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Iona Abbey


(Iona Cathedral, St. Mary's Cathedral)

Iona Abbey represents the focus of pilgrimage and religious devotion on the little island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, where St. Columba brought Christianity from Ireland and set up a religious community in 563 AD. It lies a quarter-mile (0.4 km) to the north northeast of the island's only settlement, Baile Mor. The complex comprises the Abbey Church constructed in red granite brought from the Ross of Mull with its distinctive 21.3-m (70-foot) tower, together with St. Columba's Shrine, a Cloister, Chapter House, Refectory, Abbot's House, the Michael Chapel, what was thought to have been an Infirmary and Iona Abbey Museum. Little remains of Columba's original foundation, except perhaps the lower courses of St. Columba's Shrine and the vallum (defensive rampart) which is still an obvious feature of the landscape surrounding the Abbey. Columba's Abbey had been raided by the Vikings many times between 795 and 1069.

The present buildings were the work of the Benedictines from c.1200 who had been brought here by Ranald MacDonald, Lord of Kintyre, a son of Somerled. The church was dedicated to St. Mary, while the attached monastery was dedicated to St. Columba. The complex was extended over the succeeding centuries and became the Cathedral of St. Mary serving the Bishopric of the Isles in 1507. The Reformation brought monastic life to an end and the Abbey was pillaged by a mob in 1561. The buildings passed to Hector MacLean of Duart in 1588. The Abbey experienced a partial and short-lived resurgence from 1635 after King Charles I (1600-49) reintroduced bishops into the Church of Scotland and Iona once again became the seat of the Bishop of the Isles. In 1688, the Abbey passed with the rest of the island to Archibald Campbell, 10th Earl of Argyll (c.1658 - 1705). However, in 1690 the hierarchy was abolished for a second time and the Abbey was abandoned once more. Yet, without a parish church, the islanders continued to worship within its ruined walls. In 1874, George Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll (1823 - 1900) commissioned architect Robert Rowand Anderson (1834 - 1921) to consolidate what had become a roofless structure and the Duke went on to present the property to the Church of Scotland in 1899, with the proviso that it should be restored as a place of worship. The Abbey was reconsecrated the same year and the Church of Scotland formed the Iona Cathedral Trust which committed to a complete restoration with different sections being supervised by the architects Peter MacGregor Chalmers (1859 - 1922), John Honeyman (1831 - 1914) and Thomas Ross (1839 - 1930) between 1902-10. A service of celebration was held in the newly restored church on 26th June 1910. The Iona Community was formed by the Rev. George MacLeod in 1938. They took over the running of the Abbey and brought together unemployed Glasgow craftsmen and trainee ministers to work on rebuilding the Abbey cloister. Restoration of the monastery buildings, which mostly had to be completely rebuilt from their foundations to designs by Ian G. Lindsay (1906-66), was finally finished in 1965. The entire complex is now a scheduled ancient monument which was A-listed in 1971. In 2000, the Iona Cathedral Trust passed the Abbey into the care of Historic Environment Scotland.

St. Columba's Shrine stands just to the left of the West Door to the Abbey. It is mostly Ian G. Lindsay and Partner's restoration of 1962, but the lower courses may date from the mid-700s, when St. Columba's relics were enshrined. Tradition suggests Columba was buried here in 597. The High Crosses stand outside the West Door with the rocky knoll of Torr an Aba beyond, where Columba is said to have sought solitude. To the south is St. Oran's Graveyard where numerous Kings and other nobles lie buried.


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