Iona: Island of ascension?

Iona: Island of Ascension?

ionaLast weekend I had the satisfaction of at last fulfilling a promise I made to myself a long time ago: to visit the sacred island of Iona. For those of you who don’t know where this island is or why it is important, let me fill you in. Iona is a very small island that lies off the coast of a larger one called Mull. Both islands belong to the archipelago off Scotland’s west coast known as the Hebrides. The Hebrides, many of them mountainous and with wild, moorland landscapes are among the unheralded treasures of Britain. They include the island of Skye (made famous by its role in the escape of ‘Bonny Prince Charlie’ after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746) and Harris (famous for its Tweed cloth). Iona, however, is unique for its claim to fame is that it was once, for the Christians of north Britain, the holiest island in the entire world.

Like most visitors I arrived by the ferry that during the hours of daylight runs hourly to Iona’s principle town of Baile Mor—really only a village—from Fionnphort on the south-west arm of Mull. To my relief both islands were that day bathed in autumn sunshine, which came as something of a surprise given that the day before a storm had blown through the area bring with it rain and such stormy seas that all ferries from the mainland had been confined to port. Quickly changing weather, however, is one of the features of these craggy islands. There is nothing but water between Iona and the East coast of Canada but this does also bring an advantage: the gulf streams laps right up to its shores, ‘centrally-heating’ the island in winter and giving it a climate much milder than its latitude of 56º 19’ (equivalent to the middle of the Hudson Bay in Canada)) would suggest.

High cross at Iona
High cross at Iona

Getting off the boat I proceeded immediately to see Iona’s most famous building: the Abbey founded by St Columkille or Columba as we call him in English. One of the most important saints in all of British history he was in fact Irish. Born in AD 521 he was a member of the ruling family of the Ulster Scots. He became a monk and founded several monasteries in Ireland before, owing to conflicts over the ownership of an illuminated manuscript he’d secretly copied, he volunteered to

St Columba (Columkille) window from the abbey church in Iona
St. Columba.

go into exile. From 563 onwards his new home was among the Scots of Dalriada, emigrants who had left Ireland to settle the southern Hebrides and what is now the county of Argyll in the southwest Scottish Highlands. Aidan mac Gabran, the king of the Dalriada Scots, was a cousin of Columba’s. He granted the island of Iona to Columba and there he, and twelve companions, founded a monastry.  In Ireland the Scots were but one nation among several and already by this time the ex-pat colony of Scots in Britain was becoming more important than its parent. Accordingly, in 575 Columba was able to repay the favour of Aidan’s grant by helping him to establish a claim to be High King of all the Scots, in Ireland as well as in Britain.

That much is the early political history of what in centuries to come was destined to become the ruling kingdom of Scotland, however this is not what Columba is chiefly remembered for. In 565 he led a mission to Inverness, then the capital city of the Northern Picts. They were Britons who had managed to stay out of the Roman Empire throughout its occupation of most of Britain and were at that time pagans. Columba is said to have preformed various miracles (including taming the Loch Ness monster) and so charmed the King of the Picts that they converted to his branch of Christianity.  In succeeding generations the Columban mission extended its influence to encompass the Southern Picts (whose capital was near Perth) and from there it extended to the northern Angle kingdom of Northumbria, a new island monastery being founded at Lindisfarne.


Ancient tomb lids from Iona
Tomb lids from Iona

Throughout this period Iona was at the epicentre of the Columban church, its fame spreading far and wide. It became a great centre of learning as well as of the arts, the famous Book of Kells, for example, having almost certainly been hand-painted here. Treasures of silver and gold accrued, donations from grateful benefactors, and from Aidan onwards it became traditional for Scottish kings to be buried in the graveyard. One of the last to be so honoured was Macbeth, who was evidently not as bad as Shakespeare makes him out. Curiously, he was buried in the same graveyard as Duncan, the king he slew, who was evidently not as good.

Iona was doing well until, in the 9th century, disaster struck. Vikings from Norway had already begun raiding the British coast and Iona, with its riches, was a tempting target. In 802 they burned down the wooden monastery and in 806 killed sixty-eight monks. Further raids and massacres occurred in 825, 845 and 878 by which time the Vikings began themselves to settle in the Orkneys, Shetlands and Hebrides. All of these islands, including Iona, now became subject to the crown of Norway. Fortunately for Iona’s future, the Norwegians themselves were now converted to Christianity and from this time onwards and for the next few hundred years, it became the place of burial for their kings too. Then, as the Viking era passed and Norway lost its grip over the seas, so a new power, the ‘Lords of the Isles’, came to rule over the Hebrides. Part Gallic and part Norwegian, they too revered the sanctity of Iona and many of them were buried in the same graveyard as the earlier kings. Finally, in 1493 the Lordship of the Isles was forfeited and Iona came back under the rule of the Kings of the Scots.

This much is history but it is only a backdrop to the question that was of most interest to me: was the island intrinsically sacred or was it little more than a museum of early Christianity in Scotland? The abbey building itself is extremely impressive having been restored in the 20th century by the ‘Iona Community’: an ecumenical Christian fellowship. They have put the roof back on the church and restored many other buildings that had once made up the abbey complex including its attractive cloister. Arranged around this, like so many sculptures, are elaborately the stones that once covered the tombs of the kings of Scotland, the kings of Norway and the Lords of the Isles. More of these stones are kept in the main church and also in the Museum. They are beautiful to look at but it is a shame that, as they are mostly uninscribed with names, we no longer know who most of them belonged to. The stones themselves were taken for safe-keeping from an enclosed grave-yard with its own little chapel. This graveyard, which is not very large, lies to the south of the Abbey church and is to my mind the most intriguing place on the whole island.

The story of the graveyard, which is called Reilig Odhrain or ‘Oran’s Graveyard’ is indicative of an ancient tradition that likely goes back to long before the arrival of Columba. According to the legend, Columba needed someone to be buried in order to consecrate the ground. Oran volunteered for the task and was buried alive. Three days later the grave was opened and much to everyone’s astonishment, Oran opened his eyes and told them there is nothing to fear from death and that hell is not at all as it is described. In order to stop him from saying any more (and presumably further challenging Christian dogmas on the subject), Columba quickly had him re-buried. Thereafter Oran became the patron of the graveyard which, as we have seen, became the place of burial of not just monks but kings.

Now this story intrigued me firstly because the name Oran would seem to come from the same root as Orendel, a giant from north European mythology who equates to the constellation of Orion [See Hamlets Mill by profs. Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend and also my own book Magi]. Giants are very prominent in the mythology of the Hebrides and indeed the tiny island of Staffa, which lies just six miles NNE of Iona is home to Fingal’s Cave. This is a natural, geological wonder that resembles the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Composed of gigantic, hexagonal cylinders of crystallised basalt, it looks something like a cathedral. Legend attributes this cave to the handiwork of the giant Fingal (or Fionn mac Cumhail/Finn MacCool). Although I haven’t been there to see this for myself, guide books say that the cave is perfectly aligned towards Iona Abbey, which from the back of the 70 metre cave can be seen framed in the doorway. Since the graveyard of Oran lies on the other side of the abbey, it would seem that this must also be aligned with the cave and maybe, before the Abbey was built, it too could have been seen from there.

The cloister in Iona Anney
Iona Abbey cloister

All this is not as strange as it might at first appear. It is very clear to anyone with an open mind that Iona was a sacred isle long before the advent of Christianity. The legend of Oran probably goes back to this period, when the cult of Orion and its connection with death and rebirth was integral to the religions of not just Britain but all of Europe and Egypt too. The disappearance of Orion in summer time signified his death while his reappearance at dawn seventy days later was emblematic of re-birth. The chapel of Oran is aligned east-west so that provided the sky is clear of clouds, on this day, at dawn, the first star of Orion would be seen rising out of the opposing island of Mull. Then, over the period of a couple of weeks, more and more of him would ‘climb out’ of the earth before the stars became invisible in the daylight. This, I believe, to be the origin of the myth concerning Oran’s burial and resurrection.

Iona, The Way of the Dead
Iona, The Way of the Dead

Curiously, the pathway leading from the shore to the graveyard was known as ‘the way of the dead’. Based on traditions prevalent throughout Europe, this would suggest a symbolic connection between this pathway and the ‘roadway’ of stars that we call the milky way (again there is much about this in Hamlet’s Mill).

The chapel of St Oran at Iona
The chapel of St Oran at Iona

In one last, curious twist to this story, the night after I returned home from Iona I had a strange dream. In this dream I was on Iona, hiding behind a small hillock by Reilig Odhrain. Three aliens dressed in silvery, tightly-fitting suits appeared nearby and I realised there was a sort of elevator there that could lift one to the stars if you knew the right code. I went into it and dialled up a device like the rotating wheels of a fruit machine but unfortunately I woke up before going off to the stars.

Of course one can always over state dreams and read into them more than is really there but I can’t help feeling that on Ithere is indeed some sort of special energy field, star-gate, point of contact, call it what you will. This island is special. It has a feeling that the curtain between earthly reality and the world of spirit is especially thin here. Perhaps St Columba himself knew this and that is the reason why he sited his community here, away from civilization out on the outermost fringes of the British Isles.

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