This is an extended post reflecting on the week in Iona. Read on if you want to find out what we did for a week on a small Hebridean island.
It’s not immediately straightforward to get to Iona, when you start from our B&B in North Queensferry. Our day’s journey started early with a taxi ride to Edinburgh Waverley, and then a train to Glasgow Queen Street (not to be confused, as many people do, with Glasgow Central, an altogether different train station in an altogether different place). With our bags piled around us, we had a little while to collect supplies for the next train trip, and to play the game of “who else here is going to Iona.” The late-middle-aged single American women with loud voices and Celtic crosses were very easy to spot. As was John Bell (we’d met him on one of his visits to Australia). We were less sure of others, but it turned out that lots of people on the train were heading to retreat on Iona, like us. The rest of the trip was a long train journey west to Oban, a ferry from Oban to Craignure on Mull, a bus across Mull to Fionnphort and then a ferry to Iona. We got there in mid-afternoon, having left just after six in the morning. That’s good going, considering the distance we travelled.
The island itself is small and quiet, dark in the evenings (no streetlights) and filled with history. It’s rugged, windswept, with noticeably variable weather, with skies as clear as a bell one day, and cloudy, windy drizzly on the next. (It was also a week of no internet connections, though I could have logged on to an internet terminal had I really wanted to.) But the island is not really far away from it all. The outside world intrudes as are ferryloads of visitors disgorged onto the little island each day. There are daytrippers, weeklong retreaters like us, and longer-term volunteers, workers on the community, and the residents. Wherever you go, there the twenty-first century intrudes.
The community sites on the island are the work of the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community that runs two retreat centres on the island. The life in the community revolves around regular worship in the Abbey: 9am each day, afternoons and 9pm, and different programs are run each week on different themes.
We stayed in the MacLeod Centre, which caters for families. We were a part of a group of around fifty, parents, kids, singles, old and young. Our week involved exploring the visual arts, with Stephen Raw, who lead us in workshops which managed to teach us some of the finer points of lettering, artistic expression, interpersonal skills of empathy and interpretation, memory, creativity, the relationship between individuals and a larger community, and many other things besides. Our artworks were to make a nametag in pencil for a partner (Sunday) the painting of a single word (Monday), a painting of a single letter (Wednesday) to contribute to a large artwork for use in the service on Thursday night and Friday morning, and an artistic “installation” (Thursday) concerning a word/concept.
The word for Monday’s exercise was chosen on the basis of a conversation with a partner about what we had thought about coming to Iona. We then had to paint the word, and when we went off on an excursion to the island of Staffa (and Fingal’s Cave), Stephen and other people staying at the centre had them put up in the dining room and other places around the building.
I enjoyed the process of painting the word “rest”. I chose some dark grey paper (with a slightly reflective surface) and dark blue, purple and black paints for the letters. I wanted a grey wash over the word to complete the sleepy/restful effect. We were painting with pretty strong acrylic paints, and it wasn’t obvious how to get the grey wash. I asked Judy, the craft worker at the centre, and she found some silver powder paint that looked like it had been unused for years. I mixed it up in a very watery way, and it provided an interesting wash effect, but it didn’t seem quite what I wanted. As we were talking about how to get just the right effect Stephen then came up with an idea – why not take the painting (appoximately 1.5 metres square) on the boat trip to Staffa, and put it in the water there? This would make the paint run, but it would make the wash run much more than the words, which were painted in acrylic. The doing would also be something to remember.
So we rolled up the painting (once it was dryish) and off on the boat we went. Staffa and Fingal’s cave were stunning (the island is a part of the same rock formation as the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, with distinctive hexagonal rock formations), and after walking through the cave (in which the sound of the sea is the most ringing memory), with canvas in hand I traipsed down to water’s edge (at a point where the drop was not too precipitous, and where I could see the Abbey on Iona on the horizon), unrolled the paper and let the sea have its way with it. The “baptism” completed, we spread it out to dry off some of the water but we eventually had to go to explore some of the rest of the island. So, we folded up the painting, and let it stew in a plastic bag while we climbed to the top of the island.
Only when we got back (with a tired Zachary, and a slightly seasick Christine, as the boat’s return to Iona was on a rising swell) we unfolded it and saw the effect. It was great! The silvery grey had run and the water had left a distinctive feathery pattern, and I had a painting that not only expressed a thought but bears marks not only from its maker but also the place in which it was made.
There’s more to say about Iona, but it’s already too late this afternoon. I’m off to do some grocery shopping and to cook dinner. I’ll write more and post about the rest of the week when I’m on the net later.