Scottish Islands: Iona
*I am in the process of redesigning this section to include notes and many more high-res shots*
Although Iona is a tiny island, only 3 miles (4.8km) long by 1.5 miles (2.4km) wide, it has a long and illustrious history.
Often referred to as ‘The Cradle of Christianity’ in Scotland, the sacred isle is famous throughout the world, drawing thousands of people every year, many of whom are making a pilgrimage to its ancient abbey.
Previously a National Trust property, the Abbey is now under the care of Historic Environment Scotland have a small visitor centre and shop on-site.
Only a mile of water separates Iona from Fionnphort at the tip of the Ross of Mull and as the former island was also easily accessible by boat from mainland Ireland and Scotland, by the 8th century Iona had become an internationally renowned centre of spirituality, learning and art where craftsmen such as sculptors, metalworkers and manuscript illuminators flourished.
CalMac`s small ferry MV Loch Buie is the regular vessel on the Fionnphort to Iona run. The crossing only takes around 10 minutes. Built by J W Miller & Sons at St Monans, Fife, MV Loch Buie was launched in 1992. Following trials on the Forth, she was delivered to CalMac the same year having sailed to the west coast via the Caledonian Canal. Her car deck can take two lanes of cars and she has the capacity for up to 250 passengers.
The 13th century abbey stands on the site of the original church founded by St Columba and 12 companions who came here from Ireland in AD 563. Their monastery sent missionaries throughout northern Britain to convert people to Christianity.
Little remains of Columba’s original monastery although part of the great vallum (earthen bank) that enclosed the holy site prior to the monastery’s construction and Tòr an Aba (Hill of the Abbot) (below), where Columba is said to have had his writing hut, can still be seen.
At the top there is an empty stone socket that once held a cross marking the significance of this spot.
This is a replica of St John`s Cross (Cross Eoin). The broken parts of the original, which probably dated from c.800 and which was restored in 1926, are housed in the Abbey Museum. The little stone building immediately behind the spot where the cross stands is known as St Columba`s Shrine. // Another view of the St John`s Cross replica and St Columba's Shrine. Most of the Shrine`s walls were restored in 1962 but the lowest courses are original and may date to the 9th century. Originally the building was free-standing and it was left that way even when the medieval Abbey was built. *
Below: As old as the Abbey itself, Reilig Odhrain is Iona`s main burial ground and those interred here include kings, abbots, monks, great lords and warriors. Macbeth (of Shakespeare fame) is one of the Scottish kings many believe to be buried here.
St Oran`s Chapel beside the graveyard contains an impressive collection of elaborately-carved West Highland grave slabs. This was the burial chapel of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles and dating from the 1100s, it`s the oldest intact structure on Iona.
The historic cemetery is in use to this day. John Smith, former leader of the Labour Party, is one of the most prominent burials of recent years.
Traditionally a cousin of Columba, St Oran is said to have martyred himself, offering to be buried alive to sanctify this site. Pilgrims probably paused here to pray to St Oran on the way to the Abbey. Many of the stones displayed in the Abbey Museum come from Reilig Odhrain, including the 8th-century St Oran`s Cross.
The tomb of George Douglas VIII Duke of Argyll (1823-1900) and his wife.
As early as 1688 one impoverished local took it upon himself to act as a paid guide. When writers Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited in 1773, they were accompanied by one of only two English speakers on the island: `an illiterate fellow... who called himself a descendant of a cousin of Saint Columba`. From the 1890s a knowledgeable islander Alexander Ritchie was on hand to guide the summer visitors. Ritchie, pictured above with his wife, was appointed the first official custodian of the Abbey by the Iona cathedral Trust in 1899. he received £25 per annum, plus grazing rights in the ruined nunnery.
Above image © copyright St Andrews University Special Collection.
Guided tours were not Alexander Ritchie`s only speciality. Continuing the island`s long tradition of craftsmanship, he and his wife Euphemia were also talented metalworkers. Inspired by the knots and spirals of Iona`s carved stones and manuscript decoration, the couple`s jewellery designs echoed those of their monastic predecessors. They opened a shop called Iona Celtic Art where they sold their souvenirs of Iona to tourists and locals alike.
Four tall, intricately carved crosses, dating from the 8th and 9th centuries, once stood close to the abbey and three are now housed in the recently renovated Abbey Museum, while the other is still in place.
This is the grave slab of Lady Anna Maclean, a prioress of the medieval nunnery who died in 1543. She is depicted dressed in her nuns` habit with her head resting on a pillow supported by angels. Two of her dogs are also present and there is a mirror and comb, probably symbols of her wealth and femininity. This grave slab was damaged in the 1800s when part of the nunnery collapsed. Luckily, Welsh travel writer Thomas Pennant made a drawing of it in 1772, so we know the missing portion carried an image of the Virgin and Child.
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Close to the village pier and passed on the way to the Abbey is one of the best-preserved medieval nunneries in the British Isles. The ruins are quite substantial and incorporate a chapter house and a small 13th century chapel, Teampull Ronain (St Ronan’s Chapel), which served as the parish church for the island`s medieval inhabitants until the Protestant Reformation of 1560. Excavations beneath the floor in 1992 revealed traces of an earlier structure, possibly dating from the 8th century.
Medieval pilgrims paused at this spot to pray just before they reached the abbey. On the front face of MacLean`s Cross are interlaced designs sprouting from the tails of two beasts. On the other side is the poignant image of the crucifixion. The cross seen here was erected around 1500 having been financed by the powerful MacLean family.