Of all the sites connected with the Celtic Christian tradition, the island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland is the best known. When I visited several years ago, I remember thinking that the island seemed impossibly small to bear such a heavy weight of history. Just three miles long and one mile wide, the windswept, rocky island is part of the Inner Hebrides. Pilgrims must first take a ferry to the island of Mull, then travel a winding, narrow road across the length of that island, and finally board another ferry to Iona. You have to want to get to Iona.
The Irish monk Columba (also known as Columcille) founded the monastic community of Iona in 563. Building a monastery on the site of an old Druid temple, Columba was a devout and charismatic religious leader. Under his guidance, Iona became a missionary center and the head of a family of monasteries scattered throughout Ireland, Scotland, and northern England. At its height, about 150 monks lived on Iona, making it a center for culture and learning famous throughout Europe. The Book of Kells was likely created here during the eighth century, as well as magnificent High Crosses that remain to this day.
In a pattern that would be repeated at many other monastic settlements, Viking raids began around 800 and devastated the community. Several centuries later, Benedictine monks came to Iona to establish a new monastery, building an abbey that still dominates the island. Iona settled into obscurity once again, many of its buildings in ruins.
The island was rediscovered in the Victorian age, when travelers began to recognize the importance of the early Christian settlements here. Sir Walter Scott, John Keats, Felix Mendelssohn, and William Wordsworth all visited the remote island, and scholars began a systematic attempt to study and preserve the ruins.
The modern revival of Iona dates to 1938, when George MacLeod founded the ecumenical Iona Community. The group spearheaded the restoration of the monastic buildings and established a resident community on Iona. The Iona Community has a long-standing interest in liturgical renewal, and its prayers, hymns and songs have been reprinted widely, playing a major role in the revival of interest in Celtic spirituality. The community maintains an active presence on Iona, leading regular worship services and retreat programs.
About a hundred people live on Iona year round, and an additional 150,000 visit the island each year. Its oldest remaining building is St. Oran’s Chapel, dedicated to a cousin of Columba. It was built during the twelfth century, though the surrounding burial ground likely dates back to the earliest years of Christian settlement here. Legend says that many of the first kings of Scotland, Ireland, and Norway were buried here, including MacBeth of Shakespearean fame.
While the physical landscape of Iona is dominated by the medieval-era abbey built by the Benedictines, its spiritual landscape is infused with memories of Columba. Thanks to a Life of Columba written about 700, we know a considerable amount about this gentle, holy man and the places he loved on the island. The areas where he retreated for prayer and meditation continue to draw pilgrims today.
Iona is a place haunted by history and infused with holiness. Despite being so small, its landscape is surprisingly varied, with white sandy beaches, rolling heather moorland, rocky promontories, sand dunes, and valleys of grass. Pilgrims come here to hear the wild Atlantic surf break against the rocks, to smell the fresh salt air, and to ponder the courage of the Irish monks who set forth in their small boats on the sea, trusting only in God to guide them.
To book a retreat on Iona, contact the Iona Community.