The lost island of Saint Columba

Colonsay Cross

Sculptured cross from Riskbuie Chapel, Colonsay. Illustration from Allen & Anderson The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903).


According to the vita or ‘Life’ of Saint Columba written by Adomnán at the end of the seventh century, the monastery on Iona had a number of satellites on various islands and coastlands around Argyll. One of these was on an island called Hinba and seems to have been the chief daughter-house of Iona. Adomnán tells us that it was founded by Columba himself and comprised not only a monastery but also a separate hermitage. Frustratingly, the precise location of Hinba is not made clear, so we are left to wonder which of the numerous Hebridean islands it was.

People have been suggesting possible identifications for Hinba for a long time, ever since modern historians first began to study Adomnán’s Vita Columbae. The obvious starting-point is to rule out those islands which are clearly identifiable in Adomnán’s narrative, such as Skye, Islay, Tiree, Eigg, Mull and of course Iona itself. None of these was Hinba, so the search is immediately narrowed. It also seems clear that Hinba lay at no great distance from Iona, for Columba was able to visit the satellite monastery quite easily and frequently. His uncle Ernán, who served as prior on Hinba, was able to undertake the sea-voyage to Iona when very elderly and in poor health.

Columba

The hermitage on Hinba was situated near what Adomnán calls Muirbulc Mar, ‘Great Sea-Bay’. As with some other places in Vita Columbae he gives the name entirely in Gaelic – his own native language – rather than rendering it into a Latinised form. Muirbulc Mar must have been a prominent feature, so any island without a large bay can effectively be ruled out in our search for Hinba. For example, the small island of Eileach an Naoimh, ‘Rocky isle of the Saints’, in the Garvelloch archipelago has been suggested as a possible candidate for Hinba but it doesn’t have a prominent sea-bay. Also, Hinba is a Gaelic name, so it is very unlikely that it would be given an additional or alternative Gaelic one. Indeed, it is far more likely that it today bears a name of Norse origin, as do many of the Hebridean islands.

The eminent place-name scholar William Watson proposed that Hinba derives from inbe, a Gaelic word meaning ‘incision’. In this context, the ‘incision’ would presumably be the great sea-bay of Muirbulc Mar. If Watson’s derivation is correct, the bay must have appeared to slice through the island, as if the sea had bitten a big chunk out of the coastline.

Only two candidates seem to tick all the boxes: Jura, which has a large sea-bay called Loch Tarbert; and the single island which is formed by Colonsay and Oronsay when the sea-bay between them is at low tide. Jura and Colonsay/Oronsay have Viking names, and we don’t know what they were called in Adomnán’s time. Jura has an early church dedicated to Columba; Oronsay has a medieval priory with a Columba dedication and an old tradition of having been founded by the saint. In favour of Colonsay and Oronsay is the observation that they are closer to Iona.

The upshot is that the puzzle of Hinba remains unsolved. This mysterious island, so important in the early history of the Columban familia or network of monasteries, seems to float beyond our reach. My own view is that it is now the single island formed by Colonsay and Oronsay at low tide, and that Oronsay Priory stands on the site of Columba’s monastery.

Oronsay Priory

Oronsay Priory

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Notes

References to Hinba in Adomnán’s Vita Columbae occur at: Book 1, chapters 21 & 45; Book 2, chapter 24; Book 3, chapters 5, 17, 18 & 23. The Latin edition I use is the one edited by Alan and Marjorie Anderson in 1961 (revised in 1991). For an English version I use the Andersons’ translation and the one by Richard Sharpe for Penguin Classics (1995).

I discuss Hinba on pp.109-11 of my book on Saint Columba.

A useful summary of the various Hinba theories can be found on pp.91-102 of Alan Macquarrie’s The Saints of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1997).

Hinba is the island where Saint Columba narrowly escaped being murdered. The story is told in my blogpost Columba and the Pirates.

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10 comments on “The lost island of Saint Columba

  1. Tim: this is not strictly to do with St Columba or Hinba but I wonder if you have read ‘The Ancient Paths’ by Graham Robb published quite recently by Picador? Perhaps you already know each other? Robb lives on the English-Scottish border. I have a feeling that your work and his may be complementary.

  2. Fantastic synthesis. I’d be inclined towards Jura, myself. Watson was dead on, I reckon. Old Irish ‘inbe/inbech’ means ‘notched’ and is attested in Cormacs Glossary. The inlet into Loch Tarbert is very ‘notch-like’… http://goo.gl/maps/VSHaR

    Cheers!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Terry. I must admit to leaning slightly towards Jura whenever I look at the shape of Loch Tarbert, which does appear more notch-like than An Traigh between Colonsay and Oronsay. Also, as Watson noted, the loch is surrounded by several hermit-friendly caves, one of which seems to be known as ‘The Cave of the Iona Folk’. But what keeps me on board with Colonsay/Oronsay is their proximity to Iona and to the direct sea-route between Iona and Ireland, although this is based on an (unfounded) assumption that these factors were important to Columba as well.

  3. Jo Woolf says:

    I would instinctively opt for Colonsay/Oronsay, but I admit that the Jura option is very persuasive too! I have a book, ‘The Lands of the Lordship’ by Domhnall MacEacharna, which deals mainly with the place names of Islay but he gives his opinion that Hinba was Colonsay: “The Columban monastery stood on Kiloran Bay and the ruins were plundered for the building of Colonsay House which now stands on the site.” Apparently there was also a reference to ‘Hinbina insula’ (Little Hinb or Hinba), where there was a penitentiary, and he believes that this was Oronsay.

  4. Thanks Tim/Jo, Fascinating stuff. If only they were further apart! ;)

    Never heard about the caves, or Little Hinba. Was there any antiquarian attention given them before modern arch in any of the places?

    • Tim says:

      Jo – I’ve made a note to track down The Lands of the Lordship which sounds like a useful book.

      Terry – A quick search of Canmore hasn’t yielded much on these sites. Watson says the Jura caves were used by ‘gentlemen who were hunting’, while Canmore mentions herring fishermen. I can’t see much for Kiloran on Colonsay either, but the place-name suggests a link with St Oran of Iona

  5. Andy C says:

    Just started reading John Lorne Campbell’s “Canna, The Story of a Hebridean Island” (I haven’t finished it yet) and he makes claim that Canna could be Hinba. Does this theory have any supporters?

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for mentioning this, Andy. Yes, Canna is favoured by some of those who see Hinba as lying north, not south, of Iona. It does have a suitably large muirbolc or sea-bay, so it can’t be ruled out of the search. As far back as 1857, Reeves considered Canna one possibility (among others) in his edition of Vita Columbae. John Lorne Campbell lived on Canna for many years, as owner of the island, so his support for the theory is understandable.

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