- IONA, or Icolmkill, an island of the Hebrides, and also a quoad sacra parish, in the parish of Kilfinichen, district of Mull, county of Argyll; containing 1084 inhabitants, of whom 460 are on the island. This place, which is of remote antiquity, is situated to the south-west of the Isle of Mull, in the Atlantic Ocean; and, at a very early period, was the principal seat of the Druidical worship, from which circumstance it obtained the appellation of Inish-Druinish, or the "Island of Druids." It was subsequently occupied by the ancient Culdees, for whom, it is recorded, Fergus II. erected a monastery and a stately church, which became the burying-place of many of his successors, kings of Scotland. Its name Iona, signifying, in the Gaelic language, the "Island of Waves," appears to have been derived from the violent agitations of the narrow sound by which it is separated from Mull: that of Icolmkill, by which it is not uncommonly known, arose from the foundation of a religious establishment by St. Columba, about the middle of the sixth century. St. Columba, emigrating from Ireland, for the conversion of the natives of the Hebrides to the Christian faith, landed here, with twelve of his companions, in the year 563, and, having converted many of the northern Picts to Christianity, received from their king a grant of the island, on which he founded a Monastery for canons regular of the order of St. Augustine. This monastery, which was amply endowed, flourished under the superintendence of its founder, and acquired such reputation for sanctity and learning as to obtain for the isle the appellation of the Holy Island, and to render it the resort of pious and learned men from Ireland, Norway, and all parts of Scotland, for which it was the principal school of theology and philosophy.St. Columba presided over the monastery he had founded till his death in 597, at which time his zeal for the propagation of Christianity had prompted him to found, in various parts of Britain, 100 monasteries and 365 churches, and to ordain not less than 3000 priests. The island hence became the grand centre from which the truths of the Christian religion, and the benefits of sound learning, were diffused to every portion of the kingdom; and after the death of St. Columba, the monastery continued to flourish under his successors, and was held in such veneration, that the island was regarded as consecrated ground, and became the buryingplace of many of the kings of Ireland and Norway. From this monastery, which was independent of the papal jurisdiction, and in which, under St. Columba and his successors, the principles and discipline of the Culdees were retained, Oswald, king of Northumbria, in 632, obtained a bishop to teach his subjects the principles of Christianity; and in 765, Neil Frasach, King of Ireland, abdicated the sovereignty, and retired to this island, where he died. In 777, Asglal, son of the King of Connaught, became a monk of Iona, which was still, and continued for many years, the principal university of Britain, to which the young princes of Scotland, Northumbria, and other kingdoms, were sent to receive their education. The monastery subsequently became subject to the predatory incursions of the northern pirates, by whom it was frequently plundered and laid waste; and in 797, it was burnt by the Danes, who, again, in 801, massacred nearly eighty of the monks, and compelled the abbot and the rest to seek safety by flight. On its restoration after the retreat of the Danes, the monastery was refounded for monks of the Cluniac order, under whose superintendence it subsisted till the dissolution; its revenues were then appropriated to the see of Argyll, and, after the abolition of episcopacy, became the property of the dukes.Of the ancient buildings connected with the monastery, the principal remains are those of the abbey church, which was also the cathedral of the bishops of the Isles, and, with its tower, is almost entire. It is a cruciform structure of red granite, chiefly in the Norman style, 160 feet in length, seventy feet across the transepts, and twenty-four feet in mean breadth, with a tower rising from the centre to the height of seventy feet. The choir, which is sixty feet in length, is divided from the nave by massive circular columns, supporting the tower, and of which the capitals are sculptured with grotesque figures, displaying scriptural allusions and other devices. The nave and choir are separated from the aisles by ranges of columns of similar form, and obtusely-pointed arches, sustaining the roof; and are lighted by a lower tier of large windows of various character and inelegant design, and by a range of clerestory windows, of which some are Norman, and others headed in trefoil. The high altar, of marble brought from the Isle of Skye, unfortunately acquired the reputation of possessing a charm against shipwreck, and has totally disappeared by fragments. Around the cathedral are various ruins of walls, supposed to have been chapels, and parts of the monastic buildings: four of the arches of the cloister are still remaining, and portions of the bishop's palace, the hall, and the refectory. On the south side of the cathedral are the remains of St. Oran's chapel, a rude edifice sixty feet in length, and twenty-two feet broad, in a roofless state, but otherwise in good preservation: the sculpture of the doorway, which is a Norman arch, with chevron mouldings, is especially worthy of attention. It contains various tombs of different periods, among which is that of St. Oran, the disciple of St. Columba, a handsome monument, apparently of much more recent date than the chapel. On the north of this chapel are the ruins of the Nunnery, or rather the chapel of the Nunnery, a structure in the Norman style, nearly of the same dimensions as the chapel of St. Oran; part of the vaulted roof is still remaining, and there are some very slender traces of the conventual buildings. The tombstone of the Princess Anna, lady abbess, is yet to be seen; it bears the date 1543, and has a figure of the abbess, in the attitude of prayer to the Virgin Mary, who has an infant in her arms, and a mitre on her head.To the south of St. Oran's chapel is the inclosure called "Relig-Owran," or "the burying-place of Oran," in which are a vast number of tombs, overgrown with grass and weeds, and mostly so defaced as to render the inscriptions on them altogether illegible. In this cemetery it is said that one of the kings of France, four kings of Ireland, eight kings of Norway, and forty-eight kings of Scotland, are interred, the last commencing with Fergus II. and ending with Macbeth, whose successor, Malcolm Canmore, removed the place of royal sepulture to Dunfermline. The precincts of the cemetery, which contained also the tombs of the lords of the Isles, and of the most distinguished families, had the privilege of sanctuary; and in various parts of the island were not less than 360 crosses of stone, of which four only are now left. At the time of the Reformation, the synod of Argyll ordered sixty of these crosses to be thrown into the sea; and the remainder appear to have been either wantonly destroyed, or suffered to fall from neglect. Of those that remain, two are in a perfect state, of which one is sculptured with figures of Adam and Eve, standing by the forbidden tree; the third has only ten feet of the shaft, and of the fourth the foot only is left, imbedded in a mound of earth. In order to preserve all these venerable remains from further injury, they have been inclosed with walls by the Duke of Argyll, and placed under the vigilant superintendence of a keeper.The island is about three miles in extreme length, and a mile and a half in average breadth, comprising an area of 2000 acres, of which not more than 600 are arable, and the remainder hill pasture, rock, or morass. The surface rises into eminences, of which the highest, Dun-ii, has an elevation of 400 feet above the level of the sea. The coast on the eastern side is low and sandy, and is indented with a bay, called the Bay of Martyrs, in which were landed the bodies of such as were intended for interment in the cemetery. This bay, which affords good anchorage in five fathoms, within two cables' length of the shore, is frequented by numerous steamers conveying passengers to visit the island; and near it is the village, containing about 170 persons. On the western shore of the isle is Port-na-Currach, or the " bay of the boat," where St. Columba is said to have landed, in commemoration of which event a heap of earth, about fifty feet in length, was thrown up in the form of a boat, with the keel upwards. Numerous small springs of excellent water intersect the island; and near the abbey gardens are vestiges of an artificial lake of several acres, surrounded by hills; also the ruins of a mill. The soil of the arable land is light and sandy, but fertile, producing favourable crops; several of the hills are arable to their summit, and in good cultivation, and most of the others afford excellent pasture. Marble of good quality was formerly wrought by the Duke of Argyll, and considerable quantities sent to Leith and London; but the mines have been discontinued for some time. Pebbles of green serpentine, also, are found along the shore; they are susceptible of a high polish, and are formed into various elegant trinkets. The quoad sacra parish of Iona, erected by authority of act of parliament, comprises, besides the island, a district of Mull, containing a population of 620 persons: the ecclesiastical affairs are placed under the superintendence of the presbytery of Mull and synod of Argyll. The minister's stipend is £120, paid by government, with a manse, and a glebe valued at £1. 10. per annum; patron, the Crown. The church, erected by government, in 1828, at a cost of £700, is a neat structure containing 266 sittings. The members of the Free Church have a place of worship. A school, for which an appropriate building has been erected by the Duke of Argyll, is supported by government; and there is also a school maintained by a Society.
A Topographical dictionary of Scotland. Samuel Lewis. 1856.