Life is a pilgrimage – and where better to renew pilgrim vows and set fresh intentions than on the sacred Isle of Iona.
For many centuries this Hebridean island has attracted travellers in search of healing, renewal and a deeper connection with the divine. Countless thousands have followed in the footsteps of Irish monk and missionary Saint Columba, who arrived in 563 CE, bringing Christianity to Scotland.
Iona has been called by different names, including the Isle of the Holy Spirit, although by some accounts its earliest name was Ioua, Goddess of the Sea and an important figure in the Celtic pantheon of gods and goddesses.
It is a place steeped in history, bathed in blood and, according to some legends, it is the final resting place for 48 Scottish kings including Duncan and Macbeth of Shakespearean fame. “If I be destined to die in Iona, it would be a merciful leave taking,” an abbot declared in the 600s. “I know not under the blue sky a better little spot for death.”
Sheep outnumber humans, at least during the winter months. Iona is home to some 165 permanent residents who live simply, many being sustained by more than 120 000 annual pilgrims from around the world. It is a place that continues to inspire writers, poets, philosophers, musicians and artists. And, like pilgrims of old, they all arrive by boat, continuing their journey on foot.
Or at least that was the way before the lockdown provided a sacred pause for the islanders and their holy Isle. I was lucky to visit at the beginning of March and again five months later as restrictions began to ease a little.
Never had I seen the island looking wilder or more magnificent. Paths normally trampled flat by a multitude of pilgrim footsteps were overgrown, the lawns of the Abbey were uncharacteristically unkempt and a riot of pioneer wild flowers and plants had colonised every crack in the stonework of the ruins of the nunnery.
As always I enjoyed the loving embrace of the Findhorn Foundation’s beautiful Traigh Bhan retreat house, overlooking the beach. But this time without the responsibility of holding guests in a retreat programme.
This was my time. To write, take deep breaths, envision a more loving and sustainable post-pandemic world. And simply to be. How might that feel?
For me there is no place I’d rather be to sense into next steps. The house is cosy and welcoming and a perfect base for an exploration of inner and outer landscapes.
Built originally almost a century ago, it was bought by spiritual seeker Jessica Ferreira, who recognised the importance of Iona as a holy site for Britain and as a power point upon the Earth.
An upper room in the house was turned into a sanctuary and consecrated by a group of women who had lived through both the First and Second World Wars. They sensed that a place was needed on Iona that was dedicated to a future spiritual era unifying the whole planet. It was to anchor the ‘energies of the new’ and radiate them out into the world in prayer and meditation.
In the early 1970s as Jessica aged she sensed it was time to pass the baton and gifted Traigh Bhan to young newlyweds Katherine and her husband Roger Collis. They in turn entrusted the house into the custodianship of the Findhorn Foundation, recognising a larger purpose than private ownership. The understanding was that the sanctuary was aligned with Findhorn’s purpose as part of a new consciousness and a growing Network of Light. It connected Findhorn, Glastonbury and other centres and people throughout Britain and the world.
Katherine and Roger became the first custodians of the house and later passed it on to be cared for by different community members over the decades.
Now, almost half a century later, the deep peace and purpose of the sanctuary continues to be a focus of awakenings and often profound insights for thousands of people who have been called. And among its regular visitors are the now California-based Collis couple.
Katherine tells the story of walking along the single lane road that runs from the village to the north of the island and coming across a woman standing alone and gazing out over the fields and across the sea.
As she came closer she could see she was openly crying.
“Do you live here?” the woman asked through her tears. “Can you tell me what the heck is happening to me? I’m from Alabama and part of a month-long Highland horticultural tour visiting Scottish gardens. We had an option to take an extended day trip to Mull and Iona which I did. The moment I stepped off the ferry and set foot on this island something came over me and I began to sob. I had to leave the group to try to get a grip and that was hours ago. I still can’t stop crying. I’ve never felt this way before.”
What is it exactly you feel, Katherine asked?
“Well the feeling is as if I’ve come home. Don’t get me wrong, these are not tears of sadness, these are tears of joy. All I know is that I’ve never felt so moved nor such a feeling of welcome. It’s like I’ve come back to where I belong.
“But look at this!” she gestured to the island and the sea, still sobbing. “How can it be? Am I crazy? I’m on an island in the middle of nowhere at the seeming ends of the earth. I’ve missed my boat. I don’t know anyone and yet I know I’ve come home.”
This feeling of coming home is common among those who visit Iona, and often I hear that same sentiment from people having their first immersion in the Findhorn community, as they respond to a deep yearning and recognise an openhearted place of spiritual alignment.
As Katherine explains: “Coming home is one way we stumble into the domain of spirit and enter the house of our souls.”
It was on Iona on 7.7.2011 that I started an epic personal journey, vowing to walk the world with messages about treading more lightly and lovingly upon the Earth.
Some five years and 25 000km later, I’d stopped counting the steps, although I recognised each one as a prayer and a blessing given and received, each step taking me further along a path of inner exploration and discovery.
Highlights on this latest visit included gentle solo walks and quiet meditations in Traigh Bhan’s sanctuary where I’m aware of the flickering of the candle, the whisper of the breeze, waves gently breaking on the nearby shore and the evocative sounds of oystercatchers and gulls.
As always I’m drawn to spending time among the stone ruins of the nunnery that was founded around 1200CE and flourished for more than 350 years.
This was the realm of Iona’s religious women and a community of nuns who worshipped in a strict round of services and private prayers for the world. Many were from noble families and the convent provided refuge for unmarried daughters, widows, illegitimate girls and estranged wives.
For me it is also a symbol of the Patriarchy, the ruins contrasting with the imposing structure of the Abbey which has been continuously renovated.
A favourite practice is, inwardly or outwardly, to sound the names of women who have been great sources of inspiration, so that the ancient stones reverberate with an honouring of the Divine Feminine. My list is long and fills me with deep gratitude. It includes Mother Earth, my mother, sister, my ex-wife, my daughters, two little granddaughters and many precious friends. Also Findhorn co-founders Eileen and Dorothy, Jessica and the women of Iona of the last century who have continued to honour the inner work, creating and tending different sanctuaries and chapels on the island.
Often I then head for the sea and pick up two pebbles in a ritual I learned from the Iona Community. The first stone is symbolic of that which we wish to let go off – something we need to leave behind. We cast this into the sea and turn and without looking back, pick up a second stone as a sign of a new direction or commitment that we move towards.
Picking up a second stone I decide that it will remind me to be more present and to practise deep inner listening. After all, it is in the silence that mystics report hearing that small, still voice of God, or have flashes of intuition and access those whispers of inner knowing.
My vow is to talk less and listen more.
The Findhorn Foundation is a holistic learning centre in an ecovillage setting. To find out more about the residential and online events and workshops go to www.findhorn.org
Credit: Aerial photos: Mark Richards