When the remains of several dozen butchered bodies were dug up in Iona, not far from the village port – after being found by 20th-century Scottish workmen – their chalky and brittle bones were the colour of white coral. They turned out to be 9th-century monks.
They had been slaughtered in AD 806, in a bay that would become known as Martyrs’ Bay. You can stand at the small beach where the abbot of Iona, along with 67 of these monks, had been killed by Viking warriors when they made the mistake of trying to greet them. There had been a previous raid four years earlier at another beach closer to the abbey called the White Strand of the Monks.
Not long after a third raid, the monks – like those at their daughter house of Lindisfarne in Northumberland – had had enough. For over 200 years, Christianity and the Catholic Mass all but departed the island. The last surviving monks heading to Ireland, taking with them the precious bones of St Columba and, almost certainly, the Book of Kells.
For over 1,500 years, the history of Iona has followed a similar pattern of faith, decimation and rebirth ever since St Columba first landed in 563 on a pebble beach that today carries his name. He was a noble son of the Uí Néill family, overlords of County Donegal in Ireland. He landed with 12 followers from Ireland. They rowed across in a curragh, a wooden boat made from animal hide stretched over a hull-like frame.
And what of the fate of Catholicism on the island today? As with Canterbury, the pilgrim trade bustles along with the final destination still being the shrine of St Columba, now empty and locked. But it’s fair to say that the nature of pilgrimage has changed since the 15th century. Ending up with a Catholic Mass isn’t usually on the agenda. The Iona Community hosts ecumenical inter-faith pilgrim retreats all year around partly thanks to a recent multimillion-pound grant that has restored the old pilgrim dormitories and buildings of Iona Abbey so that modern groups – hosting up to 100 at a time before Covid – can stay at the abbey for up to a week of reflection, prayer, spiritual renewal and walking.
But the focus of such retreats is also about spreading the gospel of peace and social justice. When I walked into the cloisters, flanked by rows of ancient Celtic warrior gravestones, a grey-haired female Unitarian pastor – a religious group who reject the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity – was giving a video diary sermon to her Midwest flock via an iPhone on a stick (“The routine here has got me back into the rhythm and ritual of prayer and work,” she said). I counted 24 out of 28 of the group were women. Opposite me, in the choir stall, was an activist wearing a bright orange Amnesty International sweatshirt. At the Friday morning “leavers” service at 8am, the final hymn line sung was: “May God’s blessing be ours on our pilgrim’s way, all the night and day of our journey home.”
For several hundred years after St Columba’s death in 597, traditional Christianity had flowered on Iona. One of the most important rooms at the abbey grounds was St Columba’s scriptorium where magnificent early religious manuscripts were created and copied, keeping the torch of faith alive through art. Columba himself wrote in a thatched wooden hut on top of a craggy mound of rock in front of the small monastery he founded (later turned into a flourishing Benedictine monastery from 1200). You can still see it today, a sort of literary Irish hermit’s writing cell.
St Columba’s vitality and vision – he brought Christianity to Britain – began the cycle that has forged Iona’s history: great spiritual energy and artistic creativity followed by sacking – first by the Vikings, then the commissioners of Henry VIII in the 1560s who destroyed the early medieval Benedictine abbey – and then rebirth. But for all the vandalism and violence, Iona’s abbey ruins have also long been seen as an inspiring symbol of hope. As walking pilgrim Samuel Johnson wrote in his A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), accompanied by James Boswell: “That man is little to be envied… whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.”
With its ruined 13th-century nunnery of St Mary the Virgin, ruined Benedictine abbey – rebuilt in the 20th century by the local community – and crumbing giant Celtic crosses, hundreds of which were destroyed and tossed into sea after the Reformation, Iona always seems to have rebounded as a spiritual force.
But what about the original Catholic faith of St Columba today? I am happy to report that the opportunity to celebrate Mass is still available on the holy island. But this was only thanks to the efforts of two remarkable women who founded the Catholic House of Prayer. Started in the mid-1980s, their mission was led by Mary Burn-Murdoch, whose family had a house on Iona since the 1930s.
The other was her friend Frances Shand Kydd, the Catholic-convert mother of Lady Diana Spencer, later HRH Princess of Wales. Frances devoted the later years of her life to Catholic charities, living on the Scottish island of Seil in an 18th-century farmhouse called Ardencaple, seven miles from Oban. Her funeral, in 2004, was held in Oban’s Catholic cathedral overlooking the bay.
These two women of resolute faith ensured there would be a permanent Catholic presence on Iona for the first time in 400 years. The Catholic House of Prayer – Cnoc a’ Chalmain in Gaelic – is a purpose-built house that has its own small oratory. Fittingly, the chapel and its enchanting garden overlooks Martyrs’ Bay.
Finding the spot, let alone building it, was a journey of over 10 years. It is now a popular Catholic spiritual retreat house – sleeping up to eight – run by a friendly mother and daughter team (Joss and Jann, neither of whom are Catholic) – which hosts pilgrims of all faiths at £75 per day per pilgrim, including breakfast and homemade supper. Priests get a free room as long as they celebrate Mass and – if not from Scotland – have a testimonial letter signed by their bishop.
The story of the House of Prayer’s founding might not be as well known as the island’s first wooden church in 563 but it is worth recalling. Until 1986, the closest place to attend Mass for those on Iona was Bunessan, some five miles from the Iona ferry on the south-west of Mull. When the Bunessan Mass was stopped in 1986, Catholics from Iona were required to make a round trip of over 100 miles to receive Communion. A Catholic Mass at Iona’s abbey was a very rare event in those days.
The first hope was a rundown holiday let house called Lovedale which came up for sale. But this fell through as there were obligations to sell to the National Trust Scotland who have owned most of the island since 1980. When a wreck of a cottage – not owned by the Trust – was found, the idea for turning it into a Catholic chapel was turned down by the local kirk session. Mary was secretly relieved. “It was a dreadful site, under jackdaw trees, damp and had no view,” she later recalled. The hunt continued.
Next step was the founding of the Colmcille Trust in 1991, of which Frances Shand Kydd became a trustee. After two more years of searching, the trustees finally agreed to buy Kilona, which stood near the ruins of the old 13th-century Augustinian nunnery. Work began in 1996 and the building was first blessed and was finally dedicated in April 1997 by Archbishop Keith (later Cardinal) O’Brien of St Andrews and Edinburgh, who was at that time the administrator of the Catholic diocese of Argyll and the Isles.
The architect was Charles Hughes from Chichester. Like Frances Shand Kydd, he donated all his time and services for free. Princess Diana’s mother worked as a highly effective appeals secretary until 2004, raising all the money to build Cnoc a’ Chalmain. Thanks to Frances’s high-profile status, donations flowed in from all over Britain and indeed all over the world, after news of the project – restoring a Catholic altar of faith to Iona after 400 years – caught the imagination of the press.
We are now planning a Catholic Herald five-day retreat at the House of Prayer. We now just need to find a priest who can take a week off to lead our Herald pilgrims. Applications welcome.
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