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A Secret History of Fort Augustus
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  First and Lost Iona A Secret History of Fort Augustus

AUTHOR'S NOTES

Having quite by chance in quick succession read books on Beauly history, Gaelic place-names and Saint Columba, the author noticed that a remark in one, explained by another, was an answer to a mystery in the third and, almost before his eyes, a door opened to shine a light on an area of Highland history which had been shrouded from view for a thousand years. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, "Some area, some history."

 

Comments:

From Chris Stephenson a resident in Fort Augustus:

"A must read for anyone interested in Fort Augustus / Loch Ness Area with many interesting references to Vikings and Gaelic Place Names. The Iona Fort Augustus connection is indeed a revelation. It brings to life the era of the Vikings and leads on to the settling of the Great Glen by the Columbus Monks. The book is completed with great reasoning behind the Loch Ness Monster sightings."

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The First and Lost Iona - A Secret History of Fort Augustus

Below are some excepts from the book:

On Beauly and Achinbady

Achinbady is clearly stated to lie in Strathalvy. Strath needs no translation, but Watson gives for Alvy or Alvie the unambiguous meaning of “rock plain”. This, by itself, rules out any possibility that Achinbady could be Beauly because the soil around Beauly is pure alluvial silt, there being scarcely a pebble to be found in it for nearly a mile in any direction, save for a solitary drumlin, known in Gaelic as Cnoc na Rath (hillock of
the fort), lying to the west of the village. On the other hand, that part of the Great Glen immediately south of Fort Augustus fits the description “rock plain” so perfectly, it could have been coined for it, and very probably was.

On finding Sitheney

If the final consonant ey indicates an island or inch then who or what was Sithen? The origins of the name are obscure and, while a connection to Saint Swithin is possible, if not probable, Sitheney in fact takes its name in the first instance from Sithun, a town lying in an area to the north of what is now Stockholm in Sweden. Thus it can be taken to mean either Sithun Island, or the Isle like Sithun. Although my own preference is for the first alternative, the distinction is of little importance because on comparing a map of Fort Augustus with one of Sithun, now known as Sigtuna, one is immediately struck by the similarities between the two landscapes. Both lie at the head of long freshwater lakes, Ness and Malaren respectively, both lakes are readily accessible by boat from the sea, and both occupy low-lying meadowland by the water’s edge on a peninsula between two water channels, these being the Rivers Oich and Tarff in the case of Fort Augustus and two thin arms of the lake in the case of Sigtuna.

On King Erik the Victorious of Sweden


So how does a medieval Swedish King come to find himself on the shores of Loch Ness? Well, before he died in 995, Erik, if not by force then by craft, lived up to his nickname by conquering Denmark and taking as his second wife the Danish Queen. It is plain to see from the evidence he left behind, that, following his accession to the Danish throne, he came over to Scotland, not just to visit his newly acquired Danish colony here, but to help himself to a share of the real estate. Thus, he acquired the south end of Loch Ness and an entire adjoining strath which henceforward has been known as his strath, Stratherrick.

The King’s Drakar re-surfaces

Looking out from the shore, the interested spectator will have seen an animal head with a long neck emerge from the water and travel through the waves for a few yards before sinking from sight again leaving, in many cases, an impression of a long curved back or hump before disappearing completely from view. Remind you of anything? This is the only explanation for a Loch Ness Monster which fits the vast majority of sightings (the dinosaur-like creature crossing the main road at dead of night with a sheep in its mouth being a notable exception). There is unlikely to be more than one Drakar keel down there so whether one sees on the surface a long curved back or a shorter more pronounced hump will depend on whether the keel has any forward motion when it inverts.

On Columba and the Loch Ness Monster

The Ness has always been a great river for salmon but man is not alone among their predators. It shares a similar latitude, a couple of degrees below the 60th parallel, with Kodiak Island in Alaska, a place that gave its name to a member of the best known species of salmon fishing animal in the world, the brown
bear. In Columba’s time the bear had been extinct in Ireland for centuries so it is not an animal with which he and his fellow Irishmen would have been in any way familiar. But although it would not vanish from Scotland for a few generations yet, it was by this time, in the latter part of the sixth century, a rarity. With so much impenetrable woodland for cover, it would have been perfectly at home on the banks of the Ness and, like its North American cousins, would seek its favourite food where the water is shallow, the flow narrow and the passing salmon most easily caught. Rising in the water from all fours onto its two hind legs, it would certainly give the appearance of a beast rising from beneath the waves, all the more so if viewed indistinctly through a screen of greenery. More than capable of killing a man if surprised, or interrupted whilst feeding, a brown bear would generally seek to avoid contact with humans, thus its readiness to flee at the sound of Columba’s voice. Taken with Adomnan’s reference to the dead man having been mauled and the beast’s emitting of a roar, all the evidence points in only one direction and that is not towards a loch-dwelling monster. This was not the first recorded sighting in Scotland of a monster but the last recorded sighting of a bear.

On finding Hinba

Getting back to Hinba, I have to admit that I had never heard of it until I recently purchased Sharpe’s translation, in order to find out exactly what was the latest take on the saint’s beastly encounter which passed into legend as the first appearance of the Loch Ness Monster. Having then read the book, I could not escape the notion that the name Hinba seemed vaguely familiar. For day after day thereafter the question “Where on earth have I seen that name before?” gnawed away at the back of my mind. Then, one morning some weeks later, as I was standing outside Court 5 of the District Court in Glasgow, having a final read through my file before my client’s case called, the answer came to me from nowhere, right out of the blue like the dropping of a ton of pennies. Of course I had seen Hinba before! I had seen it in AcHINBAdy. Years of doing the Glasgow Herald cryptic crossword had finally paid off (not counting the half gallon of whisky it earned me one Christmas)!

On the First Iona

So, as for my question as to why a cross country visit from Iona to Inverness should necessitate a crossing of the River Ness, the answer is evident. When Iona is in Fort Augustus and there is no road along the west side of the loch, a crossing of the river is unavoidable. Why say more?

Locating the “Land of Heth”

As for Heth, Comgall is said to have accompanied Columba to the Court of King Brude and while there, founded a monastery in “The Land of Heth”. Heth, though, is not a place-name, as seems to have been universally assumed, but a personal one, being the equivalent of Aedh in Gaelic, the name from which Clan Mackay takes its origin.
In his book, “From Loch Ness to the Aird”, Edward Meldrum tells of the battle in 1120 where the forces of Heth, Earl of Moray, were defeated by King Alexander I (the Fierce). Although changes in the course of the river make it difficult to pinpoint the precise location, the encounter took place on the flatlands at the Stockford [of Beauly]. Given that today’s county boundary between the shires of Inverness and Ross probably marked the march between the province of Moray and the former hostile Danish territory to the north in those days, it would appear that Heth and his allies were cornered and had no option but to come out from the fort at Beauly to face the army of the King coming to meet them from the south.

The Hinba/Iona relationship explained

I believe that the Hinba/Iona relationship of Adomnan’s book can be quite simply explained, and in a manner which greatly clarifies his writing. That the issue, and with it Hinba’s location, has been clouded for so long is the result of Hinba having been a proper place-name while Iona was merely a descriptive term. Iona, the haven, was how the monks referred to their home, the mother house, so before Iona in the west emerged as an administration centre to supersede Hinba, the latter was called Iona. When administration was then transferred from Loch Ness to the Hebrides, the original Iona reverted in monastic correspondence to an abbreviation of its local name of Achinbady while the title Iona was given to the abbey that bears
the name to this day.

The meeting of the Five Abbots at Hinba


Just look at where these saints set up their foundations: Columba at the south end of Loch Ness; Comgall, due north at Beauly; Cormac further north again at Portmahomack; Cainnech, as will be dealt with below, due west of Beauly at Corrimony and Brendan due east of Beauly at Birnie, near Elgin. Linked together on the map, with Beauly at the apex, they form the outline of a gigantic cross emblazoned on the land of the Picts.

To borrow a phrase from the card table, these guys didn’t miss a trick. When the five of them had finished their agreed time in the Highlands, they celebrated together and went their separate ways.

On the Highland Broomielaw


By a deed in the year 1255, Laurentius, son of Patrick, the Porter of Inverness, releases all right he had “in Bromihalu and the island” to the community at Beauly to whom the original grants had been made. The deed which alienated these rights is long lost to history so one must try to ascertain whether the release related to parts of Beauly or Achinbady. Finding the meaning of Bromihalu is the first step in doing so.

This name appears to be a mixture of Saxon brom meaning broom and halieu, the old Greek word for fishers. It appears in Glasgow as the Broomielaw and means the same thing there, the broom field of the fishers. In other words, it was a salmon fishing station and, as such, the monks’ most precious asset.