The combination of Iona, writing and retreat with one of my favourite poets was enough to lure me there this year. It took two days and a variety of transport: car, plane, bus, train to Oban, ferry to Mull, a drive across the island and second short ferry to Iona.
Pilgrimage, they say, involves effort, determination and a heart-mind open to serendipity. In the creative process we need to empty, to find a beginner’s mind and allow unfocussed awareness to wash over everything, until something significant surfaces. It is much the same with pilgrimage. Everything and everyone you encounter takes on meaning. Going somewhere for the first time enhances that process.
Hanging around in Glasgow for an afternoon led me to deep chat with a young volunteer in a photographer’s gallery. We pondered the hardships of an artistic career. After five years of travelling and saving, he finally gained a place at Glasgow Art School. We swapped experiences across the generational divide, ‘Everyone’s just fighting over the scraps now’, he said. ‘Nobody seems to care anymore’, said I. At the station a woman also Iona bound, has gone each of the last twenty-six years, all the way from Maine. On the train, a couple off to a wedding on Mull, had their own minibar in a cool-bag and an Italian man in the seat behind was a dolce voce tenor, serenaded us and the dimming glory of the West Coast as we sped by.
The morning ferry from Oban to Mull parted the sea through the sweetest folds of hills, gorse and rock; while a Harry Enfield version of Scots broadcast safety instructions. My friends Sig and Karin, who just happened to be also Iona bound, found me on the boat.
The alchemical crossing of saltwater to an island, allows things to fall away in the wake. Catching sight of new land brings the upsurge of promise. What will we find, what will we see? We crossed the surprisingly large island from Craignure to Fionnphort. We drove forty miles through empty mountain-scape, glacial valleys and shaggy pelted moorland dotted with small lochs. Eating up everything with my eyes was part of the emptying and wonderful to share with close friends. On the wee jetty at Fionnphort we took pictures of each other against turquoise sea, pink granite rocks and a pile of lobster creels. Iona twinkled, only a matter of minutes away. It looked so small and simple across the bay.
As we approached Iona, a guillemot uttered eek, as it tucked its inky beak beneath the waves. My friends and I parted as we went to our separate retreats. Having found my nest at the famous Argyll hotel with its fresh fish, homegrown veg and eco-minded amenities, I wandered past the single strand of houses along the path towards the Columba’s Abbey. The way was filled with a chorus of birdsong; tsk tsk tsee and weird toothcomb rasps floating up from clumps of marsh and irises. Greylag geese chuckled as they grazed, starlings and crows whistled and honked. It was a positive overture. Later I learned about the shy corncrake with its raspy call and how once widespread throughout Britain, Iona is now its last bastion. Corncrake chorus filled the air day and night, desperate for a mate.
Many of the group are regulars and know each other, so it took time to find my place. People come from as far away as France, Switzerland, as well as the far reaches of Britain. Ages ranged from thirties to an amazing eighty-five year old from Dartmoor. All joined by love of writing and the numinous. Each day began with an hour of silence, allowing it to write us. Sessions were led by Roselle Angwin, from Devon, whose love of nature and Zen are expressed with grace and wisdom.
The week unfolded as they do, shedding resistance, releasing of tensions and ailments into a pool of peace and stillness. Iona is simple, peaceful and gently casts you into her flow. The weather was kind, warm and sunny. The island fills and empties with the tide, visitors ebb and flow to this tiny three mile long strip of white sand and machair. Its spiritual reputation as the birthplace of British Christianity attracts thousands and its most ancient presence as one of the oldest pieces of land on Earth. Two thousand millions years is hard to compute.
A trip to Staffa offered the wonder of Fingal’s Cave with its chthonic boom and basalt organ pipes. It also provided puffins, like a merry band of hobbits, tugging dry grass at our feet, lining their burrows and kissing their mates with their impossibly gaudy beaks. Our presence guards them from gull attack, so a boatload of tourists is the cue for mass ascent to the clifftops in safety.
A morning in the convent ruins with its timeworn Sheena na Gig high on the wall proffered a feast of writing. A silent walk to St Oran’s Chapel one evening for a spontaneous offering of healing and singing, touched our hearts. And the walk across to St Columba’s Bay, sifting through pebbles in search of Iona’s greenstone was wondrous. There is a labyrinth there that some of us walked barefoot, leaving offerings at its centre.
A charismatic red-haired Italian woman, who makes necklaces of the stones, came to the hotel and I gave her one to mount for me. She also gave me a Bowen bodywork session, which did wonders for my arthritic knee, which had made walking difficult. I can’t take my fingers off the little greenstone I now wear around my neck. This was my healing.
Karin and I met once, as we happened to be walking in the same direction one afternoon. We spent a most companionable time in silence alone on a beach near the Bay at the back of the Ocean, watching oystercatchers glide past and sea lettuce undulating in sparkling water. As the week progressed my mind stilled and I was in Iona’s flow, my poems got simpler and more spacious.
My parting gift lay in Oban, as the ferry landed an old friend of the group, who lives there, came to greet us. I was dreading my night’s stay in a grim sounding B without B, but Margret generously invited me to stay. A delightful evening of good food and conversation with luxurious accommodation eased my re-entry from a week that renewed my wildheart. Next morning as we left for the station, a stag stood gazing at us from the driveway opposite, with a farewell twitch of his ears.
Overture and Praise-singers
I enter Iona with an, eek she’s here!
as a guillemottucks itsinky nib
beneath swirl of silver
meander through overtures of sparrow cheeps
past clumps of marsh iris that emit
tsee tsee twisks andtoothcomb rasps
a pair of reed buntings skitter by
him, in his black and white suit
her, in dowdy brown tweed.
On this timeless lacuna
even crows whistle while they work
greylag geese chuckle as they graze.
In the abbey cloister starlings chat, peck
squeeze into corbel crannies, while
a flock of sanctimonious white doves
flap holy wings to the heavenly heights
of St Columba’s bell tower
slip through its pearly bars.
On fine tooth comb – lowly corncrake
day and night their raspy chorus
threads wave and dark in neverending love song.