7.1 The High Crosses and the 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.
He also needed to find a place where he could live and work in peace. Iona belonged to the ruling Dál Riata who controlled large areas of Argyll and the northeast of Ireland. Conall, king of the Dál Riata, possibly gave Colmcille permission to build his monastery on this land.
Colmcille’s monastery grew to become the centre of a network of religious settlements across Argyll, the outer islands and beyond to Pictland and the northern English monastery at Lindisfarne. This familia of monks and clergy owed their allegiance to Colmcille and the men who succeeded him as Abbot of Iona.
The High Crosses
Outside the Abbey, you can see St Martin’s Cross. There are the remains of four ancient high crosses on Iona, dedicated to St Martin, St Matthew, St John and St Oran.
The crosses may mark the site of the ancient church on Iona and Colmcille’s grave. They were possibly used as markers for pilgrims progressing along the route to Colmcille’s shrine inside the Abbey.
Only St Martin’s Cross – made between 750 and 800 – still stands here complete and on its original site. Nearby is a replica of St John’s Cross. The original St John’s Cross, plus the reconstructed St Oran’s Cross and St Matthew’s Cross, are part of an impressive new display in the Abbey Museum, re-opened in June 2013.
The monks of Iona may have had a particular devotion to St Martin. The saint was a Roman soldier in the 4th century but had a vision of Christ and become a conscientious objector. He became Bishop of Tours but also lived a life of austerity among cave-dwelling hermits. St Martin represented a religious ideal for the monks of Iona – he held an important position in the church while leading a life of poverty and simplicity.
The west face of St Martin’s Cross is decorated with scenes from the Bible including the Virgin and Child, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, David and Goliath, and David with Saul. The east face is decorated with bosses and interwoven serpents, typical decorative symbols of Christian carving of this period.
The popularity of St Martin is reflected in place names all over Scotland – including Kilmartin in mid-Argyll meaning ‘St Martin’s Church’ and the dedication of the 8th century church in Whithorn, Dumfries & Galloway, to the saint.
Tòrr an Aba – Abbot’s Hill
Archaeologists discovered the remains of a small beehive cell on this small hillock known as Tòrr an Aba close to St Martin’s Cross.
This may have been Colmcille’s writing hut, as described by Adomnán,
About a little ink-horn foolishly tipped over.
One day, shouting was heard from the other side of the Sound of Iona. The saint was sitting in his raised wooden hut and heard this, saying:
“The man who is shouting across the Sound is too careless to watch what he is doing. Today he will tip over my little horn and spill the ink.”
His servant Diarmait heard him say this and for a while he stood by the door waiting for the clumsy guest to arrive so that he could keep him away from the ink-horn. But soon he moved away for some other purpose, and then the troublesome visitor arrived. As he went forward to kiss the saint, he upset the horn with the edge of his garment and spilt the ink.
Life of St Columba by Adomnán of Iona, Book I Story 27
Adomnán describes Colmcille as using two separate buildings during his daily life – a writing hut and a hut where he slept ‘where at night instead of straw he had bare rock and stone for a pillow’.
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