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Iona: A History of the Island
Chapter VI. Later History


The Dim Eclipse

The first two centuries of the Celtic Church were the most glorious period in the history of Iona. “In later years”, says Rait, “(the Church) did not escape the inevitable deterioration, and it had its reformers. . . . After the time of Columba, it seems to have had little influence in national affairs, but the persistence of its individual life indicates that it possessed a real hold upon the people of Scotland.” Its best work was done as a missionary church; later, as civilization advanced, and the need of the times tended towards an organized religion, it was found lacking, and went down almost without resistance before the disciplined forces of Rome.

Hardly were its internal troubles over than a new danger threatened the Iona community from without. A series of invasions by Danish pirates is recorded: In 797, the island was pillaged; in 801-2, the monastery was burned to the ground; and in 806, Iona for the first time suffered “red martyrdom”, in the slaughter of sixty-eight monks, traditionally at Martyrs’ Bay. The afflicted monastery could no longer continue the oversight of the Church, and in 814, the primacy was transferred temporarily to Kells, in Ireland. The Iona monks, however, clung to their island, and bravely proceeded to build a new monastery, this time of stone, and on a better site, where the Cathedral now stands. In 825, there was a second Danish massacre, the heathen bursting into the church one dark winter morning, during the celebration of Mass, and cutting down Blathmac, the acting superior, together with several of his monks. This is commemorated as the Passion of St. Blathmac and the Martyrs of Iona.

The primacy did not go back to Iona, but passed to Dunkeld, where Constantine, King of Picts, had erected a monastery far from the danger zone. Thence it passed to Abernethy, and finally, in 908, to St. Andrews. In Iona the office of Abbot was succeeded by that of Coarb of Columkill (Heir of Columba), held usually by the abbot of one of the greater Irish monasteries, who ruled the Iona community from afar. Thenceforward Iona, like the Celtic Church generally, steadily declined in importance.

Following the turbulent ninth century, during which the Danish pirates remained the scourge of the Western Isles, there came a long period of relative peace, and henceforth there are many blanks in the history of Iona. The Danes were succeeded by the Norse Vikings, but these were a less formidable foe, and not aggressive towards the monastery. (The Danes, it may be said in fairness, are believed to have been incited to animosity against the Church because of the slaughter of their pagan kinsmen in North Germany by Charlemagne in the name of Christianity.)

In 980, a notable pilgrim, Anlaf, King of the Danes of Dublin, came to Iona after his defeat by the Irish, and spent his last days there in penance and good works. (Two centuries earlier, Neill Frassach, King of Ireland, and Artgal, King of Connaught, had died in Iona, having relinquished their thrones for the monastic life.) Six years later, the Danes once more descended on the island, and slaughtered the Abbot and fifteen monks, traditionally on the White Sands.

During the rest of the Celtic Church period, the possession of the Western Isles fluctuated between Scotland and Norway. In 1097, King Magnus of Norway (called Magnus Barelegs because of his adoption of the kilt during his long operations in the Hebrides), on a triumphal tour of his new territories, anchored his war-galleys in the Sound of Mull, and came ashore to do homage to the Isle of Columba.

Nothing more is heard of Iona for sixty-five years, when a notice appears in the Annals of Ulster of a deputation to Ireland in 1164, at which period the island was temporarily in Scottish possession.

In the meantime, Church affairs in Scotland had been practically revolutionized, mainly because of the marriage of Malcolm Canmore, son of Duncan, and successor to Macbeth on the Scottish throne, with Margaret, a Saxon princess, who, with her family, had taken refuge in Scotland after the Norman Conquest. [This marriage, indeed, marks the fall of Celtic and the rise of Anglian supremacy in Scotland, and the supersession at Court of the Gaelic tongue by “Scottis” or Scots, derived from the Anglian settlers in the Lothians.] Margaret, a thorough Saxon and devout member of the Roman Church, was genuinely distressed to find in the land of her adoption errors in the observance of Lent, neglect of the Sunday holy day, and “Masses in I know not what barbarous rite”. A woman of great piety and zeal, she “restored the monastery of Hy, which Columba, the servant of Christ, had erected in the time of Brude, son of Meilcon, King of Picts. It had fallen into ruin in the storms of war and the lapse of ages, but the faithful queen rebuilt and restored it, and gave the monks an endowment for the performance of the Lord’s work ” (Ordericus Vitalis).

But, though generous to Iona, Margaret set herself wholeheartedly to the task of Latinizing the Scottish Church. After a Celtic reaction, this policy was continued by her third son, David I, who abolished the Celtic liturgy, organized regular dioceses administered by bishops and parish priests, and replaced the Celtic monks and Culdees by Benedictine monks and Augus-tinian canons. By the end of his reign, practically all the mediaeval sees had been founded.

The Culdees mentioned above were an order instituted in Dublin by St. Maelruain in 787A The name is derived from the Celtic Cele De> the servant of God. They were hermits, leading a life of prayer and contemplation, and, in the ninth century, their cells became scattered over Scotland as widely as the Celtic monasteries. In later days, the Culdees fell away in many places from the old strict rules, and this served as an excuse for their suppression in the reform of the Scottish Church in the twelfth century.

Already, in 1093, succession in the old Celtic Church had come to an end, and though the religious life of Iona and the pilgrimages thither continued, a general decay of the Church was discernible. The twelfth century saw the complete Latinization of the National Church. Iona, owing to her isolated position, escaped the longest, but, early in the thirteenth century, in the reign of William the Lion, Reginald, son and heir of the great Somerled, Lord of the Isles, established on the island a monastery of Benedictines, and, shortly afterwards, a community of nuns of the same order, in honour of God and St. Columkill.

In the last notice of Iona in the Irish Annals, it is related that in 1204 a monastery was erected in the middle of the island by Cellach (presumably the first Abbot of the Benedictine monastery) without any right, and in dishonour of the community On hearing of the calamity that had befallen the sacred isle, a party of incensed Derry men came over and pulled down the building. This seems to be an account, from the Irish point of view, of the appearance of the Benedictine community on Iona. After a tenure of approximately six and a half centuries, the Family of Hy, now far decayed, was ousted from its island sanctuary, and its remaining lands and churches were handed over to the usurpers. Regarding the fate of the monks, nothing is known.

In the eleventh century Iona had passed into the Diocese of Man and the Isles, which had been created by the Norwegian conquerors. In 1154, the See was put under the Archbishop of Trondjem, in Norway, and remained there until 1266, when, following the defeat of Haco of Norway at Largs, the Hebrides were finally ceded to Scotland. Henceforth, Iona did homage to Dunkeld, once more the primatial See of Scotland.

The Benedictine occupation of Iona was uneventful. In 1203 Pope Innocent III's formal approval of the foundation of Iona Abbey was recorded in a letter of which a copy is preserved in the Vatican. In 1498, the Holy See was asked to erect the Abbacy into the Bishopric of the Isles, and, by 1506, this was accomplished.

The light of Iona burned dimly, but steadily, through these dark and turbulent centuries, and, save for an incursion by Norwegian pirates in 1240, appears to have remained unscathed in the midst of “roving clans and savage barbarians ”.

In 1549, Donald Monro, Dean of the Isles, visited the island, and from him we have a picture of Iona twelve years before the Reformation, when the community was swept into exile. “Within this ile”, he writes, “there is a monastery of mounckes, and ane uther of nuns, with a paroche-kirke, and sundrie uther chapells, dotat of auld by the Kings of Scotland and by Clandonald of the iyles.”

Many precious manuscripts and books are said to have been carried off by the dispersed monks to the Scots monastery at Ratisbon and the Scots colleges at Douay and Rome, but none of these has been identified.

There is no evidence that any systematic attempt to destroy the buildings was made at the time of the Reformation in 1560, when the island and the lands formerly belonging to the monastery passed into the hands of Maclean of Duart.

In 1609, Andrew Knox, who was made Bishop of the Isles in the temporary episcopate established a year later, held a convention of several chiefs of the Highlands and islands, on Iona. Here the “Statutes of Icolmkill” were drawn up and subscribed, the chiefs pledging themselves to repair the churches throughout their territories, to provide parish ministers, to promote the observance of the Sabbath day, and to endeavour to put a stop to certain undesirable practices which were then prevalent.

In 1617, the Abbey of Iona was annexed to the Bishopric of the Isles. Eighteen years later, Charles I wrote to Maclean of Duart asking him to restore the Island of Icolmkill to the Bishop, and in the same year ordered the Lords of the Exchequer to pay to the Bishop the sum of 400 for the restoration of the Cathedral. This grant was evidently never made, owing, doubtless, to the political troubles of the time; for when Sacheverell, Governor of Man, visited Iona in 1688, the buildings were in ruins. “Though they have no minister,” he tells us, “they constantly assemble in the great church on Sundays, wrhere they spend most of the day in private devotions.”

In 1693, Iona passed from the Macleans to the Campbells, and it still remains in the hands of their chief, the Duke of Argyll.

Some years ago the Cathedral was presented by the then Duke to the Established Church of Scotland, whose approaching union with the United Free Church will once more establish a great National Church.

The island life continues its even tenor. The nettle still “sheds her snows above kings’ heads”, and the thistle “waves where bishops’ mitres stood”, but the “long sleep” which fell upon the island is now at an end, and there is a general stirring. The Cathedral itself is once more a place of worship, and services are also held regularly in the little Free (now U.F.) Church. In 1894, an Episcopal chapel wras consecrated in the newly built “St. Columba’s House”—known locally as the Bishop’s House—which was used for a time as a house of retreat for clergy of that body. An island library, founded a century ago, and continually added to, is housed in the village. Some years ago a little hand-press was started, and brought out some old Gaelic books and prints. In a studio in the village, the old Celtic designs in which the island is so rich are reproduced in beautiful articles of wood and brass and other materials; and the Iona silver jewellery will make an appeal to all lovers of beautiful ornament.


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