Iona, What’s in the name?

One of the questions frequently asked by visitors to Iona Church is whether there is a connection to Iona and its abbey in Scotland. The quick answer is yes and no. On the face of it Iona Port Chalmers is an entirely separate entity. Iona does however, indirectly is linked through taking the same name given to the tiny Hebridean island.

It is useful to remember that Iona is not the first church to stand on the site – two earlier churches both stood above the hill, and neither of them were named Iona.(Johnstone Hall which is joined to Iona was the second church, named after the first minister – Glaswegian Rev William Johnstone.)  Otago was however a Scottish settlement and just as we all like familiarity, our creature comforts, and reminders of the town we grew up in, so did the Scottish settler. Dunedin was made more “homely” by including reminders of home, making their new life feel just a little bit more familiar.

The name Iona is one example of keeping the memory of home alive. St Columba too had left his home in Ireland, exiled in 563 AD after being threatened by clerics and ex-communication during a tribal feud. He took his teachings and knowledge of Christianity with him, settling on the island of Iona. He built his monastery as a place of learning and, during the next 35 years spread the word of God throughout the British Isles and parts of Europe.

Iona Church – Built onto the second church on this site – Now Johnstone Hall.

Anglicans, Catholics and Protestants have all made connections to Iona and St Columba. The protestant tradition in Scotland was firmly established in Presbyterianism, the key denomination of immigrants to Dunedin and Otago. In 1848 the first ships to arrive in Port Chalmers carried many new Scottish immigrants. Quickly after arriving in Dunedin Rev Thomas Burns, the nephew of Robbie himself, held services at the port. Within 4 years a Presbyterian church was built upon this site, establishing the roots of the Free Church of Scotland. It was the second Presbyterian church in Otago, second to First Church in Dunedin. Far away from home, in a strange place on the other side of the world, the indirect link from Columba’s evangelism was created with New Zealand. 

Knox College, University of Otago, Dunedin.

Iona Church, Columba College, Iona (Havelock North) and Iona Rest Home (Oamaru) are all Presbyterian institutions. Education and the church were important to the Scots and perhaps this tells you how they viewed Columba too. Other Scottish tie include “ Knox” Church and College, street names (including Princes and George Street, Stuart Street) and suburbs (Corstorphine, Roslyn and Glenleith).

George Street, Dunedin

2 thoughts on “Iona, What’s in the name?”

  1. I’m trying to track the Rev. William Johnstone to his birthplace, but so far only have that he was born in 1823 in Aberdeenshire (& if one of the 2 in Scotland’s People born 1823, then born somewhere in Buchan). He studied at the University of Aberdeen for his MA and at the Free Church College in Edinburgh, and was licensed by the Free Church Presbytery in Aberdeen in 1853 and ordained by the Free Church of Edinburgh 1857 before coming to Otago in 1858. (See the Register of Presbyterian ministers in NZ at )
    No mention of him being a Glaswegian as in your entry.

    I found your entry through its reference to Rev. William Johnstone, and now am left wondering who named the newer church “Iona”. I’ll look further on your website for later ministers, to see if one’s from Argyllshire!

    • You have me curious now. He arrived from Glasgow, that is true, but on further reading, the only other detail I have is what you have said, that he was indeed born in Aberdeenshire in 1823. Johnstone was the son of a freeholder. He gained an M.A. in Mathematics, with Distinction, from Aberdeen University. He arrived in Port Chalmers as the incumbant of Port Chalmers Presbyterian Church on 29 April 1858. He died on 21 August 1881.

      I can only find a small reference to the naming of Iona from the resources at my finger tips. Under Rev, George Jeffreys, a man of the people rather than pretension, modifications to the church were undertaken. Along with the levelling of the floor, purchasing of a lecturn and the establishment of the Seamans Chapel, the church adopted the name Iona after the island where St Columbus began his mission. So -this was sometime later than Johnstone’s time, but the prior church now turned hall, was named after him as the first minister of the church from 1858-1881.

      I hope this at least helps in some way – feel free to continue the discussion at anytime.


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