With Palm Sunday and Holy Week on the horizon, we turn west to The Book of Iona. This anthology, edited by Robert Crawford, is ‘given over to the literary imagination, not to historiography’ and contains responses and reflections on the island from Edwin Morgan, Candia McWilliam, Mick Imlah and many more. Two chronologies weave their way through, however: a series of verse translations from Adomnàn’s eighth-century Life of St Columba by Crawford himself; and the story of the island and its Abbey, which has weathered cycles of habitation and neglect, cultivation and ruin, through the centuries. This week’s poem, ‘An I Mo Chridhe’, attributed to St Columba, prophecies this decline and rebirth. The nineteenth-century translation by Mosse Macdonald was composed shortly before the Abbey’s twentieth-century restoration began.
Iona is an island of lives and afterlives. Some families have lived there for generations; the lie of the land is enriched by genealogies. For the many visitors – pilgrims, tourists, walkers, painters, photographers, birders, bathers or paddlers – who travel by ferry from Oban on the western mainland of Scotland to the large island of Mull, then by car, bus or arduous bike ride across to the hamlet of Fionnphort on Mull’s south-west coast before proceeding on a further small ferry over the Sound of Iona to the jetty at St Ronan’s Bay, the experience of arriving on Iona in a present-day crowd often turns into a haunting encounter with long-gone individuals. Almost no one can catch sight of, let alone set foot on, the island without a stirring of the imagination. Eyeing the abbey from the approaching ferry, modern tourists come thinking of the sixth-century Saint Columba and his monks, or of later, determined visitors including Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and John Keats. Iona’s many elaborately crafted medieval sculpted stones, and the heroic tale of the modern rebuilding of its abbey by unemployed Glaswegians marshalled by George MacLeod, Kirk minister and founder of the Iona Community, mean that afterlives on this island are insistent presences. Iona is a site where spirit, imagination, and physical exertion mingle.
Under snow or summer heatwave, it’s a vivid place. Emerald, turquoise and viridian tides passing over sunlit sand towards the north end are as striking as the lash of Atlantic rain when storm clouds scud across the sky above the machair. Iona’s light – brilliant, windswept, strong yet often fleeting – has attracted generations of painters, best known among whom are those early twentieth-century Scottish colourists S. J. Peploe and F. C. B. Cadell, conjured up in this book by Meg Bateman and David Kinloch. The sensory intensity of being on Iona involves not just that light which heightens a sense of inhabiting what George MacLeod called ‘a thin place’ where this world and a world beyond seem to intersect; it also involves Iona’s distinctive simplifying smallness. However great its reputation, this island is only about three miles by one and a half in size; its fame derives from focus, not from vastness; it is, in several senses, a place of concentration.Robert Crawford, from the introduction to The Book of Iona (Polygon, 2016)
ascribed to SAINT COLUMBA An I Mo Chridhe An I mo chridhe, I mo ghràidh An àite guth manaich bidh geum bà; Ach mun tig an saoghal gu crìch Bithidh I mar a bha. In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, Instead of monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle, But ere the World come to an end Iona shall be as it was. Traditional translation Isle of my heart, Isle that it loveth so, Where chaunts the monk, only the kine shall low; Yet before Heaven shall wax and Earth shall wane, Iona, as she was, shall be again! Translation from Mosse Macdonald, Iona (Newdigate Prize Poem, Oxford, 1879)