Wednesday, September 10, 2014

SMALL-SHIP CRUISING IN THE HEBRIDES (Part 5): THE SACRED ISLE OF IONA

Anchorage off Isle of InchKenneth
as the sun rose
Sailed from Loch na Keal by Inchkenneth on a southwesterly course for Iona on September 10. Sea was calm with no wind, but Atlantic swells from the west. Glen Tarsen rolled quite a bit.  As we sailed into Iona we got our first view of the the island and the abbey was stunning with not a cloud in the sky. We had four hours to explore. The fittest of the passengers hiked to the west first to a sandy beach and had a swim. Chilly apparently, but worth doing.
Iona Abbey from the sea

The Iona Abbey buildings are about 300m from the jetty up a hill. The complex has been restored as it was when the Benedictines took it over with the abbey church and cloisters
St. Martin's cross
from the 8th century
taking centre stage. Two famous stone crosses are outside but there are thought to have been up to 300 in the past. The only building not restored is the bakehouse, and a charming garden with benches has been created within the stone ruins. It is a peaceful spot to rest and contemplate. The old infirmary is now an excellent museum detailing the history of the site.

Our ship anchored off the Abbey

St. Columba landed here from Ireland in 563CE and established the community and we know its layout from a chronicler in the 600s. Repeated Viking raids forced the monks out on several occasions and in the 800s they settled in Kells. In the 1200s the Benedictines took over and rebuilt the monastery and added a nunnery. The Reformation claimed Iona's Abbey and it wasn't restored until the 20th century. In the 1930s, the famed Iona Community was created and since then the sacred site has flourished as a modern place of pilgrimage.


This island on which the community was built is only 3.4 miles long. Outside the abbey visitors can wander the flower-strewn fields, the white sandy beaches with turquoise sea, or the small lanes with a few shops. Iona has been described as "a thin place" where the veil between the material world and the spiritual is like gossamer. It is certainly somewhere that put the hairs up on the back of my neck. I don't have good words to describe the place other than ancient, sacred/holy, and whispers.


From the top of the modern marble font
looking towards the altar down the nave


The abbey church dates back to the 12th century Benedictine time and is named St. Mary's Cathedral. It is Norman in style with a reconstructed Roman-esque cloister. It's not as large as cathedrals go, more the size of a parish church but it breathes faith. The Iona Community welcome pilgrims for prayer and worship and the living accommodation is on the site of the former monks' cells.

The Street of the Dead





From the Abbey, the Street of the Dead winds westward to the old cemetery where the Kings of Scotland were interred, including Macbeth and Duncan I. From 700CE the funerals processed along here to and from the church. A short portion of the street can be seen and walked along outside the abbey. Sadly the tombstones were destroyed during the Reformation and along with them, the identities of the other kings. 

After a quick look round the gift shop (good) and the ruins of the nunnery (interesting), we sailed for Bunbessin in Loch na Lathaig to anchor for dinner and the night.

Iona was definitely a bucket-list item I crossed off but four hours was not enough. I would like to come back here and stay for a couple of days and attend the abbey services.


IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved.