The Sacred Isle of Iona

IonaRemote, treeless Iona, just off the south-western coast of Mull in Scotland’s Hebrides islands, has been a place of spiritual pilgrimage for centuries. The first Christian settlement in Scotland was founded here, its monks becoming the stalwart guardians of ancient learning throughout the Dark Ages. Some 1,000 visitors a week step off the ferry in summer, and yet somehow the island’s atmosphere remains tranquil. It helps that most visitors are contemplative sorts, interested in the other-worldly values of a Benedictine abbey and relics of old saints.

You arrive by passenger ferry from the Isle of Mull, itself a 45-minute ferry trip from Oban, leaving your car behind and trusting to your own two feet to get around—not too hard, because the island is only 5.6km (3 1 / 2 miles) long by 1.6km (1 mile) wide. Walk off among the sheep and cows that wander freely everywhere; climb to the top of Dun-I, a small gray mountain, to contemplate the ocean and the landscape around you.

St. Columba arrived in A . D . 563 with a dozen companions, using this as their base for converting Scotland to Christianity. Nothing remains of the original monastery, which Norse invaders destroyed. The present-day abbey site encompasses the ruins of a Norman-era nunnery, the 11th-century St. Oran’s Chapel, and squaretowered Iona Cathedral, with its Norman arches and short round pillars. Built in spurts, the church is a jumble of styles from the 12th to the 16th centuries—but really, architectural splendor is beside the point. It’s simply an incredibly holy place.

The monks of Iona played one other role: maintaining the eternal resting place of the kings of Scotland (its remoteness was an advantage; rival chieftains could not get here to desecrate their remains). Tradition claims that St. Oran’s Cemetery holds the mossy graves of 48 Scottish kings, including Macbeth and his rival Duncan, along with assorted Irish, Norwegian, and French kings and church dignitaries.

Owned by the dukes of Argyll since 1695, Iona was recently sold to Sir Hugh Fraser, who ensured that National Trust money would be turned over to the trustees of the abbey, the Iona Community. This ecumenical religious group lives communally on the grounds, and interested visitors are welcome to join them for a night or two. If the spirit of this place gets to you, a stay with the Community could be a very special experience.