Of all the place-names associated with the island of Iona, perhaps the one that has given rise to the most discussion, and the most confusion, is the name of the island itself.  The confusion is not only about what the name means but, even more fundamentally, what the island-name actually is.

In the English-speaking world, the name is simply Iona.  And given the popularity of that name, it is unsurprising that various interpretations of it have appeared.  John Walker, who visited the island in 1764, noted that the people of the country ‘derive the name of Iona from Y-Iona, the island of John, or of St. John, who had particular honour paid him in these parts during popish times.’ [1]  A similar suggestion was made by an anonymous visitor in 1772, with additional historical speculation about pre-Columban Christianity:

There is some reason to think that Christianity was introduced there before Columba’s time, and the island was dedicated to the Apostle St John; for it was originally called J’Eoin, i.e. John’s Island, whence Iona, the Latin name of Icolumbkill.[2]

The suggestion here is that the first letter of ‘Iona’ is Gaelic í ‘an island’, the rest of the word containing a Gaelic form of the name John.

The Rev. Dugald Campbell, who was minister of the parish in the late eighteenth century, had his own view of the island name.  Though he himself refers to the island as I, which he calls ‘the proper name’, he also notes other names for the island and cites authorities who called it Hii, Iona, and Icolumkill.  The first of these he draws from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, and the last he gives as local use and explains as ‘the island of Colum-kill in honour of Columba’.  But the name Iona, he says, comes from ‘monkish writers’, and explains it as ‘the Island of Waves’, adding (in a footnote) ‘Iona is, in Gaelic, spelt I-thonn, but as the th is not sounded, Latin writers spell it Iona.  The name is very characterisick of it in times of storm’.[3]

Both of the writers cited above are aware that the name of the island among local Gaels was simply Í, and that the name Iona had appeared and flourished in Latin texts (we will return to the Iona form in due course).  There are also various explanations of the Gaelic name too, needless to say.  It may be the shortest place-name in Scotland (is there another name formed of only one letter?), but nothing is ever simple!  So for the two writers cited above Í simply meant ‘island’, and there is certainly a Gaelic word í with that meaning, but that Gaelic word í ‘island’ is a loan from Old Norse ey ‘island’.  Given that Norse speakers did not arrive on our west coast before the late eighth century, it is not plausible as an explanation of a Gaelic island-name which pre-dates their arrival.[4]  But other interpretations were available.  The visitor of 1771 notes that there was a ‘curious tradition’ that the name arose from when Columba first arrived.  As he was sailing towards the island:

the first of his mates that observed it, called out from the prow of the boat Sud i.  Yonder it.  St Columb was struck by the sudden exclamation of his friend, and, with a sort of hasty joy, pronounced the following words, which we have transmitted to us: Mar sud bith J, & goirthear J J.  Be it so, and let it be called J.[5]

In this account the name Í (here written J) is understood simply as the feminine pronoun i, ‘she, it’ (even though the island-name has a long vowel, and the pronoun has a short one).  This explanation was not new in 1771.   Martin Martin had recorded a similar story in his own account of the island in the 1690s.

The Natives have a Tradition among them, That one of the Clergy-Men who accompanied Columbus on his Voyage thither, and cry’d joyfully to Columbus in the Irish Language, Chi mi, i.e. I see her; meaning thereby, the Country of which they had been in quest: that Columbus then answer’d, It shall be from henceforth called Y.[6]

As the visitor of 1771 remarks, this explanation of the supposed origin of the name is ‘curious’ – not only because of the discrepancy in vowel lengths between the island-name and the pronoun; the idea that an island should be called by a pronoun, like ‘it’ or ‘she’, is also a pretty curious one.

A more sensible approach to the name was offered by W. J. Watson.  He first observed that the name Iona is actually a fairly late medieval misreading of the name which was given to the island in the seventh century by its ninth abbot, Adomnán, for whom, in his Latin writings, it was always Ioua Insula.   The Iona form came about by the misreading or mis-copying of a u as an n.  This is a common scribal error in the Middle Ages, because both those letters are formed simply from two connected minims (as we will see in some of the illustrations given below).

Interrogating early forms of the name of the island in Gaelic sources, Watson concluded that:

Adamnán’s Ioua insula may be taken with practical certainty as formed in his usual style, like Egea insula, Scia insula etc.  Ioua is an adjective formed from the name of the island.  …  Adomnán as often uses the old vowel: the change from his Ioua to [later] Eoa indicates that we have to do with an earlier Ivo- which later became Eo, Eu, as bivo- became beo, beu.  Now Ivo- is an element which ooccurs in a number of Celtic terms  … It is in fact the early form of O. Ir. eo, a yew tree.   Adamnán’s adjective Ioua, however, seems to go back, not exactly to Ivo-, but to a derivative Iuoua, which might mean ‘Yew-place’, with which we may compare the Gaulish Iuavos, the local god who was the genius of the healing wells of Evaux in France.[7]

 Whatever the merits of Watson’s analysis, it has the virtue of being a serious study of the early forms of the name, and does not depend on a late medieval invention which was essentially a scribal error.  Adomnán’s Ioua Insula is interesting as pointing towards a possible Gaelic origin meaning ‘yew-place’, as Watson observed.  But Adomnán’s form of the name must be seen for what it is: a kind of literary affectation, a stylistic Latin tick.  When Adomnán writes of the islands, he does so by adding a Latinate ending to the root of the name.  Thus he adds –ea or -ia to make Malea insula for Mull (VC i; 22), insula Scia for Skye (i; 33), Ilea Insula for Islay (ii, 23), Rechrea insula for Rechru (ii; 41), Sainea insula (unidentified; ii, 45) and Egea Insula for Eigg (iii, 18).  For other island-names he uses other suffixes: -ada in Orcadas insulas (Orkney; ii, 42); -ica in Ethica insula and Ethica terra (Tiree, Gaelic Tiriodh; i, 19); and  -osa in Coloso insula (Coll, i, 41 and ii, 22; note that in this case there is no gender agreement between the two elements).  This raises some doubt over Watson’s interpretation as ‘yew place’.  If the -oua suffix in Adomnán’s name is simply being used by him as a Latinate suffix (as he uses ­­-ea, -ada, -oso, -ica), then Watson’s treatment of the u of Ioua as organic to the name may be wrong, in which case the connection to Celtic ivo ‘yew tree’ is less persuasive.

But it is quite remarkable that apart from Adomnán’s own consistent use of the form Ioua insula, it does not appear in the record for centuries thereafter.  Even within the monastery he ruled, his own monks did not adopt Adomnán’s form when they recorded local events in the ‘Iona Chronicle’ (the record that was eventually incorporated into the Annals of Ulster.  His monks consistently record the island name as Ia or Iae (in the genitive)Adomnán’s Ioua Insula seems to be his own stylistic affectation, and it is one which did not gain much currency for a long time.  See the following early forms, for example, up to the end of the fourteenth century – I apologise for this being a long list, but it could have been longer, and early forms are everything!

insulam Iae 574 AU 574 [the death of Conall mac Comgaill]
obitus Fergnai abbatis Iae 623 AU 623 [the death of Fergna, abbot of Iona]
Natiuitas Adomnáni abbatis Iae 624 AU 624 [birth of Adomnán, abbot of Iona]
familie Iae 641 AU 641 [shipwreck of a vessel of the community of Iona]
obitus Laisrén abbatis Iae 650 AU 650 [death of Laisrén, abbot of Iona]
abatis Iae 652 AU 652 [death of Ségéne, abbot of Iona]
abb Iae 657 AU 657 [death of Suibne, abbot of Iona]
abbatis Iae 669 AU 669 [death of Cuiméne, abbot of Iona]
abbatis Iae 673 AU 673 [the voyage of Failbe, abbot of Iona, to Ireland]
abbatis Iae 679 AU 679 [the rest of Failbe, abbot of Iona]
familia Iae 691 AU 691 [a great wind … drowned six members of the community of Iona]
Ioua Insula 690s VC passim
abbas Iae 704 AU 704 [Adomnán dies as abbot of Iona]
principatum Iae 707 AU 707 [Dúnchad held the rule of Iona]
abbas Iae 710 AU 710 [Conamail, abbot of Iona, rests]
episcopus Iae 712 AU 712 [bishop Coeddi of Iona rests]
kathedram Iae 713 AU 713 [Dorbéne obtains the rule of Iona]
? in Eoa ciuitate 716 AU 716 [date of Easter changed in the city of Eoa[8]]
abbas Iae 717 AU 717 [Dúnchad abbot of Iona dies]
familie Ie 717 AU 717 [expulsion of the community of Iona by Nechtan]
abbas Iae 724 AU 724 [Faelchu, abbot of Iona, fell asleep]
principatum Ie 724 AU 724 [Cilléne succeeded him in the rule of Iona]
insula quae uocatur Hii 735 HE iii, 3 [et passim]
ancorite Ie 752 AU 752 [death of Cilléne Drochtech, anchorite of Iona]
Hi 752 AU 752 [death of Cilléne son of Congal in Iona]
abbas Iae 754 AU 754 [Sleibéne abbot of Iona came to Ireland]
abbas Ie 766 AU 766 [Suibne abbot of Iona came to Ireland]
Ie 767 AU 767 [death of Sleibéne, of Iona]
abbatis Ie 772 AU 772 [death of Suibne, abbot of Iona]
in Hi 791 AU 791 [Artgal son of Cathal, king of Connacht, [died] in Iona]
abb Iae c.800 F. Óeng. 62 [Cummíne, ‘abbot of Iona’, on 24 February]
Fergnai Íae c.800 F. Óeng. 80 [Fergna abbot of Iona, on 2 March]
Failbe ánle Íae c. 800  F. Óeng. 83 [Failbe the hero (?) of Iona]
Dunchad Híae húare c. 800  F. Óeng. 126 [‘Dunchad of chilly Iona’, abbot; 25 May]
Adomnán Íae c.800   F. Óeng., 196 [feast of St Adomnán, 23 Sept]
abbas Iae 801 AU 801 [Bresal abbot of Iona fell asleep]
familia Iae 806 AU 806 [sixty-eight of the community of Iona slain by heathens]
I Columbae Cille 802  AU 802 [Iona was burned by heathens]
Ceallach abbas Iae 814 AU 814 [Cellach abbot of Iona resigned the office]
Cellach mac Congaile abbas Iae 815 AU 815 [Cellach abbot of Iona fell asleep]
Martre Blaimhicc m. Flainn o genntib in Hi Coluim Cille 825 AU 825 [Blathmac]
Eo 825 x 849 Walahfrid Blathmac, 48
Diarmait abbas Iae 829 AU 829 [‘went to Britain with the relics of Colum Cille’]
Indrechtach abbas Iae 849 AU 849 [‘came to Ireland with the relics of Colum Cille’]
Cellach m. Ailella abbas Cille Daro et abbas Ia 865 AU 865 [abbot of Kildare and Iona]
abbas Iae pausauit AU 880 [death of Feradach, abbot of Iona]
abbas Ia 891 AU 891 [Flann m. Maele Duin, abbot of Iona, rested in peace]
Íae 950 x 980 B.Ad., 56
airchinnech Ia 978 AU 978 [Fiachra, superior of Iona, rested]
Í Coluim Cille 986 AU 986 [Iona plundered by the Danes on Christmas night]
I 987 AU 987 [a great slaughter of the Danes who plundered Iona]
abbas Ia 1005 AU 1005 [Máel Brigte, abbot of Iona, died]
Flannabra, comarba Ia 1025 AU 1025 [Flannabra, comarba of Iona, and others died]
Hii Coluim Cille 1026  AI 1026 [Mael Ruanaid Úa Maíl Doraid, went to Iona, then to Rome]
Abbas Ia 1070 AU 1070 [the abbot of Iona was killed]
in Hii insula Columbae 1104 x 1115 Symeon Libellus i, 9 (pp. 46-7) [Ecgfrith was slain in 685 and his body was buried on ‘Iona, the island of Columba’]
maithi muinnteri Ia 1164 AU 1164 [‘the leaders of the community of Iona’]
Hij Columchille 1172 x 1174 RRS ii no. 141 [king deprives Iona of its churches in Galloway]
Sacart mór Ia 1195 AU 1195 [‘the great priest of Iona died’]
I nh-I Coluim Cille 1200 AU 1200 [Mauritius Uo Baetan rests in peace in Iona]
Domnall h-Ua Brolchan, prioir Ia 1203 AU 1203 [prior of Iona dies]
Celestino abbati sancti Columbe de Hay Insula 1203 Papal Charter to Abbot Celestine of Iona
Hy … 1203 Papal Charter [as above; Hy is first in a list of islands belonging to Iona]
muinteri Ia 1204 AU 1204 [‘the rights of the community of Iona’]
Insula Columkillli c.1250 Matthew Paris map of Scotland [sic, with three ls over a line-break]
Ioua Insula c.1264 Melrose Chronicle [see discussion below]
Ioue Insula 1306 x 1309 RMS I, App.1, no. 105 [early modern MS by Earl of Haddington]
Hy columbkille c. 1360   Fordun, Chronicle II, 10
Insula de Hy 1390 Acts of the Lords of the Isles, no. 12
insula de Hy 1390 x 1495 RMS ii no. 2264
insula de Hie 1492 x 1495 RMS ii no. 2281

The above list is not comprehensive, but the point here is to show the consistency of the Í, Ia/Iae, Hy, Hii forms (and later the I Columbcille form, with its variants, which to the best of my knowledge first appears in 802).  The fact is that for almost six centuries almost the only writer to give the island’s name as Ioua is Adomnán.  But in spite of his enormous authority as abbot of Iona, biographer of Columba, and much more, the name he coined for the island did not catch on for a long time.  It is not really till the thirteenth century that Ioua appears again as the island-name.  It appears for the first time that I have found, after this long gap, in the Melrose Chronicle, in the hand of the scribe working circa 1264.  The scribe inserted in the margin a couplet from the Verse Chronicle on the death of Lulach: Hos in pace viros tenet insula Ioua sepultos / in tumulo regum judicis usque diem – ‘The island of Iona holds them buried in the tomb of kings, until the day of the Judge’.[9]  Note that the scribe has the form Ioua, not Iona.  The appearance of the name in the 1260s strongly suggests that by this time people were reading Adomnán, and for some reason accepting his form of the name as authoritative.  Here is the appearance Ioua sepultos in the manuscript.  The form Ioua is quite clear.[10]

A few decades later Ioua insula appears again, in a list of Scottish kings: Regnal List I, as Marjorie O. Anderson labelled it.  The list was edited, it seems, around 1288 x 1292, but the manuscript in which it appears was dated by Skene to about 1317.[11]  In this list the claim is made that ‘Douuenald filius Doncath’ was killed at Inveralden  and was buried in Ioua insula.  Anderson says that here ‘the name is written in full … it is clearly Ioua’.  She notes that where the list states that Cináed mac Ailpín (Kineth filius Alpin) was also buried on the island the manuscript’s reading of the name is ambiguous – ‘it may be Ioua or Iona’.  She chose to render it in her text as Iona insula, but one might suggest that if the form is ambiguous, it would make more sense to read it as Ioua insula, given that the scribe used that form unambiguously elsewhere.[12]   In List I, in all other cases of kings allegedly being buried in Iona the formula ‘in insula ioua’ is abbreviated as ‘i. i. i.’ in the manuscript.[13]

A later king-list, which Anderson calls Regnal List K, is written in French and appears to have been produced around 1400.[14]  The name of our island appears in this list several times, but it is not clear whether the scribe was treating the name as Ioua or Iona.  So for Cináed mac Ailpín Anderson reads the text:

Kynet fitz Alpín regna .xvi. aunz, et morust a Ferteuyoth. et fust enterrez en le Isle de Yona pres de Hert, Loern et Fergus, trois frers …[15]

But as Anderson herself notes, ‘the letters u and n are not always distinguishable’.[16]  That is certainly true in this instance.  This is the passage in the manuscript, folio 192v (b), the name occurring in the fourth line:

If we look at the top line, Kynet fitz Alpin regna contains three ns, but all of them could pass for us, since the connection between the two minims in each case is not clearly at the top or the bottom of the letter.  In the following line aunz and morust each contain a clear u.  But ferteuyoth contains a u that looks a bit more like an n, with an apparent connection at the top.  In the third line fust has a clear u, but the following words enterrez en both look as if they contain u rather than n.  In the reference to Iona, the word is spelled Yona or Youa, but given the difficulty in distinguishing the u and n forms in this hand, it is impossible to say which it is meant to be.

Much the same could be said for the burial place of ‘Duf mac Maucloun’ which appears as Ile de Yona or Ile de Youa on the following folio.  He was murdered at Forres (Forrys) ‘et musse desoutz le Pount de Kinlos, et tancom il ieust la, le solail ne se aparust, si fust troue et aporte al Ile de Yona (or Youa), ou touz sez auncestres de Kinek Mac Alpin furount enterrez. MS folio 193r. (a):

On the same folio the chronicle, after the death of Lulach, remarks ‘Toutz ceaux Roys furount enterrez en Lile de Yona / Youa (the form is ambiguous as seen below).[17]  But note that while the u of furount is clearly a u, the n of enterrez also looks very much like a u.  In other words, there is ongoing confusion of the forms n and u in this hand and in this passage.

In the list’s final reference to the island, Duncan son of Malcolm (Dunkan fits Maucloun) is slain and also buried on Iona: ‘en Lile de Yona /Youa’ – again it is unclear whether the name is written with an n or a u.

In this king-list, therefore, we cannot tell whether the scribe imagines that our island is called Youa or Yona.

There are references to Iona in Andrew Wyntoun’s Chronicle.  This text includes the verse in the Chronicle of Melrose which we cited above: Hos in pace viros tenet insula Iona sepultos in tumulo regum Iudicis vsque diem.[18]  Here it might seem that Wyntoun, the prior of the Augustinian community of St Serf’s on Loch Leven from 1420 to 1425, knows the island as Iona.  However, the Amours edition of this text is based on the  manuscript London BL Royal 17 D XX, a manuscript which the British Library’s online catalogue dates to the last quarter of the fifteenth century.  This manuscript cannot therefore be reliably used to assess Wyntoun’s own spelling, especially as Wyntoun died circa 1425, and between his death and the creation of this manuscript another very significant writer had joined the list of writers who mentioned Iona.

This other very significant writer was Walter Bower, the abbot of the Augustinian monastery of Inchcolm from 1417 to 1449.  Inchcolm, we should bear in mind, is an island in the Firth of Forth a mere 11½ miles from the home of Andrew of Wyntoun, Bower’s brother and the prior of Loch Leven.  It is inconceivable that these two neighbouring Augustinian superiors did not know each other, and they shared a commitment to writing the history of Scotland. We are fortunate  in possessing Bower’s own manuscript copy of his Scotichronicon made on the 1440s and now kept at Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 171A (and images of the manuscript are available online).  In Bower’s work, the first five books and a portion of the sixth are essentially editions of an earlier work which John of Fordun wrote in the 1380s.  Now for the first time in the development of our island-name, there is a clear attestation of the name Iona rather than Ioua.   Thus in Scotichronicon I, 6, Bower says:

Scriptor: Quarum insularum hec que secuntur dicuntur et sunt insule regales, videlicet Iona siue I uel Icolmekil in qua sanctus Columba construxit monasterium que usque ad tempus Regis Malcolmi viri Sancte Margarite fuit sepultura et sedes regalis Regum Pictiuie et[19] Scocie.[20]

 The writer:  Of these islands, those which follow are called, and are, royal islands, namely Iona or I or Icolmekil in which saint Columba built a monastery which, until the time of King Malcolm, the husband of St Margaret, was the burial-place and royal seat of the kings of Pictland and Scotland.

It is noteworthy that Bower attributes these remarks to Scriptor or ‘writer’, referring to himself (Fordun is referred to in Bower’s text as auctor) and indicating that this passage is Bower’s own addition to Fordun.  Fordun does not have this passage.[21]

I have read Bower’s name for our island as Iona, partly because of other things that he says about the island as we shall see shortly.  But at this point in the manuscript it is not actually clear that Iona rather than Ioua is intended.  This is how the phrase Iona siue I uel Icolmekil appears there on 3v:

Note that the third letter of Iona/Ioua is exactly the same as the third letter of siue, where it is a u, and very like the first letter of uel, where it looks more like a n.  We are still in a world of ambiguity, but the ambiguity of Bower’s name will be cleared up in the second book of Bower’s work.  In Scotichronicon II, 10 Bower writes:

I uel Iona hebraice quod Latine columba dicitur siue Icolumkil ubi duo monasteria sunt fundata per Sanctum Columbam vnum nigrorum monachorum aliud sanctarum monialium ordinis Sancti Augustini rochetam deferentium et ibi refugium.[22]

I or Iona in Hebrew, which is said ‘dove’ (or Columba) in Latin, or Icolumkil, where there are two monasteries founded by Saint Columba, one of black monks [i.e. Benedictines] and the other of holy nuns of the Order of Saint Augustine who wear the rochet. And there is a sanctuary there.

Above is the manuscript context for this passage.  Below, an expanded version of the name Iona as it appears there:

It seems fairly unambiguous at this point that Bower is spelling the name Iona, rather than Ioua.  And of course this is confirmed by his analysis of the name Iona, because Iona is indeed the Hebrew word for ‘dove’ – Latin columba – as he recognises in this passage, and he plays on the name of Saint Columba and the (misunderstood and misread) name of the island, perhaps partly motivated by his knowledge that the island-name Icolumkil also contains the Gaelic name of the saint, Colum Cille.  It is worth recalling that this passage is essentially Fordun’s work, but that the passage of Fordun which Bower is quoting says simply this: Insula Hy Columbkille, ubi  duo Monasteria sunt, unum Monachorum, aliud Monialium, ibidem itaque refugium.[23]  In other words, Bower has silently added the name Iona and added an assertion of its relationship to the Latin word columba to Fordun’s passage (together with more detailed information about the occupants of the two monasteries).

There are several other references to the island elsewhere in Bower’s work, sometimes as I insula, sometimes as Iona insula (though the form of the letter alone in his manuscript is not normally sufficient to declare it to be Iona rather than Ioua, and we can only tell that he intended Iona because of his meditation on that being the Hebrew equivalent of columba ‘dove’).  It would be pointless to list them all here, but it is perhaps worth pointing out that Bower repeats the sentence in the Verse Chronicle which we discussed above, we may assume that it is spelt Iona, but Bower’s manuscript is still ambiguous in its letter-forms.

insula Iona 1440s Bower Scotichronicon V, 8 (vol. 3, p. 22) [Hos in pace viros tenet insula iona sepultos in tumulo regum iudicis usque diem.  In the original it was spelled Ioua, as we saw above, but now we assume that Bower intends Iona]


But note even here that the n and the u of preceding insula are pretty much indistinguishable from each other, and from the u of following sepultos.  If it were not for the fact that Bower has offered us a translation of Iona as the Hebrew equivalent of columba, there might still have been some ambiguity over how he saw the name.


Ioua > Iona

In the light of the foregoing we may be able to identify more closely where the Ioua > Iona spelling-shift originated.   It looks as if Walter Bower may have been the originator of the misreading.  It may have simply been an innocent mistake, reading u as n, as so often happened. But it may have been ‘motivated’ in some ways too.  The fact that Bower introduces the name Iona for the first time not only as the name of the island but also as the Hebrew word for ‘dove’ (columba) and therefore of the name of the saint, is suggestive.

Alex Woolf has said that ‘it is difficult to believe that Columba’s island was transformed from Í to Iona purely by a slip of the pen.’[24]  But that is clearly not what happened.  The transformation from Í to Ioua was not a slip of the pen, but a Latinate literary affectation by Adomnán, as we saw above.  It was an affectation which did not gain any traction for nearly six centuries, but when people did finally adopt Adomnán’s spelling of the name (presumably because they were reading his Vita Columbae) they wrote it with ambiguous letter-forms which made it very easy to misread Ioua as Iona.  There would, of course, have been little in the way of an oral check on that misreading (and misspelling), because it was a form which seems to have existed primarily in certain kinds of literature, and not in the way people generally spoke about the island – the Ioua/Iona form remained in the world of literary affectation.[25]  The ‘slip of the pen’ was therefore not from Í to Iona, but from Adomnán’s Ioua to later Iona, and given what we have seen of the pre-Bower manuscripts, it is a completely plausible ‘slip’, and one which could have happened at any stage after 1264 when it first appears as Ioua.  But Bower is the first person to make a clear and unambiguous claim that the island-name was Iona, rather than Ioua, and to connect it to the Hebrew word for ‘dove’, columba, and to the name of the saint, and by that connection to fix the name Iona as the ‘correct’ one for all subsequent centuries.

Adomnán the ninth abbot of Iona, had already played with the name of the saint, Columba,  and its identity with the name of the Hebrew prophet Iona (Jonah) and the meaning of ‘dove’ for both; but he had not connected either of these names with the name of his island, Ioua insula.[26]  Perhaps Bower had reasons for wanting to (mis-)read the island-name as Iona, to carry the Columba/dove association a bit further.  And remember that he was also the abbot of the Augustinian monastery on Inchcolm – the Gaelic name meaning ‘island of the dove’ or ‘island of [Saint] Columba’ according to preference.  This might have given further motivation to the urge to read the name of Ioua as Iona, to play further with that Columba-Iona-Dove association.



I must confess that there are a handful of relevant manuscripts which I have not yet been able to examine, and as a result my suggestions and conclusions here are fairly fragile.  It is possible that at some point I will turn up an unambiguous reference to our island as Iona in a manuscript which pre-dates Bower in the 1440s.  In that case my entire Bower-hypothesis may be blown out of the water.  The ‘conclusion’ here must therefore be, for the time-being, a tentative one.


Bibliography and References:

ALI  Acts of the Lords of the Isles, 1336-1493, ed. Jean Munro & R. W. Munro (Edinburgh, 1986).

Anderson, Marjorie O., 1976, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland (revised edn, Edinburgh; 1st edn. 1973).

AU = Annals of Ulster (to 1131), ed. S. Mac Airt and G. Mac Niocaill (Dublin, 1983).

  1. Ad. Betha Adamnáin: The Irish Life of Adamnán, ed. Máire Herbert and Pádraig Ó Riain (Dublin, 1988).
  2. Óeng. Félire Óengusso Céle Dé, The Martyrology of Óengus the Culdee, ed. Whitley Stokes, Henry Bradshaw Society 29 (London, 1905; reprinted Dublin 1984).

HE  = Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969).

Fordun, Chronicon =  Johannis de Fordun, Scotichronicon Genuinum una cum ejusdem Supplemento ac Continuatione, ed. Thomas Hearne (Oxford, 1722), five volumes; also William F. Skene (ed.), Johannis de Fordun, Chronica Gentis Scotorum (Edinburgh, 1871).

Marstrander, Carl J. S., 1915, Bidrag til det Norske Spogs Historie I Ireland (Christiana).

Martin, Martin, 1716,  A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (second edition, London).

Melrose Chronicle  Manuscript of Melrose Chronicle, London BL Cotton MS Faustina B, IX on line at www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_Faustina_B_IX.

OSA  The [Old] Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99 (Edinburgh).

RMS  Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scottorum, ed. J. M. Thomson and others (Edinburgh, 1882-1914).

RRSRegesta Regum Scottorum vol. 1 (Acts of Malcolm IV), ed. G. W. S. Barrow (Edinburgh 1960).

RRS ii  Regesta Regum Scottorum vol. 2 (Acts of William I), ed. G. W. S. Barrow (Edinburgh, 1971).

Scotichron.  Scotichronicon by Walter Bower in Latin and English, gen. ed. D. E. R. Watt, 9 vols. (Aberdeen/Edinburgh 1987-98).

Sharpe, Richard (ed.), 1991, Adomnán of Iona: Life of St Columba (London).

Sharpe, Richard, 2012, ‘Iona in 1771: Gaelic tradition and visitors’ experience’, The Innes Review 63, 161-259.

Skene, William F., 1867, Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the Scots: Early Memorials of Scottish History (Edinburgh).

Symeon, Libellus  Symeon of Durham: Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius hoc est Dunhelmensis Ecclesie, ed. David Rollason (Oxford, 2000).

VC  Alan Orr Anderson and Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson (eds.), Adomnán’s Life of Columba (Oxford, 1991); for a useful and accessible translation of this text with excellent notes, see Richard Sharpe (ed.) 1991.

Walahfrid Blathmac = Mechthild Pörnbacher (ed.), Zwei Legenden: Versus Strabi de Beati Blaithmaic vita et fine; De vita et fine Mammae monachi (Heidelberg, 2012)

Walker, John, 1812, Essays on Natural History and Rural Economy (London).

Watson, W. J., 1926, The Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh).

Whyte, Alasdair C., 2020, ‘Ì (Iona)’, in Round & About Mull & Iona (Muin cuairt air Muile & Eilean Idhe), May, 2020.

Woolf, Alex, 2018, ‘Columbanus’s Ulster education’, in Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe, ed. Alexander O’Hara (Oxford), 91099.

Wyntoun Chronicle   The Original Chronicle of Andrew of Wyntoun, ed. F. J. Amours, six volumes (Edinburgh, 1903-1914).


[1]  Walker 1812, 113

[2]  Sharpe 2012, 183,

[3]  OSA vol. 14, 198.  Note that Gaelic tonn, ‘wave’ has a gen. pl. tonnan, and the form Í Thonn is thus not correct.

[4]  For Gaelic í ‘island’ as a loan from Old Norse ey see DIL s.v. í (1) [on line version at dil.ie/26894].  DIL also goes on to assert that Í was ‘the old Norse name of Iona, the latter being a misreading of Adomnán’s Ioua.’ failing to register that Í vel sim. was also the pre-Norse Gaelic name of Iona.  Marstrander (1915, 72) identifies Old Norse ey as the origin of Gaelic í ‘island’, but adds that the forms he cites in evidence cannot be reliably dated earlier than AD 1100.  See also Sharpe1991, 257.  Alasdair Whyte (2020) addresses the loan of ey into Gaelic, and suggests that the similarity between the island-name and the common noun í ‘island’ may explain why the definite article is sometimes found in alternative forms of Iona place-names; thus that Poit Idhe/Pottee also appears as Poit na h-Ì.   Whyte suggests that once Norse ey had been borrowed into Old Gaelic as í some Gaelic speakers began to understand the name Í Coluim Cille (and variants) as ‘island of Colum Cille’ rather than an expansion of the earlier Gaelic proper noun Í.

[5]  Sharpe, 2012, 183.  This story perhaps arises from a misreading of a passage in Manus O’Donnell’s Life of Columba in which Columba says on his arrival at Iona, Dochim hÍ, bendacht ar gach súil docí (‘I see Iona, a blessing on each eye that sees it’), cited in Sharpe, ‘Iona’, 203.

[6]  Martin 1716, 256.

[7]  Watson 1926, 87-8.

[8] It is generally assumed that this annal record refers to Iona, but the fact that the place is called a civitas or ‘city’ (a term which is not otherwise applied to Iona) and the strange spelling of the name raise the possibility that it is a reference to Mayo (Mag Eó) ‘plain of the yew trees’ – a daughter-house of Iona founded by monks who left Northumbria after a decision against them about the dating of Easter at Whitby in AD 664.

[9]  I am grateful to Prof. Dauvit Broun for information about the dating of the hand.

[10]  Image at http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_faustina_b_ix_f013v.

[11]  Anderson 1976, 279-85, 62-3; Skene 1867, lxv.

[12]  Anderson 1976, 282, 284.

[13] Anderson 1976, 62.

[14]  Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 133.  Images of the manuscript can be examined on line at https://parker.stanford.edu/parker/catalog/md506kt8712.  Anderson describes this as written in ‘a good fourteenth-century hand’ while the Library page itself dates it to around 1400.

[15]  ‘Cináed mac Alpin ruled for sixteen years, and died at Forteviot and was buried on the island of Iona, near to Hert, Loern and Fergus, three brothers.’  Hert here represents Erc.

[16]  Anderson 1976, 288, 286.

[17]  ‘All these kings were buried in the island of Iona.’

[18]  Wyntoun Chronicle IV, 306-7.

[19]  Pictiuie et (or possibly Pictinie et) is inserted as an interlinear correction in much smaller script.

[20]  fo. 3v.

[21]  Fordun, Chronicon, ed. Skene 1871, 5-6.

[22]  Fo. 18r.  See also Scotichron. vol. I, 188.

[23]  Fordun II, 10 (Skene edn, p. 4; Hearne vol. i, 82).

[24]  Woolf 2018, 98.  He also suggests (ibid.) that Adomnán’s use of Ioua is a genitive and ablative form of “Io”, but I see the ­-oua ending of his name as an adjectival suffix, as discussed above.  In fact most of the earliest form of the island-name are in the form Ia (genitive Iae), or Í.

[25]  I say ‘certain kinds of literature’, because so far I have not discovered any reference to Ioua or Iona in the pre-Bower charter record.  The earliest mention of Ioua or Iona (actually spelt Yona in this instance) in the Register of the Great Sea does not occur until 1588 (RMS v no. 1491).  The vast majority of references to the island in RMS are to Icolmekill vel sim., clearly the name used by those who actually had to deal with the island in real life, unlike the Latinate name of hagiographical legend used by historians or pseudo-historians until Bower.

[26]  VC, second preface.