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Looking Back: August 1958

Image of archaeological remains unearthed by the dig ( J V F Megaw)
Image of archaeological remains unearthed by the dig ( J V F Megaw)




During the past three summer a team of archaeologists has been at work, under the Russell Trust, on the laying bare of the early Columban settlement.

In a recent issue of “The Coracle”, Charles Thomas of Oxford, who has been in charge of the work, described the finding of what is almost certainly the remains of Columba’s cell.


THE Columban foundation can now be partially reconstructed. It was defined by a vallum, a high bank with an outer ditch, within which the monastery lay.

The monastic settlement was quite small, perhaps a dozen wooden huts, the offices, and the little church which formed the focus.

The greatest puzzle is, of course, the whereabouts of Columba’s cell.

We are told that it was on a slightly higher spot than the rest of the monastery, that the entrance faced east across the Sound, and that it was possible to see and even hear people on Mull without leaving it.

These clues all seemed to point in the same direction: the top of Tor Abb.

Last year the summit was stripped. This showed that the mound was originally a ridge like a cow’s backbone, and had been made into a platform by building ramps, held in place by huge boulders, against both sides: on the far side, the west, this has been left exposed, and is clearly visible.

On the top, on this semi-artificial platform, a little square cell had been built, its low stone walls carefully keyed into irregularities in the living rock. Its entrance was on the east, and here we must assume that steps, since fallen or removed, led down.

The walls themselves seem to have been only a few feet high. All along their tops were the stubs of small wooden stakes, in the form of charcoal, implying a kind of wigwam construction of wood, turf, and heather thatch, a simple form of roof which, in more elaborate style, was in use on Mull within living memory.

Within this cell was a broad slab of rock that could be used as a seat or a bed, and one thinks of Adamnan’s statement that Columba had for mattress the bare rock, and for pillow a stone. The only other furniture was a stand or support composed of three shaped granite stones, lined up with a slot in the natural rock, which must have supported a flat slab of schist or a wooden table. These things have been carefully preserved and can be seen now on Tor Abb.

Was this in fact Columba’s cell? In so far as archaeologists will commit themselves without positive evidence, the answer must be yes. It conforms to all the evidence that we have, which seems to be reliable.

 In 2017, experts at Glasgow University unveiled conclusive proof that the site on Iona had been ‘Columba’s Cell’

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