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Iona Abbey
Iona located within Western Scotland

Area: 877 hectares (3.4 sq mi)

Highest elevation: Dùn Ì 101 metres (331 ft)

Population: 177

Population rank: 35

Main settlement: Baile Mór

'Island group: Mull

Local Authority: Argyll and Bute


Iona (Scottish Gaelic: Ì Chaluim Chille) is a small island in the Inner Hebrides off the Ross of Mull on the western coast of Scotland. It was a centre of Irish monasticism for four centuries and is today renowned for its tranquility and natural beauty. It is a popular tourist destination and a place for retreats. Its modern Gaelic name means "Iona of (Saint) Columba" (formerly anglicised "Icolmkill").


The Hebrides have been occupied by the speakers of several languages since the Iron Age, and as a result many of the names of these islands have more than one possible meaning.<ref>Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate) 80-84</ref> Nonetheless few, if any, can have accumulated so many different names over the centuries as the island now known in English as 'Iona'.

The earliest forms of the name enabled place-name scholar William J. Watson to show that the name originally meant something like "yew-place".<ref>Watson, Celtic Place-Names, 87–90</ref> The element Ivo-, denoting "yew", occurs in Ogham inscriptions (Iva-cattos [genitive], Iva-geni [genitive]) and in Gaulish names (Ivo-rix, Ivo-magus) and may form the basis of early Gaelic names like Eogan (ogham: Ivo-genos).<ref>Watson, Celtic Place-Names, 87–88. The name of the Gaulish god Ivavos is of similar origin, associated with the healing-well of Evaux in France.</ref>

It is possible that the name is related to the mythological figure, Fer hÍ mac Eogabail, foster-son of Manannan, the forename meaning "man of the yew".<ref>Watson, Celtic Place-Names, 88–89</ref> Mac an Tàilleir (2003) lists the more recent Gaelic names of Ì, Ì Chaluim Chille and Eilean Idhe noting that the first named is "generally lengthened to avoid confusion" to the second, which means "Calum's (i.e. in latinised form "Columba's") Iona" or "island of Calum's monastery".<ref> Mac an Tàilleir (2003) 67</ref>

The possible confusion results from "ì", despite its original etymology, becoming a Gaelic noun (now obsolete) meaning simply "island". Eilean Idhe means "the isle of Iona", also known as Ì nam ban bòidheach ("the isle of beautiful women"). The modern English name comes from an 18th-century misreading of yet another variant, Ioua,<ref>Mac an Tàilleir (2003) 67</ref> which was either just Adomnán's attempt to make the Gaelic name fit Latin grammar or else a genuine derivative from Ivova ("yew place"). Ioua's change to Iona results from a transcription mistake resulting from the similarity of "n" and "u" in Insular Minuscule.<ref>Fraser (2009) p. 71. This same error turned the historical British churchman Uinniau into Uinnian (Irish: Finnian) and then eventually into the fictional Anglo-Norman saint "Ninian", and also turned Mons Graupius into the Grampians.</ref>

Despite the continuity of forms in Gaelic between the pre-Norse and post-Norse eras, Haswell-Smith (2004) speculates that the name may have a Norse connection, Hiōe meaning "island of the den of the brown bear", "island of the den of the fox", or just "island of the cave".<ref>Haswell-Smith (2004) 80</ref> The medieval English language version was "Icolmkill" (and variants thereof).<ref>Haswell-Smith (2004) 80</ref>

Geography and Geology

Iona lies about 2 kilometres (1 mi) from the coast of Mull. It is about 2 kilometres (1 mi) wide and 6 kilometres (4 mi) long with a resident population of 125.The geology of the island consists mainly of Precambrian Lewisian gneiss with Torridonian sedimentary rocks on the eastern side and small outcrops of pink granite on the eastern beaches. Like other places swept by ocean breezes, there are few trees; most of them are near the parish church. The geology of the island is overlain with fertile, lime rich, machair soil.<ref>Angus and Patricia Macdonald, The Hebrides, An Aerial View of a Cultural Landscape (Edinburgh: Birlinn 2010) 178</ref> Iona's highest point is Dùn Ì, 101 metres (331 ft), an Iron Age hill fort dating from 100 BC – AD 200. Iona's geographical features include the Bay at the Back of the Ocean and Càrn Cùl ri Éirinn (the Hill/Cairn of [turning the] Back to Ireland), said to be adjacent to the beach where St. Columba first landed.

The main settlement, located at St. Ronan's Bay on the eastern side of the island, is called Baile Mòr and is also known locally as "The Village". The primary school, post office, the island's two hotels, the Bishop's House and the ruins of the Nunnery are here. The Abbey and MacLeod Centre are a short walk to the north.<ref>Murray (1966) 82–83</ref>

There are numerous offshore islets and skerries: Eilean Annraidh (island of storm) and Eilean Chalbha (calf island) to the north, Rèidh Eilean and Stac MhicMhurchaidh to the west and Eilean Mùsimul (mouse holm island) and Soa Island to the south are amongst the largest.The steamer Cathcart Park carrying a cargo of salt from Runcorn to Wick ran aground on Soa on 15 April 1912, the crew of 11 escaping in two boats.<ref> (accessed 10th July 2014)</ref>

Iona Abbey

Interior of Iona Abbey
Iona Abbey Cloisters
High Cross, Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey, now an ecumenical church, is of particular historical and religious interest to pilgrims and visitors alike. It is the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages in the Western Isles of Scotland. Though modest in scale in comparison to medieval abbeys elsewhere in Western Europe, it has a wealth of fine architectural detail, and monuments of many periods. The 8th Duke of Argyll presented the sacred buildings and sites of the island to the Iona Cathedral trust in 1899.<ref>Haswell-Smith (2004) 80–84</ref>

In front of the Abbey stands the 9th century St Martin's Cross, one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in the British Isles, and a replica of the 8th century St John's Cross (original fragments in the Abbey museum).

The ancient burial ground, called the Rèilig Odhrain (Eng: Oran's "burial place" or "cemetery"), contains the 12th century chapel of St Odhrán (said to be Columba's uncle), restored at the same time as the Abbey itself. It contains a number of medieval grave monuments. The abbey graveyard contains the graves of many early Scottish Kings, as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France. Iona became the burial site for the kings of Dál Riata and their successors. Notable burials there include:

  • Cináed mac Ailpín, king of the Picts (also known today as "Kenneth I of Scotland")
  • Domnall mac Causantín, alternatively "king of the Picts" or "king of Alba" (i.e. Scotland; known as "Donald II")
  • Máel Coluim mac Domnaill, king of Scotland ("Malcolm I")
  • Donnchad mac Crínáin, king of Scotland ("Duncan I")
  • Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, king of Scotland ("Macbeth")
  • Domnall mac Donnchada, king of Scotland ("Domnall Bán" or "Donald III")
  • John Smith, Labour Party Leader

In 1549 an inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings was recorded. None of these graves are now identifiable (their inscriptions were reported to have worn away at the end of the 17th century). Saint Baithin and Saint Failbhe may also be buried on the island. The Abbey graveyard is also the final resting place of John Smith, the former Labour Party leader, who loved Iona. His grave is marked with an epitaph quoting Alexander Pope: "An honest man's the noblest work of God".<ref> (accessed 10th July 2014)</ref>

Other early Christian and medieval monuments have been removed for preservation to the cloister arcade of the Abbey, and the Abbey museum (in the medieval infirmary). The ancient buildings of Iona Abbey are now cared for by Historic Scotland (entrance charge).


Dal Riata

Representation of St. Columba

In the early Historic Period Iona lay within the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata. The island was the site of a highly important monastery (see Iona Abbey) during the Early Middle Ages. According to tradition the monastery was founded in 563 by the monk Columba, also known as Colm Cille, who is said to have been exiled from his native Ireland as a result of his involvement in the Battle of Cul Dreimhne. Columba and twelve companions went into exile on Iona and founded a monastery there. The monastery was hugely successful, and played a crucial role in the conversion to Christianity of the Picts of present-day Scotland in the late 6th century and of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in 635. Many satellite institutions were founded, and Iona became the centre of one of the most important monastic systems in Great Britain and Ireland.

Iona became a renowned centre of learning, and its scriptorium produced highly important documents, probably including the original texts of the Iona Chronicle, thought to be the source for the early Irish annals.<ref>Koch, 657–658</ref> The monastery is often associated with the distinctive practices and traditions known as Celtic Christianity. In particular, Iona was a major supporter of the "Celtic" system for calculating the date of Easter at the time of the Easter controversy, which pitted supporters of the Celtic system against those favoring the "Roman" system used elsewhere in Western Christianity. The controversy weakened Iona's ties to Northumbria, which adopted the Roman system at the Synod of Whitby in 664, and to Pictland, which followed suit in the early 8th century. Iona itself did not adopt the Roman system until 715, according to the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede. Iona's prominence was further diminished over the next centuries as a result of Viking raids and the rise of other powerful monasteries in the system, such as the Abbey of Kells.<ref>Koch, 657–658</ref>

The Book of Kells may have been produced or begun on Iona towards the end of the 8th century.Around this time the island's exemplary high crosses were sculpted; these may be the first such crosses to contain the ring around the intersection that became characteristic of the "Celtic cross".The series of Viking raids on Iona began in 794 and, after its treasures had been plundered many times, Columba's relics were removed and divided two ways between Scotland and Ireland in 849 as the monastery was abandoned.

Kingdom of the Isles

As the Norse domination of the west coast of Scotland advanced, Iona became part of the Kingdom of the Isles. The Norse Rex plurimarum insularum Amlaíb Cuarán died in 980 or 981 whilst in "religious retirement" on Iona.<ref>Ó Corráin (1998) 11</ref> Nonetheless the island was sacked twice by his successors, on Christmas night 986 and again in 987.<ref>Woolf (2007) 217–18</ref>

Although Iona was never again important to Ireland, it rose to prominence once more in Scotland following the establishment of the Kingdom of Alba in the later 9th century. The ruling dynasty of Alba traced its origin to Iona, and the island thus became an important spiritual centre of the new kingdom, with many of its early kings buried there. <ref>Woolf (2007) 217–18</ref>

A convent for Benedictine nuns was established in about 1208, with Bethóc, daughter of Somerled, as first prioress. The present Benedictine abbey, Iona Abbey, was built in about 1203. The monastery itself flourished until the Reformation when buildings were demolished and all but three of the 360 carved crosses destroyed.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Iona Cathedral in ruins

After a visit in 1773, the English writer Samuel Johnson described the island as "fruitful", but backward and impoverished:

The inhabitants are remarkably gross, and remarkably neglected: I know not if they are visited by any minister. The island, which was once the metropolis of learning and piety, now has no school for education, nor temple for worship, only two inhabitants that can speak English, and not one that can write or read.<ref>A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Project Gutenberg</ref>

He estimated the population of the village at 70 families or perhaps 350 inhabitants. In the 19th century green-streaked marble was commercially mined in the south-east of Iona; the quarry and machinery survive.

Twentieth Century

Iona village
Iona Bay towards Mull

In 1938 George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church committed to seeking new ways of living the Gospel of Jesus in today's world. This community is a leading force in the present Celtic Christian revival. The Iona Community runs 3 residential centres on the Isle of Iona and on Mull. These are places of welcome and engagement giving a unique opportunity to live together in community with people of every background from all over the world. Weeks at the centres often follow a programme related to the concerns of the Iona Community.

The 8 tonne Fallen Christ sculpture by Ronald Rae was permanently situated outside the MacLeod Centre in 2008.