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Archaeological test lends credibility to find of ‘St Columba’s cell’ on Iona

14 July 2017


Site: Iona Abbey, located on the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland

Site: Iona Abbey, located on the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland

FOR generations, experts on the famous Scottish medieval abbey of Iona have speculated about whether a particular windswept outcrop of rock in the ancient monastic com­plex was the site of St Columba’s personal writing cell.

The location of the tiny wooden building was described by his hagiographer, Adomnan, a seventh-century abbot of Iona.

Sixty years ago, a team led by the archaeologist Charles Thomas exca­vated the grass-covered summit of the outcrop, found the burned remains of a tiny wooden hut, and proposed that the humble building had been St Columba’s cell. Most scholars rejected the idea, however, and suggested that the remains were of a much later structure, and had no connection with the revered founder of Iona.

Modern science has now stepped in to resolve the debate. Two archaeologists at the University of Glasgow tracked down the scraps of burned timber (excavated in 1957, but long presumed lost) and ar­­ranged to have them radiocarbon-dated.

The results are extraordinary. They demonstrate that the hut was not a later structure, but did indeed date, in line with Thomas’s theory, to somewhere between 540 and 650. St Columba was Abbot of Iona from the date of the monastery’s founda­tion (563) till his death (597).

New research sug­gests that a now long-vanished stone cross that had once stood on the rocky outcrop had been erected there in the very early medieval period — probably shortly after St Columba had died, and therefore potentially in com­memoration of him.

All this new evidence, together with Adomnan’s description of the location (and the traditional Gaelic name of the rock outcrop: Tòrr an Aba [Mound of the Abbot]), makes it almost certain that the “Tor” was indeed the site of Columba’s cell, and that the wooden hut, excavated 60 years ago, was indeed the humble hub from which he ran his monas­tery.

It is also likely that it was the place where he wrote one of the world’s oldest surviving Dark Age manuscripts: the Cathach, a collec­tion of psalms.

The new research is of substantial historical importance. During much of the Dark Ages, Iona was of crit­ical importance in spreading know­ledge, literacy, philosophical ideas, and artistic skills throughout large areas of Western Europe.

It was probably at Iona that the world’s most famous early illumin­ated manuscript, the Book of Kells, was produced; and it was from here that the epicentre of early northern English Christianity, the monastery of Lindisfarne, was founded.

The two Glasgow archaeologists — Dr Adrián Maldonado and Dr Ewan Campbell — have also discov­ered important new evidence sug­gest­ing that Iona’s medieval pil­grim­age road (the so-called Street of the Dead) was established in the eighth or ninth century AD — hun­dreds of years earlier than previ­ously thought. It would make it one of the earliest Christian pilgrimage roads in the world. Indeed, the archaeologists are investigating the possibility that it was very loosely based on a pilgrimage trail in Jerusa­lem that later evolved into the Via Dolorosa.

It is believed that Iona’s potential version of that Jerusalem prototype was eventually up to 600 metres long, and, by the ninth century, may have commenced at the island’s Martyrs’ Bay (perhaps the location of a massacre of the Iona monks, carried out by the Vikings in 806), and ended at the tomb of St Columba (where the current abbey is located).

Along the road, pilgrims would have walked through a graveyard of monks, and by the side of a chapel dedicated to an enigmatic colleague of St Columba who, according to legend, had been buried alive by his more normally saintly abbot.

The tale seems improbable, as human sacrifice would have been anathema to pious Christians.


David Keys is Archaeology Cor­respondent of The Independent.

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