Hugh Cheape chaired a Hebridean book festival session on Shielings as ‘Islands of the moor’ at Faclan’s 2021 ‘Islands: Worlds in Isolation’ book festival. Uisdean contributed his own reflections on the ethnology, folklore and cultural histories of shielings most especially in terms of the recent and longer history of Air an Àiridh and the Hebridean island context. The session included contributions from John Love, ‘Rusty’ MacDonald, and Marc Calhoun. For further information on the Faclan Hebridean Book Festival 2021 and Programme see here: https://lanntair.com/creative-programme/faclan/
Creating an “Island Space” in the Land of Colmcille
by Professor Mairéad Nic Craith
This year is a special anniversary of Colmcille (also known as Columba). Oral history suggests that Colmcille was born in Gartán in County Donegal around 521 AD. That makes this year his 1500th birthday. Although he was of royal descent, Colmcille decided to dedicate his life to Christianity and was sent to St Finnian’s monastery in County Down. While there, Colmcille secretly copied a book of psalms that Finnian had brought back from Rome. Finnian was angry that a copy had been made without his knowledge and appealed to the High King that the copy was rightfully his, but Colmcille refused to give it up. Tensions between the two monks may have served as the catalyst for the battle of Cúl Drebene where some 3,000 lives were lost. Following the dispute, Columba went into self-imposed, penitential exile, vowing to win as many as 3,000 souls for Christ. He established a new monastery on the Hebridian island of Iona where Conall, the King of Dal Riada, had granted him the site.
It is no accident that the story of Colmcille is still with us today after 1500 years. According to Hallam and Ingold (2008), traditions must be worked at to be sustained. Commemorations of Colmcille go back centuries, but a particularly important milestone occurred in 1997, when the then President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and a Minister of State in the Scottish Office, Brian Wilson, launched a new initiative commemorating the saint. Mary Robinson spoke about “creating an island space … in which Ireland and Scotland can share what they have in common.” (https://www.president.ie/en/media-library/speeches/signatures-on-our-own-frequency-the-sabhal-mor-ostaig-lecture-by-president) Since then a number of acts of commemoration have occurred. This blog focuses on three of these, with reference to mapping.
The first map, Tír Cholmcille (2003), conceptualised by Roy Pedersen was designed to challenge the way we look at the lands of Ireland and Scotland. We have become so used to looking at maps in a particular way that we forget there are other ways of seeing the world. As Dennis Woods (1992) says of the power of maps, “from their inception, it has been essential that states appear as facts of nature, as real enduring things”. Tír Cholmcille, which can be viewed at https://colmcille.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Colmcille-Map.pdf, puts Ireland and Scotland on one single map. Although there is no change in geography, the map is a radical change in perspective. A change in angle on the map encourages people to look again at the image they have of the two countries and the physical connection between them.
The second map is entitled Slí Cholmcille. The route that together landscapes and communities in Ireland and Scotland which are associated with Colmcille and can be viewed here: https://colmcille.net/st-columba-trail/. The route begins in Ireland, the land of Colmcille’s birth, and ends in Scotland, the land where he is buried. En route, one travels across many islands, beginning with Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal. There is a legend associated with Colmcille on Tory island, suggesting that the island’s ruler initially denied Colmcille permission to build a monastery there. Colmcille sought a compromise and proposed that he only required as much land as would be covered by his cloak. Thinking that he could hardly refuse such a small piece of land, the ruler agreed. However, when Colmcille threw down his cloak, it magically expanded until it covered the entire island. The furious ruler set his vicious dog on Colmcille. When the saint saw the beast coming, he blessed him and asked him to die, which the dog duly did!! When the ruler saw this, he repented and granted permission for Colmcille’s monastery.
Scottish islands which feature on the story map, include Eileach an Naoimh, where tradition holds that Columba’s mother is buried. Iona is the island that is most strongly associated with the saint; following a successful £3.75 million appeal, the the Iona Community’s residential and guest accommodation next to the Abbey was re-opened this summer.
All three maps have profound implications for Irish and Scottish communities. In re-imagining the geography of Ireland and Scotland, Tir Cholmcille draws attention to the proximity of these countries to one another. Although legend has it that Colmcille left Ireland and headed to Scotland as a penance for his misdeeds, the map may tell another story. Perhaps Colmcille didn’t necessarily perceive Ireland and Scotland as separate entities and, rather than leaving Ireland, was simple moving northwards from one Gaelic community to another that in need of Christianisation.. The re-orientation of the map draws attention to the shared Gaelic culture, which is particularly strong in the islands. The partnership between Bòrd na Gàidhlig in Scotland and Foras na Gaeilge in Ireland, which has supported these initiatives, has strived to deepen connections between the Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic language communities. The Gaelic dimension has been enhanced with the presentation of placenames in the original Gaelic rather than in an English translation that served to disconnect many islanders from the land and placelore.
The re-mapping of the Colmcille story (as well as the 1500 celebrations) have given Scottish islands an opportunity to come centre-stage. The centrality of islands in the Columba narrative is important since we tend to think of islands as edge places – a tendency that is reinforced by the power of maps to interpret in “a scientific manner”. Maps affirm states, and states affirm maps. Doreen Massey (1994) calls this the politics of location. We have come into a mind-set that assumes a core and a periphery, a centre and an edge – and you can’t have one without the other, but the islands are always seen as at the “edge”, but this is not the case in relation to islands in the Colmcille narrative.
Although most closely associated with Iona, Colmcille is connected with many Scottish islands. In Canna, the archivists put together a series of sounds and images of places that are linked with the saint for a video which can be viewed here: https://www.nts.org.uk/stories/the-feast-day-of-st-columba. While there is no absolute historical evidence, John Lorne Campbell (from Canna) argues persuasively that Canna was the summer home of Columba, and that it is the mysterious island of “Hinba” or “Himba” that is mentioned in the Columban diaries. The video highlights the archaeological connections of Canna and St Colmcille, and the soundtrack features Gaelic music.
It would be impossible to establish concrete historical evidence for every aspect of Colmcille’s life, but there is also a sense in which the facts do not matter (Nic Craith 2013). Whether the character of Colmcille is historical or semi-fictional is irrelevant for the purpose of tradition-bearing, although most people believe in his historical reality. The ‘history’ of Colmcille continues to be regenerated and remade, and his significance for island place-making has become layered. In “How Myths Die”, Lévi-Strauss (1974) argues against the disappearance of myths. They can be transformed, exhausted even, but they do not disappear. Instead, they can be recreated or re-actived
In the case of Columba, one is dealing with a ‘truth story’ rather than a true version of events (a distinction I first heard from John Bell at Greenbelt, a Christian arts festival, in Cheltenham). It is a story that resonates with Scottish communities (see Ian Bradley) https://www.dailyadvent.com/gb/news/140d401e921f7b8c01a6e0ba65129a9a-Celebrating-St-Columba-our-grumpy-but-muchlauded-saint-who-was-born-1500-years-ago) Although not the patron saint of either Ireland or Scotland, Colmcille’s popularity was such that his relics were carried in front of the Scottish army at the Battle of Bannockburn. There is a sense in which Colmcille is the real patron of the Gaels of Dal Riada. His 1500th anniversary has generated many creative initiatives, from poetry to music to art. Accompanying this blog is the image of a new icon that was commissioned from iconographer Pavel Lupu. This beautiful (copyright) image is yet another example of the continuing tradition of a popular saint.
Hallam, Elizabeth and Ingold, Tim (2008) “Creativity and Cultural Improvisation: An Introduction”. In: Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold eds, Creativity and Cultural Improvisation, Routledge.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1974) “How Myths Die”, New Literary History, 5(2), pp. 269-81.
Massey, Doreen (1994) Space, Place and Gender, Polity Press.
Nic Craith, Mairead (2013) “Living Heritage and Religious Traditions: Reinterpreting Columba/Colmcille in the UK City of Culture”, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures, 22(1), pp 42-58.
Woods, Dennis (1992) The Power of Maps, Guilford Press.
“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.
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 Naomhprovides 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.
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:
[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
Colmcille: An Icon of Shared Heritage Irish and UK Keynote Plenary June 2021
Professor Mairéad Nic Craith discusses Columba/Colmcille’s contested symbolism, creative practice research legacies, links and inspirations between Ireland and Scotland. Alongside Mairéad on the panel are Professor Máire B Ní Annracháin and Dr Brian Lacey as they each contribute their rich expertise to the 5th June 2021 Keynote Plenary: “Colmcille: An Icon of Shared Heritage” | Irish & UK Joint Ambassadorial Addresses. You can view all three of these excellent presentations via this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CSG8tS1EN8
30 November 2011, 2-4pm: Screening and discussion with producer Kirsten Macleod and oral history witnesses of ‘You play your part’ (Glasgow, 2010). Govan women reflect on their lives and roles by the Clyde in a unique collaborative women’s history film project. Women who feature in the film will be available for Q & A after film screening.
Kathryn A. Burnett and Tony Grace (2009) ‘Community, Cultural Resource and Media: Reflecting on Research Practice’ in Gordon, Janey (ed.) (2009) Notions of Community: A Collection of Community Media Debates and Dilemmas; Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2009. 310 pp., 5 ill.
ISBN 978-3-03911-374-3 pb.
This volume gets beyond simple descriptions of the values and processes involved in community media and is deliberately seeking argument and structured debate around the issues of this vibrant sector of the media. The contributors examine the dilemmas that have emerged within this sector and provide an incisive overview. The chapters use case studies and data research to illustrate the major debates facing community media, along with a sideways look at the dilemmas that community media practitioners and their audiences must engage with.
This collection provides an international perspective and covers the traditional formats as well as newer media technologies. It also gives some intriguing examples of community media, which get beyond simple good practices.
Contents: Janey Gordon: Introduction – Saba ElGhul-Bebawi: The Relationship between Mainstream and Alternative Media: A Blurring of the Edges? – Lawrie Hallett: The Space Between: Making Room for Community Radio – Janey Gordon: Community Radio, Funding and Ethics: The UK and Australian Models – Kathryn A. Burnett/Tony Grace: Community, Cultural Resource and Media: Reflecting on Research Practice – Katie Moylan: Towards Transnational Radio: Migrant Produced Programming in Dublin – Gavin Stewart: Selling Community: Corporate Media, Marketing and Blogging – Michael Meadows/Susan Forde/Jacqui Ewart/Kerrie Foxwell: A Catalyst for Change? Australian Community Broadcasting Audiences Fight Back – Kitty van Vuuren: The Value and Purpose of Community Broadcasting: The Australian Experience – Pollyanna Ruiz: Manufacturing Dissent: Visual Metaphors in Community Narratives – Janey Gordon: The Mobile Phone and the Public Sphere: Mobile Phone Usage in Three Critical Situations – Jason Wilson/Barry Saunders/Axel Bruns: ‘Preditors’: Making Citizen Journalism Work – Dimitra L. Milioni: Neither ‘Community’ Nor ‘Media’? The Transformation of Community Media on the Internet.
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