Scotland’s ‘cradle of Christianity’ on Iona is saved by small mercies | Heritage


A Christian community on a tiny Hebridean island which for centuries has attracted pilgrims from all over the world will reopen on Monday after a mammoth campaign raised £3.75m to save it from closure.

The Iona community, centred on a Benedictine abbey in whose grounds John Smith, the late Labour leader, is buried, has spent the past three years making its buildings fit for the 21st century. The upgrade includes the installation of a renewable energy system and connection to superfast broadband.

Princess Anne, patron of the appeal, will visit the island for a blessing ceremony, and thousands of people are expected to join in online celebrations of the successful appeal for the work.

Princess Anne
Princess Anne, who will visit Iona for a ceremony to bless the rebuilding works. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

In 2016, the community warned that without significant action its facilities would be unfit for purpose within a few years, which would put its presence on Iona “in serious jeopardy”. The initial estimated cost of the work was £2.1m, but the final costs were significantly higher.

Raising the money had been a “daunting prospect”, said Christine Jones, the coordinator of the appeal. “We had some large donations but most of it came from individuals and church communities.” About 2,500 people from 22 countries contributed, raising money from bake sales and sponsored walks.

The new energy system will pump hot water from underground to the historic abbey, village hall, schools, homes and businesses on the island. Residential accommodation has been made accessible to wheelchair users, the refectory renovated, a new kitchen and scullery installed, and complete rewiring undertaken.

“We’ve tried to be as green as possible, which is really hard in a Benedictine monastery,” said Ruth Harvey, the community’s leader. The work was complicated by the abbey’s listing as a building of significant historical interest and its location on a remote island off the west coast of Scotland.

Iona is known as the cradle of Christianity in Scotland. In 563, the Irish monk Saint Columba established a monastic settlement on the island. This week the group will also celebrate the 1,500th anniversary of Saint Columba’s birth.

In the middle ages it became the site of a Benedictine abbey, and in 1938, the Iona community was founded by George MacLeod. He took unemployed skilled craftsmen and young trainee clergy from Glasgow to Iona to rebuild the monastic quarters of the ruined medieval abbey.

Visitors to the community take part in daily chores, and join in worship and other activities. “This is not a hotel or a conference centre,” said Harvey. “People come for reflection and inspiration, and to explore issues of importance – the environment, poverty, migration, equality – in the context of a Christian community and in a beautiful, rugged landscape.”

John Smiths funeral on Iona - May 1994
The funeral of Labour leader John Smith on Iona in May 1994. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

The community is open to all – “we don’t just cater for signed-up Christians”, said Harvey. Visitors pay to stay with the community, with subsidies available for people on low incomes. The journey from Glasgow can take up to six hours: “Train, boat, bus, boat, walk,” said Harvey.

In the year after Smith’s burial in the abbey cemetery following his sudden death from a heart attack in 1994, thousands of people visited his grave. Locals said the site was being “desecrated” with plots surrounding Smith’s tomb trampled and gravestones damaged.

Iona, one and a half miles wide and three miles long, has a permanent population of about 120, and 130,000 visitors each year. The community particularly hopes to host people who have been adversely affected by the Covid pandemic in the coming months, said Harvey.



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