The Kildonan Figure
This figure is located in the ruined church at Kildonan on the Isle of Eigg (pronounced Egg) in Scotland. The church is named after St Donan a contemporary of St Columba. St Donan was martyred in his monastery on Eigg either by Viking raiders or the local queen in 617 or 618. His death was either by beheading or fire depening on which account you read. The church which currently houses the alleged sheela sculpture is thought to be a 16th century construction but there is evidence of earlier religious settlement in four cross slabs which date from the early medieval period. Records also list a religous settlement here in 725 so it would seem that the monastery continued after St Donan’s death.
Is this a sheela na gig?
According to the plaque on the wall of the ruined church it is a sheela and also according to the book “Eigg The Story of an Island” by Camille Dressler (Polygon, Edinburgh 1998) where Ms Dressler titles it a “Carving of the sheela na gig, an aspect of the Celtic mother goddess”. Unfortunately as you can see on the exceptionally clear photograph by Sarah Price on the right, there is little evidence of a vulva on display. In fact the sculpture seems more to be “hands in lap” than exhibitionist. The raised area either side of the head seems to suggest wings or possibly a pillow. In fact if you take the head on its own then the figure becomes more like the winged angels heads you see on 18th century tombstones. The overall shape of the sculpture is also suggestive of a tombstone. The lower part of the slab is damaged and while there is a depression it is distinctly un-vulva like and seems to be more case of damage due to weathering. In its favour the site of the church seems to have been in use throughout the period when most sheelas were carved and there are also the figures on Rodel and Iona which also would lend weight to this figure possibly being a sheela. However like this figure on Eigg neither of these figures is unequivocally a sheela na gig. So taking into account all the evidence it would seem the definition contains a fair amount of wishful thinking.
Thanks go to Sarah Price for the photograph and the information on the plaque.