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The links my family have to Iona are long and intricate.
They go back to before I was born, and begin when my father was first a journalist and went over to the island to work on a story. I remember him telling me that at that time Gaelic was spoken every bit as much as English.
This was long before my mother had visited Iona for the first time; a long time before she and my father met. She was taken on holiday to Iona after suffering a sudden awful loss, and she experienced real healing over those days. It was shortly afterwards that she became a Christian and Iona her very real spiritual home.
It was natural that she should want to bring her family to this place that had become of such importance to her. My father was still writing, and many of his articles were about the West Coast and the islands. He found Iona too small and low-lying: I can remember his yearning to visit Mull and climb. So we certainly didn’t visit Iona every summer as some did: we’d be there perhaps every third year.
What I remember more than anything is the wonderful freedom of those times: getting up at five in the morning to open an unlocked door and running to explore one or other of the beaches. More than anywhere else I wanted to be on Columba’s Bay, hunting for precious polished pieces of serpentine.
But there was something else, something other about Iona that’s impossible to describe in words. I felt it then, at the age of four or five, and I feel it to this day when I’m back. It’s something that innumerable others have felt too. Iona has been described as a thin place, somewhere the gap between God and us is not so great. For me, that’s always meant poems have ‘happened’ more easily here. On many occasions I’ve gone to Iona feeling that somehow the well of words has run dry. I battle against the wind to Columba’s Bay, and by the time I’ve reached the last little glen before the thundering waves on the shore, words are returning.
There are other links to Iona. A close family friend from days in Perthshire, Joyce, Watson, ended up living on the island and becoming the parish priest. And my sister Helen, veteran campaigner and Quaker activist, was made Peace and Justice worker for the Iona Community.
So it was back in the summer of 2000 that my collection of poems, Iona, was published by Saint Andrew Press and launched on the island. A tiny fragment of one of my paintings was taken to create the cover. We probably shouldn’t do it, but the fact is we all do judge books by their covers, and I believe that has been one of the reasons for the collection’s success. It has gone on to sell some 10 000 copies, and the book’s still very much in print.
Since that time I’ve gone on to write a number of books with Iona at their heart: a novel set at the time of Columba, The Well of the North Wind. A non-fiction work, too, telling the stories of some of the many neglected corners of Iona, the places that few people find; a book put together with Highland photographer Iain Sarjeant – Iona, the other island.
But Iona is the one that really matters most to me, and the one I reckon always will.
Is this place really nearer to God? Is the wall thin between our whispers and his listening? I only know the world grows less and less – here what matters is conquering the wind, coming home dryshod, getting the fire lit. I am not sure whether there is no time here or more time, whether the light is stronger or just easier to see. That is why I keep returning, thirsty, to this place that is older than my understanding, younger than my broken spirit.