Case Study 9: Iona Abbey

Figure 101: Iona Abbey with High Crosses, looking over the Sound of Iona to the cliffs of Gribun on Mull. © Ewan Campbell

Iona Abbey (CANMORE ID 21664) (Figure 101) provides good examples of many of the problems discussed in the Framework, and ideas on how to proceed in the future. Although the excellent work of the RCAHMS (1982) and others on the Abbey buildings and the many burial monuments give the impression that the site is well known, this is not the case for other aspects of the site, and the early medieval monastery is almost unknown. Even the sculptured stones have much to reveal, as the recent survey in advance of the new Abbey Museum has shown (Forsyth and Maldonado 2012). O’ Sullivan (1998, 1999) has given a detailed critique of the haphazard campaigns of excavation which have been inflicted on this important site. Early antiquarian investigations were confined to clearance work, either to stabilise the ruins, or to search for burial monuments (eg Iona Club 1834, 5-6). Later clearance work was associated with the rebuilding of the cathedral by the Duke of Argyll and the Iona Cathedral Trust at the turn of the 20th century, and later with the rebuilding of the monastic ranges by the Iona Community completed in the 1960s. Unfortunately, although important structural features were preserved by this work, as was normal for the period for both private and public works, there was no systematic recording of sub-surface features, and only frustrating hints survive (eg Anon 1915). The first serious excavations, and the most extensive, were directed by Charles Thomas, who opened over 100 slit trenches between 1956 and 1963. These were privately funded (by The Russel Trust), and were never published. The main purpose of these excavations was to find evidence of the early medieval monastery, especially the enclosing vallum, but the type of small-scale excavation mitigated against making sense of deep and complex stratigraphy. A putative plan of early monastery was produced from the results (reproduced in Barber 1981, fig 46b), but otherwise the excavations were poorly recorded and were ignored for many years. Fortunately, the archive has now been recovered and the results are in preparation (Campbell and Maldonado 2016; forthcoming).

Re-assessment of the surviving finds has revealed unique and important items, including the first window glass from early medieval Gaeldom, and probable metalwork shrine fittings. Potential dating material has also been identified from several of the old excavations, and it is hoped this will help to clarify aspects of the early monastic layout. Geophysical survey by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in the fields around the Abbey, and by others within the scheduled areas, is revealing a complex pattern of enclosures which makes the confusion over the form of the early monastery (Barber 1981, figs 46, 47) more understandable (Figure 102).

Figure 102: Topographic survey of the Abbey precincts, Feb 2016. © Ewan Campbell

Later excavations, such as those by Reece (1984), Redknap (1977), and Barber (1981) were larger in scale and carried out to better standards, but the survival of the finds, especially organic material, and the records, is variable. More recently numerous small interventions have taken place, reflecting the growing needs of the Iona Community and increasing visitor numbers, but it is difficult to integrate the findings as they were not carried out as part of a research strategy. The formulation of a future research strategy is currently underway (Campbell, Forsyth and Maldonado forthcoming) which attempts to integrate the archaeology with the equally important areas of historical, literary, toponymic, art history, Gaelic and landscape studies.

The site itself has a complex history of ownership (originally the property of the Dukes of Argyll) and curation, with numerous stakeholders involved: the National Trust for Scotland (who own most of the island); Historic Environment Scotland (who manage the scheduled monuments); the Iona Community (who occupy the buildings); the Iona Cathedral Trust (who own the buildings); the local community (who use the graveyard and the cathedral); Argyll and Bute Council (who provide the infrastructure for visitors); and numerous religious groups who come to the island from pilgrimage and retreat. Although these groups can, and do, have competing interests, making management complex, in itself this makes the site an exceptionally interesting place to research these issues.

Overall, the example of Iona illustrates a number of themes highlighted in the Framework:

  • The lack of a coherent research agenda has damaged an internationally important archaeological resource
  • Examination of old excavation material in museums and other archives can produce important information
  • Modern non-invasive survey techniques have potential to enhance our understanding of sites
  • Apparently well-known sites can still repay further investigation

Iona: a short archaeological bibliography

Note: this does not include grey literature – the Data Structure Reports of a large number of small-scale interventions around the Abbey. These can be found on Canmore [ ] the Archaeology Data Service [ ] and West of Scotland Archaeology Service Historic Environment Record database [ ]

  • Anon. (1915). Abstract of proceedings. Transactions of the Scottish Ecclesiological Society, 4(3): xx-xxi.
  • Barber, J. W. (1981). Excavations on Iona, 1979. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 111: 282-380.
  • Bourke, C (ed) 1997 Studies in the cult of Saint Columba. Dublin: Four Courts Press
  • Broun, D and Clancy, TO (eds) 1999 Spes Scotorum: Hope of the Scots. TandT Clark : Edinburgh
  • Burley, E., and Fowler, P. J. (1958). Iona. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, 14-15.
  • Campbell, E. (1987). A cross-marked quern from Dunadd and other evidence for relations between Dunadd and Iona. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 117: 105-117.
  • Campbell, E. (2010). The archaeology of writing in the time of Adomnán. In J. Wooding, R. Aist, T. O. Clancy and T. O’Loughlin (Eds.), Adomnán of Iona: Theologian, Lawmaker, Peacemaker (pp. 139-144). Dublin: Four Courts Press.
  • Campbell, E. (2012). Iona: the early medieval artefacts Retrieved June 2016, from
  • Campbell, E., and Maldonado, A. (2016). Russell Trust Excavations on Iona led by Charles Thomas, 1956-1963. Data structure Report. Edinburgh: Historic Environment Scotland.
  • Chalmers, P. M. (1923). A Short Guide to Iona. Glasgow: printed for the trustees by Robert Maclehose and Co.
  • Crawford, O. G. S. (1933). Iona. Antiquity, 7(28): 453-467.
  • Cregeen, E. (Ed.). (1964). Argyll Estate Instructions 1771-1805. Edinburgh: T and A Constable.
  • Curle, A O 1924 A Note on Four Silver Spoons and a Fillet of Gold found in The Nunnery at Iona; and on a Finger-ring, part of a Fillet, and a fragment of Wire, all of Gold, found in St Ronan’s Chapel, The Nunnery, Iona. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 58: 102-111.
  • Forsyth, K and Maldonado, A 2012 The early medieval sculpture of Iona. Unpublished report for Historic Scotland
  • Fowler, E., and Fowler, P. J. (1988). Excavations on Tòrr an Aba, lona, Argyll. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 118: 181-201. GSB. (1995) 95/23 Iona: Geophysical survey undertaken by GSB Prospection Ltd for AOC Archaeology Ltd.
  • Haggarty, A. (1988). lona: some results from recent work. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 118: 203-213.
  • Hamlin, A. (1987). lona: a view from Ireland. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 117: 17-22. Iona Club 1834 Transactions of the Iona Club, 1(1).
  • MacDonald, A. (1997). Adomnan’s Monastery of Iona. In C. Bourke (Ed.), Studies in the Cult of Saint Columba (pp. 24-44). Dublin: Four Courts Press.
  • MacDonald, A. (2001). Aspects of the monastic landscape in Adomnán’s Life of Columba. In J. Carey, M. Herbert and P. Ó Riain (Eds.), Studies in Irish Hagiography: Saints and Scholars (pp. 15-30). Dublin: Four Courts Press.
  • MacGibbon, D., and Ross, T. (1897). The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, from the Earliest Christian Times to the Seventeenth Century. Edinburgh: James Thin/The Mercat Press.
  • McCormick, F. (1992). Early Christian metalworking on Iona: excavations under the ‘infirmary’ in 1990. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 122: 207-214.
  • McCormick, F. (1993). Excavations at Iona, 1988. Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 56: 78-108.
  • McCormick, F. (1997). Iona: the archaeology of the Early Monastery. In C. Bourke (Ed.), Studies in the Cult of Saint Columba (pp. 45-68). Dublin: Four Courts Press.
  • Megaw, J. V. S. (1963). Iona and Celtic Britain, with an interim account of the Russell Trust excavations, 1958-1963. Journal of Religious History, 3(3): 212-237.
  • Ó Carragáin, T. (2010). Churches in Early Medieval Ireland: Architecture, Ritual and Memory. London: Yale University Press.
  • O’Sullivan, J. (1994). Excavation of an early church and a women’s cemetery at St Ronan’s medieval parish church, Iona. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 124: 327-365.
  • O’Sullivan, J. (1994). Excavations beside Sruth a’Mhuilinn (‘the Mill Stream’), Iona. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 124: 491-508.
  • O’Sullivan, J. (1998). More than the sum of the parts: Iona: archaeological investigations 1875-1996. Church Archaeology, 2: 5-18.
  • O’Sullivan, J. (1999). Iona: Archaeological Investigations 1875-1996. In D. Broun and T. O. Clancy (Eds.), Spes Scottorum, Hope of Scots: Saint Columba, Iona and Scotland (pp. 215-243). Edinburgh: TandT Clark.
  • RCAHMS. (1982). Argyll: An Inventory of the Monuments 4: Iona. Edinburgh: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
  • Redknap, M. (1977). Excavation at Iona Abbey, 1976. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 108: 228-253.
  • Reece, R. (1970). Iona: its history and archaeology. Glasgow: Iona Community.
  • Reece, R. (1981). Excavations in Iona 1964 to 1974. London: University College London.
  • Ritchie, A. (1997). Iona. London: BT Batsford/Historic Scotland.
  • Ritchie, J. N. G., and Lane, A. (1980). Dun Cul Bhuirg, lona, Argyll. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 110: 209-229.
  • Skene, W. F. (1874). Notes on the history of the ruins at Iona. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 10: 202-214.
  • Skene, W. F. (1876). Notes on the history and probable situation of the earlier establishments at Iona, prior to the foundation of the Benedictine monastery in the end of the twelfth century. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 11: 330-349.
  • Smith, J. H. (1853). Iona. Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1: 79-91.
  • Smith, J A 1878 Notes on medieval ‘kitchen middens’ recently discovered in the monastery and the nunnery on the island of Iona, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 12: 103-117
  • Stevenson, R B K 1951 A hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins found at Iona Abbey, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 85: 170-175
  • Thomas, C. (1957). Excavations on Iona, 1956 and 1957. The Coracle, 31: 10-14.
  • Thomas, C. (1957). Iona. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, 10.
  • Thomas, C. (1959). Excavations on Iona during 1958 and 1959. The Coracle, 33: 12-14.
  • Thomas, C. (1959). The excavations on Iona, 1956 to 1958. Rothmill Quarterly, 29(4): 172-178.
  • Thomas, C. (1959). Iona. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, 10-11.
  • Thomas, C. (1962). Iona. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, 10-11.
  • Thomas, C. (1971). The Early Christian Archaeology of North Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Will, R. S. (forthcoming). Excavations at Iona Glebe. GUARD Archaeology Ltd

Return to Section 8.6: Recommendations for future work