Saint Donan, also known as Saint Donnán of Eigg, lived from about 550 to 17 April 617. He was probably Irish in origin, and probably of noble birth. He is known for his efforts to introduce Christianity to the Picts of north-west Scotland. Very little remains of him in the written record, but he is remembered in the quite remarkable number of places named after him across large parts of modern Scotland. The only part of his life to have made it into the annals in any detail was his death, when he and 52 of his monks were murdered at their monastery on the Isle of Eigg. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Donan's birth date of 650 is a supposition, deriving largely from a comment in a document that he was contemporary with, but younger than, St Columba. He seems to have crossed to south-western Scotland early in his adult life, possibly in company with a number of followers. His progress can then be traced by a series of places named "Kildonan", "Kildonnan", "Chapel Donan" and "Eilean Donan" stretching up the western seaboard of Scotland from Ayrshire and the Isle of Arran via the Western Isles to Sutherland. The instance of East Kildonan, in Manitoba, Canada reflects the much later Scottish diaspora rather than Donan's own travels. Additionally, it is said that at least eleven churches in Scotland are dedicated to St Donan.
It seems that during his travels, Donan visited St Columba on Iona, apparently to ask him to act as Donan's anamchara or "soul friend", in effect his confessor. Columba is recorded as having refused. The reasons why are unclear: perhaps he saw Donan as a rivals in the missionary game.
It is interesting that in the centuries during which Celtic missionaries were spreading the Christian faith across Scotland there are very few examples of any of them coming to any harm from those whose faiths they were trying to replace. St Donan is the most notable exception. He and his followers had established a monastery on the east side of the Isle of Eigg, facing the Scottish mainland. It is said that Donan got into a dispute with a local noblewoman over the grazing of sheep on the island. It seems she chose to resolve the dispute by commissioning a raiding party to remove the monks from the island in the most permanent and brutal way possible. On 17 April 617 the raiding party arrived while Donan and his 52 followers were celebrating mass. Donan persuaded the attackers to hold back until the mass had been completed, whereupon Donan and his 52 followers were taken to the refectory and beheaded (or, depending on the source you believe, killed when the refectory was set on fire).