Friday 11th September 2009
Arrived yesterday early evening on the ferry from Oban (via Mull). Beautiful golden light – the skies clearing as we approached the island. Smooth crossing after a bumpy ride on the Mull bus with a grumpy driver. The night before we had stayed at Anthony’s friend’s place – Peter, an old university friend, who was most hospitable – offering us a beer from his fine collection (I had a bottle of ‘Ossian’). His wife made a lovely meal, and the company was pleasant (another of Anthony’s old college friends happened to be staying as well – Andrew) but I was too tired to really enjoy things and went to bed as soon as dinner was over. It had been a tiring few days – with the preparation for the trip and the launch of Mary’s book at Waterstones the night before we departed – which was a big event for us.
Our trip to Iona is, in a way, a pilgrimage for Mary: last year I published her book iona and this year we are taking copies of her new book to the island – to the Iona Community Shop. Anthony has managed to arranged a reading on Tuesday night, so it feels like we will be honouring our friends memory in a meaningful way – it marks the end of the journey that began earlier this year. In January I suggested to Mary a collection. In June she died. Three months after her death we published Tidal Shift, and now here we are. We were asked to bring up a 20-30 books for the shop – we couldn’t quite manage that (!), but still 10 books each on top of all our kit made for a heavy load, and with the provisions we bought in Glasgow, even heavier. The worst bit – in terms of effort & endurance – was the hike from the quayside in Iona to the hostel, right up the north end of the island. Yet the evening was beautiful and was euphoric to have finally arrived on an island I have been meaning to visit for a number of years. I feel it was clearly not meant to happen until this year – in the wake of Mary’s death and the launch of her book it is especially resonant. What with my publishing Mary’s Iona collection last year and her Tidal Shift this year, and our planned reading on Tuesday it feels like we are participating and even contributing to the island – not just being ‘consumers’. Regardless of these connotations and plans, I wish to experience the island as itself and let it work its own magic on me. I come with no agenda or script. I want to open and receive, savour and relish. The island awaits to be explored, discovered. It is like a present awaiting to be opened.
May it also open me.
Stunning day of glorious sunshine. Walked with Anthony to south end of the island, via the Iona Community Shop, where we dropped off the copies of Tidal Shift for Tuesday. We lazily ambled along the coves, stopping often to soak up the sun. We had no map or itinerary. It felt wonderful, after days of intense, time conscious activity – meeting deadlines, etc.
We stopped at high bluff overlooking the sea around the southern end of Iona and had our lunch of soup and sandwiches, relaxing in the sun. Then we wended our way towards what turned out to be Columba’s Bay, where he apparently landed. Here we stopped to write on separate outcrops and ended up having siestas. Afterwards, we made our way back north, stopping on the Hill of the Lamb to talk about woundings – our conversation had turned in this direction after I mentioned how Columba was probably suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when he arrived in Iona, and guilt – having been the cause of a massacre of 3000 warriors in a calamitous battle back in Erin. He had chosen the white martydom – never to see his homeland again – as the ‘bay of the back of Ireland’ suggests. Perhaps he hoped that the isle of druids – the first place he made landfall – would purge him of his sins. He arrived, a man wanting to be shriven. The island worked its magic and turned him into the legend he is. Finally finding a track (we’d spent most of the day bog-trotting) we headed back to ‘civilisation’ – the tiny hamlet where a bar and a cold beer awaited. We couldn’t resist as we passed one by the quayside, where we sat on the terrace enjoying the Mediterranean climate and vista: turquoise sea, brightly coloured boats, dramatic mountainous backdrop. We were truly blessed on our first full day in Iona with one of the best days of the year here. We returned to the hostel in the ‘hollow of the otter’ satisfied and pleasantly weary. Tea and ‘tiffin’ awaited. As Anthony prepared dinner (taking his turn) I watched the full disc of the sun slip over the horizon – the end of a perfect day on Iona.
Saturday 12th September
Bay of the Woman of the Dislocated Shoulder
We both slept well and so were in better shape the next day, which was just as well. After a relaxing start to the day – no timetable, no rush – we packed some lunch and headed up to Dun I, the tallest peak on the island. Here we sat against the walnut whip-shaped cairn and read and wrote in silent contentment. Anthony read to me the first draft of a new poem, composed on the spot. I shared some musings and we discussed various literary arcana. Then we descended, following the north-west coast of the island around – wild and unvisited – a rocky terrain interspersed with spongy bogs across which we trotted. It was satisfying to just strike out into wild country, with no map, following no path. Of course, we had the reassurance that on a small island you can’t get lost. We stopped in a cove for lunch, laying back against a perfectly sloping rock by some ‘flotsam art’.
I got up and walked to a rock ledge, where I sat – enjoying the crashing waves, when something caught my eye – it was a stoat of some kind (a pine marten?) popping up its head from behind a ridge of rocks to my right thirty foot away. I froze and it deliberated whether I posed a threat or not. Thinking better of it, it retreated, but I felt blessed by the wild. We finally made it to Ban bay mid afternoon – a beautiful wide beach – the sand made of ‘granules’ of shells. Here, we took off our boots and socks and bathed our hot feet in the chilly Atlantic waters. We bumped into a Dutch lady staying at the hostel. Anthony had had a good chat with her and her friend Yvonne the night before. She wandered off as we went for a paddle. Then we saw her waving from the rocks. At first I thought she wanted to take a photo. We went closer – still I couldn’t make out what she was saying. Then we were within earshot. She had hurt her arm in a fall. I inspected it and it felt like something was sticking out, but not breaking the skin – a dislocated shoulder or a bad sprain, I couldn’t tell. I fashioned a sling from her scarf and appraised the situation. We had to extricate her from the awkward rock pool area she had trapped herself in, which took some doing. I went in front, Anthony behind. We had to wade through a slimy pit of seaweed. Fortunately nothing nibbled our toes and we made it to the sand. We sat her down on my fleece and tried to call – no signal. I ran up to the rise and tried again, to no avail. So we decided that Anthony would stay with her and I would go for help – so taking a swig of water, off I ran. Ali had left her hire bike by the gate back by the road – I leapt on this and pedalled furiously in search of help. I came to a house on the left – and ran up to the front, where an old lady was sitting outside, a local I ascertained. She was very helpful, ringing round – first we tried the hostel, figuring John there would have first aid, no luck. Fire Station – no response! She tried various friends – there was a nurse, but ‘she wasn’t in the first flush of youth’. So we decided to try and collect her in their car – Douglas, her husband turned up and was not flapped at all. He drove his family car back to the beach – I opened and closed the gates. He managed to get his car all the way to the top of Ban Bay. We helped Ali up to the car, and she was whisked off to the nurse, who it turned out had broken her arm recently as well! She couldn’t do much to help – the doctor on Mull was rang and they advised Ali was taken over on the ferry. Douglas instantly agreed to do this, bless him – and Anthony went with them, as Ali didn’t want to be alone. I took Ali’s bike back to the bike hire and caught my breath, writing a couple of postcards by the quayside. What an afternoon! So much for a relaxing siesta on the beach…but it was good to be there to help Ali. I wearily walked back to the hostel, and informed John – who was going to the ferry. He didn’t see Douglas or Anthony there so we assumed that A was stuck on Mull. Fortunately, he had got an earlier one back and was rendezvousing with Ali’s friend, Yvonne – breaking the news to her. Meanwhile I recovered over a cuppa. A new guest, a German guy living on ‘an island’ in Switzerland’ offered me the rest of his spaghetti – angels appear when you need them.
Sunday 13th September
One day, when St Columba was living on Iona, he set off into the wilder parts of the island to find a place secluded from other people where he could pray alone. (III, 8 )
Yesterday Anthony and I decided to ‘do our own thing’ – not through any fall-out, just to take it easy. As with all our decisions so far, we came to it quite quickly and effortlessly. One of the joys of this holiday has been the spontaneity and commonality of feeling. We’ve decided to do things in the moment and with ease. Having had three days together, the preparation and long journey up on top of the book launch made for a tiring schedule we’ve slowed to an island pace of doing things, the Iona groove. Although we usually wake around 8, and begin the day with a solo walk along the beach – as today (enjoying the glorious morning along an unspoilt stretch of sand) we haven’t been leaving the hostel til 10ish, often being the last. Today, I was even later – deciding to have a crack at my novel, The Wounded Kingdom, which has a section set on versions of Iona and Staffa. I sat in the dorm room (#1) and read through some of it on the laptop, tweaking and enhancing my description of the island. It was difficult to get into the zone with all the comings and goings, (3 older American ladies who had stayed in our dorm, one in the top bunk above each of us – Anthony, myself and the Glaswegian geologist – were in a flurry of leaving, to continue their 3 week tour of Britain and Ireland, turned out to be nature writers) but at least I made a start. That morning, before breakfast (porridge, honey & apricots) I walked to the ‘White Strand of the Monks, its beautiful name and appearance belying its bloody past: here in AD806 Viking raiders massacred 63 monks. As I went to urinate (the toilets taken over by the morning rush) I noticed a white stone in the sand – I picked it up. It was a smooth pebble of quartz – it seemed an apt souvenir of Iona, an island of ‘white peace’. I walked along the pale sand, taking in the vista of mountains and sea, slowly waking. I spotted some tracks that I speculated could have been those of the kind of stoat I saw yesterday. I tracked them as they wove along the beach, between the rocks. I reached a buttress of rocks where I recited my morning praise, glad to be alive. The weather here has been fair for three days now – and I feel truly blessed by it. Reaching the far point, I walked back through the long, dew-soaked grass, silvering in the waves of wind and sunlight.
Finally extricating myself from the hostel – it was a glorious day and it would be a shame to waste, though it was nice to indulge in some finger-tapping – I walked along the road to the Iona Community Shop opposite the Abbey, and waited contentedly for it to open at noon, it being a Sunday. Inside, I noticed with pleasure the lovely poster they had done for the reading Anthony and I are giving there on Tuesday. I purchased the excellent map of the island with all the fabulous place-names on. I scrutinised it with pleasure over a cup of coffee (‘cheaper than Starbucks!’ I had joked to another customer). With this in hand I headed back along the lane to the start of the footpath up to Dun I – from there I took a bearing to the Big Hill of the Querns, where I hoped to find the legendary Well of the North Wind. It was satisfying to strike out with a compass and a map by myself. Away from the main attractions, Iona quickly becomes wild. I didn’t see anyone for the next two or three hours as I made my way across the boggy landscape to the rocky outcrop of the Big Hill. Here, at the far end, I discovered the Well – a circular enclosure beneath the far western cliff. It could easily be mistaken for a sheep-fold. Perhaps it was, but I couldn’t see anything else that fitted the description. After enjoying my packed lunch I descended to it and made my ‘offering’ – a length of plaited material I had found. I asked for a blessing on The Windsmith Elegy, then I found myself singing a melody that rose up with conscious thought – two parts, alternating, interweaving. It would have probably sounded painful to the casual listener, but it felt good to do it, to give voice to the wind.
Feeling I had honoured Boreas, I went to the ‘Hermit’s Cell’, the remains of a roundhouse nearby: a low circular enclosure of stones, with a doorway facing South West (for maximum light). I entered and immediately lay down on the soft grass opposite the entrance and nodded off, feeling deep peace in this secluded spot. It seems I have spent the last few days having naps in beautiful places – it could be a new outdoor fad like wild-swimming: wild-sleeping. Could I get a book deal for a book about sleeping my way across Britain, as the late Roger Deakin did with Water Log and swimming? I could see why a hermit chose this spot – it lacks a decent view, hemmed in on three sides by rocky outcrops, but is sheltered and feels miles from anyway, when in fact, it’s only a kilometre from the Abbey. Yet it might as well be in another world – for the whole hour I was there, in the middle of the day, I saw no-one, even though its meant to be on the ‘Pilgrim Route’, the trail that loops around the island which I was trying to follow, but with clear signs, I soon lost it and found myself once more bog-trotting (another new Olympic sport?) as I headed southwest towards the Bay at the Back of the Ocean through dramatically rugged country. Somewhat anti-climactically, I emerged from this wilderness onto a golf course, of all things. Half the island seems to be taken up by its manicured fields – God’s fairway. I reached the glittering bay and flopped into a sandy hollow. By this point it was hot enough to go for a swim but it was too exposed and frequented to consider skinny dipping. Having run out of water, I was forced to head back to the village, retracing my steps from yesterday at a rather more leisurely pace. On the way I ended up chatting to a lovely old couple from Ayrshire, up with a party of fellow Christians. We talked amicably about how lovely it all was. I bid farewell to them at the quayside and bought myself an icecream, which somewhat restored me – enough to get me back to the hostel in good time to cook (my turn – curry) before the daily feeding frenzy started.
Of Stars and Toads
After our ‘Wetherspoons special’ of veg curry and lager, I freshened up and decided to accompany Anthony to the Abbey for the evening ‘quiet space’ service. As we left, the sky was a dramatic sandwich of dark cloud, orange horizon and dark sea, which reminded me, somewhat prosaically, of a Jaffa Cake. When we arrived, just before 9pm, the Abbey was lit up with candles and looked beautiful. It had been fashioned with local stone had a wonderful ‘rough-edged’ quality to it, no doubt partly due to its destruction and reconstruction. It was a painless ecumenical service, with little in the way of liturgy, the focus being on (mostly) silent prayer – although the reverent peace was challenged by my spectacular sneeze at the start, then further coughs, etc, from the congregation. I enjoyed the ambience, the chance to taste a little of Iona’s sacred heritage and tradition, and also the extract of Thoreau read out by the American reader, which seemed uncanny considering our encounter earlier that day with the nature writers (they claimed the US had given the world nature writing, something A & I amusingly debunked). The service was short and sweet – a nice end to the week – and as we stepped outside into the night we were greeted by the most spectacular star-field, at which we gazed in awe. It felt like the interior of the Abbey, with its rows of candles had been turned inside out and magnified beyond comprehension – and now we worshipped in the cathedral of the stars. We walked along the lane and passed St Oran’s Chapel, glowing in the night, from which emanated haunting plainsong in some Eastern European tongue. A large image of a saint could be seen, eerily, framed in the doorway.
We decided, on a whim, to go for a beer – Ali, having returned, arm in truss, from Mull, had given me back the deposit for the bike she had hired. So I bought us drinks with it in the third place we tried (the rest were closed) Martyrs Bay Bar, which was lively for a late Sunday. After a local ale, I sampled a shot of the local malt, ‘Iona’, hoping its medicinal properties would help the cold I felt coming on. We wandered back merrily to the hostel, talking about Star Trek. I spotted a shooting star and thought of a loved one back home. We came across two toads in the road – feigning Kirk’s unique cadence, I asked ‘Spock’ to attempt a mind-meld. Alas, this devil in the dark remained taciturn. We also stopped to admire a long-horned snail with our torches. At last, we were back in the ‘hollow of the otter’. Contentedly, but clumsily, I returned to our dorm while Anthony read in the common room. In the darkness I became the cartoon drunk, trying to clamber into my bunk, before falling effortlessly to sleep – even Anthony’s anti-snoring device of an umbrella failed to disturb me from my slumber.
Monday 14th September
This morning we decided to go to the world famous Fingal’s Cave on Staffa. The weather was overcast for the first time in four days, but the seastate was fine and visibility was okay and, despite feeling a bit grotty, I decided to go, accepting that the forlorn weather created a suitably melancholic air for visiting such a Romantic iconic landmark, immortalized by Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Mendelsson. We parked and walked down to the quayside to catch the Iolaire, which happened to have two spaces spair. The skipper was a charismatic Scotsman with a great accent and line in yarn-spinning. He had a good local knowledge, which he was happy to share as he worked his way around the boat. I was feeling ‘under the weather’, which I was worried would impair my enjoyment of the place, but as we raised anchor and put out into the Sound of Iona, my spirits raised. It was great to be sailing to a magical island. Along the way, we spotted baby seals on the rocks. Anthony, a keen twitcher, scanned the waters for the sea-birds: the shags and cormorants. Before I realised, we were there. I stood up and was greeted with a full view of the island: amazing.
From a wave-smoothed granite base rose the basaltic columns to a ‘head’ like a giant stone muffin, an island with elphantitus. It was weird – a mixture of the organic and artificial, like some alien spaceship. And the famous cave was dramatically dark and, well, sexual.
The sun had broken through at this point and created a dramatic play of light and shadow, revealing the variegated delineations of colour – black to ochre to rust, indigo to slate blue to grey.
The formation by the jetty was weirdly beautiful, the columns bent in every direction, like polyps on coral frozen in motion. It looked like a piece of modern art, the Gugenheim itself planted into the Atlantic, an Atlantis of art.
We alighted and made a beeline to the cave. Visitors nervously edged along the side of a narrow ledge that led a little way into the cave. An orange power boat took other visitors right to the back – I half-expected a giant eye to flick open and then a vast maw to open and devour them, but it was me who was nearly gobbled up! As I made my way along the line and stood looking in awe at the sight out of legend, one of the day-trippers brusquely pushed past me and nearly tipped me into the dark waters below with not a word of apology – completely unaware of his clumsy actions, it seems. I teetered on the brink, but the Cailleach didn’t claim me this time!
When the crowd thinned Anthony and I tried an awen. Our voices reverberated amongst the cathedral-like columns of the cave. It was a magical moment, spine-tingling. The rocks seemed to respond, come alive.
Afterwards, we picked our way back along the columnar stepping stones, stopping to make three wishes in the wishing chair. An old fella sat in it, looking content – further on, I’d asked him if his wishes had come true yet. He said he had been coming here for thirty years, so maybe he had – at that age (he looked ninety) another year of life might be all the wish you need. Then we ascended the steps up to the ‘roof’ of the island, covered with squelchy grass, but our time was running out. An hour isn’t enough to do the island justice, and reluctantly we made our way back to the boat. We were the last to return and I was the last to step aboard.
Our skipper put out and we left Staffa, admiring its stern flanks one last time. It had certainly been worth it, a dream come true.
Returning to Iona, we had tea at the Argyl hotel, being persuaded into brownies and shortbread by the Aussie waitress. Yet the pots of tea were capacious and it was pleasant to sit by the shore and reflect on our experiences, although serious writing was rather hampered by the chatty Lancashire ladies on the adjacent bench (A was able to pinpoint their accent – 15 miles from his hometown). A bought a couple of stamps from the tinshack postoffice – a wonderfully ramshackle affair – and posted my postcards, hoping they will arrive. Then to the Spar for essentials, before checking out the Iona bookshop, as elusive as Brigadoon to catch open. I wasn’t feeling up to serious browsing by this point and headed back for lemon and honey and the soothing tones of Jennifer Crook on my laptop.
Tuesday, 15th September
Down with a cold so took it easy today, staying in, nursing myself & feeling sorry for myself (Argyll Gazette: ‘Outbreak of Man Flu on Iona – island in quarantine. Vaccine of malt whisky and DVDs flown in. Girlfriends on round-the-clock breakfast & massage duties). Wrote this morning – well, worked on book. The weather had turned and was wet and miserable so felt quite happy to stay. It brightened up later, so managed go for a little walk around the headland after lunch and practised the poems I was going to read later for Mary – Anthony had managed to arrange a reading at the Iona Community Shop. I tried to save myself for this, having a very lazy afternoon. I cooked with our dwindling supplies. Then we set off. It went well – we had a twenty folk there, which for Iona is a crowd. It felt well received and very poignant to do – the end of a journey for us, in terms of the book’s creative arc, but hopefully the beginning of the book’s journey. We shifted eighteen (10 stock, 8 sor) so our bags will be a lot lighter going back! Leaving the shop in the gathering dusk, I felt unburdened. It is done.
All’s Well that End’s Well
Today we went on a final walk around the island. I was feeling a lot better – my head was clear and it felt like I had some life in my limbs. And so, in our usual way, we bimbled about and final left about 11 – but made a full day of it, not getting back to gone 9pm. We started off heading back up Dun I, to visit the Well of Eternal Youth, which is lodged in a gap in the northernmost crag. The setting is spectacular. We both drank – Anthony, being the eldest, went first. We both took three sips – I for youth, maturity and age. The idea of being young forever is not appealing. I think each age of a person’s life has appeal, like the seasons – we should experience them all fully. What is Spring or Summer without Autumn and Winter?
From one well, we walked to another – I lead A to the Well of the North Wind by the Big Hill of Querns, or at least what I thought it was. But closer inspection of the map revealed it was slightly further north. We managed to find it – a boggy corner under a rock – and was disappointed. Preferred my first choice. But it was still satisfying to locate it. We sat in the Hermit’s Cell for a while as well. Very peaceful – we imagined living there a hermit life.
Headed on to the Machair – the stretch of common land abutting the Bay of the Back of the Ocean, glittering in the sun. The tide was out. We sat and took a sip of water, then pressed on to the Bay of the White Stones, to have our lunch on a little grassy knoll in the lee of the wind, watching the spectral spumes of water from Spouting Cave.
We stayed here for a while, writing and reading. Anthony was clearly inspired and could have stayed all afternoon! But we had an island to circum-navigate, so onwards we went, ascending to the southern plateau where we navigated to the Cairn of the Back to Ireland, where St Columba was said to have done just that, turn his back on his homeland, taking the ‘white martyrdom’. Here we were content to sit in the sun, enjoying the dramatic views over the southeastern end of Iona and the shimmering sea beyond. Here we found peace and wisdom.
As the afternoon was pressing on, we headed east to the Marble Quarry in the southeastern quarter – a strange postindustrial site of Heath Robinson like machinery, rusting and broken, and gigantic piles of marble blocks, cut and abandoned, like some Maui-esque Easter Island cult.
Summoning our last reserves of energy we headed north across the Plain of Wine, dreaming of our evening meal, which we enjoyed at St Columba’s Hotel – a treat to end our fantastic week on the island. Tomorrow, we sail back to the mainland, and our lives – but we take a little bit of Iona back with us, inside.
The journey home was a long one – 18 hours – but it was made agreeable with Anthony’s company (we jokingly modulated our accents the further south we went – from hammy Scots to Brummie!) and gave us a chance to reflect on our time on Iona. I arrived at Bath Spa station – after 2 ferries, 2 buses and 4 trains – at midnight. Wearily, I lugged my pack home, knowing at 5am I had to be up to get to Stonehenge to run a ceremony for Jamie George of Gothic Image tours – no rest for the bardic! Although it was an effort, the morning was cold, clear and beautiful and to return to England in such a manner, from Iona to Stonehenge, felt a privilege and gentle reintroduction to the wheel – from one sacred site to another, from the Island of Stones, to the Great Circle of Stones. I blatted back along the virtually empty pre-rush hour roads, had a long soak to thaw out the chill of the dawn and then dived into my delightful bed to blissful oblivion, glad to be finally back home.