The missing library of Iona

THE ISLAND of Iona off the west coast of Scotland is steeped in ancient lore and mystery. Known internationally as the monastic birthplace of Scottish religion, it is a place of pilgrimage and deep spirituality.

St Columba landed there in 563 AD with 13 followers and established a monastery. This isolated island, off the south-western tip of Mull, was soon to become the intellectual powerhouse of the medieval world.

There are those who say that Columba didn't choose this island by accident, but that it is a place which has magnetically attracted spiritual seekers since before the birth of Christ. To them this island is a special place thought to have been the repository of many ancient items and many ancient mysteries.

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They believe that Iona once housed an incredible library and held the most extraordinary books known to man. Think Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose or the recent international best-seller The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason and consider that a hunt for hidden knowledge and elusive manuscripts could actually be very real.

Pre-Columba the island was sometimes referred to as Innis nam Druidneach, the Isle of Druids. Old stories record St Columba and his followers fighting off the local Druid elders when they landed to take possession of the island.

This version of history sees fifth-century Druids escaping persecution from Imperial Rome and finding sanctuary on the outer wilds of civilisation. There, it is said, they founded a library – which if true would be extraordinary, as the Druids were not known as a people who wrote down their teachings.

The impact that finding this library would have on our interpretation of history would be explosive. But as revelatory as this would be, it gets even better.

Another story attached to the island suggests that as well as housing the written records of the Druids it was also home to books from the greatest library in Europe.

Scottish history is a murky puddle. Few records exist for the first half of the first millennium. Stories, myths and half-truths cloud this period and a consensus is impossible to find.

Yet some histories have King Fergus II joining forces with Alaric the Goth to fight the Roman Empire during its decline and fall. This version of history reports that when Rome fell in 410 AD Fergus II was not only there, but carried off books from the plundered libraries of that once great city. These books would have been marvellous: illuminated religious manuscripts, books from the ancient Greek philosophers and ancient Persians. This treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom was said to have been brought back by Fergus and taken to Iona for safekeeping in the Druidic library.

If this library were ever found it would be historical dynamite.

Unfortunately for such a potentially great story, there isn't a lot of historical proof. Dr William Ferguson, author of The Identity of the Scottish Nation, doesn't think it terribly likely.

"This is a tradition, a tale, there is no proof," says Ferguson "There may have been such books, but if they did exist, then they've vanished. Nobody's ever been able to prove or disprove it."

Yet there was one historian who gave credence to the presence of ancient manuscripts on the island. Hector Boece, a 14th century Scottish philosopher, claimed he wrote his book History of the Scottish People based on a mysterious tome that he found on Iona.

However, few historians give credence to Boece's book, regarding him as something of a Walter Mitty character. There is a serious question mark over whether Boece really found books on Iona or whether he made up his history.

Whilst historians are not exactly queuing up to support the Druidic/ancient Roman library, there does still remain a mystery to be solved.

When Columba established his first Celtic church on Iona in the sixth century he established a scriptorium. Dr E Mairi MacArthur, author of Columba's Island: Iona from Past to Present, is convinced that books would have been produced there from his time.

"The monastic library must have been there from Columba. All the monasteries had monks scribbling away," says MacArthur.These monks worked tirelessly illuminating manuscripts and copying and writing poetry. One only has to look to the greatest surviving example from Iona – the Book of Kells, currently at Trinity College, Dublin – to imagine the treasures that were housed here. Such was the quality of the work done on Iona that at its height it became one of the greatest centres of learning in Dark Age Europe.

And here lies the final enigma. The Book of Kells may have survived, but what happened to the other books? Many historians think they were destroyed in the ninth century during Viking raids, but MacArthur for one is not so sure.

"The idea goes that the monks must have had books, the Vikings came and the books have disappeared, ergo the Vikings took or destroyed the books," she says.

MacArthur thinks it is much more likely that the books travelled between Iona and Ireland, or perhaps even further afield. Or there is the possibility that they were hidden for safekeeping.

St Andrews University archaeology students certainly thought they had been hidden. In the 1950s they conducted a dig on the Treshnish Islands, near to Iona, in search of the lost books. They found nothing. But who knows if they could still be there, a hidden cache of history and knowledge that, if found, might possibly represent the most important find of our time.

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