Do you love tales of good versus evil? Pieces of history that you can experience first-hand? Viking raids and Christian triumph? Well my friend, if you do then the Isle of Iona in Scotland is the place for you. Two of my boys, Hunter and Jack, joined me on a day trip to this remote little island off of an island. We had a great time adventuring (and misadventuring) our way around this land that holds an extremely important part of Scottish history.
I’ll try to give you the abridged version of the history of Iona.
Waaaay back in 530AD, a little monk named Columba landed on the island with 13 of his bff’s (aka his followers). These guys established a simple little monastery in order to quietly and remotely contemplate God in prayer. Since they had so much time on their hands, they began copying holy texts, writing poetry, and even wrote the famous Book of Kells (which is housed to this day in the Trinity Library in Dublin). They kept this up until they soon amassed one of the greatest libraries in Europe. In 597, Columba died but asked for the his mission to continue to be carried out. Before the quiet little monks knew it, people began making pilgrimages over to the island, bringing priceless works of art in order to honor the man who was now known as St. Columba. Many kings were buried there as well. All this made Iona look pretty darn attractive to the Vikings and in 794 they decided what was the monk’s needed to become theirs so they performed the first of many raids of the monastery. By 825 most of the monks had been slain, the monastery was in ruins, and the island was mostly abandoned. However, good always prevails and in the 10th century many of the Vikings converted to Christianity and in 1200 they decided to build a great new monastery which still stands on the island today. Pretty cool, huh?
So Iona is the exact place where Christianity was brought to Scotland!
(If this story fascinates you and you want to learn more, click here)
Thankfully today things have settled down on the Isle of Iona.
How do you get there?
We made our own pilgrimage to the island one sunny and surprisingly hot summer day. Iona is not exactly the easiest island to get to. We drove to Oban, boarded a ferry to the Isle of Mull, stayed a couple of nights in Tobermory, then drove south 4 hours on single-track roads to the teeny-tiny town of Finnophort (actually pronounced Finn-a-fort). From there, we took a quick ferry ride over to Iona. Although it’s a bit difficult to get to, once you’re there you will quickly realize it was worth the effort.
What’s the island like?
At only 1.5 miles wide and 3 miles long, this little island is completely walkable. In fact, visitor cars are not permitted on the island so walking around is very safe. While there are houses, stores, and tourist attractions, only 120 people actually reside on the island. A lack of many cars and people gives visitors a wonderful sense of peace and ease while exploring the island.
Our first stop after disembarking the ferry was the Nunnery. Built in the 1400’s, many of its ancient walls still stand open to the blue sky above. It was quite beautiful to wander around the grounds, but we found ourselves seeking shade as the heat of the day hit us and began to feel like we were on the surface of the sun.
Next, we made our way towards the stunning Iona Abbey. Along the way were a few cute shops, small cafes, an amazing tall intricate cross, and a chapel. I managed to find a cute little jewelry shop that had a ring I instantly fell in love with and bought as my souvenir of this special place. Yes, I can pretty much shop anywhere. 😉
The Reilig Odhráin burying ground
The Reilig Odhráin burying ground can be found just before the Abbey. This is the location where at one point in time 48 Scottish kings were buried including Macbeth!
The Abbey itself is awe-inspiring. The first thing to greet you is the 14 foot high St Martin’s Cross, which was made between 750 and 800 and still stands in its original location.
I was absolutely fascinated by the beauty found inside the Abbey. The attention to detail, stunning stained glass, and architectural design were an impressive site to behold.
Most people could spend hours here, but I was with my two boys and I could see their eyes glazing over after the first half an hour roaming around the Abbey. Being a team player, I begrudgingly took one last look at the site where Christianity was brought to Scotland, and said a little prayer of thanksgiving.
With that, we were off on our way again. Did I already mention it was hot? Now, let me be the first to admit, when we first arrived in Scotland, all the locals were talking about the heat wave that had hit the country. As they were talking about the excessive heat, I scoffed, joking to myself that their version of a heat wave was probably equal to our version of a lovely spring day in Michigan. But boy was I wrong!
Let the misadventure begin!
The boys and I went wandering down the road in search of the old Marble Quarry which looked like a fun place to explore. Closed in 1918, it’s now a place to wander around and discover bits and pieces from the past which seemed like it might be way more interesting to the boys than a stuffy old church. Gotta make everyone happy, right? So, as I mentioned, Iona is a very small island with very few roads. That means it should be easy to find a big old abandoned rock quarry right? Well, maybe for most people but not for us. Let the misadventure begin!
We walked down the road a bit and felt the heat of the day begin to take its toll upon us. To put it politely, we were all getting a bit sweaty. So we cut off the road and decided to walk along the water where it was a bit cooler.
At this point for some reason, the boys were leading the way. This was like the blind leading the blind. Why in the world I was following a 12-year-old, I have no idea. I’ll just blame it on the heat.
The beach began getting smaller and smaller while the surrounding cliffs got taller and taller.
When we eventually ran out of beach, Jack (the 12-year-old) looked up and told us he was going to climb the cliff the loomed before us. That way, he reasoned, we would have a better vantage point from which to see the quarry. Before I could list all the reasons why this was a bad idea, he had scaled the cliff and disappeared. I looked at Hunter who looked at me with a gleam in his eye and scampered right up that cliff after Jack. Now, Hunter is 21 and you’d think he would know better. Ha! That’s a joke. So there I was, all alone on the beach thinking about all the worst-case scenarios that could happen as a result of this endeavor. The main one being one of us (me) would fall off the cliff, need an ambulance, and be completely out of luck. But hey, there’s always a silver lining, right? Maybe they could haul my body over to Reilig Odhráin and bury me with the kings.
After much cajoling from the boys, I reluctantly followed them (not so gracefully) up the side of the cliff muttering the entire time, “if your dad was here he would kill me”. Thankfully we made it to the top even more sweaty, but unscathed and were rewarded with a stunning view of the blue-green water of the Atlantic Ocean.
However, as we took in our surroundings at the top, all that lay ahead of us on the island were lots of hills, sheep, and more hills.
No longer merely glistening with sweat but now dripping, and completely out of water, we decided to scratch the marble quarry and head back to civilization.
Once back in town, we treated ourselves to lots of water and some nice cool ice cream. As we sat there, we recounted how we almost “died” of heat exhaustion and joked about how we were close to being lost forever…on a teeny-tiny island…where you could literally see civilization from practically anywhere you stood. We go a good laugh and I vowed to never scoff at locals who mentioned a heat wave again.
Despite the heat, we had a lovely day on the Isle of Iona. We enjoyed all of our adventures AND misadventures completely. It’s a lovely island which offers a very important piece of Scottish history as well as fun for the whole family. I would love to go back again. Perhaps next time I should plan my trip for a time when the weather is a bit less hot and maybe even splurge and buy a map. 😉
for more great information on the Isle of Iona, check out http://www.welcometoiona.com, and https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/iona-abbey-and-nunnery/history/