Millions of people have been travelling to Iona Abbey over the past 1400 years. Many would have walked along Sraid Nam Marbh (the Street of the Dead), past the high crosses, to the holy-of-holies, St Columba’s shrine.
It is here, to the Benedictine Abbey, that I have come to join the many who have passed this way before me. It is here where the prayers of the pilgrims still whisper in the wind and here where one can feel a deeper connection to our collective history. This, one could argue, is the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland.
Columba Arrives on Iona
Columba was born into the ruling Ui’Neill family in County Donegal in the northern part of Ireland, around the year 521. He seems to have been destined for the church from an early age. He was fostered with a priest as a child and in the 540s studied at Leinster and under Uinniau, possibly in his seminary at Clonard, County Meath.
He soon became known as an excellent priest, musician, poet, scribe, and scholar. Long before he left Ireland, he was already an influential man, founding several monasteries.
In 563, he arrived on the Island of Iona, along with 12 companions. His mission was clear: to establish the perfect monastery. This his did. Here, he spent his time copying manuscripts, praying, meditating, and leading his monks in worship and daily work. He also travelled throughout the isles, to the Scottish mainland, and Ireland.
Columba died in his church on Iona in 597. However, his life’s work continues to live on to this day, as pilgrims still visit the island to meditate, pray, and experience the serenity of Iona Abbey.
Early History of Iona’s Religious Community
Very little of Columba’s monastery is now visible. Our best source of information is Adomnan (Abbot of Iona and author of “Life of St Columba” written in the 690s), augmented by the results of archaeological investigations.
Of course, the most important building was the small, wooden church, the remains of which probably lie beneath the present abbey church. However, there would also have been accommodation and facilities for the monks and guests. Of course, there was also the scriptorium, where manuscript production took place. None of these are still extant.
What can still be seen from Columba’s time is the “Hill of the Abbot,” just to the west of the present-day Abbey. This is a rocky knoll where it is believed Columba had his writing hut. Here he would have copied manuscripts while keeping an eye on his monks.
After Columba’s death, the monastery continued to flourish. It became known as a cultural and religious hub. However, in the 790s, Iona (along with other islands) became a target for Viking raids. From 795, the monastery was raided several times to the extent that 68 people died during the attack of 806. The monks feared further raids and removed most of Iona’s treasures, including Columba’s relics, for safekeeping. These were divided between Dunkeld and Kells. One of the worst raids took place in 825. On this occasion, Abbot Blathmac and his monks were tortured and killed for refusing to reveal the hiding place of Columba’s relics. Viking raids continued well into the 980s when a further 15 monks were sadly murdered.
Through all these trials and tribulations, the religious community on Iona persevered and grew and continued to live as Columba would have wished them to do.
Building of the Medieval Iona Abbey
Around 1200, a Benedictine Abbey church was built on Iona, in the same area where Columba and his monks lived.
This first phase of construction resulted in a cross-shaped building. A square chancel at the head of the cross housed the high altar. The arms of the cross, known as transepts, and the central Crossing provided space for the monks’ choir and additional altars. The shaft of the cross formed the Nave, where pilgrims worshipped.
The interior decoration would have been spectacular – plastered walls, painted scenes, and statues – but sadly, this is all now lost.
By 1250, the presbytery had been extended to the east, creating space for the choir stalls to extend beyond the crossing tower. A subterranean crypt was built beneath the high altar to house some of Columba’s relics. Later that same century, the south transept was enlarged.
In the mid-1400s, the Nave was widened to the south, and a new front was constructed. This was the last building work to take place for quite some time, and the Abbey remained like this until it became derelict after the Reformation of 1560.
Only at the end of the 1800s did work start to reverse the decline of the Abbey. The 8th Duke of Argyll commissioned Robert Rowand Anderson, a celebrated architect, to consolidate the ruins. Restoration work on the island continued under the supervision of several different architects and was completed by 1965. The Abbey is now in the care of Historic Scotland.
Exploring Iona Abbey, Scotland
We had booked our entry tickets for the first time slot of the day – this usually ensures the opportunity to take pictures without too many people about. And we were indeed very fortunate. The weather was exceptionally clear and crisp, and to top it all, we were warmly welcomed to the Abbey by Mary, one of the Historic Scotland team members. She informed us that we were indeed the only visitors booked for the morning, so we were delighted!
After climbing up onto the Hill of the Abbot (this is a perfect spot for pictures) and admiring the two high crosses, we entered the tiny shrine of St Columba. It is thought that this little structure was built over St Columba’s grave around 750. Countless pilgrims have come to see this shrine, and I felt privileged to experience it for myself.
From here, we made our way to the main entrance to the Abbey. Walking through the big wooden door and stepping into the Cloister, I stopped – absolutely in awe. I have seen many Cloisters before, but this one is beyond doubt the most magical of all. Light flooded through the high arches onto the walkway. Delicately carved capitals top each of the dozens of pillars around the square. And a much more modern sculpture provides balance in the middle of the courtyard. Rows of grave slabs are displayed along each wall, silently telling the story of Iona Abbey. It is here, in the Cloisters, where the monks spent most of their time in contemplation.
Through a door in the southern-most corner, we stepped into the Church of the Clans. Here, in this spot, a church has stood for almost 1500 years. The magnitude of this deep history is almost overwhelming. The current church construction was started in 1200 and, at the time, was the largest church in the West Highlands and Islands.
The Church of the Clans
The Nave is a simple rectangular space without aisles. Pilgrims would have worshipped here through the ages. It feels vast. The wooden ceiling sits high above the stone floor, with arched windows all around.
The arches in the Crossing are breathtaking. We spent quite some time examining them. They are extensively carved with floral, animal, and human figures. The Crossing mainly dates from the 1400s, except the north arch, which dates from much earlier. An inscription on the south pier of the east crossing-arch, dating from about 1460, names the principal carver. It states: “Donaldus O Broclchan fecit hoc opus” translating as Donald O Brolchan made this work.
And then we made the most incredible discovery of all! Continuing into the transepts, my partner looked back towards the Nave. I heard a gasp and a loudly whispered, “Look at that!” I looked up to where she was pointing, midway up an arch. And I saw him. The tortured soul. Mouth gaping wide in mid-scream, he looked down at us. Eyes pleading for help and deliverance. Though some details have been lost to time, his anguish is still evident in his face.
Later, we asked about the carving of the tortured soul. Alice, another Historic Scotland team member, told us there are several legends associated with the carving. In the first legend, it is said that the carving is a self-portrait of the master stonemason. The second story goes that it served as inspiration for the priest while he delivered his sermon. Finally, the legend is that it served as a “fear factor” for those attending the service – to show them the pain and anguish they will suffer if they don’t live a good life.
Personally, I like to believe the first legend – maybe the stonemason suffered greatly while building the Abbey. Perhaps, it is a self-portrait 😉
Abbey Museum and Other Buildings
In what used to be the monks’ infirmary, you will now find a delightful museum telling the story of Scotland’s most sacred place. The museum takes visitors on a journey through key events in the history of this great monastery. There are incredibly detailed, carved high crosses, grave slabs, and other artefacts excavated on Iona. Also on display is a copy of the Books of Kells, which was created here on Iona around the year 800.
On the western side of the Abbey are the ruins of the monastery’s bakehouse and brewhouse – it is now used as a small garden. The Abbot’s House, ruins of the Bishop’s House, Michael Chapel, and St Mary’s Chapel are all open to visit and explore.
And last, but by no means least, take a look at the magnificent location of Iona Abbey. Standing proudly on a windswept shore, looking towards the Isle of Mull, one can absolutely understand why Columba chose this place for his perfect monastery.
What Not to Miss at Iona Abbey
I could easily say that the entire Abbey is not to be missed! It is a remarkable place. But if you are short of time, at least try to see the following exceptional areas:
- The only surviving section of the Street of the Dead lies just outside St Columba’s shrine. Constructed of red granite from the Isle of Mull, it is truly unique.
- Don’t miss the Tortured Soul in the Nave.
- Marble effigies of the 8th Duke of Argyll and his wife, Ina, lie in the south transept.
- Look out for the carved cross in the south transept – it commemorates the consecration of the Abbey Church.
- The stone slabs in the museum are definitely worth a look – the detail is often outstanding.
Travel Tips for Visiting Iona Abbey
- The Isle of Iona has a great deal to offer the heritage tourist. I suggest planning at least one full day on the island and allowing at least two hours for exploring Iona Abbey
- The Abbey can get quite busy in the summer season. Try to plan your trip for the beginning or end of the season.
- There are a few cafés and hotels on the island where you can get food and drink. These are not always open outside of the busy tourist season.
- If you plan to stay overnight, I suggest you book accommodation on the Isle of Iona, rather than the Isle of Mull, purely to give yourself more time to explore the island.
Historical Sites Nearby
- The Nunnery of St Mary the Virgin is a seven-minute walk away
- St Oran’s Chapel is located right next to the Abbey on Iona
- Duart Castle is on the Isle of Mull, 29 miles away
- Only 20 miles away lies the ruins of Moy Castle
- Site visit and observation
- Iona Abbey and Nunnery – Official Guide by Historic Scotland
- Conversations with Historic Scotland team members on site
- Historic Environment website