Inchcolm lies in the Firth of Forth off the south coast of Fife opposite Braefoot Bay, east of the Forth Bridge, south of Aberdour, Fife, and north of the City of Edinburgh. It is separated from the Fife mainland by a stretch of water known as Mortimer's Deep. The island forms part of the parish of Aberdour, and lies a quarter of a mile from the shore. In the days when people were compelled to cross the Firth of Forth by boat as opposed to bridge, the island was a great deal less isolated, and on the ferry routes between Leith/Lothian and Fife.
The island can be broadly divided into three sections: the east, where its military defensive operations were centered during the Second World War, the lower central part, with the small natural harbour and shop, and a larger western end.
Between Aberdour and Inchcolm is the channel called "Mortimer's Deep". It is believed that this was named after William de Mortimer.
It was supposedly visited by St Columba in 567, and was named after him in the 12th century. It may have served the monks of the Columban family as an "Iona of the east" from early times. A primitive stone-roofed building survived on the island, preserved and given a vaulted roof by the monks of the later Abbey, probably served as a hermit's oratory and cell in the 12th century, if not earlier. Fragments of carved stonework from the Dark Ages testify to an early Christian presence on the island. A hogback stone, preserved in the Abbey's visitor centre, can be dated to the late 10th century, making it probably Scotland's earliest type of monument originating among Danish settlers in northern England. A 16th century source states that a stone cross was situated nearby, although no features could be found which related to the monument.
The reference in Shakespeare is because Inchcolm was long used as an exclusive burial site (much like Iona). A Danish force under king Sweyn, the father of Canute raided the island and Fife with an English force. In the play, Macbeth buys off the Danes with a "great summe of gold", and told the Danes they could bury their dead there for "ten thousand dollars". Hector Boece corroborates the claim that the Danes paid good money to have their dead buried there in the 11th century. The practice of burying dead on islands in Scotland is long established – and was partly a deterrent to feral dogs and wolves (still found in Scotland at that point) who might dig up the corpses and eat them.
Like other centres of Culdee activity, the island was used as a home for hermits. The nearby Inchmickery’s name also commemorates a probable hermit. Textual evidence suggests that this was the case in the 12th century, when King Alexander I was marooned on the island, and was said to have been looked after by one in 1123. Alexander decided to make the island the site of an Augustinian monastery. The earliest known charter is in 1162, when the canons were already well established, and it was raised to the status of an abbey in 1235. Its buildings, including a widely visible square tower, largely ruined church, cloisters, refectory and small chapter-house, are the best-preserved of any Scottish medieval monastic house. The ruins are under the care of Historic Scotland (entrance charge; ferry from South Queensferry).
Walter Bower, Abbot 1418-49, was the author of the Latin Scotichronicon, one of Scotland's most important medieval historical sources. The island was part of the medieval diocese of Dunkeld (also dedicated to St Columba), and several of the medieval bishops were buried within the Abbey church.
In 1335, there was an especially bad raid by an English ship when the abbey’s treasures were stolen, along with a statue of Columba. The story goes that the ship was nearly wrecked on Inchkeith and had to dock at Kinghorn. The sailors taking a religious turn, thought that this was due to the wrath of Columba, and returned the statue and treasures back to the island, and experienced good weather on their outward journey.
In 1384, an English raid attempted to set alight Inchcolm Abbey, but this again was foiled by the weather – in this case a strong wind blew the flames out.
The island was also used as a kind of prison. Amongst those interned here were, Patrick Graham, Archbishop of St Andrews, along with Euphemia/Affrica (Oighrig), mother of Alexander, Lord of the Isles.
Due to their island location, Inchcolm’s religious buildings are in better condition than most of those on the mainland as they could not be so easily destroyed by the "rascally mob" of proactive Reformers.
In the 16th century it became the property of Sir James Stewart, whose grandson became third Earl of Moray by virtue of his marriage to the elder daughter of the first earl. From it comes the earl's title of Lord St Colme (1611).
The pier at Hawkcraig was built in 1866.
In the 1880s, a skeleton was found built into one of the Abbey’s walls. It was standing upright and is of unknown date.
The main feature of the island is the former Augustinian Inchcolm Abbey (Historic Scotland), Scotland's most complete surviving monastic house. In former times, and perhaps partly due to its dedication to Columba, it was sometimes nicknamed 'Iona of the East'. The well-preserved abbey and ruins of the 9th-century hermits' cell attract visitors to the island.
It was the home of a religious community linked with St Colm or St Columba, the 6th-century abbot of Iona. Alexander I was storm-bound on the island for three days in 1123 and in recognition of the shelter given to him by the hermits, promised to establish a monastic settlement in honour of St Columba. Though the king died before the promise could be fulfilled, his brother David I later founded a priory here for monks of the Augustinian order. This was eventually erected into an abbey in 1223.
The west end is home to a large colony of seagulls and fulmars. Seals are commonly spotted around the island and basking on neighbouring outcrops. There are no stoats or hedgehogs on the island, meaning that eggs can often be found on the ground.
Today the island is inhabited by the Historic Scotland steward (custodian) and his partner, who maintain the island and run the shop. Inchcolm can be reached by the public by ferry services from South Queensferry, the Maid of the Forth or the Forth Belle, found directly below the Forth Bridge.