The small, haunting island of Iona is one of the biggest draws on Scotland’s west coast.
Just three miles long and a mile wide, Iona has been a place of Christian worship for over 1,400 years. In the abbey graveyard, 48 Scottish kings are buried, a statement of immense respect and love for these sacred grounds.
Straddling the waterways of the Hebrides, Iona seems isolated from mainland life. But, before the days of paved roads and fast ferries, people traveled by sea, and Iona was central to life on Scotland’s entire western seaboard.
First, the Druids came to escape the persecution of Imperial Rome–they founded a library on Iona. Next, a Christian cemetery was established on Iona and used as a royal burial ground. In 563, Iona’s fate would change forever. A boatload of refugees arrived from Ireland. Their leader, St. Columba, was a descendant of the High Kings of Ireland. Because of his actions, a terrible civil war had broken out in Ireland. Columba was banished and he accepted Iona, and the conversion of Scotland, as his penance.
He began to make amends for the deaths he had caused in Ireland. A Christian priest, he created a community whose influence spread throughout the north of Scotland. Columba called Christ his “Archdruid.” He loved the natural world, and saw it as a parable for the kindness of God’s love. He died in 597. By then he had converted most of Northern Scotland to Christianity, but did so in such a way that the Gaelic colony of Argyll was not destroyed by the Picts.
This history, and the island’s dazzling isolation, has filled it with a strange and sacred energy. Today, the island sometimes copes with too many bus tours. Plan when you go to Iona, and choose a time when it’s likely to be clear of tourists.
Appreciate the atmosphere and give yourself time to see the whole island, including the often overlooked west coast. Stay at least one night. In the moonlight, Iona has an aura that is practically surreal.