Odhrán (St Oran in the anglicised form) was, according to legend, buried alive as a sacrifice to prevent the walls of the first church from falling down. Dedicated to his memory, the Reilig Odhráin is the cemetery adjacent to the Abbey.
It was during the 9th-11th centuries that the cemetery became a royal burial ground. In 1549 an inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings was recorded. None of these graves are now identifiable (their inscriptions were reported to have worn away at the end of the 17th century) but it is undoubted that Iona is the burial ground for several Kings of Scotland, no matter how unsure the total number may be.
When landing at Port nam Mairtear, funeral processions would move along Sraid nam Marbh – the street of the dead – to their burial site. Port nam Mairtear is translated as Martyrs Bay, which may be either a reference to St Columba’s relics leaving Iona to go to Kells or to a viking massacre which took place there.
It is said that when the St Columba died, his tomb stone was made from the stone on which he rested his head as he slept. A stone called ‘St Columba’s Pillow’ was unearthed in 1870 by a crofter whose cart-wheel bumped over the stone regularly – until he finally dug it up. The stone can be seen in the Abbey museum.
In more recent times politician John Smith, leader of the Labour Party, was buried in the north eastern extension in 1994.