Recently I had the good fortune to take a 12-day vacation trip to Scotland. I went with a tour group whose main purpose was to visit historical places and learn something about Scottish history. However, I was also aware that the apostolic succession of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. comes from the Church of England in Scotland. So I looked forward to visiting some old churches and religious sites and experiencing them from a spiritual perspective.
One stop on our tour was the small island of Iona on the west coast, where St. Columba came from Ireland in A.D. 563 to begin his Christianization of Scotland. From his monastery on Iona, Columba established the Celtic Church and sent missionaries throughout the Scottish mainland and islands. He died in 597 and was buried on the island.
For three centuries beginning in 795, pagan Norsemen repeatedly invaded Iona; the original monastery was burned down and the monks were killed. Many historians believe that the Celtic monks’ work on the Book of Kells was begun on Iona and that the pages were later moved to Ireland for safety, where the work was continued. By the 11th century the Norsemen had been converted to Christianity and the monastery was rebuilt. Throughout centuries of invasion and warfare, Iona was revered as a holy place, and many Scottish, Irish, and Norwegian kings were buried there. St. Columba had banned women from the island (believing they were too great a temptation), but in later centuries a convent was built near the abbey.
The monastery and convent were suppressed after the Protestant Reformation, and the land passed to the Campbells of Argyll. However, in 1899 the 8th Duke of Argyll, a devout Presbyterian married to a devout Anglican, presented the ruined abbey to the Church of Scotland. The abbey was gradually rebuilt and was opened again for public worship in 1912. Today, the abbey is used for interdenominational services and welcomes visitors from all over the world.
Iona is a tiny community with the restored abbey near its highest point, visible from the channel over which we came by ferry. As we passed through the ruined convent, I felt the reverence of many prayers said through the centuries. Then we walked up the hill to the abbey, which at one time was lined with a row of stone Celtic crosses. We visited the sanctuary where services are held, the cloister, and a museum room that held the remaining crosses and other stone monuments. The stonework in the museum showed a mixture of Celtic and Norse artwork and texts in English, Gaelic, Latin, and runes. Most impressive to me were the columns in the cloister, intricately carved with animals, plants, and Biblical figures. Every one of the dozens of columns was different! I saw in these the awe that the artisan monks had for all of God’s creation.
Inveraray church and Bell Tower
The first Sunday of my trip, I paid a brief visit to All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Inveraray, Argyll. This church was built in 1886 by the 8th Duke of Argyll (the same duke who donated the Iona abbey). This act by the Duke showed his deep respect for his wife’s Anglican faith.
The Inveraray church has a beautiful bell tower containing ten bells, each dedicated to a different Celtic saint—Columba, Brigid, Mary Star of the Sea, and seven that are lesser known. Despite a hurt ankle, I managed to climb the steps of the tower, look at the huge bells up close, and look out over the parishes established by the saints to whom the bells are dedicated. Some of these are succeeded today by Presbyterian parishes. The tower with its bells thus serves as a united Christian offering of praise and worship to God.
Today, both Episcopal and Roman Catholic services are held at All Saints. Although my tour schedule didn’t permit me to attend a service, I spent some time praying in the sanctuary and brought back a church newsletter/bulletin—which has quite an old-world flavor in contrast to our Net and service bulletins.
St. Margaret’s Chapel and St. Giles, Edinburgh
On my last day in Scotland, I visited Edinburgh Castle, where the crown jewels, scepter, and sword of the Scottish kings are displayed with reverence. But the highest point on the castle hill—and the oldest surviving building—is the small, 12th-century chapel of St. Margaret, queen of Malcolm III and mother of David I. Special services, such as christenings, are still held in this chapel today.
I walked from the castle down the Royal Mile and stopped in at St. Giles, the High Kirk (or Cathedral) in Edinburgh. It has a fine late Gothic nave and a magnificent 15th-century crown tower, an open spire with eight flying buttresses supporting a sculptured turret. Inside, it is magnificent and feels as if you’re stepping back in time.
When I entered that Sunday afternoon, beautiful music filled the nave, and the entire space was filled with more flowers than I had ever seen in a church at a time! I soon discovered that a choir rehearsal and a flower show were in progress, but that didn’t diminish my feeling of awe and reverence in the cathedral. St. Giles today is still a center of community life and worship.
I returned home with a more immediate
sense of church history. In the Old World, much more than in the
U.S., history and religion go together and have influenced one another.
And I can feel a true power in places where people have worshiped for centuries.
I feel a little of that here in our own redwood church,
almost 100 years old—but that is still a much shorter span than so many
sacred places in Scotland.
This site was designed courtesy of Crystal Cloud Graphics using digital camera images of the historic St. Andrew's Church in Ben Lomond, California and modified using XARA. This site is navigable for the seeing impaired. Contact web mistress Kythera Ann with comments or questions.
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