In this global village there are few places that take you to the edge of wifi, cell phone signal and broadband connection. But Iona is that kind of place, a tiny island in the Hebrides, where the ghosts of Scottish kings walk in the mists and history hangs heavy in the air. It is without doubt, a charming leisure travel destination.
Einstein tells us that linear time is a persistent illusion, and that actually everything is happening at once. It was long believed by the Scottish Celts that Iona was a so-called ‘thin place’ – where the veil between the dimensions could easily be penetrated. If that’s true then sitting on the beach at St Columba’s Bay you could squint through that veil to see the missionary, St Columba dragging his hide-covered boat up the beach with his twelve disciples in AD 563. The journey had taken them 8 days from County Donegal in Ireland.
Or you could see further back, to the Picts for whom this island was significant long before the Christians came to claim it. An Iron Age fort stood on the highest point dating from 100 BC. St Columba’s bay splits into two shingle beaches named the Port of the Coracle and The Port of the False Man. Legend has it that members of the druidic priest class who sought initiation were set adrift in an oarless boat. The currents would take them round to the bay where, if they drifted into The Port of the Coracle they were deemed ready for priestly initiation, but if they drifted into the Port of the False Man they were rejected and sent home.
St Columba and his men built Iona Abbey, which grew to great prominence as a spiritual and political centre in the early middle ages, dominating the region. Scottish kings came to Iona to be crowned and later buried with great ceremony, including Macbeth. Some of the older gravestones are now housed in the museum. Scholars agree that The Book of Kells was probably written by the monks of Iona. On the Isle of Mull just a mile to the East there are a series of standing stones – these stones are said to have been erected to guide pilgrims through Mull on their way over to Iona so they probably don’t predate Christianity, but remains of over 350 earlier standing stones have been found on Iona itself, which indicates the island’s prominence as a sacred place throughout the ages.
The original Gaelic name for Iona was Innis nan Druidhneach, Island of the Druids. Before the Christians arrived the island may have been a seat of learning for the Druidic Magi. There is evidence to suggest that the remaining Druids converted to Christianity, forming an early Christian sect known as the Culdees, from the Gaelic meaning ‘certain strangers’. This was before the ‘Romanization’ of the early Celtic church, and several historians are of the opinion that these Culdees were both Pythagorean monks and Essenes, who were already familiar with the teachings of Jesus. As with most prehistory, the evidence is hotly contested, and there are some who deny any druidic connection.
The geography of Iona exposes some of the oldest rock known to man, dating back to around 2700 million years ago. These Precambrian rocks are known as Lewisian Geiss. The sun glints on the pink granite in the picturesque nunnery ruins, and the green-streaked Ionian marble, used in the font and communion table in the present day Abbey Church, also litters the beaches with colourful pebbles. This geological variety enhances the incredible natural beauty of this island which has attracted artists, writers and spiritual seekers throughout history, and about which the poet William Sharp wrote: ‘To tell the story of Iona is to go back to God and to end in God.’
Thursa Wilde writes about Scotland where if you want to you can buy a title along with your own little piece of the highlands.