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Scotland Iona

One of the oldest and most important religious centres in Britain


Iona is a small island off the coast of Mull and reached by a foot ferry. Visitor vehicles are not allowed on the island. People visit for the isolated beauty, traditional life style, walks, but above all for its early Christian heritage. Iona Abbey is one of the oldest and most important religious centres in Britain. This was where Christianity started and spread to the rest of Britain.

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Iona was on a busy sea route connecting Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man and England. St Columba (Colum Cille) arrived here in 563AD with twelve of his followers, and established the first monastery here. It rapidly became one of the most important monasteries in the British Isles and a seat of learning and art. The beautifully illustrated Book of Kells, now in Dublin Library, was made here around 800AD.

The original monastery was a collection of wooden buildings surrounded by a massive earth bank, the Vallum, which acted as a boundary separating the spiritual and secular worlds. Part of this bank can still be seen to the north west of the abbey buildings.

Near the buildings was a small mound, Torr an Aba, where St Columba had a small shed he could retire to and write. There is a good view of the Abbey and surrounding area from the top.

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When St Columba did in 597 at the age of 75, he was buried in a small richly decorated wooden building. Adomnan, born thirty years after St Columba’s death, became the ninth Abbot, wrote the first ‘Life of St Columba’ around 690. This was a mixture of fact and popular tradition which had grown up around the saint.

Around 800AD the original wooden building was replaced by a stone chapel, St Columba’s shrine. His bones were dug up and, along with some of his most treasured belongings, were placed in a richly decorated reliquary chest. By now, the Abbey was a focus for pilgrimage attracting increasing numbers of pilgrims. The pilgrims arrived at Martyr’s Bay which is south of the modern pier and followed a set route visiting areas associated with St Columba’s many miracles before arriving at the shrine along what was called Sraid nam Marbh, or the Street of the Dead.

The abbey suffered a series of Viking raids in the C8th & C9th when gold and jewels were stolen, monks killed and the wooden monastery burnt to the ground. It was replaced by stone in 818AD but was again badly damaged in raids in 825 and 849. The surviving relics were taken to Dunkeld Cathedral and Kells in Ireland for safe keeping. By around 900AD, the Vikings had settled in the area, embraced Christianity and adopting St Columba as their patron saint.

There was one last raid in Iona at Christmas 986AD by Danish Vikings settled in Dublin. They knew the monastery treasures would be on display for the festive Christmas Mass. The Abbot and 15 monks were murdered.

Around 1200, Reginald MacDonald of Islay, one of the sons of Somerled, who had taken control of the area around 1100, invited Benedictine Monks to rebuild Columba’s monastery. They encouraged pilgrims to St Columba’s shrine.

Work began in 1200 on an aisleless cross shaped church, with small transepts.

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The monastery was endowed with lands and churches on Mull and the neighbouring islands. As the monastery grew in importance, the chancel was extended in 1250 to house a larger choir and a crypt was built to house relics. Side choir aisles were built to help manage the movement of pilgrims. There was an ambitious remodelling in the mid 1400, when the crypt was removed, possibly as it was in danger of collapse. This explains the two arches and central column that start half way up the north wall. The north side aisle became the Sacristy. The nave was widened to the south, and the west front and crossing tower were built. The carved capitals of the crossing arches still survive.

By 1450, the monastery buildings were complete with the abbey church with cloisters on the north side with the dormitory, refectory and abbot’s house.

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After the Reformation in 1560, the monastery fell into disrepair. Over 350 stone crosses around Iona disappeared. In 1630, Charles I tried to use the east end of the abbey church as a Cathedral of the Isles, but the attempt failed and and the abbey was left to become a ruin.

At the end of the C19th, the eighth Duke of Argyll, whose family had owned land on Iona for over 200 years, initiated the rebuilding of the abbey. In 1899 he transferred ownership to the Iona Cathedral Trust who continued the restoration work which was finally completed by the Iona Community in 1965. They now occupy part of the buildings.

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The care of the abbey passed to Historic Environment Scotland in 2000.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
A walk around the outside of the Abbey buildings

There are few plans of the site and the abbey on the internet. The following two have been taken from the Data Structure Report for Historic Scotland, March 2016 on excavations carried out on Iona by Charles Thomas in 1956-1963.

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Although the buildings of the original Benedictine Abbey have been completely restored or rebuilt, it still retains the original layout from the 1200s.

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The Abbey is about 600m walk from the ferry terminal, past the ruined Nunnery buildings and the Parish Church (both described later) with MacClean’s Cross.

The Abbey was originally approached along SRAID NAM MARBH, or the Street of the Dead and part of the cobbled surface can still be seen.

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ST ORAN’S CHAPEL on the right hand side of the road before the abbey complex, predates the abbey church, being built around 1150. It may have been built for Somerled, self titled King of the Isles, who had taken control of the area, as the burial place for his family. It has a lovely Norman style doorway with dog tooth carving round it.

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It is surrounded by REILIG ODHRAIN, which was the monastic burial ground and also that of the Lords of the Isles. According to legend it was also the burial place of the Scottish Kings, including Macbeth, although there is no evidence for this. It was however used for the burial of clansmen loyal to the MacDonald Lord of the Isles. John Smith, former Labour Party leader, was buried here in 1994. Many of the old burial stones are now preserved in the Museum and around the abbey buildings.

After the Reformation, the chapel was left derelict before being restored along with the abbey buildings in the early C20th.

The inside of the chapel is now empty apart from a couple of wooden benches and small altar. On the floor are old grave slabs and there are more propped up against the wall.

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On the south wall is a canopied mural tomb, which may have been built for John MacDonald II, the last Lord of the Isles who died in 1503.

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It is worth walking round the outside of the abbey buildings first. The church dominates the complex, with the cloisters and associated buildings on the north side.

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Standing in front of the church, still in its original position is ST MARTIN’S CROSS, dating from around 750.


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Near it and towering over St Columba’s Shrine is is a replica of ST JOHN’S CROSS. The much eroded and broken original is in the abbey museum.


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Near them is the stone base of ST MATTHEW’S CROSS. Only the shaft and part of one arm survives and is displayed in the museum.

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The small stone built ST COLUMBA’S SHRINE to the north of the main door into the abbey church, marks the burial place of St Columba. This dates from around 800, replacing an earlier wooden building and held his shrine with his relics. These were attributed with supernatural spiritual powers and were even toured around Ireland and Scotland. Only the lowest courses of the original stone building survive. The chapel was restored in 1962 and inside is very simple with a tiny altar with a modern carved wooden cross over it.

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Near the door into the abbey is an old stone TROUGH which may have been where pilgrims washed their feet before entering the church. According to tradition, three handfuls of water are thrown into the trough with a request to St Columba to grant a favourable wind before sailing.

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On the outside of the south wall of the church can be seen the foundations of a large extension planned to the south transept intended to help manage the flow of pilgrims into the church. It was never completed.

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On the east side of the cloisters is MICHAEL CHAPEL, built around the same time as the abbey church. This may have been used by the monks while the abbey church was being built. It was altered in the early C16th when the large east window was added. It was one of the last buildings to be restored in 1959. This was mainly financed by donations from Africa and the stalls and ceiling are African timber.

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Inside it is a simple chapel, lit with candles with a small altar at the east end and wooden pews along the walls. In the centre is a long table.

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At the far end is a large wooden incumbent’s seat.

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The north side of the cloisters is taken up with the Infirmary Building, now the museum, reredorter with the latrine drain running beneath it, and the Abbot’s House.

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In a field beyond are the ruins of the C17th BISHOP'S HOUSE, built when the abbey became temporarily the Cathedral of the Isles, during the reign of
Charles I. There are good views across to Mull.

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Only the foundations of the bake and brewhouse survive on the east side of the cloister block.This was set apart from the abbey buildings to reduce fire risk.


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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Inside the Abbey Church

This is perhaps more impressive from the outside as it is quite dark inside and also a bit spartan.

Entry is either from the cloisters or through the west doorway.

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It is a very long church, as the chancel is as long as the nave. The pilgrims worshipped in the nave and the monks in the chancel. It is very plain with stark bare stone walls. The lower parts of the walls are from the original building. The upper part and the wooden roof were rebuilt in the early C20th.

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Just inside the door at the top of a flight of stairs is the early C20th font. This stands on Iona marble legs and has a sandstone bowl carved with Celtic motifs, similar to those seen on the high crosses.

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Along the back of the south wall are six grave slabs of clerics which came from Reilig Odhrain. They date from around 1300-1500

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The transepts are small compared to the rest of the church. The north transept is the oldest part of the church and much of the stonework dates from the early 1200s. This was originally a chapel to St Columba where the monks kept the last remaining relics of the saint. It now contains a small exhibition about St Columba.

There are two small chapels in the thickness of the wall which would have contained altars. In the niche between them was a statue of St Columba which was reputed to have miraculous powers. Only the feet remain. Above is a modern wire statue of the saint.

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In the far chapel is a what is described as St Columba’s pillow. Adomnam, in his Biography of St Columba, describes him as sleeping on a stone pillow. When the stone was discovered by a local crofter in 1870, it was immediately thought to be St Columba’s pillow. Carved with a ring cross, it is much more likely to be an C8th or C9th grave marker.

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Against the west wall is the reconstructed night stair which would have been used by monks coming from the dormitory for night services.

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Behind a metal grille in the south transept is the splendid white Carrara marble tomb of George Campbell, eighth Duke of Argyll and his third wife Ina McNeill. He was responsible for initiating the restoration of the abbey. Although his Duchess is buried in the abbey, the Duke was buried in the family vault in Dunoon.

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The crossing and the arch into the south choir aisle date from around 1400 and have wonderfully carved capitals.

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The ferns growing high on the walls are the rare sea spleenwort, and would have taken hold when the church was ruined. They have survived the conservation repairs and still flourish today.

Cont....
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Inside the Abbey Church cont...

The chancel was enlarged in the C13th and is as long as the nave. The Benedictine monks would have worshipped here. On the south side, an arcade of round pillars with highly carved capitals separates it from the south choir aisle.

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he capitals are carved with scenes from the Bible or flowers and mystical beasts. This wonderful capital has a depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden after eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.

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On the north wall, the double arch with a central pillar about 6ft above the present day floor marks the former floor level of the choir when there was a crypt beneath it.

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The ogee topped stone doorway would have originally led into the crypt, but now goes into the Sacristry which was formed from the north choir aisle.

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The choir has rows of solid modern wooden seats with arm rests. The presbytery has a modern altar of Iona marble with a red curtain behind it. There are more sea spleenworts growing on the walls.

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The sedilia with its carved heads is part of the 1400s building.

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In front of it is the effigy of Dominic MacKenzie who was abbot between 1421-65. He was responsible for rebuilding of the church and petitioned the Pope to be allowed to raise funds from a special indulgence. for people visiting the abbey on St Columba’s feast day, 9th June. Their donations would reduce the amount of time spent in purgatory after their death.

Opposite is the effigy of his successor, John MacKinnion who was the son of the clan chief.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Cloisters and Chapter House.

The cloisters are to the north of the church. Only the foundations survived and they were completely rebuilt in the C20th. In the centre is a grassy area with a sculpture by a Lithuanian artist entitled ‘Descent of the Spirit’.

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Covered walkways linked the domestic quarters of the abbey and also provided a place for quiet contemplation for the monks as well as a route into the abbey church.

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The sloping roof is supported by pairs of new columns with beautifully carved capitals of birds and flowers.

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The walls of the cloisters are lined with grave slabs of West Highland elite warriors brought here from Reilig Odhrain. The Lords of the Isles could command a formidable fighting force whose sole occupation was fighting. The warriors commissioned elaborately carved grave slabs covered with Celtic designs, crosses, ships and foliage.

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This stone has a Latin inscription “Here lies the body of Angus, son of Lord Angus MacDonald of Islay”. It is thought to commemorate Angus Og MacDonald who died around 1318. He was played a significant part in Robert the Bruce’s victory over the English at the Battle of Bannochburn. The ship on the tombstone may symbolise his ability to raise a sea going army.

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The Chapter House is on the south wall of the cloisters. The monks met here daily to listen to a chapter from the Rule of Benedict and discuss the business of the abbey. A central round pillar with round arches divides the room into two parts. The original stone seating survives around the walls. The room is now used by the Iona Community, an ecumenical group, which runs retreats at the abbey.

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Above the chapter house along the south wall of the cloisters was the monks’ dormitory. The north range had the Undercroft with the refectory above it. These are now used by the Iona Community and are not open to the public.
 

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Museum - the crosses

Housed in the Abbey Infirmary, the Museum has one of the finest collections of carved crosses, slabs and grave markers in Britain. They include stone crosses placed around the island as prayer stations for pilgrims as well as grave slabs from Reilhig Odhrain.

Entering the Museum, the three massive High Crosses which dominate the space. In the centre is ST JOHN’S CROSS, dating from around 700, which was the first of the ring crosses. Now much broken this used to stand in front of the Abbey Church, where a replica now stands. It is covered with complex patterns and bosses. The three ‘eggs’ inside the circular bosses represent the Trinity. The groups of five bosses represent the five wounds suffered by Christ on the Cross. The lozenges on the shaft are symbols of divinity. The only animals are lions (symbolic of Christ’s Majesty) and snakes (representing wisdom and resurrection).

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To the left is ST ORAN’S CROSS, which is slightly older. This stood near St Oran’s chapel and again this has been broken and is held together by a special steel structure. Just below the cross arm is an image of the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels. On the cross arm is Daniel in the lion’s den. The shaft is covered with snakes and bosses.

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To the right of St John’s Cross is ST MATTHEW’S CROSS, dating from around 900. This stood outside the Abbey church and the base holding it is still there. The cross was carved from poorer quality stone and only the cross shaft and part of one of the cross arms survive. Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden with the serpent coiled round the tree can just be made out on the shaft base.

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There is one other cross dating from 900 displayed on a side wall. This is quite crude in comparison to the High Crosses with just a solid disc shaped head. It resembles crosses found at an early monastery on the Isle of Bute.

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This simple cross fragment dates from the 900s and was probably used as a boundary marker. The bottom of the shaft slotted into a separate base. Beneath bare two other cross fragments.

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The shaft of MACKINNON’S CROSS dates from 1489 and the carving is amonbg the best preserved in the museum. The inscription reads “This is the cross of Lachland MacKinnion and his son John, Abbot of Iona, made in the year of Our Lord, 1489.” Beneath it is a sailing galley. On the opposite side is a design of loops and foliage emanating from the tail of a griffin.

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Cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Museum cont.... The carved grave slabs

The rest of the display consists of a very impressive display of grave slabs from the C7th to C16th.

The earliest is the Stone of Echodi which was carved a few years after the death of St Columba at the end of the C7th.

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There are other grave markers dating from around this time.

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This grave slab dating from the 800s was excavated from outside St Columba’s Shrine and is thought to be that of an Abbot.

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This grave slab, again from the 800s was from a monk’s grave. The inscription reads “A prayer for the soul of Eogan.

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These two slabs are also from around 800 and the carving depicts a ring cross.

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This massive slab dates from the 900s and is carved with four crosses. It may have been placed over a mass grave following a Viking raid.

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This 900s grave marker is unlike other examples as the cross stands out in relief from the background.

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This grave marker also from the 900s has a different style of cross carved on each side.

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Also from the 900s, this grave slab has a cross covered with intersecting knots, pleats and loops looks like a carving from an illustrated manuscript..

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This lovely grave slab dating from the 1500s was from a woman’s grave from the Nunnery.

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Next to it is the grave slab of Lady Anna Maclean, Prioress of Iona Nunnery who died in 1543. She is dressed in her nun’s habit and her head rests on a pillow supported by angels. The grave slab was damaged when part of the Nunnery collapsed in the C19th but a drawing had been made of it with the missing portion at the base with its image of the Virgin and Child.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Iona Nunnery

The ruins of the Nunnery are set back off the road to the Abbey.

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An Augustinian Nunnery was founded on Iona about 1200AD by Ranald, King of the Isles, at around the same time as Benedictine monks were rebuilding the Abbey. The nuns followed a quiet life of contemplation and prayer. They also gave hospitality to female pilgrims to Iona.

Although in ruins, it is one of the most complete nunnery complexes to survive. The church was built on the north side of the complex with the cloisters and associated buildings on the south side.

The church is the best preserved part of the nunnery with walls standing to their original height. The pilgrims would have used the nave, while the nuns used the chancel.

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Little is left of the cloisters apart from low walls, although the refectory on the south side of the cloisters still stands almost to its original height.

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Next to the Nunnery is St Ronan’s Chapel. Again, only the walls are standing. This was the parish church from 1200-1560. It is a simple, stone built rectangular building, but is normally kept locked. It was restored in the C20th. There are old graves slabs in the grass along the north wall.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Iona Parish Church

After the Reformation in 1560, Iona was left with no formal place of worship. In the C19th the Government funded 32 ‘Parliamentary Churches’ across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland under the direction of Thomas Telford. The church on Iona was built in 1828 to a design by James Smith of Inverness and approved by Telford. Money was also provided for a manse and together these cost £1503 4s.

All the designs were similar; a simple rectangular stone building with a small belfry. There is a small vestibule leading into the church.


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The interior of the church was refashioned in 1938. This did away with the pulpit built between the two windows on the east wall. It was replaced by a small communion table and pulpit at the south end with a dark blue curtain on the wall behind them.

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The pews face the communion table and there is wood panelling across the north wall.

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The church stands back from main road on way to Abbey and is open daily. The Manse is now a heritage centre.

Fifty yards in front of the church by the side of the road, is Maclean's Cross, a tall free-standing cross probably erected around 1500 as one of Iona's many crosses serving as prayer stations for pilgrims coming to the island. It is thought to have been commissioned by the chieftain of the Maclean clan and stands at a point where three ancient tracks meet. The west side facing the church has a crucifix at the top. The shaft and east side are covered with plait like scrolls. It is one of the few crosses on Iona to still be standing in its original position.

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