Identifying an Early Monastic School House

Inchmarnock is a small island off the west coast of Bute in the Firth of Clyde. Between 2000 and 2004 a wide-ranging programme of survey and excavation of multiple sites throughout the island was undertaken by a team from Headland Archaeology as part of a wider environmental audit on behalf of its new owner.

Among the sites investigated was a rock shelter with Late Iron Age and early medieval occupation deposits, medieval corn-drying kilns, and a building platform on which a 17th-century turf-built longhouse was erected, masking medieval and early medieval activity. But the key site to understanding the island’s history is the 12th-century church whose robbed-out foundations were left partially exposed after local excavations in the 1970s. The Early Christian origins of the site have long been recognised through discoveries of early cross slabs; now radiocarbon dates clearly indicate activity from at least the third quarter of the 1st millennium AD. A late medieval literate presence, possibly associated with regulation of pilgrimage activity on the island, is also clearly evidenced.

The 2000-2004 excavations have not only identified a probable earlier stone church but also a much earlier monastic settlement, specifically the detritus associated with a school-house where novices were taught to read and write, as well as compass-work and instruction in elementary design and decoration. This marks a major breakthrough in our understanding of how education was organised at this time.

Incised and inscribed slate fragments from Inchmarnock form the largest assemblage of such material from the British Isles
Incised and inscribed slate fragments from Inchmarnock form the largest assemblage of such material from the British Isles. It includes examples of script, sketches of boats, buildings, animals and people, as well as geometric motifs, doodles and scribbles. It is of particular importance for its implications for monastic schooling and design, as well as providing an insight into the age of the scholars whose handiwork we now have. The sketch drawings would be consistent with the work of children of primary school age, about 7 – 11. This also provides an insight into the practice of fostering, a familiar feature of early Irish secular society that was quickly seized upon by the early Irish Church as a means of providing income and extending influence.

Ogham and Latin
Epigraphic evidence suggests that some inscriptions could date to the early 7th century. One of the earliest pieces, from the monastic enclosure ditch, is a rough water-worn slate cobble, possibly a prayer-stone, on which the name Ernán has been written no less than three times. Ernán is the saint commemorated in the name Marnock, from the Gaelic familiar form of Mo-Ernán. Meanwhile, from the metal-working area near the church came a fragment of an incised slate board datable to around 750.

On one side was a curvilinear cross-motif, set beside an ogham alphabet; on the other were two lines of almost identical Latin text, identifiable as a line of octosyllabic Hiberno-Latin verse: adeptus sanctum praemium, ‘having reached the holy reward’. This is a unique survival, a line of verse from a hymn that formed part of the Antiphonary of Bangor, a late 7th-century liturgical commonplace book and clearly one that was on the ‘Inchmarnock curriculum’. The same stone also gives us our first evidence for the informal, non-monumental use of ogham alongside Latin, and provides evidence of training and instruction in both.

Abduction scene

But perhaps the most iconic image is the so-called ‘Hostage Stone’, found as two conjoining pieces, roughly 4m apart. The stone appears to depict three armoured warriors leading a fourth figure to their boat. The warriors are marked out by chain-mail armour, weapons and their generally wild appearance; the fourth figure is dressed differently and holds in front of him what may be a house-shaped reliquary shrine or silk reliquary purse. Presumably the reliquary defines the figure’s ecclesiastical office, as military characteristics define his abductors. Although not necessarily ‘Viking’, the image speaks volumes for the dangers ever-present to island-dwellers in the Firth of Clyde in the late 1st millennium AD.

clearly, Inchmarnock looked to the Gaelic west rather than the Brittonic east
Cultural connections
This is a key site and the inscribed slate assemblage is nationally important, for what it can tell us about the chronology of inscriptions and also the cultural connections of Ernán’s foundation; clearly, Inchmarnock looked to the Gaelic west rather than the Brittonic east, with its seat at Dumbarton. The school-house gives us a clear focus for the function and status of the monastic settlement and its role as a place of primary schooling.

This was where the basics of literacy, of practising alphabets and controlling the stylus, were taught. Without these schools there would have been no Book of Kells, nor the other great illuminated manuscripts of early Insular Christianity. The challenge now is to identify the sites and settlements which formed intermediate links between primary, secondary and tertiary levels of instruction and training.

The project, from conception to publication and archive, was commissioned and funded by Lord Smith of Kelvin, the island’s owner. The results were published in 2008 in the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland monograph series, and the project was Highly Commended in the ‘Best Archaeological Project’ category at the 2010 British Archaeology Awards.

< Back to Homepage

About the Author

Leave a Reply 0 comments

Leave a Reply: