Remembering Iona and the wild Atlantic | Home Again

By Joanne Peterson | Aug 26, 2019

Chuck Sigars, in his “Chuck’s World” column last week, wrote of a recent visit he and his wife made to the island of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides Islands of Scotland. I enjoyed reading about his experiences there, and I’ve thought a lot this week about my own time on Iona four years ago.

There’s a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but that in thin places the distance is even shorter. I like that. Chuck wrote a bit about “thin places.” Iona provided numerous “thin places” during my time there.

St. Columba, an Irish priest, established a monastery on Iona in 563, and Iona became known as the cradle of Christianity as his followers spread the Christian faith throughout the U.K. and beyond.

Four years ago, six companions and I, traveling together in Scotland, arrived on Iona on an “amber alert” day of threatening weather. We splashed ashore when the big ramp was lowered from the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry onto the wet sand and walked to the house our leader, Sue, had rented.

The home was spacious and comfortable, with the sea across the street from the front door and green hillsides of white sheep to the east. Sometimes two or three sheep would meander into our backyard and gaze at us through the dining room windows. After island rambles, a hot tub offered soothing outdoor soaks with Atlantic views.

We fell into a routine of sharing dinner chores; other meals, we were on our own. We quickly became acquainted with the small Star Market, where we could buy vegetables, meat, bread, cheese, and wine, among other things. The market was a great place to connect with locals. In September, there seemed to be few tourists.

Special moments: Services at the Abbey – vespers and Sunday worship. A phenomenal concert in the Abbey, presented by musicians from off-island. One of my favorite purchases on the island was a CD: “Iona, Sacred Isle. Faure – Requiem. The Glasgow Phoenix Choir.”

One day, Sue and I walked past the Iona hostel and eventually found ourselves on a remote rise of blowing grasses and large rocks, overlooking the wild Atlantic. We sat on boulders several feet apart and silently watched the sea for a long time. Oh, yes. A thin place. We ate our simple bread and cheese lunch and slowly walked back to the house.

Another day, I walked alone across a narrow road, where houses faced the sea. In a window of the now-familiar style of entry, I saw a sign: “Knitwear.” Eventually, I met Sharon, the knitter, and her husband, Davey, who used to be a fisherman but now conducts small tourist outings with his boat.

“I liked it better when he fished,” said Sharon, smiling. “Now he’s home too much.”

I learned more about locals on my last Iona afternoon. I lost my purse! I was alone in the community that day, enjoying the moments.

I bought a book of Celtic prayers at the bookshop and walked to the still-standing walls of the ancient nunnery, where I held one hand flat on a sun-warmed stone wall, feeling a communion with the ancient sisters. Another thin place. I visited graves and tidied flowers on them.

At a little past 4:30 in the afternoon, visiting Bishop’s House and the Chapel of St. Columba, about to walk back to my housemates, I suddenly missed my purse. My rescuer? A woman in a well-used car outside the chapel door.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. And then, after I responded, she said, “Get in!” She introduced herself as the local “Postman.” She grinned and told me she’s also the local nurse. She’s the only medical person on the island. She drove me to the bookstore, which was closing when we arrived. I dashed in.

Yes, my purse awaited me.

I loved my time on Iona. I loved the ferry ride, the rain, the sun, the sheep and cows grazing on a green hill – and on a golf course. I loved sitting on a big rock on a knoll overlooking the wild Atlantic with my dear friend Sue, who no longer is with us.

I looked forward with pleasure to every trip to the Star Market. I liked looking at the hotels and wondering about the people staying in them. I marveled at St. Columba and those who followed him. I liked the unpretentious people I talked with and the hard life they have chosen on that simple lovely island.

I wish I could go to Iona and stay for weeks, perhaps months.


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