Iona Abbey was the home of St. Columba, whose missionary work in the 6th century brought Celtic Christianity to Scotland. Now home to the ecumenical Iona Community, it remains a place of Christian pilgrimage.
History of Iona Abbey
The island of Iona has been occupied since the early centuries AD, as evidenced by Iron Age pottery uncovered in a fort on Dun Cul Bhuirg.
In 563 AD, the Irish missionary St. Columba was exiled from his home country after being involved in a civil war and established a small monastic community on Iona. He died just four years later, but it is thanks to the work he began on Iona that Celtic Christianity spread throughout Scotland and eventually on to Europe.
Very little of Columba's monastery survives today, but its basic layout is known thanks to the Life of Columba written by Abbot Adomnan of Iona in the late 600s. Adomnan described a small church, individual monastic cells (which may have been made of stone in a beehive shape or constructed of wood) and some communal buildings, all enclosed inside a bank and ditch.
Driven out of Iona by Viking raids, most of the monastic community moved to Kells in Ireland around 800. In more peaceful times, around 1200, a Benedictine abbey and nunnery were established on the site. It is these buildings (heavily restored) that visitors see today.
Iona Abbey was dissolved at the Reformation and fell into ruin. Restoration began at the beginning of the 20th century by a duke of Argyll, then was taken over with great energy and enthusiasm by Lord George MacLeod in the 1930s. Inspired by the Celtic tradition of early Iona, MacLeod founded the ecumenical Iona Community in 1938. The Community restored the abbey buildings from 1938 to 1965 and still today keeps alive the ancient spirituality of this beautiful Scottish isle.
What to See at Iona Abbey
Iona is a small island (3.4 square miles) of the Inner Hebrides with a population of just 125 inhabitants. The isle is peaceful and beautiful, with rock-strewn meadows leading into sandy beaches and turquoise blue waters. Small houses, charming shops and just a few meandering roads punctuate the inland landscape.
George MacLeod described Iona as a "thin place," where the material and spiritual worlds seem separated only by the thinnest of veils. Whatever their spiritual background, most visitors to this tranquil island would wholeheartedly agree.
A section of the earthwork surrounding Columba's monastery can be seen northwest of the abbey on the west side of the road. West of the abbey, there is a rocky area on which the foundations of a small building have been excavated - this is probably St. Columba's cell, which was recorded to have been "built in a higher place."
The most impressive remains from the early Celtic period are the high crosses, all dating from the middle or late 8th century. The most impressive of these is the 14-foot-tall St. Martin's Cross, which still stands in its original position in front of the abbey. It is decorated with serpent and boss designs on one side and biblical scenes on the other.
The sculptures on St. Martin's Cross are badly weathered, but the figurative scenes can be identified as (from top to bottom): the Virgin and Child, Daniel in the lions' den, Abraham and Isaac, David with musicians, and an uncertain scene that may be Samuel about to anoint David.
St. John's Cross has been moved to the abbey museum, with a replica placed in front of the abbey. It is ornamented with Celtic interlace and serpent and boss patterns. Several fragmentary crosses can also be seen in the museum, along with grave markers, some carved with Norse runes, dating from the 10th or 11th century.
Along the road to Iona Abbey is the ruined Benedictine nunnery, founded by St. Margaret in the 12th century.
The site of Columba's monastery is now occupied by the Benedictine abbey church, known as St. Mary's Cathedral. Built around 1200 by Reginald MacDonald in the Norman style, it has a cross plan with a large square over the crossing. The oldest part is the north transept. The capitals in the chancel are carved with motifs including flowers, demons and biblical stories.
The cathedral is adjoined by a reconstructed Romanesque cloister, with modern reliefs on the capitals and a modern bronze sculpture in the central garden.
From Iona Abbey, the "Street of the Dead" runs westward to St Oran's Cemetery (Celtic: Reilig Odhrain), Scotland's oldest Christian graveyard. Here more than 60 Scottish kings were buried throughout the Middle Ages, including Kenneth MacAlpin, who unified Scotland, and Macbeth, made famous by Shakespeare. Unfortunately, all the tombstones were thrown into the sea at the Reformation.
The Iona Community is a monastic-inspired organization of Christians from a variety of denominations who commit to daily prayer and Bible readings, sharing of time and money, regular gatherings and working for the causes of peace, justice and spiritual health in society. Currently led by the Rev. Kathy Galloway, the Community has three centers in the Western Isles - two on Iona and one on Mull - and a mainland headquarters in Glasgow.
In addition to maintaining the abbey buildings and serving the spiritual needs of its members, the Iona Community offers a number of services and events to visitors. For daily visitors, it conducts daily services in the abbey church, provides guided tours of the abbey and operates the Iona Heritage Centre and a coffee shop (open daily 10am-4:30pm).
Every Wednesday, members of the Community lead a 7-mile hike to the island's holy and historic spots. There are also regular workshops on Christianity and youth camps.
For those looking for a more in-depth spiritual experience on Iona, the Iona Community provides modest room and board for up to 50 guests per week. During their stay, participants join with members of the community in worship, common meals, education, social activities and chores.
Iona is reached by a frequent ferry from Fionnphort on the adjacent Isle of Mull, which takes just 10 minutes. For most visitors, the journey begins at the pretty port town of Oban on the west coast of the mainland, from which it is 45-minute ferry ride to Craignure and a 1-hour bus ride across Mull to Fionnphort.
Only Iona residents are allowed to bring cars to the island, but Iona is so small that they are rarely needed. Most visitors to Iona come for the day, but there are a few good hotels on the island for those who want to extend their stay. See Travel Resources, below.
Quick Facts on Iona Abbey
|Dates:||563; c.1200; 1938|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||56.334003° N, 6.393700° W|
|Phone:||01681 700 512|
|Hours:||Daily 9:30am-5:30pm (closes 4:30pm Oct-Mar)|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Iona Abbey|
- Personal visit (May 1997).
- Anna and Graham Ritchie, Scotland: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), 113-15.
- Martin Palmer and Nigel Palme, The Spiritual Traveler England, Scotland and Wales, 256-59.
- Iona Abbey - Historic Scotland
- St. Mary's Cathedral, Iona - Planetware
- The Abbey - official website of the Iona Community
- Iona Abbey - Undiscovered Scotland
- The Abbey - Isle of Iona
Map of Iona Abbey
Below is a location map and aerial view of Iona Abbey. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.