Iona Abbey

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Panoramic view (click to enlarge).
Engraving of the ruined abbey church in 1761

Iona Abbey is located on the Isle of Iona, just off the Isle of Mull on the West Coast of Scotland. It is one of the oldest and most important religious centres in Western Europe. The abbey was a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland and marks the foundation of a monastic community by St. Columba, when Iona was part of the Kingdom of Dál Riata.


Early history[edit]

This page (folio 292r) contains the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John
The medieval church

In 563, Columba came to Iona from Ireland with twelve companions, and founded a monastery which grew to be an influential centre for the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots. Kings were crowned, and also buried, on Iona. The Book of Kells, a famous illuminated manuscript, is believed to have been produced by the monks of Iona in the years leading up to 800.[1] The Chronicle of Ireland was also produced at Iona until about 740.[citation needed] In 806, Vikings massacred 68 monks in Martyrs' Bay, and Columba's monks returned to Ireland, and a Monastery at Kells: other monks from Iona fled to the Continent, and established Monasteries in Belgium, France, and Switzerland.[2] In 825, St Blathmac and those monks who had returned with him to Iona, were martyred by a further Viking raid, and the Abbey burned. However, it was probably not deserted. Its continued importance is shown by the death there in 980 of Amlaíb Cuarán, a retired King of Dublin.

Benedictine abbey[edit]

Iona had been seized by the King of Norway, who held it for fifty years before Somerled recaptured it, and invited renewed Irish involvement in 1164: this led to the construction of the central part of the Cathedral. Ranald, Somerled's son, now 'Lord of the Isles', in 1203 invited the Benedictine order to establish a new Monastery, and the first (Benedictine) Nunnery, on the Columban foundations. Building work began on the new Abbey church, on the site of Columba's original church.[3]

A very early Nunnery, founded in the thirteenth century, and of the Augustinian Order (one of only two in Scotland - the other is in Perth), the Iona Nunnery, was established south of the Abbey buildings. Graves of some of the early nuns remain, including that of a remarkable Prioress, Anna Maclean, who died in 1543. Clearly visible under her outer robe is the rochet, a pleated surplice denoting the Augustinian Order. The Nunnery buildings were rebuilt in the fifteenth century and fell into disrepair after the Reformation.

The Abbey church was substantially expanded in the fifteenth century,[3] but following the Scottish Reformation, Iona along with numerous other abbeys throughout the British Isles were dismantled, and abandoned, their monks and Libraries dispersed.

Modern abbey[edit]

The cloisters of Iona Abbey.

The original Benedictine Abbey was substantially rebuilt following the Duke of Argyll's gift of all the buildings in 1899 to the Church of Scotland, which undertook extensive restoration of the site. In 1938, the inspiration of Reverend George MacLeod led a group which rebuilt the abbey, and founded the Iona Community. The reconstruction was organised by the architect Ian Gordon Lindsay having generously been passed the project from his senior mentor and friend Reginald Fairlie.[4] The surrounding buildings were also re-constructed during the 20th century by the Iona Community. This ecumenical Christian community continues to use the site to this day.

List of abbots[edit]

Main article: Abbot of Iona

Items of Interest[edit]

Many early Scottish kings (said to be 48 in total), as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France, are said to be buried in the Abbey graveyard. However, modern scholars are sceptical of such claims,[5] which were likely invented to increase the prestige of Iona. The island is the resting place of numerous leading Hebrideans such as various Lords of the Isles and other prominent members of West Highland clans.[6] including several early MacLeod chiefs.[7] The site was much loved by John Smith, Leader of the Labour Party, who was buried on Iona after his sudden death in 1994.[8]

Iona Abbey Celtic Cross.jpg St Martins Cross on Iona.jpg
St. John's Cross in the Abbey museum. St. Martin's Cross outside the abbey.

Several high crosses are found on the Isle of Iona. St Martin's Cross (dated to the 8th Century) still stands by the roadside. A replica of St John's Cross is found by the doorway of the Abbey. The restored original is located in the Infirmary Museum at the rear of the abbey.

The contemporary Jedburgh-based sculptor Christopher Hall worked for many years on carvings on the cloisters of the abbey, which represent birds, flora and fauna native to the island. He was also responsible for carving John Smith's gravestone.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dodwell, Charles Reginald (1993). The pictorial arts of the West, 800-1200. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 84. ISBN 0-300-06493-4. 
  2. ^ Charles-Edwards, T.M. (2006). The Chronicle of Ireland. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 0-85323-959-2. 
  3. ^ a b Information boards at Iona Abbey. Historic Scotland
  4. ^ National Dictionary of Scottish Architects:Reginald Fairlie
  6. ^ McDonald, R. Andrew (1997), The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland's Western Seaboard, c.1100–c.1336, Scottish Historical Monograph series #4, Tuckwell Press, p. 206 fn 17, ISBN 1-898410-85-2 ,
  7. ^ MacLeod, Roderick Charles (1927), The MacLeods of Dunvegan, Edinburgh: Clan MacLeod Society, p. 30 
  8. ^ "Biography of John Smith". University of Glasgow. Retrieved 2008-06-17. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 56°20′03″N 06°23′37″W / 56.33417°N 6.39361°W / 56.33417; -6.39361