Iona, Iona Abbey

Abbey, Cathedral

Site Name Iona, Iona Abbey

Classification Abbey, Cathedral

Alternative Name(s) Iona, St Mary's Cathedral; St Mary's Abbey

Canmore ID 21664

Site Number NM22SE 5

NGR NM 28683 24515

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

C14 Radiocarbon Dating

Ordnance Survey licence number 100020548. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Argyll And Bute
  • Parish Kilfinichen And Kilvickeon
  • Former Region Strathclyde
  • Former District Argyll And Bute
  • Former County Argyll

Treasured Places - HLF funded (2 August 2007)

Founded shortly before 1203 on the site of the Columban abbey, the Benedictine Abbey on Iona comprised a church dedicated to St Mary and a monastery dedicated to St Columba. In 1499 the church became the Cathedral of the Bishops of the Isles. Reportedly damaged by a reforming mob in 1561, by the end of the 17th century the abbey had fallen into ruins. Restoration work began at the end of the 19th century and, in 1938, the newly formed Iona Community took over the running of the abbey.

Information from RCAHMS (SC) 2 August 2007

An image of this site has been nominated as one of Scotland's favourite archive images. For more information about the project visit http://www.treasuredplaces.org.uk

Archaeology Notes

NM22SE 5 28683 24515

NM22SE 5.01 NM 2871 2453 Abbey Museum Museum

NM22SE 5.02 NM 2870 2451 'Michael Chapel' Chapel

NM22SE 5.03 NM 2867 2451 Crosses, cross-slabs

NM22SE 5.04 NM 28678 24544 Abbot's House

For coin hoard found in Iona Abbey (NM 2865 2451), see NM22SE 2. For Iona, Early Christian Monastery (NM 286 244) and related crosses, see NM22SE 4.00. For Iona Nunnery (NM 2843 2410), see NM22SE 14.

(NM 286 245) St Mary's Cathedral (NR) (In Ruins)

OS 6" map (1900)

A modern restoration of the Benedictine Abbey whose church became the Cathedral of the Bishops of the Isles in 1499.

The Abbey was founded before 9th December 1203 when a papal letter confirmed its possessions to the abbot and convent. The monastery was dedicated to St Columba - as witness a papal letter of 1247 addressed to "the abbot of the monastery of St Columba of the order of Saint Benedict" - and the church to St Mary. It is said to have been damaged by a reforming mob in 1561 and by the end of the 17th century, the buildings were in ruins. Since the end of the 19th century, the whole complex has been restored, first by the Duke of Argyll and since 1938 by the Iona Community.

The abbey is unusual but not unique in having its monastic buildings to the north of the church, presumably because of the water supply, and in having three detached buildings. Those on the east - now the Michael Chapel (NM 2870 2451) and the Museum (NM 2871 2453) - may have been a chapel and the infirmary while that on the west (NM 2564 2452) was the Old Guest House.

The church shows evidence of alterations and additions but since all are made with the same type of red granite they are difficult to date. A suggested building history could be a Romanesque church built about 1190, an eastern building or additon in the 13th century, a rebuilding or enlarging about 1420 and a final refurbishing about 1500. An added complication is the fact that the lines of a cruciform church, smaller and earlier than the Abbey, underlie it and may date from the late 12th century.

The square precinct wall of the Benedictine monastery has been defined by excavation. It ran between the monastery and Tor Abb and a gateway was exposed with Sraid nam Marbh running through. Thomas says it was essentially that which stood until about 1860.

D E Easson 1957; W F Skene 1875; D MacGibbon and T Ross 1897; D M Wilson and D G Hurst 1968; A C Thomas 1959; R Reece, undated

As described. No definite trace of the precinct wall could be found although a wall running S from the "Guest House" may represent the remains.

Visited by OS (RD) 9 June 1972

Limited excavation took place while a hole to house the underground plantroom for a new heating system was machine dug to the E of the Abbey. Layers and features, including a stone-linked drain, were noted and sampled. Finds of pottery, iron and animal bone were made.

A Haggarty 1983

NM 286 245 (Abbey); NM22SE 14 (Nunnery) Resistivity and geophysical surveys were undertaken at Iona Abbey and Nunnery (see NM22SE 14) by Geophysical Surveys of Bradford for AOC (Scotland) Ltd.

At the Abbey, several magnetic and high resistance anomalies correspond to known features (walls, paths or service structures). Other high resistance anomalies S and E of the Abbey complex, form clear linear traces and may correspond to buried drains. A group of weakly-defined, linear, high resistance anomalies forms a rectilinear pattern within the NW angle of the present boundary wall. The appearance of these features is of buried walls, but they may simply be drains or garden features.

There is no obvious continuity between features identified in the environs of the Abbey by these surveys and features to the S of this area which were identified by an earlier resistivity survey conducted by the Royal Commission (RCAHMS 1981).

Sponsor: Iona Cathedral Trust Ltd.

J O'Sullivan 1995

NM 286 245 An assessment was undertaken at Iona Abbey in September 2002 in order to advise on potential damage to archaeological features in advance of disabled access being constructed. Three trenches were excavated: two within the main entrance passageway, and the third to the E inside the abbey. The trenches were excavated down to archaeologically significant features but did not remove them, thereby giving an indication of the depth of material that could be safely removed during the construction.

Archive to be deposited in the NMRS.

Sponsor: HS

G Ewart and A Radley 2002

Archaeological monitoring was undertaken in July 2004 during the partial demolition and reconstruction of a disabled access ramp into the cloisters. The ramp consisted primarily of the existing underlying rubble used to construct the former stepped access, running E-W from the main entrance and terminating at the cloisters. No finds of archaeological significance were made.

Archive to be deposited in the NMRS.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

C Shaw 2004

Architecture Notes

See also NM22SE 5 01 and for replica NM22SE 4 05.

Iona, Iona Abbey.

IG Lindsay Collection, 29 - early drawings.

IG Lindsay Collection, W/1.

Iona, Iona Abbey.

Information from Brian Edwards, Old Schoolhouse, Causewayend. Kirknewton, 17/2/1986.

I notice that in your report on Iona, you atrribute a set of plans to Peter MacGregor Chalmers which should really I think be attributed to John Honeyman. The plans in question AGD/23/630-635 all bear the address of Honeyman ie: 140 Bath St, Glasgow. The plans are mentioned in 2 letters from John Honeyman to Thackeray Turner at SPAB. In the first (30 June 1891) Honeyman says:

'I have been asked (by the Duke of Argyll) to report on the practicability of roofing in part of the building and have reported that it is quite practicable to roof the choir, the central tower and the south transept without interfering with any of the old work and I strongly recommend that this should be done in order to preserve thenvery interesting old work..'

But three months later Honeyman reports to Turner again (10 Oct 1891):

'I regret very much to say that the idea of doing something of the same kind (as at Dunblane) at Iona has been abandoned. I feel that you may regard this rather as a matter of congratulation but in that I think you are entirely mistaken. The style of the drawings (especially AGD/23/634) suggests that if anybody helped Honeyman it may well have Sandy MacGibbon whose article on Iona appeared in 'The Builder' in 1893 (pp336-40). I know Chalmers prepared plans much later (1908) but I think three 1891 plans were produced by Honeyman or at least under his direct guidance.

John Honeyman was the Glasgow correspondent of SPAB from 1878-1891 and almost the society's sole Scottish member. His observations on Scottish cathedrals undergoing restoration are of much interest and figure largely in my PhD thesis presently in preparation.

Iona, Iona Abbey.

Ross sketch books MS 28/463/13/1-6 - architectural detail

8/29 sedilla

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