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Inchcolm Abbey

Abbey (Medieval)

Site Name Inchcolm Abbey

Classification Abbey (Medieval)

Canmore ID 50895

Site Number NT18SE 7

NGR NT 18973 82656

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Fife
  • Parish Aberdour (Dunfermline)
  • Former Region Fife
  • Former District Dunfermline
  • Former County Fife

Archaeology Notes

NT18SE 7 18973 82656.

(NT 1897 8265) Remains of Abbey (NR) (Augustinian - founded AD 1123)

OS 6"map, Fife (1967).

The Augustinian Abbey at Inchcolm, which may well have been erected over a Celtic settlement, was founded by Alexander I about 1123, and erected from a priory into an Abbey in 1235. The substantial ruins, which are fully described in the Official Guide book (J W Paterson 1950), date from the 12thc, with frequent additions and alterations up to the 15thc. The abbey and its lands were secularised in 1609.

D E Easson 1957; S Cruden 1960; J W Paterson 1950.

Inchcolm Abbey, as described, is in an excellent state of preservation.

Visited by OS(AC) 11 March 1959

Excavation in advance of a drain trench showed that the N wall of the 13th century chapter house belonged to an earlier building lying to the N. To the S fragmentary walls suggested buildings lying to the S of the chapter house and E of the gateway.

J Wordsworth 1984.

A watching brief was kept by Scotia Archaeology Ltd during the excavation of two pits to house bioplus treatment tanks: one (Trench 1) adjacent to the visitor centre; the other (Trench 2) against the custodian's house.

In Trench 1, 0.4m of modern materials overlay a deposit of massive boulders, some of them cement-bonded, which formed the rear of the modern sea wall. Below 0.3m of topsoil in Trench 2 was a thick layer of clayey soil containing animal bones and winkle shells but no oyster shells (which had been numerous in the topsoil). The lower deposit may have been midden material associated with the nearby abbey although more extensive investigation would be needed to confirm this.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland.

R Murdoch 1996

Architecture Notes


National Library 'Uncatalogued MSS of General Hutton

Vol 1 No 14 - plan of the monastery of Incholm

Vol 1 No 13 - 2 views of 1784 & plan of island dated 1822


Excavation (1925 - 1929)

Excavations by the Office of Works.

Field Visit (3 August 1928)

Inchcolm Abbey.

The island of Inchcolm, less than 20 acres in extent, lies in the Firth of Forth at a distance of five furlongs from the coast of Fife. On it are the extensive remains of an Augustinian abbey. Owing to the isolated situation they are unusually complete, notwithstanding that a partial demolition took place in 1581, when the Town Council of Edinburgh, for the purpose of rebuilding the Tolbooth (1), purchased the ashlar and "thack stanes" of the Abbey, evidently those of the east end of the church.

The ruins, which are now under the guardianship of H.M. Office of Works, occupy a sheltered narrow isthmus connecting the high eastern promontory with the main part of the island. As the result of successive reconstructions, the plan is intricate, while it also presents some unusual features. In Vol. lx (1925-6) of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland is a detailed analysis by Mr. J. Wilson Paterson of the development of the buildings, accompanied by historical ground-plans based on investigation by H.M. Office of Works. Free use has been made of that account in the preparation of this article.

[see RCAHMS 1933, 6-15 for a detailed architectural description and historical note]

RCAHMS 1933, visited 3 August 1928.

(1) Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1573-1589, pp. 204, 210.

Aerial Photography (1966)

Oblique aerial photographs of Inchcolm Abbey photographed by John Dewar in 1966.

Excavation (1984 - 1986)

Excavation in advance of a drain trench showed that the N wall of the 13th century chapter house belonged to an earlier building lying to the N. To the S fragmentary walls suggested buildings lying to the S of the chapter house and E of the gateway.

J Wordsworth 1984.

Publication Account (1987)

Inchcolm housed a religious community long before the establishment of a monastery in the early 12th century. The early inhabitants were hermits devoted to the guardianship of a holy place whose reputation for sanctity stemmed from its links with St Colm, identified with St Columba, the 6th century abbot of Iona. The hermits probably lived in the simple stone cell which survives to the west of the medieval monastery but in an apparently 14th or 15th century restored form. On a knoll beyond the cell there is a fine, though weathered, example of a hogback tombstone; four rows of tegulae, or roof-tiles, are carved along the sides and a great beast's head adorns either end. Dating to the mid 10th century, this is probably the earliest hogback to survive in Scotland.

The Inchcolm hermitage received regal recognition in 1123 when Alexander I and some of his courtiers were storm-bound on the island for three days. During this enforced visit the hermit sheltered them and shared his scanty provisions. Alexander made plans to establish a monastic settlement but these were interrupted by the King's death the following year. It is not known when the first Augustinian canons settled there but the earliest surviving charter relating to the monastery dates from about 1162-9. The mid 13th century saw a period of relative prosperity although it did come under periodic attack during the Wars of Independence. After the Reformation, no new canons were admitted and the last document relating to the monastery dates to 1578. The isolated position of the island is largely responsible for the fine state of preservation of the buildings.

Inchcolm creates in the mind of the visitor an unusually clear and vivid impression of monastic life, despite the fact that the surviving structures belong to several periods of building and modification. The polygonal chapter-house was built in the 13th century and represents a design fashionable in England but used only three times in Scotland (another example may be seen at Elgin, Moray, and the third was at Holyrood in Edinburgh but no longer exists). It has a fine ribbed and vaulted ceiling, and the stone seating for the monks still lines the walls. The chapter-house is incorporated into one side of a 14th century cloister, with its open court, covered cloister walk and seats for the monks in the window recesses in which they worked. The upper floor contains their living quarters, including a warming house with a fireplace over the chapter-house. The church has undergone much rebuilding and enlargement since its foundation in the 12th century. A rare feature is the fragment of 13th century wall-painting with clerical figures outlined in black, red and yellow, preserved by having been sealed behind masonry during a later extension of the church.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Fife and Tayside’, (1987).

Excavation (16 October 2002 - 18 October 2002)

Under the terms of its P.I.C. call-out contract with Historic Scotland, Kirkdale Archaeology was asked to undertake an archaeological investigation of the 1st World War defences on Inchcolm Island. This was carried out over the 16th-18th of October 2002. Work was carried out at two sites at opposite ends of the island (Areas 1& 2, Fig. 1). A watching brief was undertaken on the hill top to the E during a clearance operation by MCU personnel followed by a partial excavation of a gun emplacement overlooking the Forth in the SW quadrant.

Area 1 would comprise one of 4 WWI gun positions partly buried in the undergrowth along the high ridge on the SW edge of the island. The gun position would be designated Emplacement 2, counted from the W, and would be half sectioned and cleared before being photographed and drawn (Figs. 2& 4). The purpose of this work was to evaluate the condition of the gun positions with a view to their visitor potential.

Area 2 was to the E, on the highest point of the island, amongst a complex of partly demolished gun positions and military structures. The exact site of the work was an area of scrub and rubble against the E side of one of the buildings which hid the entrance to a 5m deep vertical shaft. The purpose of the shaft had been to connect the defenders on the hill to a WWI supply tunnel below. When the island’s defences had been decommissioned the shaft had been sealed over with large metal plates which in turn had been buried under an unknown depth of rubble.

The purpose of the archaeological presence in Area 2 was to monitor the work of the MCU personnel in digging away the rubble and fully exposing the top of the seal which it is believed may be starting to succumb to the weight of the overlying debris.

Area 1

The partial excavation of the gun emplacement on the SW edge of the island suggests that the main structure is broadly intact with relatively little degeneration of the concrete and brick. Clearing and exposing the upper sections of the emplacement would be an easy task requiring a simple turf removing exercise. The intramural chambers in the N wall could easily be cleared out to their full extent while the access on the N side of the structure would have to be located and re-established. The land against the N wall is a mass of debris and deliberate infill which presumably represents subsidiary buildings now flattened and spread about and which would require a certain amount of excavation and creative landscaping.

Area 2

The excavations over the top of the sealed shaft indicate that a full clearance of the shaft top would involve a significant effort of work which would require the shoring up of the metal sheets of the capping from below as well as the fencing off of an area which is totally unsupervised. The implications therefore for both workers and visitors will be not inconsiderable.

G Ewart 2002

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

Kirkdale Archaeology

Watching Brief (6 April 2004)

In April 2004 Kirkdale Archaeology conducted a short Watching Brief at the Abbey as a follow up to the excavations on the WW1 defences on the island from earlier in the year.

D Stewart 2004

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

Kirkdale Archaeology

External Reference (July 2010 - August 2010)

NT 18973 82656 This collection, which consists of a wide range of stones from arcades to window tracery, was assessed during July–August 2010. The arcade stones, of which there are four, form the springers for a series of arches. The profile of these stones is related to that of a string-course fragment, also in the collection. This string-course may have come from the chapter house exterior, and it is therefore possible that the arcade stones came from stalls on the interior of the chapter house.

A very unusual item was a mass dial, broken into two pieces. This has a series of incised radiating lines, and the remains of a gnomon in the centre. Although mass dials are well known in English churches they are relatively rare in Scotland.

This and other inventories of carved stones at Historic Scotland’s properties in care are held by Historic Scotland’s Collections Unit. For further information please contact

Mary Markus Archetype, 2010

Watching Brief (10 May 2010)

Under the terms of its PIC call-off contract with Historic Scotland, Kirkdale Archaeology was asked to undertake an archaeological watching brief during the digging of four trenches to house new sign boards on Inchcolm Island in the Firth of Forth. Though the trenches were shallow, the long history and multi-phase nature of occupation on the island meant that there was archaeological potential within them. A record was also made of the removal of the existing sign boards.

G Ewart 2010

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

Kirkdale Archaeology

Watching Brief (7 March 2018)

A pre-excavated cable trench was inspected and recorded by CFA. A further section of the trench was monitored under a watching brief. The remains of a randomly laid brick surface was identified under the existing path. No other features of archaeological significance were identified, likely due to the overall shallowness of the trench (up to 0.3m deep) and disturbance from wartime activities.

Information from Oasis (cfaarcha1-312823) 2 July 2018


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