A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland

The following is from A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland by Martin Martin:

The Island of Iona

THIS isle in the Irish language is called I. Colmkil, i.e., the Isthmus of Columbus the clergyman.

Colum was his proper name, and the addition of Kil, which signifies a church, was added by the islanders by way of excellence; for there were few churches then in the remote and lesser isles.

The natives have a tradition among them that one of the clergymen who accompanied Columbus in his voyage thither, having at a good distance espied the isle, and cried joyfully to Columbus in the Irish language, "Chi mi i," i.e., "I see her" ----- meaning thereby the country of which they had been in quest ----- that Columbus then answered, "It shall be from henceforth called Y."

The isle is two miles long from south to north, and one in breadth, from east to west. The east side is all arable and plain, fruitful in corn and grass; the west side is high and rocky.

This isle was anciently a seminary of learning, famous for the severe discipline and sanctity of Columbus. He built two churches and two monasteries in it, one for men, the other for women, which were endowed by the Kings of Scotland and of the Isles; so that the revenues of the church then amounted to 4000 merks per annum. Iona was the Bishop of the Isles Cathedral, after the Scots lost the Isle of Man, in which King Gratilinth erected a church to the honour of our Saviour, called "Fanum Sodorense." Hence it was that the Bishop of the Isles was styled "Episcopus Sodorensis." The vicar of Iona was parson of Soroby in Tiree and Dean of the Isles. St. Mary’s Church here is built in form of a cross, the choir 20 yards long, the cupola 21 feet square, the body of the church of equal length with the choir, and the two cross aisles half that length. There are two chapels on each side of the choir, and entry to them opens with large pillars neatly carved in basso relievo. The steeple is pretty large; the doors, windows, etc., are curiously carved; the altar is large and of as fine marble as any I ever saw. There are several abbots buried within the church. MacIlikenich’s statue is done in black marble, as big as the life, in an episcopal habit, with a mitre, crosier, ring, and stones along the breast, etc. The rest of the abbots are done after the same manner. The inscription on one tomb is as follows: -----

"Hic jacet Joannes MacFingone, Abbas de Oui, qui obiit anno Domini milesimo quingentesimo."

Bishop Knox and several persons of distinction, as MacLeod of Harris, have also been buried here.

There are the ruins of a cloister behind the church, as also of a library, and under it a large room; the natives say it was a place for public disputations.

There is a heap of stones without the church, under which Mackean of Ardminurchin lies buried. There is an empty piece of ground between the church and the gardens, in which murderers and children that died before baptism were buried. Near to the west end of the church in a little cell lies Columbus’s tomb, but without inscription. This gave me occasion to cite the distich, asserting that Columbus was buried in Ireland, at which the natives of Iona seemed very much displeased, and affirmed that the Irish who said so were impudent liars; that Columbus was once buried in this place, and that none ever came from Ireland since to carry away his corpse, which, had they attempted, would have proved equally vain and presumptuous.

Near St. Columba’s tomb is St. Martin’s cross, an entire stone of eight feet high; it is a very hard and red stone, with a mixture of grey in it. On the west side of the cross is engraved a large crucifix, and on the east a tree; it stands on a pedestal of the same kind of stone. At a little further distance is Dun Ni Manich, i.e., Monk’s Fort, built of stone and lime, in form of a bastion, pretty high. From this eminence the monks had a view of all the families in the isle, and at the same time enjoyed the free air. A little further to the west lie the black stones, which are so called, not from their colour, for that is grey, but from the effects that tradition say ensued upon perjury, if any one became guilty of it after swearing on these stones in the usual manner; for an oath made on them was decisive in all controversies.

MacDonald, King of the Isles, delivered the rights of their lands to his vassals in the isles and continent, with uplifted hands and bended knees, on the black stones; and in this posture, before many witnesses, he solemnly swore that he would never recall those rights which he then granted: and this was instead of his Great Seal. Hence it is that when one was certain of what he affirmed, he said positively, I have freedom to swear this matter upon the black stones.

On the south side the gate, without the church, is the Tailors’ House, for they only wrought in it. The natives say that in the time of a plague the outer gate was quite shut up, and that all provisions were thrown in through a hole in the gate for that purpose.

At some distance south from St. Mary’s is St. Ouran’s Church, commonly called Reliqui Ouran; the saint of that name is buried within it.

The laird of Mackinnon has a tomb within this church, which is the stateliest tomb in the isle. On the wall above the tomb there is a crucifix engraven, having the arms of the family underneath ----- viz., a boar’s head, with a couple of sheep’s bones in its jaws. The tombstone has a statue as big as life, all in armour, and upon it a ship under sail, a lion at the head, and another at the feet. The inscription on the tomb is thus: ----- "Hic est Abbas Lachlani, Macfingone, and ejus Filius Abbatis de I. Ætatis in Dno M° cccc Ann."

There are other persons of distinction in the church, all done in armour.

On the south side of the church, mentioned above, is the burial-place in which the kings and chiefs of tribes are buried, and over them a shrine: there was an inscription, giving an account of each particular tomb, but time has worn them off. The middlemost had written on it, "The Tombs of the Kings of Scotland:" of which forty-eight lie there.

Upon that on the right hand was written, "The tombs of the Kings of Ireland;" of which four were buried here.

And upon that on the left hand was written, "The Kings of Norway;" of which eight were buried here.

On the right hand, within the entry to the churchyard, there is a tombstone now overgrown with earth, and upon it there is written, "Hic jacet Joannes Turnbull, quondam Episcopus Canterburiensis." This I deliver upon the authority of Mr. Jo. MacSwen, minister of Jura, who says he read it.

Next to the King’s is the tombstone of Macdonald of Ila; the arms, a ship with hoisted sails, a standard, four lions, and a tree; the inscription, "Hic jacet Corpus Angusii Macdonuill de Ile."

In the west end is the tombs of Gilbrid and Paul Sporran, ancient tribes of the Macdonalds.

The families of Maclean, of Duart, Lochbuy, and Coll, lie next, all in armour, as big as the life.

Macallister, a tribe of the Macdonalds, Macouery of Ulvay, are both done as above.

There is a heap of stones on which they used to lay the corpse while they dug the grave. There is a stone likewise erected here, concerning which the credulous natives say that whosoever reaches out his arm along the stone three times, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, will never err in steering the helm of a vessel.

One tomb hath a clergyman, with this inscription upon it, "Sancta, &c."

About a quarter of a mile further south is the Church Ronad, in which several prioresses are buried. One of the inscriptions is, "Hic jacet Dna. Anna Terleti, filiam quandam priorissæ de Iona, quæ: obiit Anno M° Christi, Animam Abrahamo commendamus."

Another inscription is: "Behag nijn Sorle vic Il vrid priorissa," i.e., "Bathia, daughter to Somerled, son of Gilbert, prioress."

Without the nunnery there is such another square as that beside the monastery for men. The two pavements, which are of a hard red stone, are yet entire. In the middle of the longest pavement there is a large cross like to that mentioned above, and is called MacLean’s cross. There are nine places on the east side the isle, called ports for landing.

The dock which was dug out of Port Churich is on the shore, to preserve Columbus’s boat called Curich, which was made of ribs of wood, and the outside covered with hides; the boat was long and sharp-pointed at both ends. Columbus is said to have transported eighteen clergymen in this boat to Iona.

There are many pretty variegated stones on the shore below the dock; they ripen to a green colour, and are then proper for carving. The natives say these stones are fortunate, but only for some particular thing, which the person thinks fit to name, in exclusion of everything else.

There was a tribe here called "Clan vic n’oster," from Ostiarii; for they are said to have been porters. The tradition of these is that before Columbus died thirty of his family lived then in Iona, and that upon some provocation Columbus entailed a curse upon them, which was that they might all perish to the number of five, and that they might never exceed that number, to which they were accordingly reduced; and ever since, when any woman of the family was in labour, both she and the other four were afraid of death; for if the child that was to be then born did not die, they say one of the five was sure to die; and this they affirm to have been verified on every such occasion successively to this day. I found one only of this tribe living in the isle, and both he and the natives of this and of all the Western Isles unanimously declare that this observation never failed; and all this little family is now extinct, except this one poor man.

The life of Columbus, written in the Irish character, is in the custody of John MacNeil, in the isle of Barry; another copy of it is kept by MacDonald of Benbecula.

The inhabitants have a tradition that Columbus suffered no women to stay in the isle except the nuns; and that all the tradesmen who wrought in it were obliged to keep their wives and daughters in the opposite little isle, called on that account Women’s Isle. They say likewise that it was to keep women out of the isle that he would not suffer cows, sheep, or goats to be brought to it.

Beda, in his Ecclesiastical History, Lib. 3, Cap. 4, gives this account of him: "In the year of our Lord 565 (at the time that Justin the Younger succeeded Justinian in the government of the Roman empire) the famous Columba, a presbyter and abbot, but in habit and life a monk, came from Ireland to Britain to preach the Word of God, to the northern provinces of the Picts, that is to those who by high and rugged mountains are separated from the southern provinces. For the southern Picts, who have their habitation on this side the same hills, had, as they affirm themselves, renounced idolatry, and received the faith a long time before, by the preaching of Ninian the Bishop, a most reverend and holy man, of the country of the Britons, who was regularly educated at Rome in the mysteries of truth."

In the ninth year of Meilochen, son to Pridius, King of Picts, a most powerful king, Columbus, by his preaching and example, converted that nation to the faith of Christ. Upon this account, they gave him the isle above mentioned (which he calls Hii, Book 3, Cap. 3) to erect a monastery in, which his successors possess to this day, and where he himself was buried in the 77th year of his age, and the 32nd after his going to Britain to preach the gospel. He built a noble monastery in Ireland before his coming to Britain, from both which monasteries he and his disciples founded several other monasteries in Britain and Ireland, among all which the monastery of the island in which his body is interred has the pre-eminence. The isle has a rector, who is always a presbyter-abbot, to whose jurisdiction the whole province and the bishops themselves ought to be subject, though the thing be unusual, according to the example of that first doctor, who was not a bishop, but a presbyter and monk, and of whose life and doctrine some things are said to be wrote by his disciples. But whatever he was, this is certain, that he left successors eminent for their great chastity, divine love, and regular institution.

This monastery furnished bishops to several dioceses of England and Scotland, and amongst others Aidanus, who was sent from thence, and was Bishop of Lindisfarne now Holy Island.

The Island of Tiree


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