The island of Iona has always felt very far away, especially as I write this with the sound of passing cars and air conditioning prominent in the background. Iona is a little island to the west of Mull, not quite as far as you can go in Scotland but far enough to be going with. I’ve been twice, both very briefly but long enough to have a deep and lasting affection for the place. Before I ever went there, I saw it through paintings and read of it in the history books, of monks and sacred books once made there as well as golden beaches and clear waters crashing on them. The first time I was there it was grey, cloudy and not massively warm despite it being high summer. What I remember, though, was sitting on the end of the pier, or on the dock of the bay to quote Otis Redding, and looking down into the water lapping against the harbour. It was beautiful and clear, a phosphorescent light upon the sea there with only a wee bit of seaweed, kelp mostly, to reduce the view to the seabed.
My second visit was more memorable. I had moved to Glasgow by that point and I had learned of the connection between Govan, not too far from where I live now, to the formation of the Iona Community in 1938. It was also the day when we got absolutely soaked walking from one end of the island to another, with no protection or shelter from the elements. All we could do was trudge on and get wetter. Nearly four years on, I still don’t think I’m fully dry. I had never encountered rain like that. In towns and cities, you are never far from some form of shelter. Iona is an island with nothing between it and the Atlantic. It, therefore, doesn’t have a lot of trees. Neither does it have bus shelters since it isn’t on a bus route. It was raining incredibly heavily for about 15 minutes as we looked for a path and gaps in fences to get towards the Abbey, our clothes heavier by the minute and yet our spirits not dimmed. I certainly remember feeling more alive, in the best traditions of mindfulness deeply, powerfully and inextricably linked to where I was at that particular moment of time. I couldn’t have cared just then. It was a sensation of ‘this is happening. You are here. Deal with it’, and a reminder of the transience of our lives, that nothing, no weather or anything else, is permanent, even if it sometimes seems so.
By the time we reached the Abbey, dripping, sodden, waterlogged, the sun had come out. I remember making a beeline for the cloisters, which had been sculpted in the restoration of the Abbey with swans and birds on each of the pillars. I also recall walking around the quiet, monumental kirkyard, where numerous Kings of Scots are buried as well as the late Labour leader John Smith. The Abbey itself is a grey church inside, more interesting for where it is than what’s inside. Iona is one of those places where being outside is best, though, even when it rains, especially when it rains, really. Sitting on the dock of the bay is a good, vivid memory and even while I’m far from it, to slightly misquote W.B. Yeats, I feel it in the deep heart’s core.