October 18, 2015

Scotland Day 2: Mull & Iona


Well, that was a longer break than I wanted to take. Apparently taking on roughly five major marketing projects and simultaneously losing the other half of one’s marketing team – all in one month – equals BAD. And 10-12 hour workdays. And then when the worst dies down, a very strong disinclination to do anything but eat homemade nachos and re-read the entirety of the Dresden Files.

I learn new things about myself all the time.

Luckily, the last major project is very nearly in the bag and I have managed to drag myself through my apathy and into a semblance of enthusiasm for life again. Also I finished my Dresden binge-ing, so I have no easy escape anymore.

For now.

I wanna kick a few posts up here before November, which is NaNoWriMo*, which means that I will be writing furiously in every spare moment and have no time for silly things like blogging or socializing or being a functional human being. So – CONFESSION! – to facilitate more timely posting this month, I stopped trying to be ambitious with culling my own photos from Dad’s bajillion RAW files and just stole the ones he’d already picked out, and then winnowed them down further and edited them a little bit more. Shameful, I know.

Now back to SCOTLAND.

We had to take two ferries to get out to Iona. From Oban, we crossed over to the Isle of Mull, passing by ridiculously picturesque ruins (CASTLES!) and lighthouses, of course.




During the bus ride to the other side of Mull, I experienced intense jealousy and also the first of many roadside encounters with adorable black-faced sheep.

Upon reaching Iona, birthplace of the Book of Kells, renowned for its peace and tranquility and rich monastic history, we began the all-important documentation of KITTIES. Because we know our priorities.

(I suspect that much like “ooh, CASTLES,” likewise “ooh, KITTIES!” will be a recurring theme here.)

So. The history of Iona is fascinating, and I highly recommend reading about it. I won’t attempt anything like an in-depth study of the subject here, because I might make mistakes and also because it would probably take a lot more of your time than perhaps you expected to be committing to this blog.

That said, here are two things I found interesting this time around:

1.) How it relates to my favorite historical stuff from the trip. (Here’s where my inner super-nerd is going to come out, by the way. I will desperately try to avoid turning this into a college history paper.)

As I mentioned last time, I think, the tour mostly focused on a few key eras: the late neolithic period (3600-ish to 3100-ish BC), the Iron age (800-ish BC to the Romans in the 1st century AD), and the early medieval Pictish kingdom (400-900 AD, roughly).*

So at first I wasn’t sure why we were visiting Iona, other than it being a popular stop for tourists, since the Book of Kells connection seems more related to Ireland than to Scottish archaeology, and the little abbey that stands there now is from the early 1200’s and later. But the roots of Iona (which is actually a misspelling of its original name, Ioua. Who knew?) go back to 563 AD**, when tradition says Irish monk St. Columba established it after being granted land by the king of the Scots, aka the Gaels, aka Dal Riata, the kingdom that was contemporary with the Picts. Aha, there’s the connection!

Also a connection to one of my favorite ‘historical fantasy’ series… but maaaybe I will talk about that later, when it becomes even more relevant to the Picts. Did I mention I am a huge nerd? I’m a huge nerd.

Ok, but anyway. The other thing I want to share about Iona is the thing that really gave me something to think about. Also feelings.

But first:

Scotland02-16 Scotland02-18 Scotland02-19

Now I actually want to be serious for a moment. (Weird, right?) Because Iona, true to its general promise, genuinely made me pause for contemplation. Maybe not in the way one would think…or maybe exactly in that way.

Ten years ago, the whole family went to Iona during that trip I mentioned in the Glasgow post. At that time, I was a very different person than I am now, and I got very different things out of the experience. Good things, but not the same.

Since then, my relationship with religion has changed. I don’t really see the need to go into much detail, but suffice it to say it’s become more complex – which I don’t actually consider to be a bad thing, by the way.

But it does mean that the strongest thing I felt about Iona actually caught me by surprise:

2.) The fact that Iona is still an active place of worship.

Scotland02-17 Scotland02-20

Remember that my relationship with religion, and particularly with historical Christianity, is complicated. So I was surprised at the rush of emotion I felt, seeing the evidence in every corner that Iona is still a living, thriving community of believers. People come stay in the cloisters for spiritual retreats. The little cathedral itself holds ecumenical Christian services. The Iona Community, which is partially responsible for restoring the church from ruins and definitely responsible for keeping it active as a spiritual center, has members from Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Catholic backgrounds, among others.

Regardless of my mixed feelings about Christianity and organized religion, there is something genuinely beautiful about this.

Maybe it’s the joy of seeing Iona Abbey still devoted to its intended use, well over a thousand years later (despite being abandoned for a stretch of time in the 9th century, not to mention being sacked repeatedly by Vikings). Maybe it’s the weight of history in its walls, in the ancient crosses standing outside, even in the earth beneath. In the tombs of others along the way who fought to keep Iona alive. In the writings of poets and authors through the centuries.


Maybe it’s all of these things put together that make it seem so magical.

Iona will mean different things to different people, I know. Last time I visited, I was obsessed with the Book of Kells and the stories of early medieval Irish Catholicism, owing mainly to that book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. (To be fair, I’m still fascinated by this.) I also desperately wanted to feel all the serenity, peace, and spiritual connection promised by the very concept of Iona. I don’t actually remember if I got exactly what I wanted, then.

But this time, I didn’t have any particular expectations going in.

So I am surprised – and pleased – by what Iona gave me.


*Believe it or not, I actually have those particular eras memorized now. I even looked them up to double-check, and maybe my numbers are much rougher but they hold up decently well. I guess if I encounter them often enough over a two-week period, something ends up sticking!

**I did have to look this one up. I knew it was *handwave* 500- or 600-something, but *handwave* isn’t good enough. Clearly.

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