It is easy to lose yourself in the history and beauty of Iona, says Jo Woolf.
Some memories linger forever in your mind; and some places steal a tiny piece of your heart, so that you’re never too far away from them.
A few years ago I was on the island of Iona, walking along the sandy path that leads north towards the dazzling white sands of Tràigh Bhàn. It was July, and high pressure over the west coast of Scotland had breathed a spell of pure magic. Ribbons of fluffy white clouds floated in an endless sky, and in the distance the cliffs of southwest Mull rose hazily from a jade-green sea.
A sudden noise jarred my trance-like happiness, and I stopped to listen. Shredding the deep stillness of the afternoon came a sound like someone turning a ratchet, very loudly and totally at random. Strangely, it was coming from deep within the flower meadow to my right.
As I stood and wondered, a similar racket started up a few feet away, and then another, on the opposite side of the path. It slowly dawned on me that I was hearing corncrakes. Unwilling to believe my ears, I stared intently, hoping to see something, anything, even the slightest movement, but the grasses and wild flowers were at least two feet high, making a gently waving mass of impenetrable colour. I got out my binoculars, but to no avail. By this time, the corncrakes were probably rolling with mirth.
If you’ve already been to Iona, you will know that its atmosphere starts to seep into your skin with your very first footfall. This tiny island measures only one mile by three and a half, but it has a special, indescribable quality, making you feel as if you’ve found a little hole in the fabric of space-time. You don’t need to visit the ruined abbey and nunnery to know that this is an age-old place of worship. You can feel it.
In 563 AD, an Irish coracle was hauled ashore on the southern tip of the island. The 12 men who pulled it up the beach were led by a man in his early 40s, of noble birth and strong religious convictions: his name was Columba or Colum Cille, ‘the dove of the Church’.
Having received the island as a gift from the King of Dál Riata, Columba soon established a monastery on Iona and set about spreading the word of the Christian gospels throughout western Scotland and beyond. He didn’t opt for the easy life: he slept on a bed of rock and deprived himself of all but the barest essentials for survival. He quickly gained a reputation for prophecies and miracles, and he even dared to venture into the dangerous territories of Pictland in an attempt to convert King Bridei to Christianity.
Columba founded many religious houses, but Iona was his spiritual home, and it is here that he died in 597 AD. His exact burial place is not known, but in recent years a flat stone, incised with a Celtic cross, was found close to an ancient burial enclosure known as Cladh an Diseart. Traces of the original vallum, the ditch that enclosed the first monastery buildings, can still be seen, and St. Columba’s shrine, dating from the mid-700s, may have been purpose-built to contain his relics.
“On this place, small and mean though it be, not only the kings of the Gaels with their peoples, but also the rulers of barbarous and foreign nations, with their subjects, will bestow great and especial honour.”
Columba’s words, spoken shortly before his death, were prophetic. In this far-flung corner of Scotland he had lit a beacon and its light would not be extinguished, not even the savagery of Viking raiders could stamp out the flames. The Book of Kells is thought to have been produced here, an illuminated manuscript of astonishing beauty – it was later moved to the Abbey of Kells in Ireland for safe keeping.
As for Columba’s humble monastery, it grew in stature and importance and the graveyard became a time-honoured burial place of kings. Not only Scottish rulers, but Viking chieftains and kings from Northumbria and Ireland were laid to rest here, sleeping peacefully when once they clashed in battle. Their coffins, carried overland on the ancient Road of the Kings, were placed aboard ships on the shore of Loch Feochan and taken across the Firth of Lorn to Iona. From Port nam Mairtear, the Port of the Martyrs, they were borne in procession along the cobbled Sràid nam Marbh (Street of the Dead). What a sight that must have been.
It’s easy to lose yourself in the history of Iona. You could spend weeks here, exploring, learning, reading, and just gazing. Before you even get to the abbey, the path from the ferry terminal leads you past the remains of a small nunnery, built around 1200 by Raghnall, son of Somerled, to help atone for Viking attacks on the monastery; and then you reach the magnificent Maclean’s Cross, a medieval wayside cross where pilgrims travelling to Columba’s shrine would stop and pray. More crosses stand outside the abbey, silent sentinels of forgotten worship, their carvings softened by lichen but still compelling. Skilled craftsmen worked here, and the influence of their artistry once spread right up and down the west coast.
But Iona is not just a time capsule – it’s a jaw-dropping natural paradise. As you sink your feet into its soft white sands, keep an eye open for cowries, tiny pink sea-shells that are as beautiful as they are scarce, or pick up a few of the jewel-like pebbles. The speckled reddish stones are Ross of Mull granite, while the olive-green pebbles are Iona marble. Rafts of eiders should be bobbing around the shore, their whooping calls drifting across the water, and if you’re lucky you might spot the pristine black-and-white livery of a great northern diver.
And those pesky little corncrakes? I returned the following year, in April this time, when the grass was not so high. It was still early morning, and as I walked past a hotel garden a smallish bird, streaked from head to toe in brown and grey, sauntered out of some bushes and started croaking. He put his whole body and soul into it, tipping his head right up and reaching a level of decibels that would wake all but the very heaviest sleepers. He gave me a cursory glance when his bulletin came to an end, as if open-mouthed admiration was something he’d learned to live with, and trod carefully across the lawn before vanishing into some rhododendrons.