The Backwards Clock -
People come to Iona in droves, seekers of all she is known for: Her beauty, quiet, the beaches, some magical elixir of happiness, the fountain of youth atop Dun I, spiritual communion with the patron saint of Scotland, to visit or volunteer with the Iona Community – a modern day living and breathing continuation of Celtic Christianity, set in the restored Abbey, where the Book of Kells was written. Some say because time has stopped on Iona, it hasn’t. All the stories are true so I won’t reiterate them here – yes, Iona is a mystical place, but grounded in a pragmatism as all the Hebridean islands have to be.
The thing about Iona is this: You can’t bring your car on and the internet is quite spotty. Forget about cell signal. Even though some locals do have vehicles that you have to dodge while walking this way and that, still there is a quality of a way of life gone by here, the way village life used to be, but functioning now. There are only two roads to speak of – one, paved single track, runs form the north end towards the south (but not all the way south, you have to bog and rock walk for that) then turns from the eastern edge towards the west, ending just shy of the machair. There is also the short cut - the original gravel road (really more of a path) that leads from the old nunnery in the village, southwest around the village hall, up a hill, thru the middle of a farm, a couple of gates and you meet at the bustling corncrake intersection (a field cordoned off for corncrake breading), where you meet the east/west road, then the gravel path dead ends up ahead on another farm. When walking (or bicycling) along, you are doing so with sheep and cows – sometimes blocking the way, sometimes walking along with you, (particularly in the case of the cows – where are you going? Mind if I come along?) Other routes and shortcuts basically mean parading through fields replete with sheep, sheep poo and at times thistle) - It is not as though time has stopped (as some folks describe Iona), it is more that it feels like you have turned the clock back to an earlier, simpler, more functional way of life.
So, my second day on island I take the shortcut gravel road down to the Spar in Baile Mor, load up on groceries, and deciding to avoid “the hill”, walk the long way around the paved road that turns a south corner and heads west. Halfway to the machair is where I am staying, at Cnoc Oran (the houses here have names, not numbers as their address). I have two heavy bags (groceries and other items for the week). It takes about 45 minutes to hall my load around the isle and up the hill towards the house (I took a few breaks), I open the first gate, the sheep move aside to let me pass. I close and lock the gate, do the doo dance (avoiding fresh offerings) and make my way to the little picket fenced gate that opens into the courtyard. Lock the gate, put the rope across (these sheep are very determined to get to the flowers in the courtyard – they know how to pick locks). Enter the front door into the living room – Wellies off, groceries to the back kitchen – three sheep are peering in the kitchen window. Got anything good for us? I heave the heavy groceries up on the counter, say hello to them, “Hello sheep, hello hogget,” then happen to look left to the clock placed next to their heads. The clock is in reverse. It tells time backwards, moving counterclockwise against a mirror image clock. I blink twice and look again. Still there. I look out at the sheep. Another teller of time. Iona has managed to move into present day, attending to thousands of visitors while holding a standing population of only 177 souls that live here year round. There are problems. Most people who live here are not native to the island – they have come for work, or because they fell in love with Iona and they try to make it work - Life is not easy here: Farms are pressured by the weather, by so many visitors – a fragile eco-system holds on and the islanders rally together to make certain it does, there is limited housing – most houses still need to be insulated for the windswept hard winters and the local counsel is very mindful of the need for a more healthful, sustainable model towards any future growth. But people make things here, they spend time together, they know each other by name and place, they are inherently connected because they live on a small island. All said, this is a working, functioning community, with most things done as they always have been, a little at a time.
So, now, back to those sheep…