The Sacred Isle of Iona
Writing in the early 19th century, Thomas Bulfinch tells us –
"One of the smallest of the British Isles, situated near a rugged and barren coast, surrounded by dangerous seas, and possessing no sources of internal wealth, Iona has obtained an imperishable place in history as the seat of civilization and religion at a time when the darkness of heathenism hung over almost the whole of Northern Europe. Iona or Icolmkill is situated at the extremity of the island of Mull, from which it is separated by a strait of half a mile in breadth, its distance from the mainland of Scotland being thirty-six miles. "
Bulfinch goes on to describe how St. Columba or Columbkille had to deal with savage natives when he and twelve of his companions crossed over to Scotland from Ireland in a wicker boat covered with hides, and landed on Iona.
The story of Columba is a tale perhaps better told in more detail at a later time. Suffice it to say he is credited with establishing a Culdee Christian monastary on Iona.
Before him, however, came the Druids!
Settlements on the Isle of Iona no doubt began with prehistoric fishermen and explorers. With the arrival of the Celts, this little strip of land became the site of a Drudic learning center and was known as the Isle of the Druids. Next, under Columba, it became part of the ancient kingdom of Dalriada or Dal Riata and a center for Culdee Christianity. With the advance of the Vikings, Iona was one of the first monasteries to fall. Under Viking rule it became part of their Kingdom of the Isles, which eventually became, to a large extent, the land of Clan Donald’s Sea Kingdom in the western isles.
The basic Iona monastery and nunnery buildings are a legacy from Clan Donald, with some reconstruction done through the years.
Many a king and a few Clan Donald Lord of the Isles are buried on Iona, and, once again, their burial is a story better left for next month’s Celtic Ceremonies issue of the Guide.
However, their internment here does help to accentuate the great regard in which this small island has been held by many cultures over many centuries. It is also well-known for its involvement in the Book of Kells.
One of the most difficult tasks concerning Iona is the deciphering of the origin of its name.There are many sources given and, to some degree, the answer depends on who you ask!
Thomas Bulfinch writes further:
"This interesting little island has been known by different names, all of which are of Celtic origin, and all of which have a reference more or less directly to its reputation as a seat of learning and religion. In the earliest times, before the introduction of Christianity, it received a name by which it is sometimes still designated by the Highlanders, Innis-nan-Druidneach, the Isle of the Druids, from the circumstance that this body had a college there.
"By the early writers it is frequently called Ey, or more correctly Ii, which means island, a name which it seems to have borne by way of eminence, just as in Scripture the Euphrates is called “the river,” and as among the ancient Romans “the city” meant Rome.
"After St. Columba, by his residence in it, had associated it inseparably with his name, and when, in consequence of this, it became a favorite place of sepulture for those whose rank entitled them, and whose devotion prompted them to ask a resting-place for their bones among its sacred dust, it came to be called Ii-Cholum-chille, that is, the island of Columba’s cell, or cemetery‚ a name which it still retains in the corrupted form of Icolmkill.
"By all the old writers, the name applied to the island is either Hii or Hyona, or I-hona, never Iona. Adamnan, in his Life of Columba, refers to the identity of meaning between the name of the saint (Columba in Hebrew said to be Hyona) and that of the prophet Jonah; but never offers the most distant hint of any connection between this and the name of the island."
After discounting the Hebrew explanation Bulfinch goes on to insist:
"The word is Gaelic, like the rest of the names bestowed on this island: it is a corruption of Ii-shona, (pronounced Ee-hona, the s in Gaelic being silent before an aspirate) and signifies Holy Island. Iona is often referred to by the historians who wrote in Latin under the name of “Insula Sancta,” or Holy Island. The same name was given by a colony from Iona to an island lying off the coast of Northumberland, and still, to this day, called Holy Isle."
We turn to an additional writer from days gone by for confirmation. In his 1838 book, An Historical Account of Iona, Lachlan Maclean tells us:
"Iona is known to the native Highlander by four names:
"1. Innis-nan-Druidhneach—The Isle of the Druids.
"2. Ii—The Island, by way of eminence.
"3. Ii-Cholum-chille—The Isle of Colum of the cell or cemetery. Cill—the “cell,” and Kil, of perverters of Gaelic, signifies a cemetery or burying-ground. Ii, in process of time, had gained so much celebrity as a cell, or burying-place, that by and by it began to be known by that name alone; but after the saint had been translated and canonized, this Cill was, very naturally, called after him, nay, on every occasion, superinduced to his name: thus--Columcille. The Gaelic scholar knows that a noun governed by a noun generally assumes the aspirated form; and also, that two or more nouns in apposition must agree in case;—thus, Ii-cholum-chille.
"4. Ii-shona, pronounced ee-hona, the sibilant being silent before the aspirate. Ii-shona—the blessed, or sacred isle – Insula sancta, seu Divi Columbi, etc.
"Some, even of our Celtic clergy, have etymologised Iona as “I-thonna”—the island of the waves; but this is not the worst specimen of the effects of these clergy not being bound to study their vernacular language before license. There is no reason why it should in pre-eminence deserve the appellation of the island of the waves - its neighbour, Staffa, and even Tlr-Ii being more the sport of the Atlantic."
And so, there we have it, explanations agreeing to some extent that, in the beginning, the island of Iona was named for its Druidic residents and their school, that it took on names relating to St. Columba, in at least a few forms, and that one commonly accepted explanation for its modern day name of Iona, is that the Gaelic Ii-shona meant Holy Island as did its Latin name, Insula Sancta. Since so many holy men and women had walked its grounds, the name stuck.
Whatever the source or her name, Iona is currently home not only to an ecumenical church but also to an oft-held Buddhist retreat. In the “Lord of the Isles,” Scott beautifully contrasts the church on Iona with the cave of Staffa, just opposite the Holy Island –
Nature herself, it seemed, would raise
A minster to her Maker’s praise!
Not for a meaner use ascend
Her columns, or her arches bend;
Nor of a theme less solemn tells
That mighty surge that ebbs and swells,
And still between each awful pause,
From the high vault an answer draws,
In varied tone, prolonged and high,
That mocks the organ’s melody;
Nor doth its entrance front in vain
To old Iona’s holy fame,
That Nature’s voice might seem to say,
“Well hast thou done, frail child of clay!”