By Pamela Blevins
“Those who come to Iona will come, not once, but three times.”
These words are lettered in black on a soft white wall inside Iona Abbey. For some of us, the words are more than a saying, they are prophetic.
I have now been to Iona five times. When friends learn of my plans to return they are bewildered.
“Why do you keep going to Iona when there are so many other places in the world?’ they ask.
A good question. After all, Iona is a small island anchored off the west coast of Scotland, and it is not easy to reach. From Edinburgh, the journey requires two trains, a ferry, a large bus that bumps and sways along a single track across the island of Mull, and then another ferry to Iona. The trip is best made by stopping overnight in the busy port town of Oban, the gateway to the inner Western Isles.
But the journey is a glory in itself. Once outside Edinburgh and Glasgow, the meadows and farms of central Scotland soon give way to hills that grow increasingly dramatic and tree-bare. Streams from hidden sources high above flow stark white like milk into lochs. Sometimes, even in May snow still clings to the higher elevations. From one side of the train, the sky might be blue, littered with high fair-weather clouds, while on the other side it might be mist-shrouded and mystical.
My introduction to Iona was brief, only the better part of a July day nearly twenty years ago, but I knew that I would return.
What was that made Iona different? The light? The atmosphere? The colors? The drama of Nature?
Or an unseen energy that seems to vibrate as if ancient voices are calling over time? Perhaps they are, for Iona is an ancient place.
On that long ago July day, friends and I stopped at the Abbey, the main attraction on the island. At one time it stood a stark ruin, but it has been fully restored. Every year thousands flock to Iona mainly to visit the Abbey or to see the corncrake, an elusive bird that arrives from Africa each spring to great excitement.
My first encounter with Iona was not religious in the usual sense of the word; it was spiritual without all the traps and trappings of religious doctrine. As we entered the Abbey nave, sunlight was streaming through the windows, bathing the stone in warm light. The interior seemed to glow. That alone should have been enough, but someone unseen began to play a Beethoven piano sonata. There are moments in life when different forces come together to create something magical. This was one of those times. I knew that I had to return. A single day was not enough.
Iona is the home of Celtic Christianity, an ecumenical practice that excludes no one. Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, pagans, agnostics all find their way to Iona in a spirit of community. The island is an oasis, a model for how our world can be. It is a refuge of hope, compassion, understanding and humanity in a complex and divided world. The social consciousness is universal.
Iona also integrates the arts, spirituality and nature. The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript and masterpiece of art produced during medieval times may have been created on Iona around 800. It is now on display at Trinity College in Dublin. Today, weavers, jewellery makers, painters and writers live and work on the island. Music – classical, sacred and folk - is an important part of island culture and life.
People journey to Iona from all over the world. Some come to visit the Abbey and the ruin of the 12th century Augustinian Nunnery, or to sit in meditation in St. Oran’s Chapel, a small bare building adjacent to the Abbey. Others come on pilgrimages while others come to work in harmony on critical social, humanitarian and environmental issues of our day - immigration, poverty, the refugee crisis, peace in the Middle East and the reality of climate change among them. Iona has much to teach us if we are open.
Who first settled this island and when? We do not know beyond the fact that artifacts dating from the first century BC to 300 AD have been unearthed on Iona. The island’s traceable history began in the sixth century, the year 563 to be precise. If you were an inhabitant of Iona then, you might have been looking out to the south, where on clear days the faint outline of Ireland appears on the horizon. There, in the far distance, a fragile sailing vessel was moving slowly, its crew mere specks in the vastness. Awe-struck, you watched and waited.
Legend tells us that thirteen men stepped ashore from that small craft of wicker and cowhide. From that moment on, Iona was changed. The men were Irish monks led by the visionary Colum Cille, later Columba, later St. Columba. He established one of the most influential and important monasteries in Scotland on this remote island. With his followers, Columba spread the practice of Celtic Christianity throughout the pagan Western Isles and beyond.
Columba’s Christianity focused on people, not possessions, objects or domination. His mission was to unite people, a mission that continues today through the Iona Community, founded in 1938 by the Reverend George MacLeod, a Glasgow minister. MacLeod sought to close the divide between the church and working class people and to make them feel relevant. What started as an experiment took deep root. By the middle of 1938, MacLeod had gathered ministers, divinity students, woodworkers, blacksmiths, other craftsmen and laborers – skilled and unskilled - to go to Iona and rebuild the ruined Abbey.
Macleod described Iona as “…a thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual.” For those who are open to possibilities beyond the concrete and rational, there are places on Iona that do indeed feel thin, as if a veil is covering something just beyond and out of reach.
Iona has two histories: one of spirituality; the other of the people who have lived and worked there for centuries. Anchored off the west coast of Mull, it is separated from the linking village of Fionnphort by the mile-wide Sound of Iona that can change in a minute from a calm surface of blue glass to a boiling black cauldron, depending on the mood of the weather. The island is three miles long and a mile wide. The population once stood at 500. Today it is 130 and growing. Tourism, sheep farming and fishing are the main economies. The local primary school boasts twenty-two children, the highest for many years. Children educated on the islands are said to benefit from the best education available in Scotland.
Conditions were quite different in 1773 when Samuel Johnson and James Boswell made their famous tour of the Western Isles. They stopped at Iona, where Dr. Johnson found the Abbey “encumbered with mud and rubbish … the inhabitants remarkably gross and remarkably neglected.” He bemoaned the fact that the island, once “the metropolis of learning and piety, has now no school for education, nor temple for worship … and [no one] that can write or read.” Only two people spoke English. There was no proper accommodation to be found, so Johnson and Boswell made do for the night in a barn well stocked with hay. As for the monuments they hoped to see, they were in ruins.
Other famous visitors include poets William Wordsworth and John Keats, novelist Sir Walter Scott and composer Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn suffered terrible seasickness on a journey to the island of Staffa near Iona. His Hebrides Overture captures the tossing motion of the sea that made him so ill. If getting to Iona is difficult today, we can imagine how much of a challenge it was in the early 19th century and before.
The Iona of 2017 is thriving, thanks in part to contrasting factors – its history that draws tourists and the internet. No longer do residents face the long drive across Mull for groceries or take the ferry to Oban to shop. They now order online. Goods are delivered to the island by boat; even the materials to build a new house come by boat complete in flats.
The main village of Baile Mòr on the east side consists of a several shops, the ferry pier, a restaurant, a café, a post office the size of a large closet, a small grocery, two hotels, a library, surgery, a museum and the primary school. In cases of medical emergencies, people are flown by helicopter to the hospital on the other side of Mull or to Oban. A row of stone dwellings lines the main residential lane. Across from each, a large plot of land runs to the Sound, serving as gardens and lawn frontage for residents offering postcard views of the rugged west coast of Mull and the ever-changing colors of the Sound.
If Iona sounds like a busy place packed with people, it is - from spring into the early autumn - but most who come are day-trippers. Because their time on the island is limited, they rarely venture beyond the area around the Abbey and Nunnery, thus leaving the rest of Iona free of tourists and open to those who want to be in nature, to experience solitude and quiet, and to escape the chaos, uncertainty and violence of our world.
Walk ten minutes away from the Abbey or village and you enter a different world, one where sound comes only from the sea, the wind, birds and sheep. A single lane track is the only road on Iona. It runs from the west side, cuts through the village and carries on to the northern end of the island. From there the views take in Staffa (Fingal’s Cave) and Bac Mòr, one of the Treshnish Islands that is known as “The Dutchman’s Cap,” for its resemblance.
The western side of Iona is idyllic. The machair, a grassy grazing area above the sandy, rock-strewn beach, looks out over the open Atlantic. There is no land in sight, only the cold, cobalt-colored ocean until currents reach the shores of Labrador and Newfoundland. The machair also serves as a golf course, a difficult one, given the strong winds that race across it from the west. On a very clear night, you might catch the warning flash from Skerryvore Lighthouse some twelve miles distant on the horizon.
The landscape on the southern end of Iona is rugged and is home to an abandoned marble quarry – Iona marble is green. The center and northern ends of the island are hilly and provide ideal grazing ground for sheep and cows. White sandy beaches ring parts of the island, washed by water in vibrant lime green, azure, and aquamarine – more tropical than northern. The two main hotels on grow their own vegetables. Most of their other food comes from local sources on Mull.
The Iona landscape is a palette of flowering plants that grow by the lane, cover fields, peek out from rocks along the shore. Plants and herbs played a major role in monastic medicine long before the advent of modern drugs. Columba is believed to have been the first documented person to use St. John’s Wort to cure a boy “whose mind had been disturbed.”
Iona is rich in wildlife. Seals, dolphins and whales (even killer whales) inhabit its waters. Puffins (once a source of food), kittiwake, goldeneye and white-tailed sea eagles, and more common varieties of birds reside on Iona. None creates the excitement of the corncrake when it returns from Africa in May. Bird watchers come from all over in the hope of catching a glimpse of it. Sightings are rare, but its distinctive (and sometimes annoying) “crex, crex” call coming from fields of yellow iris and tall grass is not. Like Ireland, Iona has no snakes nor does it have any frogs.
The weather? I spent a week on Iona once when the sun shone every day and not a drop of rain fell. The temperatures were in the 60s with low humidity. The year before, islanders saw so little sun that they were taking Vitamin D supplements. I’ve witnessed a force 11 gale that churned the Sound into such a rage that ferry service was canceled. Rain pelted down, the wind blew so hard it was nearly impossible to stand up. Then, suddenly, rifts appeared in the clouds revealing patches of blue, rainbows formed and for a moment it seemed that the storm had blown itself out. The respite was brief. The sky darkened again, the wind roared and the rain fell. This went on for two days. No one could get to Iona and no one could leave. The storm was the highlight of my visit.
Wild weather aside, for me, Iona is a place of peace and contemplation, an escape from commercialism, noise and the cloud of negativity that shadows our world in the twenty-first century. People who live on Iona count themselves among the blessed. Those of us who live far away can only experience for a short holiday what residents live every day.
Several years ago on a cool, misty autumn morning a friend and I were sitting in the grounds of the Nunnery. The mist muted all sound. Tourists were seeking shelter and warmth elsewhere because the Nunnery is open to the sky.
I noticed an elderly woman looking at the gardens that now grow where nuns once had their cells, prayed and ate their meals. The woman, clearly in her 80s, asked if one of us would take her picture. As we talked, I said quite proudly, “I’ve now been to Iona three times.” She smiled and replied, “I’ve been to Iona more than thirty times, and I will keep coming until I can come no longer.”
Like this woman, I will keep returning to Iona until I no longer am able because there rests the home of my heart.
Pamela Blevins is a writer, photographer, explorer of music, art, poetry and Scotland. Her love of islands is in her blood with her Scottish ancestors coming from Mull, Skye, Coll and Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Although she lives in the mountains of North Carolina, far from any island, she is a frequent visitor to Scotland, drawn there by the light, atmosphere, colour, drama of nature and the energy that make the islands special.
All photographs copyright of Pamela Blevins.