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A window on Iona - UHI conference blog - May 2015

Historian Kim Burns reports on her experiences at the Window on Iona conference organised by the University of the Highlands and Islands.

I came to Iona not knowing much about it! I'd found it on a map of course, and I'd checked the business of how to get there, but, as I was attending the UHI Centre for Nordic Studies Summer School, entitled 'A Window on Iona' I figured I'd be learning about it all once I got here.

Iona is a small island, but with a big history. These days over 100 people actually live there, but these numbers swell dramatically, not just with day visitors on the Calmac ferry from Mull, but also with the Iona Community's residents, volunteers and guests. 

I'm not a religious person myself.  I simply wanted to find out about the history, and experience being on another small island: islands fascinate me, after all, I live in Orkney. But the Iona Community has a quiet, but strong belief in looking after the earth, and looking after each other. It's a nurturing, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming place, and you get to stay in the Abbey!  In medieval times it was a busy and important centre for pilgrimage with a Benedictine monastery.

I've enjoyed wandering around the ruins of the Augustinian Nunnery. I was pleased to find in there a, rather worn, carving of a Green Man, an ancient symbol for nature and growth.


Because of the summer school I've learnt about how Celtic Christianity expressed itself through praise poems in the medieval times, and how important St Columba, Colum Cille, was in Iona. I also attended a fascinating lecture about the Book of Kells. It is thought to have been made on Iona, probably by two artists, the Great Artist, who did the detailed and intricate full page pictures, and by the 'scribe artist' who made the entertaining and intriguing small decorative drawings around the words of the four apostles.

It's great to know that the images of the Book of Kells have been digitally scanned and available for all to see online.

My morning walks have taken me down the winding road from the Abbey to the village. I have seen swallows and bullfinches. I've heard a cuckoo and a corncrake. I've admired the organic garden, and wandered over to the Heritage Centre. I've walked past the village and picked up stones on the beautiful beach of the Bay of Martyrs. And I've been on a brilliant boat trip to Staffa Island, where we walked into Fingal's Cave and stood just a few feet away from puffins, happily watching their crazy landings.

It's been a lovely, peaceful and educational week. I'm pleased to have met all the guests taking part in the summer school and staff of the Iona Community. They have come from seven different countries to be here this week, and it's been great getting to know everyone.

Find out more about the University of the Highlands and Islands on their website.


(Images: cloisters copyright Roger Vander Steen; abbey copyright Phillip Capper)

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