Celts to the Crèche
On this 22nd day of our 40 day journey with the Celts to the Crèche, we meet two influential and courageous Abbesses of Iona. Often, pilgrims and tourists who pilgrimage to Iona to visit the historic Abbey do not realize that not only is the historic Iona Abbey on this holy isle that was established for monks, there is also the ruins of the ancient Iona Nunnery. Let’s meet these two early 13th century Abbesses, (Prioress) Beatrice (Beatrix), the first Abbess of the Iona Nunnery and secondly, the life of late 15th century Abbess Anna McLean.
Abbess Beatrice (Bethóc): Reginald, son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles (Raghnall mac Somhairle) founded Iona Nunnery in 1207/8 and installed his sister, Beatrice (Bethoc), as its first Abbess. She was likely born about 1180 probably in the western Highlands of Scotland.
According to the Book of Clanranald, Bethóc (Beatrice) was a “black nun,” (likely Augustinian nun) while the History of the MacDonalds and Lords of the Isles states that she was Prioress of Iona. There is a stone that was inscribed on Iona that Martin Martin in 1695 described the Gaelic inscription to have read “Behag nijn Sorle vic Ilvrid priorissa” (“Prioress Bethóc, daughter of Somairle, son of Gilla Brigte”). The transcription was still legible in the 19th century.
Beatrice may have been the original owner of the Iona Psalter, housed in the National Library of Scotland. The Iona Psalter was probably written in Oxford between 1180 and 1220. The calendar and litany include a number of Iona saints, which suggests that the psalter was intended for Beatrice. The psalter may also have been illuminated in Oxford, in the 13th century. It is unknown whether the psalter ever made it to Iona.
In the Story of Iona by Rev. Edward Craig Trenholme in 1909, there is an interesting tidbit about Abbess Beatrice:
“she seems to have been active in spiritual works, for the same writer goes on to say that she built the church called Teampull Chairines, in the island of Uist…Martin, an observant traveller who made a tour of the Hebrides at the end of the seventeenth century, records an inscription which he read on a gravestone in Iona Nunnery: ‘BEHAG NIGN SORLE VIC IL VRID PRIORESSA’; Beatrice, daughter of Somerledt the son of Gilbride, prioress.”
Abbess Anna McLean: Anna was likely born in the late 15thc. into the McLean clan, the daughter of Donald, the son of Charles McLean. Little is known of the nuns who lived at the Iona Nunnery except we can assume that they followed a strict life of prayer and contemplation.
A few clues have been left which shed light on aspects of the nuns’ lives including the tombstone of Abbess Anna Maclean which is so detailed in its carving as to give a clear depiction of her dress. She is shown with a rochet, an overgarment which covered the head and part of the body, made up of white or black linen (likely black since they were probably Augustinian) with long sleeves which fit close to the arms and ended at the hand. Her grave slab also depicts her with a mirror and a comb, with towers, and with two small dogs. The top part is of Anna and the bottom image is of the Virgin Mary with the sun and moon. The carving is attributed to the Augustinian Oronsay School of Carvers . From her grave slab, we know Anna’s Resurrection day was in 1543.
Tiree: Abbess Anna’s patronage extended to the church of Soroby on the island of Tiree which was held by the nunnery. In St. Columba’s (see Day 4 of Celts to the Crèche) time, Tiree was the place where grain was grown for the Abbey and Columba likely established a daughter abbey there. Sculptured stones found in the vicinity show that Soroby was likely the site of Maigh Luinge, a monastic settlement created on Tiree around 565AD. It was established by the second Abbot of Iona, Baithene who was a first cousin of St. Columba and an ardent disciple of him. Some say the purpose of this monastery was for the rehabilitation for wayward monks.
Chiefs of the Clan MacLean were buried in the graveyard, at the southern end of the beach, during the period they ruled Tiree (1390-1680). There was also a parish church here from the 13th to 19th centuries of which nothing remains.
Anna dedicated a large Celtic cross to the Soroby church. The shaft of the cross was dedicated to the Archangel Michael by Anna, Prioress of Iona. St. Michael is depicted on the cross with a dragon and the image of a nun being led away by death. St. Michael was known as the collector of good souls, so perhaps Abbess Anna was hoping that St. Michael would carry her to heaven.
You may desire to continue reading more about the McLean’s Cross and the Iona Nunnery or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.
McLean’s Cross: The McLean’s Cross, a Celtic High Cross on Iona, was carved from a single slab of stone about 1500. It was produced by the stone carvers of the famous Iona School. It was placed on the road between Iona Abbey and Iona Nunnery and stands about 120 yards north of the Nunnery. It is 10’4” tall. Perhaps this fine cross was commissioned by Abbess Anna’s father Donald or her grandfather Charles.
Iona Nunnery: Some say that the nunnery was Benedictine, but it is more likely that they were one of only two Augustinian Orders in Scotland, the other being in Perth. It is one of the best preserved medieval nunneries in all of Britain.
The nunnery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary or St. Oran and earned itself the name ‘An Eaglais Dhubh’, the black church, after the color of the nuns’ robes. They followed the teachings of Augustine of Hippo in Egypt. Even though the nunnery was Augustinian, the construction of the buildings was in the typical Irish style, revealing the continued influence of St. Columba who came from Ireland and established this island.
The nunnery became a popular place for retired women of nobility of western Scotland and a place of burial. A graveslab in Ronan’s Chapel (Teampull Rònain) bears the inscription: ‘Here lie Finnguala and Mariota MacInolly, sometime nuns of Iona’.
Unlike the rest of the Iona Abbey buildings, the nunnery has not been fully restored since being made derelict during or sometime after the Reformation. The pink granite walls that remain are considered to be some of the best examples of a medieval nunnery left in Britain. Some restoration work was done on the nunnery in 1922/1923 and 1993. In 1923, the cloister garth was planted as a memorial garden and there are numerous early sculptured stones preserved in the convent.
In the National Museums of Scotland are four silver and gilt spoons and a broken gold fillet found during preservation work in December 1922 at the base of the south respond of the chancel arch. There were indications that they had been deposited, wrapped in linen, in the 13th century.
Ronan’s Chapel: About 30 feet north of the west end of the nunnery is Ronan’s chapel which was built about the same time as the nunnery and served as the parish church for the medieval inhabitants of the only village on Iona, called Baile Mòr. The size of the church is about 37’x16′. It was named for St. Ronan whose feast day is February 7 in the Scottish calendars. He is listed in the Annals of Ulster as having died in 737.
The church was dissolved during the Protestant Reformation of 1560. But, it is interesting that King James IV, during the Reformation, did not close down the monasteries, instead he put a hefty tax on them each year to pay. Often, the monasteries could not pay the tax and would have to let the foundation go.
Excavations beneath the floor of the chapel in 1992 revealed traces of an earlier chapel, possibly dating from the 8th century, with a possible burial ground under the 8thc. foundation that relates closely to the beginning of St. Columba’s time. The chapel now houses architectural fragments and graveslabs found at the nunnery.
In 1574 the last Abbess Marian McLean passed the convent and the lands to Hector McLean of Duart.
John Philip Newell in his book, The Rebirthing of God magnificently describes the Iona Nunnery that has often been overlooked by those who choose to go straight to the Abbey without noticing the strange beauty of this place that is both ruinous and gorgeous. He describes the stillness and sacredness of praying in this nunnery abbey that is like a roofless cathedral, open to the sights, sounds, and smells of sky and nature. He believes that this nunnery has often been bypassed because of our neglect of the feminine. Philip boldly states:
“Our religion, like much of Western culture, has suffered a tragic imbalance. The neglect and exploitation of the earth have gone hand in hand with a subordination and abuse of the feminine. This has often included a fear of the feminine and its deep birthing energies. Praying in the Nunnery is part of the growing desire in us to bring back into relationship again so-called opposites that have been torn apart, the masculine and the feminine, as well as the life of humanity and the life of the earth.” (p. 2-3.)
These two Abbesses of noble families would likely tell us to simply “be faithful.” Be faithful to God, be faithful to family, be faithful to neighbor, be faithful to God’s magnificent creation. Be faithful to stay on the path of pilgrimage to the crèche, to the place of new birth and renewed hope. Like Mary whose faith must have been truly tested, we too are pregnant with Jesus the Christ, waiting in labor this Advent season for the Messiah to be born anew in our lives.
Prayer: O God, help me to be faithful to continue my journey of new life and fresh new starts. Send angels to accompany and encourage me. Send shepherds and shepherdesses to lead, feed, and protect me. Send a star to guide me along the path of light. Send wise men and women to bring gifts for this new life of faith, hope, and love. Amen.
© Brenda G. Warren and http://www.saintsbridge.org, 2018-2029. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brenda G. Warren and http://www.saintsbridge.org (Celts to the Creche) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Bethóc, Prioress of Iona. Youtube.
Canmore Historic Environment Scotland. Iona Nunnery and MacLean’s Cross.
Cochrane, Robert, ed. Report of the Excursion of the Cambrian Archaeological Association in Connexion with the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland to the Western Islands of Scotland, Orkney, and Caithness, June 1899.
Exploring Scotland’s History. Augustinian Nunnery, St. Oran’s Chapel, Iona. March 3o, 2021. Youtube.
History of the McDonald’s and Lords of the Isles. National Library of Scotland.
The Journal of Antiquities. St. Mary’s Nunnery, Island of Iona, Argyll and Jute, Scotland. December 14, 2015.
MacArthur, E. Mairi. Columba’s Island: Iona From Past to Present. Edinburgh: University Press, 1995, 2007 reprint with corrections.
_____________. Iona. Grantown-on-Spey, Scotland: Colin Baxter Photography, Ltd., 1999.
Millar, Peter W. Iona: A Pilgrim’s Guide. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2007.
National Library of Scotland. The Iona Psalter: Acquired in 1960.
Newell, John Phillip. The Rebirthing of God. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014.
Power, Rosemary. “Dating Iona’s Nunnery” in Scottish Historical Review. Vol. C, 253. August 2021: 277-281.
____________. “Iona’s Sheila-na-gig and Its Visual Context” in Folklore 123(December 2012:330-354. (link to abstract of article)
Ritchie, Anna and Ian Fisher. Historic Scotland. Iona Abbey and Nunnery. rev. ed. 2004.
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments in Scotland. Iona and Iona Nunnery.
Saints and Stones.net Iona Nunnery. Argyle and Bute (Iona), Scotland.
Soroby Church. Tiree. (map)
Trenholme, Edward Craig. The Story of Iona. 1909. (from archive.org)
Undiscovered Scotland. Iona Nunnery.