The island of Iona is renowned for its early monastery, founded following the arrival of Columba in AD 563. Our knowledge for this period is improved by the availability of written records produced during the first 200 years of the establishment’s life; however, between the late 8th and 12th centuries, northern Britain experienced severe political and social upheavals, and a decline in written records. This paper uses palaeoecological data to provide additional insights into the social and environmental transformations that influenced the landscape of Iona in the prehistoric and historic periods. Notwithstanding age inversions in the prehistoric sequences, the identification of cereal pollen suggests that some arable farming occurred during the Bronze-Age. Evidence of arable farming is inconclusive for the Iron-Age, although there is some indication that pastoral farming was practiced. A gap in the palaeoecological record means that it remains unclear as to whether there were people living on the island at the time of the monastic community’s arrival. A more secure palaeoecological sequence is recorded during the early monastic period. Between AD 630 and 1100, the monastic community was involved in woodland clearance, and pastoral and arable farming, but within this period there were two phases of woodland regeneration and agricultural decline. The first phase coincides with a prolonged period of Viking raids and may have witnessed a decline in population. The second phase occurred at a time of increased Scandinavian influence and political restructuring in the wider region; however, small-scale farming continued. After ~AD 1000, there was renewed intensification of landscape management prior to the arrival of Benedictine monks and Augustinian nuns ~AD 1200, which may be linked to climatic amelioration during the Medieval Warm Period and economic growth in the Hebrides.
Bibliographical noteAcknowledgements: Special acknowledgements go to Audrey Innes for her laboratory support, to Historic Environment Scotland and to the Leverhulme Trust who have helped fund this project and to the University of Glasgow who have helped support this work.
- Early Medieval
- Bronze Age
- Iron Age