Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey


Iona Abbey is located on the Isle of Iona, just off the Isle of Mull on the West Coast of Scotland. It is one of the oldest and most important religious centres in Western Europe. The abbey was a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland and marks the foundation of a monastic community by St. Columba, when Iona was part of the Kingdom of Dál Riata. Iona Abbey is home to the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian religious order, and remains a popular site of Christian pilgrimage today.


In 563, Columba came to Iona from Ireland with twelve companions, and founded a monastery. It developed as an influential centre for the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots. The Book of Kells, a famous illuminated manuscript, is believed to have been produced by the monks of Iona in the years leading up to 800. The Chronicle of Ireland was also produced at Iona until about 740. The abbey was first attacked by Viking raiders in 795, with subsequent attacks taking place in 802, 806, and 825. During the 806 Viking attack, 68 monks were massacred in Martyrs' Bay, and this led to many of the Columban monks relocating to the Columban Abbey of Kells in Ireland. Other monks from Iona fled to the Continent, and established monasteries in Belgium, France, and Switzerland. In 825, St Blathmac and those monks who remained with him at Iona, were martyred in a Viking raid, and the Abbey was burned. However, it was probably not deserted as its continued importance is shown by the death there in 980 of Amlaíb Cuarán, a retired King of Dublin.


Iona had been seized by the King of Norway, who held it for fifty years before Somerled recaptured it, and invited renewed Irish involvement in 1164: this led to the construction of the central part of the Cathedral. Ranald, Somerled's son, now 'Lord of the Isles', in 1203 invited the Benedictine order to establish a new Monastery, and an Augustinian Nunnery, on the Columban Monastery's foundations. Building work began on the new Abbey church, on the site of Columba's original church. The following year, in 1204, the site was raided by a force led by two Irish bishops. This was a response by Ireland's Columban clergy to the loss of its connections and influence at this significant site founded by St Columba.


The Iona Nunnery, a foundation of the Augustinian Order (one of only two in Scotland - the other is in Perth), was established south of the Abbey buildings. Graves of some of the early nuns remain, including that of a remarkable Prioress, Anna Maclean, who died in 1543. Clearly visible under her outer robe is the rochet, a pleated surplice denoting the Augustinian Order. The Nunnery buildings were rebuilt in the fifteenth century and fell into disrepair after the Reformation. The Abbey church was substantially expanded in the fifteenth century, but following the Scottish Reformation, Iona along with numerous other abbeys throughout the British Isles were dismantled, and abandoned, their monks and Libraries dispersed.


In 1899 the Duke of Argyll transferred ownership of the ruined remains of the Abbey and Nunnery sites to the Iona Cathedral Trust, which undertook extensive restoration of the Abbey church. In 1938, the inspiration of Reverend George MacLeod led a group which rebuilt the abbey, and founded the Iona Community. The reconstruction was organised by the architect Ian Gordon Lindsay having generously been passed the project from his senior mentor and friend Reginald Fairlie. The surrounding buildings were also re-constructed during the 20th century by the Iona Community. This ecumenical Christian community continues to use the site to this day. The simple square font was added in 1908 and dedicated to the memory of the Very Rev Theodore Marshall DD, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in that year. In 2000 the Iona Cathedral Trust handed over the care of the Abbey, Nunnery, and associated sites to Historic Scotland.


Many early Scottish kings (said to be 48 in total), as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France, are said to be buried in the Abbey graveyard. However, modern scholars are sceptical of such claims, which were likely mythic associated with increasing the prestige of Iona. Numerous leading Hebrideans, such as various Lords of the Isles and other prominent members of West Highland clans, were buried on Iona, including several early MacLeod chiefs. The site was much loved by John Smith, 20th-century leader of the Labour Party, who was buried on Iona after his sudden death in 1994. Several high crosses are found on the Isle of Iona. St Martin's Cross (dated to the 8th century) still stands by the roadside. A replica of St John's Cross is found by the doorway of the Abbey. The restored original is located in the Infirmary Museum at the rear of the abbey. The contemporary Jedburgh-based sculptor Christopher Hall worked for many years on carvings on the cloisters of the abbey, which represent birds, flora and fauna native to the island. He also was commissioned to carve John Smith's gravestone.


Cars can go onto Iona only with a permit from the local authority office in Oban. Blue Badge holders can take vehicles on the public ferry, but parking on the island is very limited. The abbey is a 600m walk uphill from the ferry pier, along a single-track road. A taxi service is available and can carry folded wheelchairs. Telephone: 07810 325 990. Wheelchairs are also available at the abbey for visitor use. The abbey complex sits within an area of well-kept grass. From the entrance, a dust path brings visitors and vehicles to the buildings. The entrance to the church has steps, but these can be avoided by accessing the nave through the cloisters. The nave meets two sets of steps to the crossing. The choir has a step at either end, and two shallow steps lead to the communion table. Entry to the cloisters is via a ramp. The four sides are level and the north-west corner houses the Historic Scotland shop. The shop is entered via a tight, steep-angled ramp and its floor slopes gently. St Columba’s Shrine is to the left of the main door of the church. It is very small and has a narrow doorway. The museum and the Michael Chapel are on the seaward side of the complex. The dust path leads the way and each building has shallow steps at its entrance. The museum has a collection of carved stones. A narrow gate leads from the abbey complex to a narrow dust path, which winds around the graveyard to the Oran Chapel, outside the grounds. The door to the chapel is wide, with a step just inside. There are no toilets on site. The nearest adapted toilets are at the Iona Community shop, opposite the abbey. The shop is open daily, from 10am to 5pm. Assistance dogs are welcome.


Location : Iona Abbey and Nunnery, Isle of Iona, Argyll, PA76 6SQ

Transport: Oban (National Rail) then ferry + bus (2 hours 35 minutes). Bus Routes : 496 includes ferry crossing to Iona.

Opening Times : April 1st to September 30th, daily 09.30 to 17:30; 1st October to March 31st 10:00 to 16:00 (Sundays unmanned). Times subject to weather.

Tickets : Adults £7.10;  Concessions £5.70;  Children (5 - 15) £4.30

Tel : 01681700512