In 1899 the 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 them to the ownership of the Trust.
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. 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 on 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 responsibiity for its maintenance remained with the Trustees – a considerable financial responsibility. 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.
Following these new arrangements the Trust sought and was granted a new charitable purpose ‘to advance the education of the public in relation to the history, culture and heritage of Iona Cathedral and the island of Iona’. In fulfilment of this the Trust commissioned Dr Rosalind Marshall to write Columba’s Iona: A New History and this was published in 2013 to mark the 1450th anniversary of Columba’s arrival on Iona. In 2015 the Trust commissioned the School of Education of Aberdeen University to produce a web-based resource for schools entitled Tales of Iona.
At this time the Trust also took the opportunity to review its membership. This involved a process which enabled ex officio members to resign both personally and on behalf of their office and this opportunity was taken by the Principals of Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, St Mary’s College St Andrews and the Minister of Glasgow Cathedral. At the same time it was agreed that the Roman Catholic and Scottish Episcopal Bishops of Argyll and the Isles should become trustees ex officiis, along with a representative of the Island of Iona Community Council and an individual appointed by the Principal Clerk of the General Assembly.
The Trust owns, on behalf of the Island of Iona community, an historically unique library housed within the cloistered area, much of it bequeathed in the 1930s and 40s by Robert and Alexander Ritchie. In 2016 the Trustees made a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for financial support in repairing and conserving over 300 historic books. Under HLF community engagement rules this also involved a series of creative workshops with pupils from schools on Mull and Iona. The project, to which the Trust has committed significant funds of its own, includes the creation of a digital catalogue to be hosted by the University of the Highlands and Islands and a complete refurbishment of the library room itself. The refurbished library will offer a valuable facility for Iona residents, visiting scholars and members and guests of the Iona Community.
In carrying through this project the trustees gratefully acknowledge the benefits of co-operative working with the Iona Community and Historic Environment Scotland in terms of the Iona Abbey Partnership agreement subscribed by all three bodies in January 2017.
 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’.