A pilgrimage to Iona: first thoughts

 Last week I finally made my first visit to Iona. Having spent so much time writing and thinking about the archaeology of Lindisfarne, it is natural that I had to eventually go back to the source of the monasticism on Holy Island. It was fantastic to make my first foray to the island from where Oswald brought Aidan and other monks to found his new Northumbrian monastery. No matter how much one looks at plans and photographs there is nothing that beat actually visiting a site to get the sense of its human scale and proportion. Exploring some of the island has been incredibly useful in helping me rethink the archaeology of Lindisfarne and also raises some questions for me about the archaeology of Iona.

Like my medieval predecessors, the journey to Iona for me was very much a pilgrimage, and included the classic elements of a devotional exploration. I cast off family attachments (or at least made sure they were settled in the chocolate café in Tobermory), carried out a long journey facing many adversaries (primarily getting past the lunatics who holiday in Mull in mobile homes the size of buses) and finally reached Fionnport to catch the ferry. Here I stepped away from my final connection to the real world (or “parked the car” as some might term it) and joined the small group of hardy visitors waiting in the driving rain for the Calmac ferry.
At this point, it’s worth emphasising that my visit to the island was not as long as I could have hoped for; the shocking weather and the need to preserve familial harmony meant that I was only able to spend a few hours on Iona so this account is by necessity impressionistic rather than thorough.
Although my interests are primarily early medieval, I was surprised to be seduced by later medieval archaeology of the island. Although heavily reconstructed, the abbey church was wonderful with some vibrant and quirky historiated capitals. I also fell in love with the intimate little cloister, an antidote to the larger cloisters I’ve experienced in Durham and the great Cistercian monasteries of the Yorkshire. Smaller monastic houses such as Iona would have been much more typical of the vast majority of medieval monasteries in Britain, and certainly similar in scale to Lindisfarne Priory.
I was also smitten with the later medieval tradition of carved stone working – the continued use of interlace on recumbent grave slabs and some crosses, such as the still-standing Maclean’s Cross and the more fragmentary 15th century cross of Lachlan MacKinnon with its plant scroll with its echoes of Northumbrian vine-scroll carving of a far earlier period. There was also an impressive later tradition of figural representation on burial monuments, seen on the effigies of the abbots in the church and the bullet-headed knightly effigies originally from Reilig Odhráin, which reminded me of the confrontational knights of the Lewis Chessmen. There was also the regularly appearance of the birlinn (sailed galley) motif, a potent reminder of the importance of control the seaways in this region. My personal favourite though was the memorial slab of the redoubtable looking Prioress Anna MacLean in her pleated cassock.
Having a chance to look at the earlier carved stone was also instructive, particularly getting the sense of scale of the high crosses. It was also exciting to get a sense of the wide range of different stone types being used for carved monuments, many not coming from the island itself. This is strategic use of stone types is something that Adrian Maldonado has commented on and also keys in to something we are starting to recognise in Northumbria. However, it was looking at the wider landscape that I found most instructive and for sake of brevity I want to focus on two particular aspects of this.
The first issue is the impressive earthwork vallum that surrounds the monastic core. In the literature this is one of the most distinctive features of Iona. On the plans and aerial photographs that are the most usual ways of encountering the plan of the site, it comprises a large well-defined earthwork that runs along the western side of the site as a bank and ditch and can also be seen as a cropmark to the north. Yet, when you are actually on the site, it is very hard to discern this boundary, primarily because for the observer within the monastery it is largely hidden from view by a series of rocky outcrops, Cnoc nan Cárnan that run parallel with the western side of the vallum, as well as two enclosures Cill mo Neachdain and Gill mo Gobhannan. Whilst the latter two features are of uncertain date and may not have impeded an early medieval view of the ditch and bank, Cnoc nan Cárnan certainly would have. In many ways it is this rocky outcrop that serves to define and I think significantly, constrain, the views from the monastery rather than the actual vallum. It means that Iona is a site which like Lindisfarne looks towards its shoreline, and like Lindisfarne, this nearest shoreline is not a wild ocean vista but the more constrained landward view.
I also remain puzzled about the origin of the vallum. Whilst long thought to be early medieval, more recently it has been dated to the Iron Age by a C14 date of 40BC to AD220 from a sample taken from under the bank. As Adrian Maldonado has noted, we do need to exercise a little caution here – technically this only provides a tpq for the construction of the vallum rather than a construction date itself. However, if for sake of argument we accept an Iron Age date for this large bank and ditched enclosure then this for me raises as many questions as it answers. My biggest qualm is that this large enclosed area looks so very different from most common types of enclosures we know are used in Argyll and the Inner Hebrides in this period, where the most common settlement type is the far smaller dun. A good example is Dùn Cùl Bhuirg that lies on the western side of the island which only encloses an area c.45m x 35m. Crucially, both duns and the larger Iron Age forts tend to utilise hills and defend the summit. The situation is very different at Iona where the boundary seems to enclose a relatively low-lying rather than elevated area. I admit to not being an expert on Iron Age enclosures in Argyll, but if we accept that the vallum is Iron Age in date, we are faced with a new problem, a seemingly a-typical and rather large enclosure preceding the establishment of the monastery. It is surprising that despite the large number of interventions within the enclosure, none have produced any clear Iron Age material culture (apart from a glass bead that could equally be early medieval and a fragment of Roman samian), whereas the relatively small-scale excavation by the Ritchies at Dùn Cùl Bhuirg produced midden material, decorated Hebridean wares and some beads. So, in essence, what is this putative Iron Age enclosure?
My second area for consideration focuses on the relationship between Iona and Lindisfarne in landscape terms. It is generally accepted that Oswald’s decision to construct a monastery on Holy Island must have been influenced by his experience of Iona during his time in exile in Dal Ríata where he converted to Christianity. It is axiomatic that the planning of monastic sites was in some ways at attempt to reconstruct on earth an idealised model of Jerusalem, It is no coincidence that Adomnán, one of Iona’s most important abbots, was the author of De locis sanctis (Concerning sacred places), a description of the holy places of Palestine, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem. However, exploring Iona also got me to thinking about the way in which Lindisfarne was an analogue for Iona. In many ways the geography of the two islands is very different; Iona is far rockier and has greater relief than the generally low lying Lindisfarne. The latter is also, of course, tidally accessible rather than a true island like Iona. Yet, there are some really interesting parallels both in terms of physical geography and planning. 

My first observation on this front brings me back to my earlier comment about the use of a range of stone types. One of the most distinctive features of Fionnport, Iona and the Ross of Mull is its very highly visible pink granite; Lindisfarne, whilst not having pink granite, does have outcrops of pin-red sandstone in the area around the site of the early medieval monastery, something that would not have gone unnoticed by visitors to the two islands.

Despite the difference in relief between the two islands, Lindisfarne is not entirely flat and the distinct jagged ridge of whinsill basalt that runs across the south of the island is an important part of the landscape. In particular, part of this crag, known as The Heugh, lies immediately adjacent to the site of the early medieval monastery. Visiting Iona I was impressed by the similarity in terms of positioning between The Heugh and the slightly smaller but nonetheless imposing Tòr an Aba which lies to the west of the abbey at Iona. This latter feature was traditionally associated with the cell of Columba described by Adomnán as ‘built in a higher place’. Excavation revealed a stone footing and a cross-base created partially out of re-used millstone. This reminds me of the presence of a cross-base lying on The Heugh which also lies on an artificially created platform. More recently, this summer, archaeological excavation on The Heugh also uncovered possible early medieval structures elsewhere along the ridge.  The geological parallels between the Heugh and Tòr nan Aba, as well as the use of crosses to mark them are at the least intriguing.

 A final interesting similarity is the presence (or former presence at least) of a lake on both islands – Holy Island lough lies in the north-east corner of the island, whilst the site of the Lochan Mór lies to the north-west of Iona Abbey, although it had been drained by the 1750s. It had once had an outlet which ran through the monastic enclosure via the stream known as Sruth a’ Mhuilinn, which as the name suggests mayhave powered a mill, although this is not certain. Intriguingly, a lack of pollen of from Holy Island Lough dating to before the late 7thcentury has led to suggestions that it was created or at least expanded at  some time in the early years of the monastery on Lindisfarne. Whilst the most obvious explanation of this is the deliberate harnessing and consolidation of a water supply to power a mill, the expansion of a lake in the near vicinity to the monastery on Holy Island would have served to emphasize some of the similarities in the landscapes of Iona and Lindisfarne.
Obviously, the presence of particular coloured stones, the rocky outcrops and open water on both islands are co-incidental. Yet in an early medieval ecclesiastical mind-set primed to recognise analogies, similarities such as these are unlikely to have been seen as fortuitous, and may instead have had symbolic resonances. In a world where books, carving and landscapes were all read analogously, as well as literally, these correspondences would have been important. The parallel placement of crosses on The Heugh and the Tòr nan Aba suggest a conscious decision to emphasise these similarities, as less certainly does the expansion of Holy Island Lough. There is certainly scope for more exploration of the parallels and differences between Holy Island and Iona in terms of spatial organisation, but that is perhaps for a more extended piece of work.

I need to go back to Iona- there is still a lot of pondering to be done. I never got a chance to explore significantly beyond the monastic enclosure, I’m interested in the relationship between the island and both the sea and the mainland. My time on Mull and in some of the surrounding areas convinces me more than ever of the need of a proper hinterland survey of both Iona and Lindisfarne; whilst both sites are islands, they were not isolated and there is a real need to better understand their immediate and wider landscape contexts. So, with a small prayer to Columba and Cuthbert, I hope to be back soon.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1 outlandish-knight.blogspot.co.uk

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1 Comment

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this as both Iona and Lindisfarne are special to me. On something else I have been asked to give a talk on the Binchester Christian ring at Binchester Community Centre next month so if there are any recent thoughts or opinions on it, please let me know. I live in Binchester. Thanks.David Pott


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