Iona Abbey is one of the oldest and most important religious centres in Western Europe. The abbey was a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland and marks the foundation of a monastic community by St. Columba, when Iona was part of the Kingdom of Dál Riata.

In 563, Columba came to Iona from Ireland with twelve companions, and founded a monastery. It developed as an influential centre for the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots. The Book of Kells, a famous illuminated manuscript, is believed to have been produced by the monks of Iona in the years leading up to 800. In 806, Vikings massacred 68 monks in Martyrs' Bay, and Columba's monks returned to Ireland, and a monastery at Kells. Other monks from Iona fled to the Continent, and established monasteries in Belgium, France, and Switzerland. In 825, St Blathmac and those monks who had returned with him to Iona, were martyred by a Viking raid, and the Abbey was burned. However, it was probably not deserted. Its continued importance is shown by the death there in 980 of Amlaíb Cuarán, a retired King of Dublin.

Iona had been seized by the King of Norway, who held it for fifty years before Somerled recaptured it, and invited renewed Irish involvement in 1164: this led to the construction of the central part of the Cathedral. Ranald, Somerled's son, in 1203 invited the Benedictine order to establish a new Monastery, and an Augustinian Nunnery, on the Columban Monastery's foundations. Building work began on the new Abbey church, on the site of Columba's original church. The following year, in 1204, the site was raided by a force led by two Irish bishops. This was a response by Ireland's Columban clergy to the loss of its connections and influence at this significant site founded by St Columba.

The Iona Nunnery, a foundation of the Augustinian Order (one of only two in Scotland), was established south of the Abbey buildings. Graves of some of the early nuns remain, including that of a remarkable Prioress, Anna Maclean, who died in 1543. Clearly visible under her outer robe is the rochet, a pleated surplice denoting the Augustinian Order. The Nunnery buildings were rebuilt in the fifteenth century and fell into disrepair after the Reformation.

The Abbey church was substantially expanded in the fifteenth century, but following the Scottish Reformation, Iona along with numerous other abbeys throughout the British Isles were dismantled, and abandoned, their monks and Libraries dispersed.

In 1899 the Duke of Argyll transferred ownership of the ruined remains of the Abbey and Nunnery sites to the Iona Cathedral Trust, which undertook extensive restoration of the Abbey church. In 1938, the inspiration of Reverend George MacLeod led a group which rebuilt the abbey, and founded the Iona Community. The surrounding buildings were also re-constructed during the 20th century by the Iona Community. This ecumenical Christian community continues to use the site to this day.

Many early Scottish kings (said to be 48 in total), as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France, are said to be buried in the Abbey graveyard. However, modern scholars are sceptical of such claims, which were likely mythic associated with increasing the prestige of Iona. Numerous leading Hebrideans, such as various Lords of the Isles and other prominent members of West Highland clans, were buried on Iona, including several early MacLeod chiefs.

Several high crosses are found on the Isle of Iona. St Martin's Cross (dated to the 8th century) still stands by the roadside. A replica of St John's Cross is found by the doorway of the Abbey. The restored original is located in the Infirmary Museum at the rear of the abbey.

The contemporary Jedburgh-based sculptor Christopher Hall worked for many years on carvings on the cloisters of the abbey, which represent birds, flora and fauna native to the island. He also was commissioned to carve John Smith's gravestone.

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Founded: 563 AD
Category: Religious sites in United Kingdom

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User Reviews

Sebastian Kaffka (2 years ago)
Iona is definitely worth a trip! The Abbey can be seen from the ferry. Couldn't imagine too see such carribean blue water in front of it. The Abbey itself is nice, its church definitely something to see. Did not regret our decision to go there. Definitely put it on your Scotland list.
Linda Mardell (2 years ago)
Such an Amazing place to visit.. You won't be dissapointed
Duncan Campbell (2 years ago)
Lovely trip over the ferry, could spend all day on the island and Abbey it's self well worth the visit. Great day out.
Chris Smith (2 years ago)
Yes its historic. Yes its a lovely building. But entrance prices are totally and utterly ridiculous.
Paul McCullock (3 years ago)
We enjoyed our tour round the various sites within the abbey grounds. We didn’t bother with the audio tour we just listened in on other people’s
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