Iona's religious heritage goes back over 1400 years, to the arrival here of St Columba in AD563. Nothing you encounter on the island today dates back quite that far except, perhaps, its remarkable sense of tranquility. The oldest building still standing on Iona is easy to overlook as you approach the island's magnificent abbey. St Oran's Chapel is a small stone building set within a walled graveyard that you pass on your right just before you reach the gateway to Iona Abbey.
This intriguing little chapel dates back to the years after 1150 and was possibly built by Somerled, the man who broke the Norse domination of the Western Isles and Western Scotland to found the short-lived "Kingdom of the Isles". St Oran's Chapel stood derelict for centuries until restored at the same time as Iona Abbey in the first half of the 1900s. Internally it is simple and unadorned, except for an elaborate tomb-recess built into the south wall of the chapel in the late 1400s. The exterior is also very plain, except for the beautifully carved doorway with its distinctive Norman arch.
But if Iona's oldest complete building post-dates St Columba's day by 500 years, the same cannot be said of the graveyard that surrounds it. Known as Relig Odhráin, it was named after one of St Columba's followers, Odhráin or Oran, who according to legend volunteered to be buried alive as a sacrifice to prevent the walls of the first church built here from falling down. Many believe Relig Odhráin has been in continuous use as a graveyard since Columba's day. It became the traditional burial place for the Kings of Dalriada and, later, Scotland, for many centuries, and a survey conducted in 1549 listed 48 Dalriadan/Scottish kings buried here, as well as 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings.
By the end of the 1600s another visitor to Iona, Martin Martin, noted that many of the royal grave markers had become illegible. Nonetheless, Relig Odhráin remained a treasure-trove of medieval and earlier grave markers. In more modern times concern about their continuing erosion led to the removal of around 30 of the most important grave markers and carved stones from the graveyard. They are now on display alongside remnants of Ionan stone crosses in the abbey's excellent Infirmary Museum, which as a result now contains one of Scotland's best collections of carved stones.
It was certainly right to take action to preserve these grave markers from further erosion by the elements and safeguard them for future generations. But was it right that the graves these stones once marked should as a result be rendered anonymous and unadorned? We think it is regrettable that when the stones were removed they were not replaced with replicas.
You only have to experience the impact of similar grave slabs - with outlines of a lord and his lady - still in the ground at Pennygown Churchyard on Mull to know that in situ these stones have far more power and presence than when standing against a museum wall. And perhaps the people whose graves these stones marked deserve a little more from us than the anonymity that now shrouds them: even if the actions of the elements would eventually have achieved the same result.
Relig Odhráin continues to be used as a burial ground today. A new north-east extension became, in 1994, the final resting place of a regular visitor to Iona, the then Leader of the Labour Party, John Smith. As you read his epitaph, "An Honest Man's The Noblest Work of God", it is tempting to reflect that the world would be a very different - and considerably better - place, had he lived.