This 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.
You can read more about Iona in these features on The Hazel Tree:
Maclean’s Cross – a beautiful 15th century cross which stands on Iona’s Sràid nan Marbh, the ‘Street of the Dead’
Iona’s Timeless Haven – a 12th century Augustinian nunnery, just a stone’s throw from St Columba’s Abbey.