For more than 1400 years, the tiny island of Iona has been the symbolic heart of Scottish Christianity, a holy place of pilgrimage and peaceful contemplation.

Visited in 563AD by St. Columba and 13 of his followers, the monastery they founded has been reborn several times down the centuries.

Now the abbey is to be thrust into the modern age, with a refurbishment programme that includes plans for the hallowed building to be fuelled by a 21st century renewable energy heating system via a community-led energy project.

The work, which is part of a range of improvements at the historic Abbey, brings together the island’s secular and Christian communities in a joint project which will help cut carbon emissions and give Iona its own heat and energy supplies.

Work on the renewable energy project, which will pump hot water from underground to supply the historic abbey, village hall, schools, homes and businesses, is to begin in September.

It is being seen as a symbol of a new phase for Iona, where the traditional Christian community and its pilgrims steeped in centuries of holy worship share space with a thriving modern community keen to regenerate the island.

The latest modernisation work at the abbey saw accommodation and other public areas cleared in November 2018, leaving it just partly open to the public.

The work has included upgrading bedrooms and bathrooms, insulating community and living spaces, renewing plumbing and electrics and accessibility improvements.

The refurbishment – just over 80 years after Iona Community founder George MacLeod began the reconstruction of the ancient abbey, has followed a remarkable £3.6 million fundraising effort that saw everything from sales of jam to sponsored walks and even a sponsored swim across the Sound of Iona.

The abbey refurbishment comes two years after the Iona Community warned that years of heavy use had taken a toll, with one survey confirming that "without some urgent repairs and long-term major investment, they would be unfit for purpose within seven years".

And it echoes historic efforts by previous generations to breathe new life into the abbey and its sacred surroundings.

The original monastery was founded by St Columba in 563, and early monks fought off repeated Viking attacks, ensuring the safety of treasures that included the lavishly decorated Book of Kells by spiriting them away to Ireland for safety.

It was rebuilt in 1200 by Reginal, the self-styled ‘King of the Isles’ and then expanded in the 15th century. However, the Scottish Reformation saw it and other abbeys across the country abandoned.

The abbey was restored by the Iona Cathedral Trustees at the start of the 20th century. Then, in 1938, the Reverend George MacLeod established the Iona Community in the docklands of Govan and on Iona.

Despite crippling poverty as a result of the Depression, he gathered unemployed skilled craftsmen and young trainee clergy to carry out a major reconstruction programme.

The stone and slate buildings, originally the living quarters of the monks, attract around 3000 guests every year who arrive seeking sanctuary, respite and a place to worship. Many of the annual 110,000 day visitors to Iona also visit and worship at the abbey church.

Writing in the Iona Community’s Annual Report, Christine Jones, Coordinator of the Iona Abbey Capital Appeal, said: “George MacLeod’s ‘building project’ was 28 years in the making. The current work has taken a quarter of that time. However, there is no doubt that ‘his-story’ has inspired the dedicated project team and the many generous donors.

“The commitment for a sustainable redevelopment means that rooms are now thoroughly insulated, and accessible, and the elements will soon be harnessed to create heating for the accommodation through a renewable energy system.

“The achievement is all the more remarkable given that the successful £2.3 million initiative to rebuild the Iona Village Hall will also come to completion during summer 2020.”

Iona, with its population of around 150, is said to be in a “regeneration” phase, with an increasingly young population with dynamic ideas for improving life on the island.

In a message on the Iona Abbey fundraising pages, Shiona Ruhemann, of Iona Community Council, said: “There’s a universal feeling on Iona just now that the island is really thriving and regenerating. The abbey’s refurbishment is a vital part of that regeneration.

“The Iona community is very small, but it's very dynamic, it's very uresourceful, and it's increasingly youthful.”

Iona Primary School, which had just four pupils in 2000 and was threatened with closure, now has 21 children.

Along with the renewable energy project, which will provide heat for 37 buildings including the abbey, school and village hall, islanders are also seeking to create new harbours with a view attracting more businesses, and to extend the tourist season.