I ona was the most famous of all early ‘Celtic’ island monasteries, founded by St Columba in AD 563 off the west coast of Scotland. It was known across Europe as a seat of learning and centre of artistic output of the highest order, playing a central role in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons and Picts. And if you know anything else about Iona, it is probably that the religious community was brought to a sudden and catastrophic end by the Vikings, who subjected the monastery to a series of violent raids from 795 to 825.
Despite these attacks, though, the monastery was never abandoned. There is a wealth of evidence for the survival, and indeed flourishing, of the monastic community on Iona in the following decades and centuries. Yet the Iona story always seems to close with the blood-red curtain of the Viking raids. So compelling is this version of history, it persists in the face of an increasing body of evidence from history, archaeology, and art.
The Viking-induced downfall of Iona is what we call a ‘zombie narrative’, the kind of revenant story that continues to rise from the dead every time it is laid to rest. Not only does it refuse to die, it is still nibbling at our brains. It has become an institutionalised blindness that prevents a proper understanding of the early medieval past, by upholding an outdated, even cartoonish, image of both the Vikings and the early monasteries they looted.
Iona in the early Viking Age
There is no doubting that violent attacks took place on Iona – the first raid was in 795 and others followed in 802 and 806, when 68 monks were slaughtered – but these shocks did not lead to the abandonment of the monastery. An influential community of scholars remained on the island, suffering another Viking raid in 825. Several objects scattered across Europe, from a bronze finial found in a wealthy female grave at Gausel, Rogaland, to a crosier at Helgö, Sweden, have been argued to have come from the looted shrine of St Columba. The 825 raid in particular sent shockwaves as far as the Carolingian monastery of Reichenau, where the scholar Walahfrid Strabo was moved to write a poem about the martyrdom of Blathmac of Iona. His melodramatic account has only fuelled traditions of Iona’s tragic fate, with some arguing that the monastery never recovered, its population reduced to a skeleton staff of hardcore hermits.
It is clear, however, that the monastery went on: contemporary historical sources continue to name senior church personnel on the island, including bishops, abbots, and the head of the scriptorium. Despite this evidence for institutional continuity, that persistent zombie narrative holds that the island monastery, located on the main sea-road through from Orkney to Ireland, was simply too exposed to Viking attacks to survive. This narrative has found its way deep into other corners of the discipline, most notably regarding the Book of Kells, where arguments against its production on Iona revolve mainly around the stock image of a monastery under relentless attack.
It is true that in the 9th century, relics of Columba were taken from Iona to two new daughter houses, Dunkeld and Kells, lying far inland in Scotland and Ireland. The zombie narrative tells us that this was for safekeeping from the insatiable Vikings. If so, the strategy failed miserably: Dunkeld was raided almost as soon as it was founded, in the reign of Cináed mac Ailpín (r. 842-858), and again in 878 and 903, while Kells was subjected to raids in 906, 920, 970, and 997 (and that’s just those in the 10th century). Ironically, Iona had no recorded raids for over 160 years during this same period, despite having numerous other mentions in the annals.
The zombie narrative stems from two historical accidents. The first is that the source material for the Annals of Ulster, one of our primary records of events, had by the late 8th century shifted from being a chronicle kept on Iona to one kept in Ireland. Reporting of all events in western Scotland was less consistent thereafter. But we still have recorded events on Iona, so we should not imagine a complete blackout. The second is a misunderstanding of what happened within the wider family of St Columba’s monasteries in the 9th century. The assumption is that all of the relics of Columba were removed, permanently demoting Iona from acting as the centre of the saint’s cult. The daughter houses of Iona had fanned out across Britain and Ireland to such an extent that these wealthy monasteries ended up in territories of rival kings. This led to factionalism within the familia of Columba, in which the prestigious title of the coarb, the headship, was aggressively contested. Their claims often rested on who had the most authentic relics of the saint.
Even though the headship of the familia did eventually wind up in the former daughter house of Derry in the 12th century, Columba’s tomb and relics remained on the island. Iona abbots were recorded transporting (and returning) relics in the 9th century, and the shrine continued to attract pilgrims, including royal visits down to King Magnus Barelegs of Norway in the late 11th century. While it was never the burial place of all kings of Scots (a zombie narrative for another day!), Iona continued to be favoured for the burial of Gaelic-Norse kings such as Amlaíb Cuarán – also known as Óláfr Sigtryggsson – in 980 and Guðrøðr Óláfsson in 1188. It also remained a focus for wealthy patronage: the high cross known as St Matthew’s dates to the 9th/10th century, and the 12th-century St Oran’s Chapel is one of the earliest examples of Romanesque architecture in Argyll (see CA 378 for more on the high crosses of Iona).
Archaeological evidence, old and new
For a long time, there were very few – albeit highly evocative – finds from Iona dating to the 9th-12th centuries. Most notable among them were a fragment discovered in 1962 of a cross-slab bearing an Old Norse runic inscription, and a silver hoard of Viking Age character discovered in 1950. Both belong to a period of time when Iona jumped back into the political arena, and when we begin to get more notices of it in the Irish annals. Most notably, Amlaíb Cuarán, King of York and Dublin, was defeated at the Battle of Tara in 980 and subsequently went on ‘pilgrimage’ (or forced exile) to Iona; he died and was presumably buried here later that year. In 986, a Danish war-party that had been ravaging northern Ireland sacked Iona, but this was no ‘Viking’ raid like those of the previous century: the events of the 980s were part of a struggle for succession in Ireland that involved attacking rival monasteries.
The Iona Hoard seems to be a product of these events. It is dated to c.986 on the basis of its coins, and was deposited just north of what is now the medieval cloister, at the heart of the early monastery. It contained 363 silver coins, together with some fragments of gold and silver, a characteristic mixed hoard of the late 10th century. The majority of the coins were English, but there were also some of the earliest coins from Normandy to appear in Scotland, Carolingian coins nearly a century old at the time of deposition, and even coins of Amlaíb Cuarán himself from when he was king in York. Some of the earlier coins are bent, a sign of testing for silver quality, which alongside three fragments of silver and gold, are characteristic of the bullion economy of the Viking Age kingdom of Man and the Isles. Two centuries after the first raid, the monastery was still a major pilgrimage destination and prestigious burial place for the Norse-Gaelic elite, the descendants perhaps of those early raiders. What had happened on Iona in the intervening 200 years?
The late Professor Charles Thomas carried out excavations on Iona in the 1950s and 1960s, and limited re-excavation of his trenches by a team from the University of Glasgow has turned up unexpected stone structures within the monastic precinct, to the south of the Iona abbey nave. An early curving stone revetment wall was demolished and this space was made into a cemetery. These layers were heavily disturbed by modern works, but human bone from here was dated to the 10th and 11th centuries. It is evidence for the continued development of the Christian complex in these centuries to accommodate burial.
Since 2015, the authors have been able to analyse the finds and archives of Thomas’ unpublished excavations, and in addition to remarkable evidence of the pre-Viking monastery, we were able to identify several finds from post-AD 800, including grass-marked ceramic and a bronze head from a 12th-century Irish-style reliquary. The head is all that remains of a complex piece of metalwork, perhaps a crosier terminal or box-shrine for corporeal relics. It shows that new reliquaries were still being commissioned at this time.
This trawl of the published evidence re-identified a decorated bronze strip from the excavations of the cemetery of St Ronan’s near the later Benedictine nunnery. It is the remains of an Insular-made belt fitting used in 10th-century Viking burials like those at Cnip, Lewis, Ballinaby, Islay, and Auldhame, East Lothian (see CA 293 for more on this latter site). It does not mean that ‘pagans’ were buried here, seeing as similar belts were found in church cemeteries from St Michael’s in Workington, Cumbria, and Carlisle Cathedral. At least one of the people buried in the 10th-century cemetery of St Ronan’s was laid to rest arrayed in their finery, like Gaelic-Norse elite elsewhere in the Irish Sea zone. At the other end of the spectrum, grass-marked ceramic is typical of the 8th to 13th centuries in the Hebrides, and sherds of it have been recovered from several other excavations on the island; future work may tell us more about daily life during this period.
Scandinavians were not only present on Iona as raiders or pilgrims. Excavations in advance of a housing development in the Glebe Field by GUARD Archaeology in 2012-2013 revealed critical evidence of Viking Age settlement outside the monastic precinct. Diagnostic finds include a beautiful Dublin- style polyhedral headed bronze dress pin, whetstones, and a steatite bowl that was certainly imported from Shetland or Scandinavia. Details of the decoration of the pin indicate that this was a Hebridean variant made on Iona, suggesting a continuation of metalworking in the monastery. At some point in the Viking Age, the monastery had acquired a trade outpost. Perhaps part of the reason for those early raids was to control the supply lines enjoyed by one of the best-connected monasteries in Britain and Ireland.
During these recent excavations, colleagues at the University of Aberdeen who analysed the environmental evidence from one of the vallum (monastic enclosure) ditches surrounding the site discovered that agriculture continued more or less uninterrupted throughout the 1st millennium AD, a clear indication that Iona was not deserted. There was a very brief hiatus around the time of the first raids, when moorland scrub regenerated due to a temporary lack of grazing – perhaps the Vikings made off with whatever animals they could, or this was part of the general shift away from a cattle-based economy. But it is hardly evidence of catastrophe. This joins new radiocarbon dates on organic material from the Charles Thomas excavations which, combined with existing dates, now shows there was no hiatus of occupation at the monastery.
Along with these new finds, reviewing unpublished archival material and grey literature has allowed us to identify a half-dozen Gaelic-Norse dress pins scattered from the monastery to the early harbour at Martyr’s Bay. This wide spread of material is indicative of settlement on Iona, not just casual visits, by a thriving community with links to the Viking Age trade towns of Ireland. New research on the Viking Age collections of National Museums Scotland has identified similar clusters of stick-pins of 11th- to 13th-century date across the Hebrides, which may help identify further beach-market sites in the future.
This archaeological evidence is joined by a new project reviewing the place-names of Iona. Preliminary findings include potential evidence for Norse as a community language on Iona at this time, including prominent names like Dùn Bhuirg (from Norse borg, ‘stronghold’), Calbha (from the Norse *Kalfey, ‘Calf island’), and Soay (from Norse *Sauðey, ‘Sheep island’).
Back to the sculpture
All of this puts some of the older finds in a new light. A fragment of ribbon-interlaced cross-slab bearing a Norse runic inscription was found face-down north of the Reilig Odhráin burial ground in 1962, and probably came from a grave. It is one of only three commemorative runic stone inscriptions in the Hebrides, related to the largely 10th-century series on the Isle of Man. Strikingly, it appears to be an imitation, or at least from the same workshop, of an earlier cross-slab from Iona, bearing an inscription in Latin letters. The runic cross commemorates the death of Fugl, son of Olvir, and was commissioned by his brother Kali. We do not know anything more about these figures, but all three names appear among the later earls of Orkney, and it has been suggested that these men may have been their Hebridean ancestors.
The Gaelic-Norse social network of the isles is dramatically represented by two free-standing crosses made from a distinctive dark, shaly stone that is not local to Iona, but occurs on Man. Both crosses have interlace reminiscent of Manx crosses. One bears an elaborate depiction of a ship, armed men and smith’s tools, in the manner of carvings depicting scenes from Old Norse mythology found on Man, in Cumbria, and in Yorkshire. These crosses stand out within the Iona assemblage for their geology as well as their artistic style, and would seem to have been imported to Iona, presumably to accompany high-status burials. These stones, along with the runic inscription on a locally made cross, reveal the emergence of a class of Christian Norse-speakers taking on the trappings of elite Gaelic society in the Hebrides and Man, including the desire (and the means) to be buried on Iona.
We may even indulge in one final piece of archaeological speculation. A rare type of glass bead was found during late 19th-century renovations in the east end of the cathedral. It is now impossible to know exactly where it was found, but the bead has a story all its own. It is a type made in Central Asia, perhaps Turkistan, but imported to Scandinavia from the late 10th century. They appear in female graves of the late 10th century from Sweden to Iceland, and this is one of very few examples yet recognised in Scotland or Ireland. If its findspot was near the east end of the later cathedral, it could represent the disturbance of a wealthy female dressed burial here at the core of the sacred enclosure.
It’s all politics
So, Iona had remained relevant in the Viking Age not only as a famous pilgrimage destination, but as a wealthy transport hub in the heart of the emerging kingdom of the Isles. Perhaps this is why it did not suffer any recorded raids from 825 to 986 – had its aggressors become its protectors? Its importance was a double-edged sword, however, and its exposure to secular politics made Iona a target once again in the late 10th century, leading to the attack in 986. We need to remember that monasteries were fundamentally entangled with power politics, and even since before the Viking Age, punitive and retaliatory raids on the churches of rivals were one of many ways in which kings competed for power.
In 1203, the monastery was reconstituted as a Benedictine abbey and nunnery. Shortly thereafter, the king and archbishop of Norway sent ships to collect tribute and enforce allegiance, and ended up pillaging the abbey in what has been called the ‘last Viking raid’ on Iona. What we are seeing here is the continued use of this famous pilgrimage focus and sacred place as a political football by generations of kings, something that could not have happened if Iona had been rendered obsolete in the 9th century.
Not only did Iona survive the Viking Age, it seemed to thrive. In a wider sense, the cult of Columba in Scotland continued to grow rather than recede in these years. Even though St Andrews, Fife, had risen to be the primary church of the emerging kingdom of Scots, Columba continued to be a powerful patron saint of Alba: Máel Coluim, whose name means ‘devotee of Columba’, became king in AD 943-954, the first of four kings who would bear that name down to 1165. From the end of the 10th century, Iona attracted performatively Gaelic-Norse Christian memorials: Irish-style cross-slabs with runic inscriptions, interlace-ornamented crosses with Old Norse mythological scenes, funerals in Christian burial grounds with elites dressed in fashionable bronze-tipped belts and exotic beads.
It turns out there is more than one zombie to kill after all. Overall, the problem lies in what we think about ‘the’ Vikings, as a monolithic, unchanging, pagan piratical phenomenon. Our image of Vikings as inveterate marauders who held out from converting to Christianity until it was forced on them is another problem. For some at least, Christianity became one of the ways to get ahead. The monastery of Iona became one of the key sacred centres of the Gaelic-Norse west. It is not pushing the boat out too far (as it were) to suggest that the patronage of Iona was doubly helpful for kings of the Isles, as a way to adopt both the most revered saint of the area and also one who was the national saint of kings.
For more on the ‘Iona’s Namescape: Place-Names’ project, see www.iona-placenames.glasgow.ac.uk.
You can read the University of Glasgow excavation reports from Iona at https://ionaresearchgroup.arts. gla.ac.uk.
For updates on the Glenmorangie Research Project on Viking Age Scotland, see https://blog.nms.ac.uk/tag/vikings.
Adrián Maldonado is Glenmorangie Research Fellow at National Museums Scotland. Ewan Campbell is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow. Thomas Owen Clancy is Professor of Celtic at the University of Glasgow. Katherine Forsyth is Professor of Celtic Studies at the University of Glasgow.