Iona's Namescape: Place-Names and their Dynamics in Iona and its Environs

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Humanities


Iona, although a small island off the larger island of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland, has one of the oldest, richest, and most complex place-name records in Britain and Ireland. It also has a complex modern landscape as a result of multiple user-groups interacting with the landscape of the past in different ways. This project interrogates the dynamics of the namescape (the historical and changing landscape of names) of Iona and its environs, shedding light on the past, and proposing new ways of curating place-names as part of heritage management.

The 'Life of Saint Columba' written around AD 700 by Adomnán, the ninth abbot of the monastery of Iona, gives our earliest detailed impressions of this landscape, including some of our earliest recorded Gaelic place-names in Britain or Ireland. In the modern period the island became a destination for tourists and antiquarians, who interacted simultaneously with older texts and traditions and with the landscape and monuments they found, creating, curating and reinvigorating names. In the past century a traditional Gaelic crofting community has evolved into a more mixed economy, with a greater range of year-round occupations, augmented by seasonal auxiliary staff and faith-tourists. Permanent organisations, e.g., the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland now have differing management responsibilities towards the built and natural environments of the island, joining the international faith group, the Iona Community. This has created a complex dynamic of new names, translated names, and forgotten names, in Gaelic and English, a contested landscape of heritage and naming. These place-names (settlement names, landscape and coastal features, monuments) have never been subjected to formal rigorous analysis, despite the fragility of many of the names used by the Gaelic-speaking community in recent times. That fragility (highlighted by recent deaths) makes it vital that we subject this namescape to a programme of rigorous research, publication, curation and dissemination to the public and to official public bodies, and that we do it now. The team we have assembled for this purpose represents cumulative and long-standing expertise on Iona's history and heritage, on place-names and place-name survey, and on Gaelic and history in the adjacent island of Mull. In assembling this team at this time, the project is of utmost timeliness.

The core tasks of the project will be to research in-depth the place-names of Iona, to make that research widely available to the public through an online resource, and to bring them to publication in a volume of the Survey of Scottish Place-Names. Because of its long-standing links to Iona, this will also include the place-names of the nearby small uninhabited island of Staffa, also managed by NTS. The research will involve an in-depth investigation of the earliest records of Iona and its landscape, as well as work with modern recordings of Gaelic place-names, and new fieldwork into contemporary usage among the various communities who inhabit and work on Iona. The research will be set against the context of the neighbouring island of Mull, examining how Iona may share features with or differ from its environs. Our work on the concerns of curating heritage place-names will be explored in an international conference on 'Authority and Authenticity', with subsequent essay collection.

We will engage fully with a variety of beneficiaries from the project, producing a number of key ancillary outputs designed for the public and for the aid of heritage management: an interactive website allowing exploration of the names and the landscape; a popular guide to the place-names; standardised lists of names. We will further engage with the public and with heritage management bodies via a variety of events, including workshops, and a conference in 2021, the 1500th anniversary of the traditional date of the birth of Iona's founder, St Columba

Planned Impact

The ca. 130,000 tourists who visit Iona each year, the extensive international faith network of the Iona Community, and the major national organisations tasked with the heritage management of the island and its monuments and buildings underline the profound interest Iona has for a wide sector beyond the academic world. Iona also has a resident community, as do neighbouring parts of Mull, and these communities have invested in the heritage and inherited language of the area. Iona has been of great interest over centuries to writers, artists and musicians, all of whom will benefit through clarification or inspiration from the ability to see and understand the changing namescape of Iona afresh.
Our interactive website will ensure maximal reach for our research, allowing locals and visitors alike to explore the island through the heritage of its names. We will also produce a more traditional printed guide, that will allow the public to experience the namescape of Iona in all its dynamism. We will work together with the Mull and Iona Ranger Service (supported by NTS) to find ways to get the public in touch with the landscape through, e.g., place-name walks, something we have good experience with from other projects. As well as giving historical perspective, this will allow visitors to understand Iona's deep heritage, and importantly its Gaelic heritage.
Knowledge exchange is a two-way street. It is crucial that local communities and those who interact regularly with the island all contribute to our understanding of its traditions and the contemporary dynamic of Iona's names, and can recognise their island in our work. Knowledge exchange events in partnership with local organisations, facilitated by our Knowledge Exchange Liaison Group, will collect current forms and build relations with these communities. The Gaelic heritage of the area will be further developed by researching, curating, and disseminating Gaelic names. With the Mull and Iona Gaelic Partnership, we will run workshops to allow people to be aware of the Gaelic names of the area, and will reinforce Gaelic names in the local community, where they are often in danger of being lost. The project has the potential to address some of the disenfranchisement of the modern use of the island.
The heritage management organisations, working as our partners, will be some of the most important beneficiaries of this research. The main two bodies are the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which holds the island as a whole on behalf of the nation; and Historic Environment Scotland (HES), which has responsibility for the monastic buildings and precinct. They have been keen to diversify the visitor experience of Iona, enticing people out beyond the immediate abbey precinct, to enjoy more of the island, and our project will assist in this aim.
Beyond this, one of the key innovative aspects of the project aims for a rethink in heritage management about names as historical, human artefacts in need of careful research and curation alongside material remains. Statutory organisations have a role to play in preserving and disseminating historical place-names, and in moderating the use of recently invented names, sensitive to the fact that namescapes are dynamic and in constant flux. We will run innovative workshops in partnership with them, particularly for heritage managers, introducing them to the namescape of Iona, and also to the policy and practical implications of place-name ecosystems. We will provide resources which will help the public, and heritage management workers, in understanding, using and sustaining place-names.
The whole project team has strong experience in KE and Impact work: Clancy and Márkus's close involvement with Heritage Landscape Partnerships and similar projects; MacArthur's long-standing and multi-faceted work with the local Iona community; and Forsyth and Whyte's innovative recent work with Glasgow Council on projects relating to Glasgow's Gaelic heritage.


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