Iona gallery

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It seems fitting to dedicate a section on this web-site to a specific location which has had Celtic connections from its earliest recorded history right through to the present day. This sacred place is the holy island of lona. which lies south west of the Isle of Mull on Scotland's west coast.

lona is separated from the Isle of Mull by a narrow stretch of water known as the Sound of lona, and the island presents an ever-changing face. In winter it receives the full force of the Atlantic gales and as a consequence the the island is virtually devoid of trees. Yet on a calm summers day the surrounding sea is an iridescent blue similar to that of the Aegean, due to the fine white sand beneath it. The writer speaks from direct experience as he has stayed there several times, including six winter months in the Abbey buildings at a time in the 1960's, when Dr George MacLeod was still actively co-ordinating the present lona Community. The island has its roots in the dim and distant past, and was almost certainly regarded as a sacred place in prehistoric times. It is known that before the time of St Columba there was a druidic school on the island, and according to one source,at the time of his arrival the resident Archdruid was a Welshman by the name of Gwendollau, with a fellow druid called Myrddin. It has been suggested that this could have been the Merlin of the Arthurian legends, but there is no evidence to substantiate this.

One of the early recorded Gaelic names of lona is Innis na Druineach, or The Island of Druids, an indication of its importance in pre-Christian times. One interesting fact relating to druidic times is that the present Coronation Stone in Westminster Abbey began its life as The Black Stone of Destiny on Iona. It is said to have been used by the druids, as well as St Columba. The latter is said to have crowned King Aedan on the stone. In later years it was removed to Scene. where it was reverentially used for the crowning of Scottish monarchs.

From there it was removed in 1296 to Westminster Abbey,where it remained until the 15th November, 1996. On this date, after many years of requests and persuasion, the British Government finally returned the Stone to Scotland and to its rightful Scottish seat of power at Scone, where it now rests in splendour.

This connection of lona with royalty is seen in better perspective when Columba's life is examine.After launching several missionary journeys to the Scottish mainland Columba became the spiritual advisor to King Aedan, whose realm extended from The Orkney Isles to The Isle of Man and certain regions of Ireland. Aedan himself was of Irish descent. This role of advisor was a continuation of the druidic tradition of regional rulers having a priest/seer as their oracle.

Iona gallery

Much of the information we have about lona and St Columba was written by Adamnan, a monk living on the island in the late 7th century. It should be borne in mind that his writings, the Life of St Columba', were carried out almost 100 years after Columba's death, and probably contain a few elaborations and discrepancies. Returning to the island itself, a brief tour of the main sites connected with St Columba will prove interesting. The Abbey Church of St Mary is the focal point of the island. It was built on the site of the original monastic settlement of St Columba in the 6th century. Much of the building dates from the early 13th century, though some parts, as well as individual carved stones, are considerably earlier. The original church was said to have been surrounded by seven smaller chapels, and the remains of two still exist, as does a small building close to a tiny stream, which was said to have been the monks' bakery. Wheat was brought to the island by the monks from the nearby island of Tiree, which despite its northerly location is very fertile, and receives more hours of sunshine per day than any other area in the British Isles. St Oran's chapel, which stands apart from the Abbey buildings, is of a very early date. Oran, to who the chapel is dedicated, is said to have been a druid living on the island when Columba landed there in 56.3 AD. He subsequently embraced Christianity and became one of Columba' s followers. The Abbey itself fell into disrepair at the time of the Dissolution of The Monasteries by Henry VIII, although pilgrimages to the sacred island continued to be made by many over the following centuries. About six miles to the north of Iona is the tiny, unique island of Staffa with its cave and magnificent basalt columns. No doubt known to the monks, this was the island which, centuries later, gave the composer Mendelssohn the inspiration for his Hebridean works, including the Overture to Fingal's Cave, which can be visited today (weather and sea-conditions permitting). Close to the Abbey buildings are the ruins of the nunnery, built in 1203 by Somarlide, Lord of The Isles, when the island came into his possession. Today the grounds have been beautifully laid out as a garden sanctuary. In the vicinity of the Abbey buildings are the fine freestanding crosses of St Martins (9th century) and St John (8th century). Further down the small road to the Abbey stands MacLeans cross, a tall and slender disc-headed cross with elaborate Celtic knotwork and patterning carved on it. It dates from the 13th century. Close to St Oran's chapel is the Reilig Odhrain, nowadays known as the Burial-ground of the Kings. Being the original home of the Black Stone of Destiny, it is hardly surprising that Iona had many royal links. Irish, Scottish, Norse and French monarchs and noblemen were buried here from very early times. The highest point of the island, Dun I, a large granite outcrop, is just 22ft high, and located on its summit is the Well of Healing, where remarkable cures are said to have taken place. The views on a clear day from this high point are breathtaking, and the summit of the highest mountain on Mull, Ben More (7,500ft) is immediately across the water to the east.

Visionary oil painting of St Columba by Jasper Jowett, c.1967.

Near the south foot of Dun I lies the remains of St Columba's stone beehive cell, said to have been used by him as a place of retreat and meditation. Iona itself is only three and half miles long, and at the most southerly part of the island lies St Columba's Bay. It was here that he initially landed with his twelve followers in the year 563. He is said to have walked inland to a raised mound, and surveying the horizon from this point found that Ireland was no longer visible. Columba's command from the King of Ireland that he and his followers should leave, and not disembark until his homeland could not be seen, was fulfilled. History was in the making at that point, and shortly afterwards the first Iona community was founded, in the 6th century. At the opposite end of the island there is another beach, this one of white sand and known as The White Strand of The Monks. Past events here were far from savoury, as during one Viking raid on the island it is said that the inhabitants of the monastery were taken here and ruthlessly beheaded. The present day Abbey building restoration work was primarily organised and overseen by Dr George Macleod. In the 1930's he was a parish minister of Govan, one of the most deprived areas of Glasgow. In 1938 he resigned and along with six ministers and six lay workers he set out to rebuild the ruins of the Abbey buildings. After extreme perseverance, and overcoming many obstacles, some of which were said by sceptics to be insurmountable, the restoration was completed in 1967, almost thirty years later. Dr MacLeod was a truly great man, and the writer of this article had the privilege of participating in the building project under his auspices, during 1964.

The ideals of the present-day community, when seen from a historical and spiritual perspective, are an organic evolution of St Columba's original monastic community on the island in the 6th century. In the 1990's the Iona Community attracts many contemporary pilgrims of all ages and beliefs, and from all parts of the world. Their schedules are always fully booked; a glowing testament to the rapidly growing living Spirit of the Celtic Christian way of life. The latter is seen by many as a vehicle in which Christianity can be safely carried forward into the 21st century, within an ecological and practical framework whose basis consists of a joyful, natural, Spirit-filled and planetary-aware way of life.

Iona gallery

The Iona community also runs the Camas outdoor centre on Mull, which is possibly the nearest younger people will get to emulating the basic, satisfying lifestyle of the Celtic Spirit. The emphasis here is on the outdoors and closeness to nature. The buildings at Camas were originally a salmon-fishing station, and are accessible only by a twenty minute walk over the moor. Work and worship is at the heart of Camas, and the centre is orientated towards young people from urban backgrounds. Sensibly, the staff have decided not to install electricity, thus activities here are carried out according to the sun (or lack of it) and the seasons. Camas provides a 'once in a lifetime' experience for many young and adventurous folk. To end this account of Iona, a quote from Dr MacLeod would seem very appropriate. He once described the island thus: "It is a thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual" To be there is to experience this.

lona of my heart, lona of my love

Instead of monks' voices The lowing of cattle shall be heard.

But ere the world comes to an end

lona shall be as it was.

Gaelic prophecy attributed to St Columba

We plan to add further pages to this site exploring Sacred Sites which have Celtic connections. Celtic now up and running! Meanwhile if you would like to visit Pembrokeshire and explore the area first hand holiday accomodation is available five minutes walk from Gors Fawr Stone Circle at Trallwyn Holiday Cottages. This website (Celtic Connections), the proposed site Celtic Pembrokeshire and the Trallwyn site are all part of the Trallwyn webspace. Our idea is to develop the site so that it is a valuable and interesting source of information and inspiration for one and all...





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