Hinba (Scottish Gaelic: isles of the sea) is an island in Scotland of uncertain location that was the site of a small monastery associated with the Columban church on Iona. Although a number of details are known about the monastery and its early abbots, and various anecdotes dating from the time of Columba of a mystical nature have survived, modern scholars are divided as to its whereabouts. The source of information about the island is Adomnán's late 7th-century Vita Columbae.
The origin of the name 'Hinba' is Goidelic. The Hebrides remain the stronghold of the modern Gàidhealtachd and unsurprisingly this language has had a significant influence on the island names still found there. Why then would an island name vanish from the records? As a result of the Norse impact on Scotland from some point prior to 900 AD and for several centuries thereafter many of the Hebridean island names were altered or replaced. It has been argued that these changes to the onomasticon only applied to the islands north of Ardnamurchan and that original Gaelic place names predominate to the south. However, recent research suggests that the obliteration of pre-Norse names throughout the Hebrides was almost total and Gaelic derived place names on the southern islands are of post-Norse origin.
Founding and early administration
Columba (521–597), the first patron saint of Scotland, arrived in the kingdom of Dál Riata in modern Scotland from his homeland of Ireland in 563, and in the same year was granted land on Iona. This became the centre of his evangelising mission to the Picts. The Celtic monastic system made use of isolated retreat centres they called 'deserts' and there were two or more smaller monastic settlements associated with Iona. Mag Luigne on Tiree was one, Hinba the other, the latter being a favourite destination of Columba's for a period of contemplation. There may also have been similar outlying colonies on Elene Insula (possibly Nave Island off Islay) and Scia (Skye).
It is uncertain when Hinba was founded, but the best estimates put it between 564 and 574, as there is a story (see below) of Columba receiving a message from an angel to ordain Aedan mac Gabrain as King of Dal Riata, which occurred in the year 574. The text of Adomnan's book, also seems to be written as though there was only one monastery on Hinba.
According to Columba's biographer, Ernán was only abbot for a few days. In the story recorded, he was told by his nephew before leaving to Hinba that he did not expect to see him again in this life, and several days later, Ernán became sick and went back to Iona to see his nephew, according to his own wish. When Columba was told his uncle had returned, Columba happily went out to meet him in the harbour, but when they were only 50 yards distant, Ernán fell down dead.
Adomnán recorded several stories about the monastery on the island in relation to Columba in its early history.
In one story, Columba arrived on Hinba and he granted a relaxation of the dietary rule for penitents. But one penitent, named Neman mac Cathir, refused to take this indulgence. Columba then told him that he and Baithene had given him this relaxation, which he refused, but someday he would find himself in the forest among thieves eating the flesh of a stolen mare. And after his penance was finished and he returned to the world, he one day found himself among thieves and eating this meat with them.
In another story he was in Hinba, excommunicating the sons of Conall mac Domnaill due to their attacks on churches and one of these men came to Columba and attacked him with a spear. One of the monks, who was wearing Columba's cowl, jumped in the way of the attacker and miraculously this garment prevented the spear from penetrating. The attacker then left, thinking he had killed Columba.
Eileach an Naoimh
This is a rocky islet in the Garvellach group in the Firth of Lorn. Columba is believed to have visited Eileach an Naoimh and it may be the burial site of his mother Eithne. However, Adomnán the chronicler of the life of Columba, describes a settlement that may suggest a larger island than this one, which extends to only 56 ha (138 acres). Adomnán also refers to a place name associated with the island called Muirbolcmar. This is Gaelic for the great sea-bag and its interpretation has proven to be controversial. Watson took the view that it is not an obvious description of anywhere on the rocky coast of Eileach an Naoimh and that Hinba must therefore have been elsewhere.
However, Adomnán notes that Brendan the Navigator set sail from Ireland to visit Columba and unexpectedly found him en route at Hinba. The elderly Brendan might well have chosen to stop off at a monastic settlement he himself had founded many years before on the island of "Ailech". Ailech is "beyond reasonable doubt" Eileach an Naoimh, suggesting that Hinba may have been Ailech continuing under another name. However, Watson suggests that it is "most improbable" that Adomnan would have given "Ailech" another name (i.e. Hinba) and points out that tiny Eileach an Naoimh is "fitted for a penitential station rather than for a self-supporting community such as Columba's monasteries were".
An alternative proposed by Watson is Jura, some 6 miles south east of the Garvellachs. This much larger island is on the main sea route between the heartlands of Dál Riata and Ireland. It contains Loch Tarbert, a large arm of the sea that fits the description of a 'great sea-bag'. An alternative derivation of the name "Hinba" is that it is from the Old Irish inbe meaning 'incision', a description that could fit either Loch Tarbert or the prominent gap between the island's main hills, the Paps of Jura.
However, other scholars have taken the view that there is no reason to interpret Adomnán's text to mean that 'Muirbolcmar' is a place on Hinba, but rather that it describes Hinba's position. A 'great sea-bag' is a fair description of the Firth of Lorn. According to Murray (1973), the name Hinba, derives from the "old" Gaelic in (island) and ba (sea). He speculates that the original name would have been Na Hinba, meaning "the isles of the sea". The English version of this name is a modern variant for the Garvellachs, further conflating Hinba with Eileach an Naoimh and its immediate neighbours. Murray goes so far as to say that Watson was "confused" and quotes four other authorities as being satisfied that Eileach an Naoimh and Hinba are the same.
On the other hand, Marsden (1995) describes Watson's arguments as "a very convincing alternative" noting that Watson records a local name for Jura of t-Eilean Ban ('the blessed isle') and a cave on Jura's shores called Uaimh mhuinn tir Idhe ('the cave of the folk of Hy'). Marsden adds to this that Ernan the one-time prior of Hinba is known to have been buried at Kellernandale on Jura and that an (unidentified) Ancient Monument's Commission report on Iona contains an entry of 'Hinba (Jura?)'.
Watson also discusses Oronsay as a possible candidate. This tidal islet had a medieval priory, the tidal bay between the isle and Colonsay has a "bag-like horn" to the north and it is en route from Ireland to Iona. Indeed, Columba first landed here on his initial journey from Ireland to Iona, but continued onwards when he discovered he could still see Ireland from the summit of Oronsay.
The derivation of the name 'Oronsay' may be from Oran's Isle, St Oran being a companion of Saint Columba and the founder of the island's original monastery in 563. Murray (1966) states that the original Gaelic name was Eilean Orain. Oran's original monastery may have been a dependency of Kiloran Abbey on nearby Colonsay.
The micro-climate of Colonsay/Oronsay is also similar to that of Iona and Tiree, being both sunnier and drier than Jura or Seil.
Another possible site is Canna near Rùm, about 64 miles north west of the Garvellachs. However, Canna is a most unlikely landfall on the journey Brendan took as it is well to the north of and thus beyond Iona and Tiree.
The island of Seil lies to the north east of the Gravellachs and close to the mainland. Rae (2011) has suggested it as possible location of Hinba on various grounds. These include its association with Brendan, its location on an inshore trade route from Antrim to the north and its suitability for a substantial settlement. He suggests that the Muirbolcmar could refer to the Seil Sound and narrows at Clachan Bridge where the "bag" captures the rapidly flowing water that floods under the bridge and also argues for this location on etymological grounds. Equating "Hinba" with the Gaelic Inbhir, he notes that the adjacent mainland parish of Kilninver means "church of Inbhir" and suggests that the derivation of "Seil" maybe of Scandinavian origin with similarities to the East Frisian place name Zijl or Syl meaning a "seep or passage of water". This, he proposes, could have been a Norse interpretation of Hinba/Inbhir. However, Mac an Tàilleir (2003) notes that Kilninver or Cill an Inbhir "appears to mean 'church by the river mouth', although an older form of Cill Fhionnbhair, 'Finbar's church' appears.
It has also been suggested that Seil may be the Innisibsolian referred to in the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, which records a victory of the Scots over a Viking force during the time of Donald II in the 9th century. Innisibsolian is of Goidelic origin and if Solian is derived from 'Seil' as this early date it is hardly likely to have had a different Gaelic name prior to the arrival of the Norse. Furthermore, although south of Iona, Seil is not on a direct route to Iona from Ireland and the very strong tides in the area would make it an unlikely stopping off point.
Adomnán records that Columba was visited on Hinba by St. Comgall, St. Cannich, St. Brendan, and St. Cormac. During a Mass, Brendan saw a luminous globe of fire above Columba's head that "continued burning and rising up like a column of flame, till the Holy Mysteries had been completed". According to the same source, on another occasion whilst visiting Hinba, Columba saw "heavenly visions and revelations" that lasted for three days and nights.
In another story from Adomnan, Columba was living on the island of Hinba, at night he entered into a mental trance and he saw an angel of God coming to him holding a glass book on the ordination of kings. Columba received the book from him and began to read it. In the book, the command was given that he should ordain Áedán mac Gabráin as king of Dal Riata. Columba did not want to do so, because he considered Áedán's brother Eoganán as better. The angel then struck Columba with a whip, which gave him a scar that Columba carried the rest of his life. The angel then sternly spoke to Columba and told him that he had been sent by God with this glass book to have Columba ordain Áedán as king, but if he refused, then the angel would strike him again. The angel came back to Columba each night for three days, and Columba then left Hinba to go to Iona where Áedán had already come in order to ordain him as king.
- Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 67
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