"The Works of Fiona Macleod" Volume IV

Iona

It was not in Barra, but in Iona, that, while yet a child, I set out one evening to find the Divine Forges. A Gaelic sermon, preached on the shoreside by an earnest man, who, going poor and homeless through the west, had tramped the long roads of Mull over against us, and there fed to flame a smouldering fire, had been my ministrant in these words. The "revivalist" had spoken of God as one who would hammer the evil out of the soul and weld it to good, as a blacksmith at his anvil: and suddenly, with a dramatic gesture, he cried: "This little island of Iona is this anvil; God is your blacksmith: but oh, poor people, who among you knows the narrow way to the Divine Forges?"

There is a spot on Iona that has always had a strange enchantment for me. Behind the ruined walls of the Columban church, the slopes rise, and the one isolated hill of Iona is there, a steep and sudden wilderness. It is commonly called Dn-I (Doon-ee), for at the summit in old days was an island fortress; but the Gaelic name of the whole of this uplifted shoulder of the isle is Slibh Meanach. Hidden under a wave of heath and boulder, near the broken rocks, is a little pool. From generation to generation this has been known, and frequented, as the Fountain of Youth.

There, through boggy pastures, where the huge-horned shaggy cattle stared at me, and up through the ling and roitch, I climbed: for, if anywhere, I thought that from there I might see the Divine Forges, or at least might discover a hidden way, because of the power of that water, touched on the eyelids at sunlift, at sunset, or at the rising of the moon.

From where I stood I could see the people still gathered upon the dunes by the shore, and the tall, ungainly figure of the preacher. In the narrow strait were two boats, one being rowed across to Fionnaphort, and the other, with a dun sail burning flame-brown, hanging like a bird's wing against Glas Eilean, on the tideway to the promontory of Earraid. Was the preacher still talking of the Divine Forges? I wondered; or were the men and women in the ferry hurrying across to the Ross of Mull to look for them among the inland hills? And the Earraid men in the fishing-smack: were they sailing to see if they lay hidden in the wilderness of rocks, where the muffled barking of the seals made the loneliness more wild and remote?

I wetted my eyelids, as I had so often done before (and not always vainly, though whether vision came from the water, or from a more quenchless spring within, I know not), and looked into the little pool. Alas! I could see nothing but the reflection of a star, too obscured by light as yet for me to see in the sky, and, for a moment, the shadow of a gull's wing as the bird flew by far overhead. I was too young then to be content with the symbols of coincidence, or I might have thought that the shadow of a wing from Heaven, and the light of a star out of the East, were enough indication. But, as it was, I turned, and walked idly northward, down the rough side of Dun Bhuirg (at Cul Bhuirg, a furlong westward, I had once seen a phantom, which I believed to be that of the Culdee, Oran, and so never went that way again after sundown) to a thyme-covered mound that had for me a most singular fascination.

It is a place to this day called Dn Mananain. Here, a friend who told me many things, a Gaelic farmer named Macarthur, had related once a fantastic legend about a god of the sea.  Manaun was his name, and he lived in the times when Iona was part of the kingdom of the Suderer (Note). Whenever he willed he was like the sea, and that is not wonderful, for be was born of the sea. Thus his body was made of a green wave. His hair was of wrack and tangle, glistening with spray; his robe was of windy foam; his feet, of white sand. That is, when he was with his own, or when he willed; otherwise, he was as men are. He loved a woman of the south so beautiful that she was named Darsadh-na-Ghrne (Sunshine).  He captured her and brought her to Iona in September, when it is the month of peace. For one month she was happy: when the wet gales from the west set in, she pined for her own land: yet in the dream-days of November, she smiled so often that Manaun hoped; but when Winter was come, her lover saw that she could not live. So he changed her into a seal. " You shall be a sleeping woman by day," he said, "and sleep in my dn here on Iona: and by night, when the dews fall, you shall shall be a seal, and hear me calling to you from a wave, and shall come out and meet me."

They have mortal offspring also, it is said.

There is a story of a man who went to the mainland, but could not see to plough, because the brown fallows became waves that splashed noisily about him. The same man went to Canada, and got work in a great warehouse; but among the bales of merchandise he heard the singular note of the sandpiper, and every hour the sea-fowl confused him with their crying.

Probably some thought was in my mind that there, by Dn Mananain, I might find a hidden way. That summer I had been thrilled to the inmost life by coming suddenly, by moonlight, on a seal moving across the last sand-dune between this place and the bay called Port Ban. A strange voice, too, I heard upon the sea. True, I saw no white arms upthrown as the seal plunged into the long wave that swept the shore; and it was a grey skua that wailed above me, winging inland; yet had I not had a vision of the miracle?

But alas! that evening there was not even a barking seal. Some sheep fed upon the green slope of Manaun's mound.

So, still seeking a way to the Divine Forges, I skirted the shore and crossed the sandy plain of the Machar, and mounted the upland district known as Sliav Starr (the Hill of Noises), and walked to a place, to me sacred. This was a deserted green airidh between great rocks. From here I look across could the extreme western part of Iona, to where it shelved precipitously around the little Port-na-Churaich, the Haven of the Coracle, the spot where St. Columba landed when he came to the island.

I knew every foot of ground here, as every cave along the wave-worn shore. How often I had wandered in these solitudes, to see the great spout of water rise through the grass from the caverns beneath, forced upward when tide and wind harried the sea-flocks from the north; or to look across the ocean to the cliffs of Antrim, from the Carn cul Ri Eirinn, the Cairn of the Hermit King of Ireland, about whom I had woven many a romance.

I was tired, and fell asleep. Perhaps the Druid of a neighbouring mound, or the lonely Irish King, or Colum himself (whose own Mound of the Outlook was near), or one of his angels who ministered to him, watched, and shepherded my dreams to the desired fold. At least I dreamed, and thus:--

The skies to the west beyond the seas were not built of flushed clouds, but of transparent flame. These flames rose in solemn stillness above a vast forge, whose anvil was the shining breast of the sea. Three great Spirits stood by it, and one lifted a soul out of the deep shadow that was below; and one with his hands forged the soul of its dross and welded it anew; and the third breathed upon it, so that it was winged and beautiful. Suddenly the glory-cloud waned, and I saw the multitude of the stars. Each star was the gate of a long, shining road. Many--a countless number--travelled these roads. Far off I saw white walls, built of the pale gold and ivory of sunrise. There again I saw the three Spirits, standing and waiting. So these, I thought, were not the walls of Heaven, but the Divine Forges.

That was my dream. When I awaked, the curlews were crying under the stars.

When I reached the shadowy grebe, behind the manse by the sea, I saw the preacher walking there by himself, and doubtless praying. I told him I had seen the Divine Forges, and twice; and in crude, childish words told how I had seen them.

"It is not a dream," he said.

I know now what he meant.

It would seem to be difficult for most of us to believe that what has perished can be reborn ( Note).  It is the same whether we look upon the dust of ancient cities, broken peoples, nations that stand and wait, old faiths, defeated dreams. It is so hard to believe that what has fallen may arise. Yet we have perpetual symbols; the tree, that the winds of Autumn ravage and the Spring restores; the trodden weed, that in April awakes white and fragrant; the swallow, that in the south remembers the north. We forget the ebbing wave that from the seadepths comes again: the Day, shod with sunrise while his head is crowned with stars.

Far-seeing was the vision of the old Gael, who prophesied that Iona would never wholly cease to be "the lamp of faith,"   but would in the end shine forth as gloriously as of yore, and that, after dark days, a new hope would go hence into the world. But before that (and he prophesied when the island was in its greatness)--

"Man tig so gu crich
Bithidh I mar a bha,
Gun a ghuth mannaich
Findh shalchar ba . . . "

quaint old-world Erse words, which mean--

Before this happens,
Iona will be as it was,
Without the voice of a monk,
Under the dung of cows."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A more polished later version, though attributed to Columba, runs:--

"An I mo chridhe, I mo ghridh
An ite guth mhanach bidh gum ba;
Ach mu'n tig an saoghal gu crich,
Bithidh I mar a bha."

(In effect: In Iona that is my heart's desire, Iona that is my love, the lowing of cows shall yet replace the voices of monks: but before the end is come Iona shall again be as it was.)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

And truly enough the little island was for long given over to the sea-wind, whose mournful chant even now fills the ruins where once the monks sang matins ard evensong; for generations, sheep and long-horned shaggy kine found their silent pastures in the wilderness that of old was "this our little seabounded Garden of Eden."

But now that Iona has been "as it was," the other and greater change may yet be, may well have already come.

Strange, that to this day none knows with surety the derivation or original significance of the name Iona. Many ingenious guesses have been made, but of these some are obviously far-fetched, others are impossible in Gaelic, and all but impossible to the mind of any Gael speaking his ancient tongue. Nearly all these guesses concern the Iona of Columba: few attempt the name of the sacred island of the Druids. Another people once lived here with a forgotten faith; possibly before the Picts there was yet another, who worshipped at strange altars and bowed down before Shadow and Fear, the earliest of the gods.

The most improbable derivation is one that finds much acceptance. When Columba and his few followers were sailing northward from the isle of Oronsay, in quest, it is said, of this sacred island of the Druids, suddenly one of the monks cried
sud i (? siod e !) "yonder it!" With sudden exultation Columba exclaimed,
May sud bithe I, goir thear II, "Be it so, and let it be called I" (I or EE). We are not the wiser for this obviously monkish invention. It accounts for a syllable only, and seems like an effort to explain the use of I (II, Y, Hy, Hee) for "island" in place of the vernacular Innis, Inch, Eilean, etc.  Except in connection with Iona I doubt if I for island is ever now used in modern Gaelic. Icolmkill is familiar: the anglicised Gaelic of the Isle of Colum of the Church. But it is doubtful if any now living has ever heard a Gael speak of an island as I; I doubt if an instance could be adduced. On the other hand, I might well have been, and doubtless is, used in written speech as a sign for Innis, as 's is the common writing of agus, and. As for the ancient word Idh or Iy I do not know that its derivation has been ascertained, though certain Gaelic linguists claim that Idh and Innis are of the same root.

I do not know on what authority, but an anonymous Gaelic writer, in an account of Iona in 1771, alludes to the probability that Christianity was introduced there before St. Columba's advent, and that the island was already dedicated to the Apostle St. John, "for it was originally called I'Eoin, i.e. the Isle of John, whence Iona." I'eoin certainly is very close in sound, as a Gael would pronounce it, to Iona, and there can be little doubt that the island had druids (whether Christian monks also with or without) when Columba landed. Before Conall, King of Alba (as he was called, though only Dalriadic King of Argyll), invited Colum to Iona, to make that island his home and sanctuary, there were certainly Christian monks on the island. Among them was the half-mythical Odran or Oran, who is chronicled in the Annals of the Four Masters as having been a missionary priest, and as having died in Iona fifteen years before Colum landed. Equally certainly there were druids at this late date, though discredited of the Pictish king and his people, for a Cymric priest of the old faith was at that time Ard-Druid. This man Gwendollen, through his bard or second--druid Myrddin (Merlin), deplored the persecution to which he was subject, in that now he and his no longer dared to practise the sacred druidical rites "in raised circles"--adding bitterly, "the grey stones themselves, even, they have removed."

Again, Davies in his Celtic Researches speaks of Colum as having on his settlement in Iona burnt a heap of druidical books. It is at any rate certain that druidical believers (helots perhaps) remained to Colum's time, even if the last druidic priest had left. In the explicit accounts which survive there is no word of any dispossession of the druidic priests. It is more than likely that the Pictish king, who had been converted to Christianity, and gave the island to Columba by special grant, had either already seen Irish monks inhabit it, or at least had withdrawn the lingering priests of the ancient faith of his people. Neither Columba nor Adamnan nor any other early chronicler speaks of Iona as held by the Druids when the little coracle with the cross came into Port-na-Churaich.

Others have derived the name from Aon, an isthmus, but the objections to this are that it is not applicable to the island, and perhaps never was; and, again, the Gaelic pronunciation. Some have thought that the word, when given as I-Eoin, was intended, not for the Isle of John, but the Isle of Birds. Here, again, the objection is that there is no one of reason why Iona should be called by a designation equally applicable to every one of the numberless isles of the west. To the mountaineers of Mull, however, the little low-lying seaward isle must have appeared the haunt of the myriad sea-fowl of the Moyle; and if the name thus derives, doubtless a Mull man gave it.

Again, it is said that Iona is a miswriting of Ioua, "the avowed ancient name of the island." It is easy to see how the scribes who copied older manuscripts might have made the mistake; and easy to understand how, the mistake once become the habit, fanciful interpretations were adduced to explain Iona."

There is little reasonable doubt that Iona was the ancient Gaelic or Pictish name of the island. I have frequently seen allusions to its having been called Innis nan Dhruidnechean, or Dhruidhnean, the Isle of the Druids: but that is not ancient Gaelic, and I do not think there is any record of Iona being so called in any of the early manuscripts. Doubtless it was a name given by the Shenachies or bardic story-tellers of a later date, though of course it is quite possible that Iona was of old commonly called the Isle of the Druids. In this connection I may put on record that a few years ago I heard an old man of the western part of the Long Island (Lewis), speak of the priests and ministers of to-day as "druids"; and once, in either, Coll or Tiree, I heard a man say, in English, alluding to the Established minister, "Yes, yes, that will be the way of it, for sure, for Mr. -- is a wise druid." It might well be, therefore, that in modern use the Isle of Druids signified only the Isle of Priests. There is a little island of the Outer Hebrides called Innis Chailleachan Dhubh--the isle of the black old women; and a legend has grown up that witches once dwelt here and brewed storms and evil spells. But the name is not an ancient name, and was given not so long ago, because of a small sisterhood of black-cowled nuns who settled there.

St. Adamnan, ninth Abbot of Iona, writing at the end of the seventh century, invariably calls the island Iona or the Iouan Island. Unless the hypothesis of the careless scribes be accepted, this should be conclusive.

For myself I do not believe that there has been any slip of n for u. And I am confirmed in this opinion by the following circumstance. Three years ago I was sailing on one of the sea-lochs of Argyll. My only companion was the boatman, and incidentally I happened to speak of some skerries (a group of sea-set rocks) off the Ross of Mull, similarly named to rocks in the narrow kyle we were then passing; and learned with surprise that my companion knew them well, and was not only an Iona man, but had lived on the island till he was twenty. I asked him about his people, and when he found that I knew them he became more confidential. But he professed a strange ignorance of all concerning Iona. There was an old Iona iorram, or boat-song, I was anxious to have: he had never heard of it. Still more did I desire some rendering or even some lines of an ancient chant of whose existence I knew, but had never heard recited, even fragmentarily. He did not know of it: he "did not know Gaelic," that is, he remembered only a little of it. Well, no, he added, perhaps he did remember some, "but only just to talk to fishermen an' the like."

Suddenly a squall came down out of the hills. The loch blackened. In a moment a froth of angry foam drove in upon us, but the boat righted, and we flew before the blast, as though an arrow shot by the wind. I noticed a startling change in my companion. His blue eyes were wide and luminous; his lips twitched; his hands trembled. Suddenly he stooped slightly, laughed, cried some words I did not catch, and abruptly broke into a fierce and strange sea-chant. It was no other than the old Iona rann I had so vainly sought. Some memory had awakened in the man, perhaps in part from what I had said--with the old spell of the sea, the old cry of the wind.

Then he ceased abruptly, he relapsed, and with a sheepish exclamation and awkward movement shrank beside me. Alas, I could recall only a few lines; and I failed in every effort to persuade him to repeat the rann. But I had heard enough to excite me, for.again and again he had called or alluded to Iona by its ancient pre-Columban name of Iona, and once at least I was sure, from the words, that the chant was also to Iona the Moon.

That night, however, he promised to tell me on the morrow all he could remember of the old Iona chant. On the morrow, alas, he had to leave upon an unexpected business that could not be postponed, and before his return, three days later, I was gone. I have not seen him again, but it is to him I am indebted for the loan of an ancient manuscript map of Iona, a copy of which I made and have by me still. It was an heirloom: by his own account had been in his family, in Iona, for seven generations, "an it's Himself knows how much more." He had been to the island the summer before, because of his father's death, and had brought this coarsely painted and rudely framed map away with him. He told me too, that night, how the oldest folk on the island--"some three or four o' them, anyway; them as has the Gaelic"--had the old Iona chant in their minds. As a boy he had heard it at many a winter ceilidh. "Ay, ay, for sure, Iona was called Iona in them old ancient days."

My friend also had a little book of his mother's which contained, in a neat hand, copies of Gaelic songs, among them some of the old Islay and Skye oar-chants of the iorram kind. I recall an iorram that had hardly a word in it, but was only a series of barbaric cries, sometimes full of lament (h-ro-aroo-arne, ho-ro, ahne, ah-hne!), which was the Iona fisherman's song to entice seals to come near. I remember, too, the opening of a "maighdean-mhara" or mermaid song, by a little-known namesake of my own, a sister of Mary Macleod, "the sweet singer of the Hebrides," (Note)  because it had as a heading (perhaps put there by the Iona scribe) some lines of Mary's that I liked well.

I quote from memory, but these were to the effect that, in his home, what the Macleod loved, was playing at chess

Agus fuaim air a chlarsaich
Gus e h'eachdraidh na dheigh sin
Greis air ursgent na Fine

[and the music of the harp, and the telling of tales of the feals of the Finn (the Fingalians).] There are not many now, I fear, who could find entertainment thus, or care to sit before the peat-fires.

On one other -occasion I have heard the name Iona used by a fisherman. I was at Strachnr, on Loch Fyne, and was speaking to the skipper of a boat's crew of Macleods from the Lews, when I was attracted by an old man. He knew my Uist friend, then at Strachur, who told me more than one strange legend of the Sliochd-nan-Ron, the seal-men. I met the old man that night before the peatglow, and while he was narrating a story of a Princess of Spain who married the King of Ireland's son, he spoke incidentally of their being wrecked on Iona, "that was then called Iona, ay, an' that for one hundred and two hundred and three hundred years and thrice a hundred on the top o' that before it was Icolmkill.

I did not know him, but a friend told me that the late Mr. Cameron, the minister of Brodick, in Arran, had the m.s. of an old Iona (or Hebridean) iorram, in the refrain of which Ioua was used throughout.

Neither do I think the name the island now bears has anything in common with Ioua. In a word, I am sure that the derivations of Iona are commonly fanciful, and that the word is simply Gaelic for the Isle of Saints, and was so given it because of Columba and the abbots and monks who succeeded him and his. In Gaelic, the letters sh at the beginning of a word are invariably mute; so that I-shona, the Isle of Saints, would be pronounced Iona. I think that any lingering doubt I had about the meaning of the name went when I got the old map of which I have spoken, and found that in the left corner was written in large rude letters II-SHONA.

NEXT


                         Back to BOOKMARKS                                                                Back to Vol. 4Contents