A journey to where Scotland’s sacred story began can be like the centuries that have expired since AD 563. Long, tedious, and sometimes linked to uncertainty, it requires of the modern pilgrim patience and an open spirit.
My quest for the Inner Hebrides island of Iona and its Christian heritage role began in Glasgow’s airport following a transatlantic flight. Iona was first on an itinerary that would traverse a millennia and a half of change, tumult, and intrigue. Then through Scotland’s geographical heart and into St. Andrews on the east coast we would go. Along our way, I imagined some of my Murray clan ancestors may have touched the same sites.
Fortunately I’d joined up with professional driver/guide Jean Blair, an affable Scot with great historic knowledge and enthusiasm (travelthroughscotland.com). Performing left side driving while navigating an unknown trail would have been difficult. As it was, Jean freed me to concentrate on our tour’s cerebral pleasures.
Out of Glasgow, we followed a meandering road past legendary Loch Lomond west into the mist of Oban. The 45-minute ferry ride from Craignure over to Mull passed rugged cliffs and the hauntingly beautiful DuartCastle whose tales include the Sean Connery – Catherine Zeta Jones movie Entrapment. The couple of hours crossing 35 miles along Mull’s one-track (some drivers give way, some don’t) road to the island’s other side raised my doubts. Would this journey truly be worth this effort, I mused, and would the infamous Hebridean weather caress or consume us? The skies were grey, and clouds looked ominous. But after all, this was Scotland.
“I’ve been hoping for a weather break,” Jean said wistfully, “we’ve had a miserable summer of rain – so much that hay in the fields has rotted away.” Providence was apparently with us, however, and by the time we reached the tiny ferry village of Fionnport on Mull’s west side, blue September skies covered us. And most days in the following week, they remained with us.
Salty air aroma and calling gulls escorted our ferry into port. The birds continued their welcome as we walked a few steps into IonaVillage and through the door of the cozy 16-room Argyll Hotel. Family owned and operated by two of Iona’s hundred or so residents, it’s one of two island lodging choices besides ecclesiastical options. The homey continental ambience and fine sustainable dining made it a comfortable base for respite and repast.
Jean related Iona’s history as we did a short walk to the abbey next morning.
“The year was AD 563 when St. Columba, an Irish scholar, prince, soldier, priest, and follower of Saint Patrick had left his homeland with a few companions, vowing never to return. There had been a row over his illegally copied Psalter, so he took his monastic worship style to Iona, away from the strife,” she said.
“Wooden huts composed the early community that was foundation for the early ScottishChurch, but in time it became a famous pilgrimage center from the seventh century forward. Hundreds of elaborately carved standing stone High Crosses defined the way. It was also a burial ground for Scottish kings, including Macbeth. The monastery sent missionaries into pagan lands – now modern Scotland – northern England, and the continent. It was an important art center as well. The Book of Kells – perhaps the finest piece of art from Europe’s “Dark Ages” – and now in Dublin’s TrinityUniversity, was likely created here in the eighth century by Ionian monks. Contemporary Iona artists carry the same Celtic designs in the art they sell to visitors from several island outlets.”
Iona fell to devastating Viking raids in the 9th century. The Benedictines revived it in the 13th century. Then came the 1560 Scottish Reformation and the end of monastic life. The island faded into three centuries of ruin and oblivion until the late 18th Century when the Duke of Argyll (he owned the real estate) did an 1870’s restoration. The church and adjacent buildings visitors see today are mostly a rebuild begun in 1938 by George MacLeod and the resident Iona Community he founded as a Church of Scotland order. Relics like the 11th century St. Oran’s Chapel (the island’s oldest building), the Nunnery ruins and the stunning carved stone crosses are surviving witnesses.
We followed Scotland’s Christian story back east into Glasgow and its cathedral, which is the only mainland church to have survived the Reformation complete. Its somber interior stone pillars bear pock marks where icons were torn from their perches by zealous reformers who regarded them as idolatrous.
In Stirling, we went into the Church of the Holy Rude that’s downhill from StirlingCastle. It was site of infant James VI’s 1567 coronation following the forced abdication of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. Reformer John Knox preached at the rite. It’s the only UK church besides Westminster Abbey to have had a coronation and continue as a modern house of worship. “This church was also home for three centuries to a divided congregation,” welcome minister James Buchanan told us. “When a clerical dispute arose in 1656, they put up a wall dividing the nave from the choir – and it stood until 1936. My parents were married here a couple of weeks after it came down.”
Edinburgh’s famed Royal Mile has Edinburgh Castle with its centuries of religious and political history and The Palace of Holyroodhouse, one of the British monarch’s official residences whose foundations were an 12th century Augustinian monastery. Along the mile, we also visited John Knox’s House and St. Giles – Scotland’s High Kirk – where as sitting minister, Knox orchestrated the Scottish Reformation.
Our final evening at a contemporary concert in the beautiful and mysterious 15th century Rosslyn Chapel 12 miles outside Edinburgh was fitting finale. The chapel has had recent notoriety because it was in The Da Vinci Code movie. But it’s long been the subject of speculation regarding possible connections to Freemasonry, Knights Templar, and the Holy Grail. Often called the “Bible in stone,” the chapel’s elaborate interior carvings are an absorbing read in biblical messages like sin and judgment.
Sitting amid Rosslyn’s elaborate carved walls and pillars, I thought of that remote island where the Scots’ faith journey began – and continues – in many fascinating chapters.
Sacred Scottish Sites
Iona Abbey and Nunnery –Scotland’s “Cradle of Christianity” is the small island where Ireland’s St. Columba arrived AD 563 to found the monastery whose missionaries carried Christianity all over Europe.
Glasgow Cathedral – This medieval Gothic cathedral is the only one on the Scottish mainland that survived the 1560 reformation violence intact.
St. Giles – Scotland’s High Kirk from which John Knox led Scotland’s Reformation in the mid-16th century. A stunning stained glass memorial window honors the beloved poet Robert Burns.
John Knox House – Along Edinburgh’s famed Royal Mile between Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse, this 15th century house holds exhibits of Scottish Reformer Knox’s life and times.
Dunfermline Abbey – Christians have worshipped on this site sinceAD 800. Ruins of the 12th century abbey stand adjacent to the stately 19th century church with a light and elegant interior. Robert the Bruce’s tomb is marked by a brass plaque beneath the pulpit. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s birthplace museum is nearby.
Church of the Holy Rude – John Knox was here too – when he preached a sermon at the 1566 baptism of James VI. Located downhill from StirlingCastle and near the WilliamWallaceMonument and StirlingBridge.
St. Andrews – This charming seaside university town was an important seat of the Catholic church and site of Scotland’s greatest cathedral that suffered Reformation assault. The dramatic castle ruin on the sea was home to powerful bishops in the Middle Ages. Both picturesque ruins attract today visitors, some of whom also play the world’s oldest golf course nearby.
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