Making the parchment
Saint Colmcille was born in Ireland 1500 years ago this year. Because of this Artists in Ireland, Scotland and further afield have been making new work to celebrate his influence on our culture over so many years. I’ve been collaborating with Gaelic scholar Michael Newton to create new work based on Colmcille’s life. This is how I made the manuscript celebrating Colmcille’s life in Ireland. I’ve been using techniques and materials that haven’t changed since his time. I created the work on parchment made from a cow hide soaked in lime and stretched on a frame called a herse. Once it is dry I then scrape it with a blade called a lunellum until smooth and finally I cut out the shape needed for the artwork. Then I stretch it over a board to begin the design.
Designing the artwork
Colmcille and his followers were the carriers of the learned crafts of the Gaels. One of the most ancient celtic craft skills is the mastery of geometry. The Celts had already been using compasses and knowledge of complex ratios to create artwork for thousands of years before Colmcille’s time. So the Columban monks naturally adopted the style into manuscript art and mixed it with the Roman alphabet. For the N for the word ‘Naomh’, meaning saint in Gaelic, I’m using geometric Euclid spirals to make the curves in the centre. This is the same technique used by the scribes of the Book of Kells.
Ink and pigments
First I add black to the design is an outline. I use oak bark ink which I begin making by coppicing a tree in spring and shaving the bark off with an axe. Then I boil the bark in water over a fire causing the release of tannins. Next I need the help of some extremophile bacteria. By soaking iron pyrite nodules in rain water, the bacteria inside come to life after thousands of years in a dormant state. They begin to break down the rock, creating crystals of ferrous sulphate as a by-product. I mix the crystals with the tannins to create a rich black ink which I apply with a goose feather quill. This is the same process used in the Book of Kells. Here I am working on an exact copy of a Book of Kells page using these techniques.
Next I add red made from lead oxide. This involves quite a complex process starting with burying lead in horse manure with vinegar to produce lead carbonate. The process ends with heating the resulting powder to create the bright red pigment. The next pigment to be added is yellow which comes from the even more toxic arsenic sulphide. Luckily turquois is much safer. It consists of copper acetate simply produced by mixing copper and vinegar. Blue comes from the dye plant woad which grows well in the Scottish Highlands. I create the purple pigment from cudbear lichen, the technique to process it still survives in the local culture of wool dyeing.
The final piece
The artwork’s characters are all from the story of Colmcille’s life in Ireland. The story begins with his mother Enya being spoken to by an angel. Then she dreams of a cloak of every colour of flower covering all of Scotland and Ireland. It also includes Colmcille being helped by an angel to appease the bards who threaten to satirize him and much more. A video of the story in Gaelic with English pdf translation is available at https://scribalstyles.net/colmcille-1500/
Real parchment prints of the artwork are available at https://scribalstyles.net/shop/
Thomas Keyes grew up in Northern Ireland learning letter art as an active participant in Belfast’s graﬃti subculture from the late 1990s onwards. After studying art at Newcastle he moved to the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands in 2009 to focus on a more nature-based creative practice. He learned to create materials, such as parchment and pigments, from the local environment using traditional medieval methods which in turn led him back to calligraphy and the artistry of insular manuscripts.