Above – painting at the North end of Iona, 2018
Place-names can tell you so much about the history of a place. If you find an old enough map of the Isle of Iona you can see that, tiny though the island is (three by one and a half miles) it has been inhabited by people for thousands of years.
Cnoc an Oran, for example – ‘hill of song’ in Scottish Gaelic, or Sìthean Mòr – ‘hill of the angels’ as it’s translated, though Sìthean also translates as ‘fairies’. Back in about 500AD when an exiled Irish prince, St. Columba (or Collum Cille as he was known) arrived here to set up a religious community, he would have encountered the ancient remains of previous dwellers going back to the iron and bronze ages. Iona has always been a an important spiritual place.
Known as ‘The Dove’ Collum Cille seems to have been anything but! (Maybe this was an early example of sarcasm). He banned women from the island, saying; wherever there are cows there are women and wherever there are women there’s trouble, or words to that effect. He was known as a powerful political negotiator across Scotland. ‘You wouldnae mess wi him’ as Scots might say!
He did set up a Benedictine Monastery though, and an Abbot of the abbey, named Adomnán, wrote of the miracles conducted by Collum Cille, which included facing down a sea monster (it’s since been speculated that it was in fact Nessie).
I first visited Iona in my early twenties seeking, I suppose, spiritual understanding. I did find it a deeply affecting place, which is why I’ve returned so many times since then. On that first trip, I visited the craggy south end of the island, where the rusting machinery remains of an 18th century marble quarry still exist.
The beautiful lucent white marble is streaked with deep grass-green serpentine and it made the perfect material for the alter that was created for the abbey in the early 1900’s when the abbey was restored. For hundreds of years, children of the island have sold little pebbles of the sea-washed marble to visitors for luck, they still do today.
On my first visit though, I decided to take a slightly larger piece, about 4×5 inches – a large chip from the marble quarry cuttings. It has travelled everywhere with me, you could say it’s been ‘my rock’! Though I think it’s time for me to return it to its home on Iona by way of a ‘thank you’ for everything the island has given me.
It sounds trite or contrived in the usual way of island sayings, when you read that ‘Iona always gives you what you need’, but I’ve found that to be true. There was the sense of spiritual discovery and wonderment in landscape in the first place- an inspiration for me to paint landscape – as well as the more difficult times when I’ve been struggling with life and visited the island to contemplate.
Contemplation sounds peaceful but those visits were turbulent in a variety of ways. For example the time I spent 21 days in a tent by myself, feeling that I needed a break from noise and people. In fact it made me deeply appreciate people since my main companions for those 21 days were spiders, a drove of slugs crawling over my tent, midges, a corncrake whose harsh mating call kept me awake half the night, and a team of baa-ing sheep who decided that my airing sleeping bag was a good place to urinate. (That’s a stench that never washes out, the sleeping bag was indeed a wash-out after that!)
Luckily the campsite owner had a stash of beautiful wool-lined sleeping bags and didn’t bat an eye when I told him of my predicament, lending me one of these for the rest of my stay.
There was also the time I stayed there in the wintry months, as part of an artist’s residency project. During that fortnight I shared a dwelling space with some very troubled people. Iona attracts pilgrims from across the world who desperately seek healing for emotional or physical wounds. It’s not easy to deal with that sometimes and I found that the atmosphere, combined with a few of the demons of my past, haunted me for months to come.
On the other hand, each day brought blessings: the endless beauty and colours of the landscape, the turbulent energy and colours of the tide changing at twilight, which inspired a series of paintings titled October Tide, then there were fellow creatives who arrived with songs, music and ideas, and new friendships …
Mary McCormick, a grounded and unassuming women in her 70’s from the American mid west, was someone who observed without judgement or drama. She loved to collect small pebbles from her daily walks, pour them into a little dish and invite us to admire them, sharing her photos of the day with residents around the kitchen table. If the conversation veered into turbulent waters, she’d succinctly say her piece with calming compassion and just leave it there, resonating with understated wisdom.
One day we walked to Sìthean Mor, ‘The Hill of Angels/Fairies’ and she said that she’d heard in a book that you had to listen here for nature, or God, or for whatever beliefs you had, to give you an important message. I stood for a while, watching a wash of slate grey cloud blowing across a dazzling blue sky – it looked like a painting in progress – and the phrase ‘You are meant to enjoy it’ came to mind.
Afterwards we dropped in to the Columba Hotel and I told Mary about the troubled thoughts that had been stirred up by time spent on the island this time and the company, or demands as I felt, of emotionally troubled people. I’d felt so upset I’d taken to hiding in my room in the evenings, worried that I’d affect others with my mood, that I was ‘losing it’. Mary immediately exclaimed ‘Oh, no Rose! ..’ jumping up from her place next to the log fire and coming over to hug me, ‘You’re the most grounded person here, you’ve been a friend during my time here’. My worries felt washed away. We’ve stayed friends since then of course, though Mary is now back in the US, writing, exploring grasslands of the Midwest and finding opportunities to be involved in her main occupation of landscape gardening.
During the residency I’d been reading the poems of Virgil, and on my return I began to explore Medieval philosophy, which led to a new series of paintings about the planets as understood in Medieval cosmology. It was an incredibly enriching time when I read Planet Narnia by the author Michael Ward, which explores the planetary influence in the works of C.S. Lewis.
I found that contemplating the influence of each planet changed me. Working through the ideas connected with Saturn for example – winter, introspection, hard lessons, death … (my dad had died just two years before) during the months of December and January 2018, led to a new understanding of how to live life – you’re meant to enjoy it.
Spring arrived at the same time that I was painting Jupiter, which alligns with the change from winter to spring – winter passed, guilt forgiven as C.S. Lewis writes in his Planets poem on the subject of Jupiter – and with it a new relationship.
Last year my partner Adam presented me with an engagement ring that he’d designed himself, made with a small piece of the Ionian marble (my rock, that I’d found on my first trip to Iona in the early 90s!) After celebrating, we discussed where we’d like to get married, but each idea was fraught with planning troubles – we wanted to get married in the countryside, but how would we bring all our relatives from different parts of Britain to the celebration?
In the end, it made most sense for just the two of us to go away to get married, what’s known these days as ‘an elopement wedding’. It was Adam who suggested the obvious – ‘how about Iona?’ I was struck by the fact that I was surprised (and delighted) by the idea. Back in my twenties I’d thought to myself ‘I’d like to get married here, if I ever get married’. Somehow that dream had been buried in the back of my mind until Adam took the idea out, gave it a dust and – there it was!
And so we’ll be in Iona this May (the green, fertile month of love, art and expression, as understood in Medieval cosmology). Inspiration for my next series of paintings. I’m going to take my Iona rock back to the south end of the island and leave it there as a thank you to Iona.
I hope someone else discovers it, and that it brings them enjoyment … C.S Lewis says it better than I can:
“Meditation in a Toolshed”
By C. S. Lewis.
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The
sun was shining outside and through the crack at
the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From
where I stood that beam of light, with the specks
of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in
the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black.
I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my
eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture
vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no
beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny
at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the
branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd
million miles away, the sun. Looking along the
beam, and looking at the beam are very different
And from ‘Surprised by Joy’, C.S.Lewis:
In other words, the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning round to look at the hope itself. (…) The surest way of spoiling a pleasure was to start examining your satisfaction. But if so, it followed that all introspection is in one respect misleading. In introspection, we try to look ‘inside ourselves’ and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately, this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment for the activities themselves.