01 August 2023
Our guide profiles six of Scotland’s most sacred isles, which are rich in ancient Christian history. ...
A seven-mile trip from the Orkney mainland (departing from Tingwall) lies the island of Egilsay, the site of the execution of St Magnus c.1116, and a medieval kirk which may mark the site of the saint’s original burial place.
The roofless kirk ruins, with an unusual cone-shaped tower (unique in Orkney), can be explored and it’s also possible to see a stone monument erected in 1916 to mark the 800th anniversary of Magnus’s death at the hands of his cousin, Earl Haakon.
Inchcailloch is an island on Loch Lomond (reached by ferry from Balmaha) which is home to a ruined nunnery and church, as well as the grave of St Kentigerna, an eighth-century Irish missionary who lived on the island as a hermit until her death in 734AD. The kirkyard is home to a number of medieval burials, including members of Clan MacGregor.
The island takes its name from its connections with the saint, with the name Inchcailloch meaning ‘island of the cowled (or old) woman’.
A monastic island on the Firth of Forth which, legend claims, was visited by St Columba in the sixth century. The island’s abbey (and the island itself) were named after Columba and a hermit lived here from at least the twelfth century.
The medieval abbey was founded by King Alexander I who sheltered on the island during bad weather in 1123 and promised to found an Augustinian house here. The oldest relic on the island is a tenth-century hogback stone, and there is also a rare thirteenth-century painting of a funeral procession, which is housed in a tomb recess at the abbey. The abbey is also famed as the place where Abbot Walter Bower wrote the celebrated fifteenth-century chronicle Scotichronicon.
The island is reached by ferry from Queensferry pier, below the Firth of Forth rail bridge.
The island of Iona is arguably Scotland’s most famous sacred island and was founded by St Columba in 563AD with the establishment of a monastic community of twelve monks.
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The island is rich in Christian sites including the twelfth century chapel said to contain the remains of St Columba’s shrine, the abbey itself, a ruined nunnery (between the ferry and the abbey) Martyrs Bay, where 68 monks were slaughtered by Viking raiders in 806AD, and Reilig Odhrain (street of the dead), a cemetery which houses the remains of some of Scotland’s early kings.
The island continues its sacred traditions and is currently home to a Christian ecumenical community. Iona is reached by ferry from the Isle of Mull.
ISLE OF MAY
An island on the outer Firth of Forth which is now best known for its bird-watching opportunities but is also home to the remains of the chapel of St Ethernan, the priory of St Adrians, and is possibly also the burial site of seventh-century saint Ethernan.
In the medieval age, the Isle of May was a site of pilgrimage, with visitors heading to the shrine chapel, whose remains can be explored today, close to the site of the monastic church ruins.
The island can be reached by ferry from Anstruther from April to September.
The island of Lismore in Argyll is home to the remains of a Celtic cathedral originally founded by St Moulag in the sixth century. The fourteenth-century church, known was the Cathedral Church of St Moluag, can still be visited today and visitors can also see the circular graveyard and St Moluag’s Chair, a rock where the saint is said to have sat and prayed.
Lismore can be visited by ferry from Port Appin or Oban.
(Originally published February 2015. Reviewed August 2023)