Isle of Iona
A mystical place
Courtesy of DM Photography
There's something mystical about the the tiny isle of Iona, off the west coast of Mull and Scotland in the Inner Hebrides. So much so in my case, that my soon to be 21 year old daughter, has been blessed with the island's name. This week Iona visited Iona with her brother and sister on a highlands and islands holiday. I was rather excited for them and a little bit jealous.
How to get there?
Three miles long, a mile and a half across, it has a permanent population of 120 but gets 130,000 visitors every year. As the crow flies it's only 55 miles to Glasgow, although you'll add plenty more travelling on the main road north along the west shore of Loch Lomond before finally turning west towards the coast and the port of Oban at Crianlarich. The port is a busy hub for Caledonian McBrain ferries and the main transportation link for the Inner and Outer Hebrides.
The settlement on Iona is old. The focal point is the abbey founded by an Irish prince called Columba, who in his youth became a priest and missionary monk. In 563, he arrived on Iona with 12 companions. For the next 34 years, he pursued an active missionary outreach throughout the western isles and into the northeast of Scotland. Iona is recognised as the cradle of Celtic christianity and the site of the first church of Scotland.
What have the Romans done for us?
After Columba died in 597, his successors, still based on Iona, continued the work he'd started reaching into northern England and mainland Europe. In the same year, competition arrived from Rome. The pope sent Augustine to convert the pagan Angles to the Roman style of christianity and in 664, at Whitby, a synod of the church decided that the Roman style of the faith was much more fun.
Book of Kells
The Celtic way still continued, but in 802, a Viking raid laid waste to the settlement on Iona. 40 years later, Columba's remains were removed to Dunkeld, a cathedral city north of Edinburgh and the monks withdrew to the safer shores of Ireland taking the Book of Kells with them. (Famous for its beautifully illustrated christian gospels and now located at Trinity College, Dublin).
Despite repeated Viking raids, the monastery survived until the end of the 12th century, when the sons of Somerled, King of the Isles, founded a Benedictine Abbey.
Excursion to Iona in 1975
It was a dreich day when we left for Iona from Oban bus station, my one and only visit when I was 14. The sky was low and leaden with no hint of a brighter future. Why had Mum decided to book a coach excursion with 48 other sad kagools? Were they also having second thoughts like me and my sister?
From the bus station, we embarked immediately onto a Caledonian McBrain ferry. First stop, less than an hour later, Craignure, on the island of Mull, where our coach headed west towards Fionnphort and our next ferry. I remember Mull as flat and featureless made duller and even more dreary because of the weather. My daughters now assure me that it’s full of humps and bumps which look more impressive on a bright summer’s day.
Even in the heavy rain, Iona, could easily be seen from the small harbour of Fionnphort. The only available crossing was via a small, passenger ferry, which couldn’t even carry one coach party. Our skipper was in bright yellow oilskins at the back of the boat on the tiller. He apologised in advance to the poor unfortunates sitting around him entirely exposed to the elements and what was to come on our short journey across the sound. The only cover was further forward and it was tightly packed when we stepped down into the bobbing boat at the quayside. We got wet from the windy spray and persistent rain but not as badly as one man at the back who took full delivery of several gallons of seawater off a particularly aberrant wave. He continued to sit like a statue, no sound, no fuss, patiently waiting for the roller coaster ride to end and the persistent stares to focus on something else.
Like many travellers before us, we took refuge in the abbey. My mother was in her element, another ancient place of worship to explore. I’m not sure I’d ever seen a cloisters before the one on Iona. The enlightened architecture partially open to the elements on the inside revealing a central garden was peaceful despite the weather. The stone walkway protected by a vaulted wooden roof helped to maintain the illusion. I was happy to sit on the low stone wall between the pillars as soggy families wandered by. My thoughts turned to the monks who still lived and worshipped there, wondering what a life of quiet contemplation must be like?
In the vestibule as we were leaving, my father was really taken by an inscription above the door which he regularly reminded us about when we were older, ”Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
With the rain subsiding we ventured outside again. The view was an angry sea of black, the waves crested with white horses galloping west, next stop Canada, 2,000 miles away. But then the sun burst through revealing deep blues and turquoises and a sense of calmness returning as the tail end of the heavy squall, began to loosen its grip.
Macbeth and John Smith
The nearby cemetery called Reilig Odhráin, is purportedly littered with the bones of 48 Scottish kings including MacBeth (1005-1057). The ambitious murderer in William Shakespeare's tragedy, was in reality an efficient governor who promoted and encouraged Christianity before being slain in battle.
John Smith, the former Labour Party leader, who loved Iona was buried there long after my visit in 1994.
His grave is marked with an epitaph quoting Alexander Pope: "An honest man's the noblest work of God.”