We have just got back from Iona … a wonderful, profound trip.
I am very new to this game: this is the first blogpost I have ever written. I don’t even do Facebook. So how do I begin?
Well, let me share with you some thoughts about a recent trip. They may form part, eventually, of the book I am struggling to write at the moment – never let anyone tell you that writing is an easy job, for it ain’t. We went to Iona: both of us had been before, and had found it a strangely quieting yet at the same time disturbing place – disturbing of the usual assumptions and imperatives with which one lives.
Iona is of those in-between, ‘thin’, places – indeed, it was of this very place that George MacLeod first used that expression. Between the tumultuous highway of the Atlantic and the wild solidity of Mull, between then and now (for ‘then’ is never far away), between knowing and unknowing… The Abbey church is far unlike the Celtic church that once was here: the community was refounded as Benedictine by Ranald, son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, in the 1200s, and its worked stones and arches speak of France, of Rome, and remind of the argument lost at Whitby. His sister Beathag founded the Augustinian nunnery down the lane, and was its first prioress. (I have been to the island in the loch on Islay brother and sister called home once.)
The men running the little Calmac ferry from Fionnphort to the island must have one of the most boring jobs in one of the most beautiful places in west Scotland – though the fast currents and rips in the sound can be tricky. Ten minutes to the holy place, with a whiff of diesel and hot engine. And back again. And so on. But then, Charon must also have got fed up with all those short journeys across the Styx, and been irritated by all those passengers, shades, waiting for the next ferry to another world, stretching out their hands imploringly in their desire for the other shore. ‘Wait for the next boat!’ he grumpily calls, as he fends them off with his oar. Ten minutes back and forth, all day, across the little sound, where in the shallows of the clear water sea anemones wave their florid tentacles for passing food and urchins make their slow progress across the rocks. A canny otter is regularly seen waiting near where the fishermen sometimes gut their fish. Gulls glide by on stiff wings, watchful, and in season delicate terns shriek their harsh Norse name ‘kria’, flutter, and dive for little fish. The air smells salt. To port we can see the sunlight on the bay where in 806 a Viking raiding party massacred 68 of the monks. This bright place too has seen the darkness. This has been one of the fulchra of the world. It does not forget it. Maybe it still is. Will be.
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