The day was a diamond, each face reflecting light of an elusive but brilliant colour. The Abbey stood ahead, a comely anthem to God. The pilgrims gathered in quiet groups, we Americans all too fashionable.
The gathering 1,700 years earlier at that rugged spot had been austere by comparison. St. Columba led that group of pilgrims on their heartbreaking journey from Ireland, his goal, to convert as many to Christianity as had died in an ill-fated battle in his homeland. Penance for his part in the killing was exile. Only when the group reached Iona, some 70 miles away, were they far enough that they could no longer see the land they loved. Columba and a small group of Celtic monks settled on that island in Scotland’s Hebrides in 563 A.D.
My own pilgrimage had started at our home near Edinburgh during autumnal storms that saturated the Scottish countryside in dense layers of melancholy. Our journey to Oban on the west coast took us through landscape that bespoke Scotland’s austere and violent past. Yet the air was heavy with romance as well, and our hearts were full of anticipation.
In Oban we boarded the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry for the 45 minute journey to Craignure on the Isle of Mull. From there the single-track road carried us 35 miles across Glen More and rugged other-worldly terrain to Fionnphort (Finnie-fort) where we had to abandon our car. Only island residents can drive on Iona, an inconvenience to visitors when the weather is fine and a reason to reconsider your plans in a downpour. We joined a small party of miserable pilgrims in the rusty belly of a second ferry for the short ride across the Sound of Iona.
Although our gear was damp, our spirits weren’t. As in the past, we found the exhilaration of the journey to Iona the perfect prelude to the adventure of exploring the island. This visit would find us hiking in sleet, hail and gale-force winds. But we knew that when the storms passed, the air would be pure and Iona would become a provocative kaleidoscope of light.
Bizarre and contradictory tales obscure the crowded history of Iona. Even its name was birthed in humble but telling obscurity as a medieval “typo.” Yet this island where the natural and supernatural are separated by what has been called a “thin veil” is best known for the legacy of its most famous pilgrim — an alliance with immutable Christian truth.
Columba foretold this on the day he died: “Unto this place, small and mean though it be, great homage shall yet be paid, not only by the kings and peoples of the Scots, but by the rulers of barbarous and distant nations with their people. Thy saints also, of other churches, shall regard it with no common reverence.”
A good word, reverence, the Scots would say. A big word, that, for such an unassuming island. Travelers have been trying to fathom it for centuries. But just as the aqua sea that embraces the island will give up only a few truly precious stones at a time, so also do tiny Iona and the mosaic of communities that co-exist there hoard their secrets.
More than 130,000 people a year make the pilgrimage to Iona, most bound for the ancient ruins on the island and the community founded there in 1938 by a Scottish minister. Daytrippers are in the majority, although some do stay longer. But the 90 registered voters and 24 children who live year-in and year-out on the island know it best.
The life of this community is explicit in its simplicity: a car that sputters up and down the 1-1/2 miles of road on the island, its hood secured by a rope and its trunk permanently propped open; the daily trek to the seashore by a farmer, a wheelbarrow in tow; a sophisticated office tucked away in a garden shed; two carefree children perched atop a cart of mail destined for the ferry.
I traced the children to Judith Jardine who lives with her husband Mark, the part-time postman, in Maol Cottage, a far cry from the broken-down trailer they lived in during their first winter on the island. Whatever the sacrifice, it is worth it, Mrs. Jardine said. The children are as happy as they look. “This is a marvelous place for young kids. There’s no better upbringing. I have not yet had to tell them not to talk to strangers.”
Their cottage, like many on Iona, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Iona was given to the National Trust in 1979 by the Fraser Foundation in memory of Lord Hugh Fraser of Allander. The Fraser Foundation had purchased Iona from the Duke of Argyll when the Duke came upon hard times. The National Trust controls new construction and renovations of many buildings on the island, a small price to pay to preserve Iona’s treasure, according to Mrs. Jardine.
“This is how we were meant to live,” she said. “Maybe it’s being surrounded by unspoiled beauty. It rubs off on you. I think you get to know people more deeply. In the city there’s never enough time for people.”
Time is different on Iona. A friend of mine claims it is this difference that makes the island so precious to visitors. Only 3 miles long and a little over a mile wide, Iona is small enough to explore quickly. Souvenir hunters soon tire of browsing in the few shops on the island, and gourmets have very limited dining opportunities. She reckons that leaves plenty of time for people and conversation.
A good theory, that, and well born out in conversations with the islanders. Alexander MacKechnie was sitting in his shed and office on the grounds of the Nunnery, the remains of buildings established at about 1200 when a Benedictine monastery also came to the island. That monastery was restored by the Iona Community under the leadership of George MacLeod beginning in 1938. The cathedral, now called the Abbey, was restored earlier by the Duke of Argyll. Although the Cathedral Trust restorations and the Iona Community’s repairs are often confused, the difference is important to those who live or work year-round on the island.
MacKechnie, whose rugged demeanor betrays his Highland birth, and his three co-workers are paid by the Cathedral Trust to “consolidate the walls” which is basically doing what is necessary to keep the ancient structures standing. He has a particular fondness for the Nunnery, a roofless granite ruin.
“We have no intention of roofing it,” MacKechnie said. “There’s no point in it. If we would rebuild it, we would plaster the walls, add electricity. Soon there would be record players blaring away.”
Instead, the Nunnery with it’s elegant if irregular stonework is home to gardens the Cathedral Trust maintains. I followed MacKechnie’s advice to tarry and relish its quiet and stopped before leaving to ask him about the weather-worn gravestones that lie in front of the Nunnery.
“Is that where the famous kings are buried?” I asked, for Iona is, in an oft-contested legend, the resting place for many Scottish, Norse, and Irish kings.
“No,” he said. “Those are women. I know that because a woman came by and dangled a crystal above them. She said she was sure they are women.”
I caught just a hint of the expression that I have come to identify with that breed of Scottish gentleman who likes to pull the leg of the American lass. That we should share this little joke at the Nunnery was ironic. To many modern women the structure is a symbol of the Church’s refusal to take women seriously. The guide of the pilgrimage I joined later in the week noted that the Nunnery was not, during most of the 50 years the tour has been offered, included in the journey, an injustice the Iona Community has recently corrected.
One of the wardens who has run the Abbey facility for the Iona Community is Lynda Wright. She greeted me in her apartment atop a winding stone staircase within the renovated monastery — an idyllic place for an outsider, but one fraught with stress for its occupant.
Ms. Wright was blunt about the community’s agenda and the conflict that creates with the resident community on Iona. “The Iona Community brings an interest to the island that is not natural here,” she said. George MacLeod’s Iona Community is committed to political goals that translate faith into action. That includes helping troubled inner city children. “It’s not natural for a crofter to have inner city children around,” Ms. Wright said. “But balanced with that is the wealth the outsiders bring to Iona. The islanders know they benefit from that.”
Indeed, most islanders agreed — although the number of visitors can be staggering on a warm summer day when the ferry hauls load after load of day-trippers across from Mull. The rusty drone of the ferry’s ramp going up and down at the concrete quays on both sides of the Sound ricochets endlessly back and forth across the water. “Sometimes when you see all those people standing on the quay you think it’s going to sink,” said Fiona Gully, owner of Iona Scottish Crafts.
Iona is a stop on many Hebridean cruises and Freda Aherne, who works in the craft shop, meets many of the visitors as they rush through. “Some of them have come from the other side of the world and all they get is an hour or two on the island,” she said. “It’s a piece of nonsense.”
On this stormy October day, Mrs. Gully was closing the shop for winter, a festive rite of passage that was evident everywhere that week. The islanders were looking forward to having Iona to themselves again. “The island is ready for the end of the season,” said Mrs. Jardine. “It’s like hibernation, an important cycle. But we’ll be ready for summer too. You can become too insular.”
Gale-force winds that shut down the ferry are the greatest winter threat. They often bring rain that defies the laws of gravity, but seldom snow. Likewise the summers in the Western Isles are often wet. But bad weather doesn’t always keep visitors away. The most famous off-season visitors were Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell who were content with a chilly bed in a barn in 1773. Sir Walter Scott visited Iona in 1810 and Felix Mendelssohn in 1829. But the most important visitors may have been Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen stayed aboard the royal yacht, but the Prince went ashore and the publicity attending that 1847 event helped to make Iona, which was already a curiosity, fashionable as well. Visits to the island increased, and tourism helped the island weather troubled times ahead.
The ferry today deposits passengers on a quay in St. Ronan’s Bay where a militia of dormered cottages greets them in proper military style. These village homes stand at attention, their eyebrows peaked and their eyes trained resolutely on the pink granite rocks of Mull. Visitors generally have their eyes trained on the island’s ancient ruins and head quickly for the Abbey north of the village.
Stopping first at the Heritage Centre they see rocks from the island that are among some of the oldest on the earth. Here visitors also learn more about the island’s secular community. The poverty of past centuries is chronicled. But often noted as well is the abiding Christian faith of the community. In particular, Iona gained a reputation for keeping the Sabbath, something we got a small taste of when we were asked not to hang out our laundry on Sunday.
Near the Abbey, the village gives way to countryside: Granite boulders litter the bumpy terrain, and sheep season the green terraced slopes like rock salt. Also resident nearby are a few horses kept for horse and buggy tours.
Island gardeners appreciate the horses as much as do the tourists. I learned why when I spotted Leesa French, a gardener for the Iona Community, collecting a wheelbarrow full of horse manure from the stable. Even more precious is cow manure, hard to come by on an island where sheep outnumber both people and cattle by a long shot. Ms. French and a neighbor, who raises cows, had an illuminating end-of-the-season conversation about who would get the animals’ precious droppings next spring.
A day later Ms. French and her fecund wheelbarrow were lugging seaweed about, thus solving another mystery. No doubt the farmer bound for the seashore every evening with his wheelbarrow was harvesting seaweed which is prized as a fertilizer and mulch.
Seaweed has figured prominently in Iona’s history. In one pagan ritual that lasted for centuries after the island’s Christian transformation, porridge was cast into the western bay to cajole the sea into producing enough seaweed to guarantee success to the spring plowing. In the 19th century, islanders turned to burning the seaweed to produce an ash used in manufacturing.
Near the Abbey gardens stands Reilig Oran, the graveyard of Oran. Here the ancient kings are believed to be buried, Duncan and his murderer MacBeth included. Also buried here are 16 Americans who died in a shipwreck in 1865. The chapel in the graveyard is the oldest building standing intact on the island.
In front of the Abbey lies Torr Abb, a rocky mound believed to be the site of Columba’s cell and flagstone bed. Nearby are the High Crosses of Iona. Carved of stone from the mainland in the 8th century, the crosses served as outdoor pulpits in the early days of the church.
The centuries after Columba’s death were cruel centuries of occupation and slaughter at the hands of the Vikings. Today’s Abbey and monastery appear to date back to 1200 when the Benedictines settled on Iona. Their architectural history is convoluted, entailing additions over centuries, but the structures themselves are uncomplicated and comely. As the buildings changed so also did their ownership until they passed to the Duke of Argyll who began the restoration.
Despite its tranquility, the Abbey seems abuzz with centuries of legend. More palpable, but less palatable, are the lifesize white marble effigies of the Duke of Argyll and his wife. Though morbid, the effigies do remind visitors of the important role the Duke has played in preserving the Abbey for Christians of all denominations. When he handed the deed for the Abbey over to the Church of Scotland, he insisted that the services therein be ecumenical. That condition has molded the worship celebrated there twice daily and has drawn people of all faiths to the island.
It was at Torr Abb that we gathered for our pilgrimage of the island on that glorious October day. The leader of our group of about 40, ages 80 to 6 months, was Graham Muckart, a Church of Scotland minister and one of only about 200 actual members of the Iona Community worldwide. Full community membership requires a serious commitment of prayer, time and resources. Many people participate at lessor levels.
The path he took brought us through the village and past some of the 18 crofts on the island, a mile west to the Machair, fertile grazing land adjacent to the beach. This wild and beautiful spot is aptly named the Bay at the Back of the Ocean — the vista here is of 2,000 miles of open sea stretching westward to the shores of Labrador.
The Machair is habitat to sheep, cattle, and golfers, who step carefully as they navigate the 18-hole golf course laid out there. The worst obstacle during the annual Iona Open is a bull, who favors the vegetation on the ninth green.
We turned south, headed for what had once been a marble quarry and then for St. Columba’s Bay where the saint is said to have landed and buried his vessel called a “coracle” in a mound that is still there. This south end of the island is full of rock. But once conquered, the rock becomes white marble streaked with green, said to represent Columba’s tears on leaving Ireland. Long since abandoned, the quarry, littered with rusty equipment, offered our guide an opportunity for a short homily on the human penchant for ravaging the earth and leaving rubbish behind.
Next stop: St. Columba’s Bay. The bog claimed the shoes of a few carelessly attired hikers on this leg of the journey. The air grew dense with the breathing of startled hikers and the sucking battle cry of the bog laying into yet another victim.
That enemy silenced, we bivouacked at St. Columba’s Bay. The children in the party waded into the sea and a seal surfaced like a fuzzy periscope to investigate the din. As the surf coaxed a gentle cobblestone melody out of the rocky beach, I recalled an earlier visit when the rocks had been shrouded in mist that offered tantalizing glimpses of a sailboat navigating the troubled shore.
After lunch on the Machair we set off to the north across the middle of the island where lie the remains of a hut used for retreat by the monks. As we climbed we sighted the islands that surround Iona — Tiree, Dutchman’s Cap, Coll, and Staffa, famous for volcanic caves that inspired Mendelssohn to write the “Fingal’s Cave Overture.” Beyond Staffa we could see north all the way to the mountains on Rhum and Skye, a distance of 50 miles.
We were slogging through heather well past its prime and yet the breeze bore a sweet fragrant gift. Assured that heather has no scent, I remembered that Columba’s monks had encountered the same mystery. Legend concludes that Columba sent his spirit to greet his weary monks, a love that embraced them and anointed them with sweet fragrance.
This was the toughest going yet and our party stretched out for some distance. One young woman whom I had noticed limping early on found it almost impossible. Kristine Gibbs was crippled by two cerebral hemorrhages 20 years ago. Although she had experienced many humiliating falls on the rigorous hike, she refused to give up. Finally, shored up by two sturdy volunteers, she reached the ruined hut. We greeted her with wild applause.
Even our guide’s dog was tired at this point which prompted groaning about the depths of our own fatigue. One woman stretched civility to the limit when she pulled out an orange and bandied pieces of it about, thus tormenting the thirsty hikers. But the biggest challenge was yet to come: Dun I (that’s done ee), the highest hill on the island.
The teenagers, some of them more practiced in ghetto survival than hill climbing, nevertheless made quick work of Dun I. The rest of us struggled, blaming our heavy boots, an excuse even the sheep seemed to scorn as they watched from their stony perches. Our guide announced as we cleared the summit that Dun I is 1 percent as high as Mount Everest, a humiliating piece of trivia for his gasping pilgrims. But the big moment came when Kristine Gibbs reached the top. Those of us who could still stand gave her a standing ovation.
“I want to thank all of you who pulled, pushed, and shoved to get me here,” she said, posing proudly by the cairn at the top.
A pale velvet vista beckoned us. Ben More, the highest mountain on Mull, had broken free of its tether of clouds and Mull’s rugged coastline looked like a faded but precious tapestry. Sprawled out below us were the crofts and beaches that lie at the north end, white sands draped like creamy taffeta around the emerald pastures. We could hardly see the sheep grazing there, but we could hear them, gossiping ever so quietly between dainty nips at the turf.
Just as people define the island by the communities they create, so also does the land itself foster a spirit of community. Iona promises high adventure that is still within reach, even for a woman crippled by a cerebral hemorrhage. Like land uncharted, the island stretches out afresh for each new visitor. Knowing as I do now how each rock has been named and charted for centuries, I still cherish the illusion that I am the first.
Iona is no less compelling or mysterious to the people who live there.
“I don’t know if I could go back to the city,” said Christine Dougall, who lives on a croft with her fisherman husband and children. “It’s peaceful, there’s more freedom, less pressure. We tend to have more time for people here.”
“There’s just no other place like Iona,” said Capt. Colin MacDonald, a retired and well-traveled merchant sailor.
At 89, William Macdonald, the oldest man on the island, can remember when there were no cars at all. “It was pretty quiet,” he said. Now Macdonald is losing his hearing and his eyesight. He spends most of his time in his dark waterfront home, a bucket of coal at hand to feed the fire. There is one more thing, he said. Island men used to marry island women. Now they find wives on the mainland. He regrets that he did neither. “Maybe if I had, I’d have someone to look after me now.”
Penry Jones, a retired BBC television producer, is a newcomer in many ways. But as a member of the island’s Community Council, he is an arsenal of facts and figures. “There is a quality of peacefulness here,” he said with uncharacteristic vagueness. “Our main concern is maintaining the quality of life.”
What the island needs is fewer retirees like himself and more young couples, he said.
The new postmaster is at least young at heart. Crawford Morison and his wife Moira gambled when they left Glasgow to start life over on Iona. Between his job and the bed and breakfast they operate, they get by. Economics aside, they are managing very well indeed. Living on Iona answers a yearning lugged back and forth every summer for years, Morison said. “It is a dream fulfilled.”
For John and Annabel Macinnes Iona has always been home. They are the fourth Macinnes generation to manage Culbhuirg Farm on the western Machair and they have seen many treasured island traditions disappear.
“We can still remember people who were fluent in Gaelic,” said Mrs. Macinnes.
“Those of us who love Gaelic like to think of it as the language of the Garden of Eden,” Macinnes said. TV programming designed to preserve the language is creating a pidgin Gaelic instead, he said.
Also lost is the tradition of visiting in each others homes, a form of ceilidh, Macinnes said. “We used to meet in one another’s houses, like this, argue and put the world to right.” Ceilidh, pronounced kay-lee, describes a distinctly Scottish get-together. To have been part of one gave me childlike pleasure.
What they fear is that the next thing to go will be the children who board in Oban when they go to secondary school. “In effect, that’s them away for the rest of their lives,” Macinnes said.
Islanders welcome newcomers with realistic expectations.
“Sometimes people want to keep things quaint so they can have a pleasant fortnight,” said Mrs. Macinnes. Some improvements are necessary to protect the livelihood of those who live on the island.
They also worry that too many homes on the island will become holiday homes. “We take hope from St. Columba’s prophecy about Iona,” said Mrs. Macinnes.
In that prophecy, the saint foretold the island’s return to a state of innocence: “In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, instead of monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle; but ere the world come to an end, Iona shall be as it was.”
What conflict remains between the Abbey and the islanders has to do with innocence.
“The Abbey does sometimes attract unstable people who think this is a place to sort things out,” Macinnes said.
The disposition of the Abbey to attract troubled visitors may always be incompatible with the islanders’ interests. As I prepared to leave Iona, I ran into an islander strolling through the village with her teenage daughter. They were holding hands and I was touched by their innocence. Perhaps Iona guards this treasure most closely of all. Just as children aren’t afraid of strangers, teenagers aren’t afraid to share tender moments with their parents. Those who make the island their home want the kind of progress that will preserve that innocence. But the Iona Community wants to use the island to restore the innocence of those whose childhoods have been stolen on crueler streets.
A friend once warned me it is never easy to leave Iona. But this time my heart is as heavy as the luggage I drag onto the ferry. Iona is no longer just a beautiful place to leave. This time I must say goodbye to beautiful people as well.
From the ferry, I see the smoke curling out of Willie Macdonald’s chimney and my heart aches to think of him sitting alone in his dark living room, his dreams grown dim in the darkness of a waterfront home he can no longer see.
I see Crawford Morison step out of his post office to tend to his Royal Mail rose bush, its second bloom of the year a symbol of a dream fulfilled now that his family can call Iona home.
I recognize some of my fellow pilgrims on board the ferry with me: tough, streetwise young men now headed back to their homes in the city. I swallow a sob and pray that their tears at leaving Iona will nourish a tender seed planted on the island of hope for a better future.
I turn for one last look at the island and stand face-to-face with the driver of the gerry-rigged car that had belched its way past my window all week. Weary of asking questions, I formulate my own theory about this bearded British seaman. His love for humble Iona is surely greater than his desire for creature comforts. I am certain he has chosen the better part.
1991-2017 Linda Murray Green. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared on the University of Edinburgh website.