Scottish Churches and Ruined Abbeys - Highlands Region

Iona Abbey - Part 1

Some history and background

Iona was on a busy sea route connecting Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man and England. St Columba (Colum Cille) arrived here in 563AD with twelve of his followers, and established the first monastery here. It rapidly became one of the most important monasteries in the British Isles and a seat of learning and art. The beautifully illustrated Book of Kells was made here around 800AD.

The original monastery was a collection of wooden buildings surrounded by a massive earth bank, the Vallum, which acted as a boundary separating the spiritual and secular worlds. Part of this bank can still be seen to the north west of the abbey buildings.

Near the buildings was a small mound, Torr an Aba, where St Columba had a small shed he could retire to and write.

Iona Abbey

When St Columba did in 597 at the age of 75, he was buried in a small richly decorated wooden building. Adomnan, born thirty years after St Columba’s death, became the ninth Abbot, wrote the first ‘Lift of St Columba’ around 690. This was a mixture of fact and popular tradition which had grown up around St Columba.

Around 800AD the original wooden building was replaced by a stone chapel, St Columba’s shrine. His bones were dug up and along with some of his most treasured belongings and placed in a richly decorated reliquary chest.  By now, the Abbey was a focus for pilgrimage attracting increasing numbers of pilgrims. The pilgrims arrived at either Columba’s Bay or Martyr’s Bay and followed a set route visiting areas associated with St Columba’s many miracles before arriving at this shrine along what was called Sraid nam Marbh, or the Street of the Dead. The last cobbled stretch of the road can still be seen leading to the abbey.
Street of the Dead, Iona Abbey

The abbey suffered a series of Viking raids in the  C8th & C9th when gold and jewels were stolen, monks killed and the wooden monastery burnt. It was replaced by stone in 818 but was again badly damaged in raids in 825 and 849. The surviving relics were taken to Dunkeld Cathedral and Kells in Ireland for safe keeping. By around 900, the Vikings had settled in the area, embraced Christianity and adopting St Columba as their patron saint.

There was one last raid in Iona at Christmas 986 by Danish Vikings settled in Dublin. They knew the monastery treasures would be on display for the festive Christmas Mass. The Abbot and 15 monks were murdered.

Around 1200, Reginald MacDonald of Islay, one of the sons of Somerled, who had taken control of the area around 1100, invited Benedictine Monks to rebuild Columba’s monastery. They encouraged pilgrims to St Columba’s shrine.

Work began in 1200 on an aisleless cross shaped church, with small transepts.

Iona Abbey

As the monastery grew in importance, the chancel was extended in 1250 to house a larger choir and a crypt was built to house relics. Side choir aisles were built to help manage the movement of pilgrims. There was an ambitious remodelling in the mid 1400, when the crypt was removed, possibly as it was in danger of collapse. This explains the two arches and central column that start half way up the north wall. The north side aisle became the Sacristy. The nave was widened to the south, and the west front and crossing tower were built. The carved capitals of the crossing arches still survive.

By 1450, the monastery buildings were complete with the abbey church with cloisters on the north side with the dormitory, refectory and abbot’s house. 

Iona abbey

After the Reformation in 1560, the monastery fell into disrepair. Over 350 stone crosses around Iona disappeared.  In 1630, Charles I tried to use the east end of the abbey church as a Cathedral of the Isles, but the attempt failed and and the abbey was left to become a ruin.

At the end of the C19th, the eighth Duke of Argyll, whose family had owned land on Iona for over 200 years, initiated the rebuilding of the abbey. In 1899 he transferred ownership to the Iona Cathedral Trust who continued the restoration work which was finally completed by the Iona Community in 1965. The care of the abbey passed to Historic Environment Scotland in 2000.

The Abbey is open April to the end of September from 9.30-5.30 daily. From October to the end of March it is open 10-4 Mondays to Saturdays. On Sundays, it is unmanned with the church, St Columba’s Shrine, Michael Chapel and grounds open. The web site does make the comment that opening times are subject to ferry services and weather conditions. There is an audio guide.

The post code is PA76 6SQ and the grid reference is NM 287245

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