The ‘Iona Psalter’ – probably

In the National Library of Scotland there is a manuscript with the pleasingly rounded shelf-mark NLS MS 10000.  It is a prayer-book made around the year 1200, perhaps a little before, and it is commonly referred to as The Iona Psalter. In what follows I want to explore the features of the manuscript that suggest an Iona connection, but also other features that might challenge that notion, and to ask what we can learn about its origin and purpose – where was it made, and who was it made for? Place-names will play a role in this exploration, but you will have to read to the end of the blog to find out how.

First let me briefly describe the manuscript as a whole, and give a general picture of its contents. It is a substantial volume, 152 folios of 11½  inches by 7¾ inches. As such books usually do, it begins with a Kalendar – twelve pages, each containing notes on one month of the year, the feasts to be celebrated on each day and the significant events (equinoxes, limits for lunar calculations and so on). The Kalendar is often an important indicator of the origin of a manuscript, and we will return to it shortly.

The next section is a complete Psalter – i.e. the whole series of the Psalms.  These songs from the Bible were at the heart of monastic life. They were sung at every community office, and were central to the Church’s culture and self-understanding. But as a standard text used throughout the Church they are hardly an indicator of the manuscript’s provenance. The Psalms are followed by a series of ‘canticles’ – songs which are taken from the Bible but are not from the book of Psalms. The Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, for example, are sung daily in a monastery alongisde the Psalms, so the manuscript includes them, along with other such canticles (some of which are sung less frequently).  The Canticles are followed by the text of the Athanasian Creed – a confession of faith in the Trinity.

For our purposes the next section is vitally important: the Litany of Saints – a long prayer which is sung by a cantor invoking God and the saints by name, the rest of the community responding. We will come back to this in due course.

The Litany of Saints is followed by an interesting meditative text known as the Psalter of Our Lady, or the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin, which is a fine example of the hermeneutic style of the medieval literary imagination. The text, which appears in several manuscripts of the period, consists of a line or two taken from each psalm in succession, followed by an address to the Virgin, a metrical rhyming quatrain, which plays on the imagery of the psalm just quoted, connecting it in some way to the Virgin herself.  There are occasional longer prayers to the Virgin interspersed. To give an example of the pattern, here is a line from Psalm 33.

Gustate et uidete quam suavis est Dominus; beatus uir qui sperat in eo.
(‘Taste and see how good is the Lord; blessed is the man who hopes in him’)

followed by the Marian reflection:

Aue uirgo que gustasti quam sit dulcis quem gestasti,
te beatam spes effecit quam tam sanctam Deus fecit.

(‘Hail O Virgin, who tasted how sweet is He whom you bore;
Hope has made you blessed, you whom God made so holy’.)

The foregoing gives a sense of the structure and content of the manuscript.  There is much that could be said about the rather fine scribal hand, the rather careless and error-strewn copying, and the lovely illumination, but that it is not our purpose here.  Our purpose is to explore its supposed Iona affiliation.

The catalogue entry for this manuscript, a copy of which is inserted in it, says that ‘the Kalendar and Litany show the influence of Iona’. That may be true of the Litany (as we shall see), but there is no immediately apparent trace of any interest in Iona in the kalendar. If this Kalendar had been made for a community on Iona, why does it not include Columba himself (9 June), or Adomnán (23 September) or any other saint at all with an Iona connection?[1] It does have some Gaelic-speaking saints: Fillan (Felani, 9 January), Brigid (Brigide, 1 February), Ciarán (Chiarani, 4 March), Patrick (Patricii, 17 March) and Finan (Finani, 7 April). But none of these saints has any particular connection to Iona.

So why are the Iona saints missing? Could it be that this manuscript actually has nothing to do with Iona at all? This would be a surprise given some very obvious Iona hints later in the manuscript. One possibility is that the kalendar is unfinished, and that some important Iona feasts are missing simply because these important feasts had not yet been entered. In support of this explanation is the fact that several other important feasts are missing which certainly must have been intended to be entered. For example Christmas Day (Natiuitas Domini) is missing. It is simply inconceivable that anyone would make such a kalendar and leave out that feastday. It is the second most important feast of the year, after Easter Sunday.  Likewise the Epiphany (6 January) is omitted, though significantly the octave of the Epiphany (13 January) is included (Octauum Epiphanie). The ‘octave’ is the day a week after a major feast – a feast so important that it has to be celebrated twice. Again we must assume that the scribe of the kalendar must surely have intended to enter the Epiphany but didn’t complete his or her task. The same could be said for the birthday of John the Baptist, a significant feast on 24 June: it is missing from our kalendar, but Octauas Sancti Iohannis is marked on its octave, on 1 July. Clearly the intention was to celebrate the actual feast, but it has not yet been entered. Likewise, the major feast of Peter and Paul (29 June) has not been entered, though Octauas Apostolurum Petri et Pauli appears on 6 July, while the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin should have been marked on 8 September, but is missing, while on 15 September we find Octauas Sancte Marie.  It seems quite obvious, therefore, that this kalendar is unfinished, and that major feast-days were still to be entered – presumably in a specially colourful or decorative way to emphasise their importance (otherwise they would surely have been entered in the more functional script of the rest of the kalendar while it was being made).

If that is true of Christmas Day, the Epiphany and the rest, perhaps it is true of St Columba too. Perhaps, as the patron saint of the whole island of Iona (Ì Chaluim Chille) his name was intended to be entered in glorious technicolour on his June feast-day, but the scribe never completed the task. There is one technical aspect of the kalendar which might confirm this. Here is an image of the first twelve days of June.  Saints Medard and Gildard are commemorated on the eighth day.[2]  Fourth-century Roman martyrs Primus and Felicianus are commemorated on the ninth, but their names have been pushed to the right hand side of the column, for no very obvious reason – indeed they have been pushed so far to the right that their entry has been broken up, so that Primi et Fe- has been entered on the line of their proper feast while the second part, –liciani had to be entered on the following line.

NLS MS 10000, fo. 3v.
reproduced with permission of NLS

Why have Primus and Felicianus been pushed so far to the right? They are the only saints in the entire kalendar who have suffered this indignity, except for those pushed to the right by more important feasts which have been entered on the left side of the page. So, for example, on the third of May the red-letter celebration of the ‘Finding of the Holy Cross’ (Inuentio Sancte Crucis) has pushed the two Roman martyrs Alexander and Eventius further to the right.

NLS MS 10000, folio 3r.
reproduced with permission of NLS

I would suggest that the displacing of Primus and Felicianus came about because the scribe intended to enter the name Columba on the left (in line with all the other saints) and wanted to make space for a particularly spectacular entry. If I am right in this suggestion, the absence of Columba (and perhaps that of Adomnán) from the kalendar actually confirms the Iona connection. It suggests that far from being omitted as insignificant, Columba’s feast-day (like Christmas and the Epiphany) was due to be entered as one of maximum importance with some artistic flourish of colour or ornament.

One other feature of the kalendar is worth commenting on at this point. The clipping from a modern catalogue which has been inserted into the manuscript says that ‘there is a prominence given to St Frideswide of Oxford that is difficult to explain’.  This is a reference to the appearance of that holy woman on 19 September (her feast-day proper) and the celebration of the same saint on 13 February (the feast of the ‘translation’ or re-enshrining of her relics).

Translatio Sancte Fridesuide uirginis (folio 1v.)
reproduced with permission of NLS

This interest in Frideswide may be the reason that the RCAHMS volume on Iona suggests that the manuscript was ‘written and illuminated probably in Oxford’.[3] We cannot rule out this suggestion, but it is worth remembering that the monastery founded by Frideswide in the seventh century was destroyed in AD 1002, and the church was re-established as an Augustinian priory in 1122. As the nuns of Iona were Augustinian, it may be that the cult of Frideswide appears in the kalendar merely out of a sense of solidarity with another (very important) Augustinian foundation. There is nothing else, to my mind, particularly Oxonian about the manuscript.  There are also a good many other English saints in the kalendar: Cuthbert, Alphege, Dunstan, Botulf, Alban (who was not English but whose cult was, and whose shrine was a very important part of English devotion), Werburga, Etheldreda, Mildred, Kenelm, Oswald, Edmund, Augustine of Canterbury (twice, for his feastday proper and for his translation), and Thomas of Canterbury (twice, both feast and octave). Given the great cloud of English witnesses here, it is probably unwise to stress the presence of Frideswide as a clear indicator of an Oxford origin.

The large number of English saints in the kalendar is not even a guarantee of English, let alone Oxford, origin. After all the kalendar of Bamburgh Castle, Sharp Library No. 6 (in Durham University Library since 1958) has 18 English saints, far more than saints of Scottish origin or connection, though it appears in fact to have been made in Scotland, at Holyrood Abbey, at about the same time as the ‘Iona Psalter’, and in a rather similar style – both scribal and decorative.[4]  It is therefore just as likely that our psalter has a Scottish origin as an English one, even if the style of both psalters mentioned may be shaped by English and French models.[5]

Let us turn now to the Litany of Saints in the ‘Iona Psalter’. The structure of the text follows the near universal western model of such litanies in the middle ages.[6]  It begins with an address to God, praying for his mercy – Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison – and then addresses a large number of saints, the saints being addressed by name (usually individually, but sometimes in groups) by the cantor, while the congregation responds ora pro nobis or orate pro nobis (‘pray for us’). It is of particular importance from our point of view, however, to look at precisely which saints are included in the long list.

The medieval tradition of Litanies of Saints divided the saints up into groups which were addressed in order: first there was the Blessed Virgin addressed as Saint Mary, Mother of God, Virgin of Virgins, and she was followed by the angels. Then came John the Baptist (the last of the Biblical prophets) and a list of apostles and evangelists, followed by a list of martyrs. These usually included a series of Roman martyrs of the early Church, but towards the end of the martyrs’ section there might be the names of martyrs of a more local interest, and that is true of the Iona litany here, which finishes with two martyrs from Britain, Alban and Eadmund. It is these more local martyrs, rather than universal martyrs like Stephen, Linus, Cletus, Clement etc., which give a particular historical texture to the prayer, helping us to understand the provenance of a particular version of the Litany. The presence of Alban and Eadmund point us towards an origin in England or Scotland, but nothing more precise than that.

 Iona Psalter, folio 137r. the end of the martyrs’ section and the beginning of ‘confessors’
(reproduced with permission of NLS)

The martyrs are followed by Saint Augustine at the head of the list of ‘confessors’ – those who lived holy lives but were not martyred. It is in the concluding part of the list of confessors, however, that we find our most potent evidence of an Iona connection.

Iona Psalter fo. 137v., the conclusion of the confessors section
(reproduced with permission of NLS)

After Cuthbert and Jerome we have a cluster of four Iona saints one after the other: Columba (the founder and first abbot of Iona), Baithéne (the second abbot), Adomnán (the ninth abbot and Columba’s biographer), and Odrán (the saint who features in the monastery’s twelfth-century foundation legend).[7] It would be hard to imagine a stronger pointer towards Iona as the place of origin for this manuscript, or at least as the place of its intended use.  Not only are these four saints central figures in the hagiography of Iona, three of them figure in the place-names of the island. Iona is, of course, Ì Chaluim Chille in Gaelic, the whole island falling under Columba’s patronage. Baithéne seems to have left no record in the place-names of the island, but Adomnán is commemorated in the now lost Crois Adomnáin (‘Adomnán’s Cross’) at the north end of Baile Mòr, close to the shore. The nearby Port a’ Chrossain (‘harbour of the little cross’)[8] was probably named after this cross. The last of our cluster of four, Odrán, is commemorated in Reilig Odhrain, a major feature of the ritual landscape, and in Teampull Orain (now St Oran’s Chapel) and Cnoc Orain.

This cluster of Iona saints suggests that this book was made for someone on Iona. And the prayers which conclude the Litany of Saints in our manuscript indicate that it was made for a woman, or a female community (on folios 138v. and 139r.):

Ut famulam tuam ab omni aduersitate protegas.
(That your protect your maidservant from all adversity.)

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, miserere famule tue et dirige eam secundum tuam clemenciam in uiam salutis eterne ….
(Almighty and everliving God, have mercy on your maidservant, and direct her according to your mercy in the way of eternal salvation…)

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the nunnery on Iona is conventionally regarded as the intended home of the manuscript, the community for which it was made (even if it was not the community which made it). And given its late twelfth- or very early thirteenth-century manufacture, it may very well have been made for Beathag, the prioress of the nunnery at about that time.

I would like, however, to raise another possible localisation for this manuscript. This is partly because of the presence of Baithéne in our cluster of four Iona saints. His cult was not widely celebrated in medieval Scotland – not even in Iona place-names – as far as we can tell, but it will certainly have been celebrated in the church now called Abbey Saint Bathans in Berwickshire, in the far south-east of Scotland.[9] In that place a Cistercian nunnery was founded in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, at the time when our manuscript was made. The incorporation of Baithéne in the cluster would be more probable in a place where the cult of Baithéne was already ‘built-in’ as it were, in the church dedication. Simon Taylor has identified Abbey St Bathans as part of a sequence of churches and chapels across Scotland dedicated to Iona abbots on routes which connected Iona with its daughter-house of Lindisfarne in the seventh century.[10] The cult of Iona saints could well have arisen in Abbey Saint Bathans through a fossilisation of this seventh-century connection. If this were the nunnery for which the Psalter was made, it might also explain Cuthbert’s appearance in the Litany two places before Columba, and Benedict two places after Odrán. Saint Cuthbert was the bishop of Lindisfarne, Iona’s daughter house, a mere thirty miles from Abbey Saint Bathans; Benedict was the author of the Rule which the Cistercian nuns followed. Benedict is followed by Leonard, The final saint in the list of Confessors is St Giles (Sancte Egidii), and again this might point to a southern nunnery whose devotions embraced the patron saint of St Giles Church in Edinburgh, about 25 miles to the north-west. St Giles does not appear in any church dedication or place-name in the whole of Argyll.

In support of a southern Scottish locus for the ‘Iona Psalter’ is also the manuscript style: the hand and decorative style are rather similar to those of the Bamburgh Castle Psalter mentioned above, which appears to have been made at Holyrood. They are certainly more like that Holyrood manuscript than they are to another contemporary manuscript known as The Iona Missal, a small group of fragments containing parts of the Holy Week liturgy.[11] David McRoberts, who wrote about this manuscript in an advisory letter to the National Library of Scotland in 1969, remarked on its scribal style. ‘The script of these missal-fragments is very curious … quite clearly it was written in the Celtic area. More than one capital letter is Celtic in style. … If we accept that this missal was written in the late twelfth century, this rules out all possible provenances except one, the Benedictine monastery of Iona, founded some time around the year 1200. This missal would fall into context then as a book written in the scriptorium of the newly founded Benedictine abbey, written by one of the monks, who was trying to produce the current twelfth-century bookhand but his earlier training in the pre-Benedictine monastery of Iona betrays itself in occasional letters and details.’[12]  The Iona Psalter evidently comes from a very different scribal tradition from that current on Iona at the time. Of course it may have been made in southern Scotland (in a southern style) but designed for use on Iona; it may even have been made on Iona by a scribe trained in that southern tradition. Perhaps the scribal style of the Psalter does not tell us very much about its place of origin, or its intended destination.

While Abbey Saint Bathans remains a tantalizing possibility, there are two problems (at least) that occur to me.  One is the presence of St Odrán in the cluster of four in the Litany. His association with Iona cannot be dated earlier than the late twelfth century and there are no dedications to (and therefore little interest in) this saint in eastern or southern Scotland. Why would nuns in Berwickshire include him in their litany? Perhaps they were aware of the developing cult of Odrán in Iona, and adopted him in a litany in order to maintain the ancient connection between their church and Columba’s monastery. If so, the Odrán difficulty is diminished. The second problem is that the list of confessors in the Litany begins with Saint Augustine. This is probably also a ‘privileged’ position in the Litany, in the sense that his being placed first probably indicates a special interest in his cult. That would be more natural in the Augustinian nunnery on Iona than in the Cistercian (and thus Benedictine) nunnery of Abbey St Bathans.

I doubt if these arguments for and against Iona, or Abbey Saint Bathans, offer an absolutely convincing case for either. Perhaps further close inspection of the Psalter might reveal some other feature which weighs on one side or the other.


[1]  Stephen Holmes states wrongly that Columba is included. See Stephen Holmes, ‘Catalogue of liturgical books and fragments in Scotland before 1560’, The Innes Review 62 (2011), 127-212, at 140.

[2] This is their feastday in the Roman martyrology, which claims that they were brothers, bishops respectively of Noyon and Rouen.

[3]  Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (now part of Historic Environment Scotland), Argyll: an inventory of the momnuemts (volume 4: Iona) (Edinburgh, 1982), 178.

[4]  A.I. Doyle, ‘A Scottish Augustinian Psalter’, The Innes Review 8 (1957), 75-85, with plates between 86 and 87.

[5]  See John Higgitt, The Murthly Hours: Devotion, Literacy and Luxury in Paris, England and the Gaelic West (London, 2000), 277.

[6] For the eastern origin of such litanies, and their early introduction into the west via the seventh-century English church under the authority of Theodore of Tarsus, see Michael Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Litanies of the Saints (London, 1991), 13-41.

[7] For a study of this cult and its significance, see Gilbert Márkus, ‘Inventing Odrán: saints, pilgrims and politics in medieval Iona’, The Innes Review 73 (2022), 1-30; also idem., ‘Replicating a sacred landscape: the cult of Saint Odrán in Scottish Place-Names’, Journal of Scottish Name Studies 15 (2021), 10-31.

[8]  It appears on Reeves’ map of 1857.

[9]  For a picture of where his cult appears in place-names see To the best of my knowledge, his name does not appear in any Scottish kalendar.

[10]  Simon Taylor, Seventh-century Iona abbots in Scottish place-names, in Dauvit Broun and Thomas Owen Clancy (eds), Spes Scotorum – Hope of Scots: Saint Columba, Iona and Scotland (Edinburgh, 199), 35-70.

[11] Edinburgh, NLS Adv. MSS 84.1.17 and 84.1.18.

[12]  This two-page letter from Mgr. David McRoberts is included in the digital scan of the manuscript now available on the NLS website at