Notes from Iona…
John Smith once wrote, much more eloquently than I ever could, about islands.
He claimed that he was ‘almost a Hebridean’ because his mother left Islay to give birth to him on the mainland, before returning across the water with her newborn son to the village of Portnahaven, where her husband was the schoolmaster.
In a short, lovely piece simply entitled I Love Islands, the much-missed Labour leader described the last boat leaving for the mainland, and how in that moment those left behind are bound into a community, a way of life, in a manner that cannot happen elsewhere.
The pier at Iona, looking to Mull
John would have been my father-in-law. Or maybe not: as Prime Minister, his life would have changed irrevocably and the daughter I married may never have crossed my path.
Still, my two younger children know him as ‘Grandpa Smith’, and so he is part of my family.
This week on Iona, my boys tended his grave. They do so meticulously and with great pride, tidying up the stones and shells left behind by visitors, and rearranging them into the kind of pattern that only they really understand.
In the long, peaceful days, I have reflected on Grandpa Smith and his family’s enduring relationship with Iona. I’ve thought a lot about life here, and elsewhere in the Hebridean islands. My father was born on Islay, 30 or so miles to the south of Iona, and generations of our family lived and worked on Jura and Mull too.
I consider myself a passionate, but too often absent, advocate for these places. If you’ve not been then you must go, I tell anybody who will listen. I am obsessed with photographing them — the water, the light, the landscapes, the big skies, the people. They do the hard work and I just press a button.
Going to work
Some of the most impressive people I know live out here on the islands. The entrepreneurial spirit has been alive and well here for centuries, I suspect. Certainly for as long as that other spirit for which Islay is famous.
It is one thing to sit in San Francisco and design a new product or app that can be sold into a vast, hungry market of millions (sometimes billions) of people. It is quite another thing to sustain a croft or a farm or a pub, shop or craft business on an island that might only have 150 or so permanent inhabitants and to which access for much of the year depends on the weather.
It’s hard work, but these are hardy people. I see one of the men who take thousands of people to the island of Staffa every year. He’s ambling through a squall, to a small inflatable that he will row to a dinghy that he will then take to the bigger vessel that makes its way north out of the Sound of Iona, twice a day, to the majestic, curious lump of volcanic hexagonry (I know that’s not a word) that inspired Mendelssohn to write his Hebridean Overture after visiting in 1829.
Later, I talk to a local boy who runs a farm and a campsite, among other ventures. This is lambing season and he moves his sheep three times a day, to make the best use of the land and just to care for his flock.
In the Iona Craft Shop, there is painstakingly selected stock to unpack, Iona Wool to market and sell, and a (sold out) music festival to organise.
Probably the best craft shop on these islands
The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry — the Loch Buie — captained by a local boy, makes its way back and forth all day, never quite retracing its original route given the vagaries of the currents and tides of Scotland’s west coast. At night, she shelters in a place called the ‘Bull Hole’, to avoid being ambushed by some passing storm.
Staring out to sea during the day, the passage of that boat is almost hypnotic and the acoustics carry its tannoy messages up to our little rented house. ‘Please listen carefully,’ says the man. And we do.
We spend time with good friends. At the bar or round the dinner table, we talk of politics big and small, from the eternal debate about Scotland’s future to the equally long-lived question of where to get a bloody phone signal. Please, don’t mention 4G (or 3G or 2G for that matter).
There are smart people here, brilliant promoters of their communities who make powerful arguments for fairer treatment and who have a worldview, too. Some of them are locals, with roots as deep as the stretch of water that runs between Mull and here. Some are new to the place, but no less passionate.
Each of these remarkable people exists in a type of calm that is difficult for mainlanders to fathom. It is utterly intoxicating, and undoubtedly good for the soul. I’ve heard it described as medicinal. In 563 AD, Columba arrived here from his native Ireland. I wonder if he felt the same way I do when I walk off the ferry.
This week on Iona, there’s a good deal of talk of the vacancy for a head teacher. There are 18 pupils at the primary school, a small building adjacent to a nunnery that has stood since 1203. Older children travel to Oban on the mainland to go to secondary school.
Earlier this week the broadcaster and journalist Jon Snow, after visiting the island with his friend, my sister-in-law Sarah Smith, tweeted of the job opportunity to his massed ranks of followers. For a teacher, I cannot think of a more beautiful environment in which to prepare young people for a rich and fulfilling life. For children, there cannot be many more stunning places to learn and to live. My children love it here, and seem satisfied with a couple of weeks a year. I’m not sure that’s enough for us.
Before we leave Iona, my wife takes flowers to her father’s grave. I leave her to those precious moments and to her thoughts. For many people, John Smith represented hope; he was an honest man who cared about ordinary people and making their lives better.
But he was a father too, and a husband, a brother, a son and now — too late — a grandfather. He lies in peace on Iona, alongside ancient Kings of Scotland and local people. I suspect his affinity is more with the latter.
So, what is the point of all this? I don’t really know. If you’ve never been to the Hebrides, then you must go. But please, don’t all go at once. And if you’re a teacher, follow this link and apply to teach and live in one of the most special places anywhere in the world.
Footnote: all photographs were taken by me, with the one exception (Jane) – so, copyright and all that.