Secrets of Scotland’s “second Iona” to be unearthed

Experts believe Lismore,  pictured here in the foreground, was a  major seat of ritual and power for more than 1,000 years. PIC: Ian Rutherford/TSPL.
Experts believe Lismore, pictured here in the foreground, was a major seat of ritual and power for more than 1,000 years. PIC: Ian Rutherford/TSPL.
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Archaeologists are to return to Lismore to work on a major seat of religious power with experts believing the tiny island was as historically important as the isle of Iona.

The island, in Loch Linnhe, Argyll, was a centre of ritual and power for more than 1,000 years but few records of its important role survives.

The parish church at Lismore which is formed of the choir of the original cathedral. The church is known as the Cathedral of St Moluag although today its congregation is Church of Scotland. PIC: Contributed.

The parish church at Lismore which is formed of the choir of the original cathedral. The church is known as the Cathedral of St Moluag although today its congregation is Church of Scotland. PIC: Contributed.

The island was home to a medieval cathedral, home of the Bishops of Argyll, which was built by Clan MacDougall in the 12th Century.

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It was also important centre for early Christianity with St Moluag settling on the island, a sacred place of the Picts, in the 6th Century.

He founded a large religious community on Lismore and created 100 monasteries across Scotland as part of the first wave of Christian evangelists.

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While a contemporary of St Columba, widely regarded as the man who spread Christianity across Scotland from his abbey on Iona, the importance of St Moluag remains relatively unknown, said Dr Clare Ellis, of Argyll Archaeology, who is leading the dig later this month.

Dr Ellis said: “I do an huge amount of work on Iona which as got this documented history and that modern fascination.

“I think in some ways Lismore, when you go there, is just as atmospheric and, as you can with Iona, you can really sense the history.

“In terms of the development of Christianity it is as just as important. Lismore is really on a parallel with Iona but it is just an unknown story.

“There has not been the same level of documentation or excavation carried out there.”

St Moluag is said to have staked his claim to Lismore by cutting off his finger and throwing it onto the island as he raced St Columba to the shore in a boat.

Despite its apparently remote location, Lismore - which today has a population of around 200 - was thought of as accessible at a time when most travel was conducted by boat.

Dr Ellis, who is working with Dr Robert Hay, archivist at Lismore Heritage Centre on the project, said it was ultimately hoped to uncover the remains of St Moluag’s monastery.

First, the project will focus on the remains of the medieval cathedral, considered to be one of the most important buildings of the era in the Western Isles but also one of the most poorly preserved.

Several medieval features have survived although it is believed the nave and tower have been ruinous from the 16th century onwards with the site now neglected.

Eighty skulls were found on a dig at the cathedral site in the 1950s with samples now being examined to determine the age of the remains.

A large number of bones, both animals and human, were discovered at the same site last year when the trenches opened during the earlier dig were re-examined.

Tests will be carried out on mortar used in the cathedral’s construction to give an accurate reading of when it was built.

It is hoped to expose and preserve the cathedral remains, open them up to the public and create an outline of the entire building to highlight the historical significance of the site.

Dr Ellis added: “The cathedral was likely to have been harled or white and would have looked quite dramatic in that part of Argyll at the time.

“Most of the buildings then would have been small and made from timber so the cathedral would have been quite an impressive site.”

The parish church of Lismore now stands on the cathedral site with the building still known as the Cathedral of St Moluag.