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Iona ( ) is a small island in the Inner Hebridesmarker of Scotlandmarker that has an important place in the history of Christianity in Scotland and is renowned for its tranquility and natural beauty. Its modern Gaelic name means "Iona of Saint Columba" (formerly anglicised "Icolmkill").


The Hebridesmarker have been occupied by the speakers of at least four languages since the Iron Age, and as a result many of the names of these islands have more than one possible meaning. Nonetheless few, if any, can have accumulated so many different names over the centuries as the island now known in English as "Iona".

The earliest forms of the name enabled place-name scholar William J. Watson to show that the name originally meant something like "yew-place". The element Ivo-, denoting "yew", occurs in Ogham inscriptions (Iva-cattos [genitive], Iva-geni [genitive]) and in Gaulish names (Ivo-rix, Ivo-magus) and may form the basis of early Gaelic names like Eogan (ogham: Ivo-genos). It is possible that the name is related to the mythological figure, Fer hÍ mac Eogabail, foster-son of Manannan, the forename meaning "man of the yew".

Mac an Tàilleir (2003) lists the more recent Gaelic names of Ì , Ì Chaluim Chille and Eilean Idhe noting that the first named is "generally lengthened to avoid confusion" to the second, which means "Calum's (i.e. in latinised form "Columba's") Iona" or "island of Calum's monastery".Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 80. The possible confusion results from "ì", despite its original etymology, becoming a Gaelic noun (now obsolete) meaning simply "island". Eilean Idhe means "the isle of Iona", also known as Ì nam ban bòidheach ("the isle of beautiful women"). The modern English name comes from an 18th century misreading of yet another variant, Ioua, which was either just Adomnán's attempt to make the Gaelic name fit Latin grammar or else a genuine derivative from Ivova ("yew place"). Ioua's change to Iona results from a transcription mistake resulting from the similarity of "n" and "u" in Insular Minuscule.

Despite the continuity of forms in Gaelic between the pre-Norse and post-Norse eras, Haswell-Smith (2004) speculates that the name may have a Norse connection, Hiōe meaning "island of the den of the brown bear",, "island of the den of the fox", or just "island of the cave" . The medieval English language version was "Icolmkill" (and variants thereof).

Table of earliest forms (incomplete)
Form Source Language Notes
Ioua insula Adomnán's Vita Columbae (c. 700) Latin Adomnán calls Eiggmarker Egea insula and Skye Scia insula
Hii, Hy Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum Latin
Eoa, Iae, Ie,
I Cholaim Chille
Annals of Ulster Irish, Latin U563 Nauigatio Coluim Chille ad Insolam Iae
"The journey of St Columba to Í"
U716 Pascha comotatur in Eoa ciuitate
"The date of Easter is changed in the monastery of Í")
U717 Expulsio familie Ie
"The expulsion of the community of Í"
U778 Niall...a nn-I Cholaim Chille
"Niall... in Í Cholaim Chille"

Hi, Eu Lebor na hUidre Irish Hi con ilur a mmartra
"Hi with the multitude of its relics"
in tan conucaib a chill hi tosuċ .i.

"the time he raised his church first i.e.


Eo Walafrid Strabo (c. 831) Latin Insula Pictorum quaedam monstratur in oris fluctivago suspensa salo, cognominis Eo
"On the coasts of the Picts is pointed out an isle poised in the rolling sea, whose name is Eo"
Euea insula Life of St Cathróe of Metz Latin

Folk etymology

Murray (1966) states that the "ancient" Gaelic name was Innis nan Druinich (the isle of Druidic hermits") and repeats an apocryphal Gaelic story that as Columba's coracle first drew close to the island one of his companions cried out "Chì mi i" meaning "I see her" and that Columba's response was "Henceforth we shall call her Ì".


Iona lies approximately one mile (1.6 km) from the coast of Mullmarker. The island is 1 mile wide (1.6 km) and 3.5 miles (5.6 km) long with a resident population of 125. The island's stone base is covered by a layer of basaltic lava. Like other places swept by ocean breezes, there are few trees with most of these being located around the parish church area.

Iona's highest point is Dùn Ì (101 m, 331 ft), an Iron Age hill fort dating from 100 BC – 200 AD. Its geographical features include the Bay at the Back of the Oceanmarker and Càrn Cùl ri Éirinn (the Hill/Cairn of [turning the] Back to Ireland), said to be adjacent to the beach where St. Columba first landed.

The main settlement, located at St. Ronan's Bay on the eastern side of the island, is called Baile Mòr and is also known locally as "The Village". The primary school, post office, the island's two hotels, the Bishop's Housemarker and the ruins of the Nunnery are here. The Abbey and MacLeod Centre are a short walk to the north. Port Bàn (white port) beach on the west side of the island is home to the Iona Beach Party.

There are numerous offshore islets and skerries of which Eilean Annraidh (island of storm) and Eilean Chalbha (calf island) to the north, Rèidh Eilean and Stac MhicMhurchaidh to the west and Eilean Mùsimul (mouse holm island) and Soa Island to the south are amongst the largest. The steamer Cathcart Park carrying a cargo of salt from Runcornmarker to Wickmarker ran aground on Soa on 15 April 1912, the crew of 11 escaping in two boats.


In 563 Saint Columba, also known as Colm Cille, was exiled from his native Irelandmarker as a result of his involvement in the Battle of Cul Dreimhne, and founded a monastery on Iona with 12 companions. From there they set about the conversion of pagan Scotland and much of northern Englandmarker to Christianity. Iona's fame as a place of learning and Christian mission spread throughout Europe and it became a major site of pilgrimage. Iona became a holy island where several kings of Scotlandmarker, Irelandmarker and Norwaymarker came to be buried.

In the seventh century Celtic Christianity as practiced on Iona was in conflict with Rome until the Synod of Whitby established Roman practice as the norm.

Many believe that all or part of the Book of Kells was produced on Iona towards the end of the 8th century, the bi-centenary of Columba's death (597) being an appropriate event to commemorate by the production of such an outstandingly elaborate manuscript. A series of Viking raids on the monastery on Iona began in 794 and, after its treasures had been plundered many times, Columba’s relics were removed and divided two ways between Scotland and Ireland in 849 as the monastery was abandoned. A convent for the order of Benedictine nuns was established in 1208, with Beathag, daughter of Somerled, as first prioress. The present Benedictine abbey was built in 1203. The monastery itself flourished until the Reformation when buildings were demolished and all but three of the 360 carved crosses destroyed.

Iona Nunnery survives as a number of 12th-13th century ruins of the church and cloister, and a colourful garden. Unlike the rest of the medieval religious buildings, the nunnery was too fragmentary to restore, though it is the most complete remnant of a medieval nunnery in Scotland.

In the 19th century green-streaked marble was commercially mined in the south-east of Iona; the quarry and machinery survive. Pebbles of Iona marble can still be found on the island's beaches.

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey
Enlargement, showing the location of the abbey and monasteries.
Iona Abbey, now an ecumenical church, is of particular historical and religious interest to pilgrims and visitors alike. It is the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages in the Western Islesmarker of Scotlandmarker. Though modest in scale in comparison to medieval abbeys elsewhere in Western Europe, it has a wealth of fine architectural detail, and monuments of many periods.

In front of the Abbey stands the 9th century St Martin's Cross, one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in the British Islesmarker, and a replica of the 8th century St John's Cross (original fragments in the Abbey museum).

The ancient burial ground, called the Rèilig Odhrain (Eng: Oran's "burial place" or "cemetery"), contains the 12th century chapel of St Odhrán (said to be Columba's uncle), restored at the same time as the Abbey itself. It contains a number of medieval grave monuments. The abbey graveyard contains the graves of many early Scottish Kings, as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France. Iona became the burial site for the kings of Dál Riata and their successors. Notable burials there include:

In 1549 an inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings was recorded. None of these graves are now identifiable (their inscriptions were reported to have worn away at the end of the 17th century). Saint Baithin and Saint Failbhe may also be buried on the island. The Abbey graveyard is also the final resting place of John Smith, the former Labour Party leader, who loved Iona. His grave is marked with an epitaph quoting Alexander Pope: "An honest man's the noblest work of God".

Other early Christian and medieval monuments have been removed for preservation to the cloister arcade of the Abbey, and the Abbey museum (in the medieval infirmary). The ancient buildings of Iona Abbey are now cared for by Historic Scotland (entrance charge).

Iona Community

Baile Mòr viewed from the Sound of Iona
In 1938 George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church committed to seeking new ways of living the gospel of Jesus in today's world. This community is a leading force in the present Celtic Christianity revival.

The Iona Community runs 3 residential centres on the Isle of Iona and on Mullmarker. These are places of welcome and engagement giving a unique opportunity to live together in community with people of every background from all over the world. Weeks at the centres often follow a programme related to the concerns of the Iona Community.

The 8 tonne Fallen Christ sculpture by Ronald Rae was permanently situated outside the MacLeod Centre in 2008.


Visitors can reach Iona by the 10-minute ferry trip across the Sound of Ionamarker from Fionnphortmarker on Mullmarker. The most common route is via Obanmarker in Argyll and Bute. Regular ferries connect to Craignuremarker on Mull, from where the scenic road runs 37 miles to Fionnphort. Tourist coaches and local bus services meet the ferries.

There are very few cars on the island, as they are tightly regulated and vehicular access is not allowed for non-residents, who have to leave their car in Fionnphort. Bike hire is available at the pier, and on Mull.

Media and the arts

"Peace of Iona" is a song written by Mike Scott that appears on the solo album Universal Hall and on the live recording Karma to Burn by The Waterboys.

Kenneth C. Steven published an anthology of poetry entitled Iona: Poems in 2000 inspired by his association with the island and the surrounding area.

See also



  • Dwelly, Edward (1911) Faclair Gàidhlig gu Beurla le Dealbhan/The Illustrated [Scottish] Gaelic- English Dictionary. Edinburgh. Birlinn. ISBN 1874744041
  • Mac an Tàilleir, Iain (2003) Placenames" (pdf) Pàrlamaid na h-Alba. Edinburgh. Retrieved 23 July 2007.
  • Marsden, John (1995) The Illustrated Life of Columba. Edinburgh. Floris Books. ISBN 0863152112
  • Murray, W.H. (1966) The Hebrides. London. Heinemann.
  • Watson, W.J., The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland. Reprinted with an introduction by Simon Taylor, Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2004. ISBN 1-84158-323-5


Image:Mull-topographic.iona.label.jpg|The Isle of Mull, showing the location of IonaImage:St-martins-cross.jpg|Ninth century St Martin's CrossImage:TyIonaNunnery20030825r19f31.jpg|Iona NunneryImage:Iona.monochrome.jpg|Iona, showing the location of the Abbey and Dùn ÌImage:Cloisters of Abbey on the Isle of Iona.jpg|Abbey cloistersImage:TyIonaStColumbasBay20030825r19f10.jpg|Looking towards St. Columba's BayImage:Iona Book Shop.jpg|Iona Book Shop

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