Un­cov­er­ing Scot­land’s ‘sec­ond Iona’ on Lis­more

The Oban Times - - Outdoors - MICHELLE MCANALLY mm­canally@oban­times.co.uk

ONCE home to a mag­nif­i­cent me­dieval cathe­dral and the bish­opric of Ar­gyll, it has been called Scot­land’s ‘sec­ond Iona’.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists work­ing at the parish church on Lis­more hope that in­for­ma­tion gath­ered from this year’s and last year’s digs will help them bet­ter un­der­stand what role it played in me­dieval cul­ture.

Dur­ing the week of July 15 to 22, Dr Clare Ellis, of Ar­gyll Ar­chae­ol­ogy, led up to 15 vol­un­teers each day in ex­ca­vat­ing the ru­ined walls of the nave and tower, with the long-term ob­jec­tive of de­vel­op­ing the area for pub­lic ac­cess and in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

‘Lis­more was cho­sen as the seat of the dio­cese, and that seems a bit strange to mod­ern peo­ple,’ said Dr Robert Hay, au­thor and ar­chiv­ist for the Lis­more Gaelic Her­itage Centre. ‘But if we re­mem­ber that peo­ple trav­elled by sea more than they did by land in those times, we’ll see that this site was very strate­gic.’

The cur­rent church was de­vel­oped from the choir of the grand cathe­dral that once stood there and, while to­day it hosts a small Church of Scot­land con­gre­ga­tion, at one time it would have been the site of one of the most im­pres­sive build­ings on the West Coast.

It is known as the Cathe­dral of St Moluag, who, ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tion, founded a re­li­gious com­mu­nity on the is­land in the sixth cen­tury. While ar­chae­ol­o­gists have found no re­mains that can be defini­tively dated to that time, they think that the cathe­dral may have been built on the site of an ear­lier church ded­i­cated to the saint.

‘In the 12th and 13th cen­turies, the MacDougalls were the dom­i­nant fam­ily in this area,’ Dr Hay ex­plained. ‘They built half a dozen or more stone cas­tles up and down the coast, in­clud­ing two on Lis­more. The cathe­dral here was a big part of this pres­tige project.’

Records show that in 1190 a dio­cese was formed at Lis­more, but it is not known if there was a church on the site at that time.

‘We do know the chan­cel was built in the 13th cen­tury be­cause of the me­dieval fea­tures cov­ered with ma­son marks,’ Dr Hay shared. ‘It tells you there was a lot go­ing on here.’

All week, vol­un­teers of all ages and back­grounds from all around the world pitched in with trow­els, shov­els and buck­ets, un­earthing fewer bones than last year, but in­clud­ing live­stock bones with tell-tale butcher marks, along with sam­ples of mor­tar, nails, a sin­gle coin and pieces of carved sand­stone.

Fine art tech­ni­cian Douglas Brein­gan has been com­ing to Lis­more for 20 years and vol­un­teers at the mu­seum. ‘When the cathe­dral was built, the mould­ing stones were built of sand­stones that we be­lieve were brought in from Morvern, and they were used for the fine carv­ings,’ Mr Brein­gan said, tag­ging and ex­am­in­ing each piece of stone as is was brought out of the trenches.

‘So any time we find a bit, we look at it closely to see if there is any work­ing done on it, and we can then tell what shapes the win­dows or doors were in the cathe­dral.’

Dur­ing the week, all parts of the base of the nave wall and the tower were eval­u­ated, the south en­trance was lo­cated and ex­perts con­firmed that part of the north wall was robbed of its stone.

How­ever, more than 20 sub­stan­tial pieces of carved stone were re­cov­ered, in­clud­ing fea­tures likely from the door dec­o­ra­tion.

Dr Mark Thacker, from the Uni­ver­sity of Stir­ling, took sam­ples of the mor­tar for car­bon dat­ing of the build­ing of the nave.

‘This was prob­a­bly one of the most im­por­tant ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal sites in Scot­land,’ Dr Hay said. ‘ We want to be able to pro­vide in­ter­pre­ta­tion here on site.’

The dig was funded by the So­ci­ety of An­ti­quar­ies of Scot­land, the Hunter Trust and the Mac­Dougall McCal­lum Foun­da­tion, USA.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gist Dr Clare Ellis, right, ex­am­ines an arte­fact from the nave tower as vol­un­teers dig.

Vol­un­teers helped ar­chae­ol­o­gists learn more about the cathe­dral on Lis­more.

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