Local legend has it that St Oran’s Chapel is named after Oran, a faithful follower of St Columba. The story goes that St Columba created Reilig Odhrain (the burial ground) shortly after arriving on the Isle of Iona. The thing is, he needed a faithful Christian soul to be buried there as part of the consecration. Oran, according to legend, offered to die immediately to make this possible.
St Oran’s Chapel was, of course, not built at that time. It probably dates from the 1100s and is, in fact, the oldest intact structure on the Isle of Iona.
History of St Oran’s Chapel
It is believed that St Oran’s Chapel was built, as a dynastic mausoleum, by Somerled, who was the King of the Isles. Somerled died in 1164 and was buried inside the Chapel, near the high altar. Later, his son Ranald was buried beside him.
There are several worn grave slabs inside the Chapel. In most cases, none of the artwork or inscriptions can still be read. One such slab is located just inside the door. It is very worn by centuries of footfall. However, a carving of a sword and white staff insignia is still vaguely visible. We know these carvings represent the new Lords of the Isles, and chances are that this grave belongs to the early Lords of the Isles.
Records show that John, 1st Lord of the Isles, and Donald, 2nd Lord of the Isles, were buried in St Oran’s Chapel. A record also states that “Donald was laid in the same grave as his father.” The grave slab at the door is probably the final resting place of these two men.
What Not to Miss at St Oran’s Chapel
In the South wall of the Chapel is a wonderfully ornate mural tomb. It is believed that it was constructed by John MacDonald II, the last Lord of the Isles.
The zig-zag design of the arch at the entranceway is rather beautiful and in very good condition. This shows the distinct Irish influence in the construction of St Oran’s.
Historical Sites Nearby
- Iona Abbey is an 11th-century structure, right next to St Oran’s Chapel
- The ruins of the Nunnery of St Mary the Virgin are only a few hundred meters away
- Moy Castle is located on the Isle of Mull, 20 miles away
- Duart Castle is 29 miles away, on the Eastern side of the Isle of Mull
Travel Tips for Visiting The Isle of Iona
- The best way to reach the Isle of Iona is by pedestrian ferry, operated by CalMac. This leaves from Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull.
- Iona is a very “walkable” area, and everything is within an easy walk from the ferry port.
- If you prefer not to walk, rental bicycles are available from Iona Craft Shop, near the ferry port.
- There are a few places to eat or have a coffee on the island, and these are mostly open all year round. It does get busy during the summer season, though, so it is advisable to book in advance.
- Iona has much to offer, so I suggest allowing at least one full day to explore the island.
- Site visit and observation
- Iona Abbey and Nunnery guide by Historic Scotland
- Iona and Mull – A Historical Guide (2018) by David Caldwell (pg 144-145)
- Explore Isle of Iona website