Colmcille Logo White

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.

  • 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...

  • 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...

  • 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 pilgrimage route used for funeral processions. St Oran’s Chapel is the oldest ecclesiastical building on Iona, and dates from the 12th century....

  • 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. Bethoc followed the Rule of St Augustine. Iona had one of only two Augustinian nunneries...

  • 7.5 Martyr’s Bay

    Martyrs Bay is just south of the village and pier. The derivation of its name is not certain. If the original name was Port nam Mairtear, it may allude to the slaughter of monks in one of the Norse raids of the 9th century. Or the word ‘mairtear’ may be...

  • 7.6 Hill of the Angels

    The centre of the island is fertile grazing ground called The Machair - machair meaning a plain or level field. Continue walking south, with the Sound of Iona on your left. The road turns right to lead west across the island. On the left, just before the gate onto the...

  • 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. From the Argyll coast, he would have presumably sailed along the south coast of Mull and landed on the south of Iona at...

  • 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. As he tells stories from Colmcille’s life, the saint’s biographer Adomnán describes the island...


FnaG
BnaG
Nhún na nGall
Derry City
Oideas Gael
Museum Nan Eilean
Comunn Eachdraidh Nis
Argyll Bute
colmcille
colmcille 1500

Bòrd na Gàidhlig

Great Glen House
Leachkin Road
Inverness
Scotland, IV3 8NW

(+44) 01463 225454
colmcille@gaidhlig.scot

Colmcille

Foras na Gaeilge, 2-6 Queen Street
Belfast
Northern Ireland
BT1 6ED

(+44) 028 9089 0970
colmcille@forasnagaeilge.ie

Colmcille

Foras na Gaeilge, An Chrannóg
Na Doirí Beaga
Gaoth Dobhair
Donegal, Ireland. F92 EYT3

(+353) 074 9560113
colmcille@forasnagaeilge.ie