Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The isle is full of noises


Iona is an island on the west coast of Scotland, just off the Island of Mull. The island is three and a half miles long and one mile wide, and is a very special place for reasons which are almost undefinable. Over the centuries it has attracted pilgrims of one kind or another, starting with St Columba, who traveled there in a coracle in 563 and founded a religious community based around the monastery he found, which became Iona Abbey.

My family started going to Iona once a year in the late 1960s after my dad (Chris) accepted a commission from the Iona Community to carve flora and fauna of the island on the cloisters in the abbey. We went there for three weeks every summer; each week Chris would carve one capital. We were taken out of school to go, to some disapproval by our teachers; this may have been one reason for my parents’ disenchantment with the state school system which eventually led them to remove us from the local primary school to be educated at home.
We were given homework to do and I clearly remember filling pages with scratchy drawings of island flowers and birds; I also remember running through the bog, with moss squelching underfoot, and listening to my mum play the piano as sweet chords echoed around the abbey; jumping over sand dunes at the west end towards beautiful white beaches or buying McGowan’s Highland Toffee at the local sweet shop; hitting a fish on the head to kill it, and then being unable to eat it; reading one Agatha Christie book after another – for some reason the houses we stayed in always had loads of old copies and my tally was over 40 by the time I tired of reading them – and sitting alone in my favourite place, a small hollow in the rocks just over the brow of a hill called Dùn Ì, overlooking the sea and the islands far beyond, and thinking about what was at the other side of the water – America? We had riotous water fights, incurred the displeasure of the farmers by chasing through their fields, sang songs at the weekly ceilidhs in the abbey, paddled in the sea, and walked along dusty roads to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. When we were old enough we went to the local disco in the village hall and danced rock’n’roll with the German students who sometimes came with us (I was always in love with one or other of them).

An American journalist who met my sister and I one summer near the jetty took a picture of us, sitting on the sand with the jetty wall behind us. I’m 12 or 13, wearing cowboy boots and a long skirt, and my hair is short and tousled. We thought we were pretty cool, so I was very embarrassed by the caption in the book she later published, which suggested that we “had an innocence about us that American teenagers of that age have often lost”.

All of those reasons and many more are why Iona is such a special place to me. I feel as though I grew up there, and Iona grew up with me: every year we’d arrive and excitedly observe the changes over the last year: the new shops, the new people, the new buildings. Someone I loved at school sent letters to me one summer while he was away in Germany and I took them up in to the hills to read. The outside world was crowding in and the future was coming at us, fast.

Iona is still there, of course, and probably remarkably unchanged even now, because the weight of the hills and the stone and the white sands and the abbey are the things that make it special, not what grows then withers and dies in time-lapse. Iona is a talisman in my mind for all that is wonderful about Scotland and it’s still, to me, the most beautiful place in the world.

10 comments:

Claire said...

Wow. I had tears welling in my eyes reading that. You express what I feel about the place so much better than I could. I haven't been back for nearly 20 years, but I know that when I do - hopefully taking the Peas with me so that they can experience it as children too - it'll still have the same effect, and I'll still cry when I leave on the ferry, watching the island retreat across the waves, not knowing when I'll go back.

Anonymous said...

I made the journey to see both the island and your dads work. I bought a book which had some photographs of carved birds and flowers from the cloisters(?) It was in the early 90's and I lunched in this bizarre 1970's Norwegian style hotel. It's a beautiful island. How come life it too hectic these days to make the trip back? You Hall kids got a way with words, whereas we Smith kids got a way with murder (figuratively speaking) ps recently found out my fathers real name is Hall but I'm happy being known as Smith. I've had an ugly week at work and want to finish this by saying that reading about your childhood memories in Iona was a nice gift. have a good weekend i'm working in my garden..

Anonymous said...

Hey Lottie.

Although Iona doesn't exert quite the same pull over me, I've always loved it, nevertheless. This was a beautifully expressed (and, dare I say it, melancholic) piece of writing. Stunning, really.

Incidentally, the fact that you were (briefly?) educated at home, feels like news to me - although I imagine I'm just forgetting something you've probably already told me. How did you ever manage to slink back into a "normal" schooling after this?

And the fact that you ate McGowan's Highland Toffee, of course, sees me tipping my imaginary hat with astonished respect. That stuff was tough going. Tough going.

Anyway, enough already. That was really beautiful, C, thank you.

Kind regards from Ireland...

TPE

LottieP said...

Thank you, Claire, B, and TPE. I'm glad you liked what I wrote. As someone pointed out to me, I would probably find actually living on Iona rather than dreaming about it rather a different proposition. But that's the good thing about iconic places from your childhood: you can imagine all sorts of beauty and significance in them without ever having to test the theory by trying to buy a pint of milk and a loaf of bread there on a Sunday.

I'm surprised you didn't know about the home schooling, TPE. I came straight from that to our school, and the rest is - a story.

I haven't written about the school yet because it's a big topic and I'm not sure yet where to start. What would you like to know? And yes, making the transition to "normal" schooling was a challenge. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, I didn't join a "normal" school, as you know.

Reading the Signs said...

Lovely to read this. It's a place I will be going back to. I just feel good there. I imagine you carry it inside you, take it with you everywhere.

LottieP said...

Thanks for the comment, RTS. I remember flying over the western isles on my first trip to the US, looking out of the tiny window as perfect green hills and white beaches rolled away, and being suddenly overwhelmed with unexpected tears.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that can be a bit of a killer, really, can't it, flying over somewhere familiar? I've been whacked in the past by surprisingly strong emotions whilst peering down from the sky. And it's not just stunning landscapes that get me, either. An aerial view of Glasgow, for pity's sake, has left me reeling once before. It's hardly surprising that the perfect beaches of the western isles hit you with such a force.

Anyway, hello again. Yes, I'm surprised I didn't know about your home schooling, too. Like I say, though, this is probably just a memory thing, as it seems highly unlikely that this would be something I hadn't been aware of previously. My bad.

You're not sure where to start? The beginning, Lottie, the beginning. Or, failing that, fly in under the radar and start off by saying, generally, whether you feel that it's a desirable thing for parents to do - taking their children out of "normal" educational circles - and then, once you've landed, you can start picking apart all the personal miseries and woes. It'll be brilliant.

Sometimes, however, when I feel that a subject is simply too overwhelming to know where to start with it, then I just kind of leave it be, permanently. You are made of far sterner stuff, however, so go go go. ("Wake me up, before you go go tra la la la la la la la la la, WAKE me up bef..." Stop it. Do you remember that song? Criminal. I think you maybe used to love Wham a little bit, you know. Probably still do, in fact.)

Sorry. Where were we? Yes, you're definitely right about favoured places from childhood and how we can "imagine all sorts of beauty and significance in them without ever having to test the theory". I'm not sure that this is such a bad thing, though, and it may even be absolutely necessary, Lottie. It's rather comforting and beautiful to have these safe spaces to retreat to in our minds. I think so, anyway.

Formidably yours etc..

TPE

LottieP said...

Thanks, TPE. really. You've got me all wrong on Wham!, though. I turned my nose up at them at the time (oh yes! It was the Teardrop Explodes for me), and I still don't think they're cool in retrospect, whether you seem them as ironic or non-ironic. (Having said that, I confess Club Tropicana might get me dancing, decidedly unironically.)

As it happens I don't agree with removing your children from school on the basis of, let's face it, misplaced idealism. Most children want more than anything to fit in. You no longer have the option.

A denizen of the village I grew up in summed up the little school I went to in one phrase: "They're all barmy up there".

As to the rest, I think I will start with a blog post...

TPE said...

Good idea, Lottie, although I wonder if it will be even harder than you imagine? We'll soon see, anyway.

I tend to agree, incidentally - it seems almost cruel to deprive one's children of the company of their peers and the chance to fit in/be accepted etc. Obviously, you are very well-adjusted and perfectly capable, socially, but this seems to be in spite of your early schooling, not necessarily because of it.

Tricky. I can very well understand the temptation - and my sisters have often threatened to go down the home schooling route - but I think I would always be able to resist such a course of action. Parents should maybe wait until their children are eighteen and then ask them if they would like to have home schooling. This would sort it all out in a jiffy, mark my words.

Don't worry, I was under no illusions whatsoever about your relationship with pop duo Wham. Just teasing. Still, you raise a good point and an interesting memory: Club Tropicana, without wishing to exaggerate, would very probably still see my tap my foot, mutely and surreptitiously, beneath the table. Not a word of a lie. That song rules.

Keith said...

Charlotte, you are a f***ing brilliant writer.