The Iona Chalice by Lady Thornton

This is the story of the Iona Chalice as related by a cousin of Marshal Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum to the Rev Aeneas Macdonnel Dawson, as it had been told to him by Bishop John Chisholm and Mr John MacEachan, uncle of the Duke of Tarentum. This little-known tradition is contributed by Lady Thornton.

We have heard a great deal recently of St Columba and his Celtic community on Iona but perhaps the following story is not widely known.

Sir Lachlan Maclean of Duart, expecting an invasion of his lands in Mull by his powerful neighbour the Earl of Argyle, applied to Glengarry for assistance. Accordingly Aeneas of Glengarry (created Lord Macdonell and Aros in 1660) marched at the head of 500 of his clansmen to Ardtornish, nearly opposite Duart Castle. He crossed the Sound of Mull with a few of his officers to arrange for the passage of his men. MacLean rejoicing at the timely arrival of such a strong friend offered him some choice wine in a golden chalice, part of the plunder of Iona.

Glengarry was struck with horror and folded his handkerchief about the sacred vessel. “MacLean,” he cried, “I came here to defend you against mortal enemies but since by sacrilege and profanation you have made God your enemy, no human means can serve you.”

Glengarry returned to his men and though MacLean sent the Chalice and other pieces of plate belonging to the service of the altar with a powerful deputation to plead with him, the Glengarry men were marched home accompanied by several other chiefs who refused their aid for the same reason.

This most interesting and holy Chalice of Iona was preserved in the Charter Crest of the Glengarry chiefs, and was presented by Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th of Glengarry, to Bishop Ronald Macdonald, a native of Lochaber, who before he became Vicar Apostolic of the Highlands, had been parish priest of Glengarry.

On Bishop Ronald’s death in 1802, it passed to his successor Dr Scott, and was deposited in the Sacristy of St Mary’s Catholic Church in Glasgow.

The Sacristy was broken into and rifled and the golden Chalice of Iona disappeared and presumably was melted down by the felons. Thus perished the work of Celtic craftsmen, the treasured possession of Iona, the sacred cup used perhaps by Columba himself and certainly by his community.

No drawing of the Chalice exists but a “gentleman of Glasgow,” writing some time after the theft, states:

“Were I a good hand myself I could furnish a sketch having often examined it. It was a Chalice that no one could look upon without being convinced of its very great antiquity, the workmanship was rude, the ornamental drawings or engravings were more hard than medieval ones in their outlines and the cup bore marks of the original hammering which had beaten it into shape.”