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Prior to the 6th century, Iona may already have been a sacred island in the pre-Christian traditions of the Iron Age inhabitants of the Hebrides. Though there is no actual physical evidence for this, it would explain why Columba settled on this particular island. In 563 Saint Columba, also known as Colm Cille, was exiled from his native Ireland as a result of his involvement in the Battle of Cul Dreimhne,and founded a monastery on Iona with 12 companions. From there they set about the conversion of pagan Scotland and much of northern England to Christianity. Iona's fame as a place of learning and Christian mission spread throughout Europe and it became a major site of pilgrimage. Iona became a holy island where several kings of Scotland, Ireland and Norway came to be buried.
Many believe that the Book of Kells was produced, in whole or in part, on Iona towards the end of the 8th century. A series of Viking raids on the monastery on Iona began in 794, and after its treasures had been plundered many times, Columba’s relics were removed and divided two ways between Scotland and Ireland in 849 as the monastery was abandoned. A convent for the Order of Benedictine Nuns was established in 1208, with Beathag, daughter of Somerled, as first prioress. The present Benedictine abbey was built in 1203. The monastery itself flourished until the Reformation when buildings were demolished and all but three of the 360 carved crosses destroyed.
Iona Abbey, now an ecumenical church, is of particular historical and religious interest to pilgrims and visitors alike. It is the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages in the Western Isles of Scotland. Though modest in scale in comparison to medieval abbeys elsewhere in Western Europe, it has a wealth of fine architectural detail, and monuments of many periods.
In front of the Abbey stands the 9th century St Martin's Cross, one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in the British Isles, and a replica of the 8th century St John's Cross (original fragments in the Abbey museum).
The ancient burial ground, called the Reilig Odhráin, contains the 12th century chapel of St Odhrán (said to be Columba's uncle), restored at the same time as the Abbey itself. It contains a number of medieval grave monuments. The abbey graveyard contains the graves of many early kings of Scotland, as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France. Iona became the burial site for the kings of Dál Riata and their successors.
In 1549 an inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings was recorded. None of these graves is now identifiable (their inscriptions were reported to have worn away at the end of the 17th century).
The graveyard is also the final resting place of John Smith, the former Labour Party leader, who loved Iona. His grave is marked with an epitaph quoting Alexander Pope: "An honest man's the noblest work of God".
Other early Christian and medieval monuments have been removed for preservation to the cloister arcade of the Abbey, and the Abbey museum (in the medieval infirmary).
The ancient buildings of Iona Abbey are now cared for by Historic Scotland. In 1938 George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church committed to seeking new ways of living the gospel of Jesus in today's world. This community is a leading force in the present Celtic Christianity revival. The Iona Community runs 3 residential centres on the Isle of Iona and on Mull. These are places of welcome and engagement giving a unique opportunity to live together in community with people of every background from all over the world. Weeks at the centres often follow a programme related to the concerns of the Iona Community.