Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A day in Iona...*


The ferry at Fionnphort
Water laps against the black metal hold of the smallest Caledonian MacBrayne ferry I have ever seen. A sign informs me that there is space for only eight cars and seventy-seven passengers, but on this cramped deck, even these numbers seem improbable.

We are soon skimming the sound between Mull and the tiny island, with the effortlessness of a smooth, flat pebble, bounding in slow motion away from the small pier at Fionnphort. Almost instantly, the island comes into focus. The landscape speaks of a lost era: small cottages and crofts, no visible vehicles and the Abbey to the right, set back from the shoreline. Its spire is imprisoned in scaffolding and brings a stark reminder of the need for change, even here. In no time, we breach the final few yards of swelling tide, and reach the small, angular, concrete jetty that is waiting for us.

Arriving in Iona is like letting go of your parent’s hand at a silent adventure playground for the soul; we alight the ferry and swarm wordlessly in various directions. A tall white-whiskered gentleman stands, as if sentry to the first house we pass. Sucking on his pipe, he reads each visiting face, surveying our intent.
Despite the numbers who have held the island to ransom for the day, there remains a tangible air of calm. The sea breeze hits my face with the same refreshing effect of an early morning shower. Senses are awakened and I feel a surge of anticipation, as the history of this tiny island speaks into my present. To meander slowly is a rare luxury. We pass Celtic crosses on the road and I have time to consider another road leading to a cross.

As we saunter on, the Abbey comes into view again. I am soon searching in the grounds for the weather-beaten headstone at the grave of John Smith, the Labour leader, whose untimely death shocked me in 1994. I am struck by the fact that this occurred in the last century; that the years that have passed have been light years of political, world and technological change.

Inside the Abbey we read requests for prayer and feel like children once again. This time, we are overhearing a forbidden, adult conversation, as various requests for healing  litter a wooden cross with colourful post-it notes. In the grounds outside, a ball zips back and forth across the grass. Several teenage boys, oblivious to the hallowed turf beneath their feet, are simply enjoying the game, and the day.

Along the single track road, past the golf course, we reach "Camas Cuil an t-Saimh" or "the Bay at the Back of the Ocean," whose name conjures up unspoilt, idyllic allure. Here, waves sweep to shore in swirling blues, greens and whites and splash gently around my bare feet as the world and I become one in worship. Perfect stones glisten like polished diamonds on the light brown sand, and to both east and west, the incline of the hills sweep away into the green headlands. Travelling west from here, the next stop is North America, but I have no desire to leave this beach.
Painting by Elise Ferguson.
Wandering slowly from this sacred place, we discover that the camera’s manual winding mechanism has become infiltrated by specks of sand from the beach. I begin to worry that the whole spool will be spoilt, erasing the record of the moment just passed, but the whisper of God instantly reminds me that the Divine Presence cannot be caught on film.

We are soon scuttling back across the water in our tiny ferry. The island may not miss us, but, in the years to come, we will regularly recall our trip, and determine to return again one day. Back home, we paint Celtic crosses on two pristine stones picked carefully from "the Bay at the Back of the Ocean" and place them in our back garden to enshrine in our memories the day we spent on Iona.

*It was Wednesday 7th August 2002 when my wife Jillian and I visited the island. 

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