Iona: The Dark History of a Small Scottish Island

10720_287864165493_8304873_n (Image: Alice Croal, all rights reserved)

Cruising slowly towards the single jetty on the robust Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, the island of Iona that lies just off the west coast of Scotland looks like nothing out of the ordinary. A smattering of houses decorate its eastern shore, quaint and charming like something from a story book. The single road which snakes the length of the island and the solitary street lamp that guards the pier are the few modern day miracles that obscure its green, untouched banks. It’s hard to fathom that its moors and white beaches have witnessed historically important and, sadly, bloody events throughout the centuries.

408800_10151202789490494_1520706590_n (Image: Alice Croal, all rights reserved)

Before Iona had the booming population of over 200, a monk (soon to be Saint) named Columba landed in 563 AD. He made the island his base to spread Christianity forth and founded a monastery on the island where many Scottish Kings were crowned. Unfortunately Iona in the years to come would suffer an onslaught of Viking raids that would ultimately destroy many of Columba’s original religious monuments, though some remain even to this day.

pichta (Image: Alice Croal, all rights reserved – depicting Columba’s Cross)

One of the first sights you will notice as your approach the shores of Iona, apart from the lonely yet grand abbey dominating the north of the island, is a long stretch of white beach to the south east. Easily accessible from the village, and protected from the North sea winds, it is a popular beach with tourists. Few that visit it will be aware they are standing on a spot that some 1200 years ago, in 806 AD, was the site of the mass slaughter of 68 monks – monks that had refused to flee their holy island and who faced a grisly death at the hands of their Viking conquerors. The beach is named Martyr’s Bay in dedication to them.

329_76988710493_2694_n (Image: Alice Croal, all rights reserved – Martyr’s Bay)

Walking up from the village, you will pass on your right a large ruined nunnery that sits atop the steep hill overlooking the dark blue sea beyond. The structure was built in the 12th century by Raghnall mac Somerled ‘Lord of the Isles’, on the site of Columba’s original nunnery. Raghnall also rebuilt the abbey, which has been added to and repaired over the years and is still a popular place of worship today. The tiny and disheveled graveyard that adjoins the abbey is the resting place of many Scottish kings, such as King Malcolm, King Kenneth and even the famous Macbeth.

5820_235603105493_7461637_n (Image: Alice Croal, all rights reserved – Iona Abbey)

The smaller nunnery however, fell into disrepair in the 15th century and now slowly collects moss on its walls that stand exposed to the ever changing and unforgiving Scottish weather. Although a ruin, it is renown as the most intact medieval nunnery in Scotland, so well intact that the grounds are left open all year round. The building is another popular spot on the island for ghostly tales of sightings of the nuns whose graves are visible on its grounds.

iona-nunnery (Image: dun_deagh, cc-sa-3.0 – Iona Nunnery)

Although a popular Christian pilgrimage and tourist spot, Iona has also gained a reputation as ‘a thin place’, or veil between the worlds, and attracts a variety of spiritualists, healers and even occultists.

3257_163455530493_847950_n (Image: Alice Croal, all rights reserved)

In the Summer of 1929 a woman called Netta Fornario came to stay on Iona. Her disappearance and death would become legend. Netta was an unusual woman who belonged to a splinter group of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a group linked with occultist rituals and whose members allegedly included Bram Stoker. She was drawn to Iona due to its significance to spiritualists and her strong belief in other worlds.
netta1 (Image: Historic Mysteries, reproduced with permission)

In mid November Netta suddenly disappeared. Her body was found two days later lying on a small hill, completely naked except for a black cloak and a silver cross necklace, while a cross had been dug into the hillside under her. Peculiarly enough, the mound she was found on was called a ‘fairy mound‘, believed to be a hot spot for supernatural events. Although the coroner who examined Netta’s body ruled her death as either exposure to the elements or a heart attack, many spiritualists believe that she was the victim of psychic attack, while others suggest she was murdered by a member of her order that she had crossed in some way, which had caused her to flee to Iona in the first place.

302258_10150763600340494_7277124_n (Image: Alice Croal, all rights reserved)

Many mysteries surround Iona and the island seems to attract the peculiar. Legends of ghosts, kings, Vikings, fairies, magic and murder draw some to the island. Others are drawn by its historic and religious significance, as well as its beauty and tranquility that allow for a step back from the trappings of the modern world. When the seas get stormy, the Iona ferry doesn’t run, and in Scotland, that happens more often then naught.

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