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Issue 90 - The Iona of the East

Scotland Magazine Issue 90
December 2016


This article is 25 months 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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The Iona of the East

Grey seals, gulls and the home of the gnome

Protected by stone, surrounded by seawater, it was on Inchcolm Island in the Firth of Forth that the 15th Century Augustinian monk Walter Bower secluded himself to create his great work, the Scotichronicon, the most important medieval account of early Scots history.

Then, as now, scholars such as the Abbot, as Walter became, required such places of undisturbed retreat to create their elaborate manuscripts. He was taking up the challenge from his predecessor, the historian-priest John of Fordun, whose most famous work chronicled the emergence of Scotland under the Egyptian princess Scota and Goídel Glas – the eponymous founder of the Gaels. It remains the classic work of its kind.

Here in the solitude of passing seasons, time is measured only by sunrise and sunset. Each of the neighbouring islands – Inchkeith, Inchgarvie, Inchmickery and Cramond – has its own story to tell, but collectively remain splendidly indifferent to the populous mainland. Over the summer months, small boats from South Queensferry disembark visitors daily onto the quay for conducted tours.

Not much has changed since 567AD when Saint Columba, from whom it derives its name, came ashore. The Irish missionary obviously liked small islands, but he was only passing through. Similarly, Romans
and Vikings buried their dead here, but it was not until King Alexander I of Scotland was marooned
here while crossing the estuary in the 12th Century that the monastery was built.

This is a lucky place. Attacked by English raiders in 1335, the abbey treasures were stolen, but, inexplicably seized with guilt, the sailors returned their plunder. Similarly, when the abbey was set alight 50 years later, a strong wind blew up to stifle the flames.

Inchcolm Abbey has always protected those in need of sanctuary and mercifully, because of its island location, the buildings (which are today cared for by Historic Environment Scotland) survived the more extreme ravages of the violent Protestant Reformation.

A singular curiosity is that, on the adjacent shard of land, a colony of colourful ceramic gnomes has appeared, taking their place among the seagulls and seals on the now appropriately re-named Inch Gnome Island. Quite how and when they arrived, and where they came from, remains a mystery, but Scotland always welcomes benign incomers. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come?

Visitor Information

Boat Trips to Inchcolm from Hawes Pier, South Queensferry, run from Easter to late October.

Forth Boat Tours
+44(0) 8701 181 866

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