Iona Abbey

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Things to do


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October, 2016

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Iona Abbey is one of the oldest and most important religious centres in Britain. There is so much history to the place that I have divided the review into four separate parts. The first part covers the history and some background. The second part describes the Abbey buildings. This part concentrates on the Abbey itself and part four describes the cloisters. The Museum is reviewed “here.”:

All the information and a lot more pictures can be found “here.”:

This is perhaps more impressive from the outside as it is quite dark inside and also a bit spartan. Entry is either from the cloisters or through the west doorway.

It is a very long church as the chancel is as long as the nave. It is very plain with stark bare stone walls. This is where the pilgrims would have worshipped. The lower parts of the walls are from the original building. The upper part and the wooden roof were rebuilt in the early C20th.

Just inside the door at the top of a flight of stairs is the early C20th font. This stands on Iona marble legs and has a sandstone bowl carved with Celtic motifs, similar to those seen on the high crosses. Along the back of the south wall are six graveslabs of clerics which came from Reilig Odhrain. They date from around 1300-1500.

The transepts are small compared to the rest of the church. The north transept is the oldest part of the church and much of the stonework dates from the early 1200s. This was originally a chapel to St Columba where the monks kept the last remaining relics of the saint. It now contains a small exhibition about St Columba. There are two small chapels in the thickness of the wall which would have contained altars. In the niche between them was a statue of St Columba. Only the feet remain. Above is a modern wire statue of the saint.

In the far chapel is a what is described as St Columba’s pillow. Adomnam, in his Biography of St Columba, describes him as sleeping on a stone pillow. When the stone was discovered by a local crofter in 1870, it was immediately thought to be St Columba’s pillow. Carved with a ring cross, it is much more likely to be an C8th or C9th grave marker.

Behind an metal grille in the south transept is the splendid white Carrara marble tomb of George Campbell, eighth Duke of Argyll and his third wife Ina McNeill. He was responsible for initiating the restoration of the church. Although his Duchess is buried in the abbey, the Duke was buried in the family vault in Dunoon.

The crossing and the arch into the south choir aisle date from around 1400 and have wonderfully carved capitals. The ferns growing high on the walls are the rare sea spleenwort, and would have taken hold when the church was ruined. They have survived the conservation repairs and still flourish today.

The chancel was enlarged in the C13th and is as long as the nave. The Benedictine monks would have worshipped here. On the south side, an arcade of round pillars with highly carved capitals separates it from the south choir aisle.

On the north wall, the double arch with a central pillar about 6ft above the present day floor marks the former floor level of the choir when there was a crypt beneath it. The ogee topped stone doorway would have originally led into the crypt, but goes into the Sacristry, formed from the original north choir aisle.

The choir has rows of solid modern wooden seats with arm rests. The presbytery has a modern altar of Iona marble with a red curtain behind it. There are more sea spleenworts growing on the walls.

The sedilia with its carved heads is part of the 1400s building. In front of it is the effigy of Dominic MacKenzie who was abbot between 1421-65. He was responsible for rebuilding of the church and petitioned the Pope to be allowed to raise funds from a special indulgence. for people visiting the abbey on St Columba’s feast day, 9th June. Their donations would reduce the amount of time spent in purgatory after their death. Opposite is the effigy of his successor, John MacKinnion who was the son of the clan chief.


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