Iona Abbey

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Iona Abbey


Iona Abbey (45322644484).jpg
Grid reference: NM28682452
Location: 56°20’6"N, 6°23’29"W
Established: 563 AD
Owned by: Historic Scotland
Website: ona Abbey and Nunnery

Iona Abbey is an ancient and famous abbey on the island of Iona, just off the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides and in Argyllshire. The current abbey was built from the early 13th century but on far earlier foundations, After the abbey was left abandoned to the cruel Hebridean storms for centuries after the Reformation, it was restored with new purpose by its owner, the Duke of Argyll, in the 19th century.

Iona Abbey

Iona is one of the oldest Christian religious centres in the British Isles: this island was granted by the King of the Picts to St Columba to be his base for evangelising the lands of the Picts and Scots. The abbey was thus a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout the north and marks the foundation of Columba’s monastic community. St Aidan served as a monk at Iona, before helping to re-establish Christianity in Northumbria, on the island of Lindisfarne.

Iona Abbey is the spiritual home of the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian religious order, founded in the Church of Scotland, whose headquarters are in Glasgow. The Abbey remains a popular site of Christian pilgrimage today.[1]


Early history

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 this 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".[2]

Wide view

The monks at Iona worshipped and worked daily, following Celtic Christianity practices and disciplines. They also managed assets and were involved with the local and wider community.

Like other Celtic Christian monasteries,[3][4] Columba's monastery would have been made up of a number of wattle and timber,[5] or wood and thatch, buildings. These would have included a central church or oratory, the common refectory or kitchen, the library or scriptorium, monk cells or dormitories, and a guest house for visitors including pilgrims. It is believed that around the year 800 the original wooden chapel was replaced by a stone chapel.[6]

Columba's monastery was surrounded by a ditch and earth bank, part of which is believed to have pre-existed Columba's arrival, and part of which can still be seen to the north-west of the current abbey buildings.

Adomnán describes a building on a small mound, Torr an Aba, in the monastery grounds where St Columba worked and wrote. Charred wood has been dated from what is believed to be this site, and a socket to hold a cross (which is believed to have been erected later) is visible there.[5][6]

St Columba established several monasteries in Britain and Ireland, although he was mainly based at Iona.

Manuscript and book production

The Book of Kells

The production of Christian manuscripts, books and annals was an important activity in the Iona monastery. The Chronicle of Ireland was produced at Iona until about 740.[citation needed] 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.[7]

Stone crosses

Stone crosses, both standing and lying, were used to mark graves in the Iona monastery. Large stone crosses were also erected, perhaps to broadcast key Christian messages, particularly in 800–1000.[8][9] Their design reflected precious metal crosses. Some were carved from stone imported 50 miles by boat from Loch Sween.

Viking attacks, and subsequent movement between Abbeys

The Iona Abbey was first attacked by Viking raiders in 795, with subsequent attacks taking place in 802, 806, and 825.[10] During the Viking attack in 806, 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.[11]

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.[12]

In 825, St Blathmac and those monks who remained with him at Iona were martyred in a Viking raid,[11] and the Abbey was burned. Only in 878 however were the main relics, with Columba's reliquary shrine specified in the records, moved to Ireland, with Kells becoming the new main Columban house.[12] Though not mentioned, this might well have been when the Book of Kells came to Kells. However, Iona Abbey was probably not deserted as its continued importance is shown by the death there in 980 of Olaf the White ('Amlaíb Cuarán'), the displaced Norse King of Dublin.

Monks from Iona moved to the Continent, and established monasteries in places which are now in Belgium, France and Switzerland.[13]

Benedictine abbey

The Abbey remains in the late 19th century

In 1114, Iona was 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 the 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.[14]

The Iona Nunnery was established south of the abbey buildings: this was a foundation of the Augustinian Order and only one of only two Augustine nunneries in Scotland; the other being in Perth. 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.

The cloisters of Iona Abbey
The mediæval church
Engraving of the ruined abbey church in 1761

Modern abbey

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 that rebuilt the abbey, and in the process he founded from the volunteers the Iona Community. The reconstruction was organised by the architect Ian Gordon Lindsay having generously been passed the project by his senior mentor and friend Reginald Fairlie.[15] The surrounding buildings were also reconstructed 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.[16]

In 2000 the Iona Cathedral Trust handed over the care of the Abbey, Nunnery, and associated sites to Historic Scotland.[17]

In June 2021, the abbey reopened following a £3.75 million renovation, fund-raised by the Iona Community over three years, and including a renewable energy system and high-speed broadband.[18]

Items of Interest

St John's Cross in the Abbey museum
St Martin's Cross outside the abbey

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,[19] 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,[20] including several early MacLeod chiefs.[21]

Several high crosses are found on the island 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 the gravestone of John Smith, a Labour Party Leader who was buried here.

In literature

  • In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act I Scene 2, Ross reports:

Sweno, the Norways' king, craves composition:
Nor would we deign him burial of his men
Till he disbursed at Saint Colme's inch
Ten thousand dollars to our general use.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Iona Abbey)

ona Abbey and Nunnery: Historic Scotland


  1. Holly Hayes (2005). "Iona Abbey - Iona, Scotland". Sacred Destinations. "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." 
  2. Meyvaert, 7-8
  3. "Image "a rendering of a generic early Irish monastery reconstruction by Liam de Paor" ( 
  4. "De Paor, who died in 1998, taught archaeology and history at University College, Dublin and elsewhere.". 
  5. 5.0 5.1 "University of Glasgow - University news - St Columba's cell on Iona revealed by archaeologists". 
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Iona Abbey - Part 1". 
  7. Dodwell, Charles Reginald (1993). The Pictorial Arts of the West, 800-1200. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-300-06493-3. 
  8. Megalithic Portal: Iona Cross
  9. CANMORE (RCAHMS) record of Iona: St John's Cross
  10. Yeoman, Peter (2014). Iona Abbey and Nunnery, p. 61. Historic Scotland, Edinburgh. ISBN 978-1-84917-170-0
  11. 11.0 11.1 Forte, Angelo; Oram, Richard; Pedersen, Frederik (2005). Viking Empires. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 55–58. ISBN 9780521829922. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Meyvaert, 11
  13. Charles-Edwards, T.M. (2006). The Chronicle of Ireland. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-0-85323-959-8. 
  14. Yeoman, Peter (2014). Iona Abbey and Nunnery, p. 64. Historic Scotland, Edinburgh. ISBN 978-1-84917-170-0
  15. National Dictionary of Scottish Architects: Reginald Fairlie.
  16. "Baptismal Font, St.Columba's Abbey Church, Iona, Argyll & Bute, Scotland". 
  17. Yeoman, Peter (2014). Iona Abbey and Nunnery, p. 69. Historic Scotland, Edinburgh. ISBN 978-1-84917-170-0
  18. Sherwood, Harriet (6 June 2021). "Scotland’s ‘cradle of Christianity’ on Iona is saved by small mercies". Observer. 
  19. Fraser, JE. "Alexander I, Dunfermline and the Mausoleum of the Gaelic Kings of Scotland in Iona" (DOC). 
  20. McDonald, R. Andrew (1997), The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland's Western Seaboard, c.1100–c.1336, Scottish Historical Monograph series #4, Tuckwell Press, p. 206 fn 17, ISBN 978-1-898410-85-0 
  21. MacLeod, Roderick Charles (1927), The MacLeods of Dunvegan, Edinburgh: Clan MacLeod Society, p. 30 
  • St Mary's Abbey, Iona, monastic settlement - scheduled monument detail (Historic Environment Scotland)
  • Iona Abbey (Category A) - Listing detail (Historic Environment Scotland)
  • Meyvaert, Paul. "The Book of Kells and Iona." The Art Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar. 1989), pp. 6–19 JSTOR