Isle of Iona

Iona's place in religious history was guaranteed when St Columba arrived with his 12 disciples and founded a monastery there in 563 AD. The Irish monk then set about converting practically all of pagan Scotland and much of northern England. Iona went on to become the most sacred religious site in Europe and has been a place of pilgrimage for several centuries.

Today that pilgrimage has turned into more of an invasion, with hordes of daytrippers making the five-minute ferry trip from Mull to visit the abbey. Few, however, venture beyond the main village, Baile Mór, and it's easy to find a quiet spot, particularly on the west coast with its sparkling silver beaches washed by turquoise sea. It's worth spending a day or two here to soak up the island's unique spiritual peace, so well conveyed in the words of Dr Johnson: "that man is little to be envied whose…piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona".

History of Iona

Iona is known as the 'Cradle of Christianity in Scotland', and was a centre of the arts. The monks produced elaborate carvings, manuscripts, ornate gravestones and Celtic crosses. Their greatest work was the beautiful Book of Kells, which dates from AD 800, and which is now on display in Dublin's Trinity College. This proved to be the high point of the church's history. Shortly after came the first of the Viking raids, in AD 806, when many monks were slaughtered at Martyrs' Bay, followed by another in AD 986 which destroyed the work of many years. The relentless pressure from the established church ended with the suppression of the Celtic Church by King David in 1144.

In 1203 Iona became part of the mainstream church with the establishment of a nunnery for the Order of the Black Nuns, as well as a Benedictine Abbey by Reginald of the MacDonalds of the Isles. Iona became overshadowed by the royal city of Dunfermline, and its final demise came with the Reformation when buildings were demolished and all but three of the 360 carved crosses destroyed.

The abbey lay in ruins until in 1899 the island's owner, the eighth Duke of Argyll, donated the buildings to the Church of Scotland on condition that the abbey church was restored for worship. Then in 1938 the Reverend George Macleod founded the Iona Community as an evangelical Church of Scotland brotherhood, with the abbey buildings as its headquarters, and by 1965 had succeeded in rebuilding the remainder of the monastic buildings. Now the abbey complex has been completely restored and the island of Iona, apart from the abbey buildings, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

Phone code: +44 (0)1681

Iona is a small island - barely three miles long and a little over a mile wide - but its importance to Christianity is out of all proportion to its size.

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