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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Searching for Brunanburh

Brunanburh
The battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937, was a notable victory for the English king Athelstan. On the losing side stood an alliance of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Britons, led by their respective kings. Contemporary annals, later chronicles and an Anglo-Saxon poem have left us in no doubt of the battle’s importance. Some modern historians regard it as a defining moment in the history of Britain: the moment when ‘England’, the territory of the Anglo-Saxons, became a true political entity.

But where was Brunanburh?

Where was Wendune, another place associated with the battle?

Where was the stretch of water called dinges mere – mentioned in the Brunanburh poem – if indeed this is a place-name at all?

Many theories have been put forward to answer these questions, but none has so far solved the mystery. Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula is often promoted as the best candidate for Brunanburh, primarily because it was recorded as Bruneburgh and Brunburg in twelfth-century documents. The place-name argument for Bromborough is certainly strong, but it is by no means decisive. Even if it was once known as Brunanburh, there is no certainty that the great battle of 937 was fought nearby, for we have no reason to assume Brunanburh was a unique place-name in Anglo-Saxon England. There might have been several places so named, in different areas, with not all of them being identifiable today behind modernised forms. It is also worth considering the position of Bromborough relative to tenth-century political geography: the Wirral peninsula is a long way from Scotland. Why would a combined force of Scots and Strathclyders choose to fight a battle there? If these northerners wanted to raid Athelstan’s territory and challenge him to a showdown, they could achieve both objectives without marching so far south.

Professor Andrew Breeze of the University of Navarre has recently proposed Lanchester in County Durham as an alternative candidate for Brunanburh. Andrew draws our attention to the nearby River Browney as a possible source of the Brun- element in the name. Could he be right? Lanchester clearly has a body of support and could even emerge as a strong rival to Bromborough, especially if the local media keep it in the spotlight.

For myself, I prefer to look west – not east – of the Pennines. I’ve said so in a couple of comments at Revealing Words, the fascinating blog run by Anglo-Saxon specialist Karen Jolly. Fans of the Brunanburh debate might like to know a few of us have been discussing the battle at Karen’s blog in the past week or so. Some interesting ideas are being bounced around, with input from various points of the spectrum.

The map below shows Lanchester, Bromborough and other candidates. More places could be added, but then things would get rather cluttered. These five sites should, however, be enough to show that Brunanburh has not yet been identified.

Brunanburh

I’ve been working on a Brunanburh-related blogpost of my own, to show where my thoughts are heading at the moment. It means I’ll be dusting off my old thesis to refresh half-forgotten memories of early medieval military logistics, as well as reading some newer stuff. I now have in my possession a pristine copy of the ‘Brunanburh Casebook’, which I’ll be examining closely in the next couple of weeks. Not sure when the blogpost will appear, but it won’t be imminent. It will be preceded by a couple of others from the Senchus backlog, one of which will be on St Columba.

I will also be looking at Brunanburh in my fifth book, which I’m due to start very soon. It’s about the kingdom of Strathclyde and will probably include an entire chapter on the Brunanburh campaign. An announcement of this new project will appear here at Senchus and at my other blog Heart of the Kingdom.

In the meantime, here are some interesting links to explore….

Karen Jolly’s blogpost on Brunanburh (with discussion)

Andrew Breeze on Lanchester as a candidate for Brunanburh

The case for Bromborough, summarised by Michael Livingston, editor of The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook.

A concise blogpost from three years ago, written by Diane McIlmoyle.

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Pictish warrior women (again)

Pictish female warrior

Axelle Carolyn as ‘Aeron’ in the movie Centurion (2010)


The most popular post at this blog – by a very long way – is one of the first I ever wrote. It appeared in July 2008, just a few weeks after the launch of Senchus. In writing it I hoped to spark a discussion on the question of whether or not Pictish military forces included female soldiers. I voiced my own views on the topic and waited for a response from readers. What I got was a mixture of useful feedback and vitriol, the latter reminiscent of what we used to call ‘flames’ in the Ansaxnet and Arthurnet forums twenty years ago. I wasn’t surprised to receive fairly strong reactions from some readers. This is a topic that inevitably touches on wider issues, like gender stereotyping and inequality, which are bigger and more emotive than a single question about the Picts. What did surprise me were comments from people who had misinterpreted my words as a personal sermon against the right of women to fight in battle alongside men. This wasn’t what I was saying at all. My point was that the written record – sparse though it is – does not suggest that female Picts participated in warfare as combatants.

The comments from people who had plainly not bothered to read or understand the post didn’t get past my blog dashboard. I deleted them as if they were spam. This doesn’t mean I’m thin-skinned in the face of opinions that don’t agree with mine. I always welcome criticism of my views – if it adds meaningful data to the debate. I am less welcoming of comments from folk who assume I’m a misogynist or anti-feminist, simply because I’ve questioned the historical reality behind fictional female characters such as the one depicted above. But I might still respond to such comments in a rational manner – if I think they add something useful to the mix.

Regular visitors to this blog will know of my longstanding interest in the roles played by high-status women in the political history of early medieval Britain. Over the past five years I’ve put the spotlight on a number of queens and princesses who appear in the sources as mere names – or as anonymous characters – with little or no indication of who they were or what they achieved. I think I’ve mentioned somewhere that this is part of my wider interest in the untold stories of ‘mute groups’ – those sections of society who didn’t get a voice in the contemporary written record – such as women, children and the ‘unfree’ or semi-free peasantry.

Well, it’s five years since the original blogpost, and I don’t have anything new to add. My views on the lack of evidence for Pictish warrior women have not changed. In fact, my scepticism has been reinforced by two online articles published in July of this year. Although these refer primarily to the valkyries and shieldmaidens of North European tradition, many of the points made by their respective authors – Dr Martin Rundkvist and Professor Judith Jesch – are relevant to the question of female participation in Pictish military campaigns.

Take a look…

Martin Rundkvist – Shield Maidens! True Or False?

Judith Jesch – Valkyries Revisited

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Two additional links: the original blogpost on Pictish female warriors and all my posts on early medieval women

P.S. – I enjoyed the Centurion movie.

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Columba and the Pirates

Pirates
Two hundred years before the first Viking longships appeared off the west coast of Scotland, the Hebridean seaways were stalked by home-grown pirates. One band of cut-throats plied their trade in the late sixth century, when Saint Columba was abbot of the monastery he had founded on Iona. They were led by the sons of Conall mac Domnaill, an obscure figure of whom we know almost nothing beyond the name. According to Adomnán, author of Vita Columbae (‘Life of Columba’), Conall’s sons were members of the royal house of Gabrán, by which he presumably meant the Cenél nGabráin dynasty of Kintyre, but their position within this powerful kindred is unknown. They may have belonged to a rogue branch, perhaps to a family regarded as rivals of the chief lineage headed by Columba’s royal patron Áedán mac Gabráin. The actual number of Conall’s sons is unknown, as are the names of all but one of them: Ioan mac Conaill mac Domnaill, a ruthless sea-robber far removed from the image of the ‘jolly buccaneer’ embodied by Jack Sparrow.

Adomnán introduces us to the sons of Conall in the tale of a visit by Columba to the mainland, to the peninsula of Ardnamurchan above the north end of the Isle of Mull. There dwelt a farmer called Colmán whom Columba had befriended. Columba sometimes stayed with Colmán as a house-guest, presumably when he needed a base for religious work on the mainland. The saint was not there, however, on one fateful day when the sons of Conall came to Ardnamurchan in search of easy pickings.

Columba
The pirates came ashore and attacked Colmán’s house, breaking in to snatch whatever they could find. Filling their boat with the farmer’s belongings, they headed back out to sea. Colmán and his family survived the assault, no doubt by running to safety as soon as the raiders appeared, but their ordeal was far from over. In a grim replay of the first attack, the sons of Conall paid a return visit and did the same thing all over again. Colmán was not a wealthy man and had no means of defending his home and kin. The pirates were no doubt aware of this, hence their return for a third raid. This time, however, Columba was on Ardnamurchan with some monks from Iona. Although not at Colmán’s house when the attack came, the saint was not far away and reappeared just as the raiders were about to sail off with their loot. He confronted them on the seashore, urging them to yield up their plunder and abandon their violent ways. His pleading brought a scornful response from the pirate-chief Ioan, who promptly sailed away without any hint of remorse.

Stung by Ioan’s mockery and indifference, Columba waded out into the water and lifted his hands in prayer. There he stayed until the pirate ship disappeared over the horizon. He rejoined his monks, who had watched the entire incident, and together they went up to a higher point above the shore. Columba told his companions that Ioan’s wickedness would not go unpunished, for God was about to deal out a suitable retribution. Sure enough, even as the monks gazed out to sea, a terrible storm arose in the distance. Sweeping southward, it caught the pirates as they sailed between the islands of Mull and Coll, capsizing their vessel and drowning all who were aboard.

The sudden storm did not, however, end the menace of the sons of Conall. It appears that not all of Ioan’s brothers were on the boat that capsized, for Columba encountered the gang again during a visit to the island of Hinba. On this occasion he found himself in serious danger and only narrowly avoided being slain. The encounter came after he received disturbing news that these same pirates were attacking churches on Hinba, where one of his own satellite monasteries was located. Arriving on the island, he gathered a small party of monks and again confronted the sons of Conall. Castigating them for defiling the sanctity of churches he announced that he had decided to excommunicate them. This threat clearly enraged the pirates, who were at least nominally Christian. One of them – a henchman of Conall’s sons who went by the nickname Lám Dess (‘Right Hand’) – strode towards Columba and lunged viciously with his spear. A quick-thinking monk called Findlugán bravely put himself in the way and took the thrust, but was miraculously unharmed (according to Adomnán, this was because Findlugán happened to be wearing Columba’s hooded cloak). Amid the confusion, Lám Dess was sure he had hit his intended target and believed that a mortal wound had been given to the saint.

What happened afterwards is not reported by Adomnán but the excommunication was presumably put in place. Whether it changed the behaviour of the sons of Conall seems unlikely, given that they plainly had no qualms about attacking religious settlements. It was, nevertheless, the most drastic punishment Columba could deal out and, in an age of superstition, it may have worried some of the gang. It was evidently of little concern to Lám Dess, who was still living a life of violence one year later when he was killed in a fight on another island. After a brief notice of his death, we hear nothing more of the sons of Conall in Vita Columbae.

Saint Columba

A depiction of St Columba by J.R. Skelton (1907)

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The story of the pirates appears on pages 118 to 121 of my book Columba.

The relevant references in Vita Columbae are in chapters 22 (Ioan) and 24 (Lám Dess) of Book Two.

Although Adomnán mentions the island of Hinba a number of times its precise location is unknown. Several theories have been proposed, based on clues given in Vita Columbae. One theory identifies Hinba as the two-part island formed by Colonsay and Oronsay, and this is the one I favour at the moment. See my blogpost on The lost island of Saint Columba.

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Big Roman Week

Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius


Antoninus Pius, the Roman emperor who commissioned the Antonine Wall, was born on 19 September in AD 86. His birthday is marked in the Falkirk district by an annual event celebrating the local Roman heritage, which includes a section of the Wall. This year the ‘Big Roman Week’ takes place from 14-22 September. It offers a good mix of interesting activities and is well worth a visit.

In fact, the whole thing sounds great and I really wish I could turn up for a day or two. It’s such a brilliant way of enabling people to engage with their area’s ancient history. The event is co-ordinated by The Friends of Kinneil, a local heritage group involved with the Kinneil estate at Bo’ness on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth.

Here’s a link to the list of events in Big Roman Week

and a link to The Friends of Kinneil

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I’ve not blogged much about the Antonine Wall but I’ve written about it in my book on the Picts and visited its surviving remains in the Rough Castle area. A few years ago I discussed the origins of the name Kinneil, a place mentioned by the Venerable Bede in AD 731.

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The Netherton Cross

Netherton Cross

Few examples of sculpture from the kingdom of Strathclyde have survived, and fewer still survive intact. The main collection is at Govan, a place regarded by archaeologists as the origin-centre of a distinct style or ‘school’ of stonecarving in the ninth to eleventh centuries. One of the outlying monuments of the Govan School can be seen in the town of Hamilton, 12 miles upstream along the river Clyde. It’s an impressive free-standing cross and is well worth a quick detour off the M74 motorway. Over at my other blog Heart Of The Kingdom I’ve written a short post about it.

Heart Of The KingdomThe Netherton Cross

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The location of Rheged

Pictish symbols Trustys Hill

Pictish symbols carved on a rock at Trusty’s Hill (from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland, 1857)


Back in May, in a blogpost about the hillfort on Trusty’s Hill in Galloway, I wrote the following:

‘Many historians think Galloway was part of a kingdom called Rheged which seems to have been a major political power in the late sixth century. The little we know about Rheged comes from a handful of texts preserved in the literature of medieval Wales. These suggest that the kingdom rose to prominence under Urien, a famous warlord whose deeds were celebrated by his court-bard Taliesin.’

Galloway is not the only area proposed as the heartland of Urien’s kingdom. The English county of Cumbria is another popular candidate, frequently appearing alongside Dumfries & Galloway as part of ‘Rheged’. This idea that Urien’s rule encompassed lands on both sides of the Solway Firth has recently received a boost from two different quarters. Cumbria’s claim is strongly endorsed by Professor Andrew Breeze in the published version of a 2011 lecture on place-names, while archaeological data from the Galloway Picts Project has prompted a suggestion that Trusty’s Hill may have been a key centre of power for Urien’s family.

I continue to regard Rheged as an elusive territory whose precise location is unknown. I’m not convinced we can even call it a ‘kingdom’. All we can say with confidence is that the poetry attributed to Taliesin associates a place called Rheged with a North British king called Urien. We have no evidence that Rheged was a large territory of greater extent than, say, a river valley of sufficient size to support one or more aristocratic estates. It may have been Urien’s core domain, to which he added other territories (such as the equally mysterious Goddeu and Llwyfenydd) as his power expanded.

Modern maps of sixth-century Britain often show Rheged as a huge realm straddling the Solway and parts of the Pennines. Sometimes it stretches down into Lancashire, prompting some mapmakers to divide it into sub-kingdoms called ‘North Rheged’ and ‘South Rheged’. This goes way beyond the information provided by Taliesin, and is as far away from serious historical scholarship as the maps in The Lord Of The Rings (which are at least consistent with textual evidence relating to the kingdoms of Middle Earth).

It’s actually quite rare to see the lack of certainty about Rheged’s location being acknowledged. One writer who has taken a cautious approach is Carla Nayland, whose blog includes many useful thoughts on historical subjects. Carla examines the geography of Rheged in a couple of recent posts, both of which I recommend to anyone who has an interest in this controversial topic. While voicing her own preference for a Solway location, Carla points out that nobody really knows for sure. This is an important point which can’t be brushed aside, regardless of how many people preface their theories with ‘Historians now accept that Rheged lay in the Eden Valley….’ [or in the Lake District or Galloway or wherever]. Carla summarises, in a few words, what we actually do know: ‘Rheged could have been anywhere on the western side of Britain from Strathclyde to Lancashire’.

Until we can be certain where Urien’s kingdom was situated in relation to other kingdoms (and we’re unlikely to ever know) a reconstruction of sixth-century political geography based on where we think he ruled won’t get us very far. We also need to keep in mind the sobering fact that many specialists in medieval Welsh literature have now moved away from the older view – held by Sir Ifor Williams and other Celtic scholars of his generation – that the Taliesin poems can be used as valid sources of North British history.

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Carla Nayland’s blogposts:
Rheged: location
Location of Rheged: the poetry

Galloway Picts Project – New exhibition on the Trusty’s Hill excavation (an information board on ‘Rheged: the lost kingdom’ can be glimpsed in one of the photos)

Andrew Breeze: ‘The Names of Rheged’, Transactions of the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society, vol.86 (2012), pp.51-62. A summary of the lecture upon which the article is based can be found at the DGNHAS website.

P.S. As I’ve said in a comment at Carla’s blog, I’d be more than happy to locate Urien in the Solway area, mainly because he’d conveniently fill a gap in a part of Northern Britain where plenty of elite activity was going on in the sixth century. But other areas can’t be ruled out, and I believe a no-less-plausible case can be made for the upper valley of the River Tweed around Peebles (on which I hope to say more in a future blogpost). This won’t mean I think Rheged was centred on Peebles. It will merely demonstrate that the conventional theory is not the only one we can explore.

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