7.2 Abbey, Cloister and Vallum

The Vallum marked the boundary of the Colmcille’s monastery on Iona. It is formed by two embankments on either side of a deep ditch. This raised ground is 335 metres long by 152 metres wide. ‘Vallum’ comes from the Latin word for the fortifications of a camp but this was not a defensive wall.

Within the Vallum there were beehive huts made of wood and turf (some with stone foundations); a small church; sleeping accommodation for the monks; a refectory for meals and a guesthouse. Beyond the Vallum, the monks had fields, farm buildings and workshops.

There are no visible remains of the first monastery here - it was probably on the site of the Abbey Church - also called the Cathedral of St Mary. There was a strong devotion to Mary on Iona - Cú Chuimhne of Iona wrote what is probably the earliest hymn to the Virgin by a Gael and images of Mary appear on stones carved on the island.

The Annals of Ulster record that the monastery at Iona was raided in 794. After several attacks in the following years, most of the monks left the island and the mother-house of Columba’s monastery moved to Kells in Ireland.

The Book of Kells was probably started in Iona and completed in Kells and is a testimony to the artistry and skills of the Iona monks who worked on it. Colmcille’s remains which had been kept in Iona were divided in 849 - some were taken to Kells and some to the Perthshire cathedral of Dunkeld.

Despite the violent Viking attacks, some monks remained in Iona. By the late 9th century Viking princes were being baptised and Iona was once again becoming an important focus for the followers of Columba.

The Benedictine Abbey Church you see today was founded in 1203 by Reginald MacDonald, son of Somerled who was founder of a Gaelic-Norse dynasty known as the Lords of the Isles. The Abbey thrived for over 300 years and linked itself closely to Colmcille and his powerful position in the early medieval church. The Abbey fell into decline before the Reformation and fell into ruins until a major restoration was completed in 1910. There is little left of the original 13th century building.

Jutting out from the wall, just North of the Abbey's main door, is a tiny chapel named St Columba's Shrine. There is evidence that the site was used for burials in medieval times and it is possibly where Colmcille himself was buried.

The Abbey museum contains the original crosses of St Oran and St John and many fine carved stone graveslabs.


Getting there

Buy your admission ticket from the Historic Scotland booth at the gate. An audio-guide in Gaelic and English is also available. Head into the Abbey, to explore the restored 13th century building and cloister. Visit the Museum housed in a separate building on the Abbey's north side, to see magnificent examples of Early Christian carved stonework along with the medieval graveslabs of Gaelic chieftains.

How head outside again and walk a short distance along the road, past the entrance to the MacLeod centre, in order to get a view of the Vallum - the earthwork embankment that marked the boundary of the early monastery.

  • Dunadd Fort, Argyll.

    7.1 High Crosses and Abbey

    Colmcille arrived on Iona in 563 having left Derry in Ireland. According to tradition, Colmcille looked for a place to build his monastery where he would not be able to see his homeland - hence his choice of Iona.

  • Dunadd Fort, Argyll.

    7.2 Vallum, Abbey and Cloister

    The Vallum marked the boundary of the Colmcille’s monastery on Iona. It is formed by two embankments on either side of a deep ditch. This raised ground is 335 metres long by 152 metres wide.

  • Dunadd Fort, Argyll.

    7.3 St Oran’s Chapel and Graveyard

    A cobbled track runs between St Martin's Cross and the wall of the graveyard. This is the only visible portion of 'The Street of the Dead', a medieval pilgrim route used for funeral processions.

  • Dunadd Fort, Argyll.

    7.4 The Nunnery/An Eaglais Dhubh

    The Nunnery was built at about the same time as the Benedictine Abbey - in the 13th century - by Reginald, son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles. His sister Bethoc was the first prioress.

  • Dunadd Fort, Argyll.

    7.5 Martyr's Bay

    Martyrs Bay is just south of the village centre, beyond St Ronan’s Bay. It is named in commemoration of the 68 monks of Iona slaughtered by the VIking raiders who attacked the island in 806.

  • Dunadd Fort, Argyll.

    7.6 Hill of the Angels

    According to Colmcille’s biographer, Adomnán, Cnoc nan Aingeal is where the saint was seen meeting with the angels.

  • Dunadd Fort, Argyll.

    7.7 St Columba's Bay

    Colmcille arrived in Iona from Argyll in 563 where he had been seeking permission to build a monastery on land belonging to the ruling clan - the Dál Riata.

  • Dunadd Fort, Argyll.

    7.8 The Hermit's Cell

    Today all that remains of the Hermit’s Cell is a rough stone foundation of an oval hut which would have been made of timber or turf. An entrance faces southwest to capture the most daylight.