Tuesday, November 16, 2010



The Abbey at Iona

Click on the pictures for the larger view.

Quotes are taken from the Official Souvenir Guide for the Abbey.
Iona, of all the sacred places in Scotland, is an enduring symbol of Christianity. St Columba arrived on the island with twelve companions in AD 563 and founded a monastery that was to become the heart of the Scottish Church during its early years. One of the most important monasteries in early medieval Europe, it was a renowned center of learning and artistic excellence with extensive international contacts.
On the day before, the three of us, Cathy, MadChauffer, and I, attempted to take the ferry to Iona from the Isle of Mull, but, to our surprise and disappointment, the ferry was not running that day. The weather was lovely, and we went instead by boat to visit the Isle of Staffa and the Tresnish Isles.

On the next day, the weather turned rainy and stayed wet nearly all day. But if we wanted to visit Iona, we had to go in spite of the dreary weather, because we were leaving the Isle of Mull the following day. After we arrived on the island by ferry, we had lunch, and, from then on, we went our separate ways.


The nunnery ruins at Iona
The great building enterprises of around 1200 included the nunnery. Earl Reginald, its founder installed his own sister, Bethoe (Beatrice), as the first prioress. Although ruined, the nunnery is one of the best preserved in Britain. Such houses were common in Ireland, and it is likely that many of Iona's first nuns were Irish.


More nunnery ruins

The ruins of the nunnery are breathtakingly lovely. Cathy and I hung about the ruins for quite some time, Cathy longer than I, because she was photographing the birdies (and beasties?). I moved on toward the Abbey.

St Oran's Chapel
St Oran's Chapel, restored in 1957, was probably built as a family burial chapel either by Somerled, 'king' of the Isles, who died in 1164, or by his son Reginald.

Irish influence can be seen in both the architecture and the decorative doorway of this fine building. Inside is an elegant tomb-recess, built in the late fiftenth century, perhaps by John, the last Lord of the Isles.


Tomb-recess in St Oran's

Small, ancient churches like St Oran's are amongst my very favorite of old structures. I waited behind a man and a woman to light candles for our group of three travelers. Once their candles were lit, instead of moving away, they began a kiss that went on, and on, and on, and on, all the while blocking the way and preventing me from lighting my candles. Only the couple and I were in the chapel, and I waited, and waited, and waited for the pair to stop kissing and move aside. When I became tired of standing, I sat on one of the seats in the chapel to wait for them to be done. They must have kissed for five minutes or longer. I've never seen anything like it, but perhaps I've led a sheltered life.

When the kissing pair finally moved away and left the chapel, I lit my three candles and sat down again to have the chapel to myself for a while in peace and quiet.

The nave of the Abbey church

On the way to the Abbey church, the rain fell heavily, but nothing to do but to continue on, because I would not have another day. The shelter of the church was quite welcome.
Always the most public part of the church, the nave is a simple rectangular space without aisles. Two processional doorways lead north out to the cloister.

The Choir

The choir is beautiful, indeed. The carvings on the capitals of the columns are wonderfully done, with each capital having a unique design. Unfortunately, the detail cannot be seen in the photo, nor could I find a good link online to close-up pictures of the capitals.


The Baptismal font

I did not want the man in the kilt in the picture, but he wouldn't move away from the font. How about that calf? I cropped the rest of him. I expect he may not want to be in a picture on my blog any more than I want him here.

With the rain still falling, I was a bit reluctant to leave the church, but there was more to see, the Cloister, the Bishop's House, the Abbot's House, and the Abbey Museum.


The Cloister
The lean-to of the cloister is supported on an arcade formed of paurs of otagonal columns with moulded bases and capitals decorated mainly with scalloped and water-leaf ornament. Numerous original fragments are preserved, but only a few were in good enough condition to reuse during the restoration of 1958-59. Many of the new column capitals are carved with bird and foliage designs.

Indeed, the old carvings on columns, crosses, archways, tombstones, and elsewhere throughout the Iona complex of structures are amazing.

As I entered the Cloister area, a large group of German tourists, which included a shouting tour guide, was assembled, but fortunately, the leader was winding down his noisy spiel, and the group soon left, only for me to run smack up against the kissing couple, once again engaged in what seemed to be their favorite pleasure of the day. Since I was not confined to a small, enclosed space with them, I moved on and didn't clock the length of the kiss.

In the center court of the Cloister stands the wonderful bronze sculpture of Mary and the Trinity by sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.


St John's Cross

The cross stands in the Abbey Museum.
A particular highlight of the museum is the reconstructed St John's Cross that formerly stood close to St Columba's Shrine, together with the surviving fragments from Iona's two other ancient high crosses, St Matthew's Cross and St Oran's Cross.
On the way back to the ferry landing from the Abbey church area, my feet gave out, and I stopped for tea, for shelter from the rain, and to rest my feet. The tea and biscuits were some of the most enjoyable of my life.

After tea, I continued back toward the ferry landing, arriving more than an hour before our assigned departure time on the next-to-last ferry. There were Cathy, who had arrived about 10 minutes before me, and MadChauffeur waiting. Cathy and I had visited all the same places, but we never once ran into each other. MadChauffeur said he had been standing in the rain "for hours", which made me wonder why he hadn't gone into the pub and had a beer instead. He said he thought I was lost, that I had gone the wrong way. I don't see how I could have gone the wrong way, because the tower of the Abbey church was visible from the nunnery, where we started out.

Also, we all three had cell phones. I offered my number to MadChauffeur before we separated, but he was not interested, and he didn't offer to give me his number. Cathy and I had exchanged numbers early in the trip, so we could have been in touch at any time. The hours-long wait in the rain was not at all necessary.

When we went to board the ferry, which was about to leave, Cathy went first, and MadChauffeur and I tried to board together, but I could not find my return ticket. We stood there in the rain while I searched all my many pockets and my purse without success, and MadChauffeur went on and boarded the ferry. I thought it would be "Bye-bye, friends", but the ticket-collector allowed me to board without a ticket. Of course, once I was on the ferry, I found my ticket.

My readers, I have only scratched the surface in picturing and describing our visit to Iona, which is an extraordinary and holy place, where the prayers of many over centuries echo and linger. I may do another post on Iona, at least a photo essay, for I have lots more pictures. I've been working on this post for days, off and on, and I wouldn't want to know how much time went into putting the pieces together. But for St John's Cross, I didn't touch on the treasures in the Abbey Museum, the old crosses, the carved gravestones, and much more, including places visited but not described in my post.