Iona. The monastery founded by St Columba in 563 soon became the center for Celtic Christianity, sending out missionaries to Scotland and Northumbria. Although the ravages of Viking raids before and after 800 made Iona a more dangerous place to live, its prestige continued well into the 9th cent. Following a massacre of its monks in 806, work began apace on the Irish midland monastery of Kells, which was gradually to become the focus of the Columban communities in Ireland. Kells was finished in 814, and not long after (c.818), a new Columban monastery in central Scotland was founded, Dunkeld. It is generally held that in 849 the relics of St Columba were split between the two new monasteries, confirming shifts in patronage and power centers which had been under way for some time. From the end of the 9th cent., we find the head of the Columban communities, the comarba Choluim Chille, based in Kells, and the headship remained there until the 12th cent.
None the less, Iona's importance as a religious centre continued, and began to attract the newly converted Norse settlers of the Hebrides. Two Norse cross slabs are now housed in the Iona museum, one bearing an inscription in Norse runes, another bearing a scene from Norse legend. In 980, the powerful king of Viking Dublin, Olaf Cuarán, died on pilgrimage to the island. This was an up-and-down relationship, however, as six years later, a raiding party from the Northern Isles slaughtered the elders of the monastery and the abbot.
The wider influence of Iona monks can be seen as far afield as Carolingian Europe. Dicuil, a cosmographer who wrote a description of the world c.825 in the court of Charles the Bald, probably came from Iona, and he describes other Iona monks ranging as far north as the Faroes and as far south as Egypt. The martyrdom of Blathmac, son of Flann, defending the relics of Columba from Viking raiders in 825 caught the imagination of Walahfrid Strabo, based in the monastery of Reichenau on Lake Constance. One of the 10th-cent. heads of the Columban communities, Mugrón (965–81), who appears to have been partially based in Scotland, was a devotional writer of some skill.
The 11th cent. was marred by such incidents as the loss of some of Columba's relics on a journey back to Ireland from Iona (in 1034), and slaying of the abbot by a rival, the son of a former abbot of Kells in 1070. None the less, Scottish kings, according to tradition, continued to be buried there, and Margaret, wife of Malcolm III, king of the Scots, held the monastery in favour.
In the next century, it again became the religious hub of a new island-centred power-base. Somerled mac Gille-Brigde, the powerful Argyll sea-lord whose descendants became the Lords of the Isles, attempted in 1164 to lure the head of the Columban communities back to Iona. He failed, but the building of a new Benedictine monastery in 1204, followed by an Augustinian nunnery, spelled the return of Iona's fortunes. Closely linked to the Lords of the Isles from the 14th cent. onwards, and the seat intermittently of the bishop of the Isles, Iona in the later Middle Ages was a great centre of sculpture. The present church on the island dates substantially to the 15th-cent. renewal programme, and displays the skills and patronage then available. Only with the forfeiture of the lordship in 1493 and the Reformation did Iona's decline set in in earnest.
- article by Thomas Owen Clancy
graphic: Iona Island, Iona Abbey, Iona coast line from the Abbey