A traveller was asked by an old Highland gardener where she had been. When she told him he said “Ay! Iona is a very thin place”. What did he mean, she asked? “There’s no’ much between Iona and the Lord.”
This is, of course, from a time where words like “thin” and “veil” weren’t utterly spoiled with overuse. (Obviously this “veil” is of very poor quality… seems to be thinning all over, even in the parking lot at Walmart.)
From the perspective of this blog’s readership, the most important thing to understand about how Iona works, right off the bat, is that there is zero evidence of a druidic connection prior to Columba’s arrival. (Or after.)
The connection is most likely down to the Georgian obsession with all things druidic and their fervent desire to associate anything indigenous -Stonehenge, Avebury, etc- with them.
In the case of Iona you understand why immediately. As the ferry gets closer, the feeling of the place is overwhelmingly of a fantasy archetype of a druid; its energy is wise and potently male. If Gandalf were an island he’d be Iona.
Given that this is a post about how Iona works mythologically, in that spirit I will brashly declare that Iona’s male is the perfect counterbalance to Glastonbury’s female and these two constitute Britain’s pre-eminent esoteric mom/dad power spots.
I can just see those Georgian scholars arriving and feeling that this place was druidic. It’s an easy conclusion to leap to.
Whilst there is a touch of hyperbole in the last two paragraph (how unlike me!), there’s simply no escaping the fact that Iona is potent.
I’ve dived on sunken Micronesian cities, crawled through catacombs, stood before holy relics, climbed sacred mounts, bathed in magical waterfalls with giant eels and trespassed through thigh-deep mud to get to stone circles. But Iona has a feeling you just want to sit in, like a spa… a wisdom spa. You really want to get that Gandalf deep into your pores.
The island’s chronological story is perhaps its least interesting.
We generally know it as the place in which Christianity first arrived in Britain from Ireland. Subsequent investigation has revealed this is not strictly true (or rather it is impossible to prove).
Iona might look like an odd, out of the way place for such an event to occur if you pull up a map of the British Isles but it actually sits in the lower middle section of the rough isosceles triangle that was the Gaelic speaking culture of the Hebrides and Northern Ireland. It was a hub, not a hideout.
This post is instead about something much more interesting and useful. Iona’s mythological story:
(I)n the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what the event had meant. A myth was an event which, in some sense, happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence.
The above quote is from a wonderful little book about mythology. So we will use those words as a guide and treat Iona the way it was seen in pre-modern times: as a palimpsest of different stories all layered over the same landscape.
As you might expect, the island is thick with fairy stories.
This is my favourite:
A man fell asleep fishing in the sound under a full moon. He was awakened by a pull on the rod and heard a voice saying “ask news and you will get news.” The fisherman realised it was a sea fairy and unsuccessfully tried to banish her with a rosad (a Gaelic spell) by saying “I put God between us.”
She attacked him and then compelled him to meet her every night. Eventually the fisherman fled to America to escape the sea fairy but she tracked him down and killed him.
Sidebar: somebody please make this into a graphic novel that then gets turned into a surprisingly-faithful-to-the-graphic-novel film.
How these differ from sea fairies is probably semantic. However this is my favourite story from the guidebook. It’s heartbreaking and “properly” mythic.
One day a mermaid fell in love with one of the monks on Iona. Every day she would pray to God to give her a soul so that the monk could marry her. Each night she would come ashore, all the way up to the monk’s window. Realising that, again, God had not answered her prayer, she would run back to the sea, crying.
Where her tears touched the ground became the green marble stones that litter Iona’s beaches. These are known as Mermaid’s Tears.
Like all Iona beach pebbles, Mermaid’s Tears protect the bearer from drowning and are used in healing and divination. They have additional properties to do with mending broken hearts and releasing past negative situations when thrown into the sea. (I stocked up. Anyone got any rock tumbling tips? I’m not really that kind of nerd.)
Saint Patrick was known to turn people who displeased him into seals. (This ability was later transferred to Columba’s story as well.) It’s an old Gaelic folk belief that those who renounce Christianity will be turned into seals.
Iona is full of stories of water-witches and seal shapeshifters luring people to their deaths or sneaking onto shore to cause mischief.
Stories are told of old ministers sailing to nearby islands to exorcise the seal populations in order to banish the shapeshifters and water witches.
In The Inner Hebrides and Their Legends (1964), it is mentioned that there was a belief that before the Saints arrived on Iona, the island was used as a feasting place and platform of sacrifices for ancient, Lovecraftian sea monsters.
This certainly wasn’t anything I felt when there… at least not on land. There were vague menacing feelings emanating from the water off the Bay at the Back of the World (its actual, beautiful name) but presumably the island is protected by virtue of its sanctity.
There is a story of two of those first saints on a trip from Iona to Tiree encountering “a great whale” with “jaws gaping full of teeth”.
Given that there have been Gaelic names for basking sharks for more than a thousand years, given that they don’t have very impressive teeth, it makes me wonder if this is another piece in the enigma of why there are no great white sharks in Britain. (Even though I am adamant there are.)
The sea monster disturbed the boat until one of the saints blessed it and it went on its way. That’s certainly redolent of great white shark curiosity rather than basking shark. (Something similar once happened to my grandfather on a fishing trip.) A coracle is not a place you want to be if there is a curious great white around. It would probably go something like this.
Seven herrings, feast of salmon;
Seven salmon, feast of seal;
Seven seals, feast of little whale of the ocean;
Seven little whales of the ocean, feast of large whale of the ocean;
Seven large whales of the ocean, feast of the cionarain-cro;
Seven cionarain-cro, feast of the great beast of the ocean.
Apparently the cionarain-cro is the kraken so… you know… it gets pretty big by the last line there. Yikes.
For a while there, Iona became the place to get buried if you were royal and Scottish (and also Danish). The soil was believed to remove your sins so you could cleanly enter Heaven -this is an appealing quality if you’ve spent your life in the war-mongering pursuit of being high-born in Northern Europe.
In fact, Iona is mentioned in Macbeth:
ROSS: Where is Duncan’s body?
MACDUFF: Carried to Colmekill/The sacred storehouse of his predecessors/And guardian of their bones
Colmekill means Columbus’s island.
Just down from the location of the original Abbey is a small stream where last century archaeologists found the remains of a Viking boat burial. Given that the Vikings never settled Iona and are better known for repeatedly slaughtering the monks it is a testament to the widespread belief that Iona is a beneficial place in which to cross over. You tend to get this with western islands and from a Viking perspective the Hebrides are very west… They’re practically in the afterlife. (Hence the “thin” I suppose.)
Speaking of Vikings, here is my second-favourite Iona story. It happened on the beach where I built my little cairn. (Pictured.) I’m just going to quote directly from the guidebook:
John MacMillan was walking one midsummer evening to the north of the island, and decided to call on Mrs Ferguson, an elderly blind lady he had befriended. But although he had visited her many times, he could not find her croft. And then he could not find the croft of his friend John Campbell either. All the familiar landmarks and buildings had vanished. By now it was bright moonlight. As he reached the White Sands, he saw fourteen Viking lonboats being rowed from behind Eilean Annraidh, the islet immediately to the north, and fierce warriors shouting as they reached the beach where a group of monks were gathered. To his horror the invaders proceeded to kill all the monks. The Vikings left his site for a time he could not measure -an hour or a minute, he could not say- then returned with cattle and booty, while the sky turned red from the burning Abbey. The plunder was loaded, and the longboats pushed off into the night. The entire episode had been completely silent. That night, MacMillan, an artist, sketched the emblems he had seen on the longboat sails. The British Museum confirmed them as tenth century.
After nightfall even clairvoyantly-stunted folk such as myself see spirits wherever you look. We certainly weren’t doing anything as aerobic as walking, we were drinking Côtes du Rhône in the reception area of our hotel while using their wifi.
But this area faces onto what is one of two roads in the town and I was continuously distracted by the parade of ghosts walking past. Honestly, there were entire families. I have never seen anything like it.
Which brings us to our last story and… like all good folk stories… it comes with a warning.
The Golden Dawn Connection
Netta Fornario -who lived just down the road from me in London- was found dead on a fairy mound in the south of the island in 1929, naked except for a black cloak (possibly a Hierus cloak) and crucifix, beside a ritual dagger. She died of exposure. (Warning: Do not get naked and go outside on Iona in November!)
She was a friend of Dion Fortune and her death is mentioned in Psychic Self Defense. In it, Fortune accuses Moina Mathers of cursing her to death. This is extremely mean-spirited as the widow Mathers pre-deceased Netta by over a year.
Whatever happened, Fornario was a figure you would doubtless all recognise today. A good person, very interested in using her abilities to heal or help others, maybe a little bit unhinged… the kind of person who’ll come out with something really mental like how they bi-locate to Alexandrian Egypt to warn Cleopatra about something but you let it slide because they’re still good people.
And then they get in a little bit over their heads. Then they become Choronzon’s playthings.
Let me just say this. If someone as psychically useless as me is distracted by the spirit world on Iona then this isn’t the best place to be a little bit unhinged. From the guidebook:
Doorstepped by journalists after the death, Fornario’s housekeeper… was quoted… as saying “Several times she said she had been to the ‘far beyond’ and had come back to life after spending some time in another world”… Iona was the perfect place for her because she had been on the island in a previous incarnation.
But Iona did not heal what was probably an escalating mental illness. At night she wrote intensively -never drawing her curtains because she could see the faces of her previous ‘patients’ in the clouds- or went for long walks exploring the ‘mystical’ sites of the island.
She lived on Iona for a little over a year. In the last few months, villagers say she began behaving as if someone was after her and mentioned telepathic attacks. Her clothing and appearance became dishevelled.
The day before her disappearance, she announced that she had been telepathically told to leave the island. Despite the villagers saying there wasn’t a ferry that day she waited for hours at the jetty. She returned in the evening claiming she had been “told to stay”. She locked herself in her room.
The following morning she was found to have disappeared and her body was found after a second search the day after. The coroner ruled cause of death was “exposure to the elements”.