I have two traditional tea towels from the isle of Iona, a small island just off the coast of Mull, in the Hebrides. The first is a simple design of a goose, the Celtic symbol for the Holy Trinity, with an edging of Celtic knots. The second is another simple sketch, this time of Iona Abbey. I first went to Iona in 1999 when I was staying in Oban and have been back many times since but I have never actually stayed there. It is so easy to get to Iona these days. If you are staying in the Oban area or on Mull, a trip to Iona is at the courtesy of CalMac. Iona is also often the stopping off point for many smaller cruises; I have been to Iona by all these routes. Looking at both tea towels conjures up some wonderful memories. Firstly, I have never been to Iona in bad weather; whatever season, the sun has shone, there has been a gentle warm breeze. This has not been about good planning but rather good luck; bad weather would not have stopped me but somehow the weather has always added a little something to the beauty of Iona. Secondly, Iona gives me a sense of peace and tranquillity. With a permanent population of about 175, and with nearly half a million tourists passing through Iona each year, you would think that tranquillity would be an inappropriate word to use but it is always possible to land on Iona and get away from everyone else if you want to. You can choose the hillsides, coastal paths, paddling on the beaches or inland; topography, culture or history. You can sense why Iona has been a place of pilgrimage and contemplation.
I am always surprised that the history of Iona is not quite as I expect. Iona has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland since 1979 but the sacred buildings and sites were given to the Church of Scotland Iona Cathedral Trust in 1899. Iona has been inhabited at least since the Iron Age but its main association has been with St Columba, an Irish prince who came over in 563AD with 12 companions, at the age of 42. Columba founded a monastery and turned Iona into a place of pilgrimage and Christian learning, renown throughout Europe. He died in 597 and was apparently buried on Iona, although the whereabouts of his remains have been questioned. With that sort of history you would expect the island to be littered with religious relics; this is not really the case because unfortunately Iona was subject to numerous Norse raids causing widespread destruction and considerable pillaging. It started in 795 when the original monastery was destroyed because it was made out of wood, mud, wattle and thatch so was easy to burn to the ground. This was followed by attacks in 798, 802, 806 (when 68 monks were murdered), 825, 849 (when the version of the Book of Kells, that is now held in Dublin, disappeared). In 986, the Abbott and 15 monks were killed. In 1203, a new monastery and abbey for Benedictine monks was built on the site of the earlier monastery and an Augustinian nunnery was also completed. The present Catherdral was built in 1500s. During the Reformation, 360 stone crosses were smashed. With such destruction, on a tiny island, it is no wonder that there isn’t more well preserved artefacts. By 1549, Iona was supposedly the resting place of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings, although that may also be part of the mythology associated with Iona as a holy place.
People’s feelings about Iona are varied. Walter Scott described Iona as “desolate and miserable”. On the other hand, William Wordsworth wrote 3 sonnets about Iona in 1838. It was the favourite place of John Smith, former Labour Party leader, a place where he found peace and requested that he be buried there. One of the delights of Iona is that there are no cars but then it is a tiny island, one mile wide and four miles long; the highest point is Dun I, an Iron Age fort 331 feet above sea level; from the top you can see across the sea to Skye, well worth the walk.
But there are other reasons to visit Iona – craft workshops, shell sands that are clean and white, the 15th Century 3 metre high MacLean Cross, the graveyard, St Oran’s Chapel, the Church of St Ronan which is now a museum, the Community Shop and the lovely tea room (you can’t miss a great tea room and I remember the fantastic scones). The air of tranquility that surrounds Iona makes you want to just wander around and contemplate, meditate and absorb the beauty. I remember going to the Community Shop and buying a delightful pair of earrings painted with poppies.
Iona may not be a big place but whenever I am in the Oban area I would want to go back to Iona. I have been to Lindisfarne on several occasions, another place steeped in Christian history, yet Iona does not have that sense of commercialism that Lindisfarne has, which is what draws me back. I love Iona and using these tea towels brings back all my memories.
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