Iona in the Viking Age: laying a ‘zombie narrative’ to rest

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The traditional story of Iona’s early medieval monastery ends in tragedy and bloodshed, with the religious community wiped out by vicious Viking raiders. Increasingly, though, the archaeological and historical evidence does not support this persistent narrative, as Adrián Maldonado, Ewan Campbell, Thomas Owen Clancy, and Katherine Forsyth report.

Iona was the most famous of all early ‘Celtic’ island monasteries, founded by St Columba in AD 563 off the west coast of Scotland. It was known across Europe as a seat of learning and centre of artistic output of the highest order, playing a central role in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons and Picts. And if you know anything else about Iona, it is probably that the religious community was brought to a sudden and catastrophic end by the Vikings, who subjected the monastery to a series of violent raids from 795 to 825.

Despite these attacks, though, the monastery was never abandoned. There is a wealth of evidence for the survival, and indeed flourishing, of the monastic community on Iona in the following decades and centuries. Yet the Iona story always seems to close with the blood-red curtain of the Viking raids. So compelling is this version of history, it persists in the face of an increasing body of evidence from history, archaeology, and art.

Geophysical survey over the medieval monastery’s vallum, north-west of Iona Abbey and its shrine chapel. PHOTO: Peter Yeoman.

The Viking-induced downfall of Iona is what we call a ‘zombie narrative’, the kind of revenant story that continues to rise from the dead every time it is laid to rest. Not only does it refuse to die, it is still nibbling at our brains. It has become an institutionalised blindness that prevents a proper understanding of the early medieval past, by upholding an outdated, even cartoonish, image of both the Vikings and the early monasteries they looted.

Iona in the early Viking Age

There is no doubting that violent attacks took place on Iona – the first raid was in 795 and others followed in 802 and 806, when 68 monks were slaughtered – but these shocks did not lead to the abandonment of the monastery. An influential community of scholars remained on the island, suffering another Viking raid in 825. Several objects scattered across Europe, from a bronze finial found in a wealthy female grave at Gausel, Rogaland, to a crosier at Helgö, Sweden, have been argued to have come from the looted shrine of St Columba. The 825 raid in particular sent shockwaves as far as the Carolingian monastery of Reichenau, where the scholar Walahfrid Strabo was moved to write a poem about the martyrdom of Blathmac of Iona. His melodramatic account has only fuelled traditions of Iona’s tragic fate, with some arguing that the monastery never recovered, its population reduced to a skeleton staff of hardcore hermits.

This 9th-century crosier head, found at Helgö, Sweden, is thought to have been looted from the shrine of St Columba on Iona. Although this island monastery endured repeated Viking raids, though, recent research indicates that traditional narratives of the community’s bloody destruction are too simplistic. PHOTO: Swedish History Museum

It is clear, however, that the monastery went on: contemporary historical sources continue to name senior church personnel on the island, including bishops, abbots, and the head of the scriptorium. Despite this evidence for institutional continuity, that persistent zombie narrative holds that the island monastery, located on the main sea-road through from Orkney to Ireland, was simply too exposed to Viking attacks to survive. This narrative has found its way deep into other corners of the discipline, most notably regarding the Book of Kells, where arguments against its production on Iona revolve mainly around the stock image of a monastery under relentless attack.

It is true that in the 9th century, relics of Columba were taken from Iona to two new daughter houses, Dunkeld and Kells, lying far inland in Scotland and Ireland. The zombie narrative tells us that this was for safekeeping from the insatiable Vikings. If so, the strategy failed miserably: Dunkeld was raided almost as soon as it was founded, in the reign of Cináed mac Ailpín (r. 842-858), and again in 878 and 903, while Kells was subjected to raids in 906, 920, 970, and 997 (and that’s just those in the 10th century). Ironically, Iona had no recorded raids for over 160 years during this same period, despite having numerous other mentions in the annals.

The zombie narrative stems from two historical accidents. The first is that the source material for the Annals of Ulster, one of our primary records of events, had by the late 8th century shifted from being a chronicle kept on Iona to one kept in Ireland. Reporting of all events in western Scotland was less consistent thereafter. But we still have recorded events on Iona, so we should not imagine a complete blackout. The second is a misunderstanding of what happened within the wider family of St Columba’s monasteries in the 9th century. The assumption is that all of the relics of Columba were removed, permanently demoting Iona from acting as the centre of the saint’s cult. The daughter houses of Iona had fanned out across Britain and Ireland to such an extent that these wealthy monasteries ended up in territories of rival kings. This led to factionalism within the familia of Columba, in which the prestigious title of the coarb, the headship, was aggressively contested. Their claims often rested on who had the most authentic relics of the saint.

Even though the headship of the familia did eventually wind up in the former daughter house of Derry in the 12th century, Columba’s tomb and relics remained on the island. Iona abbots were recorded transporting (and returning) relics in the 9th century, and the shrine continued to attract pilgrims, including royal visits down to King Magnus Barelegs of Norway in the late 11th century. While it was never the burial place of all kings of Scots (a zombie narrative for another day!), Iona continued to be favoured for the burial of Gaelic-Norse kings such as Amlaíb Cuarán – also known as Óláfr Sigtryggsson – in 980 and Guðrøðr Óláfsson in 1188. It also remained a focus for wealthy patronage: the high cross known as St Matthew’s dates to the 9th/10th century, and the 12th-century St Oran’s Chapel is one of the earliest examples of Romanesque architecture in Argyll (see CA 378 for more on the high crosses of Iona).

St Matthew’s Cross, one of the high crosses of Iona, is thought to date to the 9th or 10th century. It reflects how high-status patronage continued to benefit Iona during the Viking Age. PHOTO: Peter Yeoman

Archaeological evidence, old and new

For a long time, there were very few – albeit highly evocative – finds from Iona dating to the 9th-12th centuries. Most notable among them were a fragment discovered in 1962 of a cross-slab bearing an Old Norse runic inscription, and a silver hoard of Viking Age character discovered in 1950. Both belong to a period of time when Iona jumped back into the political arena, and when we begin to get more notices of it in the Irish annals. Most notably, Amlaíb Cuarán, King of York and Dublin, was defeated at the Battle of Tara in 980 and subsequently went on ‘pilgrimage’ (or forced exile) to Iona; he died and was presumably buried here later that year. In 986, a Danish war-party that had been ravaging northern Ireland sacked Iona, but this was no ‘Viking’ raid like those of the previous century: the events of the 980s were part of a struggle for succession in Ireland that involved attacking rival monasteries.

Three fragments of gold and silver from the Iona Hoard a cache of Viking Age character deposited c.986 and excavated in 1950. PHOTO: Trustees of National Museums Scotland.

The Iona Hoard seems to be a product of these events. It is dated to c.986 on the basis of its coins, and was deposited just north of what is now the medieval cloister, at the heart of the early monastery. It contained 363 silver coins, together with some fragments of gold and silver, a characteristic mixed hoard of the late 10th century. The majority of the coins were English, but there were also some of the earliest coins from Normandy to appear in Scotland, Carolingian coins nearly a century old at the time of deposition, and even coins of Amlaíb Cuarán himself from when he was king in York. Some of the earlier coins are bent, a sign of testing for silver quality, which alongside three fragments of silver and gold, are characteristic of the bullion economy of the Viking Age kingdom of Man and the Isles. Two centuries after the first raid, the monastery was still a major pilgrimage destination and prestigious burial place for the Norse-Gaelic elite, the descendants perhaps of those early raiders. What had happened on Iona in the intervening 200 years?


This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 381. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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