Saint Columba and the Isle of Iona


Images courtesy of Dan Smyth Photography


Broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach Special Collections material; you may be interested in studying an item as an object in itself, or you may be searching the content of an item for information in a more traditional sense.


Sp Coll T.C.L. 3779

In my role at Special Collections, I often find myself approaching the collections by the way of the first example, looking for ‘copy specific’ details or considering the condition of an item for conservation treatment. After the recent passing of Saint Columba’s feast day on the 9th of June however, I found myself intrigued by the historical narrative of this saint and the island he called home. This gave me the opportunity to utilise the collection for researching subject matter, rather than matter.

As our collection hasn’t been built by subject (we have created a handy subject guide though), it is always a surprise to see what the online catalogue might throw up if you are searching under a theme. Yet I was pleased to find that we had quite a number of items of potential interest.

A good place to start was with The Life of St. Columba, 1798 (Sp Coll T.C.L. 3779). Columba was born in the year 521 in Ireland, and is widely credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. As a child he studied under Finnian Bishop of Clonard, who was apparently so charmed by the piety of the young Columba that he believed him to be an angel sent by God. In the years that followed, Columba’s fame spread throughout Ireland. He was ordained before the age of 25, and founded several important monasteries. Although exact dates are not known, Columba is also said to have spent time travelling abroad to spread the gospel. What is well documented however, is that in around 563 Columba and twelve companions set out from Ireland on a wicker boat covered with leather hides, and landed on the Isle of Iona, where they were to settle:

This place he probably chose, as being conveniently situated for his attending to the important concerns which he had to manage in Ireland, as well as for carrying on the work which he had in view in Scotland – p.13 The Life of St. Columba, John Smith, D.D.

Columba founded an abbey on the island, as a base from which to spread the Christian message to the pagan kingdoms of the north. His monastery provided education and literacy, and his reputation lead him to a role of diplomat as well as holy man.

The story of Saint Columba is prevalent in modern consciousness, perhaps in part due to the enduring stories of miracles he performed.


Sp Coll Mu4-y.10

Most notably, Columba has been linked to early references of the Loch Ness monster, as he is said to have banished a giant water beast to the depths of the river Ness. Depictions of Columba as a striking and impressive figure are common. One example of this is in the accounts of his mission, The Cathedral, or Abbey Church, of Iona, 1866 (Sp Coll Mu4-y.10), which tells us that at the time of his landing, being 42 years old, Columba was:

of tall and agreeable aspect, with a voice so melodious and powerful that it was heard distinctly at a mile’s distance p. 10 The Cathedral, or Abbey Church, of Iona, The Bishop of Argyll and the Islands

After a long and prodigious life, Saint Columba died in 597 at the age of 75, and was lain to rest by his companions on Iona. The island, particularly the site of the abbey, has been visited by Christians from all over the world for hundreds of years as a place of pilgrimage. This still accounts for a number of the visitors to the island today, among those others drawn to the island simply for its beauty, history and quiet peacefulness. William Keddie’s 1860 account, Highland Route No. 11 Oban to Staffa and Iona (from Sp Coll BG53-i.1), tells us a little of what visitors to the island could expect 150 years ago:

The shore first approached is white with accumulations of shell-sand … the appearance of the square tower of the Cathedral, rising bleak and bare above the crumbling walls, is the first object which strikes the observer … the passengers by the steamer are landed from small boats upon a rude pier, formed on huge masses of gneiss, and granite boulders drifted from the opposite shore. The visitors no sooner set foot on shore than they are beset by groups of children offering for sale collections of shells … and water-worn fragments of serpentine, marble and quartz – p. 28 Maclure and Macdonald’s Illustrated guides to the Highlands, William Keddie

This practice of buying a shell or stone from the island is said to originate in the customs of pilgrims, who would take away a relic from the island as a charm. From the 1700’s, a few companies attempted to industrialise this tradition, establishing a quarry to the south of the island which aimed to ship Iona Marble to the mainland on a large scale. The remote and hazardous quarry has been abandoned since the early twentieth century. Today the island has around 120 permanent residents, and figures speak of between 130,000 – 180,000 yearly visitors. The landscape is arresting, indicated even by the names of Iona’s beaches; you can visit ‘The Bay at the Back of the Ocean’ or ‘White Strand of the Monks’. Of course there is Columba’s Bay as well as Iona Abbey, and the ruins of a medieval nunnery, where you can still see some of the stonework carvings.

Even acknowledging the beautiful scenery and geology of the land however, there is little doubt that still, when sightseers are diverse in religion and beliefs, the little island of Iona owes its name and prosperity to its most famous of inhabitants.

P1050579Further reading:

The Blessed Isle : some notes on the story of Iona by James Wilkie, 1911 Sp Coll Bf72-b.8

A letter to the Rev. John Smith, D.D. containing a few strictures on his life of St. Columba by Alexander Cameron, 1798 Sp Coll Mu2-c.22


Categories: Library, Special Collections

1 reply

  1. I visited Iona in 1982 and there was a red phone booth by the ferry dock & not much else. My wife & I wandered through a cemetery where we heard the sound of someone playing a mouth harp. We the. Saw an old man in a tweed cap sitting on a bench with a bicycle leaning on the wall next to him. “Where ya from?,” he asked. “New York City, ” I replied. Peering at us from under his cap he dryly stated, “Long way to come ( very long pause as he lifted the harp to his lips) for nothin’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: