Saturday, 28 October 2017

Pilgrimage to Iona by Trevor Thorn.

The interpretative board in the Abbey 
grounfdsreferred to below

My wife is bolder than me! At a reunion of a retreat weekend, Iona was mentioned, and our long history of visits with groups ‘emerged’.  One of the group suggested that we should all go, and our week on Iona was ‘born’. As it happens, only 3 of that original group were able to come, so Pam made it known through her Facebook page that the week was happening. In the event, 18 months later, twenty one of us set out by various routes to the island at the end of September. Pam was the only person who knew everyone in the group and I had considerable anxiety that would place more responsibility on Pam than ideal if we, too, wanted some quiet time during our week on the island.

I need not have worried. The group members all arrived, delighted to be part of a ‘new’ community and the welcome at Bishops House, the retreat centre, added significantly to our collective pleasure at arriving, although that was not without its complications. Most of us arrived on the same ferry but the wind blew up and some of the party were obliged to find overnight accommodation on Mull. We had also had a complication of one of our pilgrims passing out in Oban and needing to be checked over at Oban hospital.  Pam was the only one of us who knew her well enough to stay with her. Thus, we arrived at various times during the space of 24 hours. It was good when we were finally all together, and this somehow added to the sense of pilgrimage.

Then the gentle rhythm of the House took over: Communion each morning, Night prayer to finish the day, our own morning prayer, and occasional worship in the medieval abbey organized by a small number of Iona Community members who will stay on the island throughout the winter.

We were quickly a community! 21 people, with very disparate stories, very different Christian journeys, melded together in a quite extraordinary way. Old friendships were renewed, new friendships forged. Anxieties shared (one of our group is having cancer surgery as I write). A new story of community gently emerged, which included knitting patterns exchanged, elephants (woolen) purchased (a story too long to share here), walks taken, cliffs scaled! Laughter, tears, shared meals, the odd ‘wee dram’!

In the beautiful abbey grounds there is an interpretation board which imagines the scene around the abbey in medieval times which apparently needed crowd control measures at busy times! It struck me most forcefully to see a number of sick people being helped into the abbey, one woman on the back of a man: suddenly the importance of such a shrine down through the ages made sense. And it is in the footsteps of all those earlier pilgrims that we chose to make the slightly complicated journey to the island. For us, three trains, a ferry from Oban to Mull, a coach ride across Mull and the final ten-minute ferry to the island itself. Of course, we had stories of how our transports fitted together, whereas earlier generations would probably have arrived by sea; so much safer in those days.

The island has been described as a thin place where heaven and earth brush against each other. The island does feel imbued with the holiness of Columba and his companions, the ambience of the restored abbey and the fine ruin of the nunnery – all places to provoke thinking about the God whose followers who made this place so special. And we are caught for our short time there into that specialness.

If you haven’t made a pilgrimage to a holy place, I can strongly recommend it and you will find further thoughts in my collection of Iona poems at


  1. Ah, Iona! Such a special and very 'thin' place. We go every spring (we have a family house there) so it was lovely to be 'taken back there' by you, six months later. Thank you. I am so glad your group felt the 'magic' and were blessed by it.

  2. Always glad to have an opportunity to reinforce others’ memories of that lovely place. Are you familiar with the poetry of Kenneth Steven? We were part of a writing week he held a couple of years ago. He now lives on Seil but draws lots of inspiration from his regular visits to Iona which started in his childhood. His poetry spans parts of the island only residents or very regular visitors would find - so I guess you would know them too. You’ll find more about him at