Vandals have damaged the sacred Hebridean site where St Columba is buried.
St Columba’s Shrine, next to the abbey he founded on Iona, marks the spot where the saint’s remains were buried after his death in 597.
Iona Abbey is one of the most sacred places on earthCouncillor Alistair MacDougall
A wooden floor hatch covering the site was forced open and damaged between regular tours.
Jane Martin, Historic Scotland’s manager at Iona Abbey, said: “St Columba was buried in there, it would have been at the heart of the site. Someone jemmied up one of the hatches and did some damage to it.”
St Columba spread Christianity throughout Scotland.
Miss Martin said: “His remains were thought to have powers, they were very important, that is where all the pilgrims would have come.”
She added: “We assume it was somebody who was interested and they must have known the hatch was there, there was a carpet over the hatch but it was moved.”
However, the culprit would not have found anything to steal, as there are no visible remains there now.
Miss Martin said: “Someone has been interested in what is underneath, but there are no remains there now.
“The thing that worried us initially was that someone could have fallen down the hatch. It’s not that deep but someone could have injured themselves.”
She added: “It’s quite shocking. We don’t often get any crime here at all. You expect that people treat the buildings with respect because they are old and because they have this religious history as well. To have a go at lunchtime, they were taking a bit of a risk of somebody seeing them.”
She said the hatch was screwed down, adding: “They have put something in to lever it up, something like a screwdriver, they might have had a penknife.”
Somebody had cleaned the building on Monday morning and there was a guided tour at 11:45am when everything was intact. The damage to the wooden hatch was discovered during the next tour at 2pm.
Miss Martin added: “There is a wee altar at the front with a candle burning and a cross on the wall. It looks like a place where people go to pray and it’s still in use for its original intention.
“People often ask where St Columba’s remains are, because when you go to a lot of places you see a tomb, but there is nothing like that here.”
New security measures are being put in place following the incident, which comes four months after a plain glass leaded window was smashed at the nunnery next to the abbey.
Miss Martin said: “All the glass was broken, the lead itself was pushed in and was no longer vertical, we had to remove the window to a lead worker, to see if it can be fixed, or if we need a new one.
“I have been working here for 12 years and until this year we had nothing like this.”
Mull and Iona Councillor Alistair MacDougall said: “I think it’s disgraceful that anybody would go and interfere with something they probably know nothing about. It is hard to visualise what they were after.
“We get people walking about the islands morning, noon and night and you don’t know what they are up to. We have got to watch them for stealing birds eggs, but this is much worse. Iona Abbey is one of the most sacred places on earth.”