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History-steeped Iona: ancient Christian outpost off Scotland's coast

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1985

Iona, Scotland

THE little western isle of Iona -- so inextricably identified with the history and origins of Christianity in Scotland -- was honored indeed: It was praised by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Things Scottish were often the butt of that gentleman's lofty, dismissive wit. But today on Iona, strategically attached to a stone wall en route from the quay at St. Ronan's Bay, beyond the ruined nunnery, and just as one rounds the bend in the direction of the dominant buildings of Iona Abbey, there is a proud bronze plaque quoting the last sentence of the tribute by that ``literary Colossus'' of the 18th century:

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The man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.

Iona was also praised by the composer Mendelssohn, who thought it a place of romantic escapism -- of ``loneliest loneliness.''

But Walter Scott, though undoubtedly both a Romantic and a lover of Scotland, considered the island ``desolate and miserable.'' It is clearly a place that varies according to the mood of the visitor (what place doesn't?) and probably also according to the weather.

Nevertheless, for centuries this island has been considered by pilgrims, travelers, and tourists a peculiarly special place and, for some, even a holy one. This is largely due to the Irish saint, Columba, who arrived here with 12 followers in AD 563 (some 32 years before Augustine arrived in Kent to convert the Angles), built a church and an abbey, and, with these as headquarters, made it his successful mission to convert the Highland Picts to Christianity. In this way Iona became a celebrated center of

Irish -- and Scottish -- religious life in the 6th and 7th centuries.

Since Johnson's day the tourist traffic to Iona (which is a mere 3 miles long by 11/2 wide) seems to have done nothing but increase -- though ``traffic'' is the wrong word, perhaps, since the restriction of motorized vehicles to permanent residents makes the island marvelously peaceful. And, as points out Angus Johnston, proprietor of the comfortable if unpretentious St. Columba Hotel, even though crowds of visitors come over from the much larger adjacent island of Mull throughout the summer, most only have time to tread the sightseers' route from quay to abbey and back. This means that anyone looking for Mendelssohn's brand of loneliness can ``easily find it anywhere else on Iona.''

The thing to do is equip yourself with the excellent map sold at the Abbey Shop (open 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. every day except Sunday), lace up your walking boots (or hire a bicycle), and explore.

A distinct charm of Iona is that, although it is only the briefest of ferry rides away from Fionnphort on Mull's southwestern tip, it is geologically quite different from its large and rather bleak neighbor. The few roads on Iona lead through fresh green pastureland covered with fat sheep, a landscape interspersed haphazardly with rocky mounds. Of these mounds, the most eminent -- if that isn't too important a word for a hill only 332 feet high -- is ``Dun I,'' which means ``Hill Fort of Iona.'' One of the pleasures of exploring the island map-in-hand is that the Gaelic names for features sound wonderful in themselves (even mispronounced) -- such as ``Cnoc Mor Nan Gall'' or ``An Uiridh Riabhach'' -- and they translate into English names that better Tolkien, like ``Big Hill of the Strangers'' and ``The Dappled Dell.''

Among my own prouder moments was the ascent of Dun I, which was accomplished alone (and in the face of a certain family skepticism) just before sunrise on the second day of our stay. There is, of course, little to it: You encounter a squashy bog or two, and surprise several sleepwalking sheep, and then scramble up to the summit to be greeted by a cairn erected, I imagine, by last year's tourists rather than the Celtic monks or marauding Vikings of yesteryear.