Nuns’ Cave, Carsaig
The Nuns’ Cave (Uamh nan Cailleach) is a natural, coastal cave situated about 2 km south west of Carsaig on the walk to Carsaig Arches, about one hour from Carsaig itself.
In front of the cave is a steep and dangerous path called the Nun’s Pass, which leads up to the top of the cliff. Below the Nuns’ pass is an unusual Sphinx-like rock on the shore. The cave is on the Carsaig side in behind a low bank. It was formed by the action of the sea at the base of the cliff and now opens onto a raised beach. It is V-shaped and measurers approximately 20 m wide at the entrance, 30 m deep and a maximum 5 m high at the front. It is topped by columnar basalt.
The Cave and surrounding areas reflect a great deal of ecclesiastical history. It is named after the nuns who are believed to have taken refuge for a short time after being driven out of Iona by reformers, who destroyed the treasures and archives of Scottish Christianity, and the buildings of Iona at the time of the Reformation.
In front of the cave is a flat area of hard, grey sandstone, which is covered at high tide. This is the remains of a quarry that is believed to have been used as the source for the carved, ornamental stonework on Iona Abbey, as well as for grave slabs for chiefs and dignitaries, and doors and window facings for many of the chapels on Mull. Wooden wedges were driven into cracks in the rocks and when covered by the tides would expand and force the slabs apart.
The cave was used as a work-place and shelter. Work carried on here until shortly before the middle of the 19th century and it was briefly re-opened for restoration work at Iona Abbey in 1875.
On the cave’s smooth west wall are carved various holy symbols, mainly crosses, some of which are so close to the ground as to suggest that the floor has risen considerably over the years. Some of the carvings are believed to date from the 6th to 9th centuries, but many of the simpler ones may be more recent. There are two masons’ marks, probably carved by the stone masons in the 18th or 19th century; a three-pronged symbol of unknown date; a sailing ship, possibly 18th century; and a number of dates, the earliest being 1633. You need to look closely as they are amongst modern day graffiti.
Grid Reference NM 523 204