So, one good thing to come from this wretched pandemic is the fact that it has forced me back to my archives. In place of any actual research trips, I’ve been organising my files. I know! How utterly boring! And yet … it has taken me back to all the places I have so loved, places I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced and which now feature prominently in my books.
So, if you will indulge me, here is a bit of armchair travelling, courtesy of some old photos. First up, the slog to Iona. As you may know, the Isle of Iona sits off the Isle of Mull which sits off the west coast of Scotland due west, more or less, from the town of Oban, known for good reason as “The Gateway to the Isles”. Back in the day, Iona was at the very centre of its world, both figuratively and literally. It was the hub of a vast and powerful network of monasteries which linked together peoples and kingdoms. If you think of the oceans as highways, then this makes sense. All roads led to Iona.
Now it feels slightly off the beaten track. Which, to be honest, only adds to its appeal. Unless you’re lucky enough to sail to it, to get to Iona you have to get yourself to Oban, then take a car ferry to the magnificent Isle of Mull, where you disembark, then drive like mad all the way across the island on hair-raising single-track roads, fearing all the while that you’ll miss your second ferry, the one to Iona.
The journey looks like this. It’s always slightly harrowing and, dare I say it, fun. Even if you’ve done the majority of it in a car, your spirit does feel as if you have undertaken a rather arduous pilgrimage:
Our starting point, the proud town of Oban, where you catch the first of your ferries …
On the left, the island of Kerrera. Dead ahead, Mull …
What’s not to love?
Eilean Musdile lighthouse, off Lismore. Always a joy.
The Maclean stronghold of Duart, dour guardian of Mull …
Then the mad dash across Mull itself …
Screeching into Fionnphort with seconds to spare …
… to catch the second ferry (a ferry which in days gone by you’d hail by ringing a bell or shouting VERY LOUDLY)
And there she is at last!
Now, of course, in Exile Columba doesn’t do this. He goes by boat since, paradoxically, at that time it was far safer and easier to go by the “sea-roads”, as they were known, than by land.
Here’s where in the book Columba first sets foot upon Iona. At first, he’s underwhelmed. He’s been thrown out of Ireland and has nowhere to go; in that day and age, a death-sentence. So he’s applied to the king of Dal Riata in Scotland, a mean, malign man by the name of Conall, for land for a settlement. Conall’s given him Iona; an insulting joke, since the island actually belongs to their mortal enemies the Caledonian Picts.
Undaunted, Columba hitches a ride to Iona then heads up to the top of the island’s lone hill, Dun I, to get a good look around. (You can see Dun I in the last photo. It’s the low hill which rises just to the left of the present-day Abbey. As the island’s only really high point, it’s a superior place to brood.)
Perusing the island with the exacting eye of an administrator, Columba is quite sure he won’t be able to feed and house the twelve friends who have insisted on coming into exile with him.
But then, something magical happens. Iona begins to reveal herself to him:
“He saw it all with opened eyes. He saw beauty. Gently contoured, Iona was almost serene in her simplicity. Her stone was tinged the color rose, the sand of her beaches a startling shell-white: the prevailing south-westerly winds had lifted it from the dunes to sprinkle it throughout the machair. He took a deep breath. The air was pristine, rarified. Overhead, brilliant white clouds skimmed across a limitless heaven. And the colors! The encircling ocean was a riotous celebration of deep violets and azures and emerald greens. Sunlight glinted off the blue swell.
He could see it now, feel it. Aside from her beauty, there was an austerity to Iona, a solemnity. She seemed to ride above the water, straining towards the sky. It was as if she sought to shed both the ocean’s cold embrace and her own skin of soil and bones of rock as she strained towards God. It was as if on Iona time was at a stop. This made her a holy place, unfit for most kinds of settlement … but not for his.
With effort, with toil, everything he and his monks would need was right before him … If he could get Iona from the Caledonii …”
[The Chronicles of Iona: Exile, pp. 91-92]
That’s what Iona feels like to me, in any case. It’s always an utter joy to be there–and getting there is half the fun. In trying times like these, when time itself feels almost “at a stop”, it’s comforting to know that places we’ve loved are waiting for us to make our way back.