The Development of the Abbey Church at Inchcolm


In late 2013, I hopped on a ferry with my Grandmother and we went on a spontaneous trip out to visit Inchcolm, a tiny island in the middle of the Firth of Forth featuring a large mediaeval abbey, a few world war one fortifications and a hell of a lot of seabirds. We had the island to ourselves, there was just the custodian in her visitor centre and so we had a lot of fun exploring by ourselves.


In the Cloister at Inchcolm Abbey

In the Cloister at Inchcolm Abbey

Inchcolm Abbey is a very interesting place. Throughout the early mediaeval period (I shall ignore the Guide book which says Dark Ages) it was home to a hermit, whose supposed hermitage can still be seen and visited in the grounds. In the early 12th century, Alexander I of Scotland was given shelter on the Island during a storm, and he decided to build a monastery on the island in thanks. His death the following year would have prevented his desire coming to fruition if it were not for his brother David’s happiness to carry out his predecessor’s wishes.

It was first established as a priory for Augustinian Canons in 1123, and became a full a full abbey in 1235. The Abbey’s island position did not, however, protect them from the violence of the Wars of Independence and they suffered from periodic raids by the English in the late 13th and early 13th centuries. However, they persevered through to the reformation in 1560, when the island was abandoned until the World Wars in the 20th century.

I am going to use some pictures lifted from the guidebook to illustrate the development of the buildings. They only show the development of the church buildings of the abbey, and as a consequence several other buildings are missed out and you cannot see how they are attached to the rest of the building.¬†As a consequence, I’ll also attach a picture of the full site to the end of the next post about the other buildings of the complex, so you can see the buildings which are mentioned in this post and yet remain absent.

Inchcolm 12th Century
The first church, as it stood in the mid-12th century, was a simple building of a similar size and style to most parish churches of it’s date. It was, however, built of very fine masonry and this perhaps is what betray’s it’s royal patronage. It consisted of two rectangular spaces, a chancel and a nave, of which the nave still survives. The Chancel contained the high altar, and the nave would have been the location for the canons’ stalls and perhaps even some space for lay pilgrims.

Around 1200

Around 1200 the first church prove to be too small for its purpose and it was enlarged, with a huge bell tower added above the original chancel and an extension was added to the east to house an enlarged choir and presbytery. The main architectural feature of interest from this period is the screen inserted into the base of the tower to separate the Canon’s choir from the nave, which was now for exclusive use of the lay folk.

Please excuse the letters, I don't have a proper image editing programme!

Please excuse the letters, I don’t have a proper image editing programme!

In the first half of the century, there was a beautiful chapter house added to the south side of the extended choir. This is not shown in these pictures so there will be one further down the post, as for me it is the most splendid part of the building. Luckily I have my own photo so I shall be able to use that. Also in this period the choir was again doubled in length on the orders of Bishop Richard of Dunkeld, requiring several burials in the area to be reinterred elsewhere in the choir. There’s some brilliant wall tombs from this period. There was also a transept (or cross arm) built in this period to hold two additional chapels, but these have since been demolished.

Early 15th CenturyBy the early 15th century this part of the abbey complex was fairly complete, and the first church was effectively abandoned in favour of the newer buildings to the east. The new church was of cross shaped plan, with the presbytery on the east, transepts to the north and south, and the canon’s choir to the west partly overlying the old choir, with the rest of the old choir probably used as a nave. The old church was then used as domestic accommodation and the cloister probably also dates from this time.

Chapter House

Chapter House

Part two of this post will be about the residential accommodation at Inchcolm, the Cloister and the Abbot’s House. It shall also address a bit of the history and the demise of the Abbey. I’ll schedule it for a couple of days time.

5 thoughts on “The Development of the Abbey Church at Inchcolm

    • You’re very welcome, there’s another two scheduled for the 12th and 15th continuing the series. I didn’t want to release them all in one go though as they were about 1000 words each. It would be nice if you’d come back though!

      Thank you for reading!

  1. Thats sounds like one I will have to visit, and I love that you had the place to yourselves. I must admit my first choice is religious buildings, but castles are a close second. So I am looking forward to the rest of your series :) We are on holiday on the Outer Hebrides at the moment, lots of castle ruins here :)

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