Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

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In 1899 the Eighth Duke of Argyll established the Iona Cathedral Trust in connection with the Church of Scotland. Fearing that ‘buildings of such great historic interest to the whole Christian world’ might at some future point pass into unreliable hands he conveyed the Iona Abbey to the ownership of the Trust. He was hopeful that the Scottish people would endow the Trustees with funds for the necessary restoration.

The original trustees were the Moderator, Principal Clerk and Procurator of the General Assembly, the Principals of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, the Principal of St Mary’s College St Andrews and the Ministers of St Giles’ and Glasgow Cathedrals.

The connection with the Church of Scotland reflected the Duke’s view of the Kirk as national and established, as distinct from narrowly denominational. It was his expressed wish that members of other denominations should be able to worship in a restored Abbey Church.[1] Indeed, he specifically vetoed the Iona minister being a trustee due to the then incumbent’s anti-ecumenical views.

By 1905 the chancel area was re-roofed and a grand opening service held on 14 July of that year by 1913 the nave was re-roofed and restored, the whole church furnished and a service marking completion held on 17 July of that year.

From 1920 annual retreats for divinity students, funded by David Russell of Tullis Russell and Company, were based in the Abbey, with accommodation at the Argyll and St Columba hotels. Russell’s plans to restore the Chapter House and establish a permanent community on Iona came to nothing, but in 1929 he set up the Iona Fellowship for those who had attended retreats and wished to continue the Iona connection.

In 1935 the trustees were approached by the American Iona Society, offering to restore the remaining ruins at their own expense with a view to establishing a Celtic College. This seemed a very generous offer, but the trustees were wary. (He who pays the piper calls the tune!) They considered the proposal in December 1935 but, being aware of George MacLeod’s developing ideas for Iona, invited him also to attend the meeting. Discussions continued over the next two years during which the trustees’ preference for MacLeod’s scheme emerged. The Iona Community was formed in 1938 and Macleod resigned his charge of Govan: Old to take on its leadership.

Over ensuing years the Iona Community restored the domestic and residential buildings of the former Benedictine Abbey, thereby fulfilling an aspiration of the Duke’s 1899 Trust Deed, namely maintaining a living Christian witness on Iona.

Ownership of all the restored heritage and responsibility for its maintenance remained with the Trustees – a considerable financial undertaking. To assist with this the Trustees, in 1993, set up a company, Iona Abbey Limited, with a view to raising the necessary funds. However, despite best efforts, serious financial deficits persisted and new approaches were explored. These eventually led to the present arrangements, formally entered into on 17 September 1999, whereby Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland) would take the Abbey buildings into its care under a 175 year lease granted by the Trustees. At the same time Historic Scotland granted a sub-lease to the Iona Community enabling it to continue its Christian work and witness.

In their approach to the history of Iona Abbey, the trustees recognise that, as with many historic buildings throughout the country, there are likely to have been connections with colonialism and with the historic slave trade. There have been links between the Argyll family and historic slavery, and it is possible that some wealth derived from the slave economy was used for funding work on the Abbey in the 1870s and again in the 1890s, prior to the Abbey being gifted to the Trustees. More detail is given in the paper produced by the Trustees in April 2021.

As they seek to ensure the history of this iconic site is shown accurately and openly, the trustees are working closely with other stakeholders, the Iona Community and Historic Environment Scotland, whose approach is detailed in their Equalities Outcomes Report 2021 – 2025.

[1] The Duke used the term ‘Cathedral’ following the designation used by Charles 1 in the seventeenth century when he declared the Benedictine Abbey to be Cathedral of the Isles and ordered its repair. George MacLeod preferred the term ‘Abbey’.

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey is an abbey located on the island of Iona, just off the Isle of Mull on the West Coast of Scotland.

It is one of the oldest Christian religious centres in Western Europe. The abbey was a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland and marks the foundation of a monastic community by St. Columba, when Iona was part of the Kingdom of Dál Riata. Saint Aidan served as a monk at Iona, before helping to reestablish Christianity in Northumberland, on the island of Lindisfarne

Iona Abbey is the spiritual home of the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian religious order, whose headquarters are in Glasgow. The Abbey remains a popular site of Christian pilgrimage today. [1]

Early history

In 563, Columba came to Iona from Ireland with twelve companions, and founded a monastery. It developed as an influential centre for the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots.

At this time the name of the island and so the abbey was "Hy" or "Hii" "Iona" only seems to date from the 14th century, as a mis-transcription of a Latinized "Ioua" for "Hy". [2]

Lifestyle and practice

The prime purpose of the monastery was to create 'a perfect monastery as an image of the heavenly city of Jerusalem' – Columba wanted to 'represent the pinnacle of Christian virtues, as an example for others to emulate' - rather than explicitly missionary activity. [3] The monks worshipped and worked daily, following Celtic Christianity practices and disciplines. They also managed assets and were involved with the local and wider community. [3]

Construction and buildings

Like other Celtic Christian monasteries, [4] [5] Columba's monastery would have been made up of a number of wattle and timber, [6] or wood and thatch, buildings. These would have included a central church or oratory, the common refectory or kitchen, the library or scriptorium, monk cells or dormitories, and a guest house for visitors including pilgrims. [7] It is believed that around 800AD the original wooden chapel was replaced by a stone chapel. [8]

Columba's monastery was surrounded by a ditch and earth bank, part of which is believed to have pre-existed Columba's arrival, and part of which can still be seen to the north west of the current abbey buildings. [3]

Columba's day room

Adomnán describes a building on a small mound, Torr an Aba, in the monastery grounds where St Columba worked and wrote. Charred wood has been dated from what is believed to be this site, and a socket to hold a cross (which is believed to have been erected later) is visible there. [3] [6] [8]

Manuscript and book production

The production of Christian manuscripts, books and annals was an important activity in the Iona monastery. [3] The Chronicle of Ireland was produced at Iona until about 740. [ citation needed ] The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript, is believed to have been produced by the monks of Iona in the years leading up to 800. [9]

Stone crosses

Stone crosses, both standing and lying, were used to mark graves in the Iona monastery. [3] Large stone crosses were also erected, perhaps to broadcast key Christian messages, particularly in 800-1000. [10] [11] Their design reflected precious metal crosses. Some were carved from stone imported 50 miles by boat from Loch Sween. [3]

Other technology

Remains of wood-turning and metal-working have been found at Iona, and of glass (windows and beads) that may date from the 7th century. [3]


The Iona monastery's position in what was then a well-used seaway would have facilitated trade, as would St Columba's personal aristocratic background. Pigments from the south of France were used in Iona. [3]

Viking attacks, and subsequent movement between Abbeys

The Iona Abbey was first attacked by Viking raiders in 795, with subsequent attacks taking place in 802, 806, and 825. [12] During the 806 Viking attack, 68 monks were massacred in Martyrs' Bay, and this led to many of the Columban monks relocating to the new Columban Abbey of Kells in Ireland. [13]

The building at Kells took from 807 until the consecration of the church in 814. In 814, Cellach, Abbot of Iona, retired to Kells, but, contrary to what is sometimes claimed, it is clear from the Annals that Iona remained the main Columban house for several decades, despite the danger of Viking raids. [14]

In 825, St Blathmac and those monks who remained with him at Iona were martyred in a Viking raid, [13] and the Abbey was burned. But only in 878 were the main relics, with Columba's reliquary shrine specified in the records, moved to Ireland, with Kells becoming the new main Columban house. [14] Though not mentioned, this might well have been when the Book of Kells came to Kells. However, Iona Abbey was probably not deserted as its continued importance is shown by the death there in 980 of Amlaíb Cuarán, a retired King of Dublin.

St Columba established several monasteries, although he was mainly based at Iona. [3]

Other monks from Iona moved to the Continent, and established monasteries in Belgium, France, and Switzerland. [15]

Benedictine abbey

In 1114 Iona was seized by the King of Norway, who held it for fifty years before Somerled recaptured it, and invited renewed Irish involvement in 1164: this led to the construction of the central part of the cathedral. Ranald, Somerled's son, now the 'Lord of the Isles', in 1203 invited the Benedictine order to establish a new monastery, and an Augustinian Nunnery, on the Columban Monastery's foundations. Building work began on the new abbey church, on the site of Columba's original church. [16] The following year, in 1204, the site was raided by a force led by two Irish bishops. This was a response by Ireland's Columban clergy to the loss of its connections and influence at this significant site founded by St Columba. [17]

The Iona Nunnery, a foundation of the Augustinian Order (one of only two in Scotland - the other is in Perth), was established south of the abbey buildings. Graves of some of the early nuns remain, including that of a remarkable prioress, Anna Maclean, who died in 1543. Clearly visible under her outer robe is the rochet, a pleated surplice denoting the Augustinian Order. The nunnery buildings were rebuilt in the fifteenth century and fell into disrepair after the Reformation.

The abbey church was substantially expanded in the fifteenth century, [16] but following the Scottish Reformation, Iona along with numerous other abbeys throughout the British Isles were dismantled, and abandoned, their monks and libraries dispersed.

Things to do at Iona Abbey

Even if you’re not remotely interested in religion you’re going to enjoy a trip to Iona to see the abbey.

The sightseeing begins long before you set foot on the island because you’ll more than likely be getting there via the ferry from the village of Fionnphort on the south-west of Mull and the drive to this pretty little coastal hamlet takes you through some of the nicest landscapes on the island.

While the ferry crossing only takes around 5 minutes you will at least get a chance to take a few photos of the abbey from a different angle, and once you arrive at the little pier you might be surprised to see several shops facing the seafront.

It’s not surprising St. Columba chose this place to build his monastery because it’s both absolutely gorgeous and incredibly peaceful. If you really want to feel like you’re completely off-grid then Iona is the place to be.

The short walk to the abbey will see you passing the ruins of the old nunnery which is quite interesting to walk around (although it would have been nice if there were a few more information displays dotted about), but the ruins make for a fantastic photo opportunity, especially with the sea and the Isle of Mull clearly visible in the background.

The footpath leaving the nunnery runs right up to the abbey itself, and it’s at this point where your camera trigger finger will likely go into overdrive. The old 13th-century church is impressive for such a remote location and the views behind it looking across Mull are nothing short of spectacular.

Before entering the church you’ll pass St. Oran’s chapel and Reilig Odrain, the graveyard where many of Scotland’s ancient royals were laid to rest, so take a short detour and have a good look around before heading to the main abbey buildings.

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As you walk down the path leading to the church you’ll notice a small hill where St. Columba is believed to have built his writing hut nearly 1,500 years ago. There’s a small section of the original stone laid into the ground so it’s worth heading up there to take a quick look before heading into the church.

Once inside you’ll find several displays and information boards as well as a few exhibits – all of which are up to HES’s usual high standards – and after exploring the interior you can head back outside to walk around the cloister.

The cloister originally served as a way to link the abbey buildings and was also a place of contemplation, and it still has a very peaceful feel today.

Much of the columns and stonework have been restored over the years so it’s pretty much the same as it would have been when it was originally built, although there’s now a large sculpture in the middle and a few restored stone plinths around the perimeter.

Other highlights include St. Columba’s Shrine which is the oldest structure in the abbey dating to around the 9th-century, and the enormous stone crosses near the church entrance, one of which, St. Martins Cross, is believed to be over a thousand years old.

And finally, after exploring the abbey you can just set off on foot to take a look at the Isle of Iona itself with its crystal-clear sea, white-sand beaches and unspoilt landscapes.

I really enjoyed visiting this attraction and I reckon if you’re anywhere near Mull then a trip to Iona should be at the top of your list of things to do.

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HRH Princess Anne joined celebrations at Iona Abbey this week marking the ancient site’s multi-million pound modern-day makeover funded by thousands of donations from well-wishers worldwide.

The Princess Royal visited the tiny Hebridean island on Monday for an official opening of the abbey’s new refurbished community and living spaces.

The £3.75 million renovation is one of the most significant in the abbey’s modern history making it more accessible than ever before.

The money was raised from 2,500 donations coming from people in 22 different countries. Donations ranged from £2 to £900,000, a nine-year-old from Falkirk who sold his toys was the youngest to donate to the appeal.

Princess Anne joined in celebrations marking the completion of mammoth renovation work at Iona Abbey. Pictured with The Princess Royal is the Reverend Catriona Robertson who is Warden of Iona Abbey. Photograph: Chris Watt Photography HRH Princess Anne at Iona Abbey for a blessing of the renovation works
Photograph: Chris Watt Photography Sun shining on Iona Abbey when its patron Princess Anne visited on Monday
Photograph: Chris Watt Photography

Abbey patron Princess Anne spoke at the special service celebrating the new facilities in the 12th century living quarters that include bedroom and community areas, a completely renovated refectory, a new kitchen and scullery with dumb waiter, rewiring, insulation, and a new plumbing system.

A lift has also been fitted and stairs removed giving full access, and there are dedicated bedrooms for guests with special access needs.

The work also means the abbey can now tap into the Iona Ground Source Heat Project which is part of the island’s low carbon initiative already serving hotels, the village hall, school, businesses and homes.

The Princess Royal added her name to a special illuminated manuscript style book that has the etched names of each donor – the book will eventually be digitised with stories included behind each name.

A freshly baked loaf of bread from the new kitchen and a special posy from schoolchildren was presented to the royal visitor who was piped around the abbey cloisters by three of the island’s young bagpipers.

HRH also joined the reading of five separate blessings across the new facilities, and met with the architects who had worked on the project.

And there was filming for a special episode of BBC Songs of Praise to be aired on June 27.

The Princess Royal’s schedule also made time to visit Iona Village Hall, which has also been rebuilt following a major fundraising effort.

Speaking during the blessing, Princess Anne said: ‘Access is vital because the people who come to stay at the Abbey are the life of the building, forming a community committed to justice and peace. 1,500 years since St Columba’s birth, and almost a century since Iona Abbey was rebuilt in the shadow of the Great Depression, now, in the shadow of a world pandemic, the Iona Community is standing once again on its ancient foundations to meet another moment of historic crisis and deep need.’

Iona Community leader Ruth Harvey said it was a landmark moment in the history of Iona Abbey, and Christine Jones, who led the Iona Abbey Capital Appeal, said the reopening was a sign of hope. She said: ‘The stories behind each donation are of great generosity and how people’s lives have been touched by living in community. I think after this pandemic that is going to be a really important message.’

Warden of Iona Abbey Catriona Robertson, said: ‘The generosity of our supporters around the world means the residential area of the Abbey is now fit for purpose as an accessible, flexible and sustainable place of worship, warmth, community and comfort. Not only that, the abbey has gone green, setting us on a strong and sustainable footing for generations to come.’

Just Luxe

One of most iconic and sacred places in Scotland, Iona Island attracts thousands of visitors every year, intrigued by the secret legacy of 6th century mystic Irish monk, Columba, who founded a spiritual community here.

As Scotland is now opening for tourism again, now may be a good time to visit when the weather is better.

Located in the Inner Hebrides, off the Ross of Mull on Scotland&rsquos western coast, this little island, no more than 6 km (4 miles) long and about 2 km (1 mile) wide, with a population of less than 200, offers a surprisingly impressive array of scenery. It comprises soft sands beaches with rocky fringes, rolling hills, rocky pathways and flat grazing ground called &lsquomachair&rsquo where sea shells have been washed on to the peaty soil. One particular beach is renowned for its multi-colored pebbles, especially green serpentine, thought to be a natural energy-giving stone.

The island even has its own 18-hole golf course near what&rsquos known as Columba&rsquos Bay (or Port a Churaich).

So famous did the island become as an early international learning center under Columba, it is believed one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts was produced here, the richly illustrated Book of Kells, now preserved in Trinity College Dublin. Iona has also featured in animated films, poetry, songs and novels, including Jules Verne's, The Green Ray.

Rich in spiritual and religious history, the island features both an abbey and a nunnery, within a few hundred meters of each other. The abbey, originally made from wattle, timber and thatch, has been renovated many times over the years, becoming a Benedictine monastery in the 13th century. Around the same time an Augustinian nunnery was established. Extensive restoration of the abbey took place under the Iona Cathedral Trust in the late 19th century and in the 1930s onwards by Reverend George MacLeod and the Iona Community.

Numerous leading Hebrideans such as various &lsquoLords of the Isles&rsquo and other prominent members of West Highland clans were buried in the quaint little graveyard beside the abbey, including several MacLeod chiefs. A richly sculpted medieval stone cross stands outside the abbey and the ruins of the nunnery embrace a small garden and on its wall an ancient stone carving known as a sheela na gig, a figurative carving of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva, probably signifying fertility. Look out for the image of the green man under a stone lintel, an age-old symbol of rebirth and renewal.

Near the machair is the Hill of Angels or the Hill of Fairies. According to legend, the music of the fairy folk entices unwary mortals inside the hill, while others say it was where Columba met with angels.

Bird-watchers flock to Iona, enthusiastic to catch a glimpse of some of its many winged inhabitants including endangered corncrakes, buzzard eagles, ringed plovers, oystercatchers, sandpipers, redshanks, curlews and the small flocks of whimbrel passing through on migration. Others include golden eagles, hen harriers, peregrines, merlins, short-eared owls and wild greylag geese.

We enjoyed comprehensive walking tours with two separate, well-informed guides. One, Emily Wilkins is a member of the Mull and Iona Ranger Service, part of a community-owned development trust initiative to enhance quality of life. Starting our journey from her office beside the pier, Emily described the geological origins of the island, including gneiss dating back three billion years, pink granite and basalt, as well as ongoing traditional island activities such as crofting (small scale farming).

Jana McLellan, originally from Germany but who lives on the island with her family, focused her tour with us on a broad expanse of social history, from the characteristics of the original Columban community to contemporary day-to-day island life. Jana is a member of the island Craft Cooperative founded 15 years ago, with its own shop, Oran Crafts, located near the abbey in what is known as the St. Columba Steadings, a renovated collection of farm buildings. Jana also makes candles, felted soap pebbles, greenstone key rings, driftwood mobiles, felted sheep and Iona greenstone jewelry.


The settlement of the island of Iona can be traced back to the Stone and Bronze Ages. The oldest surviving historical evidence is the small 3,000 year old burial mound Blàr Buidhe, next to Baile Mòr. There is an Iron Age ring wall on Dùn Bhuirg on the west side of the island. The hill Dùn I near the abbey has no traces of fortification. Whether Dùn Bhuirg was still occupied when Columban came is unknown, but it is unlikely that he found the island empty.

In 563 Columban and twelve men came from Ireland to Iona and founded the monastery Iona Abbey there . From Iona, Christianity spread in the form of the so-called Celtic Church in Scotland and northern England . The Book of Kells , one of the most valuable works of island book illumination , was probably written on Iona in the 7th or 8th century. Iona was the spiritual center of the Celtic Church, whose followers were the Culdeer .

Iona was considered a "holy place" for several centuries. Scottish-Irish and Norwegian kings are said to be buried in the Reilig Odhráin cemetery. Iona was the burial place of the kings of Dalriada and their successors, the early kings of Scotland . The last of these was Macbeth, known from Shakespeare 's drama of the same name . Numerous crosses were made on Iona at this time. Many were later thrown into the sea by Puritan groups. The St. John's Cross from the 8th and St. Martin's Cross from the 9th century still exist, as well as some fragments.

The Celtic monastery complex existed until the 11th century. It was destroyed by Viking raids (795, 802, 806). In the 12th century, the Culdeer were subject to the northward pushing supporters of the Roman Catholic Church . As a result, a second monastery in 1203 arose as a Benedictine - Abbey and Cathedral of the islands. The monastery existed until the Reformation , then fell into disrepair and was rebuilt from 1939.

In the 19th century, green marble was mined on Iona . The quarry is still there today. Theodor Fontane visited the island in 1858. He described the island and its history in his book Beyond the Tweed .

In 1938 George MacLeod (later Rt. Rev. Lord MacLeod of Fuinary ), pastor of the Church of Scotland in Govan ( Glasgow ), founded the Iona Community on Iona , a Christian community that emphasizes mission and social work. The aim of the work of this community is to “find new ways to reach the hearts of all”. The community does this primarily through youth work, new songs, worship services and divine service modules as well as commitment to justice and peace. Their activities included rebuilding the abbey.

The former leader of the Labor Party , John Smith (1938-1994), was buried with special permission on Reilig Odhráin .

Exploring the magical Isle of Iona

F rom the Mull of Kintyre, at the southern end of Scotland’s Kintyre peninsula, the view across the sea to Ireland’s Antrim coast is stunning.

And while the island of Iona has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, it has more recently become a tourist destination. Either way, a journey to this region can entice a traveler to explore the history and culture of Iona, Argyll, and Mull and to delve into the life and legacy of a significant British saint.

Read more

St. Oran’s Chapel and Reilig Odhrain, the burial place of Scottish kings and the Lords of the Isles, line the path that leads from the ferry to Iona Abbey. Imahe: Chris Sharp

With 12 brethren, the Irish monk Colum Cille crossed the 15 miles to Scotland in AD 563 to bring Christianity to the Scots and Picts. For his apostolic work, Colum Cille became Saint Columba. From the center of ecclesiastical excellence he founded on Iona, his work would take him throughout Scotland.

The legend of St Columba

Legend relates that St. Columba landed on the Kintyre Peninsula near Southend where, in the remains of a medieval chapel carved into the rock, are two impressions known as St. Columba’s footprints.

Travel around Scotland was both arduous and dangerous in the 6th century. From Southend, St. Columba likely continued his journey by boat. His destination was not Iona, but Dunadd -an Iron Age hill fort in Kilmartin Glen, a few miles north of Lochgilphead.

With a host of burial chambers and standing stones, Kilmartin is one of the most important ancient historical sites in Britain - a must for those who like to visit such places. Though dating from the Iron Age, Dunadd Hill Fort was still a significant community in Columba’s time. The reason for his visit to Dunadd provides important background to Columba’s life.

Iona Abbey is located on the Isle of Iona, just off the Isle of Mull on the West Coast of Scotland. It is one of the oldest and most important religious centres in Western Europe. Image: Getty

Most of what is known about Columba comes from Adomnan’s Life of St. Columba , written about a century after Columba’s death. More homily than a biography, it emphasizes miracles attributed to St. Columba that have evolved into legends, many of which make interesting reading. For instance, St. Columba is said to have saved one of his brethren from being devoured by the Loch Ness monster by making the sign of the cross in front of the beast. Such miracles were contemporary evidence for Columba’s beatification.

St. Columba was born in Ireland in about AD 520, the son of a powerful Irish family, possibly of royal lineage. It is recorded that as a young man he entered the church and experienced monastic life at Kells and Derry his calligraphic skills support this hypothesis.

Some sources claim Columba was involved in an argument over a manuscript copyright, which resulted in a battle between two Irish kingdoms in which thousands were killed around AD 559. What is certain is that the battle was a power struggle, and legend has it Columba performed a miracle to make his liege lord victorious. But Columba was so distraught by the carnage he caused that he went into penitential exile in Scotland.

The history of Dunadd

Dunadd was a principle community of the Dal Riata (or Dalriada), an Irish tribe that had invaded, colonized and settled in Argyll and the southern Hebrides. Columba knew and was possibly related to, the Dalriadian king Conall mac Conmgaill. Standing on Dunadd and looking west over the marshes, a wide tidal estuary 1,600 years ago, it is not difficult to imagine Columba arriving in his currach and seeking assistance from Conall. Interestingly, there is also an engraved footprint at Dunadd. This was where Dalriadian kings stood during their coronation. King Conall gave Iona to Columba.

Image: The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Oban lands on the Isle of Mull at pretty Tobermory. Chris Sharp

Leaving Kilmartin, head to the ferry port of Oban. If ferry schedules force you to linger in Oban, a number of attractions merit attention, including McCraig’s Tower and Dunstaffange Castle. McCraig’s Tower is a folly constructed in 1890 in the style of a Roman coliseum, and on clear mornings provides a good vantage point for views of the isles.

Dunstaffange Castle & Duart Castle

Medieval Dunstaffange Castle, on a wooded promontory outside Oban, was the capital of the Dalriadian Scots and has historical associations with Robert the Bruce, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Flora MacDonald and the Stone of Scone. The stone, ceremonially important in the coronation of Scottish Kings, was first used here but is thought to have come from Iona.

On its approach to Mull’s Craignure harbor, the ferry from Oban passes the contrasting castles Duart and Torosay.

Duart Castle is a solid 14th-century construction overlooking the Sound of Mull, its bold position denoting its defensive purpose. Today it is the clan center and home of the chief of Clan Maclean, with appropriate clan-oriented exhibits.

Torosay Castle is a Victorian baronial mansion with luxuriant Italianate gardens, owned by the Campbell family. The Campbells have a bittersweet relationship with Iona an ancestral Campbell was responsible for much of the Highland Clearances on Mull and Iona, even paying for the displaced tenants’ passages to Canada - a dastardly act mourned in the Canadian Boat Song. But contemporary Campbells have been instrumental in the restoration of Iona Abbey, where they have a funeral effigy.

For an interesting journey to Torosay, take the narrow gauge steam railway from Craignure. Torosay has fine exhibits of period furniture and books, and much on the Campbells’ history.
Mull has promoted itself in recent years as a tourist destination for watching wildlife. During the spring and summer, impressive colonies of seabirds - such as puffins and guillemots- can be spotted. From Tobermory, wildlife cruises sally forth in search of whales, dolphins, basking sharks and rare sea eagles.

Coast of Iona. Image: Getty

Tobermory itself boasts a selection of shops, cafés, bars, and restaurants. The local museum, run by enthusiastic volunteers, has informative exhibits on the island’s archaeology and history. A particularly intriguing exhibit concerns sunken treasure in Tobermory Bay. In 1588, a treasure-laden Spanish galleon fleeing the English anchored in the bay and mysteriously blew up. Diving expeditions to recover the anticipated treasure has been unrewarding, but the legend persists.

Mull’s west coast is a delight to drive, offering an endless succession of dramatic views. Just off the coast is uninhabited Staffa Island, whose dark basalt cliffs have been breached by the sea in a few places to form caves. The most renowned is 227-foot Fingal’s Cave, where visitors can enter along a roped walkway and listen to the echo of the lapping of waves the likes of which inspired Mendelssohn’s dashing “Hebridian Overture.”

The public is invited to join brief meditative services in the simple nave of medieval Iona Abbey. Image: Chris Sharp

The ferry port of Fionnphort provides access to Iona. Unfortunately, most visitors rush through Fionnphort and miss the excellent Columba Centre with its informative exhibits on the saint’s life, times and legacy.

When St. Columba came to Iona, its isolation was perfect for the practice of the Celtic monastic tradition—a remote location so its brethren could devote their lives to God. This devotion would be manifested in frugality, scholarship and the creation of a center for evangelical pilgrimage. Also integral to the Celtic concept of scholarship was artistic excellence as a form of sacred adoration.

Columba’s legacy suggests that he succeeded in all these pursuits ornately carved crosses are often classified in the Iona style, as is colorful calligraphy in scripts such as the Book of Kells . There is some evidence that Columba himself started this tome on Iona.
Columba educated the apostolic saints Aidan and Kentigern on Iona as well.
Nothing much remains of Columba’s monastery its organic materials decayed long ago. Today’s monastic buildings include a restored medieval abbey a few minutes’ walk from the ferry landing. The route to the abbey has changed little in 1,000 years.

It passes a cluster of gaily painted fishermen’s crofts, a hotel and a good restaurant. Farther on is a ruined 12th-century nunnery (even though Columba had banned women from Iona). Beyond the nunnery, with its pleasant gardens, is Maclean’s Cross—carved in the Iona style, it was erected in 1500 and probably served as a pilgrims’ prayer station.
Just before the abbey precinct is St. Oran’s Chapel and Reilig Odhrain, which respectively are a burial chamber for the Lords of the Isles and a graveyard where many kings of Scotland are buried. The precise number of Kings and their locations are unknown, as their grave slabs have been long removed.

Welcome to Iona

Did you know you can download our Audio Guide for free at the moment? Take a minute to don your headphones and be transported back to a sunny St Columba’s Day in the 1400s. You’ll hear the wind whistling around the abbey buildings, as well as the hustle and bustle of Pilgrims exchanging travel stories.

Medieval pilgrims (and modern tourists!) once arrived at Iona by boat and then followed a set path, visiting burial grounds, chapels, and places associated with St Columba’s many miracles.

Our audio guide will virtually walk you along Sràid nam Marbh (the ‘Street of the Dead’) towards St Columba’s Shrine, passing Reilig Odhrain (Oran’s Burial Ground) along the way. Generations of abbots and monks were laid to rest there, as well as great lords and warriors. According to medieval sources, early Scottish kings were buried in Reilig Odhrain too – although there isn’t much archaeological evidence for this.

Aerial view of the island of Iona showing the seafront and the abbey behind a row of houses

View of ‘Street of the Dead’ from abbey tower.

Print of St Oran’s Chapel and burial ground, c. 1849. © Courtesy of HES (Henry Davenport Graham Collection).

View of effigies and carved graveslabs at St Oran’s Chapel c. 1901-1910. © Courtesy of HES (J H B Fletcher Collection).

Exterior door of St Oran’s Chapel c. 1900. © Courtesy of HES

Iona Abbey in modern times

A 360° Angle

These are the cloisters of Iona Abbey. The covered walkways were rebuilt in the 1920s-30s but they still hold the very special atmosphere of the tiny island and its original Benedictine abbey. New carvings were added later and completed in 1994.

We’ve seen some fantastic 360° tours going on over on Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle while we’re all in lockdown,…

Posted by Historic Scotland on Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Iona Community, formed in 1938, has revived the abbey’s long tradition of work, worship and teaching.

You can find more about the abbey’s history in our Statement of Significance. If you’re a teacher or home educator, you might also like our ‘Abbeys and Priories in Scotland’ resource. It has games, a timeline and more to help get your class thinking about abbey life.

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Dr Ewan Campbell, senior lecturer in early medieval archaeology at Glasgow University, said: “The nicest pin is a copy of one that was made in Viking Dublin but it looks to me that it was made on Iona given the differences in manufacturing.

"This adds to a lot of evidence that the monastery continued after the Viking raids. The traditional story is that the island was abadoned but it would seem to be the case that if it was abandoned , it was only temporary.”

Dr Campbell said that a number of gravestones and at least one large cross on Iona is also now known to date from the 10th and 11th Century.

He added : “There was a living community there around that time."

It is also known that a former Norse King of Dublin, Amlaıb Cuaran (Olaf Sihtricsson), who promoted the Columban cult, retired to the monastery on Iona as a penitent, and was buried there in 980.

Dr Campbell added: “Iona was important as one of the places where the Norse were coming into contact with Christianity and converted to Christianity.”

Further artefacts of the period recovered over recent years include a late 10th-century hoard of coins and bullion from the abbey as well as gold and silver artefacts, including a Hiberno-Norse coin and a gold ring, from St Ronan’s Church.

Dr Campbell’s work brings together unpublished reports of excavations led by various archaeologists over a number of decades with analysis only now just published.

Two of the Hiberno-Norse pins were recently disovered by archaeologists and volunteers from National Trust for Scotland.

The trust has also made a series of finds that push back the timeline of human activity on Iona to thousands of years before St Columba arrived with his 12 supporters.

A concentration of flints discovered to the south of the village show that the island was occupied around 7,000 years ago with the fertile lands of Iona probably provided sustenance for Mesolithic nomads.

Derek Alexander, head of archaeological services at National Trust for Scotland, said: "When examined, these flints showed at least two phases of activity: the first in the late Mesolithic around 7,000 years ago, and the second in the Early Neolithic from 5–6,000 years ago.

"The former is the earliest evidence for human activity on Iona and the flints would have been used by mobile hunter-gatherer groups, perhaps making seasonal use of the island’s varied resources.

"I think it really just emphasises what a good place Iona was to settle and we know now that is has been consistently settled over time.

“The earliest date we had for Iona was around the Bronze Age so these finds have pushed that back significantly.”

Meanwhile, radiocarbon dating of a layer of hazel charcoal taken from a trench dug near Martyrs Bay show the area was in use around AD428 – 600, which covers the period that St Columba came to the island.

Mr Alexander said it was one of the few dates that illusrate activity beyond the monastic complex with the land likely to have been cultivated by monks.

He added: “What we already knew about Iona was dominated around the work of the abbey and our findings emphasis there was activity in other parts of the island.

"The charcoal gives us just a glimpse of what was going on there and there has got to be more to discover. We hope to get the chance to go back and excavate further.”

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Watch the video: Scotland 6 Iona HD (August 2022).