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Gaelic: Ì Chaluim Chille

Inner Hebrides

St Mary's Abbey, Iona - - 983910.jpg
Iona Abbey
Main village: Baile Mór
Location: 56°19’48"N, 6°25’12"W
Grid reference: NM275245
Area: 2,167.1 acres
Highest point: Dùn Ì, 331 feet
Population: 125

Iona is a small island of Argyllshire within the Inner Hebrides. It lies a short distance west of the Isle of Mull. Iona is world famous as the first centre of St Columba’s mission to bring the Scots and Picts to Christ, and the island remained a centre for Irish monasticism for four centuries and thereafter was absorbed within the mediæval monastic system, until the Reformation.

The ruins of the Abbey were restored by the 8th Duke of Argyll in the nineteenth century and now serves the Church of Scotland as a centre receiving visitors for worship and reflection. They put it that "The Abbey provides neither a retreat house nor conference centre, but offers a unique opportunity to live with people from all over the world and all walks of life."

Iona today is renowned for its tranquillity and natural beauty. It is a popular tourist destination and a place for experiencing for a while a unique form of Christian communal life.


The modern Gaelic name, Ì Chaluim Chille, means "Iona of Columba" (formerly anglicised "Icolmkill"), named for St Columba, the Irish missionary saint who made Iona his centre for evangelising the Hebridean Scots and the Picts. The original name is Ì or Hy or similar. It is first referred to in English by the name Ii.[1]

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.[2] 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".[3] 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).[4] 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".[5]

Mac an Tàilleir (2003) lists the more recent Gaelic names of Ì,[6] Ì Chaluim Chille and Eilean Idhe noting that the first named is "generally lengthened to avoid confusion" to the second, to make it "Columba's Iona" or "island of Columba's monastery".[7][8] The possible confusion results from "ì", despite its original etymology, becoming a Gaelic noun (now obsolete) meaning simply "island".[9] Eilean Idhe means "the isle of Iona", also known as Ì nam ban bòidheach ("the isle of beautiful women").

The modern English name "Iona" comes from an 18th-century misreading of yet another variant, Ioua,[7][8] which was either just Adomnán's attempt to make the Gaelic name fit Latin grammar or else a genuine derivative from Ivova ("yew place").[10] Ioua's change to Iona results from a transcription mistake resulting from the similarity of "n" and "u" in Insular Minuscule.[11]

Table of earliest forms (incomplete)
Form Source Language Notes
Ioua insula Adomnán's Vita Columbae (c. 700) Latin Adomnán calls Eigg Egea insula and Skye Scia insula
Hii, Hy Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum Latin
Ii Old English translation of Bede Old English
Eoa, Iae, Ie,
I Cholaim Chille
Annals of Ulster Irish, Latin U563 Nauigatio Coluim Chille ad Insolam Iae
"The journey of St Columba to Í"
U716 Pascha comotatur in Eoa ciuitate
"The date of Easter is changed in the monastery of Í")[12]
U717 Expulsio familie Ie
"The expulsion of the community of Í"
U778 Niall...a nn-I Cholaim Chille
"Niall... in Í Cholaim Chille"
Hi, Eu Lebor na hUidre Irish Hi con ilur a mmartra
"Hi with the multitude of its relics"
in tan conucaib a chill hi tosuċ .i. Eu
"the time he raised his church first i.e. Eu"
Eo Walafrid Strabo (c. 831) Latin Insula Pictorum quaedam monstratur in oris fluctivago suspensa salo, cognominis Eo
"On the coasts of the Picts is pointed out an isle poised in the rolling sea, whose name is Eo"[13]
Euea insula Life of St Cathróe of Metz Latin

Folk etymology

Murray (1966) claims that the "ancient" Gaelic name was Innis nan Druinich (the isle of Druidic hermits") and repeats a Gaelic story (which he admits is apocryphal) that as Columba's coracle first drew close to the island one of his companions cried out "Chì mi i" meaning "I see her" and that Columba's response was "Henceforth we shall call her Ì".[14]


The Bay at the Back of the Ocean

Iona lies approximately a mile off the coast of Mull. It is a mile wide and 9 miles long with a resident population of 125.[15] The geology of the island consists mainly of Precambrian Lewisian gneiss with Torridonian sedimentary rocks on the eastern side[16] and small outcrops of pink granite on the eastern beaches. Like other places swept by ocean breezes, there are few trees with most of these being located around the parish church area.

Iona's highest point is Dùn Ì, 331 feet, an Iron Age hill fort dating from 100 BC – 200 AD. Its 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.[17] Port Bàn (white port) beach on the west side of the island is home to the Iona Beach Party.[18]

There are numerous offshore islets and skerries of which 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.[19]


Dál Riata

The Book of Kells - Gospel of John

Iona’s history begins in the Dark Ages with the arrival of St Columba from Ulster. Columba founded a monastic community here (which in later ages developed into Iona Abbey) and it became the centre from which he and his followers set out to convert the Scots, Picts and English to Christianity.

According to tradition the monastery was founded in 563 by the monk Columba, also known as Colm Cille, who had been exiled from his native land as a result of his involvement in the Battle of Cul Dreimhne.[20] Columba and twelve companions went into exile on Iona, then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, and founded a monastery there. The monastery was hugely successful, and played a crucial role in the conversion to Christianity of the Picts of northern Britain in the late 6th century and of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in 635. A large number of satellite institutions were founded, and Iona became the centre of one of the most important monastic systems in Great Britain and Ireland.[21]

Iona quickly became a renowned centre of learning, and its scriptorium produced highly important documents, likely including the original texts of the Iona Chronicle, thought to be the source for the early Irish annals.[21] The monastery is often associated with the distinctive practices and traditions known as Celtic Christianity. This brought a clash with the churches claiming attachment to Rome, which clash is typically characterised by one example, namely the two rival systems, Irish and Roman, for calculating the date of Easter. The controversy weakened Iona's ties to Northumbria, which adopted the Roman norms 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.[21]

The Book of Kells may have been produced or begun on Iona towards the end of the 8th century.[21] 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".[21] However, 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.[22]

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 King Olaf Cuaran, died in 980 or 981 whilst in "religious retirement" on Iona.[23][24] Nonetheless the island was sacked twice by his successors, on Christmas night 986 and again in 987.[25] Although Iona was never important again to Ireland, it rose to prominence once more in Scotland following the union of Scotland and Pictland in the later 9th century.

A convent for the order of 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.[26]

Kingdom of Scotland

By the 1266 Treaty of Perth, the Hebrides were ceded to Scottish allegiance.[27] An Augustine nunnery survives as a number of 13th century ruins, including a church and cloister. The nunnery continued to be active until the Reformation. By the 1760s little more of the nunnery remained standing than at present, though it is the most complete remnant of a mediæval nunnery in Scotland.

In the 19th century green-streaked marble was commercially mined in the south-east of Iona; the quarry and machinery survive.

Iona Abbey

Wide view
The location of the abbey and monasteries

Iona Abbey belongs to a Church of Scotland trust created in the 19th century by the Duke of Argyll, who owned the island. The chapel is run as an ecumenical church and 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 Hebrides. Though modest in scale in comparison to mediæval abbeys elsewhere in western Europe, it has a wealth of fine architectural detail, and monuments of many periods.

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).

Burial ground

The ancient burial ground, called the Rèilig Odhrain (“Oran's burial place”), 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 mediæval 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:

  • Kenneth mac Ailpín, King of the Scots and Picts
  • Doanlsd II "King of the Picts"
  • [Malcolm I, King of Scotland
  • Duncan I, King of Scotland
  • Macbeth, King of Scotland
  • Donald II, King of Scotland ("Domnall Bán" or "Donald III")

The latter three kings also appear in Shakespeare’s ‘’Macbeth’’.

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). St Baithin and St Failbhe may also be buried on the island. The Abbey graveyard is also the final resting place of John Smith, a 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".[28]

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

Iona Community

Baile Mòr from the Sound of Iona

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. The community was founded as a group of volunteers restoring the church buildings but built upon that fellowship to build a wider dispersed community. This community is not without controversy, and has tended to adopt a social view which veers greatly towards socialistic ideas (which MacLeod espoused), though its members have gained great prominence in the Kirk.

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-ton Fallen Christ sculpture by Ronald Rae was permanently situated outside the MacLeod Centre in 2008.[29]

Getting to the island

Visitors can reach Iona by the 10-minute ferry trip across the Sound of Iona from Fionnphort on Mull. The most common route from mainland Great Britain is by way of Oban on the Lorne coast of Argyll. Regular ferries connect to Craignure on Mull, from where the scenic road runs 37 miles to Fionnphort. Tourist coaches and local bus services meet the ferries.

There are very few cars on the island, as they are tightly regulated and vehicular access is not allowed for non-residents, who have to leave their car in Fionnphort. Bike hire is available at the pier, and on Mull.

Iona from Mull. The Abbey lies below Dun Ì at right and the main settlement of Baile Mòr is to the left

Media and the arts

Samuel Johnson wrote "That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer amid the ruins of Iona."[30]

"Peace of Iona" is a song written by Mike Scott that appears on the studio album Universal Hall and on the live recording Karma to Burn by The Waterboys. Iona is the setting for the song "Oran" on the 1997 Steve McDonald album Stone of Destiny.

Kenneth C. Steven published an anthology of poetry entitled Iona: Poems in 2000 inspired by his association with the island and the surrounding area.

Iona is featured prominently in the first episode ("By the Skin of our Teeth") of the celebrated arts series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark (1969).

Iona is the setting of Jeanne M. Dams' Dorothy Martin mystery "Holy Terror of the Hebrides" (1998).

The Academy Award–nominated Irish animated film The Secret of Kells is about the creation about the Book of Kells. One of the characters, Brother Aiden, is a master illuminator from Iona Abbey who had helped to illustrate the Book, but had to escape the island with it during a Viking invasion.


Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Iona)


  1. The Englisc Bede (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People)
  2. Haswell-Smith (2004) p. xiii
  3. Watson, Celtic Place-Names, pp. 87–90
  4. Watson, Celtic Place-Names, pp. 87–88. The name of the Gaulish god Ivavos is of similar origin, associated with the healing-well of Evaux in France.
  5. Watson, Celtic Place-Names, pp. 88–89
  6. For etymology of Ì and Latinised derivative Iona, see Watson (2004), pp. 87–90.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Mac an Tàilleir (2003) p. 67.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 80.
  9. Dwelly (1911)
  10. Watson, Celtic Place-Names, p. 88
  11. Fraser (2009) p. 71. (This same error turned the historical British churchman Uinniau into Uinnian ("Finnian" in Irish) and then eventually into the fictional Anglo-Norman saint "Ninian". It also turned Mons Graupius into the Grampian Mountains.
  12. original (translation)
  13. Watson, Celtic Place-Names, p. 88, n. 2
  14. Murray (1966) p. 81.
  15. Scotland Census 2001 - anaylser
  16. G. J. Potts, R. H. Hunter, A. L. Harris and F. M. Fraser (Nov 1955) "Late-orogenic extensional tectonics at the NW margin of the Caledonides in Scotland". GeoScience World. Retrieved 27 May 2011.
  17. Murray (1966) pp. 82–83.
  18. "It's Been Emotional" – Iona Beach Party
  19. "Cathcart Park: Soa Island, Passage Of Tiree" RCAHMS. Retrieved 13 July 2009. The record is tentative, the press cutting the record refers to identifying "'Sheep Island', one of the Torran Rocks near Iona" but there is no other obvious contender.
  20. Admonan The Life of St. Columba, Founder of Hy ed. William Reeves (1857) University Press for the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society. pp. 248-50.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Koch, pp. 657–658.
  22. BBC - Iona - A Beacon of Light Through the Dark Ages
  23. Ó Corráin (1998) p. 11
  24. Gregory (1881) pp. 4–6
  25. Woolf (2007) pp. 217–18
  26. Travel Scotland
  27. Hunter (2000) pp. 110–111
  28. Walk Of The Month: The island of Iona The Independent 4 June 2006
  29. "The Fallen Christ on Iona". Retrieved 8 July 2009.. 
  30. Johnson (1775) p. 217
  • Dwelly, Edward (1911). Faclair Gàidhlig gu Beurla le Dealbhan/The Illustrated [Scottish] Gaelic- English Dictionary. Edinburgh. Birlinn. ISBN 1-874744-04-1.
  • James E. Fraser (historian) (2009). From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795. The New Edinburgh History of Scotland. 1. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-1232-1. 
  • Gregory, Donald (1881) The History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland 1493–1625. Edinburgh. Birlinn. 2008 reprint – originally published by Thomas D. Morrison. ISBN 1-904607-57-8.
  • Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 1841954543. 
  • Hunter, James (2000). Last of the Free: A History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Edinburgh. Mainstream. ISBN 1-84018-376-4
  • Johnson, Samuel (1775). A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. London: Chapman & Dodd. (1924 edition).
  • Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. 
  • Mac an Tàilleir, Iain (2003). "Placenames" (PDF). Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament. p. 67. Retrieved 20 June 2012. 
  • Marsden, John (1995). The Illustrated Life of Columba. Edinburgh. Floris Books. ISBN 0-86315-211-2.
  • Murray, W. H. (1966). The Hebrides. London. Heinemann.
  • Ó Corráin, Donnchadh (1998) Vikings in Ireland and Scotland in the Ninth Century CELT.
  • Watson, W. J., The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland. Reprinted with an introduction by Simon Taylor, Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2004. ISBN 1-84158-323-5.
  • Woolf, Alex (2007), From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-0-7486-1234-5 

Further reading

  • Campbell, George F. (2006). The First and Lost Iona. Glasgow: Candlemas Hill Publishing. ISBN 1-873586-13-2 (and on Kindle)