Linking Iona and Lindisfarne

The competing Angle dynasties of Bernicia and Deira clashed in open conflict in 616. The consequences of this struggle for supremacy were to have profound, long-landing consequences for the future of Aberlady, for the growth of the Columban church, for Iona and for the national legacy.

This was a time when political intrigue and maneuvering complemented the savagery openly displayed on the battlefields. Alliances would be made – and often betrayed – to strengthen ruling dynasties and their right to over-lordship.

So it was that following the slaying of his father Aethelfrith by his rival Edwin, Prince Oswald gained refuge in the Irish Scotti kingdom of Dal Riata, where he was raised and educated by Iona monks. In 634, two years after Cadwallon of Gwynedd and the pagan king Penda of Mercia invaded Northumbria and killed Edwin in battle, Oswald with support from the house of Dal Riata marched south to enter battle for his inheritance. Adomn├ín in his Life of Saint Columba tells us that Oswald had a vision of Columba the night before the battle, in which he was told he would be victorious over his enemies. After the battle, he named the ground on which it was fought “Heavenfield” and called for Iona to bring Christianity to his kingdom of Northumbria.

Thus St Aidan of Iona was appointed to establish a daughter-house of Iona in the land of the Northumbrians. As islands had a special significance for the early Celtic Christian leaders, allowing them to distance themselves from the secular affairs of man, he chose Medcaut, or Lindisfarne, for this new monastery of the Irish, Columban Church.

The route taken by these early pilgrims brought them to the safe shores of Aberlady Bay. It would have been a hazardous journey through lands ruled by Picts and Britons, although the Angles of Northumbria were likely to be the now dominant force in Lothian at the expense of the suppressed native Gododdin.

The map below shows the likely routes taken. On landing on the south shores of the Forth at the place the native welsh-speaking Britons named Aberlady, the monks from Iona dedicated the land to the ancient saint Pensandus, and called it Kilspindie. Here the monks and their Anglo-Saxon protectors would rest and pray before continuing their onward journey.

The maps above come from a paper by Dr Simon Taylor on “Seventh-century Iona Abbots in Scottish Place-names. In this he identifies from place-names along the route associated with St Bathan, the successor to Columba as Abbot of Iona, or the early Columban church more generally. The map below shows more detail.