Iona: an island beyond words

Iona 6This week I watched the last episode of Neil Oliver’s excellent series ‘The Sacred Wonders of Britain‘, and among the sites he chose to visit was the island of Iona.

Iona is one of my very favourite places, and the atmosphere there is hard to describe.  ‘Tranquil’ doesn’t quite go far enough.   Neil Oliver says:  “I’ve made the crossing from Mull to Iona several times.  But there’s a feeling I get, both on the crossing and on the island, that I don’t get anywhere else in Britain.”

I would echo that completely.

St Columba and his small group of companions, who travelled to Iona from Ireland in 563 AD and founded the Christian monastery here, wouldn’t have chosen the island for its beauty – rather for its wild and untamed nature, where they could engage in mental battle with the evils of the world and spend hours in solitary meditation and prayer.

This was a self-imposed exile, with an emphasis on suffering being good for the soul;  in his quest for simplicity and purity of spirit, St Columba slept on a stone slab with a rock for a pillow.   As Oliver commented, “He is Mr Austerity.  They don’t come any harder than him!”

Columba and his monks grew their hair long at the back, while shaving their heads at the front, which must have presented a distinctive appearance.   They kept sheep, using their fleeces to weave habits of undyed wool;  and they would have harvested the natural food sources that surrounded them:   fish, sea birds and their eggs, and seals.

An insight into the profoundly peaceful atmosphere of Iona is given by Dr Ian Bradley of the University of St Andrews.  Describing the sanctity of the vallum, which marked out the sacred space, he says:  “The law of God prevailed, rather than the law of man, so you were completely safe here  – and many people would have come here for sanctuary.”

I am not sure yet if ‘The Sacred Wonders of Britain’ will be released on DVD, or if there will be an accompanying book.   If so, they will be worth looking out for.

Iona 10

View from the ferry

You can read more about Iona in these features on The Hazel Tree:

Maclean's Cross (west)

Maclean’s Cross – a beautiful 15th century cross which stands on Iona’s Sràid nan Marbh, the ‘Street of the Dead’

Nunnery (7)

Iona’s Timeless Haven – a 12th century Augustinian nunnery, just a stone’s throw from St Columba’s Abbey.


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  • tearoomdelights

    Beautiful photos, Jo. It’s many years since I was in Iona but I do remember a feeling of peace and sanctuary there. Have you been to Barra? It’s a place I’d love to visit and what I’ve seen of it reminds me of Iona.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thanks, Lorna! Just writing this post and choosing the photos made me want to go back there. No, we haven’t been to Barra, though it’s somewhere I’d love to visit, too. I’d love the experience of landing on the beach in the plane! (Though with all the stuff we take, it would certainly be better to go by ferry!)

    • Jo Woolf

      It is certainly beautiful, Carmen – I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. The water around Iona is just SO beautiful. Cold, perhaps – but I’d probably go for a paddle or a swim on a hot summer day, regardless!

  • Ash

    Great that you managed to catch Neil Oliver’s last programme in his latest series. Iona is somewhere I’d love to visit. Your photos remind me of some parts of the west & north coasts of Ireland, which is where St.Columba sailed from; why on earth did he leave Ireland in the first place?

    • Jo Woolf

      It was a great series, Ash, I’m sorry it’s finished! I can’t imagine why anyone would want to leave Ireland! 🙂 But what I’ve read is that Columba, who was a prince of Dalriada, had a falling out over a holy document that he had copied without permission. A battle followed, and in penance for the lives lost he exiled himself (or was forced into exile), leaving his homeland for ever.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Lynne! Corncrakes are little devils to spot, especially if the grass is high. We had several around us once, in a flower meadow, but we just couldn’t see them. This one was in a hotel garden, early one morning, croaking away happily for the photographers!

  • Colin MacDonald

    My Grandfather was the Chief Engineer aboard the King George V, which for many years serviced the Oban-Tobermory-Iona run. My family therefore had many happy holidays to Iona and my Mum still remembers the wee boats ferrying people from the King George V to the shore across the shallow water. My Grandpa eventually had his ashes scattered in the sound of Iona after he passed away.

    As my family would tell you I am not a spiritual kind of person but being at Iona gave me a weird feeling that I have never had anywhere else before. I think it is somewhere you’d have to visit to understand.

    • Jo Woolf

      How wonderful, Colin and it sounds like you have some fantastic memories! What a beautiful place to have your grandfather’s ashes scattered. And I totally agree with you about the feeling on Iona. It feels like a sanctuary in the true sense of the word – it really speaks to your soul. Thank you for sharing this! 🙂

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