Inchcolm Abbey - History and Facts | History Hit

Inchcolm Abbey

Scotland, Scotland, United Kingdom

Inchcolm Abbey is a well-preserved twelfth century Augustinian monastery turned abbey located in an important defensive position.

Peta Stamper

10 May 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Inchcolm Abbey

Inchcolm Abbey meaning ‘Colm’s Isle’ was established as an Augustinian monastery in the 12th century by David I, becoming an abbey in 1235. During the wars between England and Scotland, the location of Inchcolm Abbey in Scotland meant that it was constantly under attack.

The island of Inchcolm Abbey continued to play a defensive role in the Napoleonic Wars and World War Two. Despite its turbulent history Inchcolm Abbey remains remarkably intact: the 13th century cloisters are celebrated as some of the most well-preserved of their kind and visitors can even see a rare funereal fresco from the same period.

Inchcolm Abbey history

Before the abbey was founded, it is believed that a hermit lived on the island which was also home to a 10th century ‘hogback’ tombstone relic. Alexander I sheltered on the island during a storm in 1123, vowing to set up a monastery in thanks for surviving. While Alexander died before fulfilling this promise, his brother David I did not.

Under David’s orders, Augustinian canons settled in Inchcolm from the early 1100s to enjoy the island’s isolation and peace. Abbot Walter Bower found enough tranquility to write a great history of Scotland, ‘Scotichronicon’, during the mid-15th century.

However, being located within the Firth of Forth also meant Inchcolm easily became the target of English naval raids between the 14th and 16th century wars. The monks spent more time on land in Fife until the Scottish Reformation of 1560 ended monastic life, the stones from the abbey used to help repair Edinburgh’s Tolbooth in 1581.

Afterwards, Inchcolm was continuously used for defensive purposes until World War Two: in 1795 during the Napoleonic Wars, a gun battery was installed when the French threatened invasion. During the early 20th century, Inchcolm was further fortified to help defend Edinburgh, the Rosyth Naval Base and the Forth Bridge.

Inchcolm Abbey today

Today, Inchcolm Abbey has the most complete surviving remains of any Scottish monasteries and is managed by Historic Environment Scotland. What remains are the cloisters, chapter house and refectory while the church is least well-preserved.

The island is also known for its seal population and other varied wildlife. Visitors must get a ferry to the island with a ticket separate to their entry to the abbey, which is a £6 standard ticket.

Getting to Inchcolm Abbey

There are 2 ferries from Hawes Pier, South Queensferry: Fourth Tours and Maid of the Forth. To drive from Edinburgh, 45 minutes away, take the A90 and M90 across the Forth Bridge and then get a ferry. Via public transport, get a Scotrail train from Edinburgh Waverley to Inverkeithing (they run every 15 minutes and the journey takes 23 minutes). From Inverkeithing you can walk to the ferry port in around an hour.