Uncovering Scotland’s ‘second Iona’ on Lismore

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Once home to a magnificent medieval cathedral and the bishopric of Argyll, it has been called Scotland’s ‘second Iona’.

Archaeologists working at the parish church on Lismore hope that information gathered from this year’s and last year’s digs will help them better understand what role it played in medieval culture.

Fine art technician Douglas Breingan identifies carvings on sandstones from the medieval cathedral.

During the week of July 15 to 22, Dr Clare Ellis, of Argyll Archaeology, led up to 15 volunteers each day in excavating the ruined walls of the nave and tower, with the long-term objective of developing the area for public access and interpretation.

‘Lismore was chosen as the seat of the diocese, and that seems a bit strange to modern people,’ said Dr Robert Hay, author and archivist for the Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre. ‘But if we remember that people travelled by sea more than they did by land in those times, we’ll see that this site was very strategic.’

The current church was developed from the choir of the grand cathedral that once stood here and, while today it hosts a small Church of Scotland congregation, at one time it would have been the site of one of the most impressive buildings on the West Coast.

It is known as the Cathedral of St Moluag, who, according to tradition, founded a religious community on the island in the sixth century. While archaeologists have found no remains that can be definitively dated to that time, they think that the cathedral may have been built on the site of an earlier church dedicated to the saint.

Volunteers from around the world helped archaeologists learn more about the cathedral on Lismore.

‘In the 12th and 13th centuries, the MacDougalls were the dominant family in this area,’ Dr Hay explained. ‘They built half a dozen or more stone castles up and down the coast, including two on Lismore. The cathedral here was a big part of this prestige project.’

Records show that in 1190 a diocese was formed at Lismore, but it is not known if there was a church on the site at that time.

‘We do know the chancel was built in the 13th century because of the medieval features covered with mason marks,’ Dr Hay shared. ‘It tells you there was a lot going on here.’

All week, volunteers of all ages and backgrounds from all around the world pitched in with trowels, shovels and buckets, unearthing fewer bones than last year, but including livestock bones with tell-tale butcher marks, along with samples of mortar, nails, a single coin and pieces of carved sandstone.

Fine art technician Douglas Breingan has been coming to Lismore for 20 years and volunteers at the museum. ‘When the cathedral was built, the moulding stones were built of sandstones that we believe were brought in from Morvern, and they were used for the fine carvings,’ Mr Breingan said, tagging and examining each piece of stone as is was brought out of the trenches.

‘So any time we find a bit, we look at it closely to see if there is any working done on it, and we can then tell what shapes the windows or doors were in the cathedral.’

During the week, all parts of the base of the nave wall and the tower were evaluated, the south entrance was located and experts confirmed that part of the north wall was robbed of its stone. However, more than 20 substantial pieces of carved stone were recovered, including features likely from the door decoration.

Dr Mark Thacker, from the University of Stirling, took samples of the mortar for carbon dating of the building of the nave.

‘This was probably one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Scotland,’ Dr Hay said. ‘We want to be able to provide interpretation here on site.’

The dig was funded by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the Hunter Trust and the MacDougall McCallum Foundation, USA.