Iona Abbey is located on the Isle of Iona, just off the Isle of Mull on the West Coast of Scotland. It is one of the oldest Christian religious centres in Western Europe. The abbey was a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland and marks the foundation of a monastic community by St. Columba, when Iona was part of the Kingdom of Dál Riata. Iona Abbey is home to the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian religious order, and remains a popular site of Christian pilgrimage today.
In 563, Columba came to Iona from Ireland with twelve companions, and founded a monastery. It developed as an influential centre for the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots. At the time the name of the island and so the abbey was "Hy" or "Hii"; "Iona" only seems to date from the 14th century, as a mis-transcription of a Latinized "Ioua" for "Hy". The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript, is believed to have been produced by the monks of Iona in the years leading up to 800. The Chronicle of Ireland was also produced at Iona until about 740.
The abbey was first attacked by Viking raiders in 795, with subsequent attacks taking place in 802, 806, and 825. During the 806 Viking attack, 68 monks were massacred in Martyrs' Bay, and this led to many of the Columban monks relocating to the new Columban Abbey of Kells in Ireland. The building at Kells took from 807 until the consecration of the church in 814. In 814, Cellach, Abbot of Iona, retired to Kells, but, contrary to what is sometimes claimed, it is clear from the Annals that Iona remained the main Columban house for several decades, despite the danger of Viking raids. In 825, St Blathmac and those monks who remained with him at Iona, were martyred in a Viking raid, and the Abbey was burned. But only in 878 were the main relics, with Columba's reliquary shrine specified in the records, moved to Ireland, with Kells becoming the new main Columban house. Though not mentioned, this might well have been when the Book of Kells came to Kells. However, it was probably not deserted as its continued importance is shown by the death there in 980 of Amlaíb Cuarán, a retired King of Dublin.
Iona had been seized by the King of Norway, who held it for fifty years before Somerled recaptured it, and invited renewed Irish involvement in 1164: this led to the construction of the central part of the Cathedral. Ranald, Somerled's son, now 'Lord of the Isles', in 1203 invited the Benedictine order to establish a new Monastery, and an Augustinian Nunnery, on the Columban Monastery's foundations. Building work began on the new Abbey church, on the site of Columba's original church. The following year, in 1204, the site was raided by a force led by two Irish bishops. This was a response by Ireland's Columban clergy to the loss of its connections and influence at this significant site founded by St Columba.
The Iona Nunnery, a foundation of the Augustinian Order (one of only two in Scotland - the other is in Perth), was established south of the Abbey buildings. Graves of some of the early nuns remain, including that of a remarkable Prioress, Anna Maclean, who died in 1543. Clearly visible under her outer robe is the rochet, a pleated surplice denoting the Augustinian Order. The Nunnery buildings were rebuilt in the fifteenth century and fell into disrepair after the Reformation.
The Abbey church was substantially expanded in the fifteenth century, but following the Scottish Reformation, Iona along with numerous other abbeys throughout the British Isles were dismantled, and abandoned, their monks and libraries dispersed.
In 1899 the Duke of Argyll transferred ownership of the ruined remains of the Abbey and Nunnery sites to the Iona Cathedral Trust, which undertook extensive restoration of the Abbey church. In 1938, the inspiration of Reverend George MacLeod led a group which rebuilt the abbey, and founded the Iona Community. The reconstruction was organised by the architect Ian Gordon Lindsay having generously been passed the project from his senior mentor and friend Reginald Fairlie. The surrounding buildings were also re-constructed during the 20th century by the Iona Community. This ecumenical Christian community continues to use the site to this day.
The simple square font was added in 1908 and dedicated to the memory of the Very Rev Theodore Marshall DD, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in that year.
Many early Scottish kings (said to be 48 in total), as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France, are said to be buried in the Abbey graveyard. However, modern scholars are sceptical of such claims, which were likely mythic associated with increasing the prestige of Iona. Numerous leading Hebrideans, such as various Lords of the Isles and other prominent members of West Highland clans, were buried on Iona, including several early MacLeod chiefs. The site was much loved by John Smith, 20th-century leader of the Labour Party, who was buried on Iona after his death in 1994.
|St. John's Cross in the Abbey museum.||St. Martin's Cross outside the abbey.|
Several high crosses are found on the Isle of Iona. St Martin's Cross (dated to the 8th century) still stands by the roadside. A replica of St John's Cross is found by the doorway of the Abbey. The restored original is located in the Infirmary Museum at the rear of the abbey.
The contemporary Jedburgh-based sculptor Christopher Hall worked for many years on carvings on the cloisters of the abbey, which represent birds, flora and fauna native to the island. He also was commissioned to carve John Smith's gravestone.
Iona Abbey was the home of St. Columba, whose missionary work in the 6th century brought Celtic Christianity to Scotland. Now home to the ecumenical Iona Community, it remains a place of Christian pilgrimage.
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