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Iona: A History of the Island
Chapter I. Introductory


In the midst of the Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland lies a little island, fashioned of rock and heather, on which the Atlantic seas beat ceaselessly. So small and modest is its aspect, so undistinguishable amongst its myriad sister isles, that the travejler who has not fully learned the secret of its spell may well marvel at its power to draw and hold the homage of men of many lands and creeds and centuries.

Thirteen hundred years ago, on the last day of his life, St. Columba, whose name is forever bound with that of Iona, ascended the little hill overlooking the monastery, and blessed the island, saying:

“Unto this place, small and mean though it be, great homage shall yet be paid, not only by the kings and peoples of the Scots, but by the rulers of barbarous and distant nations with their people. Thy saints also, of other churches, shall regard it with no common reverence.”

This prophecy has been remarkably fulfilled. And not only did the centuries provide a continuous stream of travellers from over the civilized world, but for many generations the bodies of princes and chiefs were brought hither to lie in its hallowed soil. The procession of the dead has long since ceased, but still the pilgrims come.

To the traveller, who would not let the glamour and significance of Iona escape him, as it escapes many, it is well to emphasize that he will find no stimulus to his imagination in wild, awe-inspiring scenery or imposing array of ancient ruins. Natural beauty the island assuredly possesses, but it is a beauty so demure, so winsome, that it is apt to evade those whose taste inclines to a more exotic type. But for those who have eyes to see, there is a subtle beauty in the apparent barrenness: a beauty mainly of atmosphere: a beauty part physical, part spiritual. The ruins themselves, though lacking grandeur of dimension and luxuriance of setting, yet show to the initiated such beauty of design and skill in workmanship as justify their wide renown.

The attitude of mind of the voyager to Iona is all-important, and for that he must know something of its place in the spiritual history of the world. “Let us approach that sacred isle”, writes Bishop Ewing, “with more than common reverence: there where it now lies in the midst of rolling billows, and listening but to sea-birds’ cries, from age to age in the morning of early history, night and day it heard the sweet songs of God.”

“Since the remotest days,” writes Fiona Macleod, “sacrosanct men have bowed here in worship. In this little isle a lamp was lit whose flame lighted pagan Europe. Here Learning and Faith had their tranquil home, when the shadow of the sword lay upon all lands.. From age to age lowly hearts have never ceased to bring their burden there.” Even Dr. Johnson, that sturdy Saxon and unlikely pilgrim to such a spot, was moved to write one of his finest (if now most hackneyed) apostrophes on Iona:

“We are now treading that illustrious isle which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me and my friends be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us, indifferent and unmoved, over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery or virtue. That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.”

Iona is a very small island—about three miles long and one or more in breadth—situated off the west coast of Argyllshire, and separated from the south-west coast of Mull by a narrow sound about half a mile across. It has a lovely setting in the blue Hebridean seas, which stretch, island-studded, to a far horizon. Immediately to the north are the rocky Treshnish Islands, and Staffa, with its great cathedral caves. Farther off lie the long, low island of Tiree, which was cultivated by Columba’s monks when Iona itself was no longer able to support the growing community; the mountain-island of Rum, where a hermit-monk once made his cell; the beautiful isle of Eigg, where St. Donnan, the one martyr of the early Celtic Church, met his doom at the instigation of a Pictish queen; the jagged outline of the Coolins in Skye; and a dim speck that is Barra. Due west of Iona is the large island of Mull, with its misty mountains, its shadowy lochs, and its great deserted glens, once brimming with human life, but now the home of the red deer. To the south-east, beyond the red granite cliffs of the Ross of Mull, is the rounded outline of the Paps of Jura, with Colonsay in the foreground and Islay just beyond. Southward, some seventy miles distant and beyond the range of the eye, is the coast of Ireland. West of Iona, the vast Atlantic stretches for two thousand miles in an unbroken sweep to the shores of Labrador.

The island itself is low-lying, with numerous, irregular elevations which rarely exceed a hundred feet, though Dun-I (pronounced Doon-ee) approaches four hundred. For its size Iona contains much variety of feature. A belt of arable land crosses the middle ojF the island, and a tract of it lies to the north of the Cathedral. Elsewhere, among the crags and heather, the great-horned, shaggy Highland cattle find excellent pasturage. To the south lie stretches of boggy moorland, and on the heights are rocks “that wade in heather, and upon whose brows the sea-wind waves the yellow lichen”.— (Fiona Macleod). The coast-line is similarly varied: there are cliff and cave and sheltered bay, and to the north lies a great stretch of dazzling silver sand.

The landscape is treeless, though a few small trees have been reared in gardens; but there is a wonderful variety of wild flowers. The little yellow St. John’s Wort (Hypericum) is reputed to have been St. Columba’s favourite flower, owing perhaps to its shape, which suggests a cross. There are various land-birds, but cliff- and sea-birds predominate. These include the beautiful oyster-catcher, named in Gaelic gille-brigde, the servant of Bride. Seals, those soft-eyed creatures which, according to Gaelic tradition, are human beings under a spell, come sometimes to meditate on the lonelier beaches. There are no vipers on the island, though they are plentiful just across the sound in Mull. Tradition credits Columba with the immunity of the island in this respect, but a more modern explanation is the quality of the soil.

The population of the island is roughly two hundred. Agriculture is the main occupation of the islanders, though they take their toll also of the sea, which abounds in flounders and saith. The sea-tangle supplies the island with manure, and the dulse has culinary uses. In the winter months the spinning-wheel hums by the fireside, the whole process from the shearing of the sheep—the dyeing with roots and sea-weeds, the carding, the spinning—to the weaving on hand-looms, beine carried out by the island craftsfolk.

The climate in winter is mild, and snow is rare, but the island is subject to fierce gales which sometimes cut off all communication for days at a stretch. Even in summer, one cannot always escape that bane of the West Highlands, a prolonged rainfall. Yet it is said that when the islands are tempest-ridden, and the mountains of Mull are cloaked in gloom, on Iona itself there is always a brightness.

On a clear summer day, and particularly when the wind is in the north the beauty is idyllic. Soft cirrous clouds veil the blue vault of heaven. Over the wide, white sands the sea glistens green as an emerald; farther out it is of vivid blue, barred with purple. The granite cliffs of Mull glow rosy across the Sound, and the great mountains beyond cast their deep-blue shadow on the still waters. Their is a wealth of colour, not gorgeous, but exquisite, appealing less to the senses than to the spirit, and creating a sense of peace that is balm to the world-weary. The pilgrim, the antiquarian, the artist: Iona casts her spell on all.

A note on the geology of Iona, which is remarkable. The island is immeasurably older, not only than the surrounding islands, but also than the highest mountains and most of the dry land on the earth. During the great earth-changes of the Tertiary period, the face of the globe attained, with minor differences, its present configuration. But the beginning of Iona is almost part of the beginning of the world itself. When our planet, from a flaming mass of combustion like the sun, shrivelled into a globe with a solid crust, and the first oceans condensed in the hollows of its surface—then it was that the Archaean rocks of which Iona and the Outer Hebrides consist were formed on the' sea bottom. They contain no fossils; for, so far as is known, no living creature as yet existed in the desolate waste of waters, or on the primeval land. They were hard, rugged, and twisted; and in Iona, as elsewhere, marble has been developed by the vast heat and pressure they have undergone. . . . The great Ice Age has also left its mark, for the glaciers from the hills of Mull reached out over the Sound, and, as they melted, boulders of red granite, scraped from the Ross, dropped out of the ice along the eastern shore of Iona, where they still lie, both large and small.”—(Trenholme: Story of Iona.)

Iona was originally called Iona, its ancient Gaelic or Pictish name. This is the name invariably used by Adamnan, the ninth Abbot, writing at the end of the seventh century. Other old spellings are: Eo, Ea, Io, la. In modern Gaelic it is called I (pronounced ee)y the island, and also Y, Hy, Hi, and Hii. Owing to its close association with Columba, the saint’s name was often linked on to that of the island, making, in anglicized Gaelic, Icolmkill, the island of Colum of the Church. Another name is Innis nam Druineach, meaning the Island of the Cunning Workmen, or sculptors; and still another is Innis-nam-Druidneach, the Isle of Druids. The story that Iona was a sacred isle of Druids before Columba’s time seems to have sprung up at a late period, but the word druid is still used occasionally in speaking of ministers and priests, and the name may mean "the isle of priests ”.

There is a theory that "Iona” is derived from I-shona, which, as the initial letters sh are invariably mute in Gaelic, is pronounced Iona, and which means "the isle of saints ”.

The generally accepted view, however, is that the name Iona is derived from the original Iona, through the mistake of mediaeval scribes in the copying of manuscripts, and that the word got thus into English and Latin, though not into Gaelic use.

It is worthy of note that the Hebrew word Iona corresponds to the Latin Columbay meaning "a dove".


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