Posted by: christinelaennec | June 25, 2017

Vespers in Iona Abbey (Celebrating St. Columba, part III)

This is the third post of a series about the wonderful weekend I spent on the Isle of Iona, singing with the Scottish Plainsong Choir.  On Sunday morning we awoke to more rain tapping at the window.  I was glad that I’d brought a sturdy pair of black shoes for my concert wear, since I had to forego my hiking boots that day.  However, soon after breakfast, the sun appeared!  Most of us walked up to the Abbey to take part in the morning service, although my roommate opted for hiking to the north of the island.  Our main singing event was Vespers at 3, and morning service was optional.

The garden of the St. Columba Hotel looked very inviting in the sun.  You can still see the raindrops on the sycamore leaves near the gate!

Garden of the St. Columba Hotel, Isle of Iona.

We had sung in an informal performance the previous day, but this was the first time I had been to a service in the Abbey, and I was very curious to see what it would be like.  The services are organised by members of the Iona Community, which is an international and ecumenical movement founded in 1938 by George MacLeod, who was the minister at Govan Old church in Glasgow.  I can’t say I fully understand how the Iona Community and Historic Environment Scotland work together, but clearly they do.  I was pleased to see that, while visitors must pay to visit the Abbey, they may join in services there without paying.

Iona Abbey and one of the large carved crosses.

The oldest parts of the Abbey date from the 13th century.  In the photo below you can see how long and narrow the sanctuary is.  At the very far end, below the window blazing with morning light from the east, is the red curtain behind the marble communion table.  Between the two arches are the choir stalls, two rows on either side.  (The quiet chapel is off to the right behind the choir stalls.)  The small door, where you see someone in red, leads to the cloisters.

Iona Abbey, from just inside the front door.  Preparing for morning service with Communion.

Before the service, we warmed up and rehearsed in the Chapter House, which is off the cloisters:

The Cloisters, Iona Abbey. The steps lead down to the door of the Chapter House.

I found the service very interesting.  For one thing, all the leaders were female.  The sermon was given by a Methodist minister from England, and Communion was officiated by another female clergymember.  There were a lot of young people there, I presume staying with the Iona Community, perhaps on retreat.  Dress was informal: most people helping serve Communion were in jeans.  (I regretted not having brought my thermal vest to Iona with me – I’ve spent enough time on the Western Isles, and indeed in ancient cathedrals, to have known better!)  Our contribution to the service was singing Aurora Rutilat, a hymn in honour of St. Columba.  The common cup and large chunks of bread were used to serve Communion.  I believe the sanctuary was pretty full.  It was a very special experience for me.  I’ve been reading Henri Nouwen’s letters, and he wrote a lot about the importance of the mystery of the incarnation.  Also I’ve been reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: an Intimate History – excellent – and that has also been making me think about how miraculous our bodies and all of life is, with these miles of codes inside our cells.   I felt very moved.

After the service, we quickly made our way to the Catholic House of Prayer for our final rehearsal prior to 3 pm Vespers.  I loved singing the unison chants while looking at the boats in the Sound of Iona beyond!  Then we had another delicious meal, at which point I left all but jacket, music, pencil and water in my room – so I have no photos from the afternoon.  The morning photos give you a good idea – just imagine rain and clouds!

Do you see the swallow flying past? They were whizzing around the central courtyard of the cloisters in the morning.

The Vespers service was in honour of St. Columba, whose feast day is June 9th, two days previous.  Columba came from Ireland to the Isle of Iona in about 563; there he founded a monastic community, from which later emerged the Benedictine abbey.  In those days, and still continuing in some monastic communities today, one of the most important functions the monks performed was to sing the Divine Office (the Liturgy of the Hours) throughout the day and night.  The Office of Vespers was an early evening service.  In the course of a week, the monks and nuns would sing through all 150 Psalms.

We lined up in the Cloisters (choreography is one of the most difficult aspects of singing in a choir, for me!).  Before going through the open door into the sanctuary, we sang a short hymn in Latin standing there.  The acoustics in the place are so fantastic that I imagine people in the sanctuary would have heard us pretty well.  I personally love hearing a choir begin singing from elsewhere – it forces me to listen carefully, and of course the quality of “disembodied” a cappella singing is very special.  Then we processed while singing the first hymn with the congregation, a traditional Irish tune set to words by St. Columba (“O God Thou Art the Father”).  It’s a bit of a trick to walk over uneven stones and down steps, while holding a folder of music in your hand, and not walking (or singing) too fast or two slowly.  We all managed it.

Sculpture in the cloisters courtyard, Iona Abbey.

The candles were lit throughout the Abbey, and the rain had come on, so it was very atmospheric.  The service consisted of the Scottish Plainsong Choir singing Psalms from the medieval Inchcolm Antiphoner (in Latin and English) as well as Latin hymns in honour of St. Columba, the Holy Spirit, and Mary.  The professional group Canty also sang Responsories.  Hearing their voices in that space was breathtaking.  There was a short reflection, in which the minister said that the chants would have been completely familiar to the early monks in Iona, and that he imagined the stones of the Abbey were very pleased to hear this kind of singing once again.  That gave me a little shiver!  We sang the Pater Noster (Our Father – the Lord’s Prayer) as part of the prayers offered.  The service finished with us processing back out to the cloisters while singing another hymn of St. Columba’s words set to a traditional Irish tune (“Christ is the World’s Redeemer”).

There was such an attentive hush as we sang the last notes standing in the Cloisters, all of us looking at our conductor for the final cut-off.  We got a big smile from him, which was great as well.  People who are encouraging can get a lot from others!

Some folks were headed back to the mainland that evening, but many of us stayed on and travelled the next day.  Before our final group meal, a couple of friends and I walked out to a beautiful beach.  On the map it’s called “Camus Cul an t-Saimh” but my Gaelic professor tells me it should be the older form “Camus Cul an Taibh”:  The Bay at the Back of the Open Sea.  To modern eyes, Iona seems very remote.  But in former times, when the sea was the highway, Iona was at the centre of Celtic Christianity (which straddled modern-day Scotland and Ireland, and extended as far as what is now the Northeast of England).  Some believe that the Book of Kells was made or begun in Iona.  In any case, when Columba established his monastic community there, Iona was not peripheral, but central.

“Camus Cul an Taibh” on the West side of Iona.

The last part of my Iona weekend seemed to have animals as a theme!  At the beach, we watched a duck with her three ducklings in the surf:

Three ducklings and their mother in the sea. Eider ducks, possibly?

In the morning, as a group of us waited for the ferry, a very friendly cat came to say hello.  She seemed to be waiting for someone coming over from Fionnphort, as when the ferry was approaching, she stood on the slipway and meowed very pointedly at it!

Friendly cat on the ferry slipway, Isle of Iona.

Back we travelled across Mull, and by ferry to Oban:

Oban, June 2017.

I was amused by this shop, and my lovely travelling companion told me that a “pokey hat” is a Scottish expression for an (ice cream) cone:

Ice cream shop in Oban.

We had a few hours there, and I really enjoyed getting to know her a bit better over lunch.  The last leg of our journey was by train.  As we waited for the train to be ready to board, a mallard landed amongst us.  A young man told us that a pair of mallards had nested nearby, and that the people at the station were feeding them and giving them water.  Mama duck was nowhere to be seen.  Daddy duck had some water from the bowl and flew off again, nearly missing our heads!

Daddy duck, Oban Rail Station.

The train journey was beautiful.  Here is a peek down Loch Lomond, taken near Ardlui:

Loch Lomond, June 2017.

Unlike James James Morrison Morrison Wetherby George Dupree’s mother, I was back in time for tea.  Michael and the Dafter had survived perfectly well without me for four days, and I felt so very much stronger and lighter having had a good break.  It was such a wonderful thing to be able to do!



  1. From your description and lovely photos, this looks like such a magical place to visit. How I wish I could have been there to hear your angelic choir. The history of this Abbey is fascinating. I so enjoy reading about your travels to the remote parts of Scotland. I’m happy to hear that dear Dafter and your husband got along OK without you. And, I’m so happy that you got a much needed break. Sending you hugs, Pat

  2. Always so interesting and well written. I felt as if I was with you. Thankyou Christine, just beautiful and what an experience for you and a good break. x

  3. Thank you for your beautiful narrative, photos, and links. I appreciate exploring all you have shared, Christine, and I am glad that you enjoyed your time away and that Dafter and Michael were okay in your absence. 🙂

  4. Sounds idyllic and I have learnt so much. I do wish I could hear the singing of the choir. Glad to hear everything was OK on your return.

  5. Hello Christine, I’ve enjoyed catching up over your last few posts. Sorry to have been out of touch. A different way of life plus various events have contributed to different use of time spent online. Your Iona experience sounds one that will continue to provide nourishing memories. I am always envious of people who can sing, and to have sung that music in such a place must have been very special indeed. I thought of you last week when attending the office of Matins in a church on LIndisfarne at the end of walking the St Cuthbert’s Way. We had wanted to walk from Iona to St Andrews, but the route isn’t developed enough to make it practical without a lot of backup support or carrying much heavier packs than we were prepared to do.
    So very glad to hear that the Dafter has negotiated the pesky end of year exams. The older I get the less convinced I am by the formal testing which doesn’t really allow young people to show the full range of their skills. But that is another hurdle overcome, so many congratulations to her, and to you and Michael as the support team.

    I am still not back to blogging, but have some photos of St Cuthbert’s Way on Instagram at @occasionalscotland.

    Will email soon hopefully.

  6. I can only imagine how lovely you all sounded in the abbey, but your descriptive writing gives me a wonderful impression. A terrific trio of posts, thank you.

  7. I’m so glad you found this break refreshing!! I would have enjoyed those church services too! Your afternoon service with all the music sounds so very wonderful. I didn’t realize the nuns and monks managed to sing all 150 psalms each week! WOW! I should find a week and try that….I wonder how long it would take each day? I could make it a project with the kids……I’ll have to google a schedule. 🙂 (It might take too long….of course we could sing only portions of each psalm) I just love the scenery on Iona and can imagine how recharging it must have been to be there.

  8. I have enjoyed your journal of this wonderful choir experience. It seems like something I once might have done.
    A delight to reach the end of the post and find that someone else quotes from James, James, M.M. W. G. D.!

  9. Only just catching up on your posts Christine. Corny as it sounds your description of your weekend filled with journeys walks scenery friendships and the services attended filled me with happiness – both for you in being able to experience it all and for me being able to experience it through your recollections.
    Thank You 🙂

  10. Lovely photos and a lovely journey. Iona Abbey is so beautiful, and so interesting!

  11. Thank you very much, everyone, for your kind comments. I’m so glad you felt transported! As you’ll perhaps see, I’ve just posted a link to a video of the Scottish Plainsong Choir singing in Glasgow Cathedral last year, so you can hear the music.

    Linda – lovely to hear from you and how interesting about the St Cuthbert Way. I’ve been aware of the growing pilgrimage movement in Scotland. And how wonderful to be on Lindisfarne – having walked there! I have happy memories of that place.

    mimacat – doesn’t everyone quote that poem? 😉

    Heather I love the idea of you and your kids re-enacting a week of singing the Divine Office!

  12. I just love how you share your travels and experiences with us. It sounds like it was a truly wonderful time!!

  13. super
    thanks for these memories (and pics)
    I did a short report – for my friends at Dunfermline Abbey Church
    Philip (SPC)

    • Philip, I’m so glad my account brought back happy memories for you! It was really a very special opportunity, wasn’t it?

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