Wednesday 1 August 2018


I've only been to the island of Iona once and that was 20 years ago. My maternal grandfather was Scottish and in the 1960s I spent several summer holidays in Findhorn and Banff in Morayshire, near to where he grew up, but we never went as far as the west coast of Scotland even though his grandfather had come from the island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides so there was some kind of link.

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

Bruce Charlton's recent post here wondered whether Ireland formed part of Albion and concluded that yes, it did. I would ask the same question about Scotland and come to the same conclusion. After all, Alba is the Gaelic name for Scotland. It may be that Albion has different parts to it but it is a unified whole too. The fact that there was a roughly similar Neolithic culture spread over the whole of Great Britain and Ireland, best exemplified by the standing stones such as the ones at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis not far from Iona, corroborates this. Albion is the spiritual backdrop to these two large and several small islands. It manifests itself variously, according to local conditions, but there is an overarching identity as well that needs to be discovered in order to resolve the quarrels between these family members, quarrels that really only exist at the political level not the spiritual one.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I've lived in Scotland for several years, and have a degree focused on Scottish Literature; so I'm well aware of the differences.

I would indeed regard Scotland as ideally *several* nations, and also part of Albion.

The current 'border' with England is not much of a cultural border, although the dialect does change, and most of the administration - but much social life is of a 'Borders' nature, rather than national (for example country agricultural shows are always cross border; as are sports - Berwick Rangers English football team plays in the Scottish divisions).

The old Roman border of Hadrian's wall is of course (contra most journalists assertions!) in England; indeed I live a few miles north of the wall - and it would take me one and a half hours to drive to Scotland.

I've never visited Iona, although I'd like to.

"Celtic Christianity which combines a deep awareness of the immanence of nature with dedication to the reality of Christ as Saviour."

Interestingly, the 'Celtic' difference seems mostly to be what we would now term 'Eastern' (Orthodox) Catheolic, as contrasted with Western -

For example the emphasis on monks rather than priests, and rule by (locally appointed) Abbots rather than (Papally appointed) Bishops.

My feeling is that - when the Great Schism happened c1000AD, England would have done better staying decentralised Orthodox than becoming international Roman; but that issue had already been decided in favour of Rome at the Synod of Whitby (664AD) - and the Norman invasion cemented that situation.

William Wildblood said...

Regarding Scotland being several nations, my grandfather certainly thought that. He drew a strong distinction between Lowlands and Highlands. And his brother, my great uncle who lived in Inverness (and who rejoiced in the job title of Chief Gynaecologist of the Highlands and Islands), thought of Glasgow as basically as far away as London. These were educated, cultivated men.

I also see the similarity between Celtic and Orthodox Christianity. Both seemed to produce a higher proportion of holy men than Catholicism, never mind Protestant denominations from which most of the mystical element of the religion has been drained.

SJE said...

where the veil between this world and the next is less opaque than elsewhere

I love this turn-of-phrase so much; there really isn't any better way to explain the feeling one sometimes gets.

Speaking about Scotland, and holy Islands, a few years ago my wife and I had the opportunity to visit and tour Scotland. We didn't make it to the Hebrides (but determined that we would on our next trip!), but more annoyingly to me, was that on our detour from Edinburgh into northern England to see Hadrian's Wall, we slipped RIGHT past the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which I would dearly love to have visited, but I didn't realize until after we were back home that we were so close. Such is life.

(If I'm not mistaken, we were also not that far, by Canadian standards, from the home of our blog-host, but that's a different matter.)

Wurmbrand said...

Do you know, Mr. Wildblood, J. M. Barrie's play Mary Rose, which do moved Tolkien?

Dale Nelson

William Wildblood said...

No, but I've just looked it up. It sounds interesting. I wonder if CS Lewis took an idea from it?