Sunday, 16 September 2012

Iona Abbey

Iona is an island with a long history of holiness. It is known that Crimthann, a Dalriadan prince of the 'Clan' Conaill, left his homeland of Ulster in disgrace after causing a small war over copyright. He was permitted to found a monastery on Iona in 563 by Conall mac Comgaill, king of Dalriada. Legend has it Crimthann made other landfalls, in Kintyre for example, but as he could still see Ireland he could not stay. By the time he had sailed as far north as Iona, Ireland was no longer visible on the distant horizon. To commemorate this a cairn, Carn Cul na Eireann, Cairn with the Back to Ireland, was constructed on a height above Iona's southern shores. Crimthann went on to achieve many stirring (and many mythical) deeds, being known in Gaelic as Colm Cille, Dove of the Church. In English we call him St Columba.

Iona Abbey:


Columba and his sucessors brought fame to the island, which became the epicentre of what is now (but wasn't then) identified as 'Celtic' Christianity - a strain of worship that favoured remoteness and asceticism in the style of the desert fathers, as opposed to the more worldly 'Roman' style of bishops based in cities. Iona was no backwater however. Pictland and Northumbria were evangelised from Iona, and from Iona's scriptorium came arguably the supreme example of Dark Ages art, the Book of Kells. This was removed from Iona to Ireland during Viking attacks and can be seen today in Dublin.

Book of Kells (source, Wikipedia):


Other treasures can still be seen at the abbey. The distinctive crosses of St Martin and St John are in a style unique to this part of the world.

Cross of St John:


Also of interest is Iona's old graveyard, Reilig Òdhrain. It has been in use since at least the 8th century, and its small chapel of St Oran is the oldest building still standing on Iona. Eight kings of Scotland (including both Duncan and Macbeth), dozens of Dalriada, four of Ireland, eight of Man and Norway, and numerous clan chiefs are buried here. In later times a legend grew up that the apocalypse would be heralded by a great flood - but that Iona, alone, would be spared. Perhaps this contributed towards its attractiveness as a royal graveyard?

St Oran's Chapel:


The latest chief to be interned here is John Smith, an Argyll native widely respected across Scotland (he was the Labour party's last left-wing leader). He was generally acknowledged as Prime Minister in waiting when he died of a heart attack in 1994. His replacement was Tony Blair.

The age of saints made Iona famous, the most holy site in Scotland, Gaeldom's Mecca, but in 795 it was attacked by Vikings. The Book of Kells was taken in the 9th century to Ireland and the remains of St Columba moved to Dunkeld. The new kingdom of Scots would be based on the east coast, and Iona and its Abbey fell into general obscurity until 1938. This was the date the modern day saint George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, an ecumenical community dedicated to peace. The community rebuilt the ruined abbey and it now houses many visitors attracted to the peace and spirituality of the place. For the early saints certainly had an eye for a naturally beautiful location. Or did they?

Iona beach:


For it may well be that Columba was far from the first holy man on Iona. The island name was first written down in Latin around AD700 as Ioua, meaning 'yew-place'. The yew was the sacred tree of the druids, and a theory has been put forward that Iona was a centre of druidism. Although there is no archaeological proof, and only tantalising glimpses of documentary evidence of druids on Iona, many early Christian sites were built on top of pagan ones. It would not be at all surprising to discover that the same was true of Iona Abbey. If evidence of druidism is ever confirmed, it might give a tiny piece of support to the little known legend, similar to the better known Glastonbury Legend, of the presence of Mary Magdelene and Jesus on Iona.

1 comment:

blueskyscotland said...

Interesting post.We met the John Smith funeral party travelling up or down to Iona just by chance.(Cant remember which.)Most of us at the bar of a posh hotel had already necked a good few pints after coming straight off the hill.
Surreal experience seeing all these well known faces off the telly suddenly appear at your shoulder.