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The Island Pilgrimage


 Why I Wrote This Book


It is said that the island of Iona in the Hebrides is a "thin place". It is easy to step through the barrier between the physical  and the spiritual. This is a book about thresholds. What can and cannot be crossed safely.

    I have spent time on Iona myself and been enchanted by it. I love the story of how Columba committed a great sin in his homeland of Ireland and found the place of his exile on this Scottish island.  

    Columba had made an illicit copy of a precious book. He defied the High King's judgment that he hand it over. Instead, he incited his royal kinsmen to a bloody battle in which thousands died. He was sentenced to excommunication, but this was commuted to exile. He must save as many souls as the number of deaths he had caused. And so he founded his abbey on Iona. He and his monks healed the sick, fed the poor, bought slaves and freed them. They carried the Gospel of Christ right across Scotland and converted the King of the Picts. A generation later, St Aidan went south from Iona to found Lindisfarne, Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast, and changed the history of northern Britain.

    Columba turned a past of anger and bloodshed into a wonderful future. My characters, too, are racked by the consequences of their emotions and have to find a new way forward with integrity.

    My problem as a novelist is that Iona is a real island. And there is a real Iona Community there, hosting groups like the one I write about at the abbey. I didn't want anyone to confuse my fiction with this reality. So I reverted to the ancient name for Columba's island, Hy, and invented a fictitious Fellowship of Columba. The physical details of the island necessarily remain the same, but the people, the events and the way members of my Fellowship respond to them, are all imaginary.

    A variety of friends, ordained and lay, contributed individual gifts to the characters of Brian and Ian. But the composite characters which grew from this soon took on a life of their own, and bear only a passing resemblance to any real ministers of religion I know. Yet the underlying truth is that every minister has to face his or her own problems, as well as the deluge of problems their congregations bring to them. Brian's dilemma becomes particularly dramatic, but it illustrates a quieter reality.

    Saints in the Celtic Church were not canonised by a central authority. They were called saints by the local community to whom they dedicated their lives. Some, like Columba, became famous worldwide. Others are known only through the name of a church in a single village. Like Columba in real life, and like Brian in this novel, they could be deeply flawed, even difficult to live with, yet their passion for God and for humankind inspired the love of those who knew them. In New Testament language, all Christians are 'saints', and called to that sort of radiant holiness, despite all our failings.


  Read an Extract


  ‘Sit down,’ he commanded.
   After a moment’s hesitation, she obeyed. It seemed too calculatingly careful to take off her jacket and spread it out first. She knew he meant her to give herself to this experience without reserve. She settled a little distance away, unsure how much space he needed. He turned his face to the sea again. He was expecting her to do the same.
   She was aware of what he was inviting her to do. To go beyond facts. To abandon all academic scepticism about whether the turbulent fortunes of Hy could have preserved a memory of the exact location of Columba’s hermitage. If not here, then it must have been somewhere like this. This was reality.  He was willing her to be where she was, to suspend disbelief, to imagine truth.
   The sun was shining directly in her eyes. It laid a bright barred sea road towards Ireland. To the Blessed Isles of Paradise. To the fairyland of the Ever-Young.
   But soon they would have to turn and face the east. Return to the monastery, and all the responsibilities that waited there.
   Columba had sat here, far more grievously burdened. The care of his monks, body and soul. The call from the Scottish court, to be their kingmaker. The forbidding mountains beyond that must be penetrated through the deep Great Glen, to challenge the Picts and their Druids and win them for Christ.
   What were the cares that Brian brought here? She stole a glance sideways. The sun picked out the little tufts of hair at the side of his jaw, which made her think he secretly would like to grow a beard. She noticed with a start that they were not fair, as she had supposed, but white. For all his youthful zest and laughter, time had not stood still. How much of an effort was it for him to attract and jolly the youngsters into doing what he wanted, making it seem so spontaneous, like a rock Peter Pan? She felt a rush of protectiveness, so that she had to will her hand to stay still and not reach out across the daisy-starred turf to cover his.

  ‘I love you,’ he said, still gazing before him out to sea.
  The wind seemed to halt. The words hung in mid-air, too dangerous, too dear, for her to accept.


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