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

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:

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.

Below, most of small, containable Iona spreads out visibly in the half light. Over to the west is the broad curve of the ``Bay at the Back of the Ocean'' which can, in stormy weather, receive the full blast of the Atlantic. Even the night before, when we had strolled through the ``machair'' pastures toward this impressive bay, the sea, though calm, produced a dramatic, continuous, rushing sound.

Farther south lies the less hospitable, rockier part of the island where Columba and his monks are supposed to have landed in their coracle -- thus ``Columba's Bay'' and ``Port of the Coracle.''

Just north of Dun I is the topmost end of Iona, fringed with some of its most silvery beaches, though ``The White Strand of the Monks (``Traigh Ban nam Manach'') is memorialized as the site of a dreadful massacre of an abbot and 15 monks by Norse pirates on the scent of monastic treasure in AD 986.

And then -- as the sharp arrows of the morning sun begin to strike exactly over Ben More, the highest hill on Mull -- there to the southeast, almost at my feet, stands the sturdy abbey church and its accompanying buildings, emerging in the growing brightness. It is ``by far the largest and most elaborate ecclesiastical monument of the Western Highland area'' says a recent scholarly and detailed study of it.

There is no doubt that Iona is a tranquil place. And its light has that washed, air-pervasive clarity which is such a marvelous aspect of many small islands. Perhaps in the roughest weather of winter Iona feels awesome, exposed, alone. But we happened on a sun-bright weekend, with unbelievably blue ocean all round, and the world sparkling.

Iona's only actual disappointment, I felt, was that the abbey (which after all is the focal point for the tourist) is architecturally dull. Except for one massive chapel with a round Norman doorway, the buildings around the church are almost entirely modern reconstructions, or approximations, of bland uninterest, however much one applauds the dedication of the ``Iona Community'' responsible for restoring them since 1938. They are today this community's ``spiritual home'' and the focus for its interestin g commitments to, among other things, healing, pacifism, and ``a necessary integration of worship and work, prayer and politics.''

The church itself, which was restored 28 years before the community was founded, and for which, therefore, it cannot be praised or blamed, simply lacks that sense of survival, of ancient monumental strength outlasting the trivial ravages of time and neglect and decay, which one can gain from many great old ecclesiastical remains. Iona Abbey has simply and sadly lost this quality.

What has been reconstructed here is basically a 15th-century Benedictine abbey, founded long after Iona had ceased to be the famous Columban place of pilgrimage, important center of Christianity, and burial place of Scottish kings (the claim, incidentally, that Macbeth and Duncan of Shakespeare fame were among them is not backed by much concrete evidence). Little of that period remains, even as atmosphere.

From the tourist's point of view, it is possible that a ruin, however impractical as a place of worship, is far more suggestive of the marvel of ages past than a rebuilt and weatherproofed group of buildings. The ruins of the nunnery -- one of the ``best preserved'' (as a ruin) examples of small houses for nuns of the early 13th century -- have much more presence.

Perhaps -- apart from the obvious advice to enjoy the sea and rocks and sands and air and sheep -- the visitor to this old and honored Scottish island should be told: ``Get thee to the nunnery!'' Not that it is easy to miss.

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