During the fall of 1773, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were enjoying their tour of the Scottish Western Isles, having reached Iona.
'Wednesday, 20th October
Early in the morning we surveyed the remains of antiquity at this
place, accompanied by an illiterate fellow, as cicerone, who called
himself a descendant of a cousin of Saint Columba, the founder of the
religious establishment here. As I knew that many persons had already
examined them, and as I saw Dr Johnson inspecting and measuring
several of the ruins of which he has since given so full an account,
my mind was quiescent; and I resolved; to stroll among them at my
ease, to take no trouble to investigate minutely, and only receive the
general impression of solemn antiquity, and the particular ideas of
such objects as should of themselves strike my attention.
We walked from the monastery of nuns to the great church or cathedral,
as they call it, along an old broken causeway. They told us, that this
had been a street; and that there were good houses built on each side.
Dr Johnson doubted if it was any thing more than a paved road for the
nuns. The convent of monks, the great church, Oran's chapel, and four
other chapels, are still to be discerned. But I must own that
Icolmkill did not answer my expectations; for they were high, from
what I had read of it, and still more from what I had heard and
thought of it, from my earliest years. Dr Johnson said, it came up to
his expectations, because he had taken his impression from an account
of it subjoined to Sacheverel's History of the Isle of Man, where it
is said, there is not much to be seen here. We were both disappointed,
when we were shewn what are called the monuments of the kings of
Scotland, Ireland, and Denmark, and of a king of France. There are
only some grave-stones flat on the earth, and we could see no
inscriptions. How far short was this of marble monuments, like those
in Westminster Abbey, which I had imagined here! The grave-stones of
Sir Allan M'Lean's family, and of that of M'Quarrie, had as good an
appearance as the royal grave-stones; if they were royal, we doubted...'
Boswell and Johnson express mixed impressions about the isle, being somewhat disappointed overall.
The entry above comes from Boswell’s “The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D”.
Sir Walter Scott also had mixed feelings about Iona, though for a different reason. In “Northern Lights
or a Voyage in the Lighthouse Yacht to Nova Zembla and the Lord where in the summer of 1814”,
Scott comments that “my eyes, familiarised with the wretchedness of Zetland (Shetland) and the
Harris, are less shocked with that of Iona.”. Scott was referring to how poor the inhabitants were,
which was painful to witness.