Seeking spiritual enlightenment on Iona

A NEW dawn on Iona. The bright sun bounces off buoys and creels and shines like a benediction on skipper Davie Kirkpatrick’s beautiful wooden boat, Iolaire, Gaelic for eagle, as she leaves the harbour for Staffa.

Pilgrims leave the abbey and walk past St Martin's Cross. Picture: Robert Perry
Pilgrims leave the abbey and walk past St Martin's Cross. Picture: Robert Perry

The sun shines, too, on St Martin’s Cross, up by the abbey, a great Celtic cross, 15ft high and carved, more than a millennia ago, with Biblical scenes; a stone Abraham frozen forever with the knife raised above Isaac. The cross throws its black shadow on Iona, as it has done for more than 1,200 years, through Viking raids, world wars and the industrial revolution; a symbol of constancy on this Hebridean island, a jewel chipped from the south-western coast of Mull, where everything – weather, tide, light – is ever-changing.

“Iona,” says Kirkpatrick, who has lived on the island all his 65 years. “There’s something here. But I don’t know what it is. Nobody knows. Nobody has got the final answer.”

Today, 19 May, Pentecost Sunday, is thought to be the 1,450th anniversary of Saint Columba arriving on Iona from his native Ireland, establishing a base from which he spread Christianity throughout Scotland. It also marks the 75th anniversary of the Iona Community, a Christian organisation based on the island and in Glasgow that grew out of the Depression and remains dedicated to social justice. In 563AD, Columba and a dozen followers are said to have arrived by coracle – a boat of hides stretched over wooden ribs – on a rocky bay in the south of Iona; climbing a nearby hill, he is said to have satisfied himself that he could no longer see Ireland, turned his back on his homeland, built a stone cairn and decided that on this tiny island – three miles long by one wide – he would build his monastery. “Unto this place,” he said, “small and mean though it be, great homage shall yet be paid.”

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    In the summer of 1938, another boat landed at Iona, the Dunara Castle, a steamer that eight years earlier had been used in the evacuation of St Kilda. Now she was bringing a new population – not monks this time, but a group of young ministers and craftsmen, some unemployed shipbuilders from Govan, led by the Reverend George MacLeod of that parish, on a mission to rebuild the ruined ancient abbey and establish a new ecumenical group, a sort of family, really, in which faith, work and justice, prayer and sweat would intermingle. This was the birth of the Iona Community, which grew from the original Columban mission like lichen over old stone.

    These days, the community remains an engaged and engaging mix of Christianity and politics, its 270 members and thousands of friends and associates opposing poverty, sectarianism, injustice and violence. From the early years, when the community was seen, often, as a refuge for radicals and oddballs, it has become an established part of Scottish civic life. Alex Salmond is expected to attend a thanksgiving service at the abbey today.

    “I think our purpose today remains largely what it was 75 years ago, when George MacLeod realised that the church just wasn’t speaking to ordinary folks’ lives,” says Peter Macdonald, the 55-year-old leader of the Iona Community. “George was concerned about the breakdown of community, and I think that has only accelerated over the last 75 years. In society and also politically there’s greater individualism, greater materialism. For more people today, the Christian faith is seen as an irrelevance. It just doesn’t engage with the things that they’re concerned about. So we try in our way to show ways in which faith is relevant to the issues and challenges folk face.”

    On the morning I visit Iona, around 30 people – mostly middle-aged, carrying rucksacks and wearing hiking boots – are gathered around St Martin’s Cross, heads bent in prayer, waiting to embark on the ‘pilgrimage’. Iona has a resident population of around 120 but attracts as many as 100,000 visitors each year, many of them drawn by the island’s spiritual reputation and its historical significance as the ancient burial place of Scottish kings, including Duncan and Macbeth. John Smith, the Labour leader, is also buried here. “An Honest Man’s the Noblest Work of God,” it says on his grave. On the slab, someone has left an offering of pebbles and shells.

    The community allows paying guests to stay for a week in the abbey, working and worshipping together. On one day each week, since those early days, guests – and anyone who chooses to join them – have made a pilgrimage around the island, stopping off at its significant places for prayer and reflection, silence and songs, and – this being Britain, albeit a far-flung fragment – tea and biscuits. Everyone will have their own reasons for being here – curiosity, a love of natural beauty, or more likely some deep need for healing and peace.

    “You don’t stumble on Iona. Iona isn’t en route to anywhere. So anybody who arrives on Iona means to be there,” says Macdonald. “You certainly feel, physically, that you’re leaving your normal life behind. Iona is the kind of place where you are able to reflect, to form new relationships with people, and then change your perspective about whatever it is you’re going back to face. The work of Iona begins when you leave.”

    The pilgrimage begins at a little after 10am, the rasp of a corncrake, like someone running a thumb over a comb, loud in the nearby field. We head south-west, stopping off at the ancient nunnery, where dandelions grow between graves and tiny purple flowers bloom from cracks in the fallen walls. Spring seems to have arrived here a little earlier than on the mainland, and there is a lovely contrast between the wildness of the landscape and the neatness of the gardens in the village, tulips a vivid red against the blue Sound of Iona and the boilersuits of scarecrows flapping in the breeze. Sheep crop the grass verges by the road, shadows of crows flit across the abbey slates and a gull perches, with gallus blasphemy, on the cross on the tower roof.

    I fall in with some of the pilgrims and ask what brings them here. One young woman tells me she lost her faith for a time – too caught up with work in London’s financial sector and with socialising – but that following the economic crash and a period of redundancy she has rediscovered her religious belief through the liturgy written on Iona.

    We walk down to Columba’s Bay, on the southern tip of the island, where the saint and his monks are said to have landed. Military jets tear through the sky towards Benbecula. The beach is covered in smooth, round pebbles, including pieces of the distinctive marble, flecked with green, glass-like serpentine, which was used to carve the altar in the abbey. On the beach, sifting the bladderwrack, the pilgrims each choose two stones. The first they throw into the waves, to symbolise something they wish to leave behind; the other they take with them, to represent a new beginning.

    Joanne Reid, 40, is visiting from Birkenhead. “Three years ago my home burned down in a fire,” she says. “I’m on my own with two children. We woke up in the middle of the night and we only just got out alive. I had no insurance and we lost everything.”

    It was traumatic. The children were terrified. There was a great sense of loss. “You feel sad, and then sadder. And then sadder.” Not knowing what else to do, Reid began to pray. She started attending church. She heard about Iona and wanted to make the pilgrimage, but could not afford to do so. Someone at the church, though, paid anonymously for her to go, and here she is.

    As soon as she got off the ferry, she felt anointed, as though someone were dabbing her down with a cool cloth. She feels a little odd saying these things. She is a straight talker, totally Merseyside, yearns even amid the beauty of Iona for a whisky and a kebab, and wouldn’t want to be taken for “one of these Christian loonies”. But she is telling it how it is. Testifying.

    “This trip, I feel, is meant to be,” she says. “What I’ve felt here, now, within the church and with these people, is that I can go home and be strong. It has given me a stronger heart. I don’t feel like I’m a bad person. It’s a spiritual feeling when you’ve been through so much. It’s not just the break and no kids. It’s something more. It’s like a calling. It knows you need to be here.”

    This, or a variation on it, is what you hear over and over again on Iona. A sense of homecoming. Anja Jardine, 39, is the cook at the Abbey. She grew up in East Germany. The wall fell when she was 17 and, all of a sudden, she was free to travel. She went for a week to Iona at the suggestion of someone in her church, and then, as the years passed, just kept coming back. Eventually, in 2001, she settled here and is now married to a local man, Mark, himself the son of community members, who runs boat trips; they have a daughter, Freya, and live by the water.

    “Sometimes I wonder whether you’re meant to belong somewhere; whether it’s meant to be,” Jardine says. “I felt at ease with the people and the place. You could explain it in a spiritual way, but it just suited me. It’s a great place, with all its disadvantages – people have feuds and don’t like each other and are pernickety with things. But that’s very real. A lot of abbey guests will say, ‘Oh, what will we do when we get back to the real world?’ But Iona is very real. Nobody here is a saint. They are working hard to earn their money. They know how to celebrate and they know how to cry.”

    One shouldn’t romantice Iona. Island life can be tough and dangerous, a tide of tears. The skipper Kirkpatrick’s father, Charlie, for instance, was killed in 1955 while working for the community, unloading timber for the cloisters from a ship’s hold.

    Iona was never supposed to be romantic. It was supposed to be all about reality. MacLeod saw the truth of poverty in his Govan parish and worried that the church was failing to engage with the lives of working people and those in rags who weren’t fortunate enough to be working. His vision was for young ministers to graft alongside craftsmen – labouring for them and learning to use their hands as well as words – before returning to work in impoverished parishes.

    MacLeod, who died in 1991 at the age of 96, had been a captain with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders during the First World War, fighting on the front line at Ypres and Passchendaele. He won the Military Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for bravery. According to his son Maxwell, a journalist, MacLeod was shaped profoundly by his experiences of the war. He later became a pacifist. “He was a sensitive young man who was thrown when still 20 into intermittent scenes of terrible carnage. He told me that after the war he spent some weeks walking around Mull visiting Gaelic families he had known, several of which had lost sons, probably under his command.

    “He said that one of his chief memories of that walking tour was that he would be put to sleep in the byres and that he was not allowed to take a candle or light there because of the straw, and that after the evenings he had spent with the families that he hated the gloom but had found the experience very cathartic, weeping in the darkness and rushing out at first light to walk in the dawn.”

    Darkness and dawn. Life and death. These are the true building bricks of the abbey.

    Ian Fraser, a retired minister, first went to Iona in 1939, the year after the community’s founding. He is 95 now and still goes back and forth to the island. He was there most recently at Easter. He is an old, old man, but you can still see the strength in his hands and shoulders, and in his eyes.

    He is from Forres, in Morayshire, has three children, nine grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren (with another on the way) and enjoys translating the gospels into Doric, feeling they benefit from the rougher tongue. His father, a butcher, went blind when Fraser was four years old and the boy went to work in the business. “I can tell you,” he says, “that on a frosty morning, in an unheated shop, one of the worst jobs you can get is to have a pail of half-congealed blood to stir into liquidity for black puddings. Think of a wee lad doing that, then in the kirk on Sunday being asked to sing, ‘Wash me in the blood of the lamb and I’ll be whiter than snow.’”

    Fraser helped rebuild the walls of the abbey refectory, and recalls that, at a time when timber was scarce because of war shortages, they were able to use wood that washed ashore, having been jettisoned by a ship caught in a storm; and it turned out, miraculously one might say, to be exactly the correct length required. Fraser and his late wife Margaret honeymooned on Iona, and he has a wonderful photograph of the two of them then, in the still ruined abbey, lovers beneath a broken arch. “She was a head-turner and she had a loveliness that went through her like Blackpool rock,” he says.

    Walking across the machair that fringes Iona’s main beach, the Bay at the Back of the Ocean, I speak with Sharon Kyle, deputy director of the community. Originally from Aberdeen, she first visited the island 20 years ago, in her mid-30s, but moved to Iona from Birmingham last summer with her partner Jen. The pair had been Church of England vicars, but left the ministry as same-sex relationships between clergy were not acceptable. Iona, she says, is a place that allows people to take the risk to be who they are.

    “A thin place between heaven and earth. It does feel like that,” she says, pointing towards water the same pale blue as the ring around a gannet’s eye. “The next stop over there is Nova Scotia. This is an island off an island, it is jaw-droppingly beautiful, you get weather by the bucketload, and it is remote. That personal challenge, I think, is what people rise to.

    “Iona gives the people time to really think about things, to go off walking, to sit by a beach, to look at the beauty and just reflect on who and what they are in God’s creation.”

    Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss