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Isle Of May, St Adrian's Chapel

Priory (13th Century)

Site Name Isle Of May, St Adrian's Chapel

Classification Priory (13th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Isle Of May Monastery; St Adrian's Priory; May Island;st Ethernan's Priory

Canmore ID 57873

Site Number NT69NE 1

NGR NT 6586 9902

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

C14 Radiocarbon Dating


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Fife
  • Parish Anstruther Wester
  • Former Region Fife
  • Former District North East Fife
  • Former County Fife

Archaeology Notes

NT69NE 1 6586 9902

(NT 6585 9901) Chapel (NR)

OS 6" map (1958)

The ruinous structure indicated as a chapel on OS plans is the sole surviving portion of the priory on the Isle of May. The ruin is the shell of an oblong building, lying roughly N-S, in which the only features with an ecclesiastical appearance are two lancet windows towards the W and the remains of a third in the N gable, all dating from about the 13th C. The windows are in the N end of the building, which was originally separated from the S end by a partition wall, and may have been the Priory Church or chapel. The structure was put to domestic use in the 16th C. Against the N gable was a building of two storeys, both vaulted, the upper storey communicating with a storey inserted in the main building. There has been another building on the S, while a circular tower, loopholed to the N and E, has been added to the SW angle.

Traditionally, St Adrian and a number of followers settled on the island and were slain by the Danes in 875, this establishing the sanctity of the place (RCAHMS 1933).

Watson (1926), however, states that the saint associated with the Isle of May is St Itharnan (d.669).

There are many problems in the history of the Priory. It has generally been assumed, in accordance with statements in records of 1292-3, that the Priory was founded by David I, who is said to have granted it to Reading Abbey. This probably took place after 1135 when Henry I, King David's brother-in-law, was buried at Reading. It is described as Cluniac in 1219, Benedictine in January 1257-8 and Cluniac in February of the same year. This compares with Reading, which is occasionally mentioned as Cluniac after it became specifically Benedictine. From c. 1270, the priory's history presents a series of complications and discrepancies. It passed to St Andrews by 1318, and in 1549-50 the Prior of Pittenweem granted a lease of the Isle of May, said to be lying waste (see also NO50SW 5).

RCAHMS 1933, visited 1927; D E Easson 1957

The chapel measures 11.3m NNW-SSE by 6.3m and is as generally described. Within its walls and lying displaced on the ground is a roughly dressed font of which the hollow is well-formed.

Resurveyed at 1/10 000.

Visited by OS (JM), 1 October 1975.

Architecture Notes


Remains of Augustinian Priory of May and Pittenweem before transference to the mainland.


Excavation (1992 - 1996)

Trial excavations undertaken by GUARD took place at St Adrian's Priory in 1992 where a geophysical survey had been carried out as part of the Bradford University survey (NT69NE 9), and had identified two ranges below ground apart from the standing W range. The N range was found to be 15m in length aligned E to W and is presumed to be the priory church constructed in the late 12th century. This would originally have housed St Adrian's shrine. Buried walls stood in places to a height of 1m, and excavations ceased this season at construction levels exhibiting signs of considerable burning. The S range was also investigated, which would also appear to have considerable preservation below ground and is in-filled with demolition debris. Just to the N of the church, a well-laid late medieval roadway was found leading up from the harbour. To the N of this a single trial trench was cut to a depth of 2m, through a cairn of fist-sized beach cobbles. This cairn, which may be 30m wide, was in fact the monastic burial ground. Three extended human inhumations were revealed buried under this layered cairn. The cairn may have origins in the early Christian period, going back possibly to the time of St Adrian in the 9th century or even earlier.

The presrvation of the small unusual Priory site is extremely good, and large quantities of finds mainly of late medieval date were uncovered.

H James and P Yeoman 1992.

The second season of excavations took place during August 1993. Two main areas were excavated, within the S range and the 12th-century priory church. The latter was found to measure internally 13.0m by 5.2m. In places up to 1m depth of sealed deposits were excavated and removed, including distrubed floor surfaces containing pottery ranging in date from 12-14th centuries. Three burials were found originally under floor surfaces. One burial, quite centrally located close to the high altar at the E end, was found with part of a scallop shell in its mouth. This individual has been identified as a young adult male. Examples have been found elsewhere in Europe where scallop shells have been buried with those who made the pilgrimage to the shrine of St James the Great at Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain. Burial in the church seemed to have ceased in the 14th century when the evidence suggests that the church was demolished. A stone-built two-roomed workshop was inserted, probably in the 16th century, while the walls were partly ruinous but still standing to a reasonable height in places. The W room of the workshop contained an iron furnace and quenching trough. The S wall of the church was robbed to provide construction material for the workshop. The workshop was in use at the same time as the standing W range of the priory was converted into a strongly defended private house.

First evidence of existence of an E range was found with walls abutting the SE part of the monastic church.

In the S range up to 2m in depth of the rubble was removed to reveal mortared surfaces and drains. The complete extent of the S range is yet to be revealed.

This project is led jointly by Fife Regional Council and Scottish Natural heritage. The Archaeological Team and post-excavation facilities are provided by Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division.

H James and P Yeoman 1993.

Excavations continued for a third season in 1994. Attention was focused on the Chapter House and the Cemetery. The Chapter House was a rectangular structure with walls cl.10m wide, measuring 14.80m long and 5.20m wide internally. Two drum-shaped column bases of probable late 12th-century date were still in situ in the centre of the building. These were surrounded by demolition debris which contained whole roof tiles, window glass, lead cames and other architectural fragments. The floor level of the Chapter House was not reached.

The Chapter House, like the church, had been re-modelled probably in the 16th century when the W range was converted into a secular residence. A range of outhouses/workshops were built partly re-using the monastic walls. A small bowl furnace also dates from this period.

The cemetery N of the church was examined. The top lm of soil was removed by machine. Twenty-four extended inhumations were investigated, some of these were disturbed and therefore no longer articulated. Several pockets of disarticulated bones and individually buried skulls were also found.

There were two groups of burials. Those in the S, nearest the church, were aligned between 70-90 degrees from magnetic N, on much the same alignment as the 12th-century church. These had probably been buried within wooden coffins. These graves were cut into, and some were also covered over by, large beach cobbles and angular stones forming a cairn, in places over 1m in depth. At the W edge, the burial cairn appeared to be sealed by late medieval paving, which incorporated the upper half of a rotary quern.

The second group of burials were found in long cists, associated with white quartz pebbles. The graves were cut into the raised beach deposit and lined with orthostats. There were three lines of burials suggesting that the cemetery was originally well laid out. The alignment of these burialswere between 60-70 degrees from the magnetic N. The burials were covered with a layer of shell sand and periwinkles. Only three burials had cover slabs surviving. The best preserved long cist contained at least four successive burials. The pockets of disarticulated bones were possibly caused by the re-use of cists but may also have been burials of defleshed bones, perhaps of people who had died elsewhere, and were brought to the island for burial.

The project is jointly led by Fife Regional Council and Scottish Natural Heritage. The archaeological team and post-excavation facilities are provided by Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division.

H James and P Yeoman 1994.

The fourth season of excavations at St Ethernan's Priory took place over six weeks in July and August. Excavations continued in the cemetery, the church, the E range, and the S range. The cloister garth was investigated for the first time, as was the W range following structural consolidation.

Part of the 1994 cemetery excavation area was reopened and enlarged, revealing numerous graves spanning a long period of time, possibly with early Christian origins. Various burial types were recorded, including further long cists with well-preserved extended inhumations, as well as muliple burials within and beneath cists. the skeletons of at least three children were found. Many of the cists and later shallow graves were dug into a possible, large burial cairn, 25m N-S, comprised principally of rounded beach stones. Some of the later burials presumed to be of 14th to 16th century date, were very shallow indeed having been buried in graves in the top of the burial cairn, covered with shell sand and reused cist slabs. A 5m wide paved roadway was found sealing part of the W side of the burial cairn, apparently heading towards the W door of the church. This was partly sealed by the stone foundations of an ancillary building of the monastery located to the NW part of the church.

Although the monastery was established in the 1140s evidence has been found to suggest that the conventual church was not constructed until some time in the 13th century. One of the principal aims of the excavation has therefore been to identify any remains of a pre-Benedictine church, which had been constructed to contain the shrine of the Saints and Martyrs associated with the island, and would have been available for immediate use by the colonising Benedictine brethren. The excavations did reveal part of a stone structure within and beneath the later church. the older structure may be the E end square apse of an 11th century church, with one corner of dressed masonry surviving above foundations. Both churches were built on the raised beach burial cairn which origionally extended to beyond the S wall of the monastery church. This may have been altered to form a terrace for building on, and at some time had been provided with a double revetment wall along the seaward side. At least two levels of extended inhumations survived within the cairns, and these were on the same alignment as the long cist burials. It is interesting to note that these were orientated NE-SW, as oposed to the true E-W arrangement of the later burials which mirrored the alignment of the monastery church.

Excavations within the cloister garth, which measured 8m E-W by 10m, revealed two phases of stone-lined and capped drains. These drains were found to continue beneath and through the walls of the E range where they joined with the main drain under the floor of the Chapter House, to then debouch down the slope to the E. A significant amount of disturbed human bone was found within the cloister garth, indicating that the pre-Benedictine burial ground had originally extended this far.

A small quantity of prehistoric material has been found during each season of excavations, and in 1995 this was augmented by discovery of a sherd of Beaker Pottery. A number of sherds of very coarse, thick walled late Iron Age (or Pictish?) pottery was also recovered.

The project is jointly led by Fife Regional Council and Scottish Natural Heritage. The Archaeological Team and post-excavation facilities are provided by GUARD.

Sponsors: Fife Regional Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, North East Fife District Council, Historic Scotland, The Russel Trust, The Hunter Archaeological Trust, The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the St Andrews & North East Fife Tourist Board.

H James and P Yeoman 1995.

NT 6585 9901 Excavations at the priory on the Isle of May continued for a fifth and final season (James and Yeoman 1995). Further excavation work took place within all the ranges of the priory, the cemetery trench begun in 1995 was excavated further, a trench further to the N was opened in the cemetery, and various small trial trenches were dug outwith the immediate monastery area in an attempt to locate the post-medieval village. A coin found in the cemetery during the 1995 excavations has been identified as an Anglo-Saxon penny of King Burgred of Mercia (852-74).

The cemetery trench begun in 1995 was reopened. As in previous years, multiple burials within long cists were encountered, and also some dug graves. One substantial cist beneath a large marker stone contained an extended female inhumation. Fragments of a neonate were also found. No graves were found beneath the roadway which skirted the cemetery on the W side, and it appears that the road is contemporary with the long cist graves.

A trench further to the N within the cemetery was opened, with the aims of finding the N and possibly E extent of the cairn, to see if the revetment found beneath the priory church in 1995 and further S in the cemetery in 1994 extended this far N, and also to better understand the nature of the burial cairn. The N extent of the cairn material was not found, but the continuation of the revetment to the E was. There was no cairn material to the E of this, suggesting that this truly was the edge of the cairn. There was evidence for some structural remodelling within the cairn, consisting of curving wall-like structures, up to three courses deep. In the SW corner of the trench the cairn was found to seal a dark brown loam, which overlay natural pebbles. Two disturbed burials were found over these stones with all the evidence reinforcing the view that the cairn was formed from a raised beach, greatly modified by human activity.

Excavation below the monastic levels within the ranges has also revealed cairn material in several places. Investigation below the level of the Benedictine foundations showed that the cairn or raised beach extended into this area. Three burials were found near the top of the cairn; all were fairly disturbed, presumably due to the building activity associated with the remodelling of the church that had gone on in subsequent centuries. A charnel pit was also found, which may represent reburial of bodies found during building work.

The burial cairn was also seen immediately below the chapter house floor, this being the furthest S on the site that it has been seen to extend. The cairn here was neither a single entity nor a natural feature, rather it appears to have been constantly restructured and enlarged, primarily shown by two rough revetments running N-S through the area. Four extended burials were excavated in this area, on the same Early Christian NE-SW alignment as seen elsewhere on the site. There were also several areas of disturbed and disarticulated bone, which had probably been displaced by remodelling of the cairn.

Limited further excavation took place within the cloister. A burial was found on a similar alignment to those in the long cist cemetery, as well as a small charnel pit. In the N part of the cloister, rounded stones were found, which could be the top of the burial cairn, while bedrock outcropped in the S.

In the W end of the Benedictine church, the post-medieval walls were removed. Excavation in this area revealed evidence of at least four phases of church building, with each successive phase extending the structure to the E. It appears that the earliest structure had drystone foundations, and was roughly 6m square, suggesting a mortuary chapel or oratory (possibly to house the bones of St Ethernan and other early monks). At a later date the building was extended by 1.6m to the E, forming a rectangular chapel evidenced by mortared foundations. This phase 2 building was further extended in the late 11th century by the addition of a square-ended apse, which was revealed during the 1995 excavations. This is dated by a silver penny of William the Conqueror ? the first found in Scotland. This is probably the church that stood on the site when the monks from Reading Abbey arrived in the mid-12th century, and would have been used by them until around 1250, when they constructed their own, much larger church.

A trench was dug between the church and the W range, removing the 16th-century path and layers of demolition material which contained much tile and pottery. A wall linking the N and W ranges was found. This was removed, revealing the foundations of the W range and some substantial slabs which could be paving, or perhaps foundations for an early structure. Inside the W range, in the NE corner, a sondage was dug, primarily to see whether this possible paving continued. It did not, but a layer of rounded beach pebbles was found, presumably a continuation of the cairn, although this was not investigated.

The E range undercroft, to the S of the chapter house, had been excavated to floor level in 1995. It was shown that the pillar bases found in 1994 were not a primary structural feature, but that several phases of remodelling took place before they were built, as a compacted floor surface survived beneath them. This surface ran under the internal dividing wall, suggesting that it may have been inserted at a later date than the original construction of the range, to form the smaller chapter house. A drain was found running SW-NE through the undercroft, also below the pillar bases, running out of the room at the E doorway.

The S range had previously been excavated to floor level. The excavations this year revealed the infilling material levelling up the bedrock and several pits cut into it.

A latrine block was found at the SE corner of the E range. This was a substantial structure, with a triple arch in the E wall, at the base of a 6m long garderobe chute, the S arch having been truncated by a later post-medieval building. Each arch is likely to have corresponded with a rock-cut sewer channel, although only the N one was excavated. This was flushed from above by a drain and contained preserved organic deposits.

As mentioned, a later building was found to the S of the toilet area, abutting the arched structure. This may be considerably later in date than the monastery, and is possibly contemporary with the industrial reuse of the site in the 16th century.

A number of small trial trenches were dug in the area where the post-medieval village was thought to be, and to test geophysical anomalies, but no trace of any structures was found. A small trench was also dug through the midden deposits to the S of the S range, yielding much mammal, fish and bird bone.

In addition, a well in Pilgrim's Haven, on the W side of the island, was excavated. Known as Pilgrim's Well, it was thought to be of a medieval date. It was in fact a cistern, and would have collected run-off from the surrounding slopes. Coins found in it suggest it had been cleared out during the 20th century.

The project is jointly led by Fife Council and Scottish Natural Heritage. The archaeological team and post-excavation facilities are provided by Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division.

Sponsors: Fife Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, Russell Trust, Hunter Archaeological Trust.

H James and P Yeoman 1996

NT 6585 9901 A brief excavation took place at the priory in the Isle of May in order to reveal the complete ground plan of the S range, as the W end was sealed by up to 1.9m of post-medieval overburden.

The excavations revealed that the S range had been built up against the W range (St Ethernan?s Chapel). There was evidence for two doorways, one to the S leading out of the priory precinct towards the kitchen midden. The other was in the E wall, perhaps connecting with the original doorway in the S wall of the W range.

A post-medieval oven had been constructed within the S door of the W range and this also sealed the walls of the S range. The addition of the oven probably took place in the 16th century when the priory was remodelled to create a secular house. Three drystone walls were found within the overburden. As they were not exposed to their full extent it was not clear if these walls belonged to outbuildings or field boundaries.

Sponsors: Historic Scotland, Fife Council, SNH.

H F James 1997.


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