OS grid Reference: NM 2849 2411. On the holy Island of Iona, Argyll and Bute, in the Inner Hebridees are the evocative and tranquill ruins of a medieval nunnery – one of only two such religious buildings of this type in Scotland. It is located opposite the landing stage – some 95 metres to the west of the shoreline in the village of Baile Mor. St Oran’s chapel and burial ground* is 120 metres to the north, and between that and the nunnery ruin stands the 16th century ‘Mclean’s Cross’. But further to the north stands the even more famous Iona Abbey, a Benedictine foundation dating from c 1200, which was founded on the site of St Columba’s 6th century monastery, and near that St Martin’s Cross and the Cathedral. The ruined nunnery is nowadays famous for its cloister garden, but there are a number of interesting architectural features. The Island of Iona can be reached by ferry, across the narrow Sound of Iona, from Fionphort on the Isle of Mull, but better still maybe take the steamer from Oban!
Today, the nunnery of St Mary is sadly without its roof but ‘nonetheless’ it is an outstandingly beautiful religious ruin. It was founded in 1203, shortly after the Abbey, by King Ragnall (Regnald) Somhairle, Lord of the Islands. Initially it was under the rule of St Benedict, but after a short time it received priory status and its first prioress was one Beatrice (Bethoc), who was probably the sister of King Ragnall . The sisters here took on the mantle of St Augustine of Hippo and were known as canonesses. They seem to have lived austere lives, often begging for alms, indeed the priory itself was a small and poor house – not coming under the auspices of the Catholic church, according to Frank Bottomley ‘The Abbey Explorer’s Guide’.
The nuns on Iona lived a strict life of devotion, contemplation and prayer. In the 13th century, however, there seems to have been an effort to make the building more liveable, with probably a few minor additions to the building. “The last prioress, Anna Mclean, died in 1543 and was buried in St Ronan’s chapel (originally the parish church) adjoining the nave, then in about 1588 the priory was dissolved and left to become a ruin; the Abbey of Iona succumbed to the dissolution a few years after in 1560-61” – (AA illustrated Road Book of Scotland). At the dissolution in 1558 a few of the nuns retired to a cave at Carsaig on the Isle of Mull. St Ronan’s Church (Teampull Ronain) may date from the 8th century and within there are are some medieval gravestones with the names of the nuns who died here.
Known as ‘An Eaglais Dhubh’ (the Black Church) after the colour of the nuns habits. The nunnery is 25 metres in length, it walls are made of granite, and it is a three-bay building with a passage-way (aisle) at the N side and chapel at the E – and it is probably ‘the most complete remains of a medieval nunnery’ (still extant) in Britain; the construction of the building is ‘typical Irish style’ of the 12-13th centuries. The chapel (E. side) has a very fine triangular-headed window, while the three ‘complete’ arches running down the rib-vaulted nave – separating cloister and chapter-house – are quite exceptional and have equally exceptional carvings. The S wing is the refectory and kitchen, but sadly the W wing is now buried beneath a road, while the ‘completely’ square-shaped cloister at 14 metres across is now a beautiful, tranquil garden to walk around and “contemplate”. A spiral stairway (NE side) leads up to the upper storey and the nuns sleeping area or dorter (Dormitorium). Restoration work took place on the building in 1923 and 1993.
*And what of St Oran’s Chapel and burial ground (Reilig Odhrain). This we are told: “takes its name from a cousin of St Columba who was buried alive (willingly) in order to consecrate the ground, but was dug-up again and found to be still alive!” says Andrew Jones in his book ‘Every Pilgrim’s Guide To Celtic Britain And Ireland’. Here in this ancient burial ground, according to the legends, up to fifty early Scottish kings were buried.
AA Publication, Illustrated Road Book Of Scotland, The Automobile Association, London, 1963.
Bottomley, Frank., The Abbey Explorer’s Guide, Kaye & Ward Ltd., Tadworth, Surrey, 1981.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iona_nunnery.jpg Photo credited to Thunderchild5 Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Jones, Andrew., Every Pilgrim’s Guide To Celtic Britain And Ireland, Canterbury Press, Norwich, Norfolk, 2002.
Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities 2015 Up-dated 2022.