Loud Whispers from the Ends of the Earth


By John Bloom

Iona is a chilly, barren, salty, wind-whipped little island off the coast of western Scotland that seems almost entirely inhabited by the ghosts of madmen—first Druids, then Irish monks, then Viking murderers, then monks again and, for 300 years, nuns as well, although most of the nuns seem to have vanished without a trace. Even though the marble quarry has been abandoned for a hundred years, and there’s not much life left in the crofting or fishing trades to speak of, there are 90 people who still live on the island, most of them engaged in catering to the many pilgrims who come on day trips to poke around among the ruins.


I’m not big on sacred places—dirt is dirt to me, and I’m the first to bolt from any tour involving a cathedral or a monastery (“See that sidewalk café over there? I’ll be the one with the double espresso—you guys have a ball with the lecture on the transept fresco”)—but my visit to Iona a couple of decades ago remains vivid in the memory, partly because it was just so deserted and exposed, like the very end of the earth, like no one could have lived there, ever, even for a day, and yet they did. Kings from three nations were buried there—but here’s the best part about that: no one knows where on the island the kings were buried.

Part of the reason Iona makes such an impression is that, to get there, you have to take a ferry from the coastal town of Oban—and it’s not a luxury ferry, it’s the kind that creaks and shudders and rolls with the waves—and then you take a long bus ride across the Isle of Mull (if he’s in the mood, the bus driver might point out the largest sheep ranch on the island, owned by the band Genesis—probably no longer true, although they did have a reunion tour last year), and then you take an even smaller ferry from the western end of Mull to Iona, and this ferry is more like being in a bass boat in the middle of a hurricane, with salt spray stinging your eyes and soaking into your clothes.

After being beaten up by the trip over, the first thing that strikes you about the island is the silence. Very few places on the earth are silent. But Iona is a true derelict, so neglected, so unpreserved, that it lives on only in the cultural memory—most traces of actual habitation were long since blown away by the unrelenting elements. All you hear is the wind sawing and wheezing, so omnipresent that a conversation ten paces away is blotted out entirely. The group I was with—about 12 of us from the bass boat—included several who crossed themselves as soon as they touched land, so I assumed they were Catholic, even though the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, and for that matter the pagans would all have equal claims on the space.

For the past 1400 years Iona has been most famous as the place Columba landed when he came from Ireland, bringing Christianity to Scotland. I have no idea why this moment is so transcendent to so many people, but there’s nothing left of Columba’s monastic settlement. Most of the famous Celtic crosses on the island date from much later, and they can’t even get an accurate date for the abbey church—the centerpiece of the old buildings—because it’s been rebuilt so many times after being destroyed by war or weather or the wandering away of its patrons.

All of these memories were summoned up by Iona: A Pilgrim’s Guide by Peter W. Millar, a slender little volume from 1997 that was just updated and reissued by Canterbury Press so that the many tourists to the island—I get the impression there are more today than when I was there—will have a sense of what might have happened near the patches of earth they’re standing on. Millar is a Church of Scotland minister who was formerly the warden of Iona Abbey and now lives in Edinburgh, and he has an obvious affection for the place, which he calls “a place of holiness and healing ... a place where all may feel at home and accepted in God’s love.” I think what he’s suggesting is that Iona a sort of sanctuary island, although, as I said, my own experience of it was not holiness or healing but desolation.

At any rate, the book is kind of New Agey, peppered with quotations from Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, traditional Kenyan prayers, Gaelic blessings, Russian proverbs, Sojourner Truth, Yoruba poets from West Africa, the usual sprinkling of Celtic sayings, Biblical citations, and even the wisdom of a few Anglican divines, not to mention a prayer from “Oszaki, a Japanese leprosy patient”—well, you get the idea, indicating to me that at some point Iona went from being a haunted ruin to a place where the organizers of Burning Man could be showing up any day now. The island has been marked off into 16 separate “sites,” and once a week during the warmer months—although there’s no such thing as a warm month by stateside standards—there’s an official five-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage walk, and at each of the 16 stations there is “a brief reflection and prayer, and sometimes silence or songs.”

The journey ends at St. Oran’s Chapel, the oldest structure on the island, which, like almost everything else on Iona, can’t be accurately identified as to purpose or original use. The best guess is that it was built in the 1100s as a tomb for Clan Macdonald, although it apparently became a chapel, an oratory, and as late as 1957 simply a roofless pile of bricks. It’s assumed, however, that it sits in a graveyard. All of Iona is a graveyard. Let’s hope that the 90 hardy Ionians choose, in their efforts to give the increasing number of pilgrims something to look at or study or talk about, to offer them the island itself, empty and unforgiving and nurturing of nothing but that soughing omnipresent wind, which, after all, we know to be Spirit.


EWilson | 12:13 pm on 2/27/2008

My wife and I visited Scotland in 2004, and on the very top of my "Must See" list was Iona. Our trip was marked by grey skies, frustrating driving "issues," and lots of rain. Because of the rain we put off our trip to Iona because we really wanted it to be special. The point of no return came in our vacation when we either had to do it--rain be damned-- or cross it off. We got up early that morning and took the first ferry over to Mull. It was pouring. On the drive through Mull the rain continued. But when our spirits were the lowest as we boarded the ferry to Iona, the rain stopped and the clouds started to part. It was an incredible gift from G-d, and one I am still thankful for today.

My wife and I were also stunned by the marked silence (reverence?). I guess I would not call Iona "desolate," however. Its hard to see desolation in the midst of the greenest grass you've ever seen, friendly, genuine faces, and sheep grazing in the fields like they've always been there and always will.

To be true, the community on Iona were friendly, loving, and rather kooky. I felt at any given moment a group hug would break out. But, its hard to knock their genuine warmth and sincerity. I enjoyed it.

All in all it is a trip I treasure and will never forget. Thanks for the reminder!

A few pics we took on Iona:



Anonymous | 03:49 pm on 2/27/2008

Thanks for your post and pix...they make Iona look beautiful!!!

Maximus | 07:11 pm on 3/02/2008

Ditto w/anony comment of 2/27. Thanks again for taking the time to do the pix and post!

J Schmidt | 12:32 pm on 2/27/2008

I visited the Island with 8 other pilgrims. I would call it the most holy place I have ever visited. What makes it holy? The spiritual transformation that is lived and taught by the staff of the Iona Abby and those who represent the Iona Community. I would never call the island desolate. It was beautiful, even if it did rain most of the time. I wore water resistant pants, water proof boots and a water proof jacket. I found those to be necessary. I climed duni, the highest point of the island, from which it was difficult to see much because of the fog that morning.

The Abby and the MacLeod Centre, restored by the leadership of Rev. George MacLeod, are incredible places. The small groups and worship services in the magnificant abby were outstanding. The themes of the Iona Community seem to be spiritual transformation and social justice. I only hope I can return one day. What an incredible spiritual experience.

Anonymous | 03:51 pm on 2/27/2008

Sounds like the perfect place for the Emergent Church's headquarters!

Mary Beth Kluge | 03:44 pm on 2/27/2008

I'm with Jay. I was one of the nine pilgrims who went for spiritual renewal and did not want to leave. A wonderful retreat with a wonderful history. The wind and rain were part of the journey and the hosts were marvelous.

Cynthia Kepler-Karrer | 05:12 pm on 2/27/2008

First trip was for 45 minutes in April of '01 (due to ferry and train schedules), second trip was three days in April of '05. Both were stunning. I think the description I favor is the "thin place"...I felt history very close to me on Iona, as if it were more kairos than chronos. I felt that way in much of Scotland, but on Iona, it was intensified. I think it's because it is a "tourist" spot that is the least "touristy" place I know (there aren't lots of people hawking espressos and things from carts along the way). The silence was full of story for me.

David Barton | 11:15 pm on 2/27/2008

Spent a week on Iona several years ago. Wonderful place. Couldn't exactly get in touch with the "thin place" mentality, but enjoyed the people there, the worship and the type of Christianity practiced there.

Some scenes from our visit can be seen at


anonymous | 03:46 pm on 4/07/2008

thanks for sharing the pics. great memories. my favorite part of my trip from Boston in about '98 was watching a baby lamb held and fed (I think it purred) and singing "what do you do with a drunken sailor" up top on the ferry ride over.

Jacob | 06:57 am on 5/03/2011

I had been there, way back in 1980 with my parents...and is truly one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I still remember the freshness of the place and the good food we had there, during our 7 day stay in the region.

that calvinist doug | 09:24 am on 2/28/2008

For $2500 inclusive, I'm inviting all pilgrims to come and camp out in my backyard. It's common knowledge that my state (North Carolina) was settled by the Scots, of which I am one, so I'm sure it's gotta be holy ground. If you come in late winter, it's a good bet it'll be windy and wet, although due to our drought, I'll be happy to set my sprinkler to "mist" if that helps. Oh yeah, I'll tell my kids to be quiet...you'll have to handle the loud-mouth beagle on your own. I've got some outdoor speakers on the patio, so if you'd like, I can play some moody, celtic tunes.

considering | 11:59 am on 2/28/2008

what no horrible boat ride?

that calvinist doug | 05:23 pm on 2/28/2008

I could put you in the bed of my pickup, stand on the bumper and jump up and down, while hosing you down like a civil rights protestor in 1960's Birmingham...but it'll cost you an extra $100.

Charlie - Apartments In Ukraine | 05:48 am on 2/09/2009

wow this is so myterious! I liked the story and I wil shae it with my friends, think they will lied it so much as I did. Indeed I gave the link to you blog to some of them and they are now your constant readers!)))

Jamie - Cheap Marlboro | 07:49 pm on 3/08/2009

I and one of my friends visited the Iona in 2003. And it seems to me it was the best place I have ever visited. But would never say that Iona is a deserted island . It is rainy but the nature is fantastic there.
I would like to return there one day. Because this island left me unforgettable recalls for all my life.

Liam - Hoteles En Barcelona | 08:21 am on 3/30/2009

So interesting it is! I never heard about Iona before! I even feel a little bit ashamed of it... Think I should visit it as soon as possible... Thanx for this hint :)

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