Just off the west coast of Scotland, the tiny and remote Hebredian island of Iona is home to one of Scotland’s most historic sites. Iona Abbey was founded by St Columba, who came to Iona from Ireland with 12 of his supporters in AD 563. The monastery was key to the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots. Many Kings were crowned and buried here and it is said that the Book of Kells, the most decorated illuminated manuscript to survive from the early medieval period in Europe, was produced by the Iona’s monks in the years leading up to 800.
In 806, Vikings massacred 68 monks in Martyrs’ Bay and Columba’s monks fled to Ireland. In 825, more monks came but they too were slain by the Vikings and the Abbey was burned. In 1200 What was left of the Columban monastery was replaced with much grander Benedictine Monastery on the same site, built by Reginald MacDonald of Islay. But the new growth of the monastery came to a halt during the Reformation of 1560. Iona Abbey fell into disuse and dereliction.
The abbey we see today is largely due to the efforts of the 8th Duke of Argyll who commissioned the architect Robert Rowand Anderson to preserve the Abbey ruins. Restoration of the Abbey Church began in 1902 and was completed in 1910. Work on restoring the living accommodation began in 1938, following the foundation of the Iona Community. It wasn’t finished until 1965, from which time The Iona Community have run it as a residential centre and continued daily worship in the Abbey Church.
Highlights to look out for here include: The High Crosses – these four 8th and 9th-century preaching crosses are evidence of the strength of belief that led to the founding of the Abbey; Reilig Odhráin – the little cemetery beside the Abbey, where many ancient Scottish kings, including Macbeth, are thought to rest; effigies of an abbot in the choir and the 8th Duke of Argyll; the Michael Chapel and the Infirmary Museum, which houses early gravestones and a stone pillow thought to have been used by St Columba.