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Iona, the sacred island

Iona, a small island off the west coast of Scotland, is considered to be one of the most holy places in the world. But is this due to the pioneering Christianisation efforts of the early Irish missionary St Columba, or the island’s sanctity itself?

Philip Coppens


Iona is one of the most venerated places in Scotland. It receives its renown as it was the base of the Irish Christian missionary St Columba, who in 563 AD landed on the island with twelve followers and settled there.
Columba was a royal warrior, from Gartan, Donegal and used Iona as his base to bring Christianity to western Scotland, following in the footsteps of St Ninian, who had done similarly a century earlier, from Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway.

Its religious importance means that its history is fairly well-recorded. It also means the island was well-endowed, and hence open to brutal attacks, as evidenced by the Vikings raids that would strike the island.
The Vikings attacked Lindisfarne in north-eastern Scotland in 793; two years, the first Viking raid on Iona occurred, followed by another in 802. The next was in 806, when no less than 68 monks were killed in Martyr’s Bay. The following year, the Abbot of Iona decamped to the infant foundation at Kells, 35 miles northwest of Dublin. Most of the other monks went with him. There was said to have been a fourth raid, when two monks were murdered on the White Strand of the Monks. Some sources state that a total of six separate raids were carried out.
In 807, the “Book of Kells” was taken from Iona to Kells. Now in Trinity College, Dublin and considered to be a national Irish treasure, it is known that the work commenced in Iona… and may even have been finished there. Some even argue that Columba himself had a hand in its making – but such speculation remains just that.
Iona’s link with knowledge – and written knowledge – is also referred to by Hector Boece, a 14th century Scottish philosopher, who claimed that he wrote his book History of the Scottish People based on a book that he found on Iona. However, few historians give credence to Boece’s statement. Still, it is known that Columba himself was an avid translator of books and it seems logical that his followers were inspired to do the same. In fact, it is known that Columba established a scriptorium on the island. No doubt, many tomes were destroyed during the series of Viking invasions – which is why the Book of Kells was removed from the island – but perhaps other works were taken elsewhere? St Andrews University archaeology students in the 1950s conducted a dig on the Treshnish Islands, near to Iona, in search of lost books. They found nothing, but many remain hopeful that something has survived.

Despite their repeated raids, the Vikings did not settle on Iona. It meant that a small community of monks following the Irish devotional practices could continue to live on the island. In fact, they survived into the 12th century.
That 12th century marked a confirmation of the island’s religious importance. In 1156, the people of the Hebrides and the mainland west of the Great Glen as far north as Ullapool created the “Lordship of the Isles”, control by Somerled, a Clan Donald Chieftain who had defeated some of the local Norse rulers.
It was also the time when Reginals allowed the Benedictine order to establish a foundation on Iona. They built their abbey on the site of that of Saint Columba, which means that no archaeological remains of Columba’s settlement remain. A small room on the front of the abbey is believed to have marked the saint’s cell, but no verifiable evidence has been found for this conclusion.

The abbey, with the "Street of the Dead" in the lower right.

Though nothing remains from the 6th century, only one building remains from the 12th century: Saint Oran’s chapel was built in ca. 1180, standing in the burial ground, the Reilig Odhrain, Oran’s cemetery, in which the Scottish kings desired to be entered. The cemetery is reputed to hold the bones of sixty Scottish kings from Kenneth MacAlpine to Malcolm III, a Lord of the Isles. In 1549, an inventory listed 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings. The most recent burial of note was that of politician John Smith, leader of the British Labour Party, who was buried in the north eastern extension in 1994.
The soil in which a person was buried was believed to have magical properties, specifically if it was entered next to an important figure, such as a saint. The ancient sanctity of the soil was believed to dissolve their sins. This is the reason given why kings desired to be buried on Iona, near St Columba. But it is clear that there is a more magical dimension to it than that.
Legend has it that the original chapel could only be completed through human sacrifice. Oran apparently volunteered to be buried alive, and was found to have survived when the grave was opened a few days later. Declaring that he had seen hell and it wasn’t all bad, he was promptly re-entered for blasphemy. The legend betrays ancient practices involving the dead.
Next to the cemetery, we find the “Street of the Dead” the finest medieval paved road in Europe, which extended from Martyr’s Bay to the abbey. The street was the route taken by the coffins that were brought from the mainland to be buried on this sacred isle. Near the street, we find several ancient crosses, including the Saint Martin’s Cross, dating from the 8th century, showing on one side the Virgin and Child, Daniel in the lion’s den, Abraham sacrificing Isaac and David with musicians in the shaft below, and on the other a Pictish serpent and boss decoration. Nearby stands Saint John’s Cross, from the same century, though the stone in situ is a copy, the original on display in the museum.

What has made Iona sacred? For Christians, the answer is simple: it is a symbol of the power of Christianity and the missionary zeal of Columba. However, a perhaps more important question is seldom posed: why did Columba come to this island? Why use it as his base? Several logical answers could be given, but a religious dimension should perhaps not be overlooked.
What if Iona was already sacred before Columba’s time? Little tangible evidence remains that predates Christianity, except for an Iron Age fort on Dun Bhuirg, used between 200 BC and 200 AD. The island is void of megaliths. But this rather pristine condition may actually be a tell-tale clue that the island was considered to be sacred.
In 83 AD, Demetrius of Tarsus had been asked by the Roman Emperor to sail around the north of Scotland, to draw a map. Demetrius spoke to Plutarch, another mapmaker of the British Isle, and stated that he came across one island which was a retreat for holy men who were considered inviolate by the native peoples living nearby. Some authors have argued that this most likely referred to Iona.

Saint Oran’s chapel

The island of Mull is a short hop away; Iona is easily visible – even on a bad day – from the shores of Mull. The waters separating them are relatively tranquil – definitely in comparison with the surrounding seas. On the Ross of Mull, the western part of the island, a number of standing stones can be found. It is said that these are arranged in line as if to guide pilgrims and other travellers to the point of departure for Iona. Several remain sited next to the single-track road that continues to takes visitors to Fionnphort, where they take the short ferry to Iona.
Could Iona’s absence of megalithic remains actually be evidence of its sacred nature? The answer is most likely yes. The island was definitely known in megalithic times: it was likely to have some inhabitants by 3000 BC and there is secure evidence that farming communities lived on the island by 1600 BC.
Another giveaway may be its name. Iona is actually a misspelling of Iova, which means “Yew Island”, an important sacred tree. But pre-Columba, the island was sometimes referred to as Innis nam Druidneach, the Isle of Druids. Old stories record that St Columba and his followers fighting off the local Druid elders when they landed to take possession of the island.
That in itself may not mean too much, but this may: Holy Island is a sacred island – as the name suggests – just off the coast of Anglesey, which is an island just of the coast of Wales, a few hundred miles south of Iona. This sequence of mainland (Wales) – big island (Anglesey) – small sacred island (Holy Island) is repeated around Iona: mainland (Scotland) – big island (Mull) – small sacred island (Iona). The comparison does not end there. Both Anglesey and Mull have several prehistoric remains, but both Holy Island and Iona have nothing. Both Holy Island and Iona furthermore have one – only one – hill: Iona’s is Dun I, highest point of the island, reaching 332 feet. Holy Island was a stronghold of the Druids at the time of the Roman invasion; as these parts of Scotland were never conquered by the Romans, it means they would have easily survived the Roman period… until the time when the time of the Irish missionaries being sent to Scotland.

There is another potential link as to why Irish missionaries came to Iona. The link between Ireland and Iona – or rather the neighbouring island of Staffa – is made in folklore. The Giant's Causeway is an area of 40,000 tightly packed basalt columns resulting from a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago that sit on the north-eastern tip of Northern Ireland. Legend has it that the giant Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn McCool) built the causeway to walk to Scotland to fight his Scottish equivalent Benandonner. The Scottish side of the causeway is the isle of Staffa, which has similar basalt formations at the site of Fingal’s Cave. In fact, they are part of the same ancient lava flow – showing that legend and geology go hand in hand. Intriguingly, caves are seen as entrances into the underworld – the world of the dead. When we draw a line between the Giant’s Causeway and Staffa, Iona sits on it. Finally, the mouth of Fingal’s Cave looks towards Iona. Coincidence for sure, but for our ancestors perhaps a sign of these islands’ religious significance?

Iona, like Holy Island, was an “Isle of the West”: it sat to the west of the landmass and thus became identified with the setting sun – and hence with death. May it be here that we find the true origin as to why the Scottish kings wanted to be buried here? Furthermore, it is known that St Patrick and St Ninian focused their missionary work on the main Druid centres. As there were Druids on Iona, the logical conclusions is that Columba followed his predecessors’ example. Rather than select an uninhabited and unimportant base, it seems more likely and in keeping with custom that Columba conquered the main centre first, let the news of the victory of Christianity over Celticism spread throughout the sphere of influence, and follow this up by sending out missionaries, to convert the natives to the new religion.
That new religion should not be seen as Christianity as we know it today. In fact, Iona was largely independent from Rome. The demise of this “Celtic tradition” occurred through the Viking raids, as well as from the Synod of Whitby in 664 onwards, which chose to follow the Roman over the Celtic Church tradition, and ended with the suppression of the Celtic church in 1144 by King David I. As such, the installation of a Benedictine Abbey and Augustine Nunnery on the island a few decades later can be seen as confirmation that the powers that were wanted to make sure that Iona would follow the official Church doctrine. Just like Columba had conquered the Celtic Druids, the Culdees (the Celtic Christians) had now been conquered by “Popish Christianity”.

That in itself would succumb some centuries later. During the Reformation, the Iona complex was ransacked, the contents of the library burnt and much of the island destroyed. It is said that all but three of the island’s 360 crosses were destroyed, though many now argue that though several crosses were destroyed, the original number was probably significantly less than 360. The abbey and nunnery itself suffered too: a century ago, they were nothing but ruins and the nunnery still is. The abbey has since been gradually rebuilt.
Today, Iona remains a symbol of religious change. In 1938, George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, as an ecumenical Christian community of “men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church that is committed to seeking new ways of living the gospel of Jesus Christ in today’s world”. This community is a leading force in the present Celtic Christianity revival, which is affiliated with the Scottish Episcopal Church (part of the Anglican Communion). Though often labelled more “New Age” than “Christian”, that is of course largely what Celtic Christianity was: it took the existing Celtic tradition, and substituted the names of the old gods with a new name, Jesus. But it left all the old attributes of the ancient gods in place. Celtic Christianity was merely an adaptation of the local beliefs, not a break with the old beliefs. In fact, in the first few centuries of the Christian era, this was exactly the official policy missionaries were invited to use and it is one of the main reasons why so many “pagan” elements can be found in the Christian calendar and rituals.
That today Iona is peacefully reverting to the olden ways, may be a sign of a socio-religious experiment that can only succeed on an island… or a sign of things to come.