Posted by: pauladefougerolles | January 18, 2021

Armchair travelling 1: To Iona

So, one good thing to come from this wretched pandemic is the fact that it has forced me back to my archives. In place of any actual research trips, I’ve been organising my files. I know! How utterly boring! And yet … it has taken me back to all the places I have so loved, places I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced and which now feature prominently in my books.

So, if you will indulge me, here is a bit of armchair travelling, courtesy of some old photos. First up, the slog to Iona. As you may know, the Isle of Iona sits off the Isle of Mull which sits off the west coast of Scotland due west, more or less, from the town of Oban, known for good reason as “The Gateway to the Isles”. Back in the day, Iona was at the very centre of its world, both figuratively and literally. It was the hub of a vast and powerful network of monasteries which linked together peoples and kingdoms. If you think of the oceans as highways, then this makes sense. All roads led to Iona.

Now it feels slightly off the beaten track. Which, to be honest, only adds to its appeal. Unless you’re lucky enough to sail to it, to get to Iona you have to get yourself to Oban, then take a car ferry to the magnificent Isle of Mull, where you disembark, then drive like mad all the way across the island on hair-raising single-track roads, fearing all the while that you’ll miss your second ferry, the one to Iona.

The journey looks like this. It’s always slightly harrowing and, dare I say it, fun. Even if you’ve done the majority of it in a car, your spirit does feel as if you have undertaken a rather arduous pilgrimage:

Our starting point, the proud town of Oban, where you catch the first of your ferries …

On the left, the island of Kerrera. Dead ahead, Mull …

What’s not to love?

Eilean Musdile lighthouse, off Lismore. Always a joy.

The Maclean stronghold of Duart, dour guardian of Mull …

Then the mad dash across Mull itself …

Screeching into Fionnphort with seconds to spare …

… to catch the second ferry (a ferry which in days gone by you’d hail by ringing a bell or shouting VERY LOUDLY)

And there she is at last!

Now, of course, in Exile Columba doesn’t do this. He goes by boat since, paradoxically, at that time it was far safer and easier to go by the “sea-roads”, as they were known, than by land.

Here’s where in the book Columba first sets foot upon Iona. At first, he’s underwhelmed. He’s been thrown out of Ireland and has nowhere to go; in that day and age, a death-sentence. So he’s applied to the king of Dal Riata in Scotland, a mean, malign man by the name of Conall, for land for a settlement. Conall’s given him Iona; an insulting joke, since the island actually belongs to their mortal enemies the Caledonian Picts.

Undaunted, Columba hitches a ride to Iona then heads up to the top of the island’s lone hill, Dun I, to get a good look around. (You can see Dun I in the last photo. It’s the low hill which rises just to the left of the present-day Abbey. As the island’s only really high point, it’s a superior place to brood.)

Perusing the island with the exacting eye of an administrator, Columba is quite sure he won’t be able to feed and house the twelve friends who have insisted on coming into exile with him.

But then, something magical happens. Iona begins to reveal herself to him:

He saw it all with opened eyes. He saw beauty. Gently contoured, Iona was almost serene in her simplicity. Her stone was tinged the color rose, the sand of her beaches a startling shell-white: the prevailing south-westerly winds had lifted it from the dunes to sprinkle it throughout the machair. He took a deep breath. The air was pristine, rarified. Overhead, brilliant white clouds skimmed across a limitless heaven. And the colors! The encircling ocean was a riotous celebration of deep violets and azures and emerald greens. Sunlight glinted off the blue swell.

He could see it now, feel it. Aside from her beauty, there was an austerity to Iona, a solemnity. She seemed to ride above the water, straining towards the sky. It was as if she sought to shed both the ocean’s cold embrace and her own skin of soil and bones of rock as she strained towards God. It was as if on Iona time was at a stop. This made her a holy place, unfit for most kinds of settlement … but not for his.

With effort, with toil, everything he and his monks would need was right before himIf he could get Iona from the Caledonii …

[The Chronicles of Iona: Exile, pp. 91-92]

That’s what Iona feels like to me, in any case. It’s always an utter joy to be there–and getting there is half the fun. In trying times like these, when time itself feels almost “at a stop”, it’s comforting to know that places we’ve loved are waiting for us to make our way back.

Posted by: pauladefougerolles | January 14, 2021

Visit Iona virtually

A wonderful thing popped up in my Twitter feed this week which deserves a huge shout-out.

Longing to visit the isle of Iona again? I certainly am. Well, thanks to Historic Environment Scotland you can do so virtually. They’ve assembled a fantastic array of immersive resources for the armchair traveller we’ve all (temporarily) become, here:

There’s a free comprehensive audio guide which lets you “visit” the island as if you were a pilgrim travelling to Iona to celebrate St Columba’s feast day on the 9th of June sometime in the 1400s. It’s packed full of videos about the abbey’s significant early landmarks, including Columba’s scriptorium, the abbey’s famous high crosses, and its collection of West Hebridean grave markers, the best in Scotland (you can explore these at your leisure in the Canmore archive and collections database, also linked). There are also Gaelic tutorials on a whole host of useful subjects.

Until you can get there again, it’s a fun, safe way to get closer to the Iona that Columba loved and created; a connection to the world of the past–and the present–which may feel lost to us just now.

Thanks a million @HistEnvScot!

Posted by: pauladefougerolles | September 18, 2020

The e-book of “The Chronicles of Iona: Island-Pilgrim” is here!

Book 3 of the award-winning series The Chronicles of Iona is out today. Praised as “mesmeric”, “engrossing”, and “gritty”, Island-Pilgrim continues the enthralling true story of how a 6th-century saint (Columba of Iona), and a warlord (Aedan mac Gabran, king of Dalriada), forged the nascent kingdom of Scotland. On Kindle now for only £2.31. #thechroniclesofiona

Iona - Set of Books 2Here’s another great review of “The Chronicles of Iona: Island-Pilgrim”, this time from Kirkus Reviews.

“This latest series entry continues the tale of how a medieval king and an abbot helped to found Scotland.

In two previous books, Exile (2012) and Prophet (2013), de Fougerolles told the twin stories of future saint Columba and warrior Aedan mac Gabran, two friends and allies in a strife-torn world. As Columba worked to found a monastery on the island of Iona, Aedan forged new political and personal relationships that helped him rise to power. Now, in the spring of 574, Aedan has just been acclaimed king of Dal Riata, a region that roughly encompasses western Scotland and eastern Ireland. But to keep the throne, he must keep the peace, and because the two Dal Riatas haven’t been combined for more than 70 years, Aedan’s control of them is more nominal than actual. Nor can Columba rest easy, as he has a knack for making enemies. A crisis ensues when Baetan mac Cairell—the overking of Ulaid, the Scots’ ancestral homeland in Ireland—demands that Aedan acknowledge him as his leader. The kingdom as a whole must be unified, and soon, everything depends upon finding the Irish heir-apparent Fiachna Lurgan, who was sold into slavery as a boy. Aedan and Columba must mount a dangerous expedition to Ireland where, as an exile, Columba faces mortal danger. If they succeed, they’ll have a chance to bring stability to their benighted world. De Fougerolles, a medieval historian, again brings this complicated, rich world to vivid life. With its scenes of battle and conflict, the main story is stirringly intense, and the many levels of sixth-century culture are often surprising, such as the roving gangs of bards who threaten their hosts with vicious satires if they don’t provide fine food and lodging. Although the pages are thick with daunting, unfamiliar names and titles, de Fougerolles does provide a helpful list of characters, maps, and a glossary with pronunciations, among other supporting material. Several links to Arthurian legend add further interest to the story—most importantly, a growing social awareness that laws should protect the innocent. (A further volume is planned.)

A thoughtful, well-written, and exciting historical novel in an excellent series.”


Posted by: pauladefougerolles | October 11, 2018

“Swift, mesmeric … engrossing historical fiction” thanks to ForeWord Clarion Reviews for an outstanding review of “The Chronicles of Iona: Island-Pilgrim.

“The Chronicles of Iona: Island-Pilgrim is a swift, mesmeric historical tale about the men who shape a nascent nation.

Paula de Fougerolles’s Chronicles of Iona: Island-Pilgrim is engrossing historical fiction relaying the creation of early Scotland.

In the sixth century, Aedan mac Gabran is a Scottish warlord turned king ruling over a restless, divided land. He has many lives and lovers, leading to additional woes. His friend, Saint Columba, is an Irish monk who has been forbidden to return to his homeland. In an attempt to bring the people together and on threat of Columba’s death, the two journey back to Ireland anyway, hoping to rescue a captive prince, Fiachna Lurgan, who, it is said, is destined to unite the troubled territories. The pair is prepared to sacrifice all for the greater good.

The setting—an island inhabited by the sea god, Lord Manannan, and his kin—is integral to the story. The gods are believed to embody and control the landscape and weather, and serve both metaphorical and literal purposes in the story. The presence of the gods gives the book a mythical slant. All aspects of the scenery are drawn with startling clarity: the earth is nearly personified, the contours of the country are outlined, and bodies of water are lovingly detailed. Not only thwarted by waves of angry Picts, Irish, and Britons, Aedan and Columba also struggle with the land and its spirits in their work to create what will become known as Scotland. The luminous locale makes it clear what the heroes are fighting for.

The three parts of the story race along like a well-structured play, with transitions between sections that are smooth and coherent. Enjoyable and comprehensible as a standalone work thanks to the cleverly-woven-in backstory, the book’s handy references aren’t required to understand the tale.

Gritty, realistic details capture sixth-century Ireland and Scotland. Battle scenes teem with action, as does the race to find Fiachna before those who seek to kill him do. Vivid verbs speed the story’s Odyssean scenes of peril and consequence as the story rushes to a satisfying conclusion.

Romance, while present, takes a back seat to the story’s pressing political concerns. Aedan’s numerous loves consist of multiple, powerful women: Afrella, his chief wife; Ama, his consort; Eithne, his first love who is now his cousin’s wife; and Domelch, his first wife. The women produce the expected plethora of sons, a further source of distraction for Aedan as he sends his children separately to safety.

While there is predictable rancor, betrayal, and arguing about and among the women, such relationships are set aside for more immediate concerns. At the story’s end, questions remain about the state of Aedan’s various romantic relationships, which spur unsatisfied curiosity. Romance remains secondary to the quest.

The book brims with polished prose and well-characterized main characters, although more complete physical descriptions of the main characters would be welcome. The young prince Fiachna, destined to be the ruler of all, arrives late in the story, though he is drawn with appeal.

The Chronicles of Iona: Island-Pilgrim is a swift, mesmeric historical tale about the men who shape a nascent nation.”

Reviewed by Drema Drudge


Posted by: pauladefougerolles | June 23, 2018

Book 3, “The Chronicles of Iona: Island-Pilgrim”, is here! a quick post to tell you that the 3rd book in my series, called The Chronicles of Iona: Island-Pilgrim, has just been published!

The story begins a few months after the events in Prophet. After a long and costly civil war, Aedan mac Gabran has become king of the Scots of Dal Riata. With his old friend Columba, he works to restore peace to his new kingdom.

But old enemies soon come calling, threatening everything the two have come to love, and they are forced to go on a perilous mission—to  Ireland … the homeland to which Columba cannot return upon penalty of death.

Once there, things go from bad to worse …

I loved writing this one. It allowed me to revisit all the places in Northern Ireland and Donegal which I have adored over the years, and connect with wonderful people there. It’s the first of two books to be set primarily in Ireland’s ancient north and west, Columba’s ancestral homeland. Book 4, provisionally entitled Island-Soldier and already underway, will take up where this one leaves off.

Let me know what you think! I hope you enjoy it.

Iona - Set of Books 2

Posted by: pauladefougerolles | August 7, 2017

Columba’s lovely month

After 1,420 years in the grave, St. Columba has had a glorious resurgence this past month. In case you missed the news, featured in many news outlets in the U.K., the location of Columba’s writing hut on the island of Iona may have been found.

A team led by archaeologists Drs. Ewan Campbell and Adrián Maldonado of Glasgow University, and funded by Historic Environment Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, subjected samples of charred wood excavated from Iona 60 years ago to radiocarbon dating analysis—to spectacular effect. The hazel charcoal, possibly from a wattle hut, were dated to the years 540-650 A.D. In other words, contemporaneous with Columba, who died in 597.

It is hard to understate the importance of this radiocarbon date. We know from early medieval documentary sources that on Iona Columba had two buildings set aside for his personal use. One was the cell where he slept. The other was the hut where he worked. Adomnán, Columba’s kinsman and hagiographer, described it as ‘his raised wooden hut’, ‘built in an elevated position’ (Vita Columbae, I.25, III.22).

In this small building, set apart and slightly above the main part of the monastery, Columba could write in relative peace while still keeping an eye on what was going on down below. Called Tòrr an Aba, the high place of the abbot, it was Columba’s private scriptorium. His man cave, if you like.

Embed from Getty Images

But while we know it existed, we do not know where it stood. To put it in context, no one has been able to say for sure where, exactly, Columba’s monastery was located. That is, we have our educated guesses, but almost nothing remains from that very first phase of monastic occupation. The dig carried out in 1957 by the eminent archaeologist and historian Professor Charles Thomas helped narrow down the search radius, suggesting that that first monastery lies beneath the current abbey church, as one might expect.

As for the Tòrr an Aba, there is a small rocky knoll more or less across from the main door of the abbey upon which a later medieval building stood. Could this be Columba’s Tòrr an Aba?

Professor Thomas took samples from there, including the now famous piece of hazel charcoal, and then the artefacts from his dig were shelved in his garage and other places to wait for technology to help out.

Earlier this year, technology did. Radiocarbon analysis dated the hazel charcoal to between 540 and 650 A.D., contemporaneous with the earliest monastery on Iona—Columba’s monastery.

Since hearing the news, two things have stuck in my mind. The first appeals to the novelist in me. And that is what a great story this is, in and of itself.

Imagine it. You’re an archeologist. You love Iona. You specialize in Iona. You hear that a revered colleague, the eminent archaeologist who carried out THE dig on Iona 60 years ago, has artefacts from that excavation squirreled away in his garage (or, to be fair to Professor Thomas, meticulously preserved in his garage).

You go, you have a chat, maybe you’re downplaying your eagerness to get your hands on what’s in those boxes. Because you know it could be big. Very big.

He takes you out to his garage, pulls the boxes down off the shelf, dusts them off with loving care, gingerly opens them to the light of day—and your eyes alight on the same little object, a seemingly insignificant dusty old lump of charcoal.

Because you know, as does he. You know that we now have the technology to get to the bottom of this mystery once and for all. A radiocarbon test, commonplace now, could tell us very easily: did this piece of wattle walling come from a building that Columba might have worked in, helped to build?

Yes. Yes it did.

What a fabulous whodunit. It makes me want to run out to my own barn and root around in the stuff I have stored there in the hopes of uncovering my own game-changer, my own, very big, little bit of history. (If you have anything like that in your garage, I encourage you: have at it. Right now.)

The second aspect of this wonderful news excites the historian in me. And that is just how good a piece of evidence this is.

It tells us that, on a site where a first-class primary source (Adomnán’s Vita Columbae) suggests Columba’s hut may have stood, there was a wooden building when Columba lived. That’s evidence of a very high caliber. Considering that so very little survives from the 6th-century monastic occupation of Iona, this is nearly as good as it gets. (Better would be proof that the hut was indeed a scriptorium and not just an ancillary building of the monastery. Or proof that Columba himself used the hut, though it’s hard to imagine what kind of evidence could yield that kind of proof.)

Cathach of St ColumbaThink about it. That building, that writer’s studio, could be where Columba conceived of illuminating manuscripts (the Cathach, above, an illuminated Psalter of late-6th or early-7th century date and likely written on Iona, possibly by Columba, being our earliest example of Irish writing, as well as the first example of the art of manuscript illumination which was later to flower in such masterpieces as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells, both also products of Columban monasteries).

Or where he thought it would be a good idea to start keeping note of important events that had transpired in his immediate political sphere, thus creating what we call the Chronicle of Iona, a core text of a number of later medieval annals which form our main source of information for the early history and society of Ireland and Scotland.

In other words, where two of the fundamental genres of early medieval writing and historiography may have been dreamt up.

As historians and writers, or simply people who have an interest in the past, we make assumptions about how people lived their days based on the evidence we have to hand. We build up pictures in our minds, and populate them, and animate them, like movies made just for us. And that’s fun, and necessary, but whether our inventions come anywhere close to the truth as it was lived is almost always impossible to say.

But here we have proof that at the time hagiographical sources, archaeological analysis, and received wisdom tell us that Columba was working in his own private writer’s studio set a little apart from and above his burgeoning monastic foundation on the island of Iona—work that resonates to this day and for which we have much to thank him—he probably was.


Posted by: pauladefougerolles | April 29, 2016

Here’s “Kroniki Iony: Wygnaniec”

iona okladkaDear Friends.  Here’s the cover of the new Polish translation of “The Chronicles of Iona: Exile”.  I love it!  The long sword, the medieval abbey of Iona, the antique map underlay–it definitely sets the scene. If you have a moment, please visit the Facebook page at Wydawnictwokropla and give it a like!

Posted by: pauladefougerolles | April 26, 2016

Polish fans!

Great news! “Exile” is set to be published in Poland this week!  I’m very honored and am delighted to be working with so many talented new friends in Poland. Watch this space for more information!

Posted by: pauladefougerolles | April 1, 2016

Thank you Northern Ireland!

Inner Bay, Dundrum, County Down, Northern Ireland

Inner Bay, Dundrum, County Down, Northern Ireland

You know what I love about what I do?

One of the things, in any case? (Because there are many!)

The research trips.

I sit here in my study, pulling together what I know about the 6th century so that I can imagine how my characters might have felt and thought and acted. Columba of Iona and Aedan mac Gabran were real people after all, and their lives changed the world. Aside from the love of it all, there’s a responsibility to try to get it right.

But there’s only so much written sources can reveal to you. At the end of the day, the history of the early mediaeval period is about people in landscape. How physical realities shaped experiences, limiting them, or opening them up. While writing, I am always thinking: how would this scene work, in situ? And that scene? If I had been standing there at that time, what would I have felt, heard, noticed?

Invariably, the time comes for a road trip. Out come the hiking boots, the Barbour jacket, the Ordnance Survey maps, and the completed manuscript. And off I go to check the novel against my memory of the places in which the real history happened. And to understand those sites more deeply. And to scout out new settings.

In this case, it meant a revisit to a part of the world I already know a little and love a lot: Northern Ireland. The early heartland of the Dark Age kingdom of Dalriada, and a major setting for Book III in my series, Island-Pilgrim.

What a fabulous week! I flew into Dublin and drove north, with a first stop at Dundrum Castle in County Down.

The site has always impressed me. Picture a great hill fort on a ridge overlooking a vast bay, a natural harbor. And that inner bay leading out by way of a narrow channel to a magnificent outer bay. Estuarine sands and shale, shifting. High dunes. Mud flats. Sea birds everywhere. The constant call of the ocean. The stark, unreal mountains of The Mournes just south of you, looming over you; keeping silent watch. To the north, farmland, undulating and fertile: the thing you are protecting.

It’s a special landscape, and is of immense strategic importance. You can peel back layers of history here, just as you can all over the North of Ireland. (The producers of HBO’s Game of Thrones film here for that reason.  It’s authentic.) The Gaels called Dundrum home. Then the Normans. It passed to the Earls of Ulster, and then back to the Irish, and so on.

All because of where it sits. County Down is St. Patrick’s wheelhouse, but also home to St. Columba and his friends who founded a network of monasteries that acted like hubs of the internet of their age. Through these thought-leaders, these ambassadors of peace, the world was connected, north, south, east and west, and a cultural revolution swept across Europe.

I love that I can incorporate Dundrum into Island-Pilgrim.

More importantly, I have fallen in love again with Northern Ireland and its people. I was met everywhere with kindness, wit, and generosity–literally, open doors: a people with their eye on their past, yes, but also the immense possibilities in their future.

Inner Bay, Dundrum, County Down, Northern Ireland

Inner Bay, Dundrum, County Down, Northern Ireland

Next up, the magical town of Portaferry on Strangford Lough, and the beautiful Ards peninsula …

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