Hidden Gems: Isle of Iona
I am not religious. At best I can describe myself as agnostic. At worst, atheist but I wanted to visit Iona because of its’ history as the metropolis of a new, beckoning culture that transformed the way our world worked forever - literacy.
St Columba, who was given the island of Iona, bought the gift of literacy to our shores. This magic was every bit as powerful as an iron sword. The man who welded the pen could take the very words from the King’s mouth and make them permanent in ink. Once a king’s demands were written down, copied and circulated, that was the basis of a legal system, of contracts, of treaties. Literacy was power. The birth of literacy shaped the very way for the way our world today.
Iona and her monks, gave us the Book of Kells. The book compromises the gospels with a handful of other texts, yet it is not the words but the artwork that make it an masterpiece. People, animals, mythical beasts, knot-work and swirling patterns of the most intense intricacy; 10,000 dots of red ink around a single letter, vivid colours made from the yellow orpiment from the Mediterranean or blue lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.
The Book of Kells is testimony to Iona’s place in the world - a vibrant hub of art, culture, trade, wealth and power.
Today Iona feels remote; a tiny island to the west of the Isle of Mull, but in the time of Columba and for centuries after it was the central point on the map of faith.
Arriving on the island, I was surprised by how peaceful it felt. I got the first ferry of the morning so it was just myself, Dougie, and six others who worked on the island. It felt like I had the entire place to myself, with the sun beginning to peak out from behind it’s cloudy bed, making the light on the island simply magical.
I walked aimlessly at first, more taken by the fishermen cottages than the abbey itself. It was smaller, simpler than I had imagined it would be when viewing it from the boat. Up close it becomes more impressive.
But first the walk takes you past the old Nunnery. I never knew there was also a nunnery, the best preserved medieval nunnery in Britain no less, on the island. I’m not surprised, women are rarely written into history. How they shaped the island alongside the monks we won’t ever truly know, but although smaller than the abbey, it is clear the nunnery would have been once a thing of beauty.
Beyond the nunnery is Columba’s cross where pilgrims travelling to the abbey would pause to pray. While this is true, it’s not the entire reason why the cross was built. It was gifted to the island by the MacLean family, a powerful clan who dominated the western isles for centuries. The cross may be a religious symbol but the statement from the MacLean Clan was clear; wealth, power and ownership.
Before reaching the abbey there is a small graveyard with an eerie burial chamber for the MacLean Clan. Like I said, politics plays a part in Iona’s history as much as religion does.
Then we, finally, have the abbey itself. As I was there so early in the morning the abbey wasn’t open, but that meant I could explore the grounds without any crowds. I also had Dougie dog with me who couldn’t go inside the abbey so I didn’t mind. In fact, it was perfect and exactly what I had hoped it would be when I woke up in the pitch black to catch that morning ferry.
Nothing is left of Columba’s monastery but what we do have is an impressive Benedictine abbey built around 1200. Much has been restored and tiny details like a face carved into the outside window frame gives a glimpse into its former splendour.
What I wasn’t expecting was the calm serenity of the place. Dotted around were benches inscribed with beautiful words encouraged to make you stop, rest and reflect. What I really liked is that none I saw were overtly religious. This made it feel more inclusive, kinder even, so when I saw a bench carved with the words “rest and remember,” I did just that.
Iona’s history hasn’t always been peaceful. Columba himself was son of the O’Neill Clan, the most powerful in Ireland, but his warlike approach to Christian conversion in his homeland had culminated in a blood bath. He was driven from Ireland and used his name to gain favour with the Gaelic lords of western Scotland. Tradition credits St Columba with the single-handed conversion of tribes to Christianity, but let’s not forget this was an opportunistic man who liked blood and power.
Iona also fell victim to Viking raids. The abbey with all its riches and treasures guarded by monks whose only defence was their faith must have seemed insane to Vikings. It is little wonder then that Iona was raided at least twice with 68 monks being murdered in ‘Martys Bay.’
Yet Iona today feels like a peaceful island. Perhaps it was because of the hours of meditative prayer millions of people had done on the island over the centuries, or perhaps it was because it was early morning with hardly anyone in sight and the sun shining was a welcome release from the storm the night before. I don’t know, but I felt lighter than I did before.
Top Tips for Iona
Get the early morning ferry to the island, it is worth the early start.
Go on a nice day. Everything is outside so it won’t be fun in the rain.
Dogs are not allowed inside the abbey but are welcome in the grounds and around the island.
Argyll Hotel is dog-friendly and has a lovely garden area on the bay overlooking Mull. Dougie even got given a few treats there.