Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Entry for 31 May 2008:

For my 6th or 7th birthday, my parents took me and several of my friends to a Peter Pan theme park, which was located along the San Joaquin River in Stockton, California. I’m sure it was pretty kitschy, but to my child’s mind this was something really special, like being transported to another world.

We were in Australia when I turned 49, doing a circle tour of the state of Victoria, and ended up at Echuca, where we did a boat tour along the Murray River, then had a lovely dinner with George and Joy Wills. Our whole time in Australia was a magical experience of exploring a wonderful, exotic world, and the birthday trip was a high point of that experience.

This year, for my 58th birthday, we finally made the trip to Iona. Leaving Hyndland about noon on Friday, we took the West Highland Line, as we had done with Mick and his kids the year before. As we headed west and north, the weather cleared and by time we reached Oban it was a beautiful, warm sunny day.

We dropped our things at the hotel and wandered around Oban for a couple of hours, stopping St. Columba’s Cathedral (with its two bells named Kenneth and Brendan) before climbing the hill to McCaig’s tower, which commands a sweeping view of the port of Oban, the near island of Kerrera and in the distance our destination for the next day: the island of Mull. After a splendid pre-birthday seafood dinner at Ee-Usk, we went back and watched another of Kenneth’s collection of Dr. Who videos.

We caught the first Mull ferry the next morning, another in a series of uncharactersistically beautiful days, watching Kerrera fall away behind us as we headed for Craignure. There we caught the bus for Fionphort, at the other end of Mull. The bus wound its way along the single-track road, rising up out of the mixed forest on the north slope of the island before emerging into the green but stark volcanic uplands that make up most of Mull. I had rehearsed this trip in my mind on several occasions, imagining Mull as a mostly flat island, with marshes and lochs; however, this was nothing like the reality, for it is dominated by 40 - 50 million year old volcanic plugs such as Ben Mor, whose sides have been smoothed and scoured into great U-shaped valleys by repeated glaciations over the past 100,000 years. It is a stark beauty, through which we wound for more than an hour.

At last we reached Fionphort and the ferry that took us across the sound to our destination: Iona. Iona, probably named after the sacred yew (eo in Gaelic), has been a holy island for at least 2000 years, occupied by orders of druids long before St. Columba arrived in 563 C.E., after having been kicked out of Ireland for copyright infringement .

The story is that without permission he copied St. Finnian’s (his teacher and mentor) illuminated manuscript of the psalms, was found guilty by High King of Ireland, and ordered to turn over the copy to its owner on the gounds that “To every cow its calf; to every book its copy.” When he refused, his followers waged a fierce battle in which 3000 fighters were killed (these being armies of soldiers rather than lawyers). St. Columba was exiled from Ireland and ordered to convert at least as many people to Christianity as had been killed in the fighting. There followed: the establishment of the monastery at Iona, the Christianization of Scotland, peace between the Picts and Britons, the beginning of the Book of Kells, and in general, the flowering of Celtic Christianity. There is some kind of moral for our contemporary information age in this …

At any rate, we arrived on Iona, Island of the Pilgrims, about 10am, and followed the little road up the hill to the ruins of the old nunnery, lit by the bright morning sun. As Kenneth noted, there is something very peaceful about these old ruins, flowers growing between the stones of the old walls, outlines defining cloister, chapel, refectory, sleeping quarters.

We continued along the road toward the Iona Abbey, passing the surviving standing celtic crosses, including McLean’s Cross and St. Martin’s Cross, the latter of which has been standing in front of the cathedral for about 1200 years. Nearby is a replica of St. John’s Cross, which is reportedly first cross to have the classic Celtic circle incorporated into it, supposedly for structural rather esthetic/symbolic reasons. The church itself is constructed of a variety of different kinds of local stone, including white Iona marble and a curious local stone that is mottled pink and white and that can be found also in the stone walls along the road. Going inside, I was struck silent by the colour of the stone; the tone of the light coming in through the mostly clear glass windows; the somewhat uneven stone flooring with crosses and little circles of inlaid pebbles marking where the remains of unnamed monks buried there were found in the reconstruction; the low-ceiling cell of the watch-monk above and to the right of the entrance; the gradual descent of the floor toward the water; the high stained glass windows of Saints Columba and Patrick flanking St Brigid; the pews stocked with Wild Goose Publications service books; the presence of the Iona Community itself, occupying the block of rooms to the left of the church and cloister and felt more than seen; and the display of the Iona Community’s materials on its peace and social justice ministry in the North Transept. All these, separately and as a gestalt, touched me in some deep soul place, and made me wish I were there as a true pilgrim rather than as a tourist.

Afterwards, after lunch at the St Columba Hotel, Kenneth and I made a mini-pilgrimage, setting off at a fast walk to see how far we could get across the island in the hour we had left before meeting up with Diane and Marjorie to catch the ferry back to Fionphort. (Iona is small: 3 miles north to south; 1.5 mi across.) We walked south along the east coast road until we came to the one road that crosses the island east to west. There we turned inland and in 10 mins had climbed high enough to be able to see the Atlantic Ocean, an endless horizon in the distance. Another 15 min and we had reached the water. We stopped to dip our hands in the clear water of the waves breaking on the beach, amazed by the azure colour.

We turned around, and began the journey back home, undoing the distances we had come to get here: ferry, bus, ferry, dinner again (Chinese this time), more Dr. Who, sleep, up, early morning run north from Oban, train back to Glasgow (back into the clouds). We even managed to catch a concert of traditional Scottish music on our last night in Oban, at the Skipinnish Ceilidh House. For my birthday this year, we had time-travelled back to one of the centres of Celtic Christianity, an island at the edge of the world, a place of spiritual peace and renewal, a “still point in the turning world.”

No comments: