IONA – An Enigmatic Island

Iona – An Enigmatic Isle

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“I have never experienced anywhere else like it on earth.” woman traveller on Iona.

Iona, the tiny emerald isle off the western tip of Mull is what the world must have been like before humanity took hold.In spring, buttercups and dandelions allowed to grow without being pulled up as unsightly weeds; bluebells everywhere embroidered into the landscape; birds nesting in low stone walls without fear of their chicks being plundered and all around the island’s edge the slow turning of a turquoise tide onto cream coloured sand.About 140 people actually live on Iona and they require a special permit to own a car should they want to leave and visit the outside world.

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Looking towards Mull

There are just two narrow roads and both of these give way to footpaths along the Sound of Iona on one side and leading to the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Chickens and sheep, with their lambs in spring, wander undisturbed and have right of way and graze on the fertile Machair along with massive bulls, safe they say when surrounded by their harem. On a blazing hot day in May I saw an exhausted ewe, weighed down by her immense fleece, panting heavily. A horse grazing nearby went over and licked her face.

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The main road

Nature itself seems to be aware of its birthright here. There is no apparent fear of humanity.The most insistent sounds in spring are the cuckoo which calls until the final strip of light fades at around eleven and begins again at dawn and the ever present invisible Corncrake. I actually saw this mysteriously elusive and endangered bird twice to the amazement of the locals just by following the sound, sitting still and waiting. Corncrakes require patience.

DSC_0397On one of my walks I met an old man who had lived on Iona for the past thirty years since he retired. He told me that according to legend if I came once I would return at least three times.A true prophecy as of the thousands drawn to Iona every year from around the world, many are returning. The island clearly has a profound effect on those who visit it. A Canadian girl I spoke to comes every other year and was in tears as she stood on the jetty waiting to leave and said she felt each time she went home she left a part of herself behind.

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Ruins of the Augustinian Nunnery

Iona has been a place of pilgrimage since St. Columba landed on the island in 563 having sailed from Ireland with twelve companions and began his life’s mission to convert the pagan Picts, occupying most of present day Scotland, to Christianity.It is not difficult to imagine the simplicity of life in Columba’s early monastic community with the monks worshipping in buildings made from timber, wattle and daub, their lives imbued with the love of nature intrinsic to Celtic spirituality.

But Columba and his men were outward looking missionaries and Iona was established as one of the most sacred centres of missionary activity and religious learning in Europe. Scottish kings were crowned and buried there and it is believed the Book of Kells was written by the Celtic monks

The island’s sacred thread has remained intact for 1500 years despite an often turbulent history. During Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries monasteries were burned and sixty-eight monks were massacred on what is now commemorated as Martyrs Bay.

By the 13th century Iona was absorbed into the Roman church and a Benedictine Abbey was built on the present site in 1203 which was destroyed in the Reformation. The present Abbey was restored in 1905.

Today’s pilgrims are an eclectic mix. Day trippers pour off the small ferry which turns round its fifteen minute journey between Iona and the village jetty at Fionnphort on Mull every half hour. A day trip is time to visit the Abbey, the burial ground, the surviving antiquities and the ruins of the Augustinian nunnery which is the best preserved medieval nunnery in the world. There are the members and volunteers staying with the Iona Community, a centre for Christianity originally founded during the Depression by Scottish minister, George Macleod. Others come for a retreat at the Bishops House and there are those like myself who came in search of reflection and renewal and out of a curiosity born of the island’s reputation.

The two hotels, the St. Columba and the Argyll, although having independent identities are owned by a partnership of Iona residents. Food is locally produced and fruit and vegetables grown in their organic kitchen gardens.

Despite the number of visitors Iona still retains its sense of emptiness and space. On my walks I was often alone with only the sheep and birds for company. During one entire morning on the beach just one couple strolled along the sand, then clambered over the rocks and disappeared leaving me watching the oyster catchers dipping their orange beaks in the shallows.

Iona’s simplicity remains and seems to lay bare the continuity of its distant past with its spiritual legacy absorbed into the fabric of its landscape. We feel it, we sense it. The atmosphere is tangible.

Arriving on Iona there is a sense of relief. Is it because we can breathe in unpolluted air, see with clarity in its crystal light, listen to birdsong or find silence in a quiet secluded corner?

I believe it’s deeper than that. I believe we rediscover something within ourselves that connects us to something beyond ourselves. Iona reminds us that whatever that is, it is not lost but is still there waiting to be found.

Maybe that’s why, year after year, people still make the pilgrimage.

(c) Jenny Speller 2011