The Sacred Isle of Iona

By Patricia Lee Lewis.
Published in the LA Times.

There is a Gaelic prediction that whoever goes to Iona will go not once, but three times. It is a tiny island, barely 1½ miles by 3 miles, set across a narrow sound from the large island of Mull in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. But the richness of its landscapes, its ancient history, and something mysterious and ineffable in its spirit, call the traveler to return.

When you approach Iona for the first time, it’s likely to be by ferry from the small port of Fionnphort on Mull, or from the north by private boat. You will see a small village, its front row of stone houses neatly lined along a street facing the Sound, and behind them, gentle hills holding stone buildings, farmland and sheep.

To the north, Dun I (the island’s highest hill and pronounced Dun Eee) rises 332 feet, golden brown and green.

To the south, hills rise in rust, umber and green from the sea, split by crevasses into steep-sided fjords. Even on a wet, windy day, you will be struck by the bone white of the sands and the clear turquoise-green of the waters along the coast.

For an island so small, Iona’s influence on history has been enormous. For centuries, when most transportation was by water, it lay in the center of Gaelic political, cultural and religious life. When a monk named Colum Cille arrived by boat in AD 563 from Ireland, bringing Christianity for the first time to Scotland, he walked onto land which had been settled and periodically cultivated since 4000 BC. St. Columba, as he came to be known, died in AD 597, and the monastery he founded on Iona continued as a major center of the earliest Celtic Christian church.

Through the next 250 years, monks kept historical records, wrote and illuminated poems, prayers and scriptures, and carved great, Celtic crosses of stone. Three of these crosses, the Pagan circle of earth and sun surrounding the Christian cross of redemption, are sheltered today in the small Abbey museum.

The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels, was very likely created on Iona in the 8th century, not long before Vikings sailed into the Iona Sound, raiding and destroying the buildings and killing 68 monks. This book was saved, but the religious community did not survive.

In the 13th century, Benedictines built a large, stone monastery, followed by a nunnery, renewing the religious presence on the island. But by the end of the 17th century, the Protestant Reformation had weakened it to the extent that when the Earl of Argyll landed a regiment on Mull and seized ownership of Iona, there was little protest. The remaining Benedictines gradually moved away or died.

Over the years, nature and local residents needing building materials seriously eroded the monastery and nunnery buildings; but such was its size, beauty and solidity, the monastery was eventually restored. It is known now as the Abbey, and is the impressive complex of buildings at the heart of Iona.

Today, most of the130 year-round residents of the island earn at least part of their income from businesses serving visitors. For example, when you step off the ferry from Mull, you will quickly find the Martyrs Bay Restaurant and a general store. Up the way a bit is a food shop and the Iona Scottish Crafts shop next to public telephones. Take the first right from the jetty, pass the post office, and go along the village street, its stone houses flanked by flower gardens, to find the Argyll Hotel and shops with traditional weaving, modern sculpture and jewelry in Celtic designs.

From the jetty, walk straight ahead to the Nunnery ruins and go right, along the island’s main road. There will be little traffic, as only year-round residents may bring a car onto the island.

The road will take you past tall sycamores where rooks have built their nests in the island’s only trees, to the Iona Heritage Center where you can learn about Iona’s history, geology and purchase knitwear made by island women. Continue along the road to the historic St. Columba Hotel and the tiny and wonderful Iona Book Shop to the Street of the Dead, leading to the Abbey.

You will want to visit the Abbey, where all services are open to the public, and find the double-columned cloisters and the fine gift and book shop.

A bit further along the road, and to the left, is the MacLeod Center, used for conferences and retreats, and owned by the Iona Community which operates and maintains the Abbey. Just past the wee brook is the Iona Pottery, and if you venture out to the north end of the island, past farms and sheep and Traigh Bahn, the Findhorn Foundation’s retreat house, you will be where the sands are the whitest and the winds most alive.

If you want to experience the wildness of Iona, you have to walk. Get a map at one of the two shops near the ferry landing and head out. You will find tracks to follow, but you may prefer to let the island take you.

If you take the only crossroad to the far west side, you will find the Machair, a broad expanse of undulating sand and grass, looking for all the world like a natural golf course. In fact, there are 18 holes among grazing sheep, and no charge for playing! From there, you can explore the marble quarry and St. Columba’s Bay on the southwest end of the island, or find the Hill of the Fort to the north, which holds evidence of Iron Age inhabitants and acted as a natural defense against invaders from the sea.

You will want to pause as you walk and listen to the songs of skylarks (Alauda arvensis), wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes), chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), gulls, oyster catchers (Haematopus ostralegus) curlew (Calidris ferruginea), and rooks (Corvus frugilegus); and if it is after dark, you may hear the droning cry of the endangered corncrake Crex crex, which likes to hide in reeds and in the wild yellow iris you will see in spring and summer growing everywhere on Iona.

Some 400 species of plants have been identified on the island, growing in the rocky, steep niches Iona provides. Many of the plants have traditionally been used in healing, and a 17th century manuscript describes Iona as “This Ile…full of little hillocks, pleasant and healthfull with a store of common medicinall herbs….”

And notice the rocks: the western side of Iona is made of Lewisian Gneiss, similar to the rocks of the island of Lewis further north. These are among the oldest rocks on earth. 2800 million years ago, long before any living thing had a hard-shell, these rocks were formed deep in the earth’s crust and gradually rose to the surface. They were overlaid about 1000 million years ago by boulders, then by pebbles, sands and mud eroded from Himalaya-high mountains in northwest Scotland.

There are no fossils on Iona. As they say on the island, “its geology reflects the beginning of the world.”

For a long time, the soil, itself, was considered holy. The community today buries its dead in the Abbey graveyard, next to some of the earliest rulers of the Scots and the most powerful Highland chieftains, and there is evidence that French, Irish, Pictish and Norse royalty were laid to rest there. To be buried on Iona was a high honor and to walk among the gravestones is to be carried back in history to at least the 12th century AD.

Next to the Abbey is St. Oran’s Chapel, the most ancient of Iona’s remaining buildings. St. Oran, so the legend goes, was a Pictish convert to Christianity and friend to Columba. Oran was buried alive to sanctify the first monastery’s ground—an interesting mix of Pagan and Christian practices, true or not—and when he leapt from the grave, still alive, shouting to Columba, “Heaven is not as you think!,” Columba caused him to be reburied, silencing him for good. However true the story is, the Chapel is a wonderful place to sit quietly and an even better place to sing, for the acoustics are remarkable.

In 1950, in the aftermath of WW II, my young, adventuresome parents left Austin, Texas with four children to study in Scotland. I was the oldest. My father sought out centers of lay theological education all over Europe, looking for places where everyday life and the life of the spirit were joined.

Reverend George MacLeod had founded the Iona Community in 1938 on just those principles, bringing together young ministers, joiners and stone masons from Glasgow to restore cloisters and monastic buildings of the Abbey. The search for spiritual awakening was based in the work of physical renewal. I didn’t really understand this when we joined our father for a short overnight stay in a converted chicken coop near the village jetty. But I knew it was important, somehow.

In 1997, I returned to walk again beside the jetty, to the edge of the sand and the sharp, dark rocks.

On this second visit to Iona, I attend the interfaith service in the Abbey. The Nave, where we gather, is long and narrow and looks like a cathedral. Great stone arches in red and gray granite walls surround candles lit in every crevice, at every wooden pew. A woman tolls the steeple bell, 7 times 3. Women run the service, give communion, sing, play the piano and the flute. A man talks about how the Church must not stand in the way of people’s spiritual life. A woman talks about Celtic spirituality; about how everything is divine and accessible to all of us. We have tea together in the cloisters.

I leave the Abbey and wander the island, getting lost the way our family did on a walk in 1950, finding myself again. I wander until I have an imprint of Iona in my mind and heart: the way the west coast opens to the harsh winds; how the colors of late afternoon gleam purple from heather blossoms;

The silhouette of a cairn of stones high against a cloud, from which the hidden sun throws wide yellow rays on a steel and white-capped sea; white sands, blue-green water, emerald grass with rust-colored , rugged rocks rising from it like giant loaves of coarse-grained bread. I want my heart to eat of them.

In April, 1999, I fulfill the ancient Gaellic prediction and return to Iona for the third time. It feels like coming home. I am here as part of a small seminar at the St. Columba Hotel. Some of us go walking every afternoon, no matter what the weather.

We go to the Machair on a day of gale force winds, wearing many waterproof layers. We lean into the wind, forward and backward. It holds us.

We press across the smooth, rolling grass of the Machair at the Bay at the Back of the Ocean, on white sand made of shells, on stone pebbles of green, orange, and white. We stand and face the Atlantic. It churns and froths, dances and folds as sunlight turns its great expanse to gleaming metal. We stagger into the wind, laughing, tears flying, to a protected bay. Rugged rock cliffs flank us, grass holds pillows of sand between rock layers. Rocks cradle tiny pools of still water.

Another seminar participant and I want to climb and look down on this small bay and its rocks. We’ve heard of seals and dolphins here. My companion goes higher, to the windward side of the high rocks. I snuggle in behind them and watch the bay. From here the water is clear, turquoise near the white edges, deeper blue and green where wind whips the waves to feathers. The red-rust rocks are islands, their feet expanding darkly, and I see a swimmer.
Diving, disappearing, reappearing, is it a seal? A moment later, dark, shining, dripping, a creature runs out of the waves onto the jagged island. It is a sea otter. Not still for long, it dives again into the sea, long body curving and arching; a playful being. Off it swims, stitching air, and light and water with its needle body until it finds a cove out of the wind.

One day, I go out alone. I want to find the fabled bay where, legend has it, St. Columba landed his small coracle in the 6th century. I walk back through the village to the road that crosses the island, east to west, and take the first left lane toward the top of the high moors.

Upland walking is mostly up and down, following this or that sheep track. I can see the island’s south rim and head for the nearest spot that looks like a descending ravine. But I am far off course. A few ravines west, I find the marble quarry, instead, with its white cliffs and abandoned cutting machines.

I push on west to St. Columba’s Bay, one of the next ravines, with its intriguingly named Port of the False Man and Port of the Coracle. I gaze at its openness, the millions of sea-smoothed pebbles piled on it, the central rock holding back the sea.

As the tide comes in, the pebbles seem to applaud; wave after receding wave of clapping pebbles–pebbles large as a child’s head, small as a baby’s toe—white, green, red, black, pink, purple, orange; plain, striped, spotted, marbled. I pick up pebbles, weigh my pockets down with them until my shoulders ache, and then I stop, unload, and choose. Just like life, I think.

Back at the Nunnery ruins, I sit facing the sun on a stone bench covered with lichen pancakes; a dandelion blooms in the space between stones; tiny purple violets flower in spring grace among bright yellow buttercups. Rooks soar and call. Two women with strong Scots accents discuss their arthritis. For 300 years, from the 13th to the 16th century, women lived a contemplative life of prayer in this place, without a break, praying for the world. And the pre-Christian goddess, Sheila Na Gig, her carved, spraddle-legged stone body barely visible in the ancient south wall, opens herself, and this place, to the world.

I walk through the Nunnery ruins, along the main road, north. I am drawn to climb Dun I, the highest point on the island. It is a steep, but easy climb, with natural foot holes, rocky ridges and spines poking through spongy turf. At the top, you can see the ocean for 360 degrees. Below, sheep and cattle graze bright fields and hillocks.

A draft horse lolls, black satin in the sun. In the fields on the north end of the island, ghosts of buildings and stone enclosures push like erupting teeth through grassy soil. The sea on the northwest side breaks into tall sprays and plumes against huge rocks on the island’s edge. Gulls float, angled wings wide, and a flock of tiny birds moves like a scattering cloud from field to field. I find a rock out of the wind and lie down. Immediately, I am whirling, spiraling into the earth; wind fills my throat, my head, my closed eyes. I feel cleansed, expanded, and then I sleep. When I awake I have dreamed the words, “I am always here,” and I know it is the truth.

Pilgrims often make their way up Dun I to find a tall stone cairn, built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and a shallow rock pool, the Well of Age. Put its water on your face three times, it is said, and you will be young again. I touched its surface only once; it felt youthful and lovely. I took its picture. Like their Pagan predecessors, modern celebrants light a bonfire on top of Dun I to mark a special occasion

I walk down the west side of Dun I looking for the track to the Hermits Cell. The very name intrigues me, so I cross rough ground, wind and rain coming in from the south. I almost turn back, but climb the rock hill ahead of me, and there it is, a circle of stones, half covered by yellow lichen and the greening April grass.

Once a place of what? Meditation? Weeping? The enigmatic smile of a saint? And before that, was there a hooded Druid priest, perhaps, feeling the pulse of the ancient Iona bedrock, whispering the secrets of the winds, standing naked against the driving rains? Did healers come here, pilgrims seeking direct connection with their spirits? With the great Mother Earth? I hear a heartbeat, and decide it must be mine.

This circle was a chamber once, had walls, a roof, a smoky fire. It was never quiet here; it isn’t now. The wind brings sounds of footsteps pounding on the giant coastal rocks, for it’s the sea that walks this island. This Hermit’s Cell, this stone circle with the single break which is the door, lets in the sea when that is what the sea requires; lets in the sun on days the winds whip away the clouds toward Ireland; lets in the spirits of the land, the stones, the wind, tough mounds of heather, the shell white sands. No one can ever be alone in this pure, elemental place. It always was a temple, and the Hermit, like a traveler with opened eyes, was witness to the undivided world.

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