Day 88: Iona

When I was a child I thought of the journey to Iona as a string of peculiar place names. It started ordinarily enough: London, Glasgow. But then, beginning with Oban, things started to feel foreign.[1] Oban itself struck me as a relatively straightforward name, or at least it did until my first year in grad school when I remember overhearing a group of American grad students and would-be-single-malt-scotch-connoisseurs, all men in their early twenties, waxing lyrical about the Obahhhhn, pronounced to rhyme with how Americans pronounce the Italian city Milan. I sniggered because I thought they were taking the piss by Frenchifying it. But when I realized they weren’t joking I felt compelled to explain to them that it should be pronounced with the accent on the first syllable as in the American store name Loehmann’s. I don’t think they really believed me.

After Oban all those words that haven’t formed on my lips in twenty years come thick and fast: Craignure! Tobermory! Fionnphort! The latter is pronounced as, let’s see, this is tricky; perhaps finnifurt is the closest, but without a strong r in the final syllable? The ferry ride from Fionnphort to Iona itself is marked by an incantation of place names as (depending on the weather) particular sights swim into focus; can you see the Dutchman’s cap? Ooh, I see the Abbey! There’s the jetty! Is that Mark’s boat?

I was reminded yesterday, as we climbed to the top of Dùn I, the highest point on the island, that when you holiday in one place every year, as we did for most of my childhood, the holiday consists largely of annually performing a certain set of activities, or perhaps “rituals” is a better word, most of which are tied to a particular place. When I was a child, a holiday on Iona was not complete if it did not include the following: cycling to Gordon Grant’s in the morning to buy fresh rolls, half white, half brown. [2] Running at full tilt and leaping off the grassy “cliff” that jutted onto the beach at Sandeels Bay [3]; when tiring of that, building a dam to try to stem the tide coming in; when the dam inevitably broke, eating rolls filled with sliced cheese and tomato. “Swimming”: which for me did not entail much swimming as such but a lot of squealing and frenzied treading water because the water was so frigid. I also found it massively entertaining to plunge my head under the water, which would unfailingly make me start to black out. When I came back to the surface I would yell “I can’t see, I can’t see!” as the darkness closed in. Then, when I’d recovered, I’d do it again. Afterwards we’d sit on the beach, wrapped in towels, munching chitterybites, teeth chattering.

What else? Watching my Dad trying to coax a fire in the rain, so that we could boil a kettle for tea at Port Ban. Walking on the machair, and either hearing or telling the story of my aunt seeing the Viking ghosts there when she was a girl. Looking for Iona stones on the machair beach and at Columba’s bay; looking for sea glass everywhere; obsessive-compulsively collecting cowrie shells at Port Ban. [4] Frolicking in the nunnery. [5] Going out in a boat with an older cousin to set out lobster traps (I can’t remember any lobster ever actually being caught …). Buying cake mix from Alison’s shop, whipping up a cake, and presenting it triumphantly to the family for tea; buying Angel Delight from Alison’s shop, whisking it into airy, dreamy mousse, and presenting it triumphantly to the family for pudding. [6] Visiting Uncle Walter and Aunt Ann next door and wishing desperately that I had a dog like sweet Eshan. Looking for ancestors’ gravestones in the Abbey graveyard. [7] Dutifully traipsing around the Abbey and wondering when we could go to the coffee shop. Joyfully taking refuge from the rain in the coffee shop and drinking tea (never coffee!) and eating millionaire’s shortbread. [8] Cycling fast to the North end, weaving in and out of the daytrippers to whom I felt immensely superior. Drinking tea in the elephant’s grave. [9] Trudging along the road to the village in the rain wearing head-to-toe yellow waterproofs and slightly-too-big wellington boots. Eating fried scampi and chips at Gordon Grant’s. Walking home from Gordon Grant’s using a torch to light the way and squealing as we stumbled in the darkest dark I’d ever seen, Londoner that I was.

After being here for over a week, the family re-assembled now with children in tow, new memories overlay the old: sipping a gin-and-tonic at the elephant’s grave while sitting on a blanket in the sunshine with my darling niece; climbing Dùn-I holding tight to my daughter’s hand; conducting endless, wearisome negotiations over what the kids are allowed to buy at the two shops on the island, both of which stock items that both children really need; sipping an honest-to-God excellent cappuccino at the Craft shop—finally, Dad, I wish I could tell you: you can get espresso here now! Cycling to the village with my son running beside me and keeping up all the way; sleeping in the back bedroom with my daughter curled next to me; cream tea at the Argyll hotel: my God, those scones. Seriously. Eaten with wonderfully tart blackcurrant jam in the hotel garden looking out onto the sea as the children wrestle each other like over-excited puppies on the grass.

Experiencing Iona as a parent also gives me some hint of what my childhood holidays here would have been like for my mother: making endless cheese and tomato rolls; zipping up anoraks; wrapping slightly crunchy, air-dried towels around shivering, slightly blue children; pockets always laden down with “treasures” found on the beach; and, for her, as for me, those parenting experiences would have overlaid her own childhood memories of the island.

Those three different time periods—twenty-teens, nineteen-seventies and eighties, and nineteen-forties, when my mother holidayed on Iona as a child—seemed to co-exist for a brief moment yesterday. One way the passing of time reveals itself on the island is through the presence and number of cars. We were walking home from the village yesterday, when a tractor barreled passed us a little too fast and close for comfort.

“Ooh,” I remarked, “that was close. There are so many more cars now.”

My mother addressed the younger, “do you know, when I used to come here when I was your age, there were no cars at all, only horse-drawn carriages.”

This in itself seemed hard to fathom. But then Mum continued, musing aloud: “yes, they used to swim the horses over across the channel.”

“They used to what?” I said, thinking I’d misheard.

“They’d swim the horses over from Mull,” she said, and I laughed in delighted disbelief at the image of horses emerging from the waves, shaking their manes as they scrambled up onto the shore.

My favorite Iona story is the one I mentioned earlier, the one about my aunt as a little girl seeing the Vikings on the machair. She puzzled at first over why they were all cut off at the waist, as if stuck waist-deep in mud, and concluded later that it was because of changing land levels. She grew up to become a geographer.

I quizzed my aunt endlessly on what it had felt like to see those Vikings; was she terrified? Did she run home immediately? Did she tell anyone? It’s been a long time since I talked to her about it, and I don’t remember exactly what she replied, but I do remember my own certainty that in her shoes I would have been absolutely paralyzed by fear. As a child I would always walk quickly across the machair just in case the Vikings popped up somewhere.

On this trip I’ve been preoccupied, not by what it would feel like to see the ghosts, but rather, by what it would feel like to be the ghost who is seen. I imagine those Viking ghosts waiting and waiting for hundreds and thousands of years. And finally a wise little girl comes along and sees you, really sees you.

What a moment it would be.


[1] I don’t have any distinctive childhood memories of Oban, but I know for sure that there wasn’t a giant Olive Garden on the pier last time I was there, which was twenty years ago. I honestly kind of wish it was a MacDonald’s. I have a peculiarly vehement hatred for the Olive Garden. It’s something to do with its commodification of rusticity.

[2] The rolls are now all brown; and they are nice enough, but not sublime, the very essence of fresh, wholesome bread, which is how I remember them.

[3] To my disappointment, grass has grown over the whole area beneath the “cliff,” so that you can no longer jump joyously into the sand.

[4] I’ve discovered this week that I still really enjoy searching for shells on the beach. I may have spent a good couple of solid hours looking for cowrie shells yesterday. I find it hypnotically absorbing.

[5] I’d never noticed until this trip that there’s a window in the nunnery that is framed by an image of a woman with splayed legs. At least that what the sign says. It’s a bit difficult to make out. And it’s not clear what the significance is: the nunnery was in fact a happy house of ethical sluts? Or, more likely, I would suspect, opening your legs is the shortest route to hell? Yeah, it’s probably the latter.

[6] My memory is that we never had Angel Delight at home because my mother thought it was revolting, and, food snob that I now am, I’m quite sure that I’d agree with her if I were to eat it today.

[7] Mum pointed out one just this afternoon: her grandfather, James Archibald Love Tindal. I wish I had known (or remembered) that “Love” was a family name; I would have proposed it to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved as a middle name for our children. (If you know my daughter’s first name, you may understand why this would have been particularly tempting in her case.)

[8] Of course shortbread by itself is extraordinarily delicious. Butter, flour, and sugar: what more do you need? Minimalist perfection! (Tessa, I remember watching you make it at your house in Cambridge!) Well! Millionaire’s shortbread says fuck minimalism and gilds the lily with a fudgy caramel topping. And then thinks hang on a sec, why stop there, and tops the fudgy caramel with a thick layer of chocolate. It’s essentially a homemade Twix bar, but bigger and with better quality ingredients. Or at least the coffee shop version was. But the coffee shop no longer exists and I have to admit that the one piece of millionaire’s shortbread I’ve eaten since arriving here has disappointed my, it must be said, exceedingly high expectations. My cousin Louise and I tried to make it one year. But our fudge didn’t set properly and so we abandoned the project and used the fudgy syrup instead as a decadent topping for toast.

[9] The elephant’s grave is the family name for a mound with a grassy seat cut into it that is in the back garden of Sandbank, which is the name of the house. It’s sheltered and so an excellent place to sit and drink tea, or nap.


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