Measuring just 5km in length, Iona is one of Scotland’s smallest inhabited islands. But, during the Early Medieval period, this speck in the Inner Hebrides had an influence belying its size. Its monastery, founded in c.AD 563 by a high-born Irish monk known as Columba, became a beacon of Christian learning and artistic endeavour renowned across Western Europe.
Since then, Iona’s story has been inextricably intertwined with that of Columba – its Gaelic name is Ì Chaluim Chille, ‘the Island of Columba’ – and after the saint’s death, pilgrims flocked to the shrine that housed his remains. Donations from wealthy visitors were a key source of income for the early monastery, and promotion of the ‘Columban experience’ quickly gathered momentum.
In the 7th century, Iona’s ninth abbot, Adomnán, wrote his biography, the Vita Columbae, informed by first-hand accounts of the saint. This lively account attributes prophetic powers to his predecessor, as well as miracles including healing the sick, calming storms, casting out evil spirits, and raising the dead – as well as including an episode where Columba rescues a swimmer from the Loch Ness Monster. Even in 1428, over 200 years after the Benedictine Rule had supplanted Iona’s links with the Irish church, the enterprising Abbot Dominic was petitioning the Pope to grant indulgences of three years off a pilgrim’s stay in Purgatory if they visited Iona on Columba’s feast day, 9 June.
Further romanticised by later visitors, including Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott, and William Wordsworth, and burdened with stories about it being the final resting place of innumerable kings of Scots including Macbeth (thanks, Shakespeare), Iona was in danger of sinking under the weight of centuries of accumulated mythological baggage. So it was that, with the 1,450th anniversary of Columba’s arrival approaching, Historic Scotland took up the challenge to chart a clear course through the heavenly mists, and present the realities of Iona and Columba to future visitors, separated from their legends.
This was an important task – to understand Iona is to understand much of Scotland’s early history and its place in Medieval Europe – but also a daunting one, as much of the early monastery is obscured by the (now heavily restored) church that was built over it in the 13th century. In order to make any headway, it was clear that our efforts would have to be underpinned by the three Rs: research, research, and research.
Fortunately we had a strong foundation on which to build – the Royal Commission’s hugely important Argyll 4 Inventory, published 30 years ago, which focuses solely on Iona – and in Easter 2012 our project kicked off with a conference where leading scholars drew together the wealth of historical and archaeological discoveries that have been made on the island. From this sprang a complete redesign of the abbey museum, with new displays showcasing its unique collection of Early Medieval stone crosses and grave slabs, the largest in Europe. We also undertook a major conservation programme that saw Iona’s magnificent high crosses, which have lain in fragments for centuries, restored and re-erected. But perhaps the greatest outcome was the revelation that many more traces of Columba’s monastery survive within the landscape than was previously thought.
‘That man is to be little envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer amid the ruins of Iona.’Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 1775
‘Fallen though she be, this glory of the west,
Still on her sons the beams of mercy shine;
And hopes, perhaps more heavenly bright than thine,
A grace by thee unsought and unpossest,
A faith more fixed, a rapture more divine,
Shall gild their passage to eternal rest.’
William Wordsworth, ‘Iona’, 1833
Columba and his followers were not the first people to settle on Iona: every excavation produces Mesolithic flints, and we know of a Bronze Age burial cairn at Blàr Buidhe, while 2,000 years ago an Iron Age chief and his household made their home in a hillfort on Dùn Bhuirg. Excavations by Finbar McCormick in the 1990s found that Columba’s monastery had also incorporated much older features: radiocarbon analysis of samples taken from part of its vallum (banked enclosure ditch) produced a surprising result, placing the feature at the start of the 1st century AD.
Further hints to the island’s pre-Christian significance come from written sources. In the 1st century AD, Plutarch records a Roman expedition that sailed around Scotland on the orders of Agricola, reconnoitring the ‘islands of Britain’ after his victory over the Caledonii at Mons Graupius in AD 83. ‘The nearest of these’ – probably the Inner Hebrides, and possibly Iona – they found, was inhabited by a small community of holy men held in high regard by the native population. If Iona was already held sacred by the Britons, this might explain why Bridei, King of Dál Riata (a kingdom spanning Argyle and part of Northern Ireland), chose to grant this particular portion of his lands to Columba for his monastery.
The monastery flourished, and although its wealth funded major Medieval rebuilding programmes that dramatically transformed its appearance, we can reconstruct some of its original layout from Adomnán’s detailed descriptions. The abbey church formed the community’s spiritual heart, but there were also a number of structures with more worldly purposes, including sleeping quarters, a communal building where the monks cooked and ate, and a scriptorium where they produced illuminated manuscripts like the breathtaking Book of Kells (see box). Columba enjoyed the privilege of his own writing hut on Torr an Aba (‘the Hill of the Abbot’).
Since the 1950s, archaeological research on Iona has produced important results to complement this account. In 1979, working ahead of a planned extension to Iona’s ancient cemetery, Reilig Odhráin, John Barber excavated a large roundhouse some 18m in diameter. Lying to the north of the burial ground, and with a radiocarbon date from one of its post-holes suggesting a construction date in the 7th century, this was interpreted as the possible remains of the communal building as described in the Vita Columbae.
These investigations also shed vivid light on everyday life in Columba’s abbey. A dairy herd and cereal crops raised on the machair beside the western shore helped to sustain the community, Adomnán testifies, but Barber’s discovery of waterlogged middens in the inner vallum ditch reveal precisely what was on the monastic menu. Animal bones recovered from this refuse indicate that, when not fasting, Columba’s monks enjoyed a varied diet, including deer, cattle, pigs, sheep, seals, and fish.
Sifting through the monks’ rubbish also provides clues as to how they supported themselves financially. The Vita Columbae mentions workshops, and while some of these evidently served the monastery’s practical needs – Barber’s team found large amounts of woodworking debris, while leatherworking was represented not just by scraps and offcuts, but also by the largest collection of Early Medieval footwear from any insular site – there were also signs of highly skilled craftsmen creating valuable trade goods: moulds and crucibles for fine metalworking, as well as extensive evidence for smithing. Barber’s team also found fragments of fine glass, which Ewan Campbell interprets as reticello rods, used to decorate high-quality glass vessels.
In a gift-exchange/barter-based economy, the ability to produce desirable objects would have been essential, allowing the monks to trade them for additional food, as well as liturgical essentials such as wine, oil, and pigments. Some of these commercial contacts were far-reaching: the presence of imported ceramics from 7th century Bordeaux suggests the abbey had access to foreign trade, probably via the royal site at Dunadd, nearby on the Scottish mainland.
Illuminating reading: the Book of Kells
Widely considered to be the finest illustrated manuscript of the four New Testament gospels, the Book of Kells is thought to have been produced in Iona’s scriptorium soon after 800. Its colourful decorations have been admired since the Medieval period: ‘Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art,’ the 12th-century chronicler Gerald of Wales gushes in a passage from his Topographia Hibernica thought to refer to the text. ‘You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.’ It was moved to Kells Abbey, Co. Meath, in the 9th century for safekeeping from the Vikings, and is now on display at Trinity College Dublin (www.tcd.ie /Library/bookofkells).
If excavation has revealed a wealth of information on what life was like in the abbey, new historical research by Professor Thomas O’ Loughlin has also granted fascinating insights into the religious imaginations of its occupants – not least the revelation that, in laying out their new home, the brethren had consciously created a surrogate ritual landscape replicating the holy places of Jerusalem. Their central purpose on Iona was to create a perfect monastery as a mirror to the heavenly city, an aspiration explored by Adomnán in his De Locis Sanctis (‘Concerning the Holy Places’).
Almost certainly intended as an aid to contemplating the Passion of Christ, this interpretation of the monastery unlocks our understanding of many of Iona’s more enigmatic features, notably the Sràid nam Marbh (‘Street of the Dead’), a wide, cobbled path running between the abbey church and the cemetery. Once lined with high crosses, it formed a processional route along which coffins were borne. But the significance of this track goes beyond funerary ritual: to the Iona brethren, it was Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, with Columba’s shrine in place of the Holy Sepulchre, and their church reimagined as the Temple.
Further parallels can be drawn with the monastery’s vallum, which comprises two earth banks with a ditch between them. The north-westerly – and best-preserved – section gives a good idea of this boundary’s scale: the drop from the top of the inner bank to the base of the ditch measures over 4m. This was no defensive structure, but a symbolic separation from the secular world. Canon laws compiled at Iona in the early 8th century dictate that different zones of religious importance should be marked out physically, but these rings also imitate the nested areas of increasing sanctity at Constantine’s Basilica in Jerusalem.
Chief among Iona’s holy places, however, was the tiny shrine chapel standing just to the west of the abbey church. Built over Columba’s grave in c.740, it forms the focus of the entire monastic complex. Although the structure measures just 4.3m by 3.1m, the monks had pulled out all the stops in commemorating their founder: its antae (projecting frontal buttresses) represent an entirely new design of sacred building, based on the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. There are five other small shrine chapels (all in Ireland) known to share this design, but Tomás Ó Carragáin suggests the original innovation came from Iona.
This structure was also held in high esteem by the monastery’s benefactors. The attraction of being buried beside such holy bones seems to have proved irresistible, as the chapel forecourt swiftly filled with high-status graves marked with cross slabs. These burials were recorded by Sir Henry Dryden in the 1870s during his exhaustive pre-restoration survey of the ruined abbey, but his sketch also shows two large cists within the shrine itself, one on either side of where the altar would have been. Today, these burial chests are concealed beneath a protective wooden floor installed when the shrine was rebuilt around 1960. A key aim of our redisplay project was to recapture the impact of Iona’s holy-of-holies for the countless generations of Medieval pilgrims who made their way to see it, and the shrine now forms the main focus of the site once more.
As well as conveying the spiritual importance of our site, we were keen to recreate its physical appearance. Our research culminated in bringing together earlier archaeological findings with the results of a geophysical survey of the wider monastic enclosure that was carried out by the National Trust for Scotland with the support of Historic Scotland in 2011. Combined, these reveal a palimpsest of features evolving over the thousand years or so of Christian activity on Iona, which we used to create a detailed new reconstruction depicting the complex at its zenith in c.750.
A key aspect of the monastery’s visual impact was its monumental stone crosses, created in the 8th and 9th centuries. Three of these are now exhibited in Iona’s museum. Dedicated to St John, St Matthew, and St Oran, they are carved with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and like their broadly contemporary Northumbrian counterparts at Ruthwell and Bewcastle, they represent the most sophisticated use of the Cross in Western Europe, designed to inspire contemplation and understanding of Christ’s final days.
Unlike many of its monastic contemporaries, Iona weathered the Viking storm, surviving waves of attacks between the late 8th and mid 9th centuries. But the coming of the Protestant Reformation in 1560 sealed the site’s fate, and as the abandoned monastery crumbled, its imposing crosses also fell into disrepair. Their restoration was one of our key objectives, but moving them to Historic Scotland’s conservation centre in Edinburgh was no small task: the largest individual piece weighed 700kg, while the five pieces making up St Oran’s cross collectively weighed a tonne.
The crosses returned to Iona in Easter 2013, where, re-erected, they now stand at an impressive 4.4m high. This installation took into account how the monuments would have been experienced by monks and pilgrims: their sophisticated figurative scenes and carved patterns were intended to be read as the sun illuminated different parts throughout the day, an effect now reproduced with a specially designed 24-hour son et lumière sequence.
And what does the future hold for Iona? We hope the legacy of our research will include ‘Assembling Iona’, a project led by Glasgow University’s Archaeology Department, in partnership with Historic Scotland, RCAHMS, and the National Museum of Scotland. If funding applications are successful, this will see the re-examination of all previous archaeological work undertaken on the island, and publication of material not currently in the public domain.
This initiative will also revisit assemblages from past excavations, analysing artefacts using techniques that were not available when they were first found. The fruits of this approach have already been seen in our collaboration with Professor Charles Thomas, who, when a young lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, led the first major excavations within the monastic precinct between 1956-1963. Professor Thomas generously passed his unpublished archive and finds to Historic Scotland, who will now manage research and publication of this key work.
Initial analysis has already identified some important 7th- and 8th-century items among these finds, representing each stage in the production of fine bronze- and silverwork. One of our star discoveries is a hollow cast-bronze lion just 5cm long. It possibly once adorned a reliquary, but what makes it particularly interesting is its striking resemblance, in its backwards gaze and the modelling of its mane and limbs, to the lions depicted on the Iona crosses, as well as those stalking through the Book of Kells.
Previous research has identified parallels between other artwork from this manuscript and the crosses, notably carved scenes of the Virgin and Child, along with extensive use of the so-called snake-boss motif, possibly an Iona trademark. Could this tiny lion provide the missing link that unites a common visual language, used to produce these extraordinary liturgical objects on Iona? Visitors can now judge for themselves, as the bronze lion is displayed in close proximity to both the restored crosses and a fine facsimile of the Book of Kells, all created on the edge of the Christian world. As ever, it seems the archaeological reality is far more illuminating than any myth.
Iona Abbey is open daily from 9.30am to 5.30pm between 1 April and 30 September, and Monday-Saturday from 9.30am to 4.30pm for the rest of the year. Historic Scotland cares for the site, working in partnership with the Iona Community, a Christian group that occupies the cloister and leads daily services in the church.
F. McCormick, ‘Iona: the archaeology of the Early Monastery’, in C. Bourke (ed.), Studies in the cult of St Columba
J. O’ Sullivan, ‘More than the Sum of the Parts: Iona: archaeological investigations 1875-1996’, Church Archaeology 2
All images: Historic Scotland, unless otherwise stated.