Our journey goes on in Argyll and the Isles, in search of the best of Scotland and today a little passenger ferry will lead us to Iona, one of the jewels of Argyll & The Isles.
With its 3 miles (4,8 km) from north to south and its 1.5 miles (2,4 km) from east to west, Iona is a small island. It is situated in the Inner Hebrides about 1 mile off the isle of Mull. As a place of natural beauty and a highly sought-after spiritual haven, it attracts pilgrims and tourists by the thousands each year.
Now, here we are, on board the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry MV Loch Buie, crossing the blue waters of the Sound of Iona, trying to enjoy every moment of the short crossing between Fionnphort and Baile Mòr, the only village of the island, locally referred to as “The Village”. This 10-minute crossing is a feast in itself, at least when the weather is fine
The weather is fine and as the boat approaches the island most passengers gather on the deck to try and recognize the most famous sites: on the right Dun I hill (pronounced ‘Dun EE’) which, with its 101 m, is its highest point and on the left Dun Bhuirg (pronounced ‘Dun Voo-rig’ !!!), a rocky hill half as high as Dun I but the only one to have been fortified in the ancient times. In between, the mythical figure of Iona Abbey and the lovely sandstone cottages of Baile Mòr.
There are so many places of interest to discover on Iona and the landscapes are so beautiful that it is highly recommended to stay more than one day on the island, especially if a trip to Staffa has been planned.
Though we have visited most of the places mentioned below during our first trips to Iona, we’re looking forward to visiting it again, next spring, especially to see the Abbey released from its scaffolds.
- lovely landscapes
- blue waters
- sandy and rocky beaches
- a rich fauna and flora
- Dun I and Dun Bhuirg
- Baile Mòr – “The Village” and its Main Street
- The Abbey with its church and cloister
- The ‘High Crosses’
- St John’s Cross
- St Martin’s Cross
- MacLean’s Cross
- St Oran’s Chapel
- Reilig Odhrain and ‘The Road of the Dead’
- The Infirmary museum
- The Nunnery
- Iona’s bookshop
- a lively and friendly local community
If the weather is fine, the short walk up to the summit of Dun I is well worth the effort for one can get up there a magnificent panoramic view of the whole area.
Certain places radiate an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity, and one senses that Iona would still possess this quality even without its holy associations. Looking across the Sound of Iona, turquoise where the granite sand and shingle lie close to the surface, towards the hills of Mull one can appreciate why the island attracted a group of monks who had left their homes in a self-imposed penitential exile.
(Ian and Kathleen Whyte – Exploring Scotland’s Historic Landscapes 1987)
Turquoise blue waters… that have nothing to envy to those of the Mediterranean Sea !
A few places in the world are to be held holy, because of the love which consecrates them and the faith which enshrines them. Their names are themselves talismans of spiritual beauty.
Of these is Iona.
(from Iona, an essay written by William Sharp under the pseudonym of Fiona Macleod – 1900)
Iona Abbey is one of the oldest and most important 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.
In 563, Columba came to Iona from Ireland with twelve companions, and founded a monastery which grew to be an influential centre for the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots. Kings were crowned, and also buried, on Iona. The Book of Kells, a famous illuminated manuscript, is believed to have been produced by the monks of Iona in the years leading up to 800. The Chronicle of Ireland was also produced at Iona until about 740. In 806, Vikings massacred 68 monks in Martyrs’ Bay, and Columba’s monks returned to Ireland, and a Monastery at Kells: other monks from Iona fled to the Continent, and established Monasteries in Belgium, France, and Switzerland. In 825, St Blathmac and those monks who had returned with him to Iona, were martyred by a further Viking raid, and the Abbey burned. However, it was probably not deserted. Its continued importance is shown by the death there in 980 of Amlaíb Cuarán, a retired King of Dublin.
Iona had been 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 ‘Lord of the Isles’, in 1203 invited the Benedictine order to establish a new Monastery, and the first (Benedictine) Nunnery, on the Columban foundations. Building work began on the new Abbey church, on the site of Columba’s original church.
A very early Nunnery, founded in the thirteenth century, and of the Augustinian Order (one of only two in Scotland – the other is in Perth), the Iona Nunnery, 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, but following the Scottish Reformation, Iona along with numerous other abbeys throughout the British Isles were dismantled, and abandoned, their monks and Libraries dispersed.
The original Benedictine Abbey was substantially rebuilt following the Duke of Argyll’s gift of all the buildings in 1899 to the Church of Scotland, which undertook extensive restoration of the site. In 1938, the inspiration of Reverend George MacLeod led a group which rebuilt the abbey, and founded the Iona Community. The reconstruction was organised by the architect Ian Gordon Lindsay having generously been passed the project from his senior mentor and friend Reginald Fairlie. The surrounding buildings were also re-constructed during the 20th century by the Iona Community. This ecumenical Christian community continues to use the site to this day. (Wikipedia)
The little chapel attached to the abbey church wall is known as ‘St Columba’s Shrine’ though it is more a sanctuary than a place sheltering relics. St Columba’s resting place remains a mystery. The 8th century richly-ornamented Monymusk Reliquary, which is supposed to hold Saint Columba’s relics, can be seen in the New Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh.
It is said that Robert the Bruce carried it into battle and that he had it with him in Bannockburn, which seems to have brought him luck !
There were three ‘high crosses’ in front of the abbey: St John’s cross, St Matthew’s cross and St Martin’s cross. Of the two that can be seen today only St Martin’s cross (on the right) is the original. A concrete replica of St John’s Cross can be seen on the left, just in front of St Columba’s Shrine.
The original one, or at least what remains of it, dates back from the eighth century. It has been sheltered, together with other crosses, carved graved slabs and a number of archaeological artefacts of great interest, in the Infirmary Museum in order to be cleaned and restored by a team of experts.
St Martin’s cross which must have been carved between 700 and 800 AD is still standing on its pink granite plinth, facing the Abbey and the Sound of Iona.
It is beautifully carved with biblical scenes though it is extremely difficult to identify them on the above photo: the Virgin and Child, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Abraham and Isaac, David playing his harp…
Delightful to me to be on an island hill, on the crest of a rock,
that I might often watch the quiet sea;
That I might watch the heavy waves above the bright water,
as they chant music to their Father everlastingly.
That I might watch it’s smooth, bright-bordered shore, no gloomy pastime,
that I might hear the cry of the strange birds, a pleasing sound;
That I might hear the murmur of the long waves against the rocks,
that I might hear the sound of the sea, like mourning beside a grave;
That I might watch the splendid flocks of birds over the well-watered sea,
that I might see its mighty whales, the greatest wonder.
That I might watch its ebb and flood in their course,
that my name should be–it is a secret that I tell–
“he who turned his back upon Ireland;”
That I might have a contrite heart as I watch,
that I might repent my many sins, hard to tell;
That I might bless the Lord who rules all things,
heaven with its splendid host, earth, ebb, and flood…
This beautiful stained glass window representing St Columba is situated in the 12th/13th century north transept of the Abbey Church. It was designed by William Wilson in 1965 in memory of the Gaelic poet, Rev Kenneth MacLeod (1873-1955). William Wilson was a Scottish stained glass artist, printmaker and watercolour painter born in 1905. He died in 1972 and this stained glass window was one of his last works.
Below is a brief account of the life of Columcille in Scotland:
Saint Columba (Irish: Colm Cille, ‘church dove’; 7 December 521 – 9 June 597) was an Irish abbot and missionary credited with spreading Christianity in present-day Scotland. He founded the important abbey on Iona, which became a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries (..)
In 563, he travelled to Scotland with twelve companions (said to include Odran of Iona) in a wicker currach covered with leather. According to legend he first landed on the Kintyre Peninsula, near Southend. However, being still in sight of his native land, he moved farther north up the west coast of Scotland. The island of Iona was made over to him by his kinsman Conall mac Comgaill King of Dál Riata, who perhaps had invited him to come to Scotland in the first place. However, there is a sense in which he was not leaving his native people, as the Irish Gaels had been colonising the west coast of Scotland for the previous couple of centuries. Aside from the services he provided guiding the only centre of literacy in the region, his reputation as a holy man led to his role as a diplomat among the tribes.There are also many stories of miracles which he performed during his work to convert the Picts, the most famous being his encounter with an unidentified animal that some have equated with the Loch Ness Monster in 565. It is said that he banished a ferocious “water beast” to the depths of the River Ness after it had killed a Pict and then tried to attack Columba’s disciple.
He visited the pagan King Bridei, King of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, winning the Bridei’s respect, although not his conversion. He subsequently played a major role in the politics of the country. He was also very energetic in his work as a missionary, and, in addition to founding several churches in the Hebrides, he worked to turn his monastery at Iona into a school for missionaries. He was a renowned man of letters, having written several hymns and being credited with having transcribed 300 books. One of the few, if not the only, times he left Scotland was towards the end of his life, when he returned to Ireland to found the monastery at Durrow.
Columba died on Iona and was buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he created. In 794 the Vikings descended on Iona. Columba’s relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between Scotland and Ireland.
A large bronze statue, by the Lithuanian artist, Jacques Lipchitz, has been installed in the centre of the cloister. It is entitled ‘The Descent of the spirit’ (1959) and it shows a dove holding in its beak the gathered corners of the universe.
An inscription on it reads (in French): ‘Jacob Lipchitz, Jew, faithful to the religion of his ancestors, has made this Virgin for the better understanding of human beings on this earth so that the Spirit may prevail.’
The atmosphere of the place is peaceful. Double rows of columns supporting capitals carved with flowers and birds run around the cloister. Only a few of them are medieval originals, the others having been carved between 1967 and 1997.
St Oran’s Chapel, built in the 12th century, the oldest of Iona’s surviving ecclesiastical buildings. Used as a chapel and burial place of the MacDonald family, Lord of the Isles.
Reilig Odhrain… let us try to imagine the beauty and atmosphere of this place in the ancient times… we must try hard for there are many gaps in this old churchyard. Due to problems of erosion and decay, a number of beautifully carved stones of great archeological and historic value have been removed to be sheltered and restored in the infirmary museum on the north east side of the abbey where they are displayed to the public.
Not only ancient kings are buried here… a name has been recently added to the list of the people resting here, in this beautiful and quiet environment… the name of a modern hero…
On 20 May 1994, after a funeral in Cluny Parish Church, Edinburgh, attended by 900 people and after which 3,000 people lined the streets, Smith was buried in a private family funeral on the island of Iona, at the sacred burial ground of Reilig Odhráin, which contains the graves of several Scottish kings as well as monarchs of Ireland, Norway and France.
His grave is marked with an epitaph quoting Alexander Pope: “An honest man’s the noblest work of God”. His close friend Donald Dewar was the only political figure at the funeral – who acted as one of Smith’s pall bearers.
On 14 July 1994, his memorial service was attended in Westminster Abbey by over 2,000 people. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave an address. (Wikipedia)
A paved path known as ‘The Road of the Dead’ connecting the Abbey Church to the Reilig Odhrain. In the olden times it used to extend to Martyrs’ Bay where coffins brought from the mainland were taken ashore …
That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon,
or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona”.
If we had to choose our favourite place on Iona, it would certainly be the 13th century Nunnery which is situated not far from the Abbey. We visited it early in the morning when there was nobody in the area except a young woman who was sitting on a bench with her sketchbook and pencils.
The atmosphere was peaceful and we lingered there silently, listening to the birds and trying to imagine how it must have been to live there in the ancient times when the church resounded with religious songs. The architecture of the Nunnery is quite plain and the stones of a lovely pink tone.
The church, with its three well-preserved arches is particularly interesting to visit. The garden is absolutely lovely.
Many interesting accounts of visits to Iona were recorded by travellers to the island…
- Martin Martin, the Scottish explorer and author went to Iona at the end of the 17th century.
- Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell landed on Iona on 19th October, 1773, clutching a copy of Martin Martin’s book.
- Sir Walter Scott made visits to Iona in 1810 and 1814.
- John Keats spent a few hours on Iona on 24th July, 1818.
- Felix Mendelssohn (diary 8th August 1829)
- Queen Victoria arrived on Iona on 19th August 1847 aboard the Royal Yacht.
Can you see the black cloud over the blue and smooth waters ? Be careful anyway and always keep an eye on the weather forecast before sailing off. ‘In the early morning of 13th December, 1998, ‘ writes Alastair de Watteville at the end of his book, ‘there was a terrible and deeply tragic accident in the Sound of Iona in which four of the island’s young men were drowned. The impact of the loss of these four lives on the tiny population of Iona, where each person knows all the others, will necessarily be painful and long-lasting. Iona may never fully recover from this disaster (…).’
In 806 AD, on this quiet little bay, 68 monks were killed by the Vikings…
It is but a small isle, fashioned of a little sand, a few grasses salt with the spray of an ever-restless wave, a few rocks that wade in heather and upon whose brows the sea-wind weaves the yellow lichen. But since the remotest days sacrosanct men have bowed here in worship. In this little island a lamp was lit whose flame lighted pagan Europe, from the Saxon in his fens to the swarthy folk who came by Greek waters to trade the Orient.
(from Iona, an essay written by William Sharp under the pseudonym of Fiona Macleod – 1900)
I leave the last word to a Scot who is the author of a wonderful video about Iona…
Only after years of Continental travel,did I find this tiny island on my doorstep.I was born and bred in Scotland, but until 2003 I never realised how beautiful my own country could be. Now,I visit Iona once or twice a year for at least a week at a time. It is beautiful,interesting & offers such tranquillity no matter what time of year one visits. I hope viewers understand & share what I mean from this video
Bonne lecture ! Le voyage continue…
A bientôt for a little trip to Staffa…
On my desk today: