Sunday, July 13, 2008

Iona - pilgrimage site or holiday destination?

Iona has an ancient and a sacred ring to it: burial place of Scottish kings; monastery founded by St Columba in 563; heart of the Celtic church for 500 years; pilgrimage site and home to the Iona Community.

Happily Iona is not easily accessible; it is still a bit of a pilgrimage involving two ferries. But inevitably in summer it attracts plenty tourists like the couple from New York whom I was guiding.

Geographically similar to many other Hebridean islands, Iona is different. Even from the ferry port on Mull you can see the impressive abbey on the other side, and once you approach it along the pilgrims' route, studded by massive Celtic Crosses like St Martin's Cros (above), you come to the 12th Century Chapel of St Odhrán (right) and Reilig Odhrán containing the unmarked graves of some 48 Scottish kings. From there sràid nam marbha, 'the street of the dead', an ancient cobbled track, leads to the abbey, a holy place which straddles the millennia, now home to the (ecumenical) Christian Iona Community.

It was lovely being there in the summer, but on this island chosen for its remoteness, there were too many people. I am going back when there is snow in the air and may perhaps come closer to the long-lived spirit of St Columba.

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