“Little Islands at the Edge of the Ocean” – Celebrating ColmCille 1500

by Ray Burnett

Scotland’s islandscapes are a variegated multiplicity of intricate and ceaselessly shifting combination of land, sea, and seaways. Each offers a bifocal physical and cultural prism, a ‘way of seeing’, through which individual and communal sense of place, identity and islandness expresses itself and societal relations of power and authority, dominance and subalternity map themselves out on a contested maritime terrain.  

As explored further (Burnett 2021) in the Scotland and Islandness book edited edition, the earliest recorded layer of Scotland’s islandscape can be considered as that of the 6th to 8th centuries, when the protohistory of the late Atlantic Iron Age overlapped with the Early Christian era – the ‘Age of the Saints’, the age of the Word.[i] Confined to the islandscapes of the Hebrides, the essay sought to trace and tease out some aspects of this period through a specific focus on ‘islandness’.

One of the premises underpinning Scotland and Islandness was an awareness of the significant contribution our islands and island communities have made to the cultural, political, and social history, not just of Scotland, but of the wider transnational world of Europe and beyond.[ii] A significant dimension of this has been the enduring residual culture legacy of the Early Christian era. Over two millennia of settlement history, successive generations of scholars, bards, story-tellers and community tradition-bearers have ensured that a cultural palimpsest of multi-layered texts and lore, traditions and arts, practices and beliefs, has accumulated across Scotland’s far reach of islandscapes.

In concluding his Life of St Columba, Adomnán of Iona wrote that it was no small favour conferred by God that ‘one who dwelt on this little island on the edge of the ocean’ should have earned a reputation that had reached across the three corners of Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps, even to Rome itself, ‘the chief of all cities.’[iii] Paradoxically, assessing fully the significance of the Early Christian era across all of the Hebrides involves acknowledging a critical paradigm shift: a move away from seeing everything from an Iona, Columban and Dal Riata perspective. Two important projects, both accessible online, are important in this regard.

The Papar Project

The  Papar Project originated in a 2001 conference on the theme of ‘The papar in the North Atlantic: Environment and History’. It focuses on a distinctive feature of the Early Christian era in both the Western and Northern Isles (and Iceland), namely, island place names containing the word papar (a reference to priests or monks). The names are to be found in a great arc from Papil, Unst in Shetland, through Pabail, Lewis and Pabaigh, the Barra Isles in the Outer Hebrides, to Pabay on Skye and Papadil on Rùm. Significantly none are to be found in the Argyll islands, south of Ardnamurchan Point. 

These place names derived from the legacy of Norse incursions into Scotland’s seaways and islands but what was the nature and purpose of the early Christian presence the Norse would encounter? Were the settlers of these places followers of a cenobitic or eremitic monastic life, or priests present in a pastoral capacity?  In the latter context, an important dimension of the papar project was its environmental focus, including close examination of the origin, formation and function of anthropogenic raised soils, an evident link to agriculture (see Simpson et al., The Papar Project: agricultural assessment).

The project also considered the nature of the Norse impact on the ‘papar’ and the final detailed report on The Hebrides  (following an earlier report on the Northern Isles) is of considerable importance in relation to the nature of secular island settlement in the Hebrides in the latter part of the Early Christian era as well as the spiritual and ecclesiastical dimension of the Hebridean islandscape.

Gordon Hatton / Nunton Chapel / CC BY-SA 2.0

Eòlas nan Naomh

Eòlas nan Naomh, ‘Saints of the Uists’ is an initiative launched in 2018 between Glasgow University Celtic Department and Ceòlas, the community charity based in South Uist dedicated to the promotion of the Gaelic language and Gaelic culture of the Uists. Much smaller in scale and tighter in focus than the Papar project, this study from an island studies perspective is no less important. From its university base, the Glasgow University contribution has been to draw together current academic studies on the early and medieval Christianity of Uist; to identify sites and placenames of interest in regard to the latter and to discuss the saints associated with these sites in the Uists. It has been a deep and extensive enquiry and the detailed information already collated online at Eòlas nan Naomh provides an excellent  digital platform to enable the project  team to take forward their principal aim: ‘to stimulate further discussions on the sites in question and the role of the Uists in the early Christianity of the Western Isles’.

The Eòlas nan Naomh online resource illuminates in readily accessible form a key historical era of Scottish island studies and the Eòlas nan Naomh Project Introduction essay should be regarded as ‘Essential Reading’ with its comprehensive  accompanying Bibliography providing  an excellent  link for those interested in further ‘Recommended Reading’.

This wealth of academic work on Uist hagiotoponyms has been augmented by the parallel community cultural work of Ceòlas. With a focus on the early saints whose dedications and traditions are prominent in the Uists – Cainneach, Donnan, Brìde, Donnan, for example –  the Early Uist Saints Project has been collecting and recording information on these saints as transmitted through the oral tradition and indigenous knowledge of the predominantly Gaelic-speaking island communities of Uist. This work on the islandscape of ‘the saints of Uist’ thereby provides an integral community framework through which the deep knowledge of locality and oral history of the Uists can be celebrated and disseminated.

Ceòlas has described this work as a contribution to Slighe Chaluim Chille, the Columba Trail, a project that seeks to raise awareness of the legacy of St Columba across the competing representations in the religious history of Ireland and Scotland. Through a focus on Derry, a city with deep Columban associations, Màiréad Nic Craith (Nic Craith 2013) has traced the reshaping of these divergent historical narratives in a contemporary setting. Contextualising the emergence of a fresh narrative that seeks to redefine the Columban city of Derry ‘as a common heritage space for a previously divided people’, the study underlines the contribution such initiatives can make in the distinct cultural context of Scotland and most especially the Hebrides.

Colmcille 1500: A feast for Scottish island focus

Over 2021 in Ireland (the country of Columba’s birth and formative years) and Scotland (the country of his exile and death) the 1500th anniversary of his birth is being celebrated through a rolling calendar of diverse events, many online, organised under the rubric of Colmcille 1500 (521-2021). The rich programme of online public lectures and wider research commentaries are all of interest but in relation to the Scottish islands, particularly but not exclusively the Hebrides, and as 9th June  –  the Feast Day of St Columba of Iona approaches – three contributions focusing specifically upon island place and islandness invite particular mention.

The first is an article by Gilbert Márkus, a distinguished scholar in this field in the current (May 2021) Innes Review. In ‘Four blessings and a funeral: Adomnán’s theological map of Iona’ Márkus examines the last chapter of Adomnán’s Vita sancti Columbae (i.e. his Life of St Columba) which is devoted entirely to Columba’s movements around Iona in the final days of his life. In this account he elicits the spiritual themes and outlines how they are structured spatially, revealing Adomnán’s mental map of the island. Adomnán thereby invites the reader to see how salvation is revealed in time and space, in movement, and in dwelling within the spatial order of an islandscape established by Columba’s blessings.

The second recommendation is to draw attention to the public lectures series Colm Cille 1500: Téacsanna agus Traidisiúin / Columba 1500: Texts and Traditions that the Royal Irish Academy will be running from 25 August to 13 October 2021. The full programme,  available here contains much of relevance to the ‘Age of the Saints’ in Scotland. One contribution of particular interest from a Scottish island studies perspective, however is the lecture by Professor Thomas Owen Clancy, University of Glasgow entitled Tír, tráig, tuile, ‘Land, strand and tide’: Colum Cille’s voice and the poetics of place’, to be given on 8th September 2021.

Thirdly, Professor Jonathan Wooding, Honorary Professor, Medieval and Early Modern Centre, University of Sydney will deliver a lecture as part of the Trinity College, Dublin Columcille in Context programme on 29 June 2021 entitled Peregrinatio in the Careers of Columcille and his Monastic Family. As is made clear by Jonathan Wooding in his lecture abstract, it is a contribution of direct relevance to the Scottish islands and the notion of ‘islandness’. The presentation will examine instances of peregrinatio in the western Scottish and Atlantic islands from the 6th to the 9th century by which time Columban monks were making voyages to islands lying far to the north and north-west. The contribution will consider the different theological ideas that are found in the accounts of these journeys, as well as their implications for studies of settlement, including recent fieldwork in Iceland.

Each lecture is in a programme of virtual events that are accessible online. They promise to be of great interest in this celebratory ColmCille 1500 year and beyond.

Sources:

Burnett, R. 2021 Little Islands on the Edge of the Ocean, in KA  Burnett, R Burnett & M Danson (eds), Scotland and Islandness: Explorations in Community, Economy and Culture. vol. 13, Studies in the History and Culture of Scotland, Peter Lang, pp. 29-52.

Ceòlas online resource Early Uist Saints Project Available at: https://www.ceolas.co.uk/our-work/heritage/.

Eòlas nan Naomh, online resource especially ‘Introduction Essay’: Available at: https://uistsaints.co.uk/introduction/.

Márkus, G. 2021  ‘Four blessings and a funeral: Adomnán’s theological map of Iona’, The Innes Review 72 (1): 1–26 DOI: 10.3366/inr.2021.0279.

Nic Craith, M. 2013 ‘Living Heritage and Religious Traditions Reinterpreting Columba/Colmcille in the UK City of Culture’ Anthropological Journal of European Cultures, 22 (1): 42-58 DO1: 10.3167/ajec.2013.220104.

Simpson, I.A., Crawford, B. and Ballin Smith, B. (n.d). Papar place-names in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland: A preliminary assessment of their association with agricultural land potential.  Access online at:  The Papar Project: agricultural assessment.

Links to ColmCille 1500 Lectures Series and Events detailed:

29th June 2021 Professor Jonathan Wooding, Honorary Professor, Medieval and Early Modern Centre, University of Sydney as part of the Trinity College, Dublin Columcille in Context programme, on ‘Peregrinatio in the Careers of Columcille and his Monastic Family’.

8th September 2021 Professor Thomas Owen Clancy, University of Glasgow, Tír, tráig, tuile, ‘‘Land, strand and tide’: Colum Cille’s voice and the poetics of place’. Part of  Colm Cille 1500: Téacsanna agus Traidisiúin / Columba 1500: Texts and Traditions that the Royal Irish Academy will be running from 25 August to 13 October 2021.


[i] Although there is a vast legacy of prehistoric settlement in the islands, it is only with the named places, people of the AIA and the oral and written history and tradition of the EC era that a sense of attached across the centuries begins.

[ii] This ‘contribution’ has been unquestionably negative as well as positive not least for other global island communities over the European colonization and British imperial eras.

[iii] Sharpe, R. (1995), Adomnán of Iona, Life of St Columba, Harmondsworth, p. 233