Tuesday is the day for pilgrimage on Iona – and residents at the Mac and the Abbey are given the choice between the 5 Km on-road and 8 Km off-road versions. Spring has come late to Iona this year: the island is sodden, and would be pilgrims have been given health and safety warnings to minimise the risk of broken ankles and helicopter rescues. (There are no medical services on the island.)
At 10.15 the well-booted members of our group from the Mac gathered round the St Martin’s Cross outside the Abbey, joined by a good number of Abbey residents and a few other would-be pilgrims staying elsewhere on the island. Ready though we were for all kinds of weather, the sun was to shine kindly on us for nearly the whole of the journey, picking out the richly-coloured beauty of this island of saints.
The three leaders from the community gently kept us together on the route, and took turns at the various stops to lead brief moments of reflection. Starting at the nunnery, we remembered the forgotten women of history. As we climbed out of the village we reflected on our own communities at home – and learned a little about the practicalities of island life. Yes, there are times when the ferry simply cannot run – and yes, things like milk and vegetables do run out. At the crossroads we thought about corncrakes – the elusive birds whose harsh calls we hear everywhere, but which manage to remain hidden nearly all the time.
By now we were nearly at the macair, the rich common grazing ground on the west shore. We passed the hill where Columba was seen communing with angels, and then headed over the hills and around the loch before heading down into St Columba’s Bay. Here the saint and his disciples landed in 563, and, climbing the hill to check that they were finally out of sight of their beloved Ireland, burned their boats on the shore and set about founding a monastery. Our after-lunch reflection focused on the theme of letting go, and involved each of us going to the water’s edge and throwing in a chosen stone that signified all that we wished to leave behind us.
Making our way back the way we had come, we soon reached the maccair, where we met up with the road pilgrims and the community van which supplied us with hot tea and flapjacks. The off-road pilgrims now entered the hardest and muddiest section of the walk, which took us across the trackless north end of the island, stopping first at a magnificent viewpoint taking in sea, islands and mountains in all directions, and finally at the so-called hermit’s cell. While the sceptic may object that the cell looks far more likely to have housed sheep than saints, this is surely the area that Columba must have escaped to when the sounds and pressures of the monastery became too much to bear.
Pilgrims to Iona today may be neither saints nor hermits, but for many of us these few days of island life are proving a precious escape from over-cluttered lives. (For most of us there is no phone signal – and wifi is only obtainable at the pub.) We left the peace of the hermit’s cell and made our way back towards the village – our final stop at the Abbey being the St Oran’s Chapel. It has to be said that the strange tale we heard there about a saint buried alive who claimed to know nothing of the difference between heaven and hell made for a slightly bizarre ending to our pilgrimage. But if Iona is still, in George McLeod’s words, a “tissue thin place”, then maybe we today have learned better than Oran ever knew, through our own glimpse of heaven.