Friday, September 8, 2017

Inchcolm: Medieval Jewel in the Firth of Forth

by Annie Whitehead

Happenstance found me in a boat heading out from South Queensferry to the Island of Inchcolm, the pilot announcing that passengers may disembark to explore, to be collected on the boat's return some two hours later. Two hours? That's a long time. Turns out, it wasn't really long enough to explore.

Inchcolm, an island in the Firth of Forth in south-east Scotland, means Island of Colm, (possibly Saint Columba, although Columba had no known links to the island) and its medieval abbey can be seen from miles around.


It's likely, though, that before the abbey was built, the island was first settled by religious hermits. Tradition has it that the Danes defeated by King Macbeth in the eleventh century at the Battle of Kinghorn paid large sums of gold to have their dead buried on the holy isle. There is a hogback gravestone on display, which was once thought to be a monument to the Danish leader, but has now been dated to the tenth century.


There is also a tenth century stone cross shaft, further evidence of the island's being inhabited in early medieval times,


although we have to jump forward a couple of centuries before the history of the island begins to take recognisable shape.

The story goes that in 1123, King Alexander I was attempting to cross the Firth of Forth and was blown off course by a gale. For three days he was forced to take shelter on Inchcolm, looked after by a hermit. Safely back on the mainland, the king vowed to build a monastery on the island to give thanks for his deliverance. However, it was Alexander's brother, David I, who invited Augustinian canons to settle on the island. The earliest surviving charter dates from around 1165, with Bishop Gregory of Dunkeld gifting the property to the Prior and canons of Inchcolm.

Thus the first church was built in the twelfth-century, with the bell-tower being added around the year 1200, and the choir was extended in the 1260s. A remnant from the original choir can still be seen in the abbey ruins: a wall-painting which depicts a gathering of clergy. When the new choir was completed, Bishop John de Leycestre, who died in 1214, was re-interred and it is thought that this painting depicts his entombment.


The bishop's body would have been embalmed, wrapped in waxed cloth and dressed before being carried to the burial site. John de Leycestre was bishop of Dunkeld Cathedral in the early 1200s. Inchcolm was in the diocese of Dunkeld; both institutions were dedicated to St. Columba and had close ties. 

The bishops of Dunkeld were not the only wealthy patrons of Inchcolm; the Mortimers, who were lords of nearby Aberdour, were generous benefactors. The water between the island and the mainland is known as 'Mortimer's Deep'.

In May 1235, permission was sought from the pope, and granted, for the priory to become an abbey. Prior Henry became the first abbot, and Inchcolm's wealth and status increased. In 1265 the chancel was doubled in size. But the good times were not to last.

In the 1300s, the abbey was repeatedly attacked by English forces, during the years of the wars of Scottish independence. The first recorded attack was in 1315, when a naval force was beaten back by the bishop (Sinclair of Dunkeld) and his men. In a further attack of 1335, the monastery was plundered.


Walter Bower was the abbot of Inchcolm from 1418-1449, but is perhaps better known as the compiler of the Scotichronicon, a history of Scotland from the reign of  Malcolm III (Canmore) to the beginning of the reign of James II (1437-60). Walter recorded that the invaders, frightened by a sudden storm at sea, sent the plunder back. But fear of storms evidently did not deter the raiders.

In 1385, a barge carrying 140 English soldiers plundered the monastery and set fire to an outhouse. Fortunately the wind changed and the church was saved. The story goes that the flames were blown back towards the English, who retreated to South Queensferry.

It was but a temporary respite, for the abbey fell victim to the Reformation. In August 1560, the Reformation Parliament ended Catholic worship at the monastery. The last document to bear signatures of the canons of Inchcolm is dated 1578, and is signed by 'Dominus John Brounhill' and 'Dominus Andro Anguss.'

This was not the end of the island's history however, nor of its role in repelling invaders. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the island was a quarantine station for any plague-stricken ships entering the Forth. In the Napoleonic era it was used as a hospital for the Russian fleet, and a gun battery was built in response to the threat of a French invasion.

When WWII broke out, the island was equipped with guns with searchlights, and a large camp was built for the garrison. The guns were manned around the clock, until the threat of invasion passed. Some of the twentieth century buildings remain, sitting a little incongruously beside the ruins of the abbey.


Nowadays, the only inhabitants of the island are the seabirds, and it is advisable, especially during nesting time, to walk through the WWII tunnel (pictured below) than around the coastal path, because the birds are very protective of their young and will attack.


Well, I say that the birds are the only inhabitants, but, on a neighbouring island, Inch Gnome, there are a few residents...


Inchcolm island has an area of only 9 hectares. And yet, two hours was barely long enough to explore, and soak up the atmosphere of this tiny place. It can be seen, as I've said, from many points of the coast around the Firth of Forth, and yet, out there, one feels miles away from the modern world. The history spans the centuries and yet is encapsulated in a small area. As you step off the boat, it seems as if you can already see all there is to see. But two hours later, you will leave feeling that the island has revealed only a fraction of its centuries-old story.

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

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Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.

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