One of the smallest of the British Isles, situated near a rugged and barren coast, surrounded by dangerous seas, and possessing no sources of internal wealth, Iona has obtained an imperishable place in history as the seat of civilization and religion at a time when the darkness of heathenism hung over almost the whole of Northern Europe. lona or Icolmkill is situated at the extremity of the island of Mull, from which it is separated by a strait of half a mile in breadth, its distance from the mainland of Scotland being thirty-six miles.
Columba was a native of Ireland, and connected by birth with the princes of the land. Ireland was at that time a land of gospel light, while the western and northern parts of Scotland were still immersed in the darkness of heathenism. Columba with twelve friends landed on the island of lona in the year of our Lord 563, having made the passage in a wicker boat covered with hides. The Druids who occupied the island endeavored to prevent his settling there, and the savage nations on the adjoining shores incommoded him with their hostility, and on several occasions endangered his life by their attacks. Yet by his perseverance and zeal he surmounted all opposition, procured from the king a gift of the island, and established there a monastery of which he was the abbot. He was unwearied in his labors to disseminate a knowledge of the Scriptures throughout the Highlands and islands of Scotland, and such was the reverence paid him that though not a bishop, but merely a presbyter and monk, the entire province with its bishops was subject to him and his successors. The Pictish monarch was so impressed with a sense of his wisdom and worth that he held him in the highest honor, and the neighboring chiefs and princes sought his counsel and availed themselves of his judgment in settling their disputes.
When Columba landed on lona he was attended by twelve followers whom he had formed into a religious body of which he was the head. To these, as occasion required, others were from time to time added, so that the original number was always kept up. Their institution was called a monastery and the superior an abbot, but the system had little in common with the monastic institutions of later times. The name by which those who submitted to the rule were known was that of Culdees, probably from the Latin "cultores Dei"--worshippers of God. They were a body of religious persons associated together for the purpose of aiding each other in the common work of preaching the gospel and teaching youth, as well as maintaining in themselves the fervor of devotion by united exercises of worship. On entering the order certain vows were taken by the members, but they were not those which were usually imposed by monastic orders, for of these, which are three,-- celibacy, poverty, and obedience.--the Culdees were bound to none except the third. To poverty they did not bind themselves; on the contrary they seem to have labored diligently to procure for themselves and those dependent on them the comforts of life. Marriage also was allowed them, and most of them seem to have entered into that state. True, their wives were not permitted to reside with them at the institution, but they had a residence assigned to them in an adjacent locality. Near lona there is an island which still bears the name of "Eilen nam ban," women's island, where their husbands seem to have resided with them, except when duty required their presence in the school or the sanctuary.
Campbell, in his poem of "Reullura," alludes to the married monks of Iona:
"... The pure Culdees
Were Albyn's earliest priests of God, Ere yet an island of her seas By foot of Saxon monk was trod, Long ere her churchmen by bigotry Were barred from holy wedlock's tie. 'Twas then that Aodh, famed afar, In lona preached the word with power, And Reullura, beauty's star,
Was the partner of his bower."
In one of his "Irish Melodies," Moore gives the legend of St. Senanus and the lady who sought shelter on the island, but was repulsed:
"O, haste and leave this sacred isle, Unholy bark, ere morning smile;
- on thy deck, though dark it be, A female form I see;
And I have sworn this sainted sod Shall ne'er by woman's foot be trod."
In these respects and in others the Culdees departed from the established rules of the Romish church, and consequently were deemed heretical. The consequence was that as the power of the latter advanced that of the Culdees was enfeebled. It was not, however, till the thirteenth centurv that the communities of the Culdees were suppressed and the members dispersed. They still continued to labor as individuals, and resisted the inroads of Papal usurpation as they best might till the light of the Reformation dawned on the world.
Iona, from its position in the western seas, was exposed to the assaults of the Norwegian and Danish rovers by whom those seas were infested, and by them it was repeatedly pillaged, its dwellings burned, and its peaceful inhabitants put to the sword. These unfavorable circumstances led to its gradual decline, which was expedited by the subversion of the Culdees throughout Scotland. Under the reign of Popery the island became the seat of a nunnery, the ruins of which are still seen. At the Reformation, the nuns were allowed to remain, living in community, when the abbey was dismantled.
Iona is now chiefly resorted to by travellers on account of the numerous ecclesiastical and sepulchral remains which are found upon it. The principal of these are the Cathedral or Abbey Church and the Chapel of the Nunnery. Besides these remains of ecclesiastical antiquity, there are some of an earlier date, and pointing to the existence on the island of forms of worship and belief different from those of Christianity. These are the circular Cairns which are found in various parts, and which seem to have been of Druidical origin. It is in reference to all these remains of ancient religion that Johnson exclaims, "That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer amid the ruins of lona."
In the "Lord of the Isles" Scott beautifully contrasts the church on lona with the cave of Staffa, opposite:
"Nature herself, it seemed, would raise A minister to her Maker's praise! Not for a meaner use ascend
Her columns, or her arches bend; Nor of a theme less solemn tells That mighty surge that ebbs and swells, And still between each awful pause, From the high vault an answer draws, In varied tone, prolonged and high, That mocks the organ's melody; Nor doth its entrance front in vain To old Iona's holy fane,
That Nature's voice might seem to say, Well hast thou done, frail child of clay! Thy humble powers that stately shrine Tasked high and hard--but witness mine!"