Lifelong Learning Programme

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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Iona, to the west of Mull, Scotland

Iona, to the west of Mull, Scotland

Iona Community, 21 Carlton Court, Glasgow G5 9JP, Scotland, UK.



Iona is a tiny and beautiful Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland. It is the cradle of Christianity in Scotland, where in 563AD the Irish monk Columba (Columkille) established a monastic settlement that evangelised large parts of Scotland and the north of England and became an important centre of European Christianity. Through 1400 years of history its fortunes have fluctuated, from its heights as one of the greatest centres of learning in Dark Age Europe, to its lows as a crumbling ruin. In the Middle Ages it became the site of a Benedictine abbey, and over the centuries it has attracted many thousands of people on their own pilgrim journeys. However, thanks to the fame of its monastic founder, St Columba, the island has always been revered as a holy place, and, over the centuries, Iona has continually been re-invented and reconstructed as a centre for pilgrimage.
Iona's fame began in 563 AD when Columba, with thirteen followers, landed at the south end of the island, at St Columba's Bay, to establish a monastery. The great abbey we see today belongs to a later era. Columba's Iona was very different. Columba had little interest in grand buildings - he was seeking seclusion among the 'desert' of the Atlantic Ocean. Almost nothing remains of his original monastery however traces of the vallum, or ditch, that surrounded the monastic enclosure, can still be seen. Inside would have been a settlement that resembled a small village - a modest, timber church, surrounded by huts for the monks to live and work in, and small cells to provide the solitude necessary for prayer. From Adomnán, who wrote Columba's biography 100 years after his death, we know a great deal about the early monastery's daily life. Withdrawn, contemplative and austere, its primary purpose was the contemplation of God through prayer and learning. Holy texts from around Europe were copied, poetry flourished and Adomnán himself wrote a guide to the Holy land - a fact which illustrates that the monastery's intellectual horizons stretched right across Christendom. As a consequence Iona amassed one of the greatest libraries in Western Europe and became a powerhouse of Dark Age learning.
Columba's monastery became a centre of pilgrimage. At first, access was restricted to high status pilgrims: royal and ecclesiastical visitors, or those in serious trouble, who stayed at its guest house, but later more humble pilgrims would have been allowed access to the monastery. The pilgrims travelled to Iona in life and in death. Many of the kings of Scotland, Ireland, and even of the Vikings, were buried there. Some of the most famous Kings of Alba, from Kenneth MacAlpin to MacBeth, made their final journey there - across the sound to Iona, onto the harbour, and up the Street of the Dead to the burial ground, the Relig Oran. In 794 AD Iona experienced the first of many Viking raids that eventually forced the monastery into decline. As one historian has commented: rich monasteries like Iona were the Dark Age equivalent of drive-in banks to the Vikings.
Iona remains a centre for pilgrimage and tourism; the daily services of the Iona Community in the Abbey church and worship elsewhere on the island are open to all; many visitors come again and again. There is a year-round population of over 100; long-established island families as well as more recent arrivals, including those who work for the Iona Community in its centres as staff or volunteers. The abbey is now managed by Historic Environment Scotland; the Iona Community remains in residence as a living, worshipping presence. The islanders, the Iona Community and Historic Environment Scotland work together to maintain Iona as a place of welcome.
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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.