Saturday, 9 July 2016

Stones, Saints, Kings and Commoners - Iona's spritual heritage

Iona Abbey and church is one of the oldest and most important religious sites in western Europe and was the centre from which Christianity spread throughout Scotland.  In modern times we think of travel in terrestrial terms and Iona seems remote and at the edge of things, but in times when sea travel was much easier and safer than travel over land it was very much at the centre of the sea lanes.  As this large scale map shows, Iona is at a pivot point between the Hebrides, the Scottish mainland and inner islands, and also the coast of the island of Ireland to the south.  There is evidence that Iona was a religious centre well before the arrival of Christianity and that Columba continued and developed a long tradition of religious association on the island.

The current Abbey and church represent the culmination of a long phase of building and rebuilding.  The monastery established by Columba and his followers would have been a simple timber and turf affair surrounded by a low vallum (walled bank).  The current Abbey is believed to be located on the site of the original Columban church and is built on a raised beach, while the monastery was located where the ruins of the Augustinian Nunnery now stand.

Columba came to Iona in 563 having been banished from Ireland following the battle of Cul Dreimhe. He was 42 years old and had the confidence and connections of his royal upbringing as an Irish prince.  He was not the first Irish missionary to arrive in Scotland and may not even have been the greatest, but he was remarkably effective in converting the Scots and to an extent the Picts to Christianity.  He died in 597, his place in history cemented by no less than three biographies which catalogued his missionary work.  Columba's name in the Irish Gaelic language was "Colm Cille" (church dove) and though some of his actions don't seem at all "saintly", by the time of his death Columba had radiated Christianity across Scotland and established Iona as a beacon of light and learning.

The Columban monastery suffered the first of a series of Viking raids in 795 and was razed to the ground.  It was rebuilt after the raid and again following destruction by Vikings in 798 and 802.  Further raiding and destruction in 806 (when 68 monks were killed at Martyr's Bay), 825 and 849 led to the few remaining treasures being divided between Dunkeld and Kells in Ireland.  Iona continued to attract raiders though, with another destructive visitation in 986.

Queen Margaret of Scotland is said to have had the monastery rebuilt in stone in 1074 but this is not certain.  What is known is that after a period when Iona was under the control of the Kings of Norway for over fifty years at the start of the 12th century before Somerled, Lord of the Isles wrested back control in 1164.  In 1203 Somerled's son Ranald of Islay invited the Benedictine order to establish a new monastery and the Augustinian order to establish a Nunnery on the site of the original monastery.  In 1204 the island was raided by a force led by two Irish bishops, probably in response to the loss of Irish Columban influence - turbulent priests indeed.....

The Abbey and church were substantially expanded during the 1500's but the whole place fell into disuse following the upheavals of the Scottish Reformation. In 1899 the Duke of Argyll who owned Iona transferred the buildings and the religious sites to the ownership of Iona Cathedral Trust who commenced an extensive restoration project in 1938 and established the Iona Community, who continue to utilise the Abbey and church.

The church has much of its medieval architecture intact and is still used as a place of worship. This image is taken from the Nave and shows the amount of light which streams in through the large window behind me.

There are over 150 grave slabs in the church and surrounding buildings, many of them dating from 1300-1500.  Some are set into the floor while others are mounted along the walls of the church.  An attempt was made by the Duke of Argyll to arrange the slabs into a collection of Kings and Lords - the latter including chiefs of the Macleans, MacLeods and MacKinnons.

Due to the nature of the rectangular cloisters it's difficult to get a proper image of the rectangle and arcaded ranges.  Rebuilt in the 1950's, the general arrangement remains with doors leading off to the refectory, dormitories and chapter house.  The sculpture in the cloister garth is "Descent of the Spirit" created by the Lithuanian sculptor Jacques Lipchitz in 1959.  the inscription highlights the fact that the sculpture represents the Christian Mary and was created by Lipchitz (who was Jewish) to promote understanding in the world.

The Abbey and church are well worth exploring, but for me it's what lies outwith the comparatively modern structures which holds the most interest.

This unassuming stretch of partly overgrown cobbled track is a visible remnant of a wide cobbled way that once ran to the Abbey from the shore near Port nam Mairtir and known as the "Road of the Dead".  It may once have been lined with crosses and was the processional way along which the coffins of Kings, Clan chiefs and other important persons were borne for burial in the churchyard.

Beyond the cobbled road is Reilig Odhran (St Oran's graveyard) and the small chapel within the graveyard walls. Oran is believed to have been Columba's cousin and one of the original twelve who accompanied him from Ireland.  Reilig Odhrain has been used as a burial ground for many centuries and some of the earliest Christian burials on Iona took place here, marked by very simple stone markers which are now in the Abbey museum.  A high cross (St Oran's) which stood here is also in the museum, its socket stone still lies beside the path.

It has been claimed that 48 Scottish Kings and numerous others from Norway, Ireland and even France are buried at Iona along with numerous clan Chiefs.  Historians believe that the number of royal burials is probably much less than claimed and that number was probaly overstated in order to emphasise Iona's importance.  There have certainly been notable royal burials at Iona though - the bodies of Kenneth MacAlpin (the Pictish king who forged together Picts and Scots into what we perceive as Scotland), Malcolm I, Duncan I and Macbeth among them.

St Oran's chapel is probably the oldest intact building at Iona abbey and is likely to have been constructed by Somerled as a family burial chapel before he died in 1164.  There are very old grave slabs set into the floor commemorating other "Sea Kings" and a row of exquisitely carved slabs on display inside.

The graveyard itself was a peaceful spot on the morning of our visit, the green grass studded with the vivid colours of bluebells.  If St Oran's was originally reserved for the great and good, in later times it has become the burial ground for the islanders of Iona with legible gravestones dating back to 1730.

Others are interred here too, there are a couple of Commonwealth War Grave stones - this one marking a sailor of the Merchant Navy whose body washed up on Iona.

The best known modern grave marker at St Oran's is that of John Smith, a Scottish QC and politician who led the Labour party at the time of his death in 1994 aged just 56.  He was widely respected (unusual enough for a politician), was a man of integrity with a strong sense of right and wrong (completely absent in most politicians) and would have almost certainly bcome one of the great Prime Ministers.  "Plain John Smith" had visited Iona many times and was buried in Reilig Odhran in a private ceremony following a public funeral in Edinburgh attended by 1000 people - a later service in Westminster was attended by 2000 from across the political spectrum and addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The epitaph on the gravestone is a quote fom the poet Alexander Pope - "An Honest Man's the Noblest Work of God".  In the years following Smith's burial the grave became something of a tourist attraction, the many people wishing to visit it created some issues locally and damage to surrounding graves, but these days the numbers are more proportionate.

On our way back to the shore from the Abbey we passed the ruins of the Augustinian Nunnery and church which date from the 1200's.  There's a small garden attached and it would have been good to have explored this attractive ruin, but our arrival coincided with the latest invasion.....

...of cruise passengers.  "L'Austral's" tenders had been shuttling back and forth bringing boatloads of passengers ashore where they were arranged by numbers, with some groups heading to the Nunnery and Abbey whilst others headed to the pier for boat tours out to Staffa and Fingal's Cave - presumably the groups would then alternate later.

Things suddenly felt crowded and we headed back to our boats on the shore at Martyr's Bay.  We were fortunate to enjoy our exploration of the religious heritage of Iona's Abbey in relative peace, because during the day it becomes a busy tourist attraction.

Whilst not a religious person, I'm fascinated by places of faith and belief of all kinds.  Perhaps it's the combination of a religious place with immense heritage and the demands of being tourist hot-spot but the "spirituality" which is claimed for Iona's abbey felt somewhat diminished to me.  It is, nonetheless, a remarkable place to experience.


  1. Thank you very much, Ian! I've been longing to see the grave of John Smith since his burial. I admired him very much. In spite you've shown so many beautiful spots on your blog from Iona and its surroundings, I'm more inclined now, to make a visit to the island. Safe paddling!

  2. Iona is a great place to visit Leif, on very many levels. If your visit coincides with the kind of sunny weather we enjoyed - so much the better!

    Best wishes