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.
Bòrd na Gàidhlig
Great Glen House
Scotland, IV3 8NW
(+44) 01463 225454
Foras na Gaeilge, 2-6 Queen Street
(+44) 028 9089 0970
Foras na Gaeilge, An Chrannóg
Na Doirí Beaga
Donegal, Ireland. F92 EYT3
(+353) 074 9560113