Iona cloister

The island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, is the symbolic centre of Scottish Christianity. Through 1400 years of history its fortunes have fluctuated, from its heights as one of the greatest centres of learning in Dark Age Europe, to its lows as a crumbling ruin.

However, thanks to the fame of its monastic founder, St Columba, the island has always been revered as a holy place, and, over the centuries, Iona has continually been re-invented and reconstructed as a centre for pilgrimage.

Iona's fame began in 563 AD when Columba, with thirteen followers, landed at the south end of the island, at St Columba's Bay, to establish a monastery.

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The great abbey we see today belongs to a later era. Columba's Iona was very different. Columba had little interest in grand buildings - he was seeking seclusion among the 'desert' of the Atlantic Ocean.

Almost nothing remains of his original monastery however traces of the vallum, or ditch, that surrounded the monastic enclosure, can still be seen. Inside would have been a settlement that resembled a small village - a modest, timber church, surrounded by huts for the monks to live and work in, and small cells to provide the solitude necessary for prayer.

These cells, or chambers, used for prayer, are also found on the nearby islands of Canna and Eileach Naoimh, and certain islands off the coast of Ireland such as Skellig Michael.

From Adomnán, who wrote Columba's biography 100 years after his death, we know a great deal about the early monastery's daily life. Withdrawn, contemplative and austere, its primary purpose was the contemplation of God through prayer and learning.

Holy texts from around Europe were copied, poetry flourished and Adomnán himself wrote a guide to the Holy land - a fact which illustrates that the monastery's intellectual horizons stretched right across Christendom. As a consequence Iona amassed one of the greatest libraries in Western Europe and became a powerhouse of Dark Age learning.

Columba died on the 9th June 597 AD. Adomnán writes that his final day was spent copying a psalter, on the Torr An Alba (the Hill of Scotland): the rock which stands in front of the Abbey today. He urged his successor as abbot to take up his work, then went to the church, dying in prayer before the altar with a final gesture of blessing on his monks.

He is believed to have been buried below the small, stone chapel shrine, which is attached to the front of the abbey. It was around this building, or an earlier version of it, that the cult of Columba developed.

Columba's monastery became a centre of pilgrimage. At first, access was restricted to high status pilgrims: royal and ecclesiastical visitors, or those in serious trouble, who stayed at its guest house, but later more humble pilgrims would have been allowed access to the monastery.

The pilgrims travelled to Iona in life and in death. Many of the kings of Scotland, Ireland, and even of the Vikings, were buried there. Some of the most famous Kings of Alba, from Kenneth MacAlpin to MacBeth, made their final journey there - across the sound to Iona, onto the harbour, and up the Street of the Dead to the burial ground, the Relig Oran.

This royal tradition was only broken twice whilst The Western Isles stayed a part of the Kingdom of Alba - once by Constantine mac Aed ( buried St Andrews) and again by Malcolm Canmore (buried at Dunfermline).

The last king to be interred on Iona was Malcolm's brother, Donald Bane, before Malcolm's son, Edgar, surrendered the island to Magnus, King of Norway, after he subdued the isles to his will in 1098 AD. Recently the tradition was revived, and Iona was again the centre of national mourning when the Labour leader, John Smith, was buried there.

Wealthy pilgrims brought money to the monastery, and in the 8th century some of the finest Dark Age works of art were created to glorify Columba. The Book of Kells, now held in Trintity College Dublin, was crafted on Iona, along with the celtic high crosses from the 8th and 9th centuries - dedicated to St Martin, St Odhrain, St John and St Matthew. The crosses are of exquisite celtic design and were given by wealthy patrons to promote the Cult of Columba.

In 794 AD Iona experienced the first of many Viking raids that eventually forced the monastery into decline. As one historian has commented: rich monasteries like Iona were the Dark Age equivalent of drive-in banks to the Vikings.

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In 806 AD, a total of 68 monks were slain by the Vikings at Martyrs Bay, just south of the Ferry landing. By 825 AD the monastery, thanks to its exposed position, was virtually abandoned. St Blathmac refused to leave, and suffered martyrdom at the hands of Vikings for refusing to divulge the treasures and relics of Columba. In 849 AD Columba's relics were removed and divided two ways between Scotland and Ireland.

Iona may have been abandoned, but in the 10th century its power was revived after the vikings converted to Christianity and intermarried with the local Gaelic populace. New building works began, such as St Oran's Chapel, beside The Road of the Dead; and Margaret, Queen of Alba, made donations to promote the Cult of Columba.

In 1200 AD, Raghnall, son of Somerled, virtual King of the Isles, brought in the Benedictine Order and built the great abbey. He also established St Ronan's Nunnery, named after one of Iona's monks, which accomodated up to 400 Augustinian nuns - the ruins of this building still stand within the village. Raghnall's sister, Bethag, was instated as St Ronan's first prioress.

The importation of Reformed Monastic Orders, like the Benedictines, to the heart of Columban monasticism wasn't without controversy. The Bishop of Derry attacked the building works, but Raghnall prevailed and the abbey was completed. The Benedictines revitalised the Columban cult on Iona until the Reformation when the abbey was abandoned and slowly fell into ruin.

For just under 400 years the settlement lay in ruins until, in 1938, the Iona Community, a Ecumenical Christian group, was founded there by the Rev George MacLeod. Committed to finding the relevance of the Gospel, they set about restoring the ruined abbey.

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