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Converting the Picts to Christianity

Iona Abbey

When Columba settled in lona, Scotland, in AD 563 he did so with the blessing of kings both Scot and Pict, and when he died in 579 he had achieved his goal of converting the Picts to Christianity. His monastery was built of wood and wattle on, or near, the site of the present abbey. Between 794 and 986, the monastery was destroyed six times by Vikings, and in three of these raids, in 806, 825 and 986, the abbot and monks were murdered. The monastery was then moved to Kells in Ireland and individual monks sought sanctuary in small off-shore islands, reaching as far as North Rona, 45 miles northwest of Cape Wrath. No relics of Columba survived the pillages of the Norsemen, but it is thought that the Book of Kells, a priceless illuminated manuscript now in Trinity College Dublin, may have been written in part or whole on lona by the Columban monks.

lona was reoccupied by missionaries from Kells, and by 1200 a Benedictine monastery, convent and nunnery had been established. The magnanimity of Columba, however, never returned and after three centuries the entire abbey was deserted and brought to ruin by the reformers of the 16th and the Cromwellians and covenanters of the 17th centuries, lona then belonged to Maclean of Duart, who in turn was brought to ruin by espousing the Jacobite cause, leasing his lands to the Campbells of Argyll. In 1899, the eighth Duke of Argyll gave the abbey ruins to the Church of Scotland and restoration was begun by public subscription. However, it was not until 1938 that the lona Community was founded by George MacLeod.

Columba bestowed a sanctity on lona that survived the trauma of Norsemen, reformers and covenanters. The tall crosses of St John and St Martin, and the fragments of St Oran's and St Matthew's crosses, are not only tokens of the great spirit and artistic skills of the 8th century monks, they are also sad reminders of the many less durable cultural treasures that must have perished at the hands of their assailants. That lona remains a sacred place for the people of Scotland and Christendom is a measure of the spiritual power given to them by Columba. Forty-eight Scottish kings lie buried in the abbey grounds, in company with royalty from Norway and France, Highland chieftains and high-ranking clerics. Their gravestones are testimony to this being one of the most hallowed places in our country.

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