If St Columba hadn’t fallen out with everyone in Ireland, and taken what is reputed to have been a wrong turning, Christianity, the Scottish tourist industry and adolescent sexual awakening might have taken a similarly different route. As it is, the bad-tempered deity’s arrival on the inner Hebridean island of Iona with twelve companions in a coracle of their own making opened the floodgates to centuries of conflict, bloodshed, attempts at ecumenical reconciliation and numerous rounds of late-night fumbling, either in the island’s famous white sands, in the ruins of the allegedly haunted nunnery or worse. If it’s true that Iona resembles a kind of psychic Spaghetti Junction, where immoveable objects and irresistible forces clash in a spiritual tempest, Columba’s apparently ferocious charisma is the root cause of such highly-charged emotional outpourings.
Even today, without a coracle in sight, it’s an effort to get to Iona. From the start, it seems, Iona teaches you that nobody ever said it was going to be easy. Take a slow train to Oban, a Caledonian Macbrayne ferry across to Craignure on Mull, a bus across Mull to Fionnphort and you’re almost there. Since 1992, the small ferry that takes visitors on the ten minute journey across the mile-long Sound of Iona has been the MV Loch Buie, built by JW Miller and Sons in St Monans, Fife. The Loch Buie was named after a sea loch that bites deeply into southern Mull. With room on board for 250 passengers and nine cars (although only permit-holding residents are allowed to take cars onto the island), the Loch Buie replaced a boat that had been in service for years.
Of the 140,000 passengers the Loch Buie transports to and from Iona each year, some will stay at the island’s centerpiece, the rebuilt Iona Abbey, run by The Iona Community, the ecumenical Christian organisation founded by George MacLeod in 1938. Others will stay at one of two hotels on the island, in guest houses and cottages, or else just camp at the far end of the island. All, in one way or another, are pilgrims. Even the Japanese tourists on the big ferry that passes by twice a week in peak season, who run up the jetty, take a few pictures, then jump back aboard the ship, setting sail for the next whistle-stop port of call.
With such ongoing search for enlightenment, it’s no surprise to learn that, of the latter day prophets who’ve spent time in Iona, radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing was one such seeker. At one time, his books Do You Love Me? and Knots, playful versifications on relationships in dialogue form, were on sale at the Iona Abbey shop
A highlight on Iona during the summer months are the Village Hall dances. In the 1980s, they took place twice a week, though it was the Friday shindigs that brought together villagers, tourists and pilgrims for an event that started off polite enough, before often erupting into a Dionysian frenzy. The evening began in Gordon Grant’s bar, before a stagger to the hall for the night’s main event.
In the mid 1980s at least, the Village Hall playlist was both limited and redolent of the times. Careless Memories by Duran Duran and Laura Branigan’s Self Control – a pre-cursor, perhaps, to Nelly Furtado’s Maneater - were punctuated two or three times nightly by well-worn vinyl renditions of Eightsome Reels and Dashing White Sergeants where in classier joints a ceilidh band would do the honours. Slow dances were led by Cindi Lauper’s Time After Time, before things cranked up a gear via White Wedding by Billy Idol and Queen’s I Want To Break Free – with a break that was a dead ringer for the melody of Kelly Marie’s syn-drum friendly Feels Like I’m In Love.
All of these synthetic stomp-alongs were just an extended warm-up for Come On Eileen, on which one-time young soul rebels Dexy’s Midnight Runners, then in their dungareed-up raggle-taggle commercial glory, combined a yarn of pubescent yearning with an anthemic sing-a-long chorus and a secondhand rustic folksiness. Combined, all the elements that made a Village Hall dance so hormonally charged were captured in a way that songs never played at the dances, but which couldn’t exist without them, like Peace of Iona by mike Scott and The Waterboys and Iona by The Skids.
Afterwards, under the light of the full moon, or even better if it was winter and you were lucky, Aurora Borealis, anything could happen, and often did. Back at someone’s cottage, in the Abbey grounds, in the ruined nunnery or in the sand, intoxicated with whisky, beer or just lust, knickers were dropped and virginities lost to the heat of the moment and the most perfect of prayers come true.
Iona is commonly misconceived as a retreat. In fact, such are the energies at play there that it is more of a confrontation, with the self, divided or otherwise, as much as anything. To a backdrop of endless late night discussions on politics and theology and common room concerts where disparate cultures share their beliefs through poetry and song, a million one night love affairs have been played out in Iona. There is even a condom machine these days, so no need to pick up a supply in Oban anymore.
For some, Iona is a passing phase, a once in a lifetime stopping off point before real life begins. For others, Iona is a spiritual home and a way of life. Marriages have been consummated there, babies conceived and born there, and lives changed forever.
Leaving Iona is a different experience entirely to arriving. On the jetty it’s like the end of summer camp. Addresses are swapped and promises are made to be friends forever. Sometimes these promises are kept. Blame St Columba’s bad temper, the wrong turning that took him ten minutes from Heaven, and a coracle that led him astray on the greatest of adventures.
Commissioned by Talitha Koetz for a publication to accompany Salt Water, a group exhibition at The Tall Ship, Glasgow, that ran from April 16th to June 20th 2010 as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. The only brief for the writers was to base a text on a piece of marine iconography. This was one of three texts submitted, but wasn't used. To be honest, I don't think I knew as much about it as I thought I did. I still quite like it, though.