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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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”.
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
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.