Scottish Cathedrals and Abbeys
The following is from Scottish Cathedrals and Abbeys by Rev. D. Butler, M.A.:
Chapter III - Cathedrals
Diocese of the Isles
The history of Iona is associated with St. Columba, and, although its church did not attain full cathedral status until 1506, the island was one of the earliest centres of Christianity in Scotland.
St. Columba (Columcille or Colm) was born at Gartan, County Donegal, 7th December 521, and was the son of a chief related to several of the princes then reigning in Ireland and the west of Scotland. He studied under St. Finnian at Moville, and under another of the same name at Clonard. In 546 he founded the monastery of Derry, and in 553 that of Durrow. The belief that he had caused the bloody battle of Culdremhne led to his excommunication and exile from his native land, and, accompanied by twelve disciples, he left Ireland and sailed for the Western Islands, settling ultimately at Iona, where he and his companions began their work among the heathen Picts. The legend of his perpetual exile seems to be a fable, and Dr. Skene adds, "His real motive for undertaking this mission seems therefore to have been partly religious and partly political. He was one of the twelve apostles of Ireland who had emerged from the school of Finnian of Clonard, and he no doubt shared the missionary spirit which so deeply characterised the monastic Church of Ireland at that period. He was also closely connected through his grandmother with the line of the Dalriadic kings, and, as an Irishman, must have been interested in the maintenance of the Irish colony in the west of Scotland. Separated from him by the Irish Channel was the great pagan nation of the Northern Picts, who, under a powerful king, had just inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Scots of Dalriada, and threatened their expulsion from the country; and, while his missionary zeal impelled him to attempt the conversion of the Picts, he must have felt that, if he succeeded in winning a pagan people to the religion of Christ, he would at the same time rescue the Irish colony of Dalriada from a great danger, and render them an important service by establishing peaceable relations between them and their greatly more numerous and powerful neighbours, and replacing them in the more secure possession of the western districts they had colonised." It was in 563, and at the age of forty-two, that he settled at Iona and commenced his mission-work by founding his monastery there. He met there "two bishops," who came to receive his submission from him, but "God now revealed to Columcille that they were not true bishops, whereupon they left the island to him, when he told of them their history." They were, thinks Dr. Skene, the remains of that anomalous church of seven bishops which here, as elsewhere, preceded the monastic church, while Columba appears to have refused to recognise them as such, and the island was abandoned to him. Possessed as he was with the soul of a poet, and susceptible to the impressive in nature, Columba could not have chosen a finer spot than Iona for his work, or one where he could better combine with missionary activity a life of purity and self-denial. Tradition says he landed at the bay now known as Port-a-churaich, and proceeded to found the monastery and establish the church which was ultimately to embrace in its jurisdiction the whole of Scotland north of the Firths of Forth and Clyde, to be for a century and a half the national church of Scotland, and to give to the Angles of Northumbria the same form of Christianity for a period of thirty years. The buildings that now remain are of much later date, but it may be inferred that in its constitution, spirit, and work the Columban Church was not isolated, but was in reality a mission from the Irish Church, formed an integral part of it, and never lost its connection with it. The principal buildings were constructed of wood and wattles, and were originally (1) a monastery with a small court, on one side of which was the church, with a small side chamber, on a second side the guest-chamber, on the third a refectory, and on the fourth dwellings of the monks; a little way off on the highest part of the ground were (2) the cell of St. Columba, where he sat and read or wrote during the day, and slept at night on the bare ground with a stone for his pillow; and (3) various subsidiary buildings, including a kiln, a mill, a barn, all surrounded by a rampart or rath. Not far off was a sequestered hollow (Cabhan cuildeach) to which Columba retired for solitary prayer. The mill has left its traces in the small stream to the north of the present cathedral ruins, and remains of old causeways may be traced from the landing places of Port-na-martir, Port-Ronan, and Port-na-muintir. All the early buildings, except the kiln, were of wood; the guest-chamber was wattled, Columba's cell was made of planks, and the church was of oak. The members of the community were termed brethren, and were addressed by Columba as familia or chosen monks. They consisted of three classes: (1) the older brethren, who devoted themselves to the religious services of the church, and to reading and transcribing the Scriptures; (2) the younger and stronger working brothers, who devoted themselves to agriculture and the service of the monastery; (3) the alumni or youth, who were under instruction. The dress of the monks consisted of a white tunica or undergarment, over which they wore a camilla, consisting of a body and hood made of wool, and of the natural colour of the material. When working or travelling their feet were shod with sandals; they took a solemn monastic vow on bended knees in the oratorium, were tonsured from ear to ear--the fore part of the head being made bare, and the hair allowed to grow only on the back part of the head. The church of Iona was monastic, and in it we find neither a territorial episcopacy nor a presbyterian parity. The bishops were under the monastic rule, and were, in respect of jurisdiction, subject to the abbot, even though a presbyter, as the head of the monastery; the privilege of the episcopate was not interfered with. The monastery was described as a "gloriosum caenobium."
Columba made Iona his centre of activity, but his labours were not confined to it. He travelled with his companions and preached the Gospel as far north as Inverness, where King Brude was converted. He also preached among the Southern Picts, and a church was built at Abernethy by King Gartnaidh, as an outcome of his mission and as a memorial of his labours. He was also a far-seeing statesman, and succeeded in reconciling the feuds of the Northern and Southern Picts, and in making the two kingdoms one. His life was spent in missionary activity and beneficent service, and he died at Iona. The day before his death he "ascended the hill that overlooketh the monastery, and stood for some little time on its summit, and as he stood there with both hands uplifted, he blessed his monastery, saying, 'Small and mean though this place is, yet it shall be held in great and unusual honour, not only by Scotic kings and people, but also by the rulers of foreign and barbarous nations, and by their subjects; the saints also, even of other churches, shall regard it with no common reverence.'" On the following day, at nocturnal vigils, he went into the church, and knelt down in prayer beside the altar, and "his attendant Diormit, who more slowly followed him, saw from a distance that the whole interior of the church was filled with a heavenly light in the direction of the saint," which, as he drew near, quickly disappeared. "Feeling his way in the darkness, as the brethren had not yet brought in the lights, he found the saint lying before the altar," and all the monks coming in, Columba moved his hand to give them his benediction, and died 9th June 597, while "the whole church resounded with loud lamentations of grief." He left behind him an imperishable memory in the hearts of the people converted by him to the Christian faith, and in the national church which he so splendidly helped to build up. He wrote an Altus, and is said to have copied 300 books with his own hand. He was buried at Iona.
After Columba's death, the monastery of Iona appears to have been the acknowledged head of all the monasteries and churches which his mission had founded in Scotland, as well as of those previously founded by him in Ireland. It was a centre of light and life, but the monks were not permitted to pursue their work unmolested. The monastery was burned and plundered by the sea-pirates in 795, 798, and 802; in 806 sixty-eight of the community were ruthlessly slain. The monks remaining were filled with fear, and before 807 the relics of St. Columba were carried away to Ireland, and enshrined at Kells. In 818 they were brought back, and the monastery at Iona was rebuilt with stone. The Danes, however, granted little respite, and in 878 the relics were again removed, and were probably placed first at Dunkeld and afterwards at Abernethy, where the primacy was successively established, and a memorial of which exists in the Abernethy round tower. The plundering continued at intervals, and the buildings were more or less ruinous till about 1074, when Queen Margaret "restored the monastery, ... rebuilt it, and furnished it with monks, with an endowment for performing the Lord's work." "One of the present buildings," said the late Duke of Argyll--"the least and the most inconspicuous, but the most venerable of them all--St. Odhrain's Chapel, may possibly be the same building which Queen Margaret of Scotland is known to have erected in memory of the saint, and dedicated to one of the most famous of his companions. But Queen Margaret died in A.D. 1092, and therefore any building which she erected must date very nearly five hundred years after Columba's death; that is to say, the most ancient building which exists upon Iona must be separated in age from Columba's time by as many centuries as those which now separate us from Edward III. But St. Odhrain's Chapel has this great interest--that in all probability it marks the site of the still humbler church of wood and wattles in which Columba worshipped." Shortly afterwards the island passed into the possession of Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, and in 1099 the old order culminated in the death of Abbot Duncan, the last of the old abbots. Under the bishopric of Man and the Isles, the monastery became subject to the Bishop of Drontheim till 1156, when Somerled won it, and once more restored the connection between Iona and Ireland by placing the monastery under the care of the Abbot of Derry. In 1164 the community was represented by the priest, the lector, the head of the Culdees, and the Disertach or the head of the disert for the reception of pilgrims. Somerled appears to have rebuilt the ruined monastery on a larger scale, and about 1203 the Lord of the Isles (Reginald) adopted the policy of the Scottish kings, and founded at Iona a monastery of Benedictine monks (Tyronenses), and at the same time a nunnery for Benedictine nuns, of which Beatrice, sister of Reginald, was first prioress. It is of this Benedictine monastery and nunnery that the present ruins are the remains, and they were formerly connected by a causeway which extended from the nunnery to the monastery. After a struggle, the Culdees seem to have conformed to the new order of Benedictines, and the head of the Culdees was represented by the Prior of Iona, whom we afterwards find in the monastery. Iona was suffragan to the Bishop of Man and the Isles till 1431, when the Abbot of Iona made obedience to the Bishop of Dunkeld. In 1498, the Isles were made suffragan to St. Andrews; in 1506 they passed back to the care of the Bishop of the Isles; and from that date till the Reformation the abbey church became the cathedral church of the diocese. In 1648 Charles I granted the island to Archibald, Marquis of Argyll, and it still belongs to his descendant, the Duke of Argyll. The diocese contained forty-four parishes.
Surrounding the Chapel of St. Oran is a very ancient churchyard, containing beautiful specimens of Highland carved tombstones, and near which reposes the dust of Scotch, Irish, and Norwegian kings and ecclesiastics. The late Duke of Argyll both preserved and restored, and the foundations of the chapels and cloisters have been plainly marked out, and give a clear idea of the original plan of the abbey. The abbey or cathedral, although begun in the twelfth century, took a long time in building, was altered and added to, and is classed with the buildings of the Third Pointed period, as the greater part of the work connected with it belongs to a late date. It is cruciform in shape, consisting of nave, transepts, and choir, with sacristy on the north side of the choir, and aisle on the south. Near the west entrance was a small chamber called St. Columba's tomb. Over the crossing is a square tower, 70 feet high, and supported by arches resting on four pillars. It is lighted on one side by a window formed by a slab with quatrefoil openings, and on the other by a marigold or Catherine-wheel window with spiral mullions. The capitals of the pillars are carved with beautiful ornamentation and grotesque figures, which are still sharp and well defined. There are three sedilia, and the high altar seems to have been of marble. North of the nave is the cloister-garth; to the north and east of the cloisters are the refectory and chapter-house; the building over the chapter-house was the library, which was large and valuable. There were said to be many crosses in Iona; the entire ones are St. Martin's Cross, opposite the west door of the abbey church, and Maclean's Cross, on the wayside between the nunnery and the cathedral. There are the ruins of a small detached chapel to the north-east of the chapter-house, and of another to the west of the cloister: to the north-east of the cloister lie the total ruins of what is called the abbot's house. A short distance north-east of the abbey church, at Cladh-an-diseart, there was found in 1872 a heart-shaped stone, with an incised cross on it, which Dr. Skene is disposed to think was the stone used by St. Columba as a pillow.
The ruins of the nunnery, of which Beatrice, sister of Reginald, was the first abbess, and which was apparently erected soon after 1203, consist of a quadrangle about 68 feet square, having the church on the north side, foundations of the chapter-house and other apartments on the east side, and the refectory on the south side. There may have been other buildings on the west side, as the walls are broken at the ends; but if so, they are now removed. The church was an oblong structure, divided into nave and choir, and had a northern aisle extending along both. At a distance of about 30 feet north of the convent church stand the ruins of another building, said to have been the parish church. It was a simple oblong chamber, and was dedicated to St. Ronan. Lovely carved work has been found around the buildings, and these are carefully preserved and have been reproduced in illustration. These designs were probably carved on stone from the beautiful illuminated tracery which the Celtic monks executed in their scriptorium.
No ruthless destruction about the Reformation period could deprive Iona of its three great voices of the mountain, the sky, and the sea. That St. Columba's poetic nature and susceptible heart were impressed by them is beyond doubt, for they survive in his poem--
Thus Iona, the isle of the saints, the lamp lit amid the darkness of the western sea, impressed the founder as he heard its voices. May there soon be added another, the voice of the restored cathedral, connecting the present with a glorious past, carrying us away in thought by its architecture to earlier days, and by its situation to the hour when the great apostle of the Picts first landed on its shores. This may at no distant future be realised, since the late Duke of Argyll gifted the ruined cathedral to the Church of Scotland, which hopes to do for it what has already been done for Dunblane.
 Celtic Scotland, vol. ii. pp. 83, 84.