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To the island of Iona

Home -> Europe -> Scotland -> Travelogue Scotland -> 22 September 2015

Tuesday 22 September, to the island of Iona

House at the ferry to Iona Dolls in the garden, FionnphortThe rain has continued throughout the night and it will not be dry until 9 o'clock. And hopefully it will remain so because we are going to the island of Iona today. We drive to Fionnphort, a fifteen minute drive from here. It is almost the westernmost point of Mull and there we take the ferry to the nearby small island. We leave the car here and go on the boat for a few pounds as pedestrians.
In a garden next to the harbor we see two funny dolls, the text on the shirt of the right figure says: hug me I'm cold.
The ferry terminal at Fionnphort The abbey on IonaVisitors are not allowed to bring a vehicle to the island anyway or you must apply for a special permit. Now there are only a few paved roads, together no more than 2 kilometers long and Teije allows himself to mark them on his map when he walks them all. The ferry lands in Baile Mor after 10 minutes, where the only real settlement of the island is located. But the big attraction is the abbey where most visitors go and which you can see from everywhere around. In 565 Columba founded a monastery here that was of great importance in the spreading of Christianity in Scotland, Ireland, even to Iceland.
St Ronan's chapel, IonaWe only need to follow the flow of tourists to walk to the abbey. First we pass the remains of St Ronan's church that was next to a nunnery. This monastery was founded in 1200 and has been inhabited for a few centuries. In those centuries the islanders went to this church. At excavations, however, traces of an older church have been found and also many human bone remains so that historians conclude that the island had a flourishing community. It is striking that the older skeletons in this area are all women, so maybe there was also an older nunnery.
Standing stones on IonaThe road we walk was already a pilgrimage route in the Middle Ages and the island has long been regarded by some as one of the most sacred places on earth because it had such an influence on introducing Christianity to the pagan Picts, thanks to the zealous Columba (also called Colmcille). But it is thought that it was alsready a sacred island for the heathen Druids. Along the road we see the remains of a stone circle that is not completely destroyed. Actually, another miracle that one has left those pagan stones at a time when the introduction of Christianity was so important to Iona. Maybe out of fear or superstition.
At the abbey on Iona The abbey on IonaThe abbey itself is one of the oldest religious centers in Western Europe, but in the first instance it will largely have been made of wood and would only later have been replaced by stone buildings. When the Vikings roamed the seas, they also ended up here and the rich abbeys were a good prey for all the wealth and supplies that were present. Between 795 and 825 this monastery was attacked 4x where many people died and the abbey was looted. But it was not until the 12th century that the Normans were able to add the island to their kingdom for 50 years.
The abbey has been a ruin for a long time and was only restored in the 20th century.
Street of the dead to the abbey on Iona The abbey on IonaThe last end of the pilgrims' road goes over the Sraid took Marbh, the street of the dead where 1000-year-old cobblestones and boulders lie. Surrounding it is the cemetery, the Reilig Odhrain. According to the legends, there are 48 Scottish kings and even princes from Ireland, France and Norway buried here but historians are rather skeptical about this, there is no proof at all. Even the famous MacBeth would be here.
In front of the abbey is the St. Martin's Cross that was probably made in the 8th century, but there are several such, meter-high, crosses found in the neighborhood.
Grave at the abbey of Iona The abbey on IonaThe cemetery contains many unreadable, ancient tombs but also more recent ones, such as this beautiful tombstone for John Smith, politician and leader of the Labor party, who died in 1994. I always find it interesting to walk over old cemeteries, whole biographies that were closed here. But it is unfortunate that there is little to recognise from the really old graves.
The story about Columba's cell is beautiful and more tangible: in the 50's burnt wood remains were found and it was believed that this was the wooden cell was where Columba himself once lived and studied but that could not be proven. The remains were gone for years (stored in the garage of a professor) but reappeared in 2012 and research in 2017 shows that the wooden structure really dates from the 6th century, so from during his life.
Graves in the abbey of Iona Saint of thread work, Iona abbeyInside the abbey we see the grave of George Douglas, the 8th Duke of Argyll, and his wife. He had the abbey's church restored at the end of the 19th century, donated it to the Church of Scotland and got a nice burial spot in return. Not that you really would profit from that, except maybe that people would probably pray for them for years to come. You never know what it is good for.
Back on his feet is written under a metal wire statue of Columba on an old stone base. Here would have been a statue of Columba that was famous for the miracles it performed. A little further is a little chapel where the original tomb of Columba would have been.
Ornate pillars, Iona Abbey Monastic garden at the abbey on IonaThe cloisters have been beautifully restored and surround a courtyard garden. Even the pillars are decorated but we have no idea if that was done because they found similar remnants of old columns. That is the disadvantage of restorations: archaeologists now try to find evidence of what really looked like at the time, but in the past archaeologists and restorers were often guided by their own imagination or the architectural styles that were customary in their time. I would rather see a ruin than a building that has been 'wrongly' restored.
Monastic garden at the abbey on Iona Knight or monk in the museum at the abbey on IonaThere is also a small chapel on the grounds, the St. Oran's chapel. This is the oldest remaining building of the entire island, from the 12th century. It is a simple building and here the Lords of the Islands, the McDonalds, were buried until the 16th century.
Interesting is also the abbey museum where all kinds of finds from the past are exhibited, such as tombstones on which monks, often with swords, are shown. They will have needed those swords against marauding Vikings. Of course there have always been wars everywhere, but this part of the world was very good at it. I think I would not have lasted very long with my pacifist attitude.
Yellow-dyed sheep, Iona Yellow-dyed sheep, IonaAfter our abbey visit we walk the road north to the end and see sheep in the pasture with yellowish coats, a striking sight. When we were there we heard a special story about it but unfortunately I have forgotten that now. It had not so much to do with designating the owner as with preventing theft associated with a story from the past. But unfortunately, I really do not know anymore. When the sun shines, their coats probably look like golden.
Having lunch on Iona The road across IonaA few hours after arrival on the island it is time for something warm to eat and in the village we find a restaurant. After that I stay in the village while Teije walks the rest of the asphalted roads, otherwise he can not mark them off on his map (sorry, I do not know where he got this weird tic from, at least not me !). There is a road in the midst of the island leading to the west side where a golf course is.
The crossing from Iona to Mull With the ferry back to Fionnphort on MullAll in all, we spent over 5 hours on Iona and it was worth it even if it is only a small island. It has a unique place in history and there is an almost spiritual atmosphere. The whole history can be found on the internet but there are still a few stories connected to the island that are worthwhile to tell: the last son of Mary Magdalene and Jesus would have been born here and there are prophecies that say that, on the second coming of Christ, he will appear first on Iona. There are more stories, just look them up.
We have at least had a nice day and were lucky that it has remained dry all day, even the sun came out occasionally. But at the end of the afternoon it starts to get fresh again and we are happy when we are back in our warm house in the evening.


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