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Inchcolm, Fife

(56°1′45″N, 3°18′10″W)
NT 189 826
pre-1975 traditional (Scotland) Fife
now Fife
medieval Dunkeld
now n/a
  • James King
  • James King
25 Aug 2019

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The extensive ruins of the abbey on the island of Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth, preserves only a few carved features of the Romanesque church and priory, in particular parts of the nave exterior and the W doorway. The 12th-century church was built with a simple, aisleless nave and rectangular east end. There were no transepts. This was extended to the E, in the later 12th century, with a new rectangular chancel, the original chancel then built into a tower. During the 13th century, a new cloister was built, with a new doorway into the church from the E walk. The W end of the church had a later-medieval porch built onto it, apparently at the same time that the nave and tower were re-configured in the 14th century to form a new upper level, possibly as housing for the Abbot. Alongside this there appears to have been a reconstruction and re-organisation of the cloister buildings. A small building W of the abbey church has often been thought to have been built before the priory was founded. The proposals have suggested that the main part of the cell was constructed in the 11th century, with changes made in later centuries. Suggestions for dates for the building vary, with some as late as the 16th century. There are no carved decorations within the structure or any other features which would allow for a definitive construction date to be given. A few surviving pre-Romanesque carved stones are displayed in the on-site museum. The abbey was an important religious site within the diocese of Dunkeld. A few churches on the mainland were gifted to the canons of Inchcolm and these were also part of the diocese of Dunkeld.


In various medieval records, the island of Inchcolm is referred to as the island of Emonia (also: Eumonia and Aemonia). 9th-to-10thc carved stones found at Inchcolm suggest that Inchcolm was a religious site before the later priory came into being. According to John Fordun, priest at Aberdeen Cathedral in the 14th century, in the last year of the reign King Alexander I of Scotland (i.e. 1123), Alexander decided to found a priory on Inchcolm, having been driven onto the island by a storm and cared for there by the hermit who was living on the island. There is some uncertainly, however, as to when the Augustinian canons arrived, the primary difficulty being a deficit of documents from both Inchcolm Priory and Dunkeld Cathedral. Fordun’s commentary states that some of the canons from the monastery at Scone went to Emonia and built buildings in stone. The foundation of the Augustinian house at Scone occurred in 1114, the founder being King Alexander. Alexander died in April of 1124, and what evidence there is has suggested to most scholars that it was Alexander’s brother, King David I (1124-1153), who substantially endowed the priory. Little is known about the early priors. Bricius (or Brice), prior of Inchcolm (‘insula S Columbe’), is the first recorded. He is found witnessing a Dunfermlyn charter of about 1162-9 and appears to have been followed as prior by Roger, who witnessed a charter of 1163-78 (Inchcolm Charters, pp. 234-5). Sometime before 1178 the priory had become fully established, for in that year Pope Alexander III issued a bull confirming to Prior Walter all the rights, possessions and endowments of the Augustinian priory and church of St Columba. Prior Walter continued to appear as a witness to various other charters in the years following. In 1210, he became abbot of Holyrood Abbey (Edinburgh) and died in 1217 (Liber Cartarum Sancte Crucis, p. xxiii).

The priory lay within the diocese of Dunkeld and held a close bond with the bishops there. However, the history of the early bishops of that see, which was re-established in the early-12th century, is also filled with uncertainties. Dowden (p. 48) states that Cormac, as bishop of Dunkeld, first appears in surviving documents in the second decade of the 12thc. Dowden also comments that in 1132 Cormac ‘escob dunicallen’ may have been ‘a bishop without a see in one of the monasteries of Celtic foundation’. The next known bishop of Dunkeld, Gregory, appears before 1147 and may have died as late as 1169. In the Dunfermline charter of about 1162-9, Bishop Gregory confirmed the possessions of the priory to God, the church of ‘Sancti Columbe de Insula’ and the canons there. The establishment of the priory of Inchcolm must have occurred during one of these two episcopacies. It is not known, however, where either of these bishops were buried. Following Gregory, there is some confusion over who the next bishop was, but the consensus of opinion seems to be that it was Richard, who died about 1178 and is said to have been buried at Inchcolm. John, who succeeded Richard, was buried at Newbattle Abbey. But three later bishops of Dunkeld were also interred in the church of Inchcolm: Richard (d. 1210), John (d. 1214) and Gilbert (d. 1236). In 1235, the priory was raised to the status of abbey. Following this, in 1265, it is recorded that Bishop Richard of Inverkeithing was responsible for a new ‘choir’ at Inchcolm and that he paid for it at his own expense. It is also recorded that in 1266 the bones of Bishops John, Richard and Gilbert were translated. At his death in 1272, Richard de Inverkeithing’s heart was buried at Inchcolm.

During the 14thc., Inchcolm was attacked and plundered several times by fleets of King Richard II of England. In the 15th century, the E end of the church appears to have been enlarged further, including N and S transepts, and further work on the cloisters and other priory buildings carried out. It is documented that in 1402, a chapel of the Blessed Virgin was established. In 1543 Abbot Henry resigned his office and no further building works for the religious house were undertaken. In 1547, the Duke of Somerset took occupation of the island, but in 1564 the island was deserted. The Town Council of Edinburgh purchased some of the stones from the abbey in 1581 to be re-used in a rebuilding of the Edinburgh Tollbooth.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses


Interior Features


Loose Sculpture


Stylistically, the carved decoration of the church would fit a date in the 2nd quarter of the 12th century, or mid-12th century at the latest.. On the basis of the known history of the abbey, the dating bracket for its first construction can reasonably be narrowed to the period 1124-1169. The 12thc. S doorway of the nave is partly obscured by the E wall of the later W cloister walk, suggesting that whatever the early doorway led to was a bit further east at that time.

There is also uncertainty about the date of the rood screen and pulpitum. Gifford gives a date of late-12th century, Fawcett (2002) about 1200, and Paterson early-13th century. The Royal Commission of Scotland inventory report states that the second chancel, built to the east of the earlier one, was constructed ‘before the close of the 12th century’, but that the rood and pulpitum were inserted alongside the 13th-century work on the E walk of the cloister. The S wall abutting the N end of the E walk and dormitory above it is generally considered to be late-12th century and is contiguous with the lower E wall of the tower. The larger E end, built in the later-13th century seems too late for the work on the E and W sides of the ground-floor of the tower. It seems not impossible, therefore, that the tower, along with the rood screen and pulpitum, was built when Walter was prior (about 1178-1210), though Paterson suggests the rood screen and pulpitum were only added after large donations were given to the priory in 1216.

A continuation of John Fordun’s 14th-century chronicle was written by Walter Bower in the 1440s. Bower was abbot of Inchcolm from 1417/18 until his death in 1449. The whole chronicle is now generally referred to as the Scotichronicon. Some believe that Bower was responsible for adding the story of King Alexander being driven onto the island in 1123.

  1. A. Anderson, Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers A.D. 500 to 1286 (London, 1908), 282, 320 and 327.

The Bannatyne Club, Registrum de Dunfermelyn (Edinburgh, 1842), 74 no. 124, 75 nos 126 and 127, 95-6 no. 167, and 215-6 no. 319.

The Bannatyne Club, Liber Cartarum Sancte Crucis (Edinburgh, 1840), xxiii.

I. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Edinburgh, 1967), 2.

J. Dowden, The Bishops of Scotland (Glasgow, 1912), 47-96.

E. Easson and A. MacDonald, eds, Charters of the Abbey of Inchcolm (Edinburgh, 1938).

R. Fawcett, Scottish Medieval Churches: Architecture & Furnishings (Stroud and Charleston, 2002), 75, 112, 228, 250, 283, 298-9, 309, 323 and 337.

R. Fawcett, The Architecture of the Scottish Medieval Church 1100-1560 (New Haven and London, 2011), 17-8, 94-5, 151 and 216-9.

R. Fawcett, D. McRoberts and F. Stewart, Inchcolm Abbey and Island, Historic Scotland Guide (Edinburgh, 1998).

J. Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland: Fife (New Haven and London, 2003), 241-6.

Historic Environment Scotland, Canmore, https://canmore.org.uk (accessed 28/01/1922).

J. Lang, ‘Hogback Monuments in Scotland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 105 (Edinburgh, 1973), 209-11, 220, 221-2 and 227.

D. MacGibbon and T. Ross, The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, 2 (Edinburgh, 1886), 307-30.

D. MacGibbon and T. Ross, The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, 4 (Edinburgh, 1892), 322-330.

J. MacKinlay, Ancient Church Dedications in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1914), 42.

J. Paterson, ‘The Development of Inchcolm Abbey’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 60 (5th series: 12) (Edinburgh, 1927), 227-53.

W. Robertson, ‘Inchcolm Abbey, Fife: Fragments of an Early Christian Cross-slab’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 89 (Edinburgh, 1958), 447-9.

W. Ross, Aberdour and Inchcolme in Twelve Lectures (Edinburgh, 1885).

The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions of Scotland, Eleventh Report with Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Counties of Fife, Kinross, and Clackmannan (Edinburgh, 1933), 6-15.

W. Skene, ed., Johannis de Fordun, Chronica Gentis Scotorum, 1 (Edinburgh, 1871), 227-8.