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Issue 24 - Spirtual journey

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 24
January 2006


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Spirtual journey

In the first of a new series on Scottish holy buildings Ian Mitchell visits Iona

The best time to see Iona Cathedral, or Abbey, is at sundown on a summer evening, when the wind of the day has died and the roar or rustle of the sea – depending on the strength and direction of the wind – has calmed down to a breathy whisper, if that.

The Abbey church might be empty, or it might have a group of choristers rehearsing Gaelic psalms. Otherwise there will be few people about. The coach-parties will have returned to Mull or the mainland, and the islanders will most likely be indoors at their tea.

Even their animals seem at peace.

Sit alone, then, in one of the pews in the Abbey church and cast your mind back to 563 AD when St Columba, with 12 companions from his native Donegal, landed amongst the pagan Celts to bring a new religion called Christianity to Britain, 30 years before Augustine’s mission from Rome arrived in Kent, and 60 years before Mohammed marched on Mecca.

The missionaries built themselves cells and established a monastery on the island, from where they proselytised far and wide.

The force of their message was such that their successors over the next few centuries, together with their Irish brethren, brought Celtic Christianity to much of England, Germany and Switzerland as well as to Scotland.

Their names were well known from Iceland to Italy. The Convent of Erfurt, where Martin Luther lived as a monk, is said to have been originally a Celtic foundation. Columba might well have been forgotten by history had not an Iona abbot, St Adomnán, published his Life of St Columba 80 years after the saint’s death.

Adomnán made a further contribution to the peace of the world with his famous Law of the Innocents, or Cáin Adomnán. This was the first attempt to limit the destructive effects of violence on women, children, clergy and other noncombatant victims by quasi-legal means.

Adomnán managed to get prominent clerics as well as nearly 50 kings in Scotland and Ireland to guarantee observance of his principles within their domains. The Hague and Geneva Conventions of modern times owe their inspiration to St Adomnán’s pioneering effort, just as today charred female and juvenile corpses in Baghdad and Basra remind us of its continuing importance.

In such matters, we have not progressed much since 797 AD when a fleet of sinisterly elegant longboats slipped down past Staffa and landed on Iona to plunder the riches of the premier monastery in Scotland.

In 801 they returned to burn it to the ground. In 806 the island suffered ‘red martyrdom’ when 68 monks were murdered in the bay immediately south of where the ferry now lands.

In 814, the headquarters of the Celtic Church was transferred to Kells in Ireland, along with most of what we know today as the Book of Kells. The remaining monks set to and rebuilt the monastery, but in 825 the Vikings returned and murdered them in the chapel while they were saying Mass.

The last recorded incident of this sort took place in 986. Thereafter peace descended on Iona, not least because the main seat of the church had already moved, in 908, to St Andrews, leaving the Hebrides on the periphery of ecclesiastical politics. Nonetheless Scottish and Irish kings were still buried on Iona, including Macbeth.

The first, warlike wave of Vikings were predominantly Danish. They were followed by Norsemen who tended to settle rather than steal, marry rather than murder.

In 1097 the Norwegian King, Magnus Barelegs – so-called because of his adoption of the kilt – anchored his longships and came ashore to do homage to St Columba on Iona. Fifty years later, ecclesiastical oversight of the Hebrides was transferred to the See of Trondheim, where it stayed until 1266 when the islands were ceded to the Scottish crown.

By then the son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, had founded a Benedictine Abbey on the site of the monastery, together with an Augustinian nunnery whose ruins still lie a few hundred yards away behind the Argyll Hotel.

The Abbey was endowed with land on Canna, Coll, Mull, Colonsay and Islay, the geographical spread of its sources of food and rents reflecting the greater ease of inter-island travel in the days before Hebridean marine communications were controlled by Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd.

The island’s peace was shattered by the Scottish Reformation in 1560 when avenging Protestant zealots destroyed the Abbey buildings, burnt the library and smashed 360 carved stone crosses, dumping the rubble in the sea.

For 200 years there was no church on Iona at all. The islanders fell back on ‘wild and romantick notions concerning Religion and other invisible things,’ as a Church of Scotland inspector put it in the late 18th century.

By then the Abbey ruins had become picturesque tourist attractions, bringing visitors as varied as Dr Johnson, William Wordsworth and Queen Victoria.

The final chapter in the long history of Iona Cathedral opened after the First World War. With British society as traumatised by the recent slaughter in the trenches as the Iona monks must have been by the visitations of the Vikings, people sought peace and stability, as Adomnán had done 1,300 years before.

First it was proposed to establish a Gaelic College on the island in the belief, then commonplace, that Gaelic culture was both more humanitarian and more spiritual than the Saxon culture which had produced mustard gas and the machine-gun.

Nothing came of that suggestion, but in 1938 a body called the Iona Community was established in the slums of Glasgow by Rev. George Macleod, a newly ordained Church of Scotland Minister.

In summer working camps between then and 1965, Macleod and his followers worked to rebuild the Abbey ruins often using unemployed craftsmen from Govan where he was a charismatic parish Minister. For his pains, he was accused of being both half-way to Rome and half-way to Moscow. Later he became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and Lord Macleod of Fuinary.

Today Iona is both a magnificent architectural statement and the centre of a worldwide ecumenical network. About 150,000 visitors cross from Mull every year, which is one of the reasons why it is best to contemplate the Abbey’s fascinating history, both material and spiritual, in the calm of the evening, when the 6.30 ferry has left and the peace of isolation has descended on man, beast and the built environment.

Ian Mitchell’s books about the Scottish islands, Isles of the West: a Hebridean Voyage and Isles of the North: a Voyage to the Realms of the Norse, are published by Birlinn at £9.99