Iona from Dun I
St. Martin's Cross
Isle of Staffa with Fingal's Cave
St. John's Cross
Sunset over the Abbey
lona is separated from the Isle of Mull by a narrow stretch of water known as the Sound of lona, and the island presents an ever-changing face. In winter it receives the full force of the Atlantic gales and as a consequence the the island is virtually devoid of trees. Yet on a calm summers day the surrounding sea is an iridescent blue similar to that of the Aegean, due to the fine white sand beneath it. The writer speaks from direct experience as he has stayed there several times, including six winter months in the Abbey buildings at a time in the 1960's, when Dr George MacLeod was still actively co-ordinating the present lona Community. The island has its roots in the dim and distant past, and was almost certainly regarded as a sacred place in prehistoric times. It is known that before the time of St Columba there was a druidic school on the island, and according to one source, at the time of his arrival the resident Archdruid was a Welshman by the name of Gwendollau, with a fellow druid called Myrddin. It has been suggested that this could have been the Merlin of the Arthurian legends, but there is no evidence to substantiate this.
One of the early recorded Gaelic names of lona is Innis na Druineach, or The Island of Druids, an indication of its importance in pre-Christian times. One interesting fact relating to druidic times is that the present Coronation Stone in Westminster Abbey began its life as The Black Stone of Destiny on Iona. It is said to have been used by the druids, as well as St Columba. The latter is said to have crowned King Aedan on the stone. In later years it was removed to Scone. where it was reverentially used for the crowning of Scottish monarchs.
From there it was removed in 1296 to Westminster Abbey, where it remained until the 15th November, 1996. On this date, after many years of requests and persuasion, the British Government finally returned the Stone to Scotland and to its rightful Scottish seat of power at Scone, where it now rests in splendour.
This connection of lona with royalty is seen in better perspective when Columba's life is examine. After launching several missionary journeys to the Scottish mainland Columba became the spiritual advisor to King Aedan, whose realm extended from The Orkney Isles to The Isle of Man and certain regions of Ireland. Aedan himself was of Irish descent. This role of advisor was a continuation of the druidic tradition of regional rulers having a priest/seer as their oracle.
Much of the information we have about lona and St Columba was written by Adamnan, a monk living on the island in the late 7th century. It should be borne in mind that his writings, the Life of St Columba', were carried out almost 100 years after Columba's death, and probably contain a few elaborations and discrepancies. Returning to the island itself, a brief tour of the main sites connected with St Columba will prove interesting. The Abbey Church of St Mary is the focal point of the island. It was built on the site of the original monastic settlement of St Columba in the 6th century. Much of the building dates from the early 13th century, though some parts, as well as individual carved stones, are considerably earlier. The original church was said to have been surrounded by seven smaller chapels, and the remains of two still exist, as does a small building close to a tiny stream, which was said to have been the monks' bakery. Wheat was brought to the island by the monks from the nearby island of Tiree, which despite its northerly location is very fertile, and receives more hours of sunshine per day than any other area in the British Isles. St Oran's chapel, which stands apart from the Abbey buildings, is of a very early date. Oran, to who the chapel is dedicated, is said to have been a druid living on the island when Columba landed there in 56.3 AD. He subsequently embraced Christianity and became one of Columba' s followers. The Abbey itself fell into disrepair at the time of the Dissolution of The Monasteries by Henry VIII, although pilgrimages to the sacred island continued to be made by many over the following centuries. About six miles to the north of Iona is the tiny, unique island of Staffa with its cave and magnificent basalt columns. No doubt known to the monks, this was the island which, centuries later, gave the composer Mendelssohn the inspiration for his Hebridean works, including the Overture to Fingal's Cave, which can be visited today (weather and sea-conditions permitting). Close to the Abbey buildings are the ruins of the nunnery, built in 1203 by Somarlide, Lord of The Isles, when the island came into his possession. Today the grounds have been beautifully laid out as a garden sanctuary. In the vicinity of the Abbey buildings are the fine freestanding crosses of St Martins (9th century) and St John (8th century). Further down the small road to the Abbey stands MacLeans cross, a tall and slender disc-headed cross with elaborate Celtic knotwork and patterning carved on it. It dates from the 13th century. Close to St Oran's chapel is the Reilig Odhrain, nowadays known as the Burial-ground of the Kings. Being the original home of the Black Stone of Destiny, it is hardly surprising that Iona had many royal links. Irish, Scottish, Norse and French monarchs and noblemen were buried here from very early times. The highest point of the island, Dun I, a large granite outcrop, is just 22ft high, and located on its summit is the Well of Healing, where remarkable cures are said to have taken place. The views on a clear day from this high point are breathtaking, and the summit of the highest mountain on Mull, Ben More (7,500ft) is immediately across the water to the east.
The Iona community also runs the Camas outdoor centre on Mull, which is possibly the nearest younger people will get to emulating the basic, satisfying lifestyle of the Celtic Spirit. The emphasis here is on the outdoors and closeness to nature. The buildings at Camas were originally a salmon-fishing station, and are accessible only by a twenty minute walk over the moor. Work and worship is at the heart of Camas, and the centre is orientated towards young people from urban backgrounds. Sensibly, the staff have decided not to install electricity, thus activities here are carried out according to the sun (or lack of it) and the seasons. Camas provides a 'once in a lifetime' experience for many young and adventurous folk. To end this account of Iona, a quote from Dr MacLeod would seem very appropriate. He once described the island thus: "It is a thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual" To be there is to experience this.
- © David James