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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.




Early history

This page (folio 292r) contains the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John

In 563, Columba came to Iona from Ireland with twelve companions, and founded a monastery which grew to be an influential centre for the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots. Kings were crowned, and also buried, on Iona. 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.[1] The Chronicle of Ireland was also produced at Iona until about 740.[citation needed] In 806, Vikings massacred 68 monks in Martyrs' Bay, and Columba's monks returned to Ireland, and a Monastery at Kells: other monks from Iona fled to the Continent, and established Monasteries in Belgium, France, and Switzerland. [2] In 825, St Blaithmac and those monks who had returned with him to Iona, were martyred by a further Viking raid, and the Abbey burned - Iona was deserted.

Medieval abbey

Iona had been seized by the King of Norway, who held it for fifty years before Sommerlid recaptured it, and invited renewed Irish involvement in 1164: this led to the central part of the Cathedral being built. Sommerlid's son, now 'Lord of the Isles', in 1203 invited the Benedictine order to establish a new Monastery, and the first (Benedictine) Nunnery, on the Columban foundations. Building work began on the new Abbey church, on the site of Columba's original church.[3]

A very early Nunnery, founded in the thirteenth century, of the Augustinian Order, (one of only two in Scotland - the other is in Perth) the Iona Nunnery, 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, [3] but following the Scottish Reformation, Iona along with numerous other abbeys throughout the British Isles were dismantled, and abandoned, their monks and Libraries dispersed.

Modern abbey

St John's Cross in the Abbey museum

The original Benedictine Abbey was substantially rebuilt following the Duke of Argyll's gift of all the buildings in 1899 to the Church of Scotland, which undertook extensive restoration of the site. In 1938, the inspiration of Reverend George MacLeod led a group which rebuilt the abbey, and founded the Iona Community. 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 site was much loved by John Smith, Leader of the Labour Party. After his sudden death in 1994, he was buried on Iona.[4]

Items of Interest

The cloisters of Iona Abbey.

Many early Scottish kings and chiefs, as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France are buried in the Abbey graveyard. (There are thought to be 48 kings there.) These include Duncan - the victim of Macbeth. The more recent grave of John Smith can also be seen.

Several high crosses are to be found on the Isle of Iona. St Martin's Cross (dated to the 8th Century) still stands by the road side. 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. More recently Hall was responsible for carving John Smith's gravestone.

See also


  1. ^ Dodwell, Charles Reginald (1993). The pictorial arts of the West, 800-1200. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 84. ISBN 0300064934. 
  2. ^ Charles-Edwards, T.M. (2006). The Chronicle of Ireland. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 0-85323-959-2. 
  3. ^ a b Information boards at Iona Abbey. Historic Scotland
  4. ^ "Biography of John Smith". University of Glasgow. Retrieved 2008-06-17. 

External links

Coordinates: 56°20′03″N 06°23′37″W / 56.33417°N 6.39361°W / 56.33417; -6.39361


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