by Philip Carr-Gomm
If you feel the call of Iona, then answer that call and make the journey to her.
She is like a very old Crone, rocky and barren and eternally loving and gentle
and tough and wise. She is very old. She is very holy.
There is no other place on earth quite like Iona.
Like all Shamballah places, Iona shall always be.
Iona is a Grail-lit Isle. Iona is deathless.
On Iona one finds the Rainbow which bridges Heaven and Earth.
The tiny island of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides is believed by many to be one of the most sacred places on earth. Formed by the very oldest of rock, it may have been a sacred island of the Druids before becoming the centre from which St Columba converted most of Scotland and northern England to Christianity. Monks from Iona created the Book of Kells and founded the monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. The island became a place of pilgrimage and royal burial as its fame as a centre of learning spread far and wide. A Benedictine monastery and nunnery later replaced Columba’s settlement which was destroyed by Vikings.
In recent times the Iona Community has restored the medieval abbey ruins and promotes a dynamic approach to Christianity which emphasises social justice, while ‘alternative’ pilgrims - Pagans, Druids and New Age believers - visit the island to bask in its atmosphere.
This island set apart, this motherland of many dreams,
still yields its secret, but it is only as men seek that they truly find.
To reach the heart of Iona is to find something eternal.
Travelling to the western isles of Scotland is partly a journey to the light, for as you travel west towards the Atlantic the quality of light changes - becoming translucid, more heavenly and less earthly. At the same time the sea mists bring rainbows of every kind - short and transient, or vast and arcing across the sea. Iona is reached after two sea crossings - first from the Scottish mainland at Oban to the island of Mull, and then across the Sound of Iona on a ferry that occasionally brings an island resident’s car, but which is more often filled with the pilgrims and tourists who come in their thousands to this wild and - at first sight - unremarkable island.
The reason why so many are drawn to this small island that is only 1.61 km (1 mile) wide and 5.63 km (3.5 miles) long becomes apparent when you discover its history. Formed from some of the oldest rock in the world, and looking as if it has been birthed from nearby Fingal’s cave on Staffa, it is said that the island was once filled with stone circles and that it was a centre of pagan religion long before Christianity reached its shores. One of its old names was Isla na Druidhneach - Isle of the Druids. The island, however, shows no traces of megalithic structures, but this may indicate that the island was indeed considered sacred. In 83 CE, Demetrius of Tarsus had been asked by the Roman Emperor to draw a map of the north of Scotland. Demetrius told Plutarch that on sailing around the coast he had discovered an island which was a retreat for holy men who were considered inviolate by the local people. Some scholars believe this island was Iona.
The Arrival of Columba
By the sixth century any reputation the island may have had for fostering pagan sages was eclipsed when the Christian missionary Columba arrived from Ireland with 12 companions. He had taken the name Columba, Latin for dove, as a religious name, preferring it to the one he had been given at birth - Crimthann, Gaelic for fox. Having studied in monastic schools, Columba had founded the monastery of Derry in Ulster at the age of 25. He then travelled the length of Ireland for 15 years preaching and founding hundreds of churches and monasteries.
At the age of 42 he left Ireland in search of fresh pastures for conversion. Some say he provoked a battle in which many were killed in a dispute over his right to keep a copy he had made of a psalter belonging to the scriptorium of St Finian. According to this version of history, Columba exiled himself from his homeland in order to work in penance as a missionary in Scotland.
The thirteen Christians arrived in a coracle at the southern tip of the island, and set about creating a church and monastery complete with kitchen, kiln, stables, mill and guesthouse – all surrounded by a defensive bank and ditch that excluded both women and cattle since Columba believed "where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there is a woman there is mischief". Despite these restrictions, the community prospered, new followers joined, and two years later Columba travelled to the mainland to successfully convert the king of the Picts, having first engaged in a magical battle with the king’s druid.
Soon monks from Iona were travelling all over Scotland, building churches and preaching the gospel. Three prelates from Iona founded the monastery of Lindisfarne, which became the most important Christian centre in the north of Britain. Columba gained a reputation for both saintliness and strong leadership, and clan chiefs and kings eagerly sought his advice. On one occasion, in the earliest recorded mention of the Loch Ness monster, Columba was said to have saved a man’s life by ordering the creature to depart.
The Book of Kells and the Stone of Destiny
Today Iona seems remote from civilisation, but in Columba’s time the islands were centres of activity, since they were much easier to defend than mainland strongholds. The island became a power-house in the spread of the new religion. Ionian monks produced the famous Book of Kells, and a tradition of royal burials developed so that 4 Irish, 8 Norwegian and 48 Scottish kings were laid to rest there, including Macbeth - made famous by Shakespeare.
A legend reinforces the connection between royalty and the island by stating that the Lia Fail - also known as the Stone of Destiny, Stone of Scone or Coronation Stone - was brought to Iona by Columba, who then used it as a travelling altar on his missionary activities to the Scottish mainland.
By the eighth century the island was being raided by the Vikings, and Kenneth McAlpine, the first king of the Scots, may have taken the stone for safe-keeping to Scone, near Perth, where it was used for coronations. By then Columba was long gone. He had died in 597 having prophesied, according to tradition: ‘In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, instead of the chanting of monks shall be the lowing of cattle. But before the world comes to an end, Iona shall be as it was.’
In 806 the Vikings slaughtered 68 monks, and within twenty years the community had disbanded. In 1098 the island fell for a time under Norwegian rule until 1156, and then in 1204 St Ronan established a Benedictine abbey and monastery on the site of Columba’s church while his sister Beathag established a nunnery nearby. Columba had apparently banished all women to the small island in the sound known to this day as the Isle of Women. The mounds of pebbles still found on the island are said to have been created in penance by those monks who had succumbed to their temptations, but now women were able to worship on Iona itself. On one wall of the nunnery ruins you can see the worn image of what was probably a Sheela-na-Gig – a squatting female figure displaying her genitals that is either a pagan fertility symbol or a medieval morality icon warning against the dangers of lust.
The Second Coming of Christ on Iona
The spiritual associations between women and Iona are reinforced by the legend that Mary the mother of Jesus visited the island, and by a prophecy mentioned by the author William Sharp, writing as Fiona Macleod in 1910: "When I think of Iona I think often, too, of a prophecy once connected with Iona....the old prophecy that Christ shall come again upon Iona, and of that later and obscure prophecy which foretells, now as the Bride of Christ, now as the Daughter of God, now as the Divine Spirit embodied through mortal birth in a Woman, as once through mortal birth in a man, the coming of a new Presence and Power: and dream that this may be upon Iona, so that the little Gaelic island may become as the little Syrian Bethlehem.... A young Hebridean priest once told me how, 'as our forefathers and elders believed and still believe, that Holy Spirit shall come again which once was mortally born among us as the Son of God, but, then, shall be the Daughter of God. The Divine Spirit shall come again as a Woman. Then for the first time the world will know peace'."
Iona was admired by Dr Samuel Johnson when he spent the night in a barn on the island in 1773, and by Felix Mendelssohn who captured the atmosphere of the region in his Hebrides Overture, composed between 1830 and 1832.
The Island Today
In the modern period the island has taken on a new lease of life as a site of immense spiritual power. It has become a place of pilgrimage for Christians, Pagans, Druids and the followers of New Age beliefs who all feel drawn to its atmosphere. It has also once again become a centre for a vibrant expression of the Christian faith.
As the twentieth century opened, work was begun on restoring the abbey ruins, and in 1938 the Rev George MacLeod founded The Iona Community, which continued the work of restoration by uniting craftsmen and trainee ministers. The Community has since grown to become an ecumenical group that is committed to seeking new ways of Christian expression. It is politically active, promoting the ideals of economic and ecological justice; it opposes nuclear weapons and campaigns against racism and the arms trade. It is also active in inter-faith dialogue and in work with young people.
Today, most visitors come to the island just for a few hours, touring the ruins of the nunnery and visiting the rebuilt abbey and the local shops before leaving. But to truly appreciate the unique atmosphere of Iona you need more time - to spend it away from the crowds and the buildings in the wild places of the island. Then, perhaps, you will agree with the words of Fiona Macleod: “None can understand it who does not see it through its pagan light, its Christian light, its singular blending of paganism and romance and spiritual beauty. There is, too, an Iona that is more than Gaelic, that is more than a place rainbow-lit with the seven desires of the world, the Iona that, if we will it so, is a mirror of your heart and of mine.”
What is the magic in the name Iona which lures men and women from the far corners of the earth to the tiny rocky island off the west coast of Scotland? Surely not the scenery, for there is more magnificence on the mainland of Scotland. It must be something deeper. Something knocking on the heart which speaks of mystery and holiness, of dreams and truths which have outlived time....There is an indescribable atmosphere in Iona as if a 'Presence' dwells in the hallowed soil of the tiny island which has been washed by the waters of prayer down through the ages.
George and Helen Sandwith, The Miracle Hunters
Do you, too, not hold Iona, motherland of all my dreams, as something rare and apart, one who has her own lovely solitude and her own solitary loveliness that is like no other loveliness? In your heart, as in mine, it lies an island of revelation and of peace.
Fiona Macleod, The Winged Destiny: Studies in the Spiritual History of the Gael
A few places in the world are to be held holy, because of the love which consecrates them and the faith which enshrines them. Their names are themselves talismans of spiritual beauty. Of these is Iona....
Fiona Macleod, Iona
2,700 Million years ago Iona is formed with some of the oldest rock on the planet – the hard crystalline Lewisian Gneiss.
400BC to 500 AD – The island may have been sacred to the Druids
563 AD - Columba and 12 companions land on Iona from Ireland
597 - Columba dies
794 - Vikings attack Iona for the first time
806 - Viking massacre of 68 monks
825 - Monastery virtually abandoned
849 - Columba’s relics removed and divided between Ireland and Scotland
1098 - Island surrendered to Magnus, King of Norway
1156 - The people of the Hebrides and the mainland west of the Great Glen create the “Lordship of the Isles”, controlled by Somerled, a Clan Donald Chieftain who had defeated local Norse rulers.
1200-1204 - Benedictine abbey built on site of Columba’s original settlement.
1207 - A nunnery is founded in addition to a monastery.
1561-1574 - The Monastery and nunnery close down under the Reformation. Some nuns may have continued to live on the island in a cave.
1902 - Work begins on rebuilding the derelict abbey
1938 - The Rev George Macleod founds the Iona Community, which restores the remaining abbey buildings, and creates a thriving Christian community.
1965 - Abbey restoration complete
1960’s - From about this time Iona becomes a place of pilgrimage for alternative spiritual seekers, such as contemporary Druids and Pagans, as well as Christians.