation of a personal cell on Bernera. It was the living presence of a yew which was so significant to him, as if he knew the yew itself was much more than ‘just a tree’ and it functioned for him as a conduit to the divine. The yew was obviously vital in this process of him communing with his god in such a deeply personal, private and undoubtedly metaphysical way.

This is not surprising as he had an Irish royal heritage steeped in the material and metaphysical aspects of the yew stemming from millennia before Christianity arrived in Ireland. In words attributed to St Columba written when he was in Ireland, he spells out an especial relationship with a particular yew in the words:

“This is the yew of the Saints
Where they used to come with me together
Ten hundred angels were there
Above our heads, side close to side.

Dear to me is that Yew tree
Would that I was set in its place there!
On my left it was pleasant adornment
When I entered into the black church.”

It seems clear that when St Columba explored the kingdom of Dalriada he found one or more yew trees at what became Kilneuair which were suitable to create a cell, implying they provided enough shade and shelter to do so. Perhaps there was a single huge yew here, similar to the one on Bernera, and the circular enclosure measured its canopy spread. Of course it cannot be discounted that, as upon Iona, St Columba evicted a Druid presence already existing at Kilneuair perhaps because an ancient sacred yew or a sacred grove was there. Whatever the history of Kilneuair may truly be we can only conjecture, apart from the fact that St Columba established a sacred place clearly because there was a yew presence, a presence dear to him.

We do not know when the yew presence at Kilneuair disappeared but perhaps one or more yews still existed when some Knight Templars were buried in the churchyard, as seen in the recumbent grave slabs lying there today. The Templar presence here is said to be because after the Order were persecuted by the French king Phillipe IV in 1307 some refugee Templars fled France and settled in the region of Loch Awe.

Knights Templar grave slab in the churchyard at Kilneuair

Kilneuair’s yew presence is sadly long gone, however, there is another sacred place not far away south on a sacred burial island called Innisherrich (Isle of the Foals) a place where Knights Templar were also buried. Next to the ruins of a 16th century chapel is a yew probably with origins around when the chapel was built, meaning the yew is not only sacred but also classified as ancient.

There is something compelling, highly intriguing and somewhat mysterious here. If we consider that the cosmologies of an Irish monk descended from High Kings of Ireland, and the Knights Templar, although separated by many centuries in time, nevertheless seem to share the same conviction and faith in a ‘certain something’ involving the unquantifiable metaphysical properties of yew trees. That certain something seems to be that a sacred place is functioning best – both for the living and the dead – when it has the presence of at least one yew tree resonating its life energy within it.