This, then, is the Iona of Columba.
“There is the bay where the little, sea-tossed coracle drove
ashore. There is the hill —the Hill of Angels—where heavenly visitants shone
before him. There is the sound across which the men of Mull heard vespers
sung by hooded monks—heard the Lord’s song sung in a strange land. There is
the narrow strip of water across which holy men came to take counsel,
sinners to do penance, kings to be crowned. The little island speaks with a
quiet insistance of its past—for was it not at once the fountain and the
fortress of the faith, at once the centre of Celtic learning and of
“The mountaineer and the fisherman and the shepherd of the
Isles live their lives in lonely places, and the winds and waves bear to
them messages from the unknown beyond. They hear the tide of Eternity
forever breaking round the coasts of time, and in spirit they, like St.
Brendan, voyage far in fairy seas.
“Part of the inheritance of the Celt is the sense of the
longing and striving after the unattainable and incomprehensible on Earth.
Forlorn, he has the sense of fighting a losing battle for all his soul holds
dear; for the simple life of old, for the beauty of the world threatened
with utilitarian desecration, for outlived ideals of love and faith and
loyalty, of honour and of chivalry.”—(Wilkie).
“As I write, here on the hill-slope of Dun-I, the sound of
the furtive wave is as the sighing in a shell. I am alone between sea and
sky, for there is no other on this bouldered height, nothing visible but a
single blue shadow that slowly sails the hill-side. The bleating of the
lambs and ewes, the lowing of kine, these come up from the Machair that lies
between the west slopes and the shoreless sea to the west; these ascend as
the very smoke of sound. All around the island there is a continuous
breathing; deeper and more prolonged on the west, where the open sea is, but
audible everywhere. The seals on Soa are even now putting their breasts
against the running tide; for I see a flashing of fins here and there in
patches at the north end of the Sound, and already from the ruddy granite
shores of the Ross there is a congregation of sea-fowl—gannets and
guillemots, skuas and herring-gulls, the long-necked northern diver, the
tern, the cormorant. In the sunblaze, the waters of the Sound dance their
blue bodies and swirl their flashing white hair o’ foam; and, as I look,
they seem to me like children of the wind and the sunshine, leaping and
running in these flowing pastures, with a laughter as sweet against the ears
as the voices of children at play.
“The joy of life vibrates everywhere. Not a stone’s throw
from where I lie, half hidden beneath an overhanging rock is the Pool of
Healing. To this small, black-brown tarn, pilgrims of every generation, for
hundreds of years, have come. Solitary, these; not only because the pilgrim
to the Fount of Eternal Youth must fare hither alone, and at dawn, so as to
touch the healing water the moment the first sunray quickens it—but
solitary, also, because those who go in quest of this Fount of Youth are the
dreamers and the Children of Dream, and these are not many, and few come now
to this lonely place. Yet an Isle of Dream Iona is, indeed. Here the last
sun-worshippers bowed before the rising of God; here Columba and his hymning
priests laboured and brooded here, for century after century, the Gael has
lived, suffered, joyed, dreamed his impossible, beautiful dream; as here,
now, he still lives, still suffers patiently, still dreams, and through all
and over all, broods upon the incalculable mysteries. He is an elemental,
among the elemental forces. He knows the voices of wind and sea; and it is
because the Fount of Youth upon Dun-I of Iona is not the only well-spring of
peace, that the Gael can confront his destiny as he does, and can endure.
For the genius of the Celtic race stands out now with averted touch, and the
light of it is as a glory before the eyes, and the flame of it is blown into
the hearts of the stronger people. The Celt fades, but his spirit rises in
the heart and the mind of the Anglo-Celtic peoples, with whom are the
destinies of generations to come.
“I stop, and look sea-ward from this hill-slope of Dun-I.
Yes, even in this Isle of Joy, as it seems in this dazzle of golden light
and splashing wave, there is the like mortal gloom and immortal mystery
which moved the minds of the old seers and bards. Yonder, where that thin
spray quivers against the thyme-set cliff, is the Spouting Cave, where to
this day the Mar-Tarbh, dread creature of the sea, swims at the full of the
tide. Beyond, out of sight behind these craggy steeps, is Port na Curaich,
where, a thousand years ago, Columba landed in his coracle. Here, eastward,
is the landing-place for the dead of old, brought hence out of Christendom
for sacred burial in the Isle of the Saints. All the story of the Gael is
here. Iona is the microcosm of the Gaelic world.” —(Fiona Macleod).
An ancient prophecy attributed to Columba, and cherished by
all lovers of Iona, runs as follows:—
“An I mo chridhe, I mo ghraidh,
An aite guth mhanach bidh geum ba;
Ach mu’n tig an savghal gu crich,
Bithidh I mar a bha
“In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love,
Instead of monk’s voice shall be lowing of cows:
But ere the world shall come to an end,
Iona shall be as it was.”