The Hebrides have been occupied by the speakers of several languages since the Iron Age, and as a result many of the names of these islands have more than one possible meaning. Nonetheless few, if any, can have accumulated so many different names over the centuries as the island now known in English as "Iona".
The earliest forms of the name enabled place-name scholar William J. Watson to show that the name originally meant something like "yew-place". The element Ivo-, denoting "yew", occurs in Ogham inscriptions (Iva-cattos [genitive], Iva-geni [genitive]) and in Gaulish names (Ivo-rix, Ivo-magus) and may form the basis of early Gaelic names like Eogan (ogham: Ivo-genos). It is possible that the name is related to the mythological figure, Fer hÍ mac Eogabail, foster-son of Manannan, the forename meaning "man of the yew".
Mac an Tàilleir (2003) lists the more recent Gaelic names of Ì, Ì Chaluim Chille and Eilean Idhe noting that the first named is "generally lengthened to avoid confusion" to the second, which means "Calum's (i.e. in latinised form "Columba's") Iona" or "island of Calum's monastery". The possible confusion results from "ì", despite its original etymology, becoming a Gaelic noun (now obsolete) meaning simply "island". Eilean Idhe means "the isle of Iona", also known as Ì nam ban bòidheach ("the isle of beautiful women"). The modern English name comes of yet another variant, Ioua, which was either just Adomnán's attempt to make the Gaelic name fit Latin grammar or else a genuine derivative from Ivova ("yew place"). Ioua's change to Iona, attested from c.1274, results from a transcription mistake resulting from the similarity of "n" and "u" in Insular Minuscule.
Despite the continuity of forms in Gaelic between the pre-Norse and post-Norse eras, Haswell-Smith (2004) speculates that the name may have a Norse connection, Hiōe meaning "island of the den of the brown bear", The medieval English language version was "Icolmkill" (and variants thereof).
Murray (1966) claims that the "ancient" Gaelic name was Innis nan Druinich ("the isle of Druidic hermits") and repeats a Gaelic story (which he admits is apocryphal) that as Columba's coracle first drew close to the island one of his companions cried out "Chì mi i" meaning "I see her" and that Columba's response was "Henceforth we shall call her Ì".
Iona lies about 2 kilometres (1 mi) from the coast of Mull. It is about 2 kilometres (1 mi) wide and 6 kilometres (4 mi) long with a resident population of 125. The geology of the island consists mainly of Precambrian Lewisian gneiss with Torridonian sedimentary rocks on the eastern side and small outcrops of pink granite on the eastern beaches. Like other places swept by ocean breezes, there are few trees; most of them are near the parish church.
Iona's highest point is Dùn Ì, 101 metres (331 ft), an Iron Age hill fort dating from 100 BC – AD 200. Iona's geographical features include the Bay at the Back of the Ocean and Càrn Cùl ri Éirinn (the Hill/Cairn of [turning the] Back to Ireland), said to be adjacent to the beach where St. Columba first landed.
The main settlement, located at St. Ronan's Bay on the eastern side of the island, is called Baile Mòr and is also known locally as "The Village". The primary school, post office, the island's two hotels, the Bishop's House and the ruins of the Nunnery are here. The Abbey and MacLeod Centre are a short walk to the north. Port Bàn (white port) beach on the west side of the island is home to the Iona Beach Party.
There are numerous offshore islets and skerries: Eilean Annraidh (island of storm) and Eilean Chalbha (calf island) to the north, Rèidh Eilean and Stac MhicMhurchaidh to the west and Eilean Mùsimul (mouse holm island) and Soa Island to the south are amongst the largest. The steamer Cathcart Park carrying a cargo of salt from Runcorn to Wick ran aground on Soa on 15 April 1912, the crew of 11 escaping in two boats.
In the early Historic Period Iona lay within the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, in the region controlled by the Cenél Loairn (ie. Lorn, as it was then). The island was the site of a highly important monastery (see Iona Abbey) during the Early Middle Ages. According to tradition the monastery was founded in 563 by the monk Columba, also known as Colm Cille, who had been exiled from his native Ireland as a result of his involvement in the Battle of Cul Dreimhne. Columba and twelve companions went into exile on Iona and founded a monastery there. The monastery was hugely successful, and played a crucial role in the conversion to Christianity of the Picts of present-day Scotland in the late 6th century and of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in 635. Many satellite institutions were founded, and Iona became the centre of one of the most important monastic systems in Great Britain and Ireland.
Iona became a renowned centre of learning, and its scriptorium produced highly important documents, probably including the original texts of the Iona Chronicle, thought to be the source for the early Irish annals. The monastery is often associated with the distinctive practices and traditions known as Celtic Christianity. In particular, Iona was a major supporter of the "Celtic" system for calculating the date of Easter at the time of the Easter controversy, which pitted supporters of the Celtic system against those favoring the "Roman" system used elsewhere in Western Christianity. The controversy weakened Iona's ties to Northumbria, which adopted the Roman system at the Synod of Whitby in 664, and to Pictland, which followed suit in the early 8th century. Iona itself did not adopt the Roman system until 715, according to the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede. Iona's prominence was further diminished over the next centuries as a result of Viking raids and the rise of other powerful monasteries in the system, such as the Abbey of Kells.
The Book of Kells may have been produced or begun on Iona towards the end of the 8th century. Around this time the island's exemplary high crosses were sculpted; these may be the first such crosses to contain the ring around the intersection that became characteristic of the "Celtic cross". The series of Viking raids on Iona began in 794 and, after its treasures had been plundered many times, Columba's relics were removed and divided two ways between Scotland and Ireland in 849 as the monastery was abandoned.
As the Norse domination of the west coast of Scotland advanced, Iona became part of the Kingdom of the Isles. The Norse Rex plurimarum insularum Amlaíb Cuarán died in 980 or 981 whilst in "religious retirement" on Iona. Nonetheless the island was sacked twice by his successors, on Christmas night 986 and again in 987. Although Iona was never again important to Ireland, it rose to prominence once more in Scotland following the establishment of the Kingdom of Alba in the later 9th century; the ruling dynasty of Alba traced its origin to Iona, and the island thus became an important spiritual centre for the new kingdom, with many of its early kings buried there. However, a campaign by Magnus Barelegs led to the formal acknowledgement of Norwegian control of Argyll, in 1098.
Somerled, the brother-in-law of Norway's governor of the region (the King of the Isles), launched a revolt, and made the kingdom independent. A convent for Benedictine nuns was established in about 1208, with Bethóc, Somerled's daughter, as first prioress. The present Benedictine abbey, Iona Abbey, was built in about 1203.
On Somerled's death, nominal Norwegian overlordship of the Kingdom was re-established, but de facto control was split between Somerled's sons, and his brother-in-law.
Following the 1266 Treaty of Perth the Hebrides were transferred from Norwegian to Scottish overlordship.. At the end of the century, king John Balliol was challenged for the throne by Robert de Bruys Robert The Bruce. By this point, Somerled's descendants had split into three groups, the MacRory, MacDougalls, and MacDonalds. The MacDougalls backed Balliol, so when he was defeated by de Bruys, the latter exiled the MacDougalls and transferred their island territories to the MacDonalds; by marrying the heir of the MacRorys, the heir of the MacDonalds re-unified most of Somerled's realm, creating the Lordship of the Isles, under nominal Scottish authority. Iona, which had been a MacDougall territory (together with the rest of Lorn), was given to the Campbells, where it remained for half a century.
In 1354, though in exile and without control of his ancestral lands, John, the MacDougall heir, quitclaimed any rights he had over Mull and Iona to the Lord of the Isles (though this had no meaningful effect at the time). When Robert's son, David II, King of Scotland, became king, he spent some time in English captivity; following his release, in 1357, he restored MacDougall authority over Lorn. The 1354 quitclaim, which seems to have been an attempt to ensure peace in just such an eventuality, took automatic effect, splitting Mull and Iona from Lorn, and making it subject to the Lordship of the Isles. Iona remained part of the Lordship of the Isles for the next century and a half.
Following the 1491 Raid on Ross, the Lordship of the Isles was dismantled, and Scotland gained full control of Iona for the second time. The monastery and nunnery continued to be active until the Reformation, when buildings were demolished and all but three of the 360 carved crosses destroyed.. The Augustine nunnery now only survives as a number of 13th century ruins, including a church and cloister. By the 1760s little more of the nunnery remained standing than at present, though it is the most complete remnant of a medieval nunnery in Scotland.
After a visit in 1773, the English writer Samuel Johnson remarked:The island, which was once the metropolis of learning and piety, now has no school for education, nor temple for worship.
He estimated the population of the village at 70 families or perhaps 350 inhabitants.
In the 19th century green-streaked marble was commercially mined in the south-east of Iona; the quarry and machinery survive.
Iona Abbey, now an ecumenical church, is of particular historical and religious interest to pilgrims and visitors alike. It is the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages in the Western Isles of Scotland. Though modest in scale in comparison to medieval abbeys elsewhere in Western Europe, it has a wealth of fine architectural detail, and monuments of many periods. The 8th Duke of Argyll presented the sacred buildings and sites of the island to the Iona Cathedral trust in 1899.
In front of the Abbey stands the 9th century St Martin's Cross, one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in the British Isles, and a replica of the 8th century St John's Cross (original fragments in the Abbey museum).
The ancient burial ground, called the Rèilig Odhrain (Eng: Oran's "burial place" or "cemetery"), contains the 12th century chapel of St Odhrán (said to be Columba's uncle), restored at the same time as the Abbey itself. It contains a number of medieval grave monuments. The abbey graveyard contains the graves of many early Scottish Kings, as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France. Iona became the burial site for the kings of Dál Riata and their successors. Notable burials there include:
In 1549 an inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings was recorded. None of these graves are now identifiable (their inscriptions were reported to have worn away at the end of the 17th century). Saint Baithin and Saint Failbhe may also be buried on the island. The Abbey graveyard is also the final resting place of John Smith, the former Labour Party leader, who loved Iona. His grave is marked with an epitaph quoting Alexander Pope: "An honest man's the noblest work of God".
Other early Christian and medieval monuments have been removed for preservation to the cloister arcade of the Abbey, and the Abbey museum (in the medieval infirmary). The ancient buildings of Iona Abbey are now cared for by Historic Scotland (entrance charge).
The island, other than the land owned by the Iona Cathedral Trust, was purchased from the Duke of Argyll by Hugh Fraser in 1979 and donated to the National Trust for Scotland. In 2001 Iona's population was 125 and by the time of the 2011 census this had grown to 177 usual residents. During the same period Scottish island populations as a whole grew by 4% to 103,702.
In 1938 George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church committed to seeking new ways of living the Gospel of Jesus in today's world. This community is a leading force in the present Celtic Christian revival.
The Iona Community runs 3 residential centres on the Isle of Iona and on Mull, where one can live together in community with people of every background from all over the world. Weeks at the centres often follow a programme related to the concerns of the Iona Community.
The 8 tonne Fallen Christ sculpture by Ronald Rae was permanently situated outside the MacLeod Centre in February 2008.
Visitors can reach Iona by the 10-minute ferry trip across the Sound of Iona from Fionnphort on Mull. The most common route is via Oban in Argyll and Bute. Regular ferries connect to Craignure on Mull, from where the scenic road runs 37 miles (60 kilometres) to Fionnphort. Tourist coaches and local bus services meet the ferries.
There are very few cars on the island, as they are tightly regulated and vehicular access is not allowed for non-residents, who have to leave their car in Fionnphort. Bike hire is available at the pier, and on Mull.
In addition to the hotels, there are several bed and breakfasts on Iona and various self-catering properties. The Iona Hostel at Lagandorain and the Iona campsite at Cnoc Oran also offer accommodation.
Samuel Johnson wrote "That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer amid the ruins of Iona."
In Jules Verne's novel The Green Ray, the heroes visit Iona in chapters 13 to 16. The inspiration is romantic, the ruins of the island are conducive to daydreaming. The young heroine, Helena Campbell, argues that Scotland in general and Iona in particular are the scene of the appearance of goblins and other familiar demons.
In Jean Raspail's novel The Fisherman's Ring (1995), his cardinal is one of the last to support the antipope Benedict XIII and his successors.
In the novel The Carved Stone (by Guillaume Prévost), the young Samuel Faulkner is projected in time as he searches for his father and lands on Iona in the year 800, then threatened by the Vikings.
"Peace of Iona" is a song written by Mike Scott that appears on the studio album Universal Hall and on the live recording Karma to Burn by The Waterboys. Iona is the setting for the song "Oran" on the 1997 Steve McDonald album Stone of Destiny.
Kenneth C. Steven published an anthology of poetry entitled Iona: Poems in 2000 inspired by his association with the island and the surrounding area.
Iona is featured prominently in the first episode ("By the Skin of Our Teeth") of the celebrated arts series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark (1969).
Iona is the setting of Jeanne M. Dams' Dorothy Martin mystery Holy Terror of the Hebrides (1998).
The Academy Award–nominated Irish animated film The Secret of Kells is about the creation of the Book of Kells. One of the characters, Brother Aiden, is a master illuminator from Iona Abbey who had helped to illustrate the Book, but had to escape the island with it during a Viking invasion.
After his death in 2011, the cremated remains of songwriter/recording artist Gerry Rafferty were scattered on Iona.