Aleria's Jaunt to Scotland: 19 July 2013, Iona, Scotland

Horror! Cruise ship at Iona. Fog around Mull. 

Iona, Scotland’s most important historical and mystical place…

Iona is clear of fog at 10 am. 
The cruise tourists are leaving! 

It’s a good thing we rested up the day before because this day was going to be a long one. After two peaceful days in a hole that had to be a pirate’s lair, we were ready to see more. 

Beach and anchorage for small craft
Today, it was sunny, it was settled, and we were heading to Iona, the holiest place in Scotland, and just around the corner from Tinker’s Hole.  We’d be there in an hour.  As we started the process of pulling up anchor, our neighbour called out to us, “Where are you heading?” Alex answered, “Iona.” He said, “I just saw a cruise ship in there when I walked to the top this morning.”  Our hearts sank. Seeing a place like that in the midst of mobs of cruise ship tourists is among out worst nightmares. Oh well, we’re here. It’s probably not that big a deal. I mean we have loads of monastic sites in Ireland. Ireland does saints like no other place. It’s where the monks saved civilization, after all. How much better could this be?  We thought it would take about an hour to see the monastic site, and we’d be on our way.  Cruise ship or no cruise ship.

Hotel shop and library
Iona does not have a tenable anchorage. All the guide books recommend not anchoring there unless conditions are absolutely benign and even then always leaving someone onboard to deal with the currents.  We considered sailing all the way around to the other side of the anchorage, which would save us time on the other end and would allow the cruise ship to finish up.  But we changed our minds en route and went directly to the primary anchorage.  When we arrived, we found a mooring field and several boats anchored looking rather comfortable.  We also noticed that the cruise ship’s tenders were ferrying people BACK TO the ship not to the island. They were already done. Yippee.

Argyll Hotel organic gardens
So we anchored and took the dinghy ashore asap.  Just as we arrived, the ferry came in and took loads of people off the island too.  It was only about 10 am and we were between throngs. And it was already hot and humid. Amazing weather for Scotland for sure.

Iona is a remarkable place.  It is a tiny island (1.5 x 3 mi) off the southwest coast of Mull in the Inner Hebrides.  It has about 120 inhabitants.  The number of tourists annually exceeds 130,000, and its place in history as the ‘cradle of Christianity’ in Europe is very powerful. 
Ruins of the nunnery
Iona was a centre of Irish monasticism for centuries, established by Saint Columba (or Colm Cille in Gaelic) in 563 AD who had been exiled from Ireland along with 12 companions.  The monastery they founded on Iona where they went into exile became hugely successful, and became the centre of the most important monastic system in Great Britain and Ireland.

Part of its success could be attributed to its location along the trade routes.  Back in those days, it was much easier to travel by sea than by land. It became a renowned centre of learning, and its scriptorium produced highly important documents that were considered to have been the salvation of Christianity. One of those documents thought to have been started here was the incomparable Book of Kells, now on display at Trinity College in Dublin.  The high crosses of Iona were the first to contain the ring around the intersection that became characteristic of celtic high crosses.  It was actually an engineering feature that allowed the sculptors to create crosses of much larger magnitude; the support of the arches kept the cross beams from breaking off under their own weight. 

The medieval abbey 
We had had no idea how important Saint Columba and Iona were.  He was pretty smart too, establishing monasteries all along the trade routes on various offshore islands that still bear their remains.  The problem with the route, however, were the frequent Viking raids.  After being plundered many times, the monks gave in and abandoned the monastery in 849. 

Nondenominational chapel
Iona rose in prominence again as the spiritual centre of the Kingdom of the Isles and many kings are buried there.  The Benedictine abbey was built in about 1203 and a convent was established around 1208.  In the Reformation, all the buildings were destroyed and all but three of 360 carved crosses were demolished.  In the 20th century, restoration of the cathedral and some of the original buildings began under the Duke of Argyll. He then deeded the island to a trust of local residents with the proviso that it must serve as a place of worship for all faiths.

Modern stained glass figure
of St. Columba
In the cathedral are bibles in at least 100 languages.  There is a sculpture by a prominent Jewish artist in the centre of the cloisters.  The museum shops carry books about religions of the world.   People of many faiths gather and pray together in outdoor courtyards. Many prominent figures are buried there.  In 1549 an inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian, and 4 Irish kings was recorded.  

Many of the early Christian and Medieval monuments and grave markers have been moved to the cloister arcade and Abbey museum for preservation - at least those that were not destroyed by Vikings or the Reformation.

1000-year old Street of the Dead
We were really fortunate to have come between throngs of tourists. We had the place almost to ourselves. We took along the tape recorded self-guided tour and tuned in when we chose.  The peace and the power of this place and its inhabitants over time were palpable.  I found myself thinking that spending the night under the stars here would be highly moving.

Six hours later, we sat having lunch at the pub looking out at Aleria at anchor.  Realizing that it was high tide and we’d probably be able to make it straight through the channel northwards instead of sailing all the way around Iona, we said our farewells to this remarkable place and returned to Aleria just as a huge mob of tourists arrived by ferry to take our place.

It was great to have experienced such an important fragment of man’s history in the place where it happened. 
The cloister

Cross of St. Martin

Remaining ruins

Sculpture by Jewish artist 
Simple Abbey

McLean's Cross
Duke of Argyll who deeded Iona to the people

St. Columba's pillow

Modern cross in St. Columba's chapel

Slabs preserved in the cloister

Aleria at anchor
Slabs in the old chapel

Slab in the museum. Click to enlarge. 
Medieval  carved grave slabs
Medieval Effigy

The first Abbess, one of
few immortalized women

More elaborate carvings
The high crosses

Reverse detail

Thought to be practice carvings

Huge group of pilgrims

Full view of the Abbey grounds

...holding a service in the nunnery
Group from the Netherlands...

Beach in town
Restaurant by the harbour

Aleria at anchor. 
Oban Bay kilt lifter ale

Iona from the sea. Farewell Iona.


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