Iona Abbey, once one of the most important centres of religion and learning in Western Europe, now a place for tourists and lodgings for ecumenical visitors, is a plain, almost austere place. The air of ruin hangs, just pushed back to arms distance. Systematically dismantled during the 16th century Scottish Reformation, it stood open to the elements for a time, before being basically rebuilt and restored – a process only completed in the last decade of the last century.
Final resting place of George MacLeod and his wife Lorna, responsible for leading the charge to bring about saving the abbey from ruin.
Restored stone carvings, of a slightly eerie nature.
While open to the elements, the Abbey’s church became home to these apparently rare sea-loving ferns. According to the guide, their presence is evidence that the building, though now enclosed, is still breathing – I quite like that idea.
Outside the church we came across a strange sight: a swarm of bees, baffling a local expert beekeeper called in to guide them away.
There’s only one clearly visible but if you look close to the guttering, you can see the swarm. The beekeeper was scratching his head over how to charm them down into the box he had ready. Later we’d see him cross the fields with a wheelbarrow and a companion. I wonder if he managed to move them on? The bees caused no bother to us, even as they blew around us, rising up to the roof. That has to be some sort of omen, doesn’t it? A good one. At least in this one spot, the troubled bee population of the world is thriving.
This is the 11th century St Oran’s Chapel. St Oran, or Odran, was one of St Columba’s followers, and as such lived in the late 500s. However his chapel stands in the beautiful pocket graveyard of Reilig Ordhrain (Oran’s graveyard, naturally enough). I found the chapel had a very peaceful atmosphere. It’s ecumenical now and dedicated to prayers for justice for causes and people in need of such entreaties. However, Wiki supplies an amazing snippet of hagiography for St Oran, that I have to share:
Another legend tells that the chapel that Saint Columba wanted to build on Iona was destroyed every night. Finally he was told by a voice that it could never be finished until a living man was buried below. So Odran was buried alive willingly and the chapel could be finished. But one day he pushed his head through the wall and said that there was no hell as was supposed nor heaven that people talk about. Alarmed by this Columba let Odran’s body be variously covered with earth more securely or removed with haste.
In a Hebridean version of this tale Odran is promised that his soul will be safe in heaven. Some time after the burial Columba wants to see Odran once more and opens the pit under the chapel. When Odran sees the world he tries to come out again, but Columba has the pit covered with earth quickly to save Odran’s soul from the world and its sin.
These legends are one of the few instances of foundation sacrifice in Great Britain. [x]
All I can see now in my mind is St Oran pulling a post mortem John Lennon, and subsequently St Columba’s passive aggressive zombie re-interment. Anyway. The story is likely linked to a much older legend – the lines between pagan and early Christian tales can get a bit fuzzy. A good story is one worth re-telling, as many writers will tell you.
I’ll leave you with that strange story, and this last vista of the abbey, with the white-suited beekeeper walking back to his puzzling duties under the bright blue June sky.