Liz MacWhirter October – November 2019

Reflecting on my writing residency on Iona has altered through the lens of the coronavirus pandemic that we’re experiencing. Many of us have already lost loved ones. And although there are plans in place for the lifting of lockdown, we don’t know when another lockdown may take place. Nor what the ‘new normal’ will be like, as we adapt to living and working with this risk. In times of disorientation, showing kindness to eachother is so important. Perhaps, to quote from a poem by Naomi Shibab Nye, it is only kindness that makes sense any more.

As Iona closed down for winter, I spent my month’s residency in relative isolation in a shepherd’s bothy, when small acts of kindness were handholds for me. They helped me scale uncertainty, leap over walls.

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Home for a month – the shepherd’s bothy at the north tip of Iona

You reach the shepherd’s bothy by meandering up the pathway from Iona Hostel. The path crosses streams and twists through thickets of willow, which sing from dawn till dusk. Without streetlight for miles, long hours of darkness bookend each day; from mid afternoon, the bothy was held by thick inky black.

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Long hours of darkness bookend each day

I knew I might find the isolation demanding, but I wanted the challenge and, perversely, would have been disappointed in myself if I hadn’t taken it. It was the silence I needed to hold together all the elements of the novel and work it out.

I applied for the residency because I needed time away from work deadlines to bottom out the new story, following the publication of Black Snow Falling (Scotland Street Press, 2018). I also came because I love this island. And, so perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s one of the locations for the new story. Peregrinus is Macbeth meets Romeo and Juliet, set in the 15thcentury.

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Reilig Odhráin on Iona where 60 kings are buried

Cloudless nights offer you a sky of innumerable diamonds. Without the moon, the land is lost to your sight. With the moon, every stone and twig is silvered. A couple visiting the hostel pointed out the Andromeda galaxy and told me that it lies 2.5million light years away, the closest spiral galaxy to our Milky Way. I was up for each sunrise, opening the door to see starlings and Hebridean sheep under washes of egg-yolk yellow, peach and blue. I felt intimately connected to the earth turning and to the elements. I occasionally heard scratches and nibbles below, and birds’ claws on the roof. Sometimes gales and rain battered the bothy – I once woke up with motion sickness.

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Hebridean sheep at Lagandorain

Nature plays an important role in the story so I carried a notebook everywhere. I wondered what my characters would have noticed and what they would have taken for granted. Dwelling in the landscape, focusing on every element from a mountainous racing wave to the smallest yellow celandine wavering in the breeze, I felt interconnected, both small and enlarged at the same time. As the ancient Celts believed, I felt as though I belonged to the land and the sea, not nature to us (an empire-mentality).

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Iona is a beautiful, remote island, just 1 by 3 miles. It has drawn people for millennia in pilgrimage. The word for this in Medieval Latin is ‘peregrinus’; it tells us that humans have long needed to retreat and escape.

Talking to islanders was vital for my research and they were very kind with their time.

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This lady walked across the island to give me a Celtic blessing at the end of my residency

Davey Kirkpatrick, a sailor, shared about the ancient spaghetti junction of seaways and flood tides around Iona. The ladies in the Heritage Museum let me pore over displays while they carried out a stock-take after it had closed for winter. Historic Scotland staff in the Iona Abbey museum mentioned a certain yellow folder, which turned out to hold gems of research, changing the backstory for two of my characters.

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Gerarde’s Herball: John Gerarde compiled the first book of plants in the West 1597

A botanist staying overnight in the Iona Hostel told me the two books that would answer my research questions – one of which happened to be right there on the hostel bookshelf, and the other was very rare, Gerarde’s Herball, printed 500 years ago. The next day, John MacLean, who owns the hostel and wasn’t present during the conversation, brought one of his grandfather’s old books which he thought might interest her: a first edition copy of Gerarde’s Herball from 1597. Simply, absolutely, astonishing.

Gordon, a farmer, was always up for a passing chat. Early on in my residency, the island’s book group kindly let me come along one night for some company. The Rev, Jenny Earl, invited me to read in the kirk one Sunday. Marlene and Duncan in the Iona Community Shop even hosted an afternoon’s event for my debut novel Black Snow Falling, complete with mulled wine, so I could give something back to the island.

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Black Snow Falling event on Iona

In the hostel, I came to know a series of lovely people who passed through its doors, some of whom became friends. Jackie and Andrew were so kind in inviting me to join them to eat on my first few evenings there, while I found my feet. They were lifesavers.

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The Oban Times kindly ran an article on my residency

More volunteers, Monique and Emily, arrived to help Marc run the hostel and croft, which is owned by John MacLean and his wife, Rachel Hazel. Halfway through my residency, several visual artists arrived from all over the world for their own residencies, Jean, Katie and latterly Ellis. In November there were few other guests and the craic was good. I only had to come down the pathway for a cup of tea and a chat. There was a beautiful vibe.

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The crew in the Iona Hostel

I started this blog by referring to a poem. In it, Naomi Shibab Nye says, that before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment. I must admit there were times when I felt out of my comfort zone in the isolation of the bothy. Before I came, to prepare myself, I read Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. She encourages us not to shy away from both physical darkness and our psychological shadows. I’ve already journeyed a long way along that latter path, but was still surprised by what took place on Iona.

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Despite reading the book, I really hadn’t expected to feel scared of the dark, like a child. I don’t think twice about darkness on my home patch. But walking to and from my cosy shepherd’s bothy, some primitive part of my brain feared that there was threat in what I could not see. I always made sure I used 1) my head torch, diligently recharged during the day and 2) the torch on my phone, which was also quietly playing my favourite tracks. Twice, I had a strong sense that a figure was coming up behind me, and I’d whirl around to see just the dark. I realised it was only my imagination (those who have read Black Snow Falling know what a scary place this can be). When it happened another night, I forced myself to walk on without looking behind. These were echoes of a memory. Long ago, I was assaulted, and for a while it completely took away my sense of safety and security in the world. The fearfulness was also caused by a strange email I received a few days after arriving on the island, from someone who had been triggered by something I had written. Without going into details, they wrote as if to silence my voice – it felt like my nemesis. Except for one miraculous hour that evening, I couldn’t get any mobile reception around the bothy. It was so hard to process in isolation that this ‘nemesis’ did actually stop me writing for the first week or so of the residency. However, I came to see that, like the imagined figure I’d projected from a memory, this person was likely to be projecting something onto me – this harshness is as much a part of being human as kindness. All of our humanity is compost for writing. I coped by throwing myself into more research, dwelling in nature and valuing every chance meeting. Ultimately, the ‘nemesis’ has worked for good.

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The sea unfolding her bolts of silk

I learned that fear and anxiety can be amplified in alone-ness. I discovered new vulnerabilities – and found new ways to handle these.

One or two islanders I asked expressed no fear of the dark, and I realised my characters would have felt comfortable, too. Yet old Scottish Gaelic stories are populated with malevolent sea people and children snatched by spirits and brownies. Mysterious things did happen.

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Inside Bothy

One Saturday, it was sunny, I was in the flow of writing an undramatic scene set in the daytime. I was feeling at peace, happy with the progress I was making on the novel. But a sudden, very loud banging on my door shook me. In the two steps it took to reach and open it, adrenaline flooded – surely one of the girls from the hostel would have knocked gently, not wanting to disturb the writing, perhaps even calling my name. (In fact, no one came up unbidden the whole month.) But there wasn’t a soul there.

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Working out the plot in the shepherd’s Bothy

I ran around the outside of the Bothy – nothing. I ran down the path to the hostel (the only access to it) – deserted. I stayed in the hostel that night. The next day, John found me and suggested it was a seagull’s webbed feet, as he had once heard a similar sound on the hull of his boat, and I was grateful for a plausible explanation.

Over the weeks, I made myself ‘re-code’ my fearfulness, seeing it as excitement, which is very similar physiologically. I found out about life in the night: the animals, photosynthesis, glowing phosphorus at sea. I chose to feel ‘held’ by the night, shadows and all.

Chasing down our fears, after all, is where powerful stories come from.

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Black Snow Falling in good company with Barbara Brown Taylor

That’s why each kindness I experienced over the month on Iona felt so significant. The greatest of all was shown by John and Rachel at the Iona Hostel, who were so warm and welcoming. I am not alone in being moved by their generosity. They help many people, particularly the artists and writers to whom they offer subsidised residencies through the winter months.

All the elements of the writing residency had a profound impact on Peregrinus, not least the beautiful, slow time on such an historically significant island.

Each winter, the islanders rely on their communities in a way that that many of us are now experiencing in this pandemic. They look out for each other, while still respecting the privacy which is important for island life.

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Jan-Feb 2019 Miranda Richmond

 JAN-FEB 2019 Miranda Richmond

It is now nearly a month since I came back from the residency at the hostel on Iona. I kept an extensive diary at the time, but here I will attempt to sum up the different aspects of a memorable experience, and some of the thoughts I’ve had since.

The Iona Hostel is a marvellous place for an artist. The croft and adjoining hostel is set more-or less isolated at the north end of the island, right at the end of the one road, a twenty minute walk from the village and the ferry port, and a short step to the beach. From just above the hostel one has the sense of the sea on almost three sides, westwards towards the Atlantic, north along the coast of Mull, with the islands of Rum and even distant Skye visible on a clear day, and eastwards across the Sound of Iona. This gives an fabulous sense of space and light, the lifeblood of a landscape painter.

I found life became beautifully simple and I felt totally at ease wandering around in my boots outlandish thermal boilersuits. John and the volunteers, notably Marc, who has been helping out for many years, upkeeping the croft and looking after the plantations of indigenous trees, have brought a quiet, tolerant ambience to the place which nurtures the varying needs and explorations of all the visitors. The kitchen is clean and well-equipped and there being just one grocery shop a fair distance walk away, there are no distractions, or only inner ones, from concentrating on one’s work.

I’d booked the Residency many months before the visit and in fact, when the time came around I was unsure what I wanted to achieve by it, though I’d brought piles of paper, paints and boards of all kinds. My work is based around drawing, seeking out inner, vital forms which will create what I  feel is a living structure for painting. The landscape of Iona and the islands is so vast and delicate at the same time that at first it was hard to find a way of defining anything.   The first thing I did on arrival was to walk down to the nearby north beach where white sand contrasts with lines of black rocks. Because of the whiteness of the sand, whatever the weather or the greyness of the clouds, the water here is always of a beautiful turquoise, varying in shade, sometimes lighter, sometimes darker. I have read that the Gaelic language has a large number of words to describe blue, green, grey and white, there being three words for different shades of blue-green alone – how necessary!


Throughout my stay I was bowled over by the beauty of the colour in the sea – through blue and turquoise to deep green, purple and reddish, indescribable colours changing sometimes moment by moment, especially at sunrise and sunset. I could also have done with knowing the many words dedicated to the way land and water meet – in skerries, outcrops, cliffs, and headlands. I spent considerable time attempting to draw the coastline looking across to Mull, a pattern of indentations and low rocky protuberances and on Mull itself around Kindra, opposite the north end of Iona, or again on the west side of Iona. The lumps and bumps of the edge of the land as it meets the sea require a description that I don’t have the words for.

Coast of Mull and Iona from near Kindra

The beauty of the islands lies in the contrast between the vast scale of the ocean and the extreme precision and sharpness of the details. The vastness makes every rock and pebble like a jewel and concentrates attention on the delicate and illusive lines of the islands on the horizon which come and go – among them the Dutchman’s Cap, the Isle of Staffa, and then the further distinctive peaks of Rum or looking the other way, behind the low-lying Ross of Mull, the mountains of mainland Scotland. Sometimes I felt so much beauty overwhelming . There were times during my stay when I felt the pressure, what I call the ‘tyranny’ of beauty. I wanted to spend every moment outside in the light and the landscape, from dawn until nightfall, even in the moonlight, not to miss anything of it’s changing beauty, and this could become exhausting. Because I do work outside, everywhere I walked I had to decide of what to carry with me, sketchbooks or boards, paints and most necessary of all warm clothing. Getting to parts of the island not in the immediate vicinity of the hostel, requires some effort, and there were many places I wanted to see. There’s often a conflict between wanting to stride around and explore everything, and settling to concentrate in one place with one’s equipment. Luckily some days were just too gale swept and wet to go out, and I retreated to the byre to work from drawings, or paint the interior with the roof and walls rattling ferociously. Mostly I dressed up in my 7 or 8 layers and went out. The extremes of weather, especially during the first two weeks, when we experienced wind, rain, hail, sleet, sunshine and more rain and gales, proved to be the main event of life on the island! Though in some ways the hostel seems to stand at the End of the Road, it often feels like the beginning as far as the weather is concerned, when cloud formations appear far distance to the west and draw gradually nearer before sweeping on eastwards in gales and squalls. (The weather did not always blow from the west – the first day, in gale-force wind, I thought I’d found a sheltered place to work on the east side of the island, crouching beneath grasses and sand dunes, looking towards Mull. A few days later I went to continue with this subject but found the wind had swung round and I received it’s full blast!)



There were some particularly memorable days. On one I crossed over on the ferry to Mull and drove the couple of miles to the tidal island of Erraid, south of Fionnphort (famous as a location used by Robert Louis Stevenson in ‘Kidnapped’) From a farm at the end of the road, walking down through scrubby woodland I came out suddenly above the sandy channel that separates Erraid from the ‘mainland’ only impassable at the highest of tides. To the left there is a beach with rocky islets. To me, a visitor, this seemed the loneliest of shores and it was only after crossing over to Erraid that I found a few crofts and further on a row of cottages which I’m told are inhabited for most of the year by members of the Findhorn foundation. On this particular day (I went there three times in fact) I was contemplating the loneliness, and a family of eight seals suddenly appeared bobbing, playing and eyeing me, close in to the shore, a wonderful energizing encounter, after which I bounced up over the rough terrain of peninsular, more extensive than I’d thought, with inlets and hidden beaches. I could see Ben More and the snow-covered mountains of Mull, the hills on the mainland, and coming to the highest point, suddenly the whole ocean, and the Sound of Iona, flecked with rocks and little islands and a deep brilliant sapphire blue, indescribably lovely.



On two or three occasions I took my drawing things round the west, Atlantic side of the island, quite a different landscape than the north and east side, with impressive rocks, coves and steep gullies – and an illusive and quaggy path!



An enjoyable aspect of the residency was meeting the other visitors to the hostel, one or two staying for extended periods, including volunteers, and some who came for a weekend or a few nights. At this time of year there were usually not more than half a dozen people, a motley mix of characters, at any one time, and this was a perfect number. With plenty of space one could be sociable, or not! It was nice to cook communally from time to time – Marc made the most delicious shortbread as well as a constant supply of crispy baked seaweed as a snack – and Burns night was especially fun with a vegan ‘Haggis’ (not at all authentic) and some singing with the guitar, inexpert reading of Burns poetry by myself and one of the volunteers, and an expert reading by a visitor from Oban.

I was sorry that it was difficult to connect more with the island’s residents. One would have to stay a bit longer for that, or attend services at the parish church, the Abbey or other venues. I did go one morning to the Iona Community morning service at the Abbey, though the main Abbey church was closed during my stay for renovations. It was only at the end of the month, when I displayed my work and gave a talk in the hostel that I met some of the people to talk to. This was a very important aspect of the residency for me. Showing my drawings to others made it seem worthwhile, and the event was well attended with positive feedback.


Perhaps one of my aims was the desire to clarify what my painting is about, how this activity, which sometimes seems nonsensical,  – often impossible – can form part of an overall world view – my, our place in the world. It follows that the month on Iona, while giving me the opportunity to think of nothing but painting from dawn till dusk also made me want to understand more of the human presence on these islands over the centuries. After returning I immersed myself in reading Madeleine Bunting’s marvellous ‘Love of Country’ – largely an exploration of the history and politics of the Hebrides. I was already aware of how Iona, with it’s famous Abbey and history, the tourism, and a strong permanent community is atypical of many islands, a striking contrast to neighbouring Mull, which seems in comparison huge, bleak and in large parts inaccessible except to local farmers and determined hill-walkers, a place where one gets a sense of the Clearances as recent history. Some of the villages on the Ross of Mull seemed forlorn, with many holiday homes, shut down in winter months – but perhaps more exploration is called for before making too many judgements. I imagine when working that I am attempting to achieve a response to ‘nature’ that is immediate, direct, an embodiment of visual impressions into paint. But there is no such thing. Though it’s a place where the natural world is very present – the winds buffet, the waves crash and surge and the sunlight dances on the water – the very intensity of the attempt to translate this experience into paint is what draws me towards exploring more about the islands’  history. Conversely I hope that a deeper awareness and appreciation influences the way I see and interpret it.


Many people come to Iona on spiritual journey. I did not particularly interpret my explorations in this way but I suppose that depends how one chooses to express oneself. There are no easy answers to answers to my questions about the meaning of painting – and if anything on Iona the conflicts are heightened: how to live? how to live sustainably? How to reconcile to desire to experience everything, to see the world, to travel, with the knowledge that our acquisitive way of life is unsustainable on a global level and needs to change. But I am grateful to have had this opportunity to experience, at least for a time, a simple way of life and a time of reflection.

Thanks to John, to Marc for his presence, to those who appreciated my drawings, and to Iona!

3rd March 2019

(A longer entry – consisting of my of my day to day journal is available on request)

You can see further images of my work at

Iona Hostel and John’s Croft

Iona on Iona

5th of January, Arriving on Iona

I remember it took a few days of frantic packing in early January to prepare for my painting trip on Iona. One day it involved going into Cass art with huge shopping trollies grimacing at the checkout as I heard one beep after the next coming from the scanner. When I looked behind I could see my face reflected in all the impatient customers from behind me as they waited. When it came to the next day, it was a relief. I was off to Iona in the car filled with all my stuff and my bike and Dad. Everything looked so crisp and beautiful when we passed the Luss hills at Loch Lomond. The further we went the more I felt circled, protected by mountains.

After the visually dynamic ferry crossing from Oban to Mull and the journey from Craignure to Fionnphort we luckily managed to get the car onto the ferry. It was almost dark and we were tired, but I felt so excited. I could see from the deck the little Iona houses on the island staring back at me and getting bigger as the ferry glided over the choppy water.

The residents welcomed us into the Hostel from the wind and cold and we had a big dinner.  Everyone was friendly and I was lucky to meet Vicky the artist and her family including John Emmett and Oriana. Vicky with her outgoing kind and generous teacher spirit helped me settle in and shared with me her beautiful pastel drawings. Later that evening dad and I played a duet, himself on bassoon and myself on the fiddle. We played an eerie tune by Peter Maxwell Davis, ‘Farewell to Stromness’.

Over the next days, I walked around in the mist. I enjoyed it as it was adding an extra layer to the space that made things more ambiguous, ghostly. I remember sitting on a bench looking out to sea with Dad eating the olive, feta cheese sandwiches we made up from the Spar and watching a fishing boat that came to view and glided past us. As its shape faded into the mist and further out to sea it was reminiscent of a song that was getting quieter and quieter until you can hardly hear it. To get started on my drawing, I made a few ink studies of this feeling of obscurity, being lost.


It took a while for Iona to reveal itself. It came by a surprise when I saw the brown/orange coloured mountains of Mull reveal themselves from across the strong coloured ultramarine sea. I was overwhelmed by how it transformed the space from everything being subtle tones to the sheer contrasts of dark and light. Everything went from being condensed and mysterious like sea glass, to open, articulated and majestic.

Painting on Iona

After warming into things through drawing, I made small panel oil paintings. I took many MDF boards with me (about 50 small pieces!) and was planning on making lots of quick gestural paintings, capturing the landscape in different states of weather and light.

This in mid-January was a real challenge. To cope with the cold, I was wearing (I am not kidding) five jumpers, three pairs of gloves, three pairs of trousers, three pairs of sock and oilskins. Even with all of this on, I could only stay out for short bursts of time, before running back to the windswept Byre to clean my brushes and warm up a little bit with the electric heater. I often could not feel my hands or move my fingers.

Not only was it cold, it was extremely windy. At times, I could lean against the wind entirely and it would keep me upright. Walking around in this was tough, and I was also carrying my painting box, with the paints, my pallet, brushes and a couple of wet oil paintings. All my willpower was required to keep these things in my possession without them flying off into the hills. No wonder John and Rachel got annoyed about how I had paint on the Hostel gate! I could barely open it! Getting around the hostel was a test as I was so covered in paint, and didn’t want to contaminate any of the beautiful white walls and interior. Mark said that if I was lost, I could easily get tracked down as I left a trail of paint all over everything for miles.

No wonder John and Rachel got annoyed about how I had paint on the Hostel gate! I could barely open it! Getting around the hostel was a test as I was so covered in paint, and didn’t want to contaminate any of the beautiful white walls and interior. Mark said that if I was lost, I could easily get tracked down as I left a trail of paint all over everything for miles.

The toughness of these elements made me adapt. I gradually realised that I had to pre-mix my pallet before going out to stop me from getting too cold, and I started to find places which were sheltered. At one point, I had to stop and find an inner calm; accepting that I could only work outside if I came to terms with the elements, and keep the focus instead of cursing all the time!

Although at times it was frustrating, it put a sense of desperation into my work. The mark-making was energetic, rough and unpredictable just like the energies and overpowering sense of the winds and rain that whipped around me. Sometimes the hail would go on to my paintings creating interesting energetic effects on the surface; God’s own mark making! These elements were an enhancement as I remember there was a day when the sun was really bright and I found my paintings were uninteresting. I had too much time to think and not instinctively react to what I was looking at making them less spontaneous and more flat.

Sometimes the weather would be too much, and I wanted to do slow and dense work. The Abbey and Chapel were the answer to this as they were tranquil and had interesting layers to space. It was a bonus when I got offered a hot chocolate by one the Iona community.

I enjoyed looking through the layers of ancient architectural shapes. The authenticity of this building connected to the wildness of the landscape. I felt I got lost in both places as the arches had a sense of looking to infinity, as they recede to a vanishing point like the layers of the landscape you look through.

The light had a Holy quality outside and inside as it filtrated through space. The dark grey stormy clouds surrounded the landscape and I and then suddenly, a beam of light would come down and cast a spotlight over somewhere like the abbey or a patch of what was a dark grey sea. I remember reminiscing this and joking with Mark and Collette in one of our many hostel evening discussions by saying ‘It’s Jesus!’. Even though I am not religious what I saw felt close to something spiritual.


iona roberts pic


Parent’s Visit

When my parents came to stay it was misty again.  One day Mum and I went to St Columba’s Bay and ate sandwiches and we did some drawing looking out to Fidden and islands such as the Paps of Jura. Mum did a great landscape, and mine was interesting but I couldn’t get the colours to work. Luckily the rain came and fell on it, and all the ink started to trickle down in different colours and rhythms. It was beautiful and, yet again, it was God’s own mark making.

My parents enjoyed the Hostel atmosphere and there were lots of interesting people staying at the time. Alongside the regulars including John, Rachael, Mark, Collette, there was Misa – a friendly girl who had come to volunteer for the next three weeks. She is a contemporary dancer and we shared interesting conversations about Iona in context with our lives over later nights. Then there was a kind Italian man, Santino, and Maranda, who was another artist who had her family with her. We all communal and had nice dinners together that my Mum and I cooked up. Mum and I showed what we had been drawing that day and Collette, who is also an artist, joined in, showing us her captivating watercolours she had made on the island.


Visits to Mull

Over the past week, I had been so disciplined with my painting approach that I decided to allow myself time to explore the island. As a change of pace, I took the occasional day trip to cycle on Mull.

I enjoyed the ferry to Fionnphort as I was intrigued by the layers of space as I looked through many of the windows that presented either the interior of the ferry or the seascape, where I observed Iona getting further and further into perspective. Using my sketchbook, I drew the view through these still interior shapes to the changing landscape and sea outside. It was fascinating to see the landscape resemble an imprint when I saw it reflected in the window to the cabin.

When I reached Fionnphort, I cycled to Fidden and Knockvologan making sketches of the changing scenery. I would take a flask of hot chocolate and sit by a farm up at Knockvologan and sketch the view down to the sea before cycling back. At times I would really have to pedal it back to catch the last ferry.



The experience on Iona was a useful time to connect and reflect on my time to the Drawing Year in London. Down South, I was using distinctive styles of drawing to connect more to my painting. Before this, my drawing contained a lot of linear work and here I was connecting to London through using colour and tone, and a mixed media approach. To help in this, I was researching artists such as Sutherland and how they used mixed media to create painterly drawings which had a contemporary, abstracted take on the landscape. Sutherland would use the landscape for the general composition but also add elements into the foreground that abstracted the reality and conveyed his perception.

My mark-making was partially caused by the weather, appropriate for the landscape. I enjoyed sometimes working at close ups of the landscape and at other times the general space. The paintings alongside each other become a narration of the space in general.


Individual one



Andrea’s Visit

After these few days of intensively working, my friend Andrea came to visit. He had to look after himself a lot, but we had fun times. The hostel was rather empty at the time. It was just Misa, Mark and Miranda, who was another lovely woman visiting from Bath. On the 25th of January, we celebrated Burn’s Night. Andrea had brought Haggis, so we had a nice little party and watched a film at John’s. Most of these nights I was playing the fiddle. It was great because as guests came and went I would learn different and new tunes they would sing to me and which I would pick up by ear.

One day Andrea and I went for a long walk all the way around the island. The view gradually changed and we ate a lunch I had made at the Spouting Cave. The sheep were funny as they were posing at various parts of the cliffs like amusing models, and by the sea. I stored the idea in my head of using the sheep amongst the landscape in further work to come. The rocks had varying shapes, and colours which are to the Geometry of the island. We collected rocks and arranged them into interesting still lifes.


28th of January,  Tobermory Trip

The day Andrea left, I took the bus to Tobermory. I enjoyed the contrast on Mull as the colours were orange, almost autumnal, yet the spring green was coming through. The bus went through many different attitudes and dynamics of the landscape. Sometimes there were huge expanses of land and then, in contrast, I would come across articulating details that pin pointed my focus; a fishing boat in the water, a person on the bus, a highland cow, the trees reflected on the window.

The space would be layered and ever-changing due to the movement of the bus and the way I looked and focussed on different things. Often drops of water would fall on the window and create an interesting texture I was looking out to the view. Every so often, the bus would travel past the trees, and I could only quickly glimpse at as they disappeared quickly from view. Sitting behind this would be the constant landscape in a contrasting slower state. The movement of the trees lying in front created a flick book effect.

When I arrived at Tobermory it was soon raining and I felt I hadn’t planned my time well. I remember standing outside absolutely freezing, and drawing using water soluble graphite so that when the rain went over the paper, God’s own mark making yet again occurred. I remember going to the pub to warm up, and the locals looking shocked as I entered absolutely sodden and grubby-looking, and I realised: ‘my gosh, I have been cut off from civilisation for a while!’

On the journey back, it was extremely dramatic as it was late afternoon and the light was at its height for contrast. I remember a rainbow and looking over the Mull mountains where the layers of land were getting darker and more mysterious. The land was overcast and I could see down valleys for many miles of the repeating shapes, some more ambiguous and out of focus due to the clouds and others more present. As the sun went down, space became condensed and simplified tonally, allowing shape to become the focus. It had the essence of a print, and I noticed that in places the land was lighter than the sky, such as a loch that would shine up light a bright jewel amongst the dark surrounding land.


Week of the 30th of January, Drawing Around the Hostel

Over the next few weeks, the interior space of the hostel and its surroundings grasped my interest. After doing my tax for an entire day indoors (which was so boring yet the Hebridean sheep moving passed my windows kept me occupied, and I treated myself to a swim at the end of the day), I went out to draw the sheep. I was intrigued by their rounded, organic form and how I encountered this amongst the landscape.

For a few mornings, I built up a large drawing in my room with charcoal. I was interested in the view outside my room in relation to what was going on inside. The different weathers came to pass, creating different dynamics. Sometimes the Dutchman’s Cap would disappear due to the moving grey clouds that took it out of focus, and then later it would come out again, strikingly in focus, other times dark, then every so often light due to the position of the sun. It was a peculiar, articulated shape that would appear sitting on the horizon. The odd sheep would walk by and the occasional uncoordinated current of birds would fly above the sea, fighting the wind and adding to the ingredients of my drawing recipe.

I started this drawing with the landscape, and then gradually introduced the frame of the window and related the view to the interior with my artistic objects such as the paint pots and pens. It was interesting as the exterior at first glance was minimal yet, the unevenness of the land and the fact I could see for miles required a lot of work with charcoal. I built it up layer by layer adding and removing to capture the depth of the cloudy weather I was observing.

The hostel room was also an active place with different pinpoints of interest. Occasionally I made films about the reflections on the window that cast ghostly impressions on the land. One conveyed Mark working picked up in a reflection at another window which held the view of a different place. Another film was of the layered reflection sheep walking around in various places and rhythms.

The times of day would cast the light in diverse ways. Suddenly, there would be a brightness from outside that shined through one window casting a beam of light onto the floor, and in another conflicting window, it would be dark and raining. As it became darker, more secretive outside, the kitchens reflection on the window would come lighter and closer to focus reflecting back an imprint of hostel life.

One of the days a storm really brewed up. I was in my room drawing but I could not think properly. The force of the gale outside was so noisy it felt as if it was going to blast through the wall. It was interesting how all the rain drops would drip down the surface of the window and make the view outside with the sheep more vague and unclear. This day the sheep were outside, huddling against the window for shelter. I loved watching how their forms would coincide with each other in interesting, flowing ways as the herd receded back into the monochromatic space. The colours were subtle, reminiscent of sea glass.






On the day after the storm, the waves were charged with the aftermath of the energy, yet the sun was strong, casting a vivid light on the surface of the land and sea. Juxtaposing the spring-like light, the power of the waves had dangerous, forbidding undertones. I walked to the North-West beach where I climbed a huge exposed rock and sensed the vast space of sea in front of me. It was vulnerable yet exhilarating and I was lost in the wild expanse I observed. The waves roared up, covering me and my camera in their spray before evaporating away again and leaving soft intricate traces of light filtrated moisture.  The way the waves receded in an irregular pattern amongst the rugged rocks partially covered by the moisture and the light was reminiscent of the many arches in the light filtrated space of the Abbey.





I then went further up to Dun I to catch the spectacular sunset that was a cast of light in a strange shape clouds, before the moon came into presence over the village.



That evening, Collette’s friend Tom made a wonderful marmalade cake. As it was Misa’s last night we went down to the beach. I took my violin with me and played some music as we heard the still fierce waves crash into the beach and pull out again. The moon was out full, almost like it was a day perhaps on another planet. It strongly cast our shadows onto the ground as we stood in a row and let them dance to the Pigeon on the Gate I was playing on the violin overlapped by some of our voices singing on top ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’. Our senses were more tuned into our hearing than our vision than usual, due to the darkness. I enjoyed hearing my fiddle playing in context with the wild, textured sounds of the sea.

This was not the only special night. One time we ate a huge fish that had been caught from the fisherman and which was locally produced. The skeleton of the fish looked like the elegant structure of John’s boats being created in the workshop next to the Hostel. Another time we went to the Abbey and I played my violin and Misa and I sang duets. It was great to hear our voices resonate in such a spiritual location.


8th of February, Last couple of weeks on Iona, Drawing at John’s

Over these days, I met the new artist in residence Alison, who was another painter. I remember we shared some of our interesting meals. By this time, I was getting experimental with my cooking, including seaweed into almost every dinner! This night I made fish and lentil curry with garam masala and sweet chilli sauce for Alison which was tasty. I shared with her my work, and she let me off the hook almost by assuring me I had tonnes of work! I enjoyed looking at her work a lot, experimental and energetic and we shared our passion for Joan Eardley, our favourite artist.

It was a joy to spend my next day free from making work, bike riding on Mull where I went to Bunessan and to Uisken. At Uisken I had a flask of tea and sat by the beach. It was strange being there because memories welled up of the summer before last when I was here with my auntie and cousins. It felt like a shadow of a memory as I quietly looked over to the Paps Of Jura and observed how they were covered in snow and cast in an ethereal winter light.


John and Rachael’s

John had an intriguing house which I felt was an artwork in itself. There were lots of interesting ornaments that for me reflected that tactile sense of marine lifestyle, and in context with this were the beautiful views out to the Hebridean landscape. I enjoyed observing and found many strong compositions that caught my eye, arranged by the architectural structures, objects and views. After creating some sketchbook work, I spent time making large sized charcoal drawings in John’s kitchen and upstairs.

The inside of the hostel and John and Rachael’s house allowed me to further introduce form into my work. There were objects close to me which I could depict in the foreground of the landscape, introducing volume into space.

Throughout my time in London, I had become interested in how I encountered forms within the layering of space. The inclusion of form created an interesting variation within the space. I found I created the best work when I related my response to a piece of music. I made the image, and I used music to help me foresee what it would be and how to approach it. For example, I thought of loud and quiet areas in the space. To include the form in my responses to space, I spent time creating studies of near objects or human forms I encountered. Making charcoal drawings from the interior was an effective way to connect my work on Iona back to my practice, as I was starting to focus on how I was experiencing space with the inclusion of form.

Upstairs there was a stunning view through the front to the ocean and the Dutchman’s Cap and the windows on the other side presented the field’s disappearing to an interesting vanishing point. I drew from John’s study as he had many busy objects in the foreground and I could see the back of the house and layers of hills and fields. His possessions were quite like mine as an artist, slightly cluttered and going between practicality such as CD’s, papers and pens; to the aesthetic ones.

In the kitchen, there was a big rectangular window which looked out to the Atlantic Ocean. It reminded me of a porthole as it framed the view outside. Outside had many layers created by different components. The plant patch with the vertical delicate structures of the shrubs, bringing to mind Vincent Van Gogh’s drawings, the walls, fences, the rise and fall of the land, the fields, the fall to the sea, the coming and going of island’s such as Mull, Staffa, Skye in the background, and the ever-changing cloudscape. This view connected to the interior as it was a pattern and repeat of horizontal and vertical shapes as they receded through space.

I realise Iona has been a progression from the Drawing year as I was making my location work more of a physical experience.  Alongside the difficulty of being out painting in the elements, the scale of these charcoal drawings incorporated my entire self. I was scaling up my work in the drawing year as an alternative to working in sketchbooks to challenge my drawing. I felt these charcoal drawings connected more to painting, and the way I work physically in the studio.

The pace of the charcoal drawings and the way I recorded the different moods of the landscape over the weeks introduced the element of time into my practice and I was interested in how the figure, myself, experienced the landscape and how other people were encountered in the landscape throughout time. This can be seen in the objects, the viewpoints, the reflections on a mirror and other aspects of my subjects.

I was viewing my subjects with the vision of a painter. My aim was not to copy it literally, I wanted to show my experience of it. This was something I had been developing in the Drawing Year. I was balancing observation and response. The compositions when making these drawings were using observation but at the same time, I was imaging them as paintings that conveyed a personal journey of the complex layering in space.






It was lovely to share my work with the locals. I was surprised by the number of people who came! Unfortunately, I was getting a cold and I think the exhaustion of being out in all weathers seemed to be catching up with me, but I managed to get by!

I presented large and small drawings, sketchbooks, and paintings and described how I was using this variation of approach to responding to my personal take on the landscape. We discussed the difficulties of all the weathers and how the elements were coming to play. People were drawn to my watercolours and how they reflected my sense of atmosphere and layering, but I stated that it was important to use a variety of approach to get my different takes of the environment.




Over the next week, I relaxed into the good weather and was quite tired from making work in the storms. It was nice to be around in the Hostel, as I could be with some of the special people who were staying. One of the nights I took my fiddle outside and we all looked at the stars. We were taught by a couple of the guests about the star constellations and we ate dark chocolate.


Last Day

In the late morning, the mist was drawing over the land of Mull like a mysterious veil. It was so cold when I was drawing the allotments in the village, I was luckily rescued by a kind lady from the Iona community who invited me into their main house where I got warmed up with a cup of tea and made a few drawings based on being inside this religious interior, looking up the fields to the Abbey and the village houses.

Once I had sadly finished packing, we all gathered in the Hostel communal area and learned some haunting, soul-searing songs one of the women had learnt at the Iona Abbey. I remember clearly the power and emotion of her voice as it filled the room. I felt myself floating away from the kitchen and into the mysteries of the dark landscape seen through the window, reflecting the power of the landscape in the eerie melody.


A walk to the spar


Leaving Iona

I was lucky that mum was available to pick me up. I was sorry to leave but we managed to go on a beautiful walk further exploring Knockvologen and looking at Iona from the layers of the Mull landscape.

The intensity of the experience is something I hold with me from my day to day life in Glasgow. It is wistful that I will not meet some of the people again, but that dynamic added to my experience and the place. The coming and going in context with the stillness of the landscape created variation.

I am currently deciding if I am going to carry out further painting from work made on Iona, or just let it be a series that will be included in my Compass Gallery Show, May 2018. I want this show to mainly based on being rooted in Scotland. Iona was close to heart and has planted an idea of being a Scottish based painter.

Turquoise On The Gate

Dancing Waves, Oil On Board, Alison Critchlow
Dancing Waves, Oil On Board, Alison Critchlow

I arrived as the only passenger on the ferry, with enormous amounts of materials – oil paint, acrylic, watercolours, boards, canvases, paper, sketchbooks – far too much I thought…we’ll see. My intention is to work outside as much as possible. It became apparent on day one that the weather will dictate where I can work and when – more specifically the wind. A Hebridean wind is not something to be taken lightly!

I feel very at home here; relaxed, inspired, energised and I am working hard. Spending lots of time looking, drawing and painting on the beach. I am becoming fascinated by the rocks… how they differ from one beach to the next, the colours in different light, specific formations. It is absolutely mesmerising watching the waves crash over them.

I love the fact that I am getting to know the pattern of the tides and moon. It was a big, bright moon in my first week here so very low and high tides. Wonderful settling into the rhythm of this place. I am starting to learn how the sea comes in around the various formations, the channels and shapes left at low tide and the different angles of the waves coming into the beaches.I am getting close in to the subject and wishing I had some larger canvases (reminding myself I have to get all these slightly wet oil paintings home in a month’s time!) Here are some of the paintings so far:

There is quite a bit of sand getting mixed into the paint, which is inevitable working on the beach. There is also a need to work reasonably fast before the fingers become too numb! I’m finding it very useful to bring the work back to the studio and spend time considering it… a change of pace. Something quite new often strikes me when I get the painting inside.


I must also mention the geese… there are loads of them! I have developed a habit of sitting by a lovely Celtic cross where I draw on my way to the village. It has a spectacular view across the Sound Of Iona. A great place to watch the changing sky, but I love it most towards the end of the day when the geese all lift off in a noisy gaggle and then flick from black to white as they change direction and return to their field of choice. Here are a few sketchbook pages:


I woke up to a power cut yesterday. Thick fog and an eerie silence, very calm… the first really windless day. Everything was dampened by the fog; sand, sounds, colours, smells. I went down to the beach, big waves, flood tide – it was wonderful – only being able to see quite close things – no “view” out to sea. It felt very intimate as though I was isolated in my own little bubble. I decided to take canvases onto the beach, a rare opportunity to use them outside without having to weigh them down with rocks. Beautiful subtle greys and greens, this was all about sound and movement, huge waves pounding the rocks. Very exciting, a real thrill to paint in my own little world… I worked on several paintings and my brain seemed to wake up.

Wave, Oil On Board, Alison Critchlow
Wave, Oil On Board, A Critchlow

Fascinating how the fog not only changed the colour palette of these paintings but by obscuring the view made me use my other senses more, and respond to the movements and sounds with the paint.  I lost track of the day completely…it felt like a very special, private, ageless moment where time stood still…as though all this grey mist had made anything possible…ironic that a fog had brought so much clarity. I started to realise that it is the rhythm and movement created by the action of the tides on these rocks which is of interest, not just capturing a momentary crash of water, but somehow distilling this, getting the underlying rhythm.

Big Sea, Oil On Canvas, Alison Critchlow
Big Sea, Oil On Canvas, A Critchlow

Lots of ideas emerging about time and motion and how these things can be noted down. Thinking of passages of paint being reminiscent of a phrase in music… all about harmony and discord, balance and flow… also thinking about using multiple panels to create larger work. I am starting to envisage large canvases once I get home with big passages of paint and realising that I need to absorb as much as I can about this experience.With that in mind I have been looking in more detail at the rocks.

One of the many wonderful people I have met here is a geologist who is able to explain, in layman’s terms a bit about  the formation of this landscape. Fascinating and slightly mind bending! It is phenomenal to look through his magnifier at the structure of these rocks, like taking a walk on the surface of another planet… and incredible how every detail is a mirror of the larger landscape in microcosmic form. It also made me think about time and notation… how these rocks hold a silent record of their creation if we are able to read it.A few more sketchbook pages…my way of transporting myself back to Iona!

I have been staying in the Shepherd’s hut which is just up the hill a little way from the hostel. I love it ! I have become used to its quirks and gentle rocking… a bit like being in a boat, it is a haven which seems to encourage peace and clear thinking.

Conversations in the hostel have ranged from politics and world affairs to accountancy and espionage, pilgrimage to sugar free baking. I have learnt about all sorts of things, much of it now feeding into my thoughts…there have been lessons in pixels and philosophy, St Bridget and geology, dance notation, quantum physics, seaweed harvesting, bread making, theology, fiddle music and choral singing, making a paint brush from a  goose feather, constellations, Scottish history ,tides, ferries and phases of the moon, sand banks , skiffs and serpentine, orgonite domes and sharing a studio with a blackbird!

Meeting a diverse mix of interesting people is a key part of this experience. The hostel seems to provide a string of well timed experts who are very generous with their knowledge and patient with their explanations. The perfect nurturing environment in which to discuss all sorts of ideas and concepts.

Turn Of The Tide, North Beach, Oil On Canvas, Alison Critchlow
Turn Of The Tide, North Beach, Oil On Board, Alison Critchlow

Natures rhythms, constant , relentless, fundamental motion, percussive sounds of the sea, thinking about notes and chords, pounding beat of the waves…passages of sound and movement…how to translate all of this into paint?

A crashing wave is  momentary and ancient, repeated throughout time. There is something about watching tides come and go that resonates on a very deep level…I think its a fundamental rhythm that we respond to as humans. The work I am taking home is the first stage of a much longer process and will inform a series of larger studio paintings all about time and motion. I want to see if I can make paintings in the studio at home that create the same resonance, something really fundamental to life.It will be really exciting to work on a larger scale and see if I can find the right speed, weight and fluidity of marks.

I think I may be responsible for various shades of turquoise building up on the gate… Oil paint takes time to dry and I have to think my way around the logistics of getting wet paintings home again…so as my last week is here  it’s time  to embrace water based media!

Sea Drawing, Iona February, Mixed Media on Board, Alison Critchlow
Sea Drawing, Iona, February. Mixed Media on Board, A Critchlow

An unexpected aspect of this residency is that I have discovered a lot about myself.  I have learnt to be more open with sharing ideas and thoughts about my work in the early stages and as a result I have discovered a wealth of knowledge and talked to so many interesting people. I am also enormously grateful to the local people on the island who bothered to stop and talk and made me feel very at home, even though I was covered in paint and quite likely had a blue eyebrow or two ! I enjoyed the talk I gave very much and I really appreciated so many people coming along and their interest and questions led to some great discussion.


My aim was to gain headspace and inspiration for a body of new work…which I have certainly done, but I have also learnt something much greater…about myself. I was chatting to one of the local people the day before I left and she asked ” how have you got on ?” I told her that I have gained far more from my month here than I ever imagined and she replied ” You always get more than you expected from Iona!”

Incoming Tide, North Beach, Oil On Canvas, Alison Critchlow
Incoming Tide, North Beach, Oil On Canvas, A Critchlow

I have been home from Iona for a month now, and a new body of work is under way in my studio, based on all of this.The words for this blog post were written while I was on the island and I decided to leave them largely unaltered for this post.It has been a deeply inspiring month, transformative and enriching in all sorts of ways.


I was very lucky to share my time at Lagandorain with some great people – Iona the artist in residence before me ( we overlapped by 2 weeks which was wonderful) Colette, Misa, Marc and John. The creative, nurturing environment at the hostel was enormously important to this experience and I would like to thank them…as well as all the people passing through. Superb coffee at the Craft Shop, healthy seaweed consumption and the Spar have all played their part too! Special thanks are due to John who was happy to let me roam around his croft getting flashes of paint on his gates and leaving my mark on the studio floor and who was kind enough to send my rucksack full of all my worldly possessions back to me when I managed to leave it on the wrong side of the Sound Of Iona!

You can see more of Alison’s work on her website or follow her on facebook at

By Alison Critchlow

Ten Weeks on Iona

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, FullSizeRender.jpg
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Strong and content I travel the open road.”

How could I say it any better than Walt Whitman? I came with such eagerness and a sense of adventure with a simple desire to work in solitude and quiet. My children worried about me coming to this tiny remote island alone.  It is not easy to get here.  It takes 2 ferries and a bus ride across the desolate island of Mull before you see the soft turquoise waters and white sand shores of Iona.  It was late October when I arrived.  I had too much luggage and too many art materials.

Iona Abbey

Thousand of pilgrim’s feet trample over this little island especially over spring and summer.  Most of them come only for a day trip and to see the Abbey.  But now it is winter and they are gone.

I arrived to a hostel packed with travelers from all over the world. Who were these people finding shelter at the hostel from the winds and rain of November and December storms?  Who travels the world in winter?  I sat around the table at dinner mesmerized by their life stories. Free Spirits, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, story tellers, a whole plethora of folks sat at that table out on the north end of that tiny wind-swept island weaving magic in their combined stories.  The air was perfumed by their shared humanity. I was drunk on the richness of their lives.

When I was not in the common room visiting, I was feverishly working in my room on the small seascape pastels I was creating.  The biggest problem I posed for myself was, “Could I make postcard-sized paintings with any sense of movement and life?”. How do I translate the flow and energy of 12 foot long paintings with all their gesture and sweeping line into a 5″ x 7″ painting?  My favorite painter, Emily Carr, said, “Let my talent be in service to my vision.”  So I was asking myself what was my vision?  What are my themes?  Can they be universal and am I able to make art that exists as a metaphor for the larger cosmic energy that animates all things?  Energy that I sense, but could I translate that into form?

I did 25 paintings while I was here.  I achieved my desire to breathe life into them.  Yet I struggled with the dichotomy of my working life in my small cell-like room with the pull of wanting to hear traveler’s tales out in the common room.  The view of the ocean and the myriad islands out beyond the parameters of my window kept calling me, but I pulled the landscape in devouring it, sucking it in like air, like candy, and transmuting it into art.  Some of my questions were answered.  Some were not.


In the two and a half months that I’ve been here, there have been chapters to this experience. Besides the random traveler, there was a time when the hostel was filled with women.  All of them were artists and all of them were authors as well.  We had stimulating conversations about art and being artists.  We sang together in the Abbey and St. Oran’s Chapel.

We made meals together, it felt like we were a community of nuns, save the one lone male Marc who lives and works here.  For him it must have felt like his own private harem.  After our nightly soirees, we would retire to the quiet of our “cells” to read, create art, or sleep.

Marc’s nightly serenade

Often, the  owner of the hostel, John invited us up to his home, a traditional white croft house where we watched movies.  One was about Gertrude Stein.  Lively discussions always came out of these visits.  Gradually over the weeks the other artists did their work, gave a presentation to the community, drifted away and went home.  I was the last one left.



Christmas happened with a great tempest raging outside.  The wind howled so much and beat againimg_4567st the side of the buildings and shook the roof until it became the talk of the village.  Complaints about the inability to sleep became commonplace.  Marc, at one point, left the shelter of his little bothy, swearing and cursing the wind and its bombardment.  He even slept in the hostel for a few hours to get relief.  Collette’s parents were here during the big Christmas storm and had a hard time sleeping.  Out in the great room, the table was filled with nuts, fruit, and gold candles.  Everything looked festive and opulent.  Marc and Collette put up a willow branch and put some small white lights on it and hung seashells from its branches.  The windows were decorated too with Christmas lights and cut out snowflakes. One pilgrim, Heli who was from Finland, made a gingerbread house. It was perfect. Simple. Meaningful.

The ten weeks I spent on Iona impacted my work profoundly.  It was an experience that unexpectedly changed me.  Iona’s ancient rocks and mystical landscape cannot be denied and it’s beauty reflects the beginning of the world. It has a sense of timelessness and light like no other place in the world.

Even though I wrote here about life in the hostel, there was another reality outside which impacted me as much as the people I met.  It was the landscape. Ancient. Vibrating with energy and unseen forces. It was not only the power of the weather, I’m speaking of here, but the power of place.  How does history impact the character of a landscape? On this land, I never walked alone. Just as the vivid stories inside the hostel infused that place with life, so too did thousands of ancient pilgrim’s stories of saints, sinners, Scottish Kings, Viking conquerors and mythical beings enliven the land.  I heard their voices in the high winds above me as I walked and I still hear the low rumble of the ocean in my dreams.  In some peculiar way I hear Iona call to me, like a song.  Like a yearning. This is the power of place.

“You road I enter upon and look around.  I believe you are not all that is here. I believe that much unseen is also here.”  Walt Whitman,  Song of the Open Road





Vicki Folkerts-Coots
Vicki Folkerts-Coots is a landscape painter based in northern California. She works in oil, pastel and watercolor. She received a Master of Fine Arts from California College of the Arts, a Bachleor of Fine Arts in Painting and a Bachleor of Science in Applied Arts from Oregon State University, and three teaching credentials from Sonoma State University. Her work can be found in many private and public collections. She maintains a studio in Petaluma California. To see more of her artwork please visit her website here.

Iona Snapshots

St. Oran’s Chapel

Here’s the Abbey. I’ve been to the village, I’ve bought my groceries from the Spar, I’m walking back to the hostel when it starts to rain. I’ll “keep rain” in the chapel (as we say in Finnish), I say to myself, and do just that. The chapel is empty. The ferry’s cancelled today, so there are no tourists around, except for me. When I open the heavy black door to the chapel, it feels like I’m opening a tomb. Old old air comes out and I step back, startled. Where am I entering? What am I entering? This chapel is a tomb and it is very old. It’s also very dark and lonely and silent. After a few breaths, I’ve overcome my fear and make another go of it. Only a flickering red light from the candle on the altar sheds some light in the tomb-chapel. I light another one and think of all the people I once knew but who are now dead, and still very much alive in my mind. “I’m here alone,” I think, and the longer I think about it, the better I start to feel.

We sang in St. Oran’s chapel, me and the other women from the hostel. Our voices echoed from the old walls as if sound could travel in time and we would wake up the kings who slept in their graves. A curious robin came to hear us too. She sat by the door and listened to our harmonies of “Amazing Grace”. I have a video of us singing. We smile like lunatics and look so happy, like we’ve all found something we were looking for.



It’s my first week on the island. Some days are like summer days, at least this one. I sit in the garden by the ruins of the nunnery, once full of industrious women, drink my tea on the bench and admire the flowers that are still in bloom, fuschias and some purple ones that I don’t recognise. To me it’s a miracle that anything can bloom in November. Back home, in Finland, November is the month of death. Nothing grows anymore and the days get shorter and shorter until there’s no light left. This island is paradise to me.

I can imagine the nuns working in their garden and it seems like such a happy life to me. Those happy women! Filling their days with gardening, prayer, reading and writing, without the restrains and threats of marriage and motherhood. I feel like I’m a sort of a nun, coming here to Iona to write, to read, to walk. Back at the hostel, we talk about the nunnery and others point out how harsh it must’ve been for the nuns with food being scarce and Vikings raiding the shores. I tend to idealise the past, I know, and yet, I won’t let go of my image of a community of women, working in their garden. At least one of them must have been happy, sometimes. There must have been days when everything was fine, like this one. The sun so hot I start to sweat, flowers in bloom, birds chirping in the bushes.

Dun I

My friend Kenji is visiting from Southern England. It’s a glorious day and we decide to climb Dun I. I’ve been on Iona for several weeks now, but I haven’t climbed the highest point of the island yet. I’m not adventurous, I say to people, and part of that is true. But I’ve been looking at Dun I a lot. The sun sets behind it turning it into a black silhouette of a mountain. We are nestled beneath it at the hostel. Now I finally sit at the top and look at the setting sun with my friend. Such a glorious day. No wind, no clouds, warm like it was spring, not winter. This is the first time I see the sun actually disappear below the horizon. From the north side of the island you merely look at the sky, and as the colour changes, you know the sun is gone. We drink peppermint tea and I eat a tiny chocolate covered roly poly. It tastes so good and I’m happy and curious and out of breath.

White Strand of the Monks

I go to the beach a lot. The one just next to the hostel is the most familiar, most comfortable place. It’s easy to get there, you just step down at the earth’s edge and skate down on the white sand. But on days when the North Beach seems too familiar, too comfortable, I walk to the tip of the island, to the beach they call The White Strand of the Monks. The rocks there are black because a bunch of Vikings killed a bunch of monks a long time ago. They say that sometimes you can see a ghostly Viking ship appear from the distance. Do the Vikings come back to finish what they started? Or do they just like these shores, like me.

History is often about men killing each other. When I stand on the beach and look at the waves crossing each other like in some kind of rough dance, I don’t see monks, or Vikings, but the presence of what’s still there: the sea, the sand, the sky and the mountains on the other side. They change daily, by the second, but defy such human ways of counting time. For them, there is no time, except that which continues. The waves keep hitting the shore, like a giant washing machine. The sand keeps getting whirled about and rubbed into smaller and smaller grains. And the sky looks on, indifferently, at what happens below, and I like to look at it, since it’s bigger than me and above me and full of order and chaos.



The sofa is where I begin my days and where I often end them. I wake up late, later than everybody else, so the kitchen is usually empty when I have breakfast. I take my tea, my book and myself and sit by the big windows. Sometimes I read, but mostly I just look at the landscape. The sea is on my right, the hostel kitchen on the left. The sky is big and looks different every day, every moment, so it’s important to keep a close watch on it. The sheep are black dots that move across the grass, the machair, and go about their day. Now they run across the window in wild panic. Now they appear in a neat line, one after the other, pausing in the middle of the path like obedient children. I’m especially attached to Poopy Bum, who has poop stuck on his bum and who is old and cannot quite keep up with the others. One day I stand and watch how he looks longingly at Marc and Caroline, the volunteers, who are having a conversation on the other side of the fence.

The Christmas tree next to the sofa is full of decorations, an Art Deco Santa, another Santa on a wooden boat on his way somewhere, a glass bird with “Love you” written on its body. I never get tired of watching the decorations or this view. When I’m down, it lifts me. When I’m happy, it elates me. I walk down to the beach to watch the sunset and think to myself: It’s worth being alive when you can come to a place like this. We’re the lucky ones. The sofa has been my centre for these past few months. The people around it have been my family, the hostel my home, the island my world, and I have been the lucky one.

Vappu Kannas
Vappu Kannas is a Finnish writer and researcher. She spent November and December as writer-in-residence at the Iona hostel. Her chapbook As an Eel Through the Body, co-written with Canadian poet Shannon Maguire, appeared in 2015 (Dancing Girl Press), and she is currently working on a novel based on the life of Emily Dickinson and her sister, Vinnie. Her PhD dissertation explored the diaries of L.M. Montgomery, the Canadian author known for Anne of Green Gables, and incidentally Montgomery also visited Iona on her honeymoon in 1911.

turning the page


Sometimes there is a blank page inserted in novels before a new and prominent section starts. These past 15 months have been this page in my story. I needed this time for reflection, this space for exploration, before I could move to the next chapter. Now, with only 1 day before my flight home, I hold the paper in my hand, feeling its weight, edges crisp and sharp on my fingertips. It’s a bit surreal, to be honest. Friends and family continue to ask me if I’m ready. I think I am as ready as I can be. I gave myself 6 weeks on Iona to prepare for ‘the return.’

In truth, I have spent the last 6 weeks doing very little, but I have also spent the last 6 weeks doing enormously profound things. I have been sketching and painting and journaling and walking. I have ambled down Iona’s only road every other day to the village in order to buy the essentials for my island life (veggies and hobnobs). I have baked and I have cooked and I have brewed cups and cups and cups of tea. I have sat for hours on the sofa in the hostel living room staring out at the ocean. I have watched the landscape transform amidst constantly shifting clouds and sun, and I have marvelled at this endless theatre of color and light and shadow. I have read some radical life-changing books, and I have allowed myself to rest and relax and try to process the past year and a half. I have thought a lot about what I want my life to look like when I return to Portland. Even more importantly, I have thought a lot about the kind of person I want to be as I live this life.

When I first was the Artist in Residence at the hostel last February, I became enchanted with Iona. You can read more about that starting here. I came away with a body of work of about 25 paintings that had been created in just under four weeks. During my stay, I was encouraged by some of the locals to use this art for a second book. I loved the idea of returning and carried this idea with me when I headed off to Spain to exhibit my work in Santiago de Compostela. As the months passed, I realised that I did, indeed, need to return to Iona. At the beginning of July, I emailed John to let him know I wanted to head back to the island. I decided to give myself a bit longer this second time. I knew I would use these weeks not only to sketch and paint, but to prepare my heart and my mind for heading home.

Consequently, in late October, I found myself nestled amongst a hostel full of creatives from all over the world. The community John has fostered on this wee island in the inner Hebrides is quite unique; I would even venture to say it’s magical. These past 6 weeks I have been surrounded by beautiful, inspirational women who shared their art and their lives with me. We talked about fledgling projects and our hardest challenges, past and present. We peered into the future, sharing tentative hopes buoyed by encouraging words and kindness. Within this community, I started to flesh out the idea of a second book, but I still had no idea what the underlying story would be. The text in my book about the Camino de Santiago had been pulled directly from my journals and pieced together with a small amount of additional writing. I knew this book would be different, but I wasn’t sure where to start.  There are a myriad of books written about the history of Iona and its famous Abbey, and I had no intention or desire to delve into something that had already been covered so thoroughly. I basically had a collection of drawings but no narrative. So I prayed for guidance.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you probably have noticed that I use a main painting to tell a story. I start with an image that speaks to me, and then I build from there, weaving my words around the metaphor of my painting. Traditional illustration tends to work the other way around, with art that is created to enhance the written word, but I always like start with the visual piece first. As I thought about my writing process, I realized that the imagery I had been painting on Iona could tell the story of my journey this year; not just where I had gone and what I had seen, but what had transformed and changed in me along the way.

This painting above is of a piece of the ancient Nunnery on the island. The wall I decided to draw is set sharply against the blue of the sky, with crumbling rock creating a vivid contrast to the stark angles jutting heavenward. I like these ruins a lot, perhaps even more than the abbey. They feel more approachable somehow. The ladies at the hostel would laugh and joke that we were all from the nunnery; all of us single, cloistered together on this holy isle. The outside surface of this building looks smooth and flat, but from my viewpoint one could see the vast amounts of rock that were used to construct each wall. It is hard to believe that when such varied stones are placed just so, they can be used to build a magnificent structure.

I hope that my stories will be like these stones; I think that I can use each one, stacking them just so, to create a narrative that will share my journey during this time of travel. We’ll see how things progress when I get back to Portland, but I am setting a goal to have the book finished by the spring of next year. It is a bit ambitious, I’ll admit. I have quite a lot of stone stacking to do.


Friday was my final day on Iona and although my mind was swimming with the excitement of heading home, I wanted to be wholly present. I wanted to breathe in the richness of the island one last time. The weather was unseasonably warm and so I decided to do the very best thing to ensure I would remember the fullness of the afternoon. I headed out to sketch on the beach.

Afterwards, I wrote the following in my journal:

Eucharisteo. The silver sea. Rose tinted hills in the far distance. The ache of my back as I perch on this rock. Waves gently settling onto white sand at the water’s edge. Clouds, great sculptures, wild and puffy stacks of cotton over Mull softening as they move out over the Atlantic. Mild air and virtually no wind. A November day spilling over with grace. My heart is full of gratitude. Iona, thank you for rest and respite before I return. Thank you for holding me. 

So, it’s time to turn the page. As I hold the paper in my hand, feeling its weight, edges crisp and sharp on my fingertips, I hope that you’ll come with me. This next section is unwritten… I’ll need company along the way.


Kari Gale
Kari Gale is a illustrator/writer from Portland, Oregon specialising in food and travel. She has spent the past 15 months living, walking,  painting and writing in Portugal, Spain, France and the UK . She has documented the entire journey in her journal with pen/ink and watercolour and has shared her experiences and art on her blog.  She published her first book ‘The Art of Walking: An Illustrated Journey on the Camino de Santiago‘ in June of 2015, and has spent the past 6 months exhibiting her work in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. You can find out more about Kari and her work on her website at

November Harvest

odhrans-chapel-2Almost seventeen years ago I planted a seed: I called my son Odhran after the legendary saint associated with Iona. There are many versions of Saint Odhran’s story, most of which involve him being buried alive. You’ll be relieved to hear that I didn’t name my son after this saint because of his gruesome end! Rather, I gave my son this name because Odhran had been prepared to tell the truth as he saw it.

Over the past year my urge to re-tell the legend of Saint Odhran has grown stronger. My rational explanation for this urge is that, in re-telling this legend, I will somehow find it a little more bearable when the time comes for my son to leave home.

As a writer, folklorist and storyteller, I believe the land holds stories and memories. For me, to ‘unlock’ the legend of Saint Odhran, I’d need to go to the places associated with him. I’d need to walk the landscape into my bones. I’d need to listen to the wind. I’d need to see how the sky illuminated special places and how the stars hid secrets in the night sky.


Thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Iona Hostel residency programme, I’ve been able to do exactly what I needed in order to start unlocking the legend. During November I spent two weeks on Iona, staying in the bothy at Iona Hostel. In the mornings I wrote, in the afternoons I researched (which involved some reading and a great deal of walking 🙂 ) and in the evenings I spent time with the other artists in residence. On the last Friday of my stay I had the opportunity to talk about my work, tell stories and read from my book, The Faerie Thorn & Other Stories. It was great to share an evening with other hostel guests and artists in residence – and it was really lovely that some of the islanders came along too.

iona-3In terms of the writing and research aspects of my residency, I kept to my plan and have everything I need to support the completion of my new book project. However, Iona and the residency gave me a little more than I expected! The island is a magical place: it had a profound effect on me both emotionally and physically – and I think these effects will play out in my work and in my relationship with my son. The residency is a magical opportunity: it gave me the chance to meet other artists (illustrators, writers, pastel artists) and be part of a free-thinking, playful, supportive and creative community.

I talk a little bit more about my residency experience in this video:

It seems that the seed I planted almost seventeen years ago has grown well. The November harvest has been rich for me: I have left Iona with its spirit – and its stories – in my bones. I am ready to re-tell the legend of Saint Odhran and feel more prepared to handle the next stage of parenthood.

Jane Talbot
Jane Talbot is a writer and storyteller based in Northern Ireland. Her first collection of short stories, The Faerie Thorn & Other Stories (Blackstaff Press, 2015), is being adapted for the stage by  Big Telly Theatre Company. The stage production is due to tour the UK and Ireland in April/May 2017. You can find out more about Jane and her work on her website

Art Residencies, Autumn 2016

The plan, as usual, was to have one artist come for a month long residency… and the picture below tells what actually happened. Vappu (writer) and Vicki (painter) asked to come for a couple of months, then Kari (illustrator and writer) who did a residency in the spring wanted to come back for a month, then Jane (story teller and writer) asked to come for a couple of weeks. Hele who is a writer then washed ashore from her travels for a while. Caroline, Colette (water-colourist) and the irreplaceable Marc make up my fabulous team.

It’s a happy, stimulating and creative group and it strikes me as extraordinary that in this little hostel on a dot of land surrounded by the heaving November seas there should be a coming together of such talent and warmth. When they get the chance I hope that some of them will introduce themselves on this page so that you can find out more of what they do and what brings them here, to Iona.