It is difficult to get to Iona, and when you reach it, you may wonder why you came. It is a tiny, low, barely inhabited island in the Atlantic, huddling in the western fringe of Scotland among the islands called the Inner Hebrides. The 2011 census listed just 177 inhabitants, most of whom seem to live on a single road that winds along one side of the island for a couple of hundred metres, and then stops.[i] It is rocky, windy, and has no interesting natural features. You could walk from one end of it to the other in less than an hour, and you would be walking among stunted, scraggly trees over rough and messy grass. When I went to Iona it was late October, and the island seemed little more than a patch of turf protruding from a grey, harsh, and freezing sea.
I hope to explain why I still remember Iona among the most haunting, resonant places I have ever visited, and why it is high on my list of sites to which I will return someday. When I made my trip there in the cold late autumn, the ferries that run between the islands of the Inner Hebrides were making only a trip or two each day, and almost the only people I met were locals. The region, Argyll, is one of the few areas of Britain that still feel genuinely and impressively remote. You board a train heading northwest from Glasgow, on a line that runs, if you go at night, through dark mountains interrupted only sporadically by the lights of tiny villages; and three hours later you disembark in Oban, a small town on the Scottish west coast. Oban is what passes for a regional centre, but on the night when I arrived it felt very small and very quiet. My train had been almost empty. I sensed that I had passed out of urban, well-connected Scotland, and had entered a different type of country.
My bed and breakfast was a place of twisted staircases, slope-ceilinged bedrooms, and very thick, soft pillows. In the morning I took a ferry across the narrow strait to the Isle of Mull, which is the island you must cross before you can take another ferry to Iona. I realised very quickly that the places marked as settlements on the various ferry maps were never much more than tiny hamlets consisting typically of one dock, one pub, and one house. I am neither exaggerating nor mocking: I thought it was wonderful. The bus trip across the island lasted almost two hours. Serenity, undisturbed and perfect, seeped down from the round, damp hills and pooled in the valleys through which the little bus made its lonely way. An aura of solitude seemed to envelop all the world. Little Iona too, when we reached it, was shrouded in this lovely, lonely stillness. I remember being struck by how flat it was – somehow I had expected the island to be a steep hill. Yet there it lay, dull-coloured and quiet, just above the shifting sea.
I did not even stay the night: I had to take the right ferries back to Oban or be stuck out there for a couple of days. Yet the few hours I spent on Iona, doing little more than wander its narrow tracks and rest my eyes on its damp little trees and houses, were enchanted hours. What was it about the place that captured me so completely? The superficial explanation rests on the island’s significance in Christian history, which was the reason I made the trip in the first place. The tiny monastery at Iona was founded, we are told, in 563 by Saint Columba (he who legendarily vanquished a monster in a certain Scottish lake called Loch Ness). Through the Dark Ages after the retreat of the Romans from Britain, Christianity in the British Isles was preserved by tiny communities of monks on small islands around the fringes of the country, like Iona. Yet though they were the guardians of what was, in this part of the world, an endangered faith, they did not go on to re-convert the whole of Britain to Christianity as they might have done. That was done by Catholic missionaries from Rome instead, and monasteries like Iona became throwbacks to an earlier, more eccentric strain of Christianity. Battered by the winds of the Atlantic, secure but remote in this distant, chilly outpost of the world, the monks of Iona endured in solitude as they practised their old, old faith.
So there’s a historical interest here, and the ruins of the old monastery are indeed evocative, albeit in a very unassuming way. But this is not what truly draws me back to Iona. The island is pervaded by an atmosphere – almost a sensation – of what I can only describe as an austere and potent spirituality. Rarely, anywhere in the world, have I felt such peace as I felt when I came to this island. It is as though the very air is charged with a high and noble strain of magic. Some might say that all those centuries of lonely devotion and concentration on the divine, by those few dedicated monks, endowed this island with some form of sacred presence. Yet perhaps it went the other way around. It may be not that Iona feels sacred because people kept a monastery here, but that those people founded and kept a monastery here because they sensed that the island was sacred. It feels sacred to this day.
I finish with the words of the great art historian Kenneth Clark. “I never come to Iona – and I used to come here almost every year when I was young – without the feeling that ‘some God is in this place’. It isn’t as awe-inspiring as some other holy places – Delphi or Assisi. But Iona gives one more than anywhere else I know a sense of peace and inner freedom. What does it? The light, which floods round on every side? The lie of the land which, coming after the solemn hills of Mull, seems strangely like Greece, like Delos, even? The combination of wine-dark sea, white sand and pink granite? Or is it the memory of those holy men who for two centuries kept western civilisation alive?”[ii]
[ii] Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (London: BBC and John Murray, 1969).