Saint Oran’s Graveyard at over 1000 years old is the final resting place of Kings, Warriors, Abbots, and the Highborn of Scotland, Ireland, and some Nordic countries.
60 Kings Are Buried in the Iona Abbey Burial Grounds
Legend states that there are forty Scottish Kings including Kenneth I, Kin of Dál Riata, founder of Medieval Scotland is buried there, as is his son Constantine I who died in battle – beheaded by the Vikings. Macbeth and Duncan – famous subjects of Shakespeare are also said to be buried there as are four Irish Kings and eight Norwegian kings. The abbey graveyard was a royal burial ground in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries.
The old Medieval Street of the Dead is still visible as a wide, grassy path dotted with cobblestones that mark the path walked by the pallbearers of the kings who carried the royal dead on their last journey – from the Sound of Iona into the harbor at Martyrs Bay, then on up the hill and on to the Abbey burial grounds.
St. Oran’s Oratory – a restored 12th-century building – presumably for meditation was named for one of the twelve original monks who accompanied St. Columba on his last journey from Ireland. Oran is said to have been the first of the twelve to die. The graveyard grew up around his burial site. It is possible that the orator was erected over his gravesite. St. Columbia surely would have been buried here as well but his grave is unmarked. The common belief is that his remains are now under a small oratory adjacent to the abbey.
How Did Iona Come to Be?
Iona is an island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Iona was gifted to Saint Columba (Colm Cille) in 563 by King Conall of the Dál Riata clan which occupied the western coast of Scotland (what is now known as Argyle), and parts of what is now County Antrim in Northern Ireland.
Columba was a high-born Irishman from the north of Ireland who was well-connected in ecclesiastical and political circles. He founded many monastic settlements in Ireland that became large schools of learning, but in the mid-sixth century, he was exiled from Ireland due to a disagreement with another monk that spiraled out of control.
St. Columba Lands on Iona with twelve followers
Being forced to leave Ireland, Columba sought a new home in nearby Scotland. He negotiated a piece of land (which was the island of Iona) from King Conall in exchange for the promise to build a school of learning there – and perhaps many schools throughout the kingdom as he had in Ireland. This could provide an education to the people of King Conall’s kingdom, and hopefully tame some of his uncivilized subjects.
According to legend, Columba left the north shore of Ireland by boat with 12 followers and sailed to Iona where he founded the first monastic settlement in Scotland – starting the spread of Christianity in that country.
The abbey on Iona thrived and many subsequent monastic settlements were spun off helping to spread Christianity – and education throughout Scotland. Iona grew in legend and lore, and it became associated with the highest form of sanctity. To be buried on Iona was a privilege granted to the greatest of men – Kings, Chieftains, Warriors, holy men.
The famous Book of Kells – now on display at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland was penned at Iona in the 8th Century. Monks removed it from the Abbey during the Viking invasions so as to keep it preserved. It ended up in a monastery in Kells Ireland, from where it took its name.
Some Humble Graves
None of the Medieval markers stand on the graves anymore, making it impossible to tell the exact locations of the royal burials. Some of the original markers are in the Abbey museum, but names were not memorialized on markers in those days.
Though it’s known as a royal burial ground, the graveyard was also the final resting place for the local island community. Some graves are marked with names and others marked only by a stone.
One particularly moving grave marker reads:
Found 23RD SEPTEMBER 1940
Known Unto God