Historic Churches 2020

BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON HISTORIC CHURCHES 27 TH ANNUAL EDITION 15 CARVED STONES Perspectives from Iona Abbey on Values and Significance Sally Foster O N THE island of Iona, just off the west coast of Scotland, a Benedictine abbey is home to 111 early medieval and 122 late medieval carved stones, and 435 pieces of ex-situ architectural sculpture. After Clonmacnoise, it is the largest and most important collection of early medieval sculpture in Britain and Ireland. Described in 1965 by W Douglas Simpson as ‘priceless monuments’, today this collection is dispersed because of historical and contemporary curatorial challenges. Historic Environment Scotland’s highly acclaimed site museum, tucked away at the back of the abbey complex, displays the highlights of the carved stone collection. Those deemed of lesser importance can be found either in their original locations or dispersed throughout the abbey buildings and the island. While many are fixed to walls in the abbey church and its cloisters and inside St Oran’s Chapel, others are stored out of site high up in the rafters of the church. Several of the high crosses and/ or their bases remain in situ outside the west end of the abbey, and there are some individual cross-bases in situ on the island. What were deemed the less significant later medieval monuments were left in the islander’s graveyard at Reilig Odhráin. Most other portable carved stone monuments are in storage, in St Ronan’s Church, or in the Fionnphort Centre just across the water on Mull. There is also the occasional example still in private ownership or in the National Museum of Scotland. This arrangement may not yet be the ideal, but the care and promotion of this embarrassment of riches has tested the Iona Cathedral Trust, Iona Community, Historic Environment Scotland and its predecessor bodies, and other national bodies for over a century. However, events since 2012 show what can be achieved with an investment of Located on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland and founded as a monastic community by St Columba, Iona Abbey is one of Western Europe’s earliest Christian centres. (Photo: Sally Foster)