Monks and nuns
Iona is renowned the world over for its medieval Benedictine abbey, founded around 1200 by Reginald, son of the great Somerled ‘King of the Isles’, and gloriously restored in the early 20th century.
Less well known is the island’s Augustinian nunnery, founded at the same time by the same Lord Reginald. This is a pity, for the well-tended ruin on the edge of the island’s port, Baile Mòr, is one of the best-preserved medieval nunneries in the British Isles.
Beside the nunnery stands Teampull Rònain (‘St Ronan’s Chapel’), which served as the parish church for the medieval inhabitants of Baile Mòr until the Protestant Reformation of 1560. Excavations beneath the floor in 1992 revealed traces of an earlier chapel, possibly dating from the 8th century, showing that there was a lay population on the island contemporary with St Columba’s monastery. It now houses architectural fragments and graveslabs found at the nunnery.
Sisters of St Augustine
The nuns on Iona followed the teaching of St Augustine of Hippo, in Egypt. They wore black habits, and their church was locally called an eaglais dhubh (‘the black church’). The Benedictine abbey church was simply known as an eaglais mhor (‘the great church’). Like the monks, the nuns pursued a contemplative and cloistered life. Their first prioress was Bethoc, Lord Reginald’s own sister. The nunnery became a favoured retiral place, and place of burial, for ladies of noble birth from across the western seaboard. A graveslab in Teampull Rònain bears the inscription: ‘Here lie Finnguala and Mariota MacInolly, sometime nuns of Iona’. The badly damaged graveslab of Prioress Anna MacLean (died 1543) lies in the chancel.
Church and cloister
The ruins are quite substantial. The church dominates the cloister from the north side, and much of it dates from the 13th century. It has a nave with a three-bay aisle on the north, a small chapel at the east end of the aisle, and a chancel. The chancel and north chapel have rib-vaulted ceilings, and the north chapel also has a fine triangular-headed window. There is some fine carved work, particularly on the capitals of the nave arcade.
The cloister is more ruinous, but sections of the east and south ranges survive. The chapter house was the central of three rooms along the east range, whilst the south range comprised the refectory and kitchen. The cloister itself was enlarged to south and west in the 15th century. Only foundations of the cloister arcade now remain, but surviving fragments show that it was beautifully carved. These are on display in the neighbouring Teampull Rònain.
Region – Central and West
Grid reference - NM 285 242.
- The location – on the edge of Baile Mór, on the pilgrims’ route, ‘the street of the dead’, to St Columba’s Shrine and the abbey itself.
- The church – one of the best-preserved medieval nunnery churches in the British Isles.
- The cloister garden – a scented and tranquil place to linger on a summer’s day.