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.
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 http://www.miranda-richmond.co.uk