Iona – or ‘I Chaluim Chille’, as it is called in Gaelic – is a tiny, exposed island off the coast of Scotland. Part of the Inner Hebrides, it is located on the western side of the Isle of Mull and perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
Rocky and remote, the island has a rich and varied history, and was once occupied by Stone Age farmers and Iron Age settlers. It was frequented by raiding Vikings and, at one point, deemed an honorable burial site for Norse, Irish and Scottish kings.
Despite its isolation, Iona has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. Its spiritual significance arose with the arrival of Irish priest, Columba, in 563 AD. Traveling with twelve companions, Columba set out to establish a monastery on Iona, and remained on the island until his death in 597 AD.
Monastic life flourished on Iona, along with creative productivity. The combination of Godly devotion and artistic inspiration led to the creation of many beautiful and detailed religious artifacts. Large ornate stone crosses, such as St Martin's Cross and St John's Cross, were hand-rendered by skilled monks and represented divinity in its finest form. Elaborate illuminated manuscripts, including The Book of Kells, were also produced.
However, by the end of the 8th Century, strength and courage within the monastery was rapidly beginning to fade. A series of deadly attacks were carried out on the island, with at least 70 monks being killed by Vikings. In 802 AD, Columba's monastery was burnt and destroyed.
Four hundred years later, a Benedictine Abbey was constructed and dedicated to Columba – who was, by now, revered as a saint. The Abbey itself was an important centre for learning in Europe in the Middle Ages, and was visited upon by religious leaders and members of royalty – in life and death.
Iona Nunnery, © Martin Lack
An Augustinian Nunnery was also founded and built in 1200. Located some distance from the Abbey, it was active on the isle of Iona for 300 years and welcomed women who had a sincere 'calling' to God.
Aside from its devotional aspect, the Nunnery grounds were used as a burial site for women and children up until the late 18th Century. During its history, the Nunnery was nicknamed 'the black church', after the black-robed nuns who lived and prayed within the building's thick stone walls.
Athough its facade is now in ruins, the age-old structure is still considered a shining example of a Scottish medieval nunnery. The remains of Iona Nunnery are accessible to the general public, and provide the perfect setting in which to contemplate life of a higher order.
To this day, Iona Abbey and its impressive stone structures are well-preserved and respected on the island. The Abbey continues to serve as a site for spiritual worship and religious calling in the community, and both the Nunnery and Abbey are open to visitors and local residents, throughout the year.
With ancient links to Christianity, Iona is ‘the sacred isle’ of Scotland. Its connection to St Columba, and its collection of old stone buildings and intricately carved crosses, make it a special and unforgettable location to visit. For many, Iona is an island to retreat to, a place to call home, and a journey to replenish and restore the soul.
Remote and isolated, Iona is a world unto its own . . .
"Ach mun tig an saoghal gu crich, bidh I mar a bha."
But ere the world come to an end,
Iona shall be at it was.
Map of Iona, Scotland
Inner Hebrides of Scotland
Iona, United Kingdom