Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber week 47

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Who hasn’t heard of Iona and, for that matter, who hasn’t visited it?

For almost 1,500 years since St Columba established a Christian outpost on Iona, pilgrims, monarchs, poets, writers, world figures of every creed, colour and nationality have come to this small island off Mull looking for sanctuary, respite and to marvel at its early crosses, effigies and artefacts.

Iona is the 10th most visited historical and religious site in Scotland and welcomes more than 250,000 visitors every year. Over the course of each season, from March to October, some 3,000 people stay for longer periods. Of all faiths and none, they come from across the globe to take part in the life and work of the abbey.

The Iona Community was founded in Glasgow and Iona in 1938 by the Rev George MacLeod (later Lord Macleod of Fiunary), minister, visionary and prophetic witness for peace, in the context of the poverty and despair of the Depression.

Most Iona Community participants are paying guests, drawn by the opportunity to have an authentic, faith-based experience in a uniquely historical setting. Others are subsidised, allowing individuals and groups time away from their usual surroundings, in a caring, safe environment, able to return home strengthened in mind and body.

After 80 years the abbey accommodation needs upgrading and some TLC. Surveys in 2013, revealed that without urgent major work there was every possibility that it would become uninhabitable.

Committed to inclusive welcome, the powers that be were concerned that as the living quarters were at the top of ancient stone staircases and therefore inaccessible for wheelchair users and those with mobility issues, a disproportionate number of people were being excluded. Numerous parts of the building were also too cold to use during the winter months, limiting the season programming and the number of guests and volunteers who can participate, thus limiting its potential and long-term financial sustainability.

Top of the list was upgrading the plumbing, heating and wiring or risk being uninhabitable by 2020. Having been forced by necessity to carry out some work, the decision was made to take the bull by the horns and improve the abbey drastically: installing a wheelchair lift, making bed and bathrooms more accessible, having new lighting, a renewable energy systems and improved insulation.

All this, of course, especially on an island remote from the mainland reached by not one but two ferries, comes at a price, so a bold and ambitious £3.5 million appeal was launched last year called Cross the Line.

Patron of the Iona Abbey Capital Appeal is the Princess Royal, who, writing in the appeal leaflet, said: ‘As patron of the Iona Abbey Capital Appeal, I am delighted by the Iona Community’s campaign to renovate the monastic buildings at the abbey because I recognise the unique nature of this heritage site which offers hospitality as was originally intended. The distinctive pattern of community life at Iona Abbey is fundamental to the spiritual and economic wellbeing of the island and the impact reaches far beyond Iona.

‘I am encouraged that considerable progress has been made towards the target for the renovation project, which will improve accessibility, accommodation and environmental sustainability. This initiative will enable the Iona Community to extend an inclusive welcome to people from all walks of life and to build on its commitment to issues of poverty, peace and social justice. It deserves all our support.’

Support has come from Switzerland to Korea and at a pace which has helped to combat rising inflation that has pushed up the estimates since the project was launched.

Phase one saw the installation of a lift to give better access to the first floor, a reception kitchen to provide hospitality for guests, automatic corridor lighting to create a safer environment and bathrooms with disability fittings.

Thanks to some incredible generosity, phase two, which has now started, will include refurbished bed and bathrooms, insulation in the community living spaces, installation of a renewable heating system, access to the refectory, upgrading of the plumbing and electrical services and redecoration.

With a resident population of less than 170, Iona depends on visitors to the abbey to offset its fragile, seasonal economy. The community employs 21 people on the island, a number of whom are year-round. These employees in turn contribute to the local economy and community, participating in groups, taking part in events and sharing the abbey spaces with other groups such as the children or village hall events.

Just £500,000 is required to re-open the accommodation building in 2020. Every donation, no matter how small, will be commemorated by hand in an illustrated manuscript in the style of the Book of Kells, which was created on Iona in the eighth century. This unique work of art will be on permanent
display in the abbey church when it re-opens.

Donate at or send what you can to the Iona Community, 21 Carlton Court, Glasgow G5 9JP.

George Macleod, the founder of the Iona Community, was no stranger in Argyll. He belonged to the most famous family of ministers in Scotland – the Macleods of Fiunary – which gave more than 550 years of ordained service to the church in Morvern, Kintyre and elsewhere. It produced no fewer than six Moderators of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, seven doctors of divinity, two deans of the Chapel Royal, two deans of the Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle and four Royal Chaplains.

Little wonder when Norman (1812-72), George’s grandfather, died, an old Glasgow woman, blinking in the brilliant sunshine as she watched his cortege pass by remarked: ‘Aye but providence has been kind to our Norman, giving him such a grand day for his funeral.’

When Dr Eammon de Valera, prime minister of Eire, visited Iona, he was so impressed by the work of the community, he asked George Macleod if there was anything he could do for him. ‘You can return to us the Book of Kells from Trinity College, Dublin,’ was the reply.

‘You can have the Book of Kells on one condition – that you allow me to annexe Iona to Ireland,’ was the quick retort.

Iain Thornber