The Out About Scotland complete guide to Iona Abbey
What’s this attraction all about?
Iona Abbey is located on the beautiful Isle of Iona just a few minutes ferry ride from the Isle of Mull where it has played an integral role in Scotland’s religious history for well over a thousand years. Home to the burial ground of many of the nation’s rulers, the abbey is famed as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland thanks to the monastery built there by Saint Columba in AD 563.
The fame of Columba led to Iona becoming one of the most important and influential sites in medieval Britain and even though the small island seems remote it has been renowned as a place of spirituality for over a thousand years. Early pilgrims are known to have travelled to Iona from at least the 7th-century, which is a tradition that continues to this day with many Christians following their footsteps to come to this remarkable place.
Although the abbey draws in visitors from all over the world due to its religious connections many more come to explore the beautiful abbey buildings and discover the fascinating stories behind their history.
There’s plenty to keep you occupied during a visit to this famous Scottish attraction with lots of displays to read thanks to Historic Environment Scotland (HES) who run the site, as well as several different areas to walk through including the famed church, graveyard, and the ruins of a long-since-abandoned nunnery.Read more...
What can you do there?
Even if you’re not remotely interested in religion you’re going to enjoy a trip to Iona to see the abbey. The fun begins long before you set foot on the island because you’ll more than likely be getting there via the ferry from the village of Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull, and the drive to this pretty little coastal hamlet takes you through some of the nicest landscapes on the island.
While the ferry crossing only takes around 5 minutes you will at least get a chance to take a few photos of the abbey from a different angle, and once you arrive at the little pier you might be surprised to see several shops facing the seafront.
It’s not surprising St. Columba chose this place to build his monastery because it’s both absolutely gorgeous and incredibly peaceful. If you really want to feel like you’re completely off-grid then Iona is the place to be.
The short walk to the abbey will see you passing the ruins of the old nunnery which is interesting enough to walk around (although it would have been nice if there were a few more information displays dotted about), but the ruins make for a fantastic photo opportunity, especially with the sea and the Isle of Mull clearly visible in the background.
The footpath leaving the nunnery runs right up to the abbey itself, and it’s at this point where your camera trigger finger will likely go into overdrive. The old 13th-century church is impressively large for such a remote location and the views behind it looking across to Mull are nothing short of spectacular.
Before entering the church you’ll pass St. Oran’s chapel and Reilig Odrain, the graveyard where many of Scotland’s ancient royals are supposed to have been laid to rest, so take a short detour and have a good look around before heading to the main abbey buildings.
As you walk down the path leading to the church you’ll notice a small hill where St. Columba is believed to have built his writing hut nearly 1500 years ago. There’s a small section of the original stone laid into the ground so it’s worth heading up there to take a quick look before heading into the church.
Once inside you’ll find several displays and information boards as well as a few exhibits – all of which are up to HES’s usual high standards – and after exploring the interior you can head back outside to walk around the cloister.
The cloister originally served as a way to link the abbey buildings and was also a place of contemplation, and it still has a very peaceful feel today. Much of the columns and stonework have been restored over the years so it’s pretty much the same as it would have been when it was originally built, although there’s now a large sculpture in the middle and a few restored stone plinths around the perimeter.
Other highlights include St. Columba’s Shrine which is the oldest structure in the abbey dating to around the 9th-century, and the enormous stone crosses near the church entrance, one of which, St. Martins Cross, is believed to be over a thousand years old. And finally, after exploring the abbey you can just set off on foot to take a look at the Isle of Iona itself with its crystal-clear sea, white-sand beaches and unspoilt landscapes.
I really enjoyed visiting this attraction and I reckon if you’re anywhere near Mull then a trip to Iona should be at the top of your list of things to do.
The history of the attraction
The story of the abbey begins with Saint Columba who travelled to Iona along with 12 of his companions in AD 563. Originally from Ireland, Columba chose Iona as it was easily accessible from Ireland by boat, and after his death many Christian pilgrims chose to show their devotion to God by visiting the monastery he founded.
Before long the site became one of the foremost centres for learning, art, and worship in the British Isles which led to the surrounding buildings being slowly expanded between the 13th and 16th centuries.
From the 8th-century onwards Iona became a leading artistic centre for sculptors, metalworkers, and manuscript writers, which goes some way to explaining why such a huge amount of medieval artefacts have been discovered on the island over the years.
The riches that were kept on Iona were also the reason why it was so heavily targeted by Vikings during the 9th and 10th centuries, and hence why St. Columba’s remains were moved to Dunkeld in Perthshire into what was to eventually become Dunkeld Cathedral.
Somerled, Lord of the Isles, became the patron of Iona in the 12th-century and it was he who had St. Oran’s Chapel built which became the burial ground for many of his royal descendants, while his son Ranald re-established the monastery as a Benedectine abbey.
Following the Scottish Reformation the abbey was abandoned and fell into ruin until the Duke of Argyll transferred ownership of the site to the Iona Cathedral Trust who began a program of restoration, while the surrounding buildings were reconstructed by the Iona community in the 20th-century.
What I liked about this attraction
- It’s a fascinating glimpse into Scotland’s history
- Iona is lovely and there are some great walks on the island
- The abbey and surrounding scenery are beautiful. Take your camera!
What I didn’t like about this attraction
- It’s only practical to visit if you’re already on the Isle of Mull
- There was no on-site cafe or gift shop – but then maybe that’s a good thing…
- A large part of the building is private and off-limits to tourists
Isle of Iona,
- Telephone: 01681 700 512
- email: NA
- Website: Historic Environment Scotland
Prices and opening times
- Member/Explorer Pass holder: Free
- Adult: £7.50
- Child aged 5–15: £4.50
- Child under 5: Free
- Concession: £6.00
- 1 Apr to 30 Sept: Daily, 9.30am to 5.30pm. Last entry 5pm
- 1 Oct to 31 Mar: Mon-Sat, 10am to 4pm. Sundays: Only the Abbey Church, Michael Chapel, Shrine and grounds are open. Last entry 3.30pm