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Inchcolm Abbey

The best-preserved group of monastic buildings in Scotland

Inchcolm Abbey

Columba’s Isle

Inchcolm means ‘Columba’s Isle’, though the ‘Iona of the east’ has no known link with St Columba. The island is dominated by its dramatically located abbey complex, comprising the best-preserved group of monastic buildings in Scotland. The Augustinian canons settled here in the early 12th century, enjoying the island’s isolation and tranquillity. However, its location in the Firth of Forth also made it a target for English naval raids throughout the wars with England from the 14th to the mid-16th century. The brethren increasingly spent more time ashore in Fife. After the Protestant Reformation of 1560 brought monastic life to an end, the island continued to serve in the defence of the country right up to the Second World War. The island’s remains testify to this history of conflict as well as the history of the medieval church in Scotland.

An island retreat

The island retreat of Inchcolm was home to a hermit in the Dark Ages, and the island’s oldest relic is a 10th-century hogback tombstone. In 1123, Alexander I sheltered here during a storm, and resolved to build a monastery in thanks for his deliverance. But he died in 1124 before being able to keep his promise. It was left to his brother, David I, to invite Augustinian canons to establish a priory on the island. It was raised to full abbey status in 1235.

The 12th-century abbey church was enlarged eastward around 1200. The original church was later converted into the abbot’s residence, and the later church is now mostly wall footings. However, a remarkable 13th-century fresco painting of a funeral procession survives in a tomb recess. Also remarkable are the stone screens dividing the choir from the nave, at the base of the lofty bell tower.

The cloister is the most complete in Scotland, and three covered cloister walks survive. The octagonal chapter house dates to the 13th century. It has a fine warming room above it. The dormitory, refectory and other rooms also survive roofed.

Island of conflict

In the later Middle Ages, Inchcolm was attacked by English ships on numerous occasions, forcing the canons to desert the abbey for periods of time. However, Abbot Walter Bower found sufficient peace here to write his great history of Scotland, Scotichronicon, in the early 15th century.

The story of conflict does not end with the demise of the abbey in the 16th century. In 1795, during the Napoleonic Wars, a gun battery was installed when the French threatened to invade. In the first half of the 20th century, the island was heavily fortified to help defend Edinburgh, Rosyth Naval Base and the Forth Bridge.

Events at Inchcolm Abbey

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21 October 2014

John Lowrie Morrison: Westlight - Northeastlight

Duff House

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Hands on History

Edinburgh Castle

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