Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Moel Blatha - The Refectory Stone of Iona

The stone Moel Blatha, also known as Blathnat, is said to have served as a natural table for the refectory of St Columba's monastery.

Moel Blatha - Mull in the distance
The stone lies 600 feet west of the Duchess's Cross, a memorial to Elizabeth, the wife of the eighth Duke of Argyll, which is easily found by walking the road north for a quarter mile beyond the Abbey.

The stone's name, Moel Blatha, is usually translated as the 'flat stone of division', as it marked the boundary of the monastery. And as you can see in the above photo, it still marks the property line between two fields. However, as St Columba blessed all food that would be placed on it, its name may mean the flat stone of praise. The refectory of the monastery was supposedly built around the stone, which served as a giant table. Some maps give the stone the boring name of Clach Mhor (the boulder).

Moel Blatha - the hill of Dun-I in the distance
Moel Blatha is one of many stones associated with Columba in Scotland and Ireland. Here is a list of a few others from James Bonwick's Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions (1894):

St. Columba, likewise, among the Hebrides, had a reputation for stones. There is his Red Stone, his Blue Egg Stone in Skye, his Blue Stone of Glen Columkillo, his stony beds of penitence, his Lingam Stones, which worked miracles. He was born on a stone, he was sustained in famine by sucking meal from the Holy Stone of Moel-blatha.

Moel Blatha - The Duchess's Cross (1878) can be seen on the horizon (left of centre)
What follows is a description of the stone from Edward Trenholme's 1909 book The Story of Iona. You can find a complete copy of that book here (an old photo of the stone faces page 8). 

'The great tabular glacial boulder lies between lomaire an Achd and the Sound, and Skene has pointed out how well it answers to a stone which some old Irish documents say was in the refectory of St. Columba's monastery. One scribe's preface to St. Columba's great poem Altus Prosator speaks of "the stone that is in the refectory in Hi ; and the name of that stone is Moel-blatha, and luck was left on all food that is put thereon." 

The stone survived the monastery, for the scribes who say "it still exists" wrote in the eleventh century. It was so remarkable that it had a special name, which is considered to mean "flat stone of division." The scribes mention the stone in order to relate how Columba composed a certain hymn, Adjutor laborantium, while carrying a heavy sack of oats, taken from off the stone, to the mill. Everything fits the stone which is still to be seen in lona, near the spot which there are independent reasons for regarding as the site of the first monastery. The refectory which enclosed the stone, to serve as a table or sideboard, was no doubt a wood and wattle building of the old Irish kind.'

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