This month we were afforded the marvellous opportunity to visit the early Celtic Christian site of Iona Abbey on the west coast of Scotland. It was founded by St Columba who was a scion of the ruling Uĺ Néill family in County Donegall in the northern part of Ireland and he is the first historical figure in Scottish history whose life is reliably documented. He was well educated, influential and founded several monasteries before he left Ireland because of a political controversy. St Columba arrived on Iona in 563AD with twelve others (some of them from noble families) and founded a monastery when Argyll and its islands were part of Dál Riata. This was a small kingdom incorporating roughly what is now Argyll and the Inner Hebrides, closely related to the Irish kindreds in Antrim. He stayed with and was later gifted the island of Iona by Conall mac Comgall, the king of Dál Riata. Far from being a remote outpost on the west of Scotland it was centrally located on the water-borne route-ways that made long distance communication around the British Isles possible and so was an excellent position from which to exercise influence, while still being independent. The buildings of the monastery would have been timber, turf and reed thatch but little survives of these other than in a very few places original base courses of stones and the vallum or earthwork ditch that surrounded the complex.
From the outset St Columba’s monastery was a centre of Celtic learning, art and scholarship, he was himself a gifted writer and illuminator and after his death in 597AD his personal history (Vita Sancti Columbae or ‘Life of St Columba’) was written by one of his monks Adomnán who was Abbott for 25 years in the late 600’s. By that time and probably before this the monastery had a scriptorium for the production of Christian texts used in worship. It became famous for the artistic quality and originality of its illuminated manuscripts and the magnificent Book of Kells (now in Trinity College Dublin) was written there in about 800AD. Traces of large-scale metal working, wood working, leather working and waste from glass making have been found on the site indicating that it was it was a very active farming and crafting community as well as a spiritual one. In 634AD the Northumbrian king Oswald invited Ionan monks to found a monastery on Lindisfarne. The monastic rites and leadership of Iona were respected throughout much of Scotland for centuries after this and its leadership in theological scholarship was a beacon of civilisation in Western Europe. While much of the artwork and illuminated manuscripts that characterised this outpouring of creativity have been lost, there remain a large number of stone crosses, beautifully carved which hint at the full force of this creativity. Some of these are still outside the abbey and others are in the abbey’s museum. Beautifully and evocatively displayed and interpreted.
In 1200 Ranald, Lord of the Isles invited Benedictine Monks ‘Black Monks’ to Iona to revitalise the community under his patronage and at the same time established a community of Augustinian nuns. They (the Benedictine’s) started a programme of rebuilding of the Abbey, probably completed around 1450. The plan followed a normal Benedictine monastic layout, with the new church occupying the site of the previous one. The chapter house with its Romanesque arches and the Michael chapel date from the earliest phase of Benedictine occupation with later phases developing in architectural style as one would expect.
By 1250 the presbytery had been extended to the east, creating space for the choir stalls to extend beyond the crossing tower and a subterranean crypt was added under the high altar to house some of Columba’s relics. In the late 1200’s work began to greatly enlarge the south transept, adding three vaulted side chapels, the outline of which can be seen in the grass to the south-east of the church. In the mid 1400’s the nave was widened to the south and a new west front was constructed. The north aisle was reduced in size and converted into a sacristy. In 1560 the Reformation meant the abandonment of the abbey but in the mid 1600’s there was a failed attempt to restore the eastern part to serve as the Cathedral of the Isles. By 1874 the abbey buildings were derelict and ruinous apart from the east end of the church and its tower. The 8th Duke of Argyle commissioned the Scottish architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson to consolidate the ruins and in 1899 he transferred the ownership of them, the Reilig Oran and the Nunnery to a newly established Cathedral Trust. The restoration of the church was completed (with some historical controversy) under the direction of the architects Thomas Ross, John Honeyman, and P. Macgregor Chalmers and completed in 1910. The restoration of the monastic buildings was begun in 1938 and finished in 1965 and in 2000 the Iona Cathedral trust gave the abbey, Reilig Odhrain, St Ronan’s Church and the nunnery into the care of Historic Scotland.
What the visitor now sees is a real working community with a constant flow of tourist visitors providing an income to the economy in much the same way that pilgrims would have done in centuries past. It is a busy place of Christian worship and many of the visitors arrive there for that purpose.