The Isle of Iona: Heaven in the Hebrides - Scotland Magazine
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The Isle of Iona: Heaven in the Hebrides

Why rush a place like the Isle of Iona in a day, when you can stay and soak up the spiritual atmosphere for longer? Words by Kenneth Steven All my…

Why rush a place like the Isle of Iona in a day, when you can stay and soak up the spiritual atmosphere for longer?

Words by Kenneth Steven

All my life it has saddened and frustrated me that pilgrims visit the Isle of Iona and leave again, a matter of hours later, having experienced little more than what I affectionately like to call the ‘Vatican City’ of the island.

By that I mean the Abbey and Nunnery, both of which effectively lie on the edge of the village, and are no more than a five or 10-minute walk from the jetty. It’s as though Iona has been ticked off the list of Scottish sites to visit; the long journey west to get there completed successfully, and often evidently not even with much satisfaction. It’s as though those pilgrims are thinking: is this really what I came so far to find?

Isle of Iona

Years ago I shared these thoughts with my Highland photographer friend Iain Sarjeant. He and I had grown up at a similar time, visiting Iona perhaps every second or third summer. We had been free-range children; able to wander where we wanted and wary of nothing more than dangerous tides and barbed wire fences.

Because this Hebridean world was safe for children: no one thought of locking their door at night and children were as free as lambs to explore and play. Iain and I had gone out to explore all the fingers and toes of Iona, so to speak: the edge places few others thought about or sought to find.

That’s how we came to create our book Iona: The Other Island, as writer and photographer respectively. The Bay at the Back of the Ocean, the Well of the North Wind, the Gully of Pat’s Cow, the Hermit’s Cell, the White Strand of the Monks, the Hill of the Angels and the Glen of the Temple – all these magical locations and many more, their names deriving straight from Gaelic, we wanted to share with those who came to Iona, and to try to beckon them away from just the island’s Vatican City.

Isle of Iona
Bay at the Back of the Ocean beach. Credit: Robert Birkby/AWL Images Ltd

It’s not for a minute that Iain and I had a thing against the Abbey or the Nunnery: quite the opposite, both of us had been inspired creatively by them and valued each dearly. It was purely and simply that we wanted to make pilgrims aware that Iona is much bigger than this; that there’s a great deal more to find beyond the Abbey and Nunnery.

First and foremost we wanted to entice those pilgrims to stay for a few days, to spend more than a few brief hours on the island. Because Iona’s weirdly bigger than it looks on the map: three miles long and nothing more than a-mile-and-a-half wide, yet pilgrimages from the village to the far south-west corner and back leave a strong walker feeling they’ve covered five times the number of miles.

And that’s because of the wind; like an excited puppy it doesn’t seem to come from the north or west but rather from everywhere at once, buffeting and tugging the whole time. After an hour or more of toil it feels you’re fighting that wind, and consequently you’re left in the end feeling blown out and tired.

The one place I urge every pilgrim to Iona to visit is St Columba’s Bay. It’s only the last half hour or so of walking that’s at all demanding as you climb to the island’s only lochan and then descend to the bay. From here, on even a half-good day the views south are priceless: to Colonsay, Jura and Islay, and over to Mull.

isle of iona
Iona Abbey. Credit: VisitScotland / Paul Tomkins, all rights reserved.

I always say tongue-in-cheek that Columba must have landed from Ireland on a miserable day, for when the light’s clear and sharp it is most certainly possible to catch a glimpse of Malin Head and the north coast of Ireland. According to legend, Columba was supposed to travel until he could see his native shores no longer.

I came here in earliest childhood with my parents and my mother taught me to hunt for beautiful polished pebbles of serpentine. The eye needs some training because the bay’s mounds of shingle hides many a polished piece of marble too. And marble and serpentine are very different once you get to know them. The surface of serpentine is smooth and any pebble is easily and wonderfully polished; often the green ones found at the bay, or on other beaches of Iona, are completely translucent, and used to adorn necklaces and rings. Marble turns dull and drab when dry, and refuses to be polished.

Once you understand the difference you’ll never confuse them again. And St Columba’s Bay is the best place to learn. When you’ve got there and are on the south coast of Iona, it’s well worth exploring further if time and energy permit. Heading east, there’s the Gully of Pat’s Cow and the Port of the Young Lad’s Rock. Further round to the east there’s the Marble Quarry, too, where all the old machinery used for cutting great slabs of rock still lie rusting. If you head west from St Columba’s Bay you’ll come in the end to the Port of the Marten-Cat Cliff, surely one of the shores on Iona with the strangest of names.

Beyond here is the wild south-west corner, a part of the island somehow different from any other, with its own character entirely. The other place I would urge newcomers to Iona to find is the Hermit’s Cell. Admittedly, it’s not a walk for the fainthearted, especially after heavy rains when the deep inland heather’s turned to cloying bog. But it’s not all that far as the crow flies from the Abbey: a path of sorts leads out west behind the MacLeod Centre, past ditches and drystone dykes to a strange and truly ancient place where without doubt hermit monks would have lived back in the days of the Celtic Christian period.

This is an extract. Read the full feature, in the July/August issue of Scotland, out on 17 June. Buy your copy here. 



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