A Desktop Excavation of Tòrr an Aba
The isle of Iona was inhabited by humans long before Columba arrived in AD 563 with twelve disciples (Seyfried 1996). Situated on a rocky crag on the western side of Iona sits Dun Cul Bhuirg, an Iron Age prehistoric hillfort that was listed as a scheduled monument in 1998 (HES, cited in Ancientmonuments.uk). Excavations between 1957 and 1959 and again in 1969, unearthed “extensive occupation debris including sherds of Clettraval ware” indicating occupation some time during the first three centuries AD (Canmore.org.uk. 2020). Also on the west side, Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeological Services for The National Trust for Scotland, described how charcoal from a pit section exposed by beach erosion was radiocarbon dated to the Late Bronze Age, the first datable evidence for prehistoric activity on the island outside of the abbey (Alexander 2011). And more recently, in 2016, the remains of what is thought to be a prehistoric village was uncovered during the building of an extension at Iona’s primary school (Merritt 2016).
Nevertheless, it was Columba who transformed Iona from a simple island backwater to a European centre for Christian thought (HES 2019, p. 2). From a “few wattled huts” (Wentworth in Adomnán 1906, p. 245), to an abbey that was a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland (HES 2019, p. 2), Iona is the best-preserved early monastery in Britain including a multi-period vallum that not only forms part of the early monastic enclosure but predates Columba by at least 500 years (HES 2019, pp. 4-6). Even so, it is Columba’s simple hut that Adomnán mentions several times in his biography, The Life of Saint Columba, that captured the hearts and imagination of both mystics and archaeologists and fired their yearning to find its exact location. This paper focuses on one location in particular: Tòrr an Aba.
Martin Martin was a native Gaelic speaker from Skye who, in the 1690s, explored and mapped the Western Isles of Scotland (Undiscoveredscotland.co.uk 2020). During his exploration of Iona, he noted that just passed the abbey’s St. Martin’s Cross “is Dun Ni Munich, i.e., Monks Fort, built of stone and lime, in (the) form of a bastion, pretty high. From this eminence the monks had a view of all the families in the Isle, and at the same time enjoyed the free Air” (Martin 1703, p. 260).
It is clear from this passage that Martin is speaking about Tòrr an Aba, the “eminence” of rock that rises 7.5 metres above the ground 50m west of the Abbey (Fowler & Fowler 1989, p. 1). Tòrr an Aba is a “natural outcrop of granitic Lewisian gneiss” fronted on its east by a gently
sloping plateau of beach on which stands lona Abbey (Barber 1981, p. 282). Indeed, this was confirmed by Ritchie & Ritchie (1934, cited in Canmore.org.uk. 2020).
Tòrr an Aba,‘the mound of the abbot’, traditionally associated with Columba’s writing hut, faces east and toward what would have been the west end of the early church. From this vantage point, Columba could oversee the monastery as well as ships coming into the strait between Iona and Mull (See Figure 2) (HES 2019, p. 6).
Figure 2 Tòrr an Aba: location map (Fowler & Fowler 1989, p.3).
Of course, any examination of Columba’s writing cell rightfully begins with Adomnán; for it is through his biography of Columba that we come to know of the hut’s existence. Searching for clues in the passages that contain references to Columba’s hut can offer a glimpse into its purpose and possible whereabouts.
The first reference to Columba’s hut is found in Book I, chapter XXV: “and the Saint, sitting in his little hut, which rested on a wooden floor, hearing the shout, says, ‘The man who is shouting beyond the strait is not a man of refined sentiment, for to-day he will upset and spill my inkhorn’” (Adomnán 1906, p. 49). From this passage, we learn:
- Columba’s hut was “little”
- that it rested on a “wooden floor”
- that it faced east toward “the man beyond the strait” and
- that the incident with the spilled inkhorn indicates Columba used the hut for writing since, presumedly, the inkhorn was filled with ink
Wentworth adds that this hut is “Columba’s own cell, probably of boards or wattles… built on an eminence and was raised from the ground perhaps on tree-stumps or boards and was reached by a few steps” (Adomnán 1906, p. 49).
In chapter XXXV, we learn that the hut is big enough for two people to sit side-by-side (Adomnán 1906, p. 61) and in Book II, chapter XVI, Adomnán notes “the hut in which the blessed man was writing” (Adomnán 1906, p. 122), confirming its purpose as a place for Columba to write, and again in Book III, chapter XV: “At another time, while the holy man was sitting writing in his little hut…” (Adomnán 1906, p. 209).
An interesting incident that may give us clues about the entrance to Columba’s hut occurs in Book III, chapter XXII. Adomnán relates how Columba is overtaken by joy followed by sadness when two men “who were standing at the time at the door of his hut, which was built on a somewhat raised spot” inquired as to the meaning of his change of demeanour (Adomnán 1906, pp. 221—223). As these were the only two people present with Columba and thus, were the only ones who could have reported the change in Columba’s expression, this means that the hut’s door was either open or, more likely, that the hut had no door at all.
Until Charles Thomas’s unpublished excavations on Iona between 1956 and 1963, earlier “haphazard campaigns of excavation” (O’Sullivan, cited in ScARF 2017) treated Iona “particularly badly” especially when considering its European significance (O’Sullivan, cited in Campbell & Batey 2017). In 1956, Thomas, a graduate student at the University of Oxford, decided to investigate a cross-base on the summit of Tòrr an Aba that was last seen in the late 19th century (Dryden MS 7, cited in Fowler & Fowler 1988, p. 181). During the excavation, Thomas uncovered a “three-step” plinth with a socketed cross base having an east-west orientation (See Figure 4) (Fowler & Fowler 1988, p. 182).
During the excavation, Thomas noted that the cross base was lying on top of further masonry. In 1957, further examination revealed how the western side of Tòrr an Aba had been built up as if to expand the summit. Beginning at the cross base where the masonry was seen, Thomas eventually uncovered the burned remains of a wattle hut, a relatively small enclosure with an east facing entrance and what looked to be a chair and a table or couch (See Figure 5) (Fowler & Fowler 1988, pp. 187, 192—196).
The site record for these excavations was published in 1988 by Elizabeth and PJ Fowler who were Thomas’s site supervisors during both years (1956, 1957) (Fowler & Fowler 1988, p. 181). They offered that the crux of the problem was determining the function and purpose of the structure. Did the name Tòrr an Aba, “the mound of the Abbot”, offer a clue? Could this be Columba’s hut Adomnán refers to in The Life of St. Columba?
In 1982, in regard to any assertions that the structure might be Columba’s, the RCAHMS (Royal Commission on the Ancient Historical Monuments of Scotland) wrote “the claim must be regarded as doubtful”. They ascertained that Thomas “conflated” Columba’s sleeping quarters and writing area into one building (RCAHMS 1982, p. 40), contrary to Adomnán’s description. The Fowlers, however, wrote that they, nor Professor Thomas, had ever made such a conflation and that they had been “acutely aware of the documentary evidence of the two buildings at the time of the excavation” (Fowler & Fowler 1988, p. 201).
Figure 5 Plan of the structure atop Tòrr an Aba after it was excavated and its relation to the cross base (Fowler & Fowler 1989, p. 189). Note the east facing “entrance” that could have also served as a window.
At the time of the excavations, radiocarbon dating was still in its infancy, so Thomas stored the finds in his garage for over 60 years, including bits of charcoal from Tòrr an Aba (Campbell & Maldonado 2020). However, in 2012, Thomas, now 84, gave his Iona archive to Historic Scotland. This proved to be a major breakthrough as radiocarbon dating methods confirmed that “two samples of hazel charcoal from the hut dated from between AD 540 and AD 650, likely to be from the lifetime of St Columba”. As Archaeology Project Support Officer Adrián Maldonado said, “Later marked by a cross (the cross base excavated by Thomas), the hut was almost certainly his” (Maldonado 2017).
With a radiocarbon date range that encompasses Columba’s life, we can now reconsider both the archaeological evidence as well as Adomnán’s biographical passages. In regard to the archaeological evidence:
- Tòrr an Aba:
- has revetting on the east and west sides creating a “levelled” summit (Canmore.org.uk. 2020)
- sits roughly 50 meters from the present-day Abbey, which, itself is built upon the earlier monastery (HES 2019)
- affords an eastern view over what would be the early monastery as well as the strait between Iona and Mull
- Structure situated on top of Tòrr an Aba:
- small square cell with a scooped interior and low stone walls carefully matched to irregularities in the rock (Canmore.org.uk. 2020)
- suggest a wall only a few feet high supporting a wigwam type roof of wood, turf and heather thatch (Canmore.org.uk. 2020)
- entrance/opening facing east
- Interior of structure (Canmore.org.uk. 2020):
- a broad slab of rock serving as possible seat or bed
- three shaped granite stones that must have supported a table-top of stone or wood
Considering the archaeological evidence in light of Adomnán’s account, we can determine: that two people could sit beside one another because of the two “furniture structures” excavated in the interior of the cell, i.e., the broad slab of rock and the chair-like support created by the three pieces of granite; that Columba could look out over the water to the land “beyond”; and that the size of the cell easily fit Adomnán’s description.
In light of the available evidence, it seems very likely, indeed, that the remains excavated by Charles Thomas atop Tòrr an Aba were indeed Columba’s “writer’s hut”.
In its “Statement of Significance for the Iona Abbey”, Historic Environment Scotland highlights the importance of the cardinal directions to early Christians. HES says that understanding the symbolic and physical placement of the high crosses within the “evolving Iona landscape” is something which should be further studied. For example, the west face of a cross would be the front as “Christians pray facing east in expectation of the risen Christ” (HES 2019, p. 19). Would this not also be important to Columba?
The structure atop Tòrr an Aba has an opening/entrance facing east. In at least two passages from The Life of Saint Columba, Columba hears and speaks to people standing outside the entrance. This is an indication, in this author’s view, that no door was present in order to afford Columba, and anyone else inside, a constant view of the monastery, the eastern horizon and the rising sun. All three of these would hold a spiritual significance to someone like Columba.
Figure 7 Aerial view showing Tòrr an Aba and the Iona Abbey and monastery (RCAHMS 1982, p. 50).
In closing, the Regional Archaeological Research Framework for Argyll (ScARF 2017) mentions how the example of Iona illustrates a number of themes highlighted in the RARFA Framework:
- lack of a coherent research plan damaged an archaeological resource of international importance
- even modern non-invasive survey techniques can enhance our understanding of a site
- examining and re-examining old excavation finds and archives stashed in museums and storage facilities can produce important information, especially when utilising new technology
- even well-known sites can still provide information when approached in innovative ways
In the end, Charles Thomas’s attention to detail and propensity to store excavation material for a later day, revealed a bonanza when, after 60 years, technological advances in radiocarbon dating dated Thomas’s charcoal finds to the life of Columba. This has had a positive emotional and spiritual impact on the story of Iona and the people who visit, live and work there. Though perhaps not beyond all “shadows of doubt”, it is very close. And this benefits all of us.
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Figure 8 St. Columba, © Daniel Mitsui (Mitsui)
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 Barber hints that “the tradition of Columba’s arrival with a company of twelve followers owes more to biblical allusion than numerical accuracy” (Barber 1982, p. 356).