Monday, July 21, 2008

Iona, The Inner Hebrides, Scotland



Just getting to the sacred isle of Iona was strewn with so many hurdles that it made going on pilgrimage seem like a piece of cake. After a few untimely mishaps in Oban, we missed the early CalMac ferry to the Hebridean Isle of Mull. We missed it because Neil was overtired from his music gig the night before at Markie Dan's Pub in the basement of the four-star SYHA hostel, the Victorian Corran House.

And like a foundered horse, Neil O'Neill just couldn't get up to speed. No amount of carroty bribes or verbal threats would move him. It wasn't just the craic and the free beer or the amazing variety of scotch to choose from, or dancing with Anne, or jammin' with his old friend, Louis Barrow, that wore him out.

He was at cross-purposes with himself—being both long in tooth and long in jaw. Too much gift of the gab. And a good time was had by all. A real ceili that went on into the wee hours. Whereas I was just plain old cross as a bear. Next morning, even at top dead speed, Neil ONeill, the man so nice they named him twice, was in slo-mo. And that was that.

The tourist resort and fishing village of Oban, in Argyleshire, smack dab in the middle of the whisky trail, is also the leaping off point to the Gateway to the Isles. With incredible sweeping views of the Inner Hebrides, the Isle of Kerrera (where Alexander II of Scotland died), and the mountains of Mull, the Oban waterfront has it all. A picturesque horseshoe harbor, and a waterfront, with rainbow-hued houses much like the Hebridean villages of Tobermory or Bonnie Portree, but on a grander scale, Oban has its share of towers and castles too—even a Victorian folly replica of the Roman Coliseum looms on the horizon.

There is nothing more desolate than hearing the departure whistle of the ferry you're supposed to be on. No ferry tickets were left for the next sailing two hours later either. It was full up. Which meant visiting both Mull and Iona were out of the question. To have come this far and be thwarted by time and circumstance, was testing what little self-control I had left. I was feeling positively gladatorial. My Irish was up. And there's no putting it back switch. Must've been a combination of the whisky vapors and the coliseum on the hill spurring me on to a full-blown tantrum.

But we got a last minute (re-)prize, or rather (sur)prise ferry tickets from Anne, a local fairy godmother, who was good at pulling in strings and had a few local favors due. With the help of the incredible, the inimitable and stately Anne McDonald, proprietor with her daughter, of the Corran House Hostel, who was a former teacher from the Isle of Mull, and friend to actors—we managed to squeeze in a mad overnight jaunt to the holy isle of Iona.

Anne found us sitting like stunned birds in our rental car, ensconced in the ferry wait-listed Godot lane, in utter despair. The air was thick with disappointment. We missed the boarding cutoff by three cars. I brushed aside my tears and flagellated: if only Neil had gotten it together sooner.... Not being able to board the ferry was like a body blow. Our last hopes had vanished, sunk like a stone to the bottom of the harbor of regret.

But Anne came up to the car, smartly rapped on the window, and handed us the coveted ferry tickets—which we couldn't purchase for love or money. She said we'd have to pretend we were residents—a little hard to pull off in a rental car. But everyone kindly looked the other way. Anne was truly a guardian angel. I was sad to see her go. It was like leaving family behind on a distant shore. But the ferry was boarding. They waved us on.

We were elated. The ferry ride from Oban on the Firth of Lorn, to the Isle of  Mull, second largest of the Inner Hebridean islands, was amazing and postcard scenic. The passage takes about 45 minutes and you pass very close by Duart Castle, the oldest inhabited castle on Mull, home of the 28th Chief of Clan MacLean. The quintessentially Scottish Duart Castle was featured in Entrapment (1999) with Sean Connery (a Maclean on his mother's side) and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I stood on the tallest deck of the ferry and spread my wings—a nylon windbreaker—and I was transported, or  rather, momentarily airborne. I was hovering over the deck like a big black bird in the gale winds sweeping unfettered down the Lynn of Lorn, Loch Linnhe. We passed a lighthouse on Eilean Musdile guarding the southern tip of low-lying Lismore island (the great garden isle), once a major center of Celtic Christianity. Oddly, where the water is still on the leeward side, the 1883 lighthouse that replaced the standing stone that once marked the winter solstice, looks like a stripped down version of the Taj Mahal.

The ferry ride was too soon over. I wanted to sail on up the passage to Skye and the Isle of Lewis. But Mull was the gateway to Iona. We landed at the wee village of Craignure (little more than a wide spot in the road) on Mull's eastern shore, and headed south on a country road. We passed the entrance to Duart Castle. Incredible jeweled finger bays off the Firth of Lorne, sheltered coves. It was like being in Northern California and in the tropics at the same time—indescribable turquoise and cobalt waters, white sand beaches.

The isle of Mull is quite large and mountainous. As we drove down the sinuous road, through valley & glen, I kept thinking I was in Ireland. The Hebridean Isles, scrupulously scoured and carved by glaciers, are quite different than the rest of Scotland. The lowlands is a misnomer—there are long rolling ridges, but als a sameness to the topography.

We had little flex time to spare to catch the Iona ferry at Fionnphort, so we drove like banshees down the fantastic glaciated Ross of Mull peninsula, wildly swerving around flocks of Hebridean and merino sheep and sollitary cyclists. It takes approximately an hour to sanely drive from Craignure to Fionnaphort (pronounced Finafor)  on a 40-mile-long sinuous one-lane road. Not many tourists, but lots of sheep, so we rarely had to make use of the skinny little pullouts for oncoming traffic.

We rounded a bend and wended through the croft-village of Bunessan with its sole hotel/pub on the shores of the seaweed garden of Loch Scridain. An oncoming lorry and no turn-outs meant we had to back our way through the village in reverse. Odd way to sightsee backwards. (Bunessan is home of the Gaelic hymn, Child in a Manger, known to Cat Stevens fans as Morning Has Broken). Ben More was hiding in its own weather system.

Then another wide spot in the road, the hamlet of Pennygheal, marked with strange striped barber poles designating a passing spot. Sad to see so much beauty whizzing by at 60 MPH. No time to lose. And then it was on to Fionnphort, population 70-80, depending on who's counting,

But we missed the Iona foot ferry by minutes, and then we missed the 2nd ferry too as we had to park the car up at the St Columba Museum, because we found out too late that the road shoulders were marked No Parking. Then we had to lug our stuff down to the ferry... Luckily they came every 30 minutes, more or less, depending on the weather and the inclinations of the captain. Hard to believe that some 140,000 tourists a year are funneled through here.

The ferry disgorged its handful of foot passengers, returning tourist-pilgrims and some four-footed ones–sheep! Was I the only one enjoying the religio-pastoral joke? We lugged our gear down the ramp. The black-faced sheep suspiciously eyed Neil's guitar case and daintily stepped aside. The tourists droned on in loud superior-than-thou tourist tones. Nothing worse than a gaggle of smug returning pilgrims.

From aboard the ferry, we admired the small harbor of Fionnphort, finger slot coves, scalloped beaches, the incredible clear blue water, and on a shoal, a large rounded granite glacial erratic boulder cleaved in two by time itself. Twain worlds indeed.

It's a mere ten-minute journey on the ferry across the Sound of Mull. A stone's throw. But there were only two more scheduled ferries back to Fionnphort, and we had no place to stay on the island. It was looking like our stay on Iona was going to be yet another case of drive by viewing... Well, maybe walk by...as few cars are allowed on Iona and, then, only by special permission. It's like stepping back in time.

The holy isle of Iona lies off the southwestern tip of the Isle of Mull in the Western Isles of Scotland. Iona's tiny as islands go, only about six square miles—less than two miles wide by five miles long, but it's jampacked with centuries worth of religious history. And its crenulated shore doubles the length of its coastline.

Iona has about 100-200 full-time residents (the population quadruples in summer) and there are only a handful of cars on the island. Taxi to the hostel at the northern end of the island was £6—for a mile-long ride. About 10 pence a foot. Ouch!

We were extremely lucky to even find a place to stay on Iona as the hotels tend to fill quickly—even during the slow season and we'd already missed several ferries and landed late at 5:30 PM. Not a good time to hunt for lodgings.

The whole damned day was spent "in transito" as it were. I was so tired I sat in the grassy park in front of the Argyll Hotel where we were supposed to stay, and sobbed like a baby. The sky sputtered as if in sympathy. To come all this way and only have a half an hour on the island and not even see the abbey was utterly and devastatingly unthinkable. I'd waited all my life to come here, and this was it?

Reprise. Right before the last ferry was to leave, Neil found us the last two available bunks at the Iona Youth Hostel at the farthest end of the island...this was very similar circumstances to our Oban experience. Reprise, reprise, surprise. Far too stressful for my blood.

I realize this blog began in medias res. But there's no easy way to unravel it into a linear format. Hopefully it will be coherent, or interesting enough to follow. Neil had performed at the Corran House pub, Markie Dan's, the night before (we literally sang for our supper and room and board, as it were: we were guests of Anne McDonald, bless her heart)... so he was a bit under the weather. One of the real reasons why we kept missing ferries and connections... but it all worked out fine. Someone or thing was watching out for us. But I didn't think I could take much more of this haphazardness.

The 140-year-old Iona Argyll Hotel (oldest inn on the island) where Anne had sent us to get a room and to possibly play a gig for our supper, had changed hands—alas, it was our last best hope, but since there are fewer travelers this year because of the general global recession, we lucked out and got the last two bunks at the four-star Iona Hostel.

The hostel at the end of the world, I mean—island—was very eco-conscious. Recycle, septic tank, pristine, no shoes, etc.... Small footprint. I felt right at home. We had a fabulous view of the open sea and sunset from our bunks. It was a rare sunny day in the Hebrides, so it was pretty damned glorious.

The hostel, a converted farm outbuilding, located on a farmer's croft, had sleek blond hardwood floors, recycled wood from the whisky industry, and advertised itself as a 4-star hostel "with the best views this side of heaven and there's always the possibility of fresh duck eggs for breakfast."

The croft, Lagandorain (The Hollow of the Otter), stretched from the glacial craigs of Dun I (the highest point on Iona) to the sparkling white sand beach of Traigh an t-Suidhe. Pedigreed black Hebridean sheep cropped the short machair grass. Lagandorain is the northernmost house on Iona: beyond it, only rock island shoals scattered in the sea.

We knew we'd landed in the right place when Neil yelled that he found a poem by Seamus Heany tacked to the wall above his bunk. I was jealous. I wanted a poem by Seamus too—after all, I met him way back in 1981, and got to hang out with him at Poetry International in 1996.

Next morning I discovered I too had a poem tacked to the underside of Neil's bunk above me. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that all the bunks had poems!!! Don't know why, as John Maclean, sheep ranch owner of the 60-acre working croft, wasn't a poet...we didn't get a chance to meet him other than to wave to him on his quad as he patrolled the sheep with his son and border collies, but I may send him a poem if I ever get some tranquillity and composure...

Dinner was our squashed leftover lunch—cheese and ham sandwiches I'd made that morning and then had the foresight to not let Neil scarf them down during our ferry limbo experience.... A good thing too as there was no food to be had at the hostel, not even a duck egg.

The Iona taxi was highway robbery—no way to call for it. No cell reception. By the time we actually hoofed it back into town, everything was closed up tight for the night—except the bar, so we managed a late night dinner of a couple of pints of Taggart, peanuts and crisps, oh so nutritious and healthy, not—but I get ahead of my story.

That evening, after we'd settled in, I had an appointment with the west. My irish grandmother, who first put the idea into my head about going to Iona, also taught me about Tír na nÓg, the mythical land to the west where the souls of the dead traveled to... I was missing her greatly. I remember her telling me that when people died, sometimes their souls didn't want to leave this world, and so they became seals to watch over their families.

The sea to the northwest was choppy and an indelible blue, with powdery white granite sand shores that made it seem more like Northern California—Point Lobos or Carmel-by-the Sea. Basalt and granite outcroppings everywhere. Incredibly pastoral. Pink-tinged granite rocks and quartz moonstones on the shore. Beauty compounded by beauty.

We hiked along the northern strand along the machair (short dune grasslands) to the white sands of Traigh an t-Suidhe (beach of the seat) supposedly a favorite resting spot of St. Columba's, and Traigh na Criche (boundary beach) to explore the coves.

We traversed stairstep shores and coves where the sea had artfully arranged baseball-sized boulders on ancient marine terraces, then abandoned them to time. Rock cairns and New Age medicine wheels. Signs of shipwrecks and lobster pots and the usual reminder of civilization—even here—piles of plastic flotsam—20th c. detritus—that makes you just sick to see as it's all floated in from the sea to form an unholy ring around this pristine island.

We traveled as far west as we could along the shore to watch the sunset from a cliff, but we returned overland, across fields, boggy bits and heather bits that made it slow going...The aha—why this wasn't such a good idea. The peat-turf was a sponge—soggy shoes squelched in rhythmic stride amid the heather and greensward.

Rabbits, or rather, hares, bobbed about everywhere, attentive ears to the wind, as they rearranged scallops of white granite sand porches in front of their burrows. Skuas circled predatorily overhead, hoping for an easy meal. Red poppies bloomed in the machair like ritual drops of blood. The pilgrims thought the island itself was the body of Christ and that when Christ would come again, it would be to this island.

An arial map view of Iona reminds me of looking down on the back of a flying monk, the north shoals—a crown for his head, his left arm dropped behind, fingers splayed as if to palm a ball, the crossroads, his belt, Dun I his hunched shoulder and back, and his right arm mightily outstretched over his head as if to grasp the prize, the islet of Staffa and its treasure, Fingal's cave.

The shearing north Atlantic winds reached gale proportions, cut us to the quick, so we returned to the sheltered warmth of the hostel to watch the sun set from the kitchen common room. This far north, it took a deceptively long time to set even in July. The sun hung low on the horizon of the sea like a golden eye for what seemed like an eternity.

After we got settled, we walked into town at twilight (also deceptively long). Our only company were the pillowy sheep bedded down for the night on any available rock or promontory (less damp?). Their internal clocks were working—even if ours weren't.

From behind the low drystone walls there was a curious jolting sound like an electric fence pulse. But no telltale wire. Our hostel companion said they were birds calling. Zzit-zzit. Zzit-zzit. I never saw them but I was cautious about approaching the fences. I later found out they were corncrakes. The same bird Roy Gullane of the Tannahill Weavers sang about , The Corncrake, a traditional song I'd recommended on AmieStreet.com Music.

The indigo twilight was magnificent and we lost all track of time. From above the white sands of Traigh Ban Nam Monach (white strand of the monks—site of a gory Viking slaughter), we looked to the east, the Sound of Iona above the Moine Thrust Fault, was ringed with molten silver ripples that ran aground against the the pink granite Devonian Ross of Mull.

Our gaze circled up like a hawk caught in a thermal updraft to the dark cliffs of Burg, and up to the heights of the 3169 foot volcanic munro of Ben More, its perpetual cloud cover, gone. The munro was framed against a lapis lauzli backdrop of sky studded with adamantine stars. But we were distracted by the breathtaking sight of a full moon rising over the tiny village of Fionnphort. Magic was afoot as a path of moonlight wavered on the limpid pool of the Sound of Iona. We were on cloud nine. The idea of walking on water was not so far-fetched.

As we passed the Iona Abbey, one of the oldest, and most important Christian religious sites in Scotland, we noticed a chapel, St. Oran's, the oldest building on the island—surrounded by an even older graveyard—was open. There was a candle burning in the open doorway under the Gothic arch... What better invitation? So we snuck down the Sraid na Marbh—the Street of the Dead, and tiptoed through the graveyard to sit in the chapel.

I thought the neolithic tumulus burial mound in front of the chapel held a triangular sign that said "Reilly," and I thought, what, my family namesake here? Later, I realized it was "Relig Odhráin," the spot where St. Oran was reputed to have been buried alive in order to consecrate the ground. Another interesting link on St Oran.

St Columba tried three times to build a church on Iona but the walls kept tumbling down. St. Oran volunteered himself to consecrate the spot, and was martyred to prevent the walls of the first church from falling down. The walls stayed put. (I won't mention that the first church would've been constructed of wood, not stone—a late Medieval invention. Don't want to spoil the folklore. Or that human blood sacrifice was a druidic practice. Or that St. Oran's is a late 12th century building.)

Columba, a descendent of the Tyrone Uí Néills (Neil's ancestors), was born on June 18th (as was Neil), in 521 AD, and Columba died on June 9th, on a Sunday (of course), in front of his altar, at the ripe old age of 77, in 597AD. In 563, Columba (Columcille in Gaelic) founded a monastic settlement, the Irish Celtic Church, with twelve companions. Brude, king of the Picts gave Iona to Columba, AKA the "Island Soldier," who was credited for the founding of seveeral monasteries, some 50 to 300 churches in the British Isles, depending upon how you count—as his followers were sent far and wide.

After Columba's death in 597, the Culdees of the Celtic Church continued to spread Christianity throughout Pictish Scotland and to the Britons and Saxons of England.

A distant cousin of Columba's, St Adomnán, 9th Abbot of Iona, gleaing stories from the collective memory of the community, and wrote a tripartite biography of Columcille a century after his death. I read a translation of it while I was a student in the Celtic Studies Department at UC Berkeley. I especially liked the druidic traits Adomnán attributed to St. Columba, who could charm fish and seals to shore. It reminded me of the druidic attributes of St. Patrick. The old ways lingered on.

The island of Iona, called the "cradle of Christianity in Scotland," was so revered as a holy place that Scottish kings—including Shakespeare's wrongly maligned Macbeth of The Scottish Play, was buried there in 1057. Duncan. McDuff too. Banquo and his ghost were literary figments of Shakespeare's imagination bolstered by the near-truths of his source material, the Holinshed Chronicles.

The real Macbeth was a good Scottish king in good standing with the church—the only way to procure a berth in the holiest of holy graveyards. Of course, in 590, there was no such thing as the independent kingdom of Scotland until the late Medieval period ca. 1120-1150 AD.

The Iona Abbey graveyard holds countless generations of islanders, some 48 rulers of the Dalriadan Irish-Scots kingdom, no less than eight Norwegian/Celtic kings, four Irish kings, and a whole slew of chiefs from the powerful ruling clan families.

We made our way to the wall where the most recent (if not controversial) burial site was of the former Labour leader John Smith. His' was the only tombstone facing west toward us. His epitaph, "An Honest Man's The Noblest Work of God." All the rest of the weather weary pitted tombstones faced east.

Columba, after a skirmish—some say it was a battle where many lives were lost—over breaking the copyright of St. Finnian's Book of Psalms, went on pilgrimage, as a self-imposed exile. As an act of penance for his hot-headed arrogance, he sailed away from Ireland until he could no longer see it.

 When he reached Iona, he climbed the highest hill, the 101 meter (328-332 feet, depending on who's counting) the batholith of Dun I (pronounced dun-ee), also the site of an iron-age hillfort (ca. 100-200 AD). When he looked back, he could not see Erin's green shamrock shore. Whether Dun I, or  Carn cul ri Eirinn, this is one bit of folklore attested to in place names: Carn cul ri Eirinn is "the hill with its back to Ireland." And so Columba stayed there to create a penitential monk's cell, or kill, to spend the rest of his life in hermetic devotion to God.


On a pilgrimage, you go, not where you want to go, but where the spirit leads you.

Celtic Prayer from Iona

You are above me O God;
You are beneath;
You are in air;
You are in earth;
You are beside me;
You are within.
O God of heaven;
You have made your home on earth;
In the broken body of creation.
Kindle within me;
A love for you in all things.

(I'm not sure where I found this prayer, perhaps it was a handout at the abby mass, but it looks like Phillip Newell has it in his book, Celtic Prayers from Iona.)

The Rev George MacLeod, who founded the ecumenical Christian Iona community, described Iona as a "thin place" - by which he meant that only a thread of gossamer separated the material from the spiritual. —Mark Rowe.


There is only one “crossroad” on Iona.
You'll miss it if you're not paying attention.

Iona has thin boundaries between this world and the next. The gateway to the sídhe is always open on Iona. No need to wait for Samhain or Beltaine.


Columba's original cell was made of wood, wattle and daub and stone. Vikings sacked the abbey at least five times between 795 and 825 AD. In 849 the monastery's surviving relics were dispersed for safety to Dunkeld in Perthshire and that famous illuminated Bible, The Book of Kells, to Kells, in Ireland.

The Vikings burned down the original wooden monastery, situated north of the present day abbey, and killed scores of monks. Later, in 1200 AD, a Benedictine monastery was built, but fell to ruins during the the Reformation of 1560, and was later restored in 1910.

By the time we got to the Iona nunnery, the full moon had risen over Mull and the sea was molten sliver, the corcrakes metronoming Zzit-zzit, Zzit-zzit. I took myriad photos of the full moon framed by the chapel ruin. Magic was afoot.

The Augustine nunnery was founded by Reginald MacDonald of Islay, son of Somerled (Lord of the Isles), ca. 1200 for his sister, Beatrice, its first prioress. In Gaelic it is called "an Eaglais Dhubh," or "the black church."

The Gaelic word for nun is "cailleach-dhubh" the "black hag." But the walls were a mixture of pink granite and yellow sandstone laced with a rainbow riot of wildflowers and clinging succulents.

At the north end of the nunnery is the medieval church of St. Ronan, or "Teampull Ronain," the local parish church dating from the 1200's. Rule of thumb, most ancient stone churches were erected around the 12th c.

By the time we got to the Martyrs' Bay Pub, it was closing time (earlier than most pubs, at 11 PM) and we ordered 2 pints_one for each fist. Neil was rather irritated as he wanted to play music, sell some CDs, but the guitar was locked in the taxi and the barmaid was surly, wouldn't even let us call the taxi driver. (The guitar was stored in the back Joyce McIntyre's taxi van).

We had almost no mobile cell reception, except at the wharf (if you stood sideways to the post office kiosk), and none at the northern end of the island. And the battery was low, so Neil could receive messages but couldn't call anyone including Joyce. So the guitar was locked away for the night.

The walk back under full moon was amazing...it took us even longer to walk the long mile back up to the hostel than coming down the hill into the village. We stopped to feel the lichen encrusted medieval carved MacLean's Cross, that marks a 19th century agricultural boundary on the island.

I snuck into the Iona Abbey through the back gate at Sruth à Mhuilinn and ran my hands along the Celtic crosses. I used my camera LED screen to light the plaques so I could read them. St. Martin's Cross, erected in the 8th century. WOW. Goosebumps abounded.

I could feel the Celtic knotwork beneath my fingertips, but couldn't see it. My camera LED screen looked like a huge firefly or phosphor trails as I ran it along the edge of the cross. I didn't dare take photos as we were seriously trespassing after midnight.

Meanwhile Neil was waiting on the road wondering where I'd disappeared to... Despite his massive grumbling, I managed to get him to trespass into the abbey (it was closed). Official tours were pricey (something like $20 each), and we were being slaughtered by the poor dollar to pound exchange rate.

It is said that the archaic rock strata of Iona is among the oldest on the planet, it has a primeval energy. There is an indescribable atmosphere in Iona, once called Inis nan Druidhneach, Isle of the Druids, as if a supreme presence inhabited the island.

Scottish writer, William Sharp, under the pseudonym Fiona Macleod, scribed: "To tell the story of Iona is to go back to God, and to end in God." There is an old prophecy that Christ shall come again upon Iona, or perhaps it will be the Bride of Christ, the goddess Brigid herself.


Seachd bliadhna 'n blr'ath
Thig muir air Eirinn re aon tr'ath
'S thar Ile ghuirm ghlais
Ach sn'amhaidh I Choluim Chl'eirich
(see)

Seven years before Judgement Day
the ocean gormblue and gray
will sweep oe'r Ireland and Islay.
But St Columba's own isle
will swim above the waves.

(Don't remember where I collected this one either. The rearrangement of the translation is mine alone.)


After Columba's death, his relics, reputed to have miraculous powers, drew a steady stream of pilgrims to Iona. The only surviving relic from the saint's remains was his hand, other relics included his tunic, a hand bell and psalm book.

We wandered the abbey grounds at midnight, far from the thundering herds of modern day pilgrims seeking spiritual renewal. I looked into the church, found St Columba's cell, or at least what is purported to be his cell — lit with a single red candle. It was quiet as the inside of a stone, you could hear the blood roaring like the Lía Fáil in your ears.

The ancient Celtic crosses are all of imported stone, with the exception of St. John's Cross—as the native Ionan stone easily fractures. The first stone cross erected on Iona lost its long arms during one fierce Hebridean winter gale.

The Iona School, later known as the West Highland style of stone carving, was developed by two Irish stone carving families, O Brolchán and O Cuinn. The design of the Celtic cross with its circle, was an attempt to add structural support and stability to the fragile arms.

It was magical under the moonlight. When we left, a tiny toad was nestled near the small wooden gate set into the low stone wall, I nearly stepped on him. I held him to the light, and admired his small amphibian hands grasping mine. He blinked at us, unaccustomed to the light or the warmth of my hand. He must've liked the hollow of my hand because he squatted into my palm as if to settle in for the night. I gently let him down on the grass by the stone fence and he shuffled into it like a broody hen on eggs.

Farther up the road, near the "Duchess's Cross," commemorating the 8th Duke of Argyll's first wife, we found a small box table set up with hand-painted stones and a tin can to deposit money—strictly honor system. I couldn't see the price of the stones (nor could I see the designs on the stones) so I emptied my pocket of coins. I picked out an egg-shaped moonstone in the moonlight, held it to my skin, felt its silken coolness. I waited until morning to see what was painted there.

After the adventure in Iona Abbey, I couldn't sleep at all that night, too much unfettered moonlight over the Isle of Mull. To the west, the lights of Tiree, Coll, and Barra twinkling on the horizon. To the north, the dark litany of islands— silhouettes of Staffa and Rhum, the Treshnish Isles and the distant peaks of the Black Cuillins of Skye adrift on a restless sea.

But in the morning, we had to get to the abbey early (there was an ecumenical mass), or not see it al all. Because it was a church service, we lucked out again and didn't have to pay the steep entrance fee. But we wound up donating as much money to the many worthy causes organized by the Iona Community. It was a pity we had so little time before our ferry, we never saw the museum or the manuscripts in the scriptorium.

The sermon was on how, in this day in age, we have such a profound lack of time... That really hit home. I sat on the back steps of the church sobbing my heart out. All the profound disappointments of this trip came surging forth, the multitudes of frustrations of this Kamakazi Hurry- Up-and-Wait trip of Neil's. Hup, hup two! And then, the vast tracts of squandered downtime.

I was profoundly missing my grandmother, and all the dead were heavily leaning in on me: both my parents, my cousin, whose death last year followed by that of my half-brother—who blew his brains out in October, rather than be sent back forever to Pelican Bay prison. He'd been busted once in his youth for two counts of drugs. California law: third strike, you're locked away forever. It all came shouldering in. No time to process it all. Gotta run. A ferry to catch.

We never got to the southern end of the island past Martyrs' Bay (Port nam Mairtear), or Port na Curaich (Port of the Coracle) Columba's Bay, where, it is said, St Columba landed his coracle in 563 AD. Or the stingy marble quarry the Duke of Argyll tried to commercially mine in the late 1700s. Still, he managed to mine enough marble to build his own sarcophagus. He made sure he was well provided for in the afterlife—after all the harm he'd caused. He bought his own private stairway to heaven on the Isle of Iona.

In 1874, the 8th Duke of Argyll, a Campbell, responsible for the Highland Clearances, commissioned architect Robert Rowand Anderson to preserve the Abbey ruins. In 1899, he transferred ownership of the Abbey, the Nunnery, St Oran's Chapel and Relig Odhráin, to the Iona Cathedral Trust.

To the north, we could see Staffa Island (the northern end of Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway) where Fingal's Cave is located, and the Dutchman's Hat, but we didn't have time to visit it thanks to all the missed ferries. We didn't get a chance to hike Dun I to Tobar na hAois, the Well of Age (eternal youth), where it is said, if you bathe your face in it three times at sunrise, your youth will be restored. Another trip. Another time. Ach, we grow old, we grow old. We will never pass this way again. Bitter tears.

Of course, because Neil had to retrieve his guitar, we missed the connection ferry at Port Ronain (seal port?) below the tiny village of Baile Mor (which means Big Village), as well, which meant we had to change the Oban-Mull ferry too....or forfeit our spot at £100.

That means we also never got a chance to see the rest of Mull or the village of Tobermory. I was so devastated, I wanted to jump ship on Carraig Fhada (long rock) in the middle of the harbour and stay behind. Or murder Neil, or murder time itself.

Neil had a tentative gig Sunday afternoon at the DunStaffnage Castle Music Festival that his friend, sound technician Louis Barrow was managing, and so we had to leave by noon. Hurry up and wait. Neil also to track down the taxi driver Joyce, as his guitar was still stashed in her van....somewhere on the island. No phone service. Dead cell phone.

I stumbled upon Joyce coming out of another church—there are no less than FIVE churches on the island! The Thomas Telfer parish church, nestled beneath a copse of sycamore trees, is also a noisy crow rookery, as it's the only wooded area on the island. I said goodbye to Joyce, and lugged the guitar down to the ferry dock.

The ferry disgorged herds of Sunday daytrippers all wearing red jackets just like Neil's. I lost Neil in the general red pilgrimage mayhem but we managed to connect by the next ferry.... it was sad leaving Iona.

A seal led the foot ferry into the harbour at Fionnphort, she rolled, and looked back at me as if to say goodbye and then disappeared beneath the following waves. There was no assuaging that lump in my throat—of frustration, anger, despair. I will never pass that way again.



Thursday, July 17, 2008

Letter to S, sitting in a soccer field in Johnstone

S,

Well, our best laid plans,  plaid lans? to get to Ireland fell through: NON finally rented the car (finally) a week before we're to leave. And though there was ferry space yesterday morning to Belfast, by afternoon it was full....

You really need a schedule well in advance in order to travel.  Otherwise it's extortion. Other sailings are 300 quid. More than $600!!! Not the time to travel to Ireland...I told him that but he was determined to go... the cost is making him pause. We leave in one week (23rd)  for Boston.

We thought about staying longer to justify the cost. But to stay an extra week and change our Boston ticket is 200 quid ($400) each!

Exchange rate is less than $2.00 to the pound. The cost of living is far greater than I expected. So a pound is the equivalent to a dollar in buying power. I heard the inflation's much worse in Ireland. So we're cash poor...NONs family gave him a carload of pounds for his birthday and for car rental...so I've been giving him dollars in exchange so I don't have to trade in my money.

My cash stash is getting low but I still have traveler's checks and once we're stateside, I can use credit cards again.  I should have enough in my account but it's getting low. And by Aug 1,  you'll have deposited my check so I can pay off the rest of my AMEX bill.

They use micro chip cads here...sometimes you can find a place to swipe a card but not usually. Too much identity theft has done away with traditional credit cards. eating out is akin to highway robbery and most of the food sucks--even Chinese food.

I've been extremely careful and avoid the heavy sugar/carb syndrome whenever possible. But it rankles me to pay $50 for a paltry meal that's awful so I try to not eat out...but they're all keen on it here. Luckily we haven't had to pick up too many food tabs. The only fabulous meal we had was in Edinburgh, Italian.

I prefer home cooking any day but most everybody's into the prefab food thing. The only fabulous home cooked meal I had was in Inverness (salmon!!!) C's daughter.

The Highlands travel was pretty much a bust as C drinks like a fish and then won't drive for 20 hours after the night before so it was a lot of hurry up and wait... first AM in EB, I actually burst into tears after waiting around from 8 AM to 3 PM to go to the highlands....so needless to say, we drove up to Inverness but didn't see much.

Next time, we're jettisoning C at her daughter's...if there is a next time. Neil and C are too alike in wasting time...he hated it, and was pissed off at her...saying money has spoiled her...true she does have an abundance of it... but they're both willful and undisciplined when it comes to getting out and going.

I did get a brief 10 minutes in the new museum in Edinburgh and saw my beloved Pictish stones...so when we returned from the Highlands, we managed another hour in the exhibit. It was amazing seeing all the torcs and weaponry as well as the stones...so much of it I'd only seen in books.

When you come to Ireland, try & line up a place to stay beforehand, It's super expensive for B&B-50-90 pounds a night!!! Maybe I can join you. Gary Mullan would put us up but he's in Wicklow.

A friend is taking a course at Trinity. I'll see if I can get her info too. we will need credit cards with microchips though... Cell phones with pay per use are doable. If we both have o2 then we can call each other for free...or is it text? Calls are 35P a minute (about $75 c..)

Anyway. it's 11 Am, a grey, soup day, I'm sitting in the car sipping tea near my rock in the field  below Neil's mum's council flat in Johnstone waiting to find a moment to transmit this email--only there's no service from the car--though it's right next to the rock,  So I'll type in text edit and see if I can get reception later. Will probably have to sit on my little rock in the rain so I won't stay long.

 In the land of Starbucks, my Peet's flask in serving me right well indeed. I load up with tea in the am and can transport it out to the field, for example.  It is nice to sit here, away from the house and write a leisurely, if boring email to you...been wanting to write for days but wifi hotspots are few and far between. I understand now the significance of iPhone, being able to get on the web is critical here.

Neil's doing the usual crabbitting with me because he's depressed and wonders why I rile right back at him...but the negative speech acts are so deeply ingrained, from his mother (and father), he isn't even aware of them...but  I've noticed that he doesn't use them on others ... So there are two languages here, one for the world where one is magnanimous and gregarious, and one used in the home to put people in their place, cut to the quick, etc.

I've heard her use it on Neil (and me too...really the longest conversations I've had with her are when she's displeased about something...she asks in the most genteel tone but you come away burning. A T (we saw her last week) said the best result is to smile and NOT let her know she's gotten your goat... (she gave me the other car key for her old Honda Civic too).

I need to surf and research Long Lock, next to Loch Lomond...the fierce glaciated mountains  of Argyll are what I've been looking for all along.... here it is, practically at my back door but do ya think anyone would have thought to take me there? No they all like the endless low rolling lands that drive me mad.

I began to despair that I'd ever see any of the fabled Scottish mountains. I began to think they were a myth. None in Inverness either. Mostly like the moors of Point Reyes for miles and miles and miles.... and nobody actually looks at the landscape, they talk their way though it and so there's no opportunity to stop or take photos.

I hate drive-by touristing. D and M's husband A actually step on it and sped by  the scenic portions! and I'm usually stuck in the back, carsick... Ayr and Galloway were a blur of overgrown leafy roads... I get that trees grow here, I want to see Iron age forts, standing stones...and they're completely indifferent.

We only found the mountains because I insisted on going up this road I found on a map...Neil's never been to many places including the lochs near Helensborough where the nuclear facility is....very mysterious. Anyway Loch Long is pretty cool, for a sea loch. I had to throw a tantrum to get him out of the car at Dumbarton Rock on the Clyde (Google Earth some of these places, they're amazing.)

Well, my tea's nearly done, my battery low, so I'll sign off...Can't send you the Onset address until I get online...Gmail does not save mail to the hard drive...I have to be online to retrieve any messages....something like 339 Onset Ave, Onset MA. Talk soon.

xxooo
yer cousin Mohead

Monday, July 7, 2008

Snowdonia, Wales

THURSDAY, JULY 3, 2008


I have literally just crawled out of the soggy mountains of Snowdonia, we went to to the holy isles of Anglesey, and Holyhead Island, and found among the bracken, the remains of an Iron Age fort. Also a passage grave, with two standing stones near the village with the longest name in the world. Will add it when I have better computer access.

Hope to be in Omagh, Ireland, next week if we can get a good passage, everything's so expensive...I'm in Manchester the noo. Crossing the Mersey was not like crossing the Mississippi at Memphis, but there was a thrill. it's Ferry, cross the Mersey... all this time I thought it was Mary crossing the Mersey.

We're in Manchester at the moment, just back from Wales... It's so very post industrial here. Makes Glasgow seem like a Victorian queen. Never thought I'd say that.

Liverpool in the distance with all its smokestacks. Grey on grey against a grey sky drained of color. Even the river is the color of steel. Manchester is made entirely of brick, so it's a red city.

My iMac went down with a flourish right before we left stateside and I'm down to the very sluggish Macbook...no pix on it, alas...teeny hard drive. Believe it or not the DVD drive went down too...so I can't resurrect the iMac... Luckily I have most stuff on a back up HD...it will be hard work to restore all my data when I return home.

I'll be back stateside Aug 7 by way of Cape Cod to perform at the Cranberry Coast Concert series. We have at least four gigs. It should be fun. I've never been to Massachusetts. I'm thinking of that Bee Gee's song...

It's been that kind of a summer. Sappy pop song fragments and little else worthy of transcribing. Oh, and some 5000 photos to sort and edit. They will yield more language, I think.