Scientists reveal Iona ruin dates from time of St Columba

The structure was discovered at the saints ancient monastery on the island of Iona 60 years ago. Picture: Robert Perry/TSPL
The structure was discovered at the saints ancient monastery on the island of Iona 60 years ago. Picture: Robert Perry/TSPL
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The remains of a wooden hut where St Columba is believed to have prayed and studied more than 1,400 years ago has finally been proven to date from his lifetime, in what archaeologists have hailed as a “massive” breakthrough.

The structure was discovered at the saint’s ancient monastery on the island of Iona 60 years ago, but the samples of hazel charcoal recovered by researchers at the time have only now been carbon dated using modern techniques.

The results of the tests show that the wooden hut, believed to be where St Columba spent much of his time in isolation, was built between 540AD and 650AD – the same period that he lived at the monastery in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.

St Columba is credited with introducing Christianity to Scotland, travelling from Ireland and landing on Iona in 563AD. The famous abbey he founded on the island is still a popular site of Christian pilgrimage.

The Life of St Columba, written 100 years after his death by his successor Adomnan, describes how the monk would spend hours writing in his wooden “cell” on a rocky hillock called Torr an Aba, or “the mound of the abbot”.

In 1957, archaeologist Professor Charles Thomas excavated a series of wooden samples which he believed were the remains of Columba’s writing hut. But with carbon dating technology still in its infancy, for years they lay untested in matchboxes in his garage in Cornwall.

The samples were recently submitted for testing by a team of archaeologists at the University of Glasgow, who said the results provided the first clear-cut evidence that Prof Thomas had been correct in his assumption.

“This discovery is massive,” said Dr Adrián Maldonado, one of the leaders of the project. “Thomas always believed he and his team had uncovered Columba’s original wooden hut, but they could never prove it.”

Professor Thomas Clancy, a Celtic and Gaelic historian at the university, described the results of the carbon dating as “nothing short of exhilarating”.

He said: “The remains on top of Torr an Aba had been dismissed as from a much later date. Now we know they belonged to a structure which stood there in Columba’s lifetime. The dates...make it pretty clear that this was St Columba’s day or writing house. From here, he oversaw the day-to-day activities of his monastery.”

When the site was initially excavated, the carbonised remains of the wattle walls of a small hut were unearthed below layers of loose pebbles, suggesting the wooden structure had burned down and the area filled over. The site was later marked with a cross.