Little has been found of the early churches built on Iona in the years following St Columba's arrival in AD563. One reason for this, demonstrated by excavations under today's abbey church, is that the Benedictine Abbey Church erected here in the 1200s was built on the site of its predecessor, a stone church built in the years up to 825. Another reason for the lack of earlier remains is that the earliest church on the island, though built a little to the north of today's abbey, was of wooden construction and as a result left few traces in the ground.
The builders of the 1200s abbey must have been faced with a problem. Being keen to carry forward the religious traditions associated with the site of the church they were replacing (which they probably thought dated right back to St Columba's day), they needed to destroy the existing church in order to build the new one on its site. Where could they worship during building works that, in medieval times, could take decades or more?
The answer at Iona Abbey was to build a small chapel a little to the north-east of the site of the planned new church. As soon as this was built, work could begin demolishing the existing church and replacing it with the new one: without religious services being interrupted. What emerged is today known as the Michael Chapel and, apart from new windows inserted in the 1500s, is pretty much as built in the early 1200s.
In one important respect, the chapel was better planned and built than the Abbey Church which gradually grew to dominate it. The Michael Chapel is built on a more exact east-west alignment than the later Abbey Church. Perhaps someone lost the plot between laying out the plan of the chapel and laying out the plan of the church? A more likely explanation was that the builders of the abbey church knew the earlier church on whose site they were building was not accurately aligned, but chose to conform to its alignment anyway out of respect to St Columba.
Like the rest of Iona Abbey, the chapel became derelict following the Reformation of 1560. The Michael Chapel was one of the last buildings to be restored by the Iona Community. This was done in 1959, and the work was financed largely by donations from Africa. All the furniture and the beautifully curved ceiling are constructed of African wood.
Today the chapel remains a place of worship, giving a space that is considerably more intimate than the Abbey Church itself.