Iona Abbey is one of the oldest Christian settlements in Europe. It was founded in 563AD by St. Columba, arriving from Ireland with twelve companions. It became the focus for the spread of Christianity on the Scottish mainland amongst the Picts and Scots. It is situated on the Island of Iona, just off the south west tip of the Isle of Mull.
The settlement was attacked by Viking raiders in 795, 802, 806 and 825AD. During the second raid, the wooden church was put to the torch, and 68 monks were massacred in Martyrs' Bay. Following this, many of the remaining monks chose to relocate to Kells in Ireland. By the time of the last raid, the community was virtually abandoned. However, St Blathmac had declined to leave, and was martyred during the raid of 825AD for refusing to divulge where the abbey's treasures and the relics of St. Columba were hidden. Following these events, the relics were removed to Scotland and Ireland in 849AD.
By the end of the 10tth Century, Iona was abandoned as a monastic community. However, by this time the Vikings were largely converted to Christianity, and Iona remained a site of Christian significance. Scottish kings continued to be buried there until the end of the 11th Century, with tradition holding that Macbeth is amongst the kings laid to rest near the abbey.
The Cult of Columba continued to attract pilgrims, and work began on new buildings, such as St. Oran's Chapel. According to legend, Oran was buried alive as a sacrifice to prevent the walls of the first church from falling down. The chapel was completed in the 12th Century, and stands in St. Oran's graveyard, where the Scottish kings had been buried.
Around 1200AD, Reginald MacDonald of Islay brought in a community of Benedictine monks to found a new stone abbey. Despite some controversy surrounding a later monastic order taking over a Celtic Christian site, the abbey flourished over the following centuries. Extensive building during the 15th Century continued to expand the abbey, which was deemed necessary to accommodate and encourage the influx of pilgrims. In 1560AD, Iona fell victim to the Scottish Reformation, and the abbey fell into decay.
In 1874AD, the Duke of Argyll commissioned the architect Robert Rowand Anderson to preserve the abbey ruins. In 1899AD, he transferred ownership of the abbey, the nunnery, St Oran's Chapel and graveyard to the Iona Cathedral Trust. Restoration of the abbey's buildings began in 1902AD, and in 1938AD the Reverend George MacLeod founded the Iona Community. By 1956AD, the restoration of the abbey was largely complete, and the buildings that you see today are the result of that effort.
Visiting Iona today remains an act of pilgrimage. It's remote, and the journey to the island represents a considerable undertaking if travelling from anywhere other than the immediate mainland. A ferry from Oban to the Isle of Mull is necessary, then a trip from one side of Mull to the other, and then finally a passenger ferry to Iona.
The abbey is unusual (if not unique) in Britain in being a fully restored monastic church. Some religious houses survived the reformation as churches and cathedrals, some were partially preserved or restored, but Iona is the only example of which I'm aware of a church being fully restored from ruin.
Photographs from before the restoration show the church in surprisingly good condition, minus the roof. This was probably due to the very small local community. Other churches were plundered for stone, but this didn't happen on the same scale at Iona. As a result, the restoration was able to preserve much original detail, and the abbey feels very much like an original mediaeval building.
Visiting Iona was a powerful experience. There's nowhere else quite like it amongst the British Isles. It's still a working Christian community, and that lends a sense of continuity and tradition that breathes a sense of living spirituality into the place. Whatever your faith, it's hard not to be moved by the atmosphere and the palpable history of the place. The setting is wild and remote, the journey to get there is beautiful, and the building holds the ghosts of ages. Iona is very definitely a must-see site for anyone able to make the pilgrimage.