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Issue 21 - Jewel of the North

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 21
July 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Jewel of the North

The Inches are islands in the Forth close to Edinburgh. David McVey visited Inchcolm and found it soaked in history

You sometimes get the impression that all of Scotland’s offshore islands are found in Orkney and Shetland and off the West Coast. Certainly, most of them are.

Yet not only does the East Coast have islands of its own, but it can offer up a few genuine gems. Some of the best of them are found around the Firth of Forth.

Out towards the North Sea, the likes of the Isle of May and the Bass Rock are impressive enough for any tastes, while nearer to Edinburgh there are the Forth Inches. Three of these – Inchmickery, Inchkeith and, right below the Forth Bridge itself, Inchgarvie – are rather tawdry, with the ruins of defensive structures from two World Wars.

The fourth of the Forth Inches, Inchcolm, has plenty of similar remains, but also an enduring beauty and a lengthy history that make it a must-visit. And, happily, it is the only one of the Forth Inches on which the ordinary visitor can set foot.

‘Inch’ is a corruption of the Gaelic ‘Innis’ meaning ‘island’. ‘Colm’, though, is a Gaelic rendering of ‘Columba’. This helps to explain why the island is sometimes known as ‘the Iona of the East’, and why it is still dominated by the remains of an Augustinian abbey.

Actually, the spiritual origins of Inchcolm are quite obscure. The island’s St Colm has been identified with Columba since medieval times, but there’s no evidence that they are the same person. The Forth is also some distance from Columba’s usual haunts. If he was his own man, though, St Colm is someone we know nothing about.

What we do know is that by the 12th century there was a well-established tradition of hermitic piety on Inchcolm.

Afurther tradition asserts that the Danes defeated by Scotland’s King Macbeth (yes, that Macbeth) at the Battle of Kinghorn in the 11th century buried their dead on Inchcolm. Shakespeare suggested that Macbeth was happy for them to do so as long as they dug deep in another sense: ... nor would we deign him burial of his men Till he disbursed at Saint Colme’s Inch Ten thousand dollars for our general use Inchcolm was an ideal hermitic site; remote and self-contained, but not that remote. And you never knew who might drop in. King Alexander I was crossing the Forth in 1123 when his ship encountered a storm and was blown off course. It finally made a landing on Inchcolm and the king and his party took refuge with the onduty hermit.

As an act of thanksgiving, Alexander vowed to found a monastery on the island.

History doesn’t record what the hermit thought about this.

In fact, Alexander died just a year later and it was left to his son, David I, to carry out his vow. David invited the Augustinian order to occupy the island and at some point in the second half of the 12th century the settlement began.

The Augustinian Rule was based on the teachings of St Augustine of Hippo, and the members were, strictly, canons or priests rather than monks. The foundation was begun as a ‘priory’ but underwent a sort of promotion when re-designated an ‘abbey’ in 1235.

The original structure of the abbey church was small and basic but it was continually extended and developed and eventually evolved into an impressive and extensive complex. The abbey’s history was not, however, destined to be one of uninterrupted contemplative calm.

During the 14th century in particular, when Scottish-English enmity was at its height, the island experienced a series of vicious attacks by English forces.

Somewhere in the midst of this turmoil, the Inchcolm Antiphoner was put together.

This was one of the key texts for the abbey worship, and some of the plainchants it contains are unique. Others reflect the times in which they were written: one runs ‘Father Columba… preserve this choir, which praises you, from the incursions of the English.’ Columba did his job. Somehow, the Inchcolm Antiphoner never made it into the heaps of booty the English soldiery removed from the abbey. It is now kept in Edinburgh University Library.

As the scale of the surviving buildings suggests, the abbey was eventually a thriving enterprise – and medieval abbeys were enterprises that enjoyed royal favour.

James IV, the king who met his end at Flodden, was a regular visitor.

Post-Flodden hostilities saw the abbey undergoing something of the turmoil it had experienced in the 14th century, with an English garrison actually occupying the island after the 1547 Battle of Pinkie.

The canons had to flee, only returning when a Franco-Scottish force re-occupied the island. The abbey’s active life ended at the Reformation in 1559, although the canons were allowed to continue living on the premises if they wished.

However, the buildings soon began to be dismantled. Centuries of decay followed until the ruins of the abbey, then owned by the Earl of Moray, were taken into state care in 1924 By then, quite a bit of later building had taken place on Inchcolm. Agun battery had appeared during the Napoleonic era, designed to deter French attacks on the Forth. This was later dismantled, but during the First World War the fleet at Rosyth had to be protected and a very nonmonastic community arrived to man the defences that sprouted on the island.

In fact, the Inchcolm garrison ended up with little to do, other than look on helplessly as Edinburgh was bombed by Zeppelins.

However, as we shall see, the First World War garrison did build the structure which, next to the abbey, is now one of the most popular feature of the island with visitors.

The island was re-garrisoned during the Second World War and this time the new inhabitants saw plenty of action.

Today, the only invaders are tourists and the only residents the Historic Scotland custodians, who do a superb job of looking after the abbey. The gardens, in this unpromising wind-battered and salt-sprayed location, are a delight.

The usual way to gain access to the island is to sail on the Maid of the Forth from South Queensferry.

The obvious prelude to your Inchcolm trip is to buy a return train ticket from Dalmeny to North Queensferry and experience the bridge crossing.

Behind the pier is the Hawes Inn which features both in Scott’s The Antiquary and Stevenson’s Kidnapped: in fact, in Kidnapped it’s from here that David Balfour is, er, kidnapped.

The journey to Inchcolm takes about half an hour and there’s a recorded commentary which points out features of interest. Watch out for dolphins on the way, and there may be grey seals basking on the rocks below Swallow Craig on the island itself.

The Maid docks in the bay north of Inchcolm’s narrow waist and a short walk takes you to Historic Scotland’s visitor centre where the custodians will introduce the island to you and help you to get the most from your visit. The small exhibition area is a good place to get your bearings.

From the terrace outside you can fully appreciate the narrowness of Inchcolm’s ‘waist’. Matching golden bays of sand are separated by only a few yards of green lawns. Beyond the waist rise the elegant remaining buildings of the abbey.

You can get a taste of the island’s 20th century history by climbing a steep path through s woodland to the high ground on the island’s eastern half. Soon you’ll find yourself at the mouth of a tunnel that leads right through to the other side of the hill. This can be followed right to the very eastern end of the island.

Your children will love it. From the far end of the tunnel, you can return to the visitor centre by a path that goes past a spindly automatic lighthouse.

An elegant, curved concrete structure you pass on the way suggests an art deco summerhouse. In fact, it’s a Second World War searchlight emplacement.

Now, time for the abbey itself: as you approach it across the island’s narrow waist, keep a lookout in both adjoining bays for seals.

The most eye-catching structure as you approach the buildings is the many-sided Chapter House, the place where the canons met for prayer and teaching and the discussion of business. It’s no less impressive inside. Other notable surviving features include the late medieval cloisters, the church building with its tell-tale clues of its various incarnations, the canons’ refectory and the tower.

The little garden to the north-west of the abbey is a sheltered, peaceful spot which has a hidden gem in the corner – a tiny structure known as the Hermit’s Cell.

Traditionally it belonged to one of the forgotten ascetics who carried on the life of prayer and contemplation before the coming of the abbey.

If this is true, it must have been substantially rebuilt during the Middle Ages.

It served for a time as a mortuary after the Reformation, and more rebuilding may have occurred even then.

There is still a lot of island to explore – the 90 minutes the schedule allows will feel annoyingly short. On the western tongue of land you’ll find a curious little hut, the former Second World War NAAFI (Navy Army Air Force Institute) – the only option for a night out for those stationed here. This area is very different now, green and quiet. But beware, there is an abundance of stinging nettles. Terns, eiders, shearwaters, puffins and even gannets are among the birds you’ll see around the shores.

Whether you’re interested in Scottish history, monastic houses, the defence of Scotland the natural history of a small island or in seeking out peace and quiet, St Colm’s island won’t disappoint.