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 of Iona and the life of the monks:
‘One day, when St Columba was living on Iona, he set off into the wilder parts of the island to find a place secluded from other people where he could pray alone.’
Monastic life has always focused on the need for deep reflection and contemplation, away from the distractions of everyday life. The monks and nuns of Iona would have had a number of smaller cells in the remote parts of the island which were used as retreats. Some monks sought retreat on other islands – Adomnán mentions the monk Cormac Ua Liatháin ‘a truly holy man who no fewer than three times laboured on the ocean in search of a place of retreat yet found none.’
This site is known as the Hermit’s Cell and is said by some to be the place where Colmcille prayed. For some pilgrims to Iona, the site represents the importance of solitary reflection and prayer, a tradition passed down by the saint to his followers.
As with many places which are linked to saints and holy figures, there is no historical evidence for this connection.
The Gaelic name for this small area is Cobhan Cùilteach, meaning ‘secluded hollow’, and the first English name attached to the stone circle itself was ‘Culdee’ cell – a corruption of the word ‘cùilteach’. The circle’s age and original purpose are uncertain, however, and it is rather large for a solitary monk’s prayer hut. Yet the hollow is undoubtedly a tranquil spot and it is easy to imagine Colmcille, or his successors, retreating here for a period of quiet contemplation.
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