So I made it across the ocean without incident to return home. Along with my own bed and Half & Half for my coffee, I gained good internet service. The wi-fi blight is over! I can access emails and upload photos with abandon. Of course, the best images of my trip are in my head. I’m still in Europe in my dreams and awoke the first two nights at home to be confused about where I was. In 30 days I stayed in 16 different hotels! Each day added one layer after another of discoveries about my ancestral roots. I haven’t been able to walk away from this trip easily!
So let me revisit the last chapter of my trip when I didn’t have the technology to share my pictures. The Isle of Iona is known for its beauty and faith so I’m going to give you a glimpse into life on this place of Christian pilgrimage.
It’s not easy to get there. I left the home territory of my MacDougall ancestors by ferry. As we pulled away from the Oban harbor I was able to see the Dunollie Castle, home to the current MacDougall clan chief. From the water it’s easy to see what a prominent position it holds to watch for aggressive sea raiders. The ride from Oban to Mull is scenic, skirting other Hebrides islands to arrive on the Eastern coast of Mull. A bus was waiting so a long line of us loaded our bags into the storage area and jumped aboard a very comfortable coach.
Travel on the backroads of Scotland is very different from American roads. Most people use public transportation so there are very few drivers vying for passage way. The roads are wide enough for maybe one and a quarter vehicles. This means that, as you see a car approaching you from the opposite direction, you make a quick decision about who is going to pull over into one of the designated “passing places”. Sometimes one person has to back up to a passing place so that each can then continue on their own journey. This obviously wouldn’t work if there was heavy traffic but there isn’t. Island residents jumped on and off the bus to get to appointments, jobs and social events. It wasn’t just for tourists. We were also held up at one point by a Highlander cow who was happily grazing along the side of the road. Our bus had to completely stop and yield to the reluctant response of the cow who was much more fixated on the grass than our huge vehicle. After 50 minutes through scenic territory we arrived at another port on the southwest side of the island. The final leg of the journey was a 10 minute ferry ride across to Iona.
The view from the ferry showcases a town that seems very small. The Abbey is the dominant structure and it stands clear from other homes and businesses that cluster around the port area. The evening I arrived I walked from my hotel, the Saint Columba, down to the port and beyond. It’s easy to get a sense of the community. While there are other parts of the island that are developed, the east coast is the destination for thousands of tourists each year. The ferry between the island of Mull and Iona runs frequently all day long, depositing literal boatloads of people to check out the shops, restaurants and natural beauty of the island. It is known primarily as a spiritual mecca and it was evident to me that a yearning for a Christian experience was what brought many people across the waters.
Historically there have been five churches on the east side of the island. The Abbey has morning and evening worship each day and many people visit specifically to participate in those services. There is a chapel among the ruins of a 13th-century nunnery where women served their God for several hundred years. In that same area stands the community church which was for the residents. The Abbey would have been the place for the monks to worship. Therefore those who lived on the island had their own small church where they lived out their Christian convictions. The Bishop’s House is a retreat center and it also houses a lovely chapel. I took a picture of the frontal that covers the altar. It is lovingly crafted to reflect the community in which these Christians serve. You’ll notice that there are sections depicting puffins, sheep, local flowers, and water. The central image is that of a boat whose mast forms a cross. One of the seat cushions on a Deacon’s Bench depicts a nautical scene. Life on Iona is directly impacted by the surrounding waters and the effect that the sea has upon their day-to-day experiences. To find this uniquely reflected in each parish is not surprising. Finally there is a congregation established in the 19th century that hosts a Church of Scotland congregation. Island visitors are warmly encouraged to attend worship at the three churches that still have intact buildings: the Abbey, the Bishop’s House and the Church of Scotland congregation.
In the three days that I was on Iona I attended three worship services at the Abbey. We sat in the choir loft area in upright wooden benches with high backs. The people spoke of major renovations that happened in the 1400s! It is still a work in progress with layers of history that surrounded us as we joined our songs and prayers to those who preceded us. The pianist sits in a loft area, perched above an ancient doorframe. She played beautiful and contemporary music from this archaic stage. The power of the Spirit at the Abbey is palpable. There are graves, statues of holy people and Christian symbols in every part of the monastic compound. Each generation has worked to renew the space and add their own symbolism.
The wind blows continually on Iona and that, perhaps, is the best image for the attraction to this untamed and beautiful place: the Holy Spirit has been a presence and blessing to Christian pilgrims ever since Saint Columba established a monastery in 563 A.D. He arrived by boat with 12 Godly men to serve as Christ’s disciples. Boatloads of us have been washing up on these shores ever since!