Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Mull, Iona and Ulva

Iona Abbey
Nine days of relaxation on three of our favourite islands is hardly an appropriate way to train for a long, hilly race. I've a feeling I might suffer a little in the forthcoming Keswick ½ marathon on May 1st. Nevertheless, there are other things to enjoy in this short span besides running and racing and I intend taking my fill while I'm still in a fit state to do so. The islands in question were those of Mull, Ulva and Iona that form part of the Inner Hebrides off the western seaboard of Scotland.
'Crucifixion' by Roy de Maistre
I've returned to Iona on a regular basis ever since living and working there way back in 1949. My goodness, how it has changed over the years! The people I worked for, Neil MacArthur and his wife, Ena, are long since dead but a daughter, Jeanetta, still works the little farm at Clachanach and was tending to an early lamb when I met her for a chat. She loves Iona, the farm and the way of life, but is seriously considering reducing her stock and winding down on account of the ridiculous amount of paperwork she is legally bound to do.
I joined worshippers from across the globe for a stirring Easter day service and Holy Communion in Iona Abbey.  Many had started their walk on the mainland and trekked all the way across Mull to the sacred isle. Over the years it has become traditional for pilgrims to gather in Reilig Oran, reputed burial place of 48 Scottish kings (and John Smith, once Labour party leader), to sing and celebrate the resurrection before their short march to the Abbey amid a chorus of Allelujahs. The preacher was the Rev Peter MacDonald, leader of the Iona Community, who delivered his sermon to a packed congregation, scores of whom were standing in the aisle. I left this service with my spiritual batteries well and truly re-charged. 
Washing at 'The well of Eternal Youth'
Outside the Abbey a corncrake was rasping to his fellow creatures but his vocabulary was somewhat limited.  We walked up Dun I which, at a mere 321ft, is the highest hill on Iona and quite manageable for most senior citizens. The views from here are truly magnificent and I've toyed with the idea of my final remains being scattered around its summit. But which of my relatives or friends would be willing to make the long trek to perform this ritual?  And besides, if I continue to bathe in The Well of Eternal Youth, just below the summit, I may well outlive that chosen one!
On some mornings we did a little running at an easy, relaxed pace. None of your strenuous speedwork, intervals or hill reps. Our legs were on holiday too.  On Mull we ran along the shore of Loch na Keal to the soothing sounds of the waves, of wild geese and, would you believe, an early cuckoo on April 18th. 
Cheers! - from Ulva
On Ulva we jogged along velvety green trails lined with primroses and violets, where peacock butterflies danced and bumble bees buzzed in the gentle breeze, and all this as seals sang their moany songs on sunlit skerries while herons stalked the seaweed shoreline. In the afternoons we walked the hills in the realm of ravens and deer, watched an eagle drop from his cliff and go sailing off over the headland, saw a peregrine seeing off marauding crows, spied a colony of wild black and white goats inhabiting a small island and wondering where they found water to drink, sent an adder scurrying off into the heather and photographed early orchids.
A sunset to match the wine
In the evenings we relaxed by our tent with a glass of wine, red wine that vied with the flaring sunsets that lit the western skies as evening dissolved into night. In our sheltered bay the tide crept in and went out again without a sound. The birds fell silent and, apart from the occasional splash of a visiting grey seal, all was peaceful and quiet.
As I said, there is more to life than running and racing - though I may well revise that statement after Sunday's ½ marathon.

Some years ago I picked up a pebble in St Columba's Bay that inspired me to write the following poem which I think is appropriate to copy here.


Gem hunters, I suppose, would call you semi-precious
Or little more than a bauble of common marble
Green-veined with serpentine
The like of which litter the pebbled shores
Of many a far-flung Scottish isle.

Yet on a day
When white horses came cantering into Columba's Bay
You were the one in a million shining stone
That leapt into my hand, sun-bleached,
Tumbled and polished by aeons of breaking tides -
Fair fragment of Iona.

How do you value the wind
Whispering through the marram on white dunes,
Gulls mewing in the Hebridean blue
Or skulking corncrakes rasping out their joy
In meadows thick with summer flowers?

Bright stone,
You are the whole shimmering isle in magic microcosm,
The Bay at the Back of the Ocean,
Spouting caves and seals singing on black skerries
That rise, fall and rise again in the green swell.
You are litanies of lilting Gaelic -
Traigh Ban nam Manach, Eilean Chalbha,
Sithean, Port na Curaich and Traigh Mor -
You are wild thyme exploding in purple pools
On banks of sweet machair.
You are the bell booming in the granite tower,
The green goblet of the Eucharist,
Candles guttering on grey walls,
Chanting and bowed heads -

Bowed heads
Washed in Holy blood and each of them praying
That they too, like you, might be
The one in a million shining stone
On the long beach
Of eternity.



  1. What a beautiful Abbey! Are Mull, Ulva and Iona catholic islands? In my house I've a picture like 'The Crucifixion' which was made by an Italian painter.

    Scottish islands offer a wonderful environment and I hope to visit them. You really wrote an interesting report about Ulva with its green scenery. Congrats for the nice photo of the sunset. I know that it isn't easy to take those photos.
    I wouldn't mind a glass ot that red wine :)

    Thanks for sharing the poem and enjoy your Keswick's half marathon on May 1st.

  2. Gorgeous post RF, and lovely poem. Thank you for re-igniting my desire to visit those lovely isles.

  3. I love it!!! You are such a gifted writer! This post has brought a smile to my face and put joy in my heart:) You will forever be my English poet. Thanks for sharing the lovely pictures and poems!