Beacon of Christianity | Columba’s monastery | A place of pilgrimage
Beacon of Christianity
Iona is a holy isle, an enduring symbol of Christianity in Scotland. St Columba and his followers came here from Ireland in AD 563 and founded a monastery that became the heart of the early Scottish Church. St Columba’s fame attracted pilgrims to Iona from the 7th century onwards. The island also served as a burial ground for important and holy people from near and far.
A restored 13th-century medieval abbey now stands on the site of Columba’s church. Beside it stand tall, intricately carved crosses, dating from the 8th and 9th centuries. Visitors follow a route to the abbey close to the one taken by pilgrims of old – Sràid nam Marbh, ‘the street of the dead’. Iona has witnessed 1,500 years of religious activity. Today its spiritual life continues through the work of the Iona Community.
The site Columba chose for his monastery now seems isolated and rugged. But it enabled him to maintain close links with his fellow Scots of Dal Riata – an ancient territory embracing parts of what is now north-east Ireland and western Scotland.
All that remains of his monastery is the great vallum, or enclosure bank, that defined the holy site, and Tòrr an Aba, ‘hill of the abbot’, where Columba is said to have died in 597. The little stone building called St Columba’s Shrine, beside the door leading into the later abbey church, may date from the 9th century.
By then, Columba’s monastery was subject to repeated Viking raids, and late in that century the saint’s relics were taken for safekeeping to Dunkeld in Perthshire, and Kells in Ireland. The famous Book of Kells, now on display in Dublin, was probably made on Iona.
A place of pilgrimage
By the mid-12th century Iona was under the patronage of Somerled, ‘King of the Isles’. He built St Oran’s Chapel as a family burial place. His son Reginald refounded the old monastery as a Benedictine abbey. The church was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and built on a cruciform plan. The cloister lay to the north of the church. The chapter house was centrally placed along the east range, with living and dining areas above it and in the north range.
Monastic life came to an end at the Protestant Reformation in 1560. Iona was briefly revitalised by Charles I in the 1630s as the Cathedral of the Isles, but faded into oblivion when bishops were abolished in the Scottish Church. The abbey re-emerged in the 1870s, through the efforts of the 8th Duke of Argyll, who began restoring the buildings. A new era began in 1938 when the Iona Community was established. Today the restored abbey church and cloister are in daily and lively use.