Monday, November 3, 2008

Iona, the OTHER holy island

The tiny, windswept Hebridean island of Iona has attracted attention for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence shows that people lived there in the Late Bronze Age (1300-700 BC) or early Iron Age, and there is an Iron Age hillfort on the 300-foot-high hill at one end of the island, from which sea routes and nearby islands can be seen. In October 2008 a 2000-year-old rubbish tip was discovered, which yielded limpet and whelk shells, and sheep, goat, and seal bones, as well as pottery shards. The island had a marble quarry, but is covered in volcanic rock under a layer of green turf.

In AD 563, Colm Cille, an Irish monk of royal descent, led a small group of men to the western Hebrides islands, then moved up the coast to Iona, where he founded a school of evangelism, or missionary training college. He may have found Iona deserted, or he may have chosen it because it already had sacred meaning to the Pictish or Irish settlers. (Building Christian centers on previously-pagan worship sites at holy wells and springs, caves, crossroads, and mounds was commonly practiced all over Europe. It was a my-God-trumps-your-god act of supremacy.)

Dal Riata kings of Scotland, as well as some Irish and Norse kings were buried on Iona in the cemetery next to the church. These are my ancestors (that I’ve discovered so far), with their birth and death dates, who are buried in that churchyard.

Kenneth I MacAlpin, King of Picts and/or Dal Riata, 810-850
Donald I, King of Scots, d 862
Constantine I, King of Scots, d 877
Donald II, King of Scots, d 900
Malcolm I, King of Scots, 897-954
Indulf the Aggressor, King of Scots d. 962
Kenneth II, King of Scots, 932-995
Malcolm II, King of Scots, 954-1034
Duncan I, King of Scots, 1001-1040

In 1549 an inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings was recorded, according to a Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iona. No inscriptions have survived on the stone slabs. When I visited the island with a university tour in 2001, I did not discover the effigies represented in the photo that I found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/earlychurch/trails_earlychurch_iona2.shtml.

My later Scottish ancestors, including royalty, were buried at Dunfermline Abbey near Edinburgh (King Malcolm III Canmore and St. Margaret); and Stewarts and Bruces were buried at a monastery at Paisley (near Glasgow).

Iona has fat, wooly sheep grazing and chewing cud in paddocks near the stone church. It’s easy to squint away the few neat fences, and see the same wild coastlines and rocky crags jutting from the sea that have been the vista for thousands of years. At this site, http://www.scottish-island-shopping.com/iona/vtour/, you can take virtual tours, 360-degree panoramics, including one from the Dun I, the Iron Age hillfort.

The paths are paved, and I rented a bicycle to more quickly get around the island in our two-hour window there. (I’m not a fast walker, with my paralyzed foot. This was my second time on a bike in 20 years, if you discount exercise cycles.) A soft summer shower was falling when I coasted the bike downhill to the shop near the wharf, but I was able to pose for a picture, flying down the path in my plaid jacket. I found out that the road I was gleefully riding was called The Road of the Dead. Sorry, royal ancestors!

Were those Pictish and Dal Riata kings Christian or pagan? This article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A1l_Riata suggests that the Picts were Christianized by the Irish tradition, and that they were sufficiently evolved to disagree with the Northumbrians’ Catholic traditions south of the border as early as 664.

Iona is beautiful, in a stark and lonely way. It does not have the lush scenery of the lochs or farmlands of Scotland’s interior. No forest. No mountain. Just a low, rocky island a mile off the larger island of Mull. It’s beautifully green and grassy. The sky seems to be cloudy in most photos I’ve seen, and it was a scattered-shower day when I was there. Even in a comfortable coach (bus), it took about six hours to get from Edinburgh to Iona, across valleys, hills, around mountains, across rivers, past lakes. Then we ferried through Irish Sea channels to the large island of Mull, drove across that in an hour or so, and took the ferry from Mull to Iona. That was done with vehicles, ocean ferries, and bridges. Imagine the funeral procession from wherever the king died, to Iona. It must have taken weeks to transport the body through rugged terrain, in longboats on the ocean, and through inclement weather. And they had to look sharp for Vikings, too!

The kings before Malcolm III Canmore were buried on Iona almost without exception. Why? Probably because of the proximity of St. Colm Cille’s relics (although they were removed from Viking predations in 849, about the time of the first royal burials). For hundreds of years, people believed that the constant prayers for their soul by priests and monks would bail them out of purgatory sooner. Or perhaps tradition was strong (all the other kings were buried there). Or that Iona’s religious center and gospel scriptorium was the center of literacy and political influence. Maybe Iona was an exclusive address, as access was restricted to men, royalty, and ecclesiastics for several hundred years.

Which begs my question: where were the queen consorts buried? We don’t even have their names, but they were wives and mothers of the men buried at Iona. Was there a local church or nunnery? A cave? A royal mausoleum, like at St. Denis or Westminster? Apparently not! Maybe they were returned to their families of origin for burial there.

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