Scotch Broth – Frank McNally on the case for repatriating the Book of Kells

An Irishman’s Diary

During renewed debate about the Elgin Marbles (aka the Parthenon Sculptures) recently, there was an interesting letter in the London Times. It was from a reader in Argyll, Scotland, who first agreed with a Times editorial calling for the marbles to be returned to Greece. Then, using the same logic, he called for the Book of Kells (aka "the Iona manuscripts") to be repatriated from their long exile in Dublin.

"In the 1,500th year of [Saint] Columba's birth," wrote Dr JD McKelvie, "it would be fitting to reconsider his written legacy in the illuminated manuscripts, created in Iona then transported to Kells Abbey in Ireland to avoid the Norse incursions of the 8th century. As the Norse no longer attack the west of Scotland, surely it is time to repatriate these gospels to Iona rather than keep them in a university museum that contributed nothing to their creation."

There may have been a tongue planted in the letter writer’s cheek here – I can’t be sure. But assuming he was at least half serious, several problems arise to differentiate the book case (as it were) from the Marbles.

The first is that, as far as I can tell, nobody knows for certain when and where the Book of Kells was written. It is well accepted now that Columba (521–597AD) himself had nothing to do with it, despite former legend, being long dead by then. But there are several competing theories for the composition’s whereabouts, the most plausible being that it started on Iona, perhaps to mark the 200th anniversary of the saint’s death, and was finished in Kells.


So even if our man in Argyll succeeded in wrestling the book out of Trinity’s grip, he would then have to fight off a rival claim from Meath, whose natives can be every bit as fierce as eighth-century Norsemen when roused.

Then there is the complex political background from which the book emerged, in a time when neither Scotland nor Ireland were what they are now. As well as being a religious base for the Irish "conversion of Pictland" (as Norman Davies termed it in his epic history of these islands, The Isles), Iona was part of the sea-straddling kingdom of Dal Riata, which included part of what is now Antrim and most of Argyll. Argyll means "the coast of the Gaels", but the extent of Irish interests in Scotland then still haunts the whole country's name too. In the Latin of the Middle Ages, Scotia meant "Ireland" and the scotti were "Irish people".

Hence the oddly titled ninth-century philosopher John Scotus Eriugena, whose bald dome used to adorn the Irish £5 note. His "Eriugena" meant "born in Ireland" while the "Scotus" meant Irish. So as if to anticipate the latter-day controversy of English media outlets describing celebrities from this island as "British", thereby causing regular outbreaks of savage indignation here, his name – "John the Irish Irishman" – seemed to be stressing a point.

I won’t suggest that Argyll’s pursuit of the Book of Kells might reopen old territorial claims involving Ireland’s overseas possessions, or even lead to litigation as to the true ownership of the brand-name “Scotland”. I’m just pointing out that issues of cultural appropriation in this case would be like the lettering of the Book of Kells itself: highly intricate.

The title of that Norman Davies history, by the way, was a studiously neutral way of describing Britain and Ireland, and thereby sidestepping another long-standing dispute.

Indeed, nomenclature was a major sub-theme of his book, which is broken into 10 chapters, each with a different variation on the overall title’s euphemism, including “The Germano-Celtic Isles” (circa 410–800AD), “The Englished Isles” (1326 – 1603), and “The Post-Imperial Isles” (since circa 1900).

But with this week’s Oscar nominations setting off yet another row over people from Ireland (the State) being called “British”, with some perpetrators justifying it on the basis that Ireland (the country) is part of the British Isles, I was reminded of an attempted resolution of the argument once inspired by Columba’s Scottish colony.

Back around the time of the Belfast Agreement, when the art of diplomatic fudging reached historic heights, some politicians suggested the disputed archipelago should be known as the Islands of the North Atlantic, or IONA.

The idea never quite took off, somehow. One drawback was that it excluded several other landmasses the term could equally describe, including Iceland and the Faroes. And then there was the problem of Britain, which was being awkward as usual. Bounded by the Celtic, Irish, and North seas, it’s hardly in the Atlantic at all.