Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


13.3.10
  Arriving at Inchcolm Abbey

Inchcolm Abbey was presenting itself in best Scottish weather: stormy, wet, dark and brooding. But it suited the visit to an island where once a king got shipwrecked.

The waves in the Firth of Forth were more impressive than the ones a few days later on my visit to Staffa and Iona, which made taking photos from the ferry a bit of a challenge. After deboarding I got me a rain cloak in the Historic Scotland shop on the island, because balancing the camera and an umbrella in a futile attempt to block horizontal rain didn't work. Just well I consider weather like that to be fun nevertheless.

Inchcolm Abbey, seen from the ferry

Inchcolm, known as Aemonia to the Romans, is an island in the Firth of Forth. Thanks to its strategical position, it still played a role as part of the WW2 defenses. The Romans had a fort and probably a naval base in nearby Cramond (Alaterva) during the time of Antoninus Pius around 142 AD, but it is covered by houses and a church today. Some finds point at a reuse of the place during the campaigns of Septimius Severus in 211 AD. Inchcolm may have been used by the Romans (my guess would be a watchtower on the island; the Romans were no less clever than WW2 generals) but no traces have been found so far.

Inchcolm Abbey; a different angle

Fragments of carved stonework indicate that the island was inhabited by Christians since the - misnomed - Dark Ages; the name 'Island of Colm' goes back to a monk or hermit, St.Colm, a rather shadowy figure. In the later Middle Ages legend aligned him with St.Columba who was said to have visited the place in 567, giving Inchcolm it epithet as 'Iona of the east'. But that was only a way to connect the place with a more famous saint.

A hogback stone dating to the late 10th century is probably Scotland's oldest Scandinavian monument. It brings to memory the lines from Shakespeare's Macbeth:

Sweno, the Norways' King, craves composition;
Nor would we deign him burial of his men
Till he disbursed at Saint Colme's Inch
Ten thousand dollars, to our general use.


This refers to Sweyn Forkbeard, King of the Danes, who raided the coasts of England and Scotland, and was King of England during the exile of Ethelred the Unready. Sweyn died in 1014 and Macbeth became king in 1040, but that's Shakespeare for you, lol.

Closeup of the abbey

It was a dark and stormy night .... well, not night, but it certainly was stormy when King Alexander I of Scotland crossed the Firth in 1123. His ship got blown off course and wrecked at the shore of Inchcolm. Alexander and his retainers were taken in by the resident hermit and spent three days on the island while the storm raged. The hermit shared what he had, but that wasn't much: the milk of one cow, mussels and some fish. Maybe Alexander and his men could count it toward the Lent fasting. I had packed lunch and hot tea, and modern boats take you back after two hours.

When the storm finally abated and the men could repair their ship and sail to Queensferry, Alexander thanked God for his deliverance and vowed to build a monastery on the island. But he died the year after, so it fell to his brother David to fulfil the vow. The exact date of the foundation is not known; the earliest known charter dates from 1165, at which point the Augustinian brethren were already well established. Inchcolm belonged to the diocese of Dunkeld, and it was bishop Gregory (1147-1169) who oversaw the establshment of the monastery.

Inchcolm Abbey, seen from the boat pier

The monastery was raised to the status of abbey in 1235 and has undergone several renovations and enlargements during the Middle Ages. Later, Inchcolm came into the focus of the English and was attacked several times from 1296 onwards. After the Scottish Reformation in 1560, the abbey was abandoned.

One of the abbots, Walter Bower (1418-1449) is the author of the Scotichronicon, one of the most important sources for Mediaeval Scottish history. Bower began writing his history in 1441, adapting the annals of John of Fordun († 1387) and bringing them up to his own time. He also provided us with the specifics of Alexander's diet.

Inchcolm Abbey is the most completely preserved Mediaeval abbey in Scotland, now in care of the Historic Scotland Society. As usual, I got the guidebook, and there will be more photos and information.

The ferry

The ferry operating between Queensferry and Inchcolm was the only bit of colour on that dreary day. But German tourists and Scottish kids don't allow the weather to spoil their fun. There was a group of kids with parents; a birthday party as it turned out - they have a picnic on Inchcolm every year, and in case the weather is bad, they just move into the old chapter house for that while the kids chase each other through the cloister in a very un-monkish way. I got some birthday champagne and very sweet cookies, too. And fresh strawberries. You can't beat those; there must be a special sort in the UK.
 
Comments:
What a cool looking place - thanks for sharing! I so want to go to Scotland some day...
 
Thanks for this site, I live vicariously through all the places you have posted pictures of.. with being stuck in the barely tamed wastes of North America I only get to see this sort of thing on my all too infrequent vacations across the pond.

I could spend my entire life in just one corner of just about any country in Europe and never run out of odd bits of stone or old buildings or whatever to look at.. But fate saw fit for that not to be my lot in life

P.S. Thanks for the posts at my blog.
 
Thank you, Daphne. You definitely should visit Scotland. )

Welcome to my blog, Lagomorph Rex, and thank you for the kind words. I'm very grateful that I live in a country so rich in history and that I can easily visit the neighbour countries as well. I'm glad to share my photos and information.
 
The horizontal rain is a regional speciality; Britain wouldn't be the same without it. I gave up on umbrellas years ago :-)

Inchcolm looks like a good place for a Roman watchtower, like the ones on the Yorkshire coast. Those are quite small structures and any traces would likely be underneath the abbey by now. I suspect there was a Roman watchtower under Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire, but no traces there either.

The abbey buildings look amazing. I've never visited Inchcolm, so thank you for the photos.
 
Yeah, those blasted Dark Age people who built their churches right over the Roman remains. ;)

But even without subsequent building activity, the traces of a wooden watchtower will have disappeared easily. I had guessed back in 2006 that there might be more Roman watchtowers along the Weser, and by now traces of two of those have been found - you just need to look very closely, and until the discovery of Hedemünden fort, no one had suspected Roman watchtower so far east in Germany.
 
Wonderful to see these photos. My wife and I visited Inchcolm in 2001 and were married there in 2004.

We visit it roughly once a year and it has a feeling of 'being ours' now...well a bit of it anyway!
 
I hope you had better weather.

There was to be a marriage in the abbey in the afternoon, and we met with the procession on their way to the ferry in Queensferry. The poor bride had chosen a dress that left the arms and part of the back bare - she looked very pretty in it but I'm sure she must have felt cold in that storm.
 
What a beautiful abbey! I love all these pictures. :)
 
What a fantastic place, and how great that it's been in use for so many centuries!

Carla makes a good point about the horizontal rain. ;)
 
Thank you, Louis and Kathryn. Yeah, the monks might have shaken their heads at picnics, and maybe even at weddings, but that way the place is still full of life.
 
Neat looking buildings. :) You're a brave woman to go sailing around those waters - and taking pictures. We appreciate your travels!
 
Och, Gabriele, she'll be puttin' her feet on his back to warm them soon enough!

(Its a penalty we men have to pay because as we all know, men all have central heating!)

Thanks for the pictures and the commentary. Pictures without commentary are just pointless!
 
Constance, fortunately I don't mind a few waves. :)

Stag, yes, men are some sort of central heating; I've heard that more than once.
I want this to be a history and travel blog with photos, not a photo blog, so there will always be comment though short ones sometimes, and sometimes a (hi)story. :)
 
So beautiful.
Thank you, Gabriele.
 
You're welcome, Bernita.
 
Great photos of these lovely historic sites.
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction and Fantasy author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction and Fantasy living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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