But in 1998 I had the opportunity to visit Mull and from there it is a short ferry ride over to Iona so I went and spent a few days on the island. There were no cars allowed (good!) but it's not very big and you can walk all over it quite easily which I did, and I have to say its reputation as a holy island did not seem unmerited. The connection with St Columba is its main claim to fame, and for me he personifies Celtic Christianity which combines a deep awareness of the immanence of nature with dedication to the reality of Christ as Saviour. In this approach, Christ did not simply replace the old religions but through him the good in them was transformed and baptised in a new light. Demons were chased away and wind and water, sun and earth were recast as angels serving Christ rather than being seen as gods in their own right. This sanctified creation as holy instead of either revering it for its own sake (paganism) or dismissing it something existing in opposition to God which later Christianity sometimes had the tendency to do.
I did not find the abbey on Iona especially interesting. It's of fairly recent construction and didn't seem to me to have much of a sense of spiritual vitality, no more than similar places anyway. However the island itself possessed a kind of glittering quality which showed it to be one of those places where the veil between this world and the next is less opaque than elsewhere. Now, I realise that some of this can be explained away physically as due to the weather conditions of sun coming out after rain which always leaves the air with a sparkle, but that is not all there is to it. Walking over Iona one often had the feeling of being taken through the outer form of nature to what lies behind nature. The ongoing work of the Creator and those non-physical beings who carry out his will can be intuited if one is open to such things. Those who believe in nature spirits can find something to support them here.
|Bay at the Back of the Ocean. Next stop, America!|
|Machair, the dune grassland typical of Western Scotland coastal areas.|
|Port Ban with its white sand and turquoise water is the equal of any beach anywhere - when the sun is out.|
During and after Columba's time in the 6th and 7th centuries, Iona was one of the most important monastic communities in Great Britain, responsible for many conversions on the Scottish mainland and in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Its scriptorium may even have been the place where the world-famous Book of Kells first began to be put together, and the stone Celtic Crosses with their circles (or halos?) that surround the intersection of the vertical and horizontal arms might also have originated on Iona. An additional point of interest is the actual rock of which much of Iona, like the Western Isles as a whole, is formed. This is known as Lewisian Gneiss and at around 3 billion years old is the oldest rock in Britain, and among the oldest in the world. It's a metamorphic rock, originally igneous but changed many times as the earth's crust became molten and then hardened. So the feeling one gets in Iona of a deep ancient past is geologically justified.
|Illuminated Page from the Book of Kells|
|A Celtic Cross in Iona|