Inchcolm Island is probably the most beautiful island in the Firth of Forth, and it's the location of Inchcolm Abbey – one of the best preserved monastic sites in Scotland.
This spot makes for a memorable and unique place to visit for a day trip if you're staying in Edinburgh. You'll find it four miles to the east of the Forth Bridge, just outside the city.
There is a medieval inscription above the entrance to the abbey, which reads Stet domus haec donec fluctus formica marinos ebibat, et totum testudo permabulet orbem, or "May this house stand until an ant drains the flowing sea, and a tortoise walks around the whole world." So it is perhaps fitting that to this day, the buildings are in remarkably good condition.
Inchcolm Abbey in Scotland — Photo courtesy of Magnus Hagdorn
Inchcolm Abbey comprises relatively complete cloisters, chapter house, warming house and refectory, but the monastic church is in a fairly ruined state. Visitors can climb to the top of the tower to enjoy spectacular views of the Firth of Forth and the Forth Bridge, and there's a beautiful 13th-century fresco painting of a funeral procession not to be missed.
The site is maintained by Historic Scotland, which charges a small fee for entrance; you'll also need to pay for the ferry crossing. (Details of the ferry providers visiting the island can be found on the Historic Scotland website.)
There is a visitor center and gift shop at the landing pier, and there are also toilets (including disabled toilets) and numerous picnic sites. However, visitors with restricted mobility should be aware that the public ferry cannot take visitors using wheelchairs and that parts of the abbey may be difficult to access.
The island was given its name (which translates as “Columba’s Isle”) as it was rumored that St. Columba (the Patron Saint of Scotland) visited the site in 567 AD. But the oldest objects found at the site are a 10th-century hogback tombstone, which is now preserved in the visitor’s center, and fragments of stone carving, which confirm that there was a religious presence on the island during the Dark Ages.
In 1123, King Alexander I of Scotland sheltered on Inchcolm Island during a storm, and he resolved to build a monastery at the site to give thanks to God for providing him with safe harbor. Unfortunately, he died before he could make good on his promise, and it was his brother, David I, who established the Augustinian priory on Inchcolm, which was upgraded to an abbey in 1235 AD.
The island was sometimes a site of scholarly endeavor and quiet contemplation. The abbey gave its name to the “Inchcolm Antiphoner” (a 14th-century manuscript that contains one of the few remaining examples of Celtic Plainsong), and in the early 15th century, Abbot Walter Bower wrote an impressively massive history of Scotland, which he named Scotichronicon.
However, the island was not always so peaceful. Its strategic position made it the target of English naval attacks from the end of the 13th century until the 16th century, causing the monks to seek refuge in nearby Fife. Finally, in 1560 during the Protestant Reformation, the abbey was completely abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin.
Long after England and Scotland made their peace, the island remained an important defensive position. A gun battery was built at the site during the Napoleonic Wars to guard against an invasion by the French, and the island was heavily fortified during the Second World War to protect the Forth Bridge and the naval base at Rosyth.
Now the only naval vessels visiting the island bring tourists to explore the abbey and watch the birds and seals who have taken up residence here.