The establishment of Christianity in Scotland may have begun with St. Ninian around the end of the 4th century, but the strongest roots are in the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, close to the Island of Mull. It’s just three miles long and one mile wide. Although insignificant in size, Iona claims a large and unique role in the building of Christianity in Scotland.
The man named as the father of Christianity in Scotland was St. Columba, who came from a royal blood line in County Donegal, northwest Ireland in the year 521.
According to the author of The Life of Columba (Adomnán 679-704), Columba was over 40 years old when he left Ireland in 563 and arrived in Iona with 12 followers. They were not actually in Scotland when he landed but in the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada, which encompassed modern Argyll and parts of Northern Ireland. To the north were the Picts, who were to become the focus of his life’s work and the Britons to the south. The land was virtually a patchwork of competing kingdoms.
St. Columba founded a monastery on Iona, which became the mother church of Celtic Christianity in Scotland. Adomnán’s book mentions adequate detail of what it was like. He mentions a church with a side chamber or chapel, sleeping cubicles for monks and a communal area where they ate. Columba apparently had two buildings for himself. One had a stone couch and stone pillow for sleeping and the other was used for writing. The buildings were enclosed by an earthen rampart and traces of it can be seen today.
Although none have survived, Columba is said to have transcribed 300 manuscripts. However, one of the earliest illuminated manuscripts Cathach of Columba (currently housed in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin) is thought to be the work of the saint.
There is also debate that The Book of Durrow may have been written on Iona but the only consensus at this point that it was written in one of the Columban monasteries.
Then, there’s the Book of Kells, also known as the Book of Columba, on display at Trinity College in Dublin, which includes four Gospels of the New Testament written in Latin. Tradition has linked the writing of this book to Columba and historians agree that it was written on Iona, but it is thought to have been scribed after his death.
A number of people did document Columba’s message which spread initially among the Gaels of Delraida and then moved northwards to the land of the Picts. However, what was written by Adomnán is likely to be the best record of St. Columba.
On the day Columba died (June 9. 597), Adomnán wrote that Columba spent his time writing on the Torr an Alba a rock, which stands in front of the present day abbey. On returning to the church, he gave his last blessing to his monks and died in prayer at the altar.
Adomnán was an important figure in his own right and his work on the Law of Innocents, which protected non-combatants in war, is thought to be the precursor to the Geneva Convention.
The abbey that tourists visit today was built in the 13th century by Reginald son of Somerland for the Benedictine Order. There is, however, considerable evidence of carved crosses from the 8th and 9th centuries. Visitors can find various forms of Celtic art, are illustrative of the great skill of mediaeval sculptors. The 8th century St. Martin’s cross, which is decorated with scenes from the bible, still stands complete and in its original position.
Iona remains and always will remain a place of pilgrimage. It is an abiding and timeless symbol of Christianity in Scotland and throughout the world. Glasgow minister George MacLeod described Iona as “a thin place-only a tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual.”
If you’d like some information about Iona Abbey here’s the link to Historic Scotland’s website.
I’ve also added the link to my Blogroll.