NT1982 : The "Iona of the East"

taken 5 years ago, 3 km from Aberdour, Fife, Great Britain

The "Iona of the East"
The "Iona of the East"
Inchcolm Abbey seen from the 'Maid of the Forth' ferry.

In the so-called 'Dark Ages' the island was inhabited by a community of hermits living an isolated life in simple stone cells. The island was dedicated to the obscure Celtic figure of Saint Colm, but a confusion in the mediaeval mind seems to have led to its later erroneous association with the more famous 6th-century abbot of Iona, Saint Columba.

Evidence of early settlement survives in a primitive hermit's cell, now much restored, to the west of the abbey and a hog-backed tombstone of a type that originated in Scandinavia and, dating from the 10th century, is thought to be the earliest example of its kind in Scotland.

In 1123, King Alexander I (r.1107-1124) was sheltered by a hermit on the island during a storm, and as a gesture of thanksgiving promised shortly before his death to found a monastery there dedicated to St. Columba. However, it is more likely that the abbey was founded some thirty years later by his successor, King David I (r.1124-1153) for 'Black Canons' of the Augustinian order, and fragments of their early church can still be seen incorporated into the buildings.

Some time after 1210 a large new choir was added by Walter, prior of Inchcolm. The priory's benefactors, the Bishops of Dunkeld in whose diocese it lay, were buried in the church. In 1235, during the reign of Alexander II (r.1214-1249), the church was grated abbey status. The choir was extended in 1256.

The abbey was vulnerble to periodic attack by Danish and English raiders. In 1315 and 1335, during the Wars of Independence, it was attacked and the statue of its patron saint was stolen. A prayer-book of the time contains the plea, "save this choir which sings Thy praise from all hostile English raids".

In 1385, an English raid almost resulted in the church's destruction by fire, but disaster was averted thanks to a change in wind direction, interpreted by the canons as divine intervention (see appended source).

In 1418, Walter Bower, a canon of St. Andrews, became abbot and had the site fortified between 1421 and 1437. Prior to this the canons had retired to the mainland during the dangerous summer and autumn months. It was probably Bower who rebuilt the church to a vaulted cross plan which overlapped the 13th-century choir at the east end of the church. After the rebuilding the nave was remodelled for some uncertain use, probably a residence.

In 1441, Bower began his great work, the 'Scotichronicon', a patriotic history of Scotland from the reign of the 11th-century king, Malcolm Canmore, to the death of James I in 1437. It remains one of the most important primary sources for the study of mediaeval Scottish history.

In 1542, during the turbulent reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (r.1542-1567), the abbey was again attacked. In 1547, after the disastrous Scottish defeat at the battle of Pinkie, near Musselburgh, it was temporarily occupied by English troops. Around 1549 James Stewart was appointed secular administrator ('commendator') of the abbey; and in 1560 the laws of the Scottish Reformation Parliament put an end to monastic life on the island.

After the Reformation it became the property of Stewart's family, passing to his descendants, the earls of Moray. The cloister buildings and part of the original 12th-century church were converted into a private residence, while other parts were demolished; the masonry being sold to the Town Council of Edinburgh for the rebuilding of the burgh's tolbooth.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the island was used as a quarantine station for plague-stricken ships entering the Forth estuary.

During the Napoleonic Wars and the two world wars of the 20th century the island was fortified to protect the estuary, in particular the naval base at Rosyth, against invasion and attack.

The abbey was taken into state care in 1924, and is now maintained by Historic Scotland.

* * * * *

"And because the said duke of Lancaster the king's uncle surpassed everyone else at that time in resources and capacity, the king [Richard II] called upon him with the support of his following as his choice for this task to invade Scotland, and to punish all of that land up to the Firth of Forth with fire and sword. In obedience to the king's order he entered Scotland with a large army in Holy Week 1385 [in fact, 1384]. But on account of the courtesy previously shown to him by the Scots, he imposed as little harm on them as he could.

Also at that time the duke's piratical fleet put in at Leith on the Forth bringing supplies for the army while he was staying at Edinburgh. When his men wanted to burn the town, he was firm in not allowing this to be done. Admittedly the burgesses promised to pay a sum of money on this account to obtain favourable treatment, and once this had been paid they redeemed their town.

One special barge in the aforesaid fleet containing (it is said) one hundred and forty armed men landed at the island on which stands the monastery of St. Columba of Emonia. All the ornaments of the church there and the furnishings of the place were looted by these men, and some sons of Belial, not content with that booty, turned their hands (which had already committed sacrilege) to burning the church of the monastery. A certain long lean-to outhouse was attached to it on the north side, whose ceiling or vaulted roof is generally called a tofall in the vernacular. It was roofed with dry heather, which with a whiff of fire was speedily reduced to ashes. The wooden roof of the church projected for a little over the top of this vaulted roof, for between the roof and wall of the choir some transparent material had been inserted to keep out the north wind and the winds from the north-east and north-west on either side, and spanning the wall was some well-packed and compressed dry heather. Due to the fierceness of the fire leaping up from the vaulted roof, and like food ready for it, [the church] clearly appeared to be scorched and blazing to those who were watching the outcome of the affair at some distance at [North Queens]ferry and beyond the strait at Barnhill (who were all-but countless of both sexes, some being persons of noble birth and some of middle social standing), and as witnesses saw the church being utterly destroyed. Some of these began to descry the power of St. Columba. But the more sensible of them held the same opinion as the man in Ovid's Tristia:

Nothing is so lofty or reaches so far above perils
that is not beneath God and subject to him.

Prostrating themselves to the ground they earnestly prayed to the saint to save his church intact from the fire since this was within his power, so that his name might accordingly be honoured even more. The outcome was wonderful! No sooner had this prayer been uttered than the north wind, which had up till then helped to kindle the fire, now in an instant changed direction. so that people across the strait saw that the sparks that were vomiting fire, which had been ignited by means of bundles and faggots on the spears of the enemy, had, as it were, submitted to force and been hurled back. Thereupon voices and hands reached up to Heaven, glorifying God in his saint who had checked the strength of the fires so effectively that their church which had been put in urgent peril suffered no loss at all." -- Walter Bower, Scotichronicon (15thC), 1998 translation edited by D. E. R. Watt

[Note: In case you're wondering what happened to the raiders, they made for their boat and raided further along the coast until intercepted by Scottish knights. After being taken prisoner, the instigator of the fire raged against St. Columba and was run through with swords. Bower states that he was buried "at a junction of two roads near the village of Dunipace", south of Stirling.]
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NT1982, 104 images   (more nearby )
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Date Taken
Sunday, 15 September, 2013   (more nearby)
Monday, 21 October, 2013
Geographical Context
Religious sites  Estuary, Marine 
Subject Location
OSGB36: geotagged! NT 190 827 [100m precision]
WGS84: 56:1.8470N 3:18.0048W
Camera Location
OSGB36: geotagged! NT 191 827
View Direction
Southwest (about 225 degrees)
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