Community Archaeology on Lismore

Work in Progress 

Robert Hay



The area on Lismore around the Parish Church is one of the most neglected heritage sites in Scotland. There has been no serious archaeology of what is considered to be the monastic headquarters of the 6th century mission work of Moluag – who may have been as important as Columba in converting the Picts; and, until 2016, there was no public access to the weed-infested site of the ruined nave and tower of the medieval (13/14thC) cathedral of Argyll. Meanwhile, there was no interpretation of the church itself, the converted choir of the cathedral, or the ancient graveyard. 

In 2015, the Lismore Historical Society, in partnership with the Parish Church, initiated a long-term programme of work in the area, securing the agreement of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) at each stage, and, over 3 years, the financial support of The Heritage Lottery Fund, The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, The Hunter Trust, HES, Argyll & Bute Council and The MacDougall McCallum Foundation, USA. Dr Clare Ellis of Argyll Archaeology has provided the essential professional supervision, and Dr Mark Thacker, Stirling University, has contributed invaluable help in understanding and dating the stonework. 

There are several “lifetimes” of work to be done but, following a series of winter archaeological walkovers, it was decided to concentrate on the medieval aspects of the area, since the Celtic Church period presented much greater challenges. 2015 saw the lifting, repair, conservation and display of the eight scheduled medieval graveslabs from the ancient graveyard, with interpretation boards explaining the stones and their relationship to the church/cathedral. 

In 2016 and 2017, the partnership moved on, mobilizing a small army of enthusiastic volunteer diggers from the island and the mainland to evaluate the cathedral nave. The objectives of the programme were to confirm the 

The Graveslabs Shelter 

outline of the nave and tower (as described in Brown and Duncan’s archaeological dig in the 1950s); to evaluate the state of the surviving masonry (to inform future plans for the presentation and interpretation of the site); to generate dates for the building of the different phases of the cathedral by sampling undisturbed mortar; and to investigate the style (and date) of the building by seeking out carved sandstone fragments within the dug trenches, elsewhere on the site, and in surrounding walls and buildings. 


Artist’s impressions of the Community Dig in 2017 (sketches kindly provided by Andy Greatrix, Lismore, and reproduced with his permission).

The 2017 trenches have now been closed, but work continues by professionals to analyse and interpret the results before any decisions can be made about the future direction (which might involve a change of focus to the Celtic Church period). Provisional results and conclusions include:

  • Confirmation of the 1950s findings including the existence of a west tower; entrance to the nave by a south door; and the complete robbing out of much of the north wall of the nave
  • Evidence of the condition of the walls secured so that experts can advise on the advisability of exposing the walls permanently
  • Finding of finely-carved sandstone fragments, which suggest that the nave was more elaborately decorated than suggested by Brown and Duncan. Comparisons will be made with contemporary buildings completed by the MacDougalls in the area (Dunstaffnage and Ardchattan)
  • Samples of mortar taken for radiocarbon dating (It is already known from thin section microscopy that mortar used on the site was burned with oak wood or charcoal)
  • The extensive collection of human, livestock and deer bones from 2016 has been submitted for expert analysis (funded by the Strathmartine Trust).
  • In addition to these material achievements, the two weeks were truly community events, involving around 15 people each day, enthusiastically taking part in all weathers, and benefitting from systematic training in archaeological methods. The results will be fully documented and published, probably over two years.

October 2017