Posted by: christinelaennec | June 18, 2017

Celebrating St. Columba on the Isle of Iona (Part I)

I recently had a very special experience:  I sang with the Scottish Plainsong Choir in Iona Abbey.  As you might know, St. Columba was an early Christian religious leader, who established a Christian community on the Isle of Iona:  a small island, off of a larger island, off the West Coast of Scotland.  He is believed to have come to Iona in the year 563.  Legend has it that he and his followers came there from Ireland in small boats called coracles.  He was greatly revered and later became a saint.  His feast day is June 9th.

On St. Columba’s feast day, members of the Scottish Plainsong Choir travelled to Iona from many different parts of Scotland, as well as a few from England and Northern Ireland.  My own journey began, with a few choir friends, just after 8 am when we took the train, through low mist and rain, to Oban.  From there we had an hour-long ferry trip across to the Isle of Mull.  Then an hour-and-twenty-minute bus ride across Mull on a single-track road with passing places.  The rain began to lift about halfway across Mull.  When we arrived in Fionnphort, to take the ten-minute ferry ride across the Sound of Iona, it had turned into a spectacular summer’s day!

Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull, with Iona across the Sound of Iona. June 2017.

In the photo above, you can just see Iona Abbey to the left of the outcrop of rock along the horizon.  As I walked down to the ferry, the reddish rocks beyond the beach reminded me of something – and then I realised I was thinking of Samuel Peploe’s and Francis Cadell’s paintings from nearly 100 years ago.

The colour of the water was a beautiful green:

The Isle of Iona from the ferry.

Before we knew it, we’d reached Iona.  The view back across was just as lovely:

Looking back across to Mull from Iona.

Once I’d found where I was staying, I dashed back out, knowing that we had a very full programme and that the chance to enjoy the island in such stunning weather might not come again!

Flag irises everywhere: Mull in the distance across the Sound of Iona.

There were flag irises all over, and butterflies and birds everywhere.  I was most impressed by the gardens!

The Argyll Hotel’s organic garden, Isle of Iona. June 2017.

Iona Abbey in the distance, the St. Columba Hotel on the left, and more beautiful gardens. Isle of Iona, June 2017.

The Abbey is run by Historic Environment Scotland, and apart from attending services, you have to pay to gain entry.  Just next door, however, is a small chapel that is open to all, St. Oran’s Chapel:

Iona Abbey on the left; St. Oran’s Chapel on the right.

It is a beautiful little sanctuary:

St. Oran’s Chapel, Isle of Iona.

I like the intricate carvings, with the Viking longboat on the top of one of the slabs:

Carved stones (presumably grave slabs?) in St. Oran’s Chapel, Isle of Iona.

Also run by Historical Environment Scotland is the Nunnery (In Gaelic, the House of the Old Women in Black of Iona.)  It was founded in about 1200, and flourished for 350 years or so.  The photo below shows what is left of the cloisters.  I believe that the mown grass path on the right of the photo would have been covered, and that the other side of the low wall was the garden at the heart of the nunnery.  I wonder if any of the rather wild plants there now are distant cousins of what the nuns grew in their cloisters garden?

Taigh Cailleachan-Dubha I / Nunnery, Isle of Iona.

There were so many birds singing as I wandered around, including a very tuneful thrush in the nunnery.  As I walked back to my room, I saw the very sweet Post Office, which also had a bird chirping on its sign:

Sparrow on the Post Office sign, Isle of Iona.

The post office is down a small path, and has a magnificent postbox from the reign of Queen Victoria (signified by the “V R” initials on the front).

A Victorian postbox on the Isle of Iona.

It was soon time for our dinner – delicious – and then our first rehearsal of medieval chanted psalms and hymns, in Latin and English.  After rehearsal, about 9:15, I managed another wee walk to admire the sunset:

Sunset with mist creeping over the Isle of Mull in the distance.

Sun setting behind Iona Abbey.

The woman I was sharing a room with was someone I’d met at the weekend in Cumbrae last summer, and we got on wonderfully well.  We’d both had a long day of travelling and then rehearsals, and were glad of our comfy beds.  And we were both awakened in the night by the sound of lashing wind and rain against the window.  But I will tell you about that in my next post!



  1. Wow. Gorgeous.

  2. Glorious. Several Gaelic deities were deeply appeased to have granted you such fine weather at Iona! My blog is named after a well, now lost, dedicated to St. Oran, at the north end of the island next to Dun Manannan. There is another one of the same name on Colonsay. Hope you got to try out some plainsong in Oran’s chapel.

  3. Oh my ❤️. I was so there as I read through your account. I absolutely love Iona. It’s a dream of mine to stay over at the place where you stayed. An afternoon is just not long enough to be there. Thanks for sharing your trip to Iona with us.

  4. What a beautiful place! It’s like you stepped back in time. And to sing there in the abbey ~ just amazing! Looking forward to your nexr post ♡

  5. What a delight to visit today and share your journey to Iona, such a beautiful Island that is on our list to visit. Looking forward to your next post.

  6. Reblogged this on per mare… and commented:
    Iona is as beautiful as I imagined it would be.

    “An I mo chridhe, I mo ghraidh. – In Iona that is my heart’s desire, Iona that is my love.”

    ― Saint Columba

  7. Oh, such a beautiful place and thank you for sharing your photos with us.

  8. Thanks for sharing your lovely trip! I am so glad you got to go, and I look forward to your next post 🙂 xx

  9. Such lovely photos–thanks for letting us see Iona. I wish we could hear you sing with the choir.

  10. Merci de nous avoir fait pertager ces magnifiques paysages ! Quel beau temps en effet. Quel plaisir de chanter dans un tel environnement. Il existe près d’ici une très belle petite abbaye en pleine montagne : l’abbaye de Boscodon. On peut y écouter des concerts. Je dois y aller dimanche et penserai à vous !

  11. Beautiful photos, Christine. I could almost smell the fresh sea air (and feel the midges nibbling in the sunset pictures). Looking forward to post no.2.

  12. Thank you all very much! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post and your virtual excursion to Iona. Brendan, I didn’t manage to get up to the north end of the island so I will have to look for Oran’s well when I next get a chance to go. Per mare, thank you for reblogging.
    It was truly amazing to sing in the Abbey. The acoustics were just sublime. Although we sang for about a total of 8 hours on Saturday, we all agreed that, due to excellent warm-ups and the wonderful acoustics in the Abbey and other places where we rehearsed, our throats weren’t a bit sore. Singing the chant in unison probably helps as well.
    To be continued!

  13. Each picture is so beautiful! I’m so glad you had lovely weather at least that first day!!! What a good time of year to visit Iona!

    • Yes, I really felt that early June was a gorgeous time to be there. I must endeavour to repeat that trick sometime!

  14. Having had the pleasure of singing in the Scottish Plainsong Choir at this event it’s lovely to recall the weekend through your eyes (and your careful avoidance of any pictures of the rain!) This was indeed a very special experience both taking part, and hearing the beautiful Canty perform in such a perfect setting.
    Nice to recall the Peploes as well, two of which are in the permanent displays at The Hunterian art Gallery, Univeristy of Glasgow.

    • Hello Ruth! Sorry for the delay in replying, I’ve been away. I’m glad you liked my biased-towards-sunny-intervals account of the weekend. It was indeed a great experience. I haven’t often had the chance to visit the Hunterian since we moved to Glasgow, and hope to remedy that this coming year. I will keep an eye out for the Peploes!

  15. Oh how beautiful!

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