An influential centre full of rich pickings for Viking raiders
Iona Abbey was founded in 563 by an Irish monk, Columba. It developed as an influential centre for the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots. Churches and monasteries were full of rich pickings for Viking raiders.
Iona Abbey was first attacked in 795, with subsequent attacks taking place in 802, 806, and 825. During the 806 Viking attack, 68 monks were massacred in Martyrs' Bay. As a result, many of the monks relocated to a new Abbey of Kells in Ireland.
In 825, St Blathmac and those monks who remained with him at Iona, were martyred in a Viking raid and the abbey was burned. It was not until 878 that the main relics, including Columba's reliquary shrine, moved to Ireland. It has been suggested that the 'Book of Kells' was started in Iona. However, Iona Abbey was probably never deserted. In 980 a retired King of Dublin, Amlaíb Cuarán, died there.
Adomnán, Abbot of Iona, who died in 704, mentions similar free-standing, ringed, wooden crosses, later replaced by stone versions. There are the remains of four stone “high crosses” on Iona, dedicated to St Martin, St Matthew, St John and St Oran. The St Martin’s Cross was carved between 750 and 800 and still stands complete and on its original site. Nearby there is a replica of St John’s Cross – the original, plus the reconstructed St Oran’s Cross and St Matthew’s Cross being on display in the Museum inside the abbey.
The abbey was rebuilt in 1938, under the inspiration of Rev. George MacLeod who also founded the Iona Community. The surrounding buildings were also re-constructed during the 20th century by the Iona Community. This Christian community still uses and maintains the site, but it is also open daily to visitors.
The nunnery, close by, was built in the 13th century by Reginald, son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles. His sister Bethoc was the first prioress. The nunnery, with its cloister and church, is a smaller but similar version of the abbey and suggests what the nunnery church and abbey probably looked like in the 13th century. The site would have originally included guest accommodation, a dormitory, a refectory and a meeting space known as the Chapter House.