You have to really want to get to the Isle of Iona. A speck of land 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide off the western coast of Scotland, Iona is remote. To get there from Glasgow requires traveling three-hours by train, one hour by ferry, one hour by bus, and fifteen minutes by ferry (yes, two ferries). But once you’re there, you can feel that the roots of the island run deep.
Iona was settled in the 6th century by St. Columba, who sailed there from his native Ireland with his followers to found a new monastic community. For centuries, the community flourished far from the authority of Rome, where it blended Christian and Celtic belief.
Today, the island has a little over a hundred permanent inhabitants, not counting sheep and shaggy Highland cows.
But there is more here than meets the eye. On Iona, the ancientness emanates from every stone. The island has long been a magnet for pilgrims. It has a reputation as a “thin place” where the veil between the physical and the ethereal is especially thin. You can feel it in the 13th century abbey church, where ferns grow in cracks between medieval stones. You can feel it on the hike along the ancient pilgrimage route from the abbey to the rocky shores of St. Columba’s Bay. You can feel it while walking on the windswept beaches or at the foot of a cross with enigmatic carving eroded away by rain and salt.
Iona’s status as a sacred isle is well-deserved. There is something here. Like most ancient sites I’ve visited, I felt a sense of the many layers of stories that have played out on this small Hebridean isle. It’s evident when looking at the Gaelic place names, which translate into intriguing snippets of lore — places with names like Height of the Storm, Port of the False Man, and Fort of the Ruins. Each one a folk tale in miniature.
Beyond the history and the natural beauty, Iona is a place that encourages weary pilgrims to rest and re-center. Whether it’s a solitary walk down one of the island’s two roads or enjoying a local scotch with friends at Martyr’s Bay, it’s one of the few unspoiled places just beyond the reach of the world and all its turmoil.
There is peace here. There is room for reflection. And there is comfort in its stability. Iona has survived the rise and fall of empires for one-and-half thousand years. Iona reminds me that our lives are fleeting and our individual mark upon the world is small and quickly forgotten, but there are places — distant specks of land in the sea — where time moves slowly. Such places will be there long after we are gone; our triumphs and mistakes nothing more than dust. That is a good thing to remember when we get caught up in the crises of the moment.
Iona is a remarkable island, not just for its history and beauty, but also for its ability to cling to you. As the small passenger ferry steamed away from the dock and headed back to the Isle of Mull, I couldn’t help but feel as if a small voice was whispering to me, telling me that someday, I would return.
- Where: Isle of Iona, Inner Hebrides, Scotland
- How to Get There: Train from Glasgow to Oban, ferry to Craignure, bus to Fionnphort, ferry to Iona
- Where to Stay: St. Columba Hotel
- What to Drink: Jura Superstition Single Malt Scotch
- What to Beware Of: Sheep droppings, bogs, the bull
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