After a great first night’s sleep at Ardoran house, and an even better breakfast, my adventures have started. This peaceful little island contains a past that reaches back two thousand years and contains some of the most important beginnings of Christianity in the UK. My first stop today is the Nuns Chapel and Garden.
The Nunnery was founded after the establishment of the Benedictine monastery, which was likely founded by Raghnall mac Somhairle in 1203, one of the sons of Somerled, the Lord of the Isles. Raghnall’s sister, Bethóc, became the first prioress. This was one of the two Augustinian nunneries in Scotland, St. Leonards Nunnery located at Perth being the other. While not as grand as the Abbey, this would have been an impressive complex in its day and a nationally important settlement.
These days the well preserved ruins are surrounded by lovely gardens bright with colour, and it is a very popular place to just sit quietly, or even have your photograph taken… Like a lot of Iona, it has that sense of peace, broken only by the crek crek of the corncrakes hiding in the foliage!
From the Nuns abbey sits a peculiar path leading to the Abbey. It is a very old road known as the Walk of the Dead, still containing the original flat stones used when it was first built, and it is an odd feeling to think about the thousands of feet over the previous 1500 years who must have taken this path.
I follow the road up to the ancient St Orans Chapel. This attractive little chapel stands in memory of Reilig Òdhrain. The Gaelic warlord Somerled, ‘King of the Isles’, probably built it as a family burial chapel prior to his death in 1164.
This is the oldest intact structure of the abbey to survive. Only the slate roof is modern (1957). This is a beautiful little chapel and I have to admit there is a sense of living history about it. The sheer amount of ancient kings and warlords who have passed through here or indeed been buried here gives the impression that any minute the doors might burst open and mail clad warriors could rush in. A doorway decorated with chevron ornament dominates the west gable. Two narrow windows light the rectangular interior. The flagged floor contains medieval grave slabs, marking the graves of the ‘Sea Kings’.
While life of all sorts took place on Iona and many of its neighbours, it was sea power that for 20 centuries controlled them. Prior to Somerled the Lord of the Isles and his fleet of warships, the Vikings had free reign to come and plunder.
These days when you speak to the locals who rely on Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries to get home to the islands and they will tell you it is still sea power that controls everything!
Iona Abbey itself is both a creation of beauty and strength, built of the sight of St Columba’s monastery in 1200 AD. Its granite walls have protected her people for centuries, and even on the windiest day, where the storms want to rip the hair from your head and the salt breeze stings your eyes, entering the Abbey brings an immediate sense of peace and quiet that is much part of Iona.
The building is managed these days by historic Scotland but is very much still a working Abbey. Alongside worshippers, religious scholars and pilgrims from all over the worlds, members of the Iona Community who describe themselves thus: The Iona Community is a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.
The Abbey Cloisters are well worth a visit, again, the combination of spirituality and history bring this very ancient place alive. Even the kids I watched playing in the grounds had switched their roles from Aliens and Superheroes to Vikings and Islanders! These grounds contain the remains of 60 Scottish, Norwegian and Irish Kings!
Martyrs Bay, to the south Columba’s Bay and to the north the White Strand of the Monks. As the weather is bright and sunny today, I decide to take the bishops walk all the way to its end and carry on through the rough path to Dun I. This is the highest part of the Island at 333 feet above sea level and the views on a clear day will let you see all the way to the Isles of Coll and Tiree. To the south, Columba’s beloved Ireland. From here I can see the whole of the island. To the west I can see the beautiful Bay at the Back of the Ocean and to the east
The sense of being in another time entirely is almost overpowering, and only the bleeping of my mobile phone brings me back to now.
As I head home to Ardoran, in search of a hot shower and a cup of tea, seabirds wheel around my head and the corncrakes and multitude of birdsong keeps me company.
My best advice to fellow travellers is come and see for yourselves, there is something indefatigable about this place, and even if you are from the other side of the world, Iona is something special. This is place is no cold dead ruin to be gawped at and forgotten, rather it is the embodiment of living history, a modern vibrant community that has never broken its thread to the past.
It really doesn’t matter if you are religious, or a historian, or in search of your inner self…Iona has a magic all of its own.