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 the place now populalry called St Columba’s Bay.
There are two pebbly beaches here – Port a’ Churaich – or Harbour of the Coracle (a boat made of hide) – and Port an Fhir-bhrèige – separated by a spur of rock. Colmcille is said to have landed at Port a’ Churaich.
There is a story that when Colmcille left Ireland, he vowed to set up a monastery in a place from where he could not see his home country. According to tradition, when they arrived in Iona, Colmcille and his 12 companions who had set sail from Derry climbed the hill to the west of Port na Curaich to ensure that the saint could fulfill his promise. The hill is called ‘The Hill of the Back to Ireland’. Colmcille is recorded as returning to Ireland at least once – to attend the convention at Drum Ceat – just outside modern-day Limavady.
Historic accounts of this bay tell how there were two heaps of stones on the beach which represented the length of Colmcille’s boat. An early 18th century account reports this distance as ‘three score of foots’ or 60 feet/18.3 metres.
In 1963, a group of 13 men sailed from Derry to Iona in a boat similar to those used in Colmcille’s time, making the journey in 8 days and camping each night.
The pebbles from the beach at St Columba’s Bay have often been collected by pilgrims. The white limestone pebbles found in the southeast of the island are known as Iona Marble. In the 18th and 19th centuries tourists bought them from local children as a souvenir.
Some pilgrims visiting the island today pick up two stones from the beach. One is thrown back into the sea as a symbol of something in their life that they would like to leave behind. The other is taken home as a sign of a new commitment they have made.
Up behind Port an Fhir-bhreige there are about 50 cairns varying in size. There are various ideas about their origins – that they are burial cairns, which is unlikely; that they were built by monks as a penance; or that they were created as medieval pilgrims visited the site.
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