The Iona Cathedral Trust was established by a Deed of Trust in 1899 by the eighth Duke of Argyll who made over the Cathedral and all ecclesiastical grounds and buildings on Iona to the trustees in perpetuity, as varied by an Arrangement approved by Interlocutor of the Court of Session dated 12 November 2004 and further varied by a Reorganisation Scheme as approved by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator under the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005 on 30 June 2010.

A majority of the trustees hold office by virtue of the office they hold within The Church of Scotland or they are nominated as a trustee by the Principal Clerk of the General Assembly of The Church of Scotland.  One of the trustees is the Scottish Episcopal Bishop of Argyll and the Isles or is a person nominated by him.  Another trustee is the Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles or a person nominated by him.  Finally, one trustee is nominated by Iona Community Council.

The current Trustees:

Chair DesignateLaura Dunlop KC
The Moderator of the General Assembly of The Church of ScotlandRt Rev Dr Shaw James Paterson
The Procurator of the General Assembly of The Church of ScotlandJonathan Brodie KC
The Principal Clerk of the General Assembly of The Church of ScotlandRev (Mrs) Fiona Elaine Smith
The Principal of the University of AberdeenProfessor George Boyne
The Minster of St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh
The Scottish Episcopal Bishop of Argyll and the Isles or is a person nominated by them
The Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles or a person nominated by himThe Right Rev Brian McGee
One trustee is nominated by Iona Community Council


In 1899 the Eighth Duke of Argyll established the Iona Cathedral Trust in connection with the Church of Scotland. Fearing that ‘buildings of such great historic interest to the whole Christian world’ might at some future point pass into unreliable hands he conveyed the Iona Abbey to the ownership of the Trust. He was hopeful that the Scottish people would endow the Trustees with funds for the necessary restoration.

The original trustees were the Moderator, Principal Clerk and Procurator of the General Assembly, the Principals of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, the Principal of St Mary’s College St Andrews and the Ministers of St Giles’ and Glasgow Cathedrals.

The connection with the Church of Scotland reflected the Duke’s view of the Kirk as national and established, as distinct from narrowly denominational. It was his expressed wish that members of other denominations should be able to worship in a restored Abbey Church.[1] Indeed, he specifically vetoed the Iona minister being a trustee due to the then incumbent’s anti-ecumenical views.

By 1905 the chancel area was re-roofed and a grand opening service held on 14 July of that year; by 1913 the nave was re-roofed and restored, the whole church furnished and a service marking completion held on 17 July of that year.

From 1920 annual retreats for divinity students, funded by David Russell of Tullis Russell and Company, were based in the Abbey, with accommodation at the Argyll and St Columba hotels. Russell’s plans to restore the Chapter House and establish a permanent community on Iona came to nothing, but in 1929 he set up the Iona Fellowship for those who had attended retreats and wished to continue the Iona connection.

In 1935 the trustees were approached by the American Iona Society, offering to restore the remaining ruins at their own expense with a view to establishing a Celtic College. This seemed a very generous offer, but the trustees were wary. (He who pays the piper calls the tune!) They considered the proposal in December 1935 but, being aware of George MacLeod’s developing ideas for Iona, invited him also to attend the meeting. Discussions continued over the next two years during which the trustees’ preference for MacLeod’s scheme emerged. The Iona Community was formed in 1938 and Macleod resigned his charge of Govan: Old to take on its leadership.

Over ensuing years the Iona Community restored the domestic and residential buildings of the former Benedictine Abbey, thereby fulfilling an aspiration of the Duke’s 1899 Trust Deed, namely maintaining a living Christian witness on Iona.

Ownership of all the restored heritage and responsibility for its maintenance remained with the Trustees – a considerable financial undertaking. To assist with this the Trustees, in 1993, set up a company, Iona Abbey Limited, with a view to raising the necessary funds. However, despite best efforts, serious financial deficits persisted and new approaches were explored. These eventually led to the present arrangements, formally entered into on 17 September 1999, whereby Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland) would take the Abbey buildings into its care under a 175 year lease granted by the Trustees. At the same time Historic Scotland granted a sub-lease to the Iona Community enabling it to continue its Christian work and witness.

In their approach to the history of Iona Abbey, the trustees recognise that, as with many historic buildings throughout the country, there are likely to have been connections with colonialism and with the historic slave trade. There have been links between the Argyll family and historic slavery, and it is possible that some wealth derived from the slave economy was used for funding work on the Abbey in the 1870s and again in the 1890s, prior to the Abbey being gifted to the Trustees. More detail is given in the paper produced by the Trustees in April 2021.

As they seek to ensure the history of this iconic site is shown accurately and openly, the trustees are working closely with other stakeholders, the Iona Community and Historic Environment Scotland, whose approach is detailed in their Equalities Outcomes Report 2021 – 2025.

[1] The Duke used the term ‘Cathedral’ following the designation used by Charles 1 in the seventeenth century when he declared the Benedictine Abbey to be Cathedral of the Isles and ordered its repair. George MacLeod preferred the term ‘Abbey’.


A new book

COLUMBA’S IONA – A new history by Rosalind K Marshall

May 2013 marked the 1450th anniversary of Columba coming to Iona and there were celebrations to mark the occasion.  The trustees commissioned Dr Rosalind Marshall to write a new history of Iona, the publication of which was released by Sandstone Press in time to mark these celebrations.  The book Columba’s Iona: A New History has been well received and has now been published in paperback.

Hardback      ISBN  9781908737144

Paperback    ISBN  9781908737823

Curriculum material project for schools


The trustees commissioned the University of Aberdeen to produce a new curriculum resource for schools, for the 10-14 age group, on the subject of Iona and St Columba.  This is an interactive, digital resource and the resource was launched for the 2015/16 academic year.

Tales of Iona – Pedagogical Design Principles and Approach

  • Thinking Skills: Puzzles are a key feature of the game design.  They seek to challenge learners to think at a higher order level.
  • Instructional Knowledge: Some instructional knowledge is provided through the game narrative.
  • Curiosity: A pedagogy of curiosity / pedagogy of the question is central to the design of Tales of Iona – through the design of the narrative, in which ‘nuggets’ spark interest, and puzzles through to the artwork and centrality of the virtual library in the game.
  • Interdisciplinary Learning: The ‘library’ reflects the interdisciplinary possibilities that have been considered in the creation of the game.
  • Wiki: Tales of Iona seeks to use wiki pedagogy in order to enable learners to be a part of the ‘making’, construction, process through which their learner voice can be expressed. 
  • International Community of Learning: The wikis provide the opportunity for learners to engage in an international community of learning.


In recent years the Trustees have had discussions about the future of Iona Abbey Library and in particular the condition and storage of the library’s collection of books.  The trustees submitted a successful application in 2016 for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to (1) undertake restoration work to the books in the library, (2) provide extra presses for books and (3) provide facilities which will allow access to the books for research and other purposes. 

In the following two years the various elements of the project were undertaken as follows:

  • some 300 volumes have been uplifted and repaired by professional conservators across Scotland;
  • The Library room above the Chapter House  has been completely refurbished with new, lockable book-presses;
  • A humidistat system to provide ambient environmental conditions has been installed;
  • A digital catalogue of the Library’s contents has been created and will be hosted by the University of the Highlands and Islands;
  • Wi-Fi will be available within the Library as part of phase 2 of the Iona Community’s refurbishment of their accommodation;
  • It is the intention of the trustees to appoint a part-time librarian to facilitate and manage access to the collection;
  • In terms of HLF’s focus on community as well as heritage local communities, schools, arts groups and island visitors have been involved in various workshops and activities overseen by the Project Manager and the Project Community Worker.

For further information on the catalogue or visiting the Library, please visit the Library link here or at the top of the page.

Abbey Library


Visits are by appointment only and will be restricted to  a maximum of 2 persons at a time.  Please use the contact section of the website to request an appointment.

Regrettably, due to the layout of the building, it is not possible to offer level access to the library for wheelchairs.  Please contact us to discuss your requirements.


The entire Heritage Library Collection has now been catalogued and is available to search online. The catalogue is being hosted as part of the University of the Highland and Islands library. Simply click this link, and choose the tick box next to ‘Iona Abbey Library’ in order to search the records. A physical catalogue is also available in the library for patrons to use.


From the sixth century Columba’s great Scriptorium produced illuminated manuscripts and gathered precious books into Iona’s first library. Around the year 1200 Ranald, Lord of the Isles, transformed the Columban monastery to a Benedictine Abbey and the monks’ library, above the Chapter House, continued the tradition of learning and scholarly activity on Iona. Following the Reformation the Abbey buildings fell into desuetude and eventual ruin, despite the desire of Charles I to make the Abbey the diocesan Cathedral of the Isles. On a visit to Iona in 1773 Samuel Johnson famously observed:

That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.

Samuel Johnson

In 1899 the eighth Duke of Argyll established the Iona Cathedral Trust, making over the ownership of the ruined Abbey buildings to the Trust in the hope that, in time, the ancient heritage might be restored. By 1905 the trustees had re-roofed and restored the chancel area and services were held there again; by 1913 the nave was restored and the whole Abbey Church used again for worship.

In the 1930s the Rev George MacLeod approached the trustees with a proposal to form a residential ‘Iona Community’ and restore the domestic and residential buildings of the Abbey. The trustees gave their consent, the Iona Community was established in 1938 and over the ensuing years the work of restoration proceeded. This included the Abbey library above the Chapter House.

A library, of course, requires books and over the years a substantial collection has been gathered. This includes historical items and ephemera that trace the history of Scotland from the earliest times to the present day. There is also an important Gaelic collection. Of particular significance are the volumes bequeathed to the trustees by brothers, Robert and Alexander Ritchie under their wills dated, respectively, 10 October 1923 and 8 June 1940. The brothers also left capital funds for the maintenance of the library and the acquisition of additional volumes. Described by the National Library of Scotland as a ‘significant collection’, the library has suffered from four decades of deterioration and the aim of the project now nearing completion has been to rescue it for future generations.

While referred to variously as ‘the Abbey Library’ or ‘the Trustees’ Library’ it should be noted that the Rev Robert Ritchie’s bequest specifically stated: ‘access to this library is to be made available to the islanders of Iona, visitors thereto and generally to students of History.’

Contact us

    Alternatively, by mail or phone:

    Mrs Anne Steele
    Iona Cathedral Trust Secretary 
    Church of Scotland offices 
    121 George Street 
    Edinburgh EH2 4YN
    0131 225 5722