Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Iona, Clan Donald and the Cathedral of the Isles

by Regan Walker

The Isle of Iona is a very special place as anyone who has been there can tell you. A small isle that lies about a mile off the west coast of the larger Isle of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides, Iona has a long and illustrious history. Today is it a tourist destination and the faithful make pilgrimages to its shores and its Abbey Church. I have walked the white sand beaches, felt the constant breeze on my face and experienced the tranquility that characterizes this sacred place.

Iona Beach
Photo by Robert Guthrie, Wiki Commons

Surrounded by turquoise water, the rocky shores of the isle must have called to the early Irish missionary monks, Oran and Columba, who came here in 563 to establish a monastery from which they could evangelize the Picts. It was here the Book of Kells was originally created before it was taken to Ireland for safety.

Oran was the first monk to be buried on the isle and the small stone chapel, “St Oran’s Chapel”, was erected over his grave. Beginning with Somerled in the 12th century, the chapel became the burial chamber of the Lords of the Isles. He was the progenitor of Clan Donald. In my story of his descendant, Angus Og Macdonald, you can experience the ceremony to bury his father, Angus Mor, the Lord of the Isles.

St. Oran's Chapel
Photo by August Schwerdfege

The graveyard, Reilig Odhrain, named in Oran’s honor, that surrounded St Oran’s Chapel, became the burial place of various isle chieftains as well as Norse, Scottish and Irish kings. The tall carved crosses that stand before the chapel and the abbey are each dedicated to a saint. The hereditary master masons on Iona were famous for their stone carving.

St. Martin's Cross
Photo by Regan Walker

The most magnificent structures on the isle are the Abbey and the Abbey Church, hewn out of red stone and restored as you see them today. The pictures are my own.

Iona Abbey Church
Photo by Regan Walker

The church is a medieval masterpiece but today the inside looks nothing like it would have at the time of my story when the stones were painted with brilliant colors and the abbey lined with colorful tiles.

Inside the Abbey Church
Photo by Regan Walker

Ian Ross Macdonnell, author of Clan Donald and Iona Abbey: 1200-1500, with whom I consulted for my story, helped me to understand that Iona Abbey and the Abbey Church (the “Cathedral of the Isles”), are Clan Donald’s legacy. They stand as monuments to the faith of its chiefs who protected and maintained them for centuries. When a chief of Clan Donald, a Lord of the Isles, died, all the clans in the Isles came to Iona to honor him in death and to observe the ceremony that lasted eight days.

The Abbey Church
Photo by Regan Walker


Regan Walker is an award-winning author of historical fiction set in the Regency, Georgian and Medieval eras. Her newest venture, The Clan Donald Saga, spans several centuries and tells the stories of the great sea lords, the Lords of the Isles, who plied the waters of the Hebrides in their galleys, ruling the western Highlands and the Isles for four hundred years. She has made several trips to Scotland as a part of her research. Regan lives in San Diego with her dog “Cody”, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, who walks with her on the beach early every morning.