Exploring Iona

I first heard of Iona many years ago, at NZ Presbyterian gatherings such as the General Assembly, where resources from the island's abbey-based faith community were often used in corporate worship. I bought two of the Wild Goose books from Church Stores long before internet sales were available, and have continued to use them in worship and to add to my collection of useful volumes from, or about, Iona over time. It was a centre of Irish monasticism for four centuries and is today renowned for its tranquility and natural beauty, and for its spiritual retreats. So when we started planning a holiday in Scotland, to visit friends in the two big cities and my family's Highland birthplaces, I suggested we include a couple of days on Iona. It was harder to get there than I had realised, but very much worth the journey. We brought back some very special memories, although my hope of purchasing some Celtic jewellery had to wait till we found the right piece back in Edinburgh.

Iona is a tiny (6km x 2km) island in the Inner Hebrides group off the west coast of Scotland, the same area where you find Mull and Skye. In fact you have to drive right across Mull to get there, so with two ferry trips involved, its a decent-sized trip. We had expected to attend church with our friends north of Glasgow before departing, but they advised us to get on the road at 9.30, as you never know how long the journey will take. The Caledonian McBrayne car ferry from Oban to Craignure is regular but the Iona passenger one at the other end of Mull is less frequent. The road across Mull is extraordinarily scenic, and comprises the single lane with passing places we had discovered on our first trip to the Highlands in 1989. When we got to the ferry landing, we panicked because the carpark sign indicated leaving our car there for two days would cost over £100. However a helpful local soon pointed us to the free one, fifteen minutes walk inland from the ferry landing. The last ferry to Iona leaves at 5.30 but we managed to catch the one before, and got to Iona in the late afternoon. 

We could see Bishop's Walk, our pre-booked Bed and Breakfast accommodation, from the water, and judged it looked easily walkable, even with suitcases. That turned out to a slight underestimation and the gentle uphill track of about a mile on uneven ground was a bit of a pilgrimage. The last leg turned out to be choice of the short way across a paddock with sheep, or the long way up a very rough gravel drive. We chose to wend  our way across the paddock avoiding the droppings,  and were greeted by our friendly lady farmer with the news that I was supposed to ring her from her the dock so she could collect us! However the memory of that seemingly endless climb is all part of the Iona experience and I now look back on it and laugh. I was to learn that the monks who settled there centuries ago had a much more challenging life journey. 

The first of these was St Columba, who was born of a chiefly line and royal blood in Donegal, Ireland in 521 CE. He became a priest but also learned farming, building, sports, music and poetry. He established many churches and monasteries - in fact in that era of Celtic Christianity a church was always a monastery - but after a murky history of plagiarism, legal conflict and battlefield politics, he decided in an act of repentance  to exile himself from Ireland and undertake mission work across the water. In 563, he arrived on Iona with 12 others and established a monastery  The island had been populated for thousands of years, and because of the Roman era the Gaels there were already Christians, but Columba worked as a travelling priest and pastor,  conducting baptisms, weddings and funerals, and teaching and encouraging his flock. The island became a hub of missionary work in the area, and although it is misleading to say Columba evangelised Scotland, his work enabled the faith to take precedence over the pagan religion that had still influenced culture in his era. He died aged 75 in 597. Through the monastery there was great flowering of art and education;  the magnificent Book of Kells, an illustrated version of the gospels   was probably written and illustrated here around 800 CE, and there are many of the wonderful stone Celtic crosses as well. Ninth century Viking raids forced the monks to escape back to Ireland, but a  Benedictine community founded in the 12th century rebuilt the Abbey church. The site today includes small buildings from Columba's time, as well as the Benedictine nunnery and the main Abbey, which has been renovated a number of times over the centuries.

Columba's Iona was not the only Irish monastery engaged in missionary work in Britain  Saint Aidan was another Irish monk who lived on Iona  100 years after Columba, and from there was sent to Lindisfarne where the church he founded became the seedbed for the growth of Christianity throughout the north of England. A lesser-known Irish priest was Saint Maelrubha who went to Applecross - the Rosshire birthplace of my grandfather, that we would visit next - and he too exerted considerable influence on the growth of Christianity among the Picts.

My own pilgrimage on Iona included a day's walk to Port na Churraich, Columba Bay, the spot on the southern shore where it is said the Irish monks first landed in their skin-covered coracles in 521CE. I was keen to do the walk  even though a misty rain covered the view when we set out. It fined up as we crossed the island's golf course shared with a flock of Highland sheep, and climbed the steep track up and over, and found the little bay with its unusual geology was well worth the effort. 
The island residents' website puts it well: 
At St. Columba`s Bay rest enjoy the peace, the sense of history and spirituality. The conical piles of stones at the west side are ancient, and remain a mystery, despite various theories put forward by historians. Marvel at the variety of richly coloured pebbles, including white and green Iona marble. Especially prized are “St.Columba`s Tears” (some call them “Mermaid`s Tears”) small, teardrop shaped pebbles of pure translucent green. It is said that to carry one in your pocket is a protection against drowning. Some people like to choose 2 pebbles here, one to represent something negative which you want to leave behind. This one is thrown into the sea. The other is to take home as a reminder of a new beginning or commitment, perhaps made during your stay on Iona.

We met a Kiwi fellow on the way down and Ric noticed that our conversation helped the journey go faster. While we searched for coloured pebbles, some of which we did bring home, I composed this poem which sums up the pilgrimage: 

Wind through my hair
Rain on my face
Stones under my feet 
and I plod on.

Bracken brushes bare legs
Heather crunches with each step
Reeds wave me hello 
And I plod on.

The bay is fine, 
The water blue
The stones poikilitic* in abundance (* poikilos means many-coloured)
I walk slowly and choose some to keep.

Now I plod more slowly
Seeing rust, grey, yellow, green,
Marble marvels,

Cairns have been built
A labyrinth too.
I see the stone-laid cross with its central dome

I need a rest, Lord,
Do you mind my sitting on your crucifix?
No Beloved I invite you 
Sit within my cross 
Rest on my love 
Live in my presence.

Time to go.
The way seems shorter - but it isn't.
The hill seems easier - but it's not. 
Its just that I've been this way before 
And now my plodding is purposeful.

I'm sure of the way 
and full of hope.
V F Coleman 2013.

The Abbey has an ancient and a modern story.  
The ancient one is that of St Columba, but the modern story is about another man of faith who brought vision and hope through the Christian community on Iona. I will tell that story in my next post.

To Chew Over: When have you experience a walk or climb that connected you with God? Is the image of a pilgrimage a helpful one for you?

Like a might army
Moves the church of God
Brothers, we are treading
Where the saints have trod
We are not divided,
All one body we,
One in hope and doctrine,
One in charity,
Onward, Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus,
Going on before!

Onward then, ye people
Join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices,
In the triumph song.
Glory laud and honour,
Unto Christ the king,
This through countless ages,
Men and angels sing,
Onward, Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus,
Going on before!