The morning opened – a new story, crisp and smelling of promise.
The pancakes at Staffa House B&B were not like those at home – three dainty, fluffy things served with a lovely compote of field berries and, mercifully, none of the fake syrup they suffer in these maple-deprived lands…
I shared the breakfast table with a woman from South Africa, originally from Brussels, who was happy to be able to speak French with me. When I replied to her queries, saying I didn’t really know why I had come to Iona – that I had simply been called there, she teared up. “I wish I could tell people that. If I told my husband I was called here, he’d think I was crazy! But that is the truth – I was called, too…”
Hmmm. I wonder how many of us on Iona this Autumn Equinox were pulled by an inner voice? And why…? I was relieved to not feel I had to know.
I’d booked a trip that morning to the island of Staffa, and would be dropped off later on Iona. Gillian had suggested I take the Iolaire – I was to meet the boat at about 10 a.m. down
by the jetty. Sheep scattered along the road as I exited the gate of Staffa House, and settled on the grass by the jetty parking spaces – to watch the flux and flow of odd tourists, no doubt.
Another boat arrived first – new and shiny with two young crew members, it was flooded with a multicultural wave of visitors, then ceded its place to the Iolaire. Smaller and older, she is a jewel of a boat, manned by a congenial pair of …50-somethings..? who shepherded the rest of us left on the jetty to benches around the vessel.
The skies were clear and brilliant blue, but the seas were very rough, and my fellow passengers were soon throwing up, right and left. I was grateful to be spared. One of the
people who was sick was the owner of a sweet, serious Rumanian rescue dog named Basil. I offered to take his leash when he nervously headed to lie down further inside the boat – he was worried about his mistress, but I think he was feeling queasy himself.
Davey skillfully landed us on Staffa (the other boat attempted before us but was unable), where I picked my way with the others around to Fingal’s Cave. In Victorian times, it seems that orchestras were brought into this cave to take advantage of its acoustics for the listening pleasure of elite audiences. I did a tobacco offering to this place my friend Catherine calls “the lungs of the world”, quietly singing a prayer, then making my way out to clambour to the top of the small island and look around.
What I felt most, strangely, on that seemingly isolated piece of rock and inside the Cave with its hexagonal pillars of stone, was the profound connection of all things. Honeycomb shapes were everywhere, resonant of six-sided carbon – the present basis of terrestrial life-forms. The Scottish Highlands glowed white and gold in the distance…. Staffa is made of the same formations as the Giants’ Causeway in Ireland, and a part of the oldest rock exposed on the planet, that stretches to Scotland and the Canadian Shield. The story of my mother’s people, Scots and Irish becoming Canadian, joined on Staffa and in my body….
I snapped out of my meditation, realised there was no one else around, and scampered, slipping in my bare feet on the wet mud and rock, back to the boat. I was the second-to-last back, thankfully… The crew opened to my questions about the glowing mountain in the distance – it was Ben Nevis, they told me, in reverential tones. Where was I intending to go on Iona? Aaaah…and do you know the way to get to St. Columba’s Beach? I was told how to recognise Columba’s Tears – the green translucent bits of serpentine that can still be found there and are said to protect from drowning. A beautiful, clear specimen was pulled out of Davey’s pocket, given me to hold in a gesture of trust that brought tears from my heart. “Good luck”, he said, and I felt I’d been blessed.
When we were landed on Iona, I made my way dutifully toward the Abbey. After taking one turn that landed me past a small chapel and into a field, and another that brought me to a cairn commemorating the gift of Iona from the Hugh Fraser Foundation to the National Trust of Scotland, my phone/camera died, and I realised that I really didn’t want to go to the Abbey, however de rigueur it seemed. It was such a strong realisation, when I was no longer able to photograph my surroundings, that I had been doing so with a sense of dutifully sending images back home to our Community. I then understood that I needed to focus on the experience and allow myself to be guided from within.
I’d been looking at the Abbey from afar and a variety of vantage points – it felt to me that it has no energy left to it. It’s as if it has been spiritually and energetically decommissioned. The women’s abbey/convent, on the other hand, still radiates the energetic calm of the Augustinian nuns (“to sing once is to pray twice” Qui cantat, bis orat ) before they fled the rampages of the Reformation. The faint remains of a Sheela-Na-Gig are left carved on the southern wall, reminding us still of the creative power of women…of our bodies….
My body, on the other hand, was starting to cause me grief. As I began my trek across the island, a deep weariness came upon me – it was as if every joint and bone shaft were creaking and painful under some huge weight. Doubts of all kinds arose: Why was I here, anyway? Why was I feeling so awful? Am I in that bad shape? Was I even physically capable of walking to the end of the island and back?
Aha… Where were these feelings coming from? It was when I stepped back to observe the thoughts and sensations that I could actually feel them moving from my cells. The Land was calling hidden memories that began to flow, tributaries into a roaring flood.
I was walking with a multitude – waves of disheartened, powerless and terrified, chased from this land and taking their blood to a New World… * First there were monks fleeing pillaging Vikings, then others, escaping the rage of the Reformation.
“The road will turn and you’ll come to a gate. Go through it, over the machair, and you’ll find Camus Cuil an t-Saimh – the Bay at the Back of the Ocean.” Carried by many voices, I came to the shoreline and the water that stretches unimpeded to the edge of North America. I saw Scots being herded off their land in the Clearances, Irish loaded like firewood into ships, and then they all melted into waves of uprooted humanity of every colour and culture.
I didn’t feel I could stop here long…. “Follow the fence , pass in front of a white house, then the Loch on the right, and you’ll come to a crack in the hills. Go through it to Columba’s Beach.”
I walked through time…through the Ages. All sense of Self dissolved, I saw my feet bare and bloodied, then shorn with reed sandals, then with rough leather. Each step brought more image-sensations – more strange pain. Present-time walkers of all ages, speaking a handful of different languages and obviously not enjoying the same sort of experience as I, passed me easily as the rough pathway continued by the house and the loch, then through the hills. I recognised plants along the way with joy and surprise – dandelion, plantain, lady’s mantle, celandine…old friends, reassuring me.
There is a labyrinth as well as glyphs that have been made of stones in the machair just before the second beach in Columba’s Bay. The beach itself is a wonder – I have never seen such a varied assortment of stones – each one with different colours, wildly patterned. I felt there was a stone here representing every person on the planet – each one unique and spectacularly beautiful. I chanted prayers and wept in wonder as I combed the beach and picked up a few green stones, looking for Columba’s tears….
A sudden panic came over me, and I felt I had to get back to the ferry immediately. As completely illogical as this was – I knew the last ferry wasn’t until 6:30, and by the sun I figured it couldn’t be much later than 4 p.m.- I began retracing my steps. From the beach I could see there was a shortcut up the hill which I took only to find myself sinking into wet muck. Brambles raking at my skin and clothing, I cut across to rejoin the main path and proceeded on my stumbling way. A strong wind came up, mercifully at my back, egging me onward. I was no longer alone. The wind, the land, the birds and the sea were all sustaining me.
I arrived back at the jetty just in time for the 5 p.m. ferry, and as the skies turned black and the wind began to roar. By the time the ferry docked in Fionnphort, the skies had opened and the Isle of Iona had disappeared in the storm. I hobbled along so slowly that all the passengers had swarmed past and the ferry had long since left for safe harbour by the time I made it to Staffa House, in more physical pain than I ever remember experiencing. After a hot bath, I collapsed into sleep.
Waking the next morning with only a vague aching in my hips, I wondered whether any of it had really happened….
Blessèd Be.. Dawn
- The bus driver from Fionnphort to Craignure was a wonderful woman who expressed her horror that the same Scots whose land had been stolen and who had been victims of persecution, sailed across the ocean to do the same things to the native people of the Americas…It is so difficult for the abused to not turn to abuse… I told her the story of Prince Henry Sinclair, who sailed to Nova Scotia in 1398, was welcomed as a brother by the Mi’qma, and never betrayed their trust…But that’s another story!