the white marble of iona

Our handcrafted Celtic jewellery is made with quality materials and an extremely high attention to detail. Each piece of Iona White Marble jewellery tells a story of history about this Scottish island while exhibiting an aura of luxury. When its distinct milky white hues and delicate veining are paired with silver, gold, and even coloured enamel, it creates a stunning piece of jewellery perfect for any occasion. 

What Inspires Aosdana's Celtic Jewellery? 

My great-grandfather, John Macdonald, was appointed as a guide to the Iona abbey ruins by the Duke of Argyll in the mid-1800s. My mother often told me that as he was a descendant from the ‘Lord of the Isles’ Macdonald clan, and also the island's postmaster and hotelier, he was known as the 'King of Iona'. Who knows if this is true, but after her death, I found a broad gold ring in her Iona heirloom box inscribed with the date July 1886 and the words, “Lord Archibald Campbell to John Macdonald”. We don’t know for sure, but this was most likely presented to him in lieu of his services as Iona Cathedral guide. I still have this ring, and it is something of a talisman for me, a precious object which links me to my ancestors and the cultural heritage of Iona.

At his time of guiding, John Macdonald would have shown Victorian visitors around the ruins of the 13th-century Benedictine abbey. Founded by Somerled’s son Reginald in 1203, the abbey gradually fell into decline in the 1600s following the Reformation. The buildings became increasingly ruinous and in time became an attraction for early tourists, antiquarians, writers and artists. Famous visitors to Iona and the island antiquities included Boswell & Johnson, John Keats, William Wordsworth and Walter Scott, whilst Robert Louis Stevenson and Queen Victoria wrote of sailing past Iona. It is perhaps to Queen Victoria, with her love of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, that Aosdàna owes a nod of gratitude. She made the wearing of polished Scottish stone jewellery popular. Our own handmade Scottish jewellery pieces, which combine striking examples of white Iona marble with recycled silver and Single Mine Origin 9ct gold, continue to be amongst our most popular pieces of handmade jewellery. Our visitors fall in love with the island’s landscape and wish to hold this experience close in the form of treasured items of Aosdàna Iona jewellery.

The Allure of Iona White Marble in Jewellery

aosdana white marble jewellery collection

So what actually is this beautiful white Iona marble, and where on Iona does it come from? This story will focus on the story of the Iona marble, rather than the world-famous Iona Greenstone although they are often found together.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to get the chance to go around Iona by boat you’ll know what a wonderful experience it is to see familiar landmarks normally reached by foot, from the sea. I’ve made this journey many times most recently with Iona boatman Mark Jardine, aboard a beautiful former wooden Danish fishing boat called Birthe Marie. Mark’s business, Alternative Boat Hire, has taken hundreds of people around the coastlines of Mull and Iona over the years, giving them a sense of the maritime journeying of the past.

From the boat, you get a clear view of the remains of the Iona Marble Quarry, which lies on the south end of the east coast of the island. From the sea you get a strong visual of the huge white marble blocks, discarded when the quarry finally closed in 1914. You also get a sense of how perilous an operation it must have been to transport these immense hand-hewn blocks by sea with only a narrow inlet for the boat to come alongside the natural rock pier.

The remains of the machinery are also visible, and these are now maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. The whole site holds a history of quarrying on Iona from the late 17th century through to the final revival in the early 20th century and is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Remains of the quarrymen’s accommodation and tea hut can also be found when approaching the site on foot. The land to the east and west of the quarry is comprised of ancient gneisses of the Lewisian Complex and Precambrian aged rock. Geologically this is some of the oldest rocks on the planet, and perhaps because of its ancient beauty, Iona’s marble has found its way into buildings worldwide from St. Columba’s Church in London to St Andrew’s Church in Jerusalem. This is quite astonishing given the sporadic commercial life of the quarry and the geographical position of Iona. 

Of course, the original early medieval altar in Iona Abbey was also made from Iona marble, although by the time my great-grandfather was the guide, very little if any of it remained. It is thought to have been smashed during the iconoclasm of the Reformation with the fragments being collected over the years by islanders and visitors alike who believed the shards of sacred marble would protect them from drowning and ill health. There were, and still are many myths and superstitions relating to Iona marble. In 1772, Thomas Pennant the Welsh traveller and antiquarian visited Iona and noted the top of a box-like early Christian cross base in Reilig Odhrain just north-west of St Oran’s chapel, beside the abbey. This has an important folk tradition attached to it, possibly lasting over 1000 years, for the practice of divination whereby visitors would turn ‘noble globes of white marble’ in a sunwise direction for a prescribed number of rotations. This base was known as the clach-bràtha in Gaelic, or the judgement stone, and was in situ until the 19th century - still well within living memory of my great grandfather.

Iona White Marble Jewellery at Aosdana

Marble is formed through the metamorphosis of carbonate rocks like limestones, and this is what gives it the pure white colour I love. This pristine hue arises from the phenomenon of light bouncing between the interlocking grains at a microscopic level. I love this whiteness and how it sings out against the preciousness of gold and silver. We use this in pieces such as our Iona Marble ring, and our 9ct gold Iona Marble cufflinks. More recently we invited Scottish designer Grace Girvan to produce a collection for us incorporating Iona stones. These pieces combine enamelled silver in turquoise, soft greys and blues with our white Iona Marble - creating beautiful modern jewellery which carries an essence of this ancient stone and its island home.

To this day, I collect the marble as I am walking along the southern shores of Iona, as do visitors to Iona. My mum was never without a piece on her person, either in her purse or on a piece of jewellery. She too believed it had healing powers and kept her close to her beloved Iona. Perhaps old traditions live on in our actions without us even realising it. Since founding Aosdàna, I have enjoyed many walks to look for Iona’s beautiful white marble. With permission from the National Trust for Scotland, I collect the marble, looking for the purest, whitest pieces, to send to our lapidary expert who shapes and polishes it for us to use in our jewellery.

March 31, 2023