The centre of the island is fertile grazing ground called The Machair – machair meaning a plain or level field.
Continue walking south, with the Sound of Iona on your left. The road turns right to lead west across the island. On the left, just before the gate onto the grass above the seashore, is a smooth green hillock.
This small hill has two names: Sìthean or the Fairy Mound where, according to local legend, the music of the fairy folk could entice unwary mortals inside the hill; and Cnoc nan Aingeal or Hill of the Angels where, according to Adomnán, Colmcille was seen meeting with angels.
“How a great number of holy angels were seen, coming down from heaven to confer with St Columba.
Likewise, on another occasion, when St Columba was living in Iona, he addressed the assembled brethren, making his point with great emphasis, saying:
‘Today I shall go to the machair on the west coast of our island, and I wish to go alone. No one is to follow me therefore.’
They obeyed and he set out alone as he desired. But one of the brethren, who was an artful scout, took a different route and his himself on top of a little hill that overlooks the machair, for he was eager to find out why the saint had gone out alone. From his vantage point, he could see St Columba standing on a knoll among the fields and praying with his arms spread out towards heaven and his eyes gazing upwards…
For holy angels, the citizens of the heavenly kingdom, were flying down with amazing speed, dressed in white robes, and began to gather around the holy man as he prayed. After they had conversed a little with St Columba, the heavenly crowd – as though they could feel that they were being spied on – quickly returned to the heights of heaven…
Hence today the knoll where St Columba conferred with angels affirms by its very name what took place there, for it is called Cnoc nan Aingel, that is, the angels’ knoll.”
Life of St Columba by Adomnán of Iona, Book III Story 16
The Machair, meaning flat sandy grassland, now provides good grazing for the local farmers. But it was once dug and sown with crops, from the time of the early monastery onwards; the long rigmarks are still clear, especially in low sunlight. Adomnán called this area ‘the little western plain’ and records that Colmcille was brought here, to bless the brothers at work, shortly before his death.
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