by Richard Hillesley
We rocked up on Iona from Fionnphort in a swell in an open boat. A petrel skimmed the waves. Salt and spray tipped over the gunnels. A storm was on its way. The wind was lifting and the gulls swirled over the scraps thrown into the water from a fishing boat wallowing in the sound. A man on the landing smiled at us and asked if we were looking for God. We could only say,
But we were looking for a place to pitch our tent.
—You’ll find him here,
he said, pointing to a row of tents near the Priory.
Iona was a thin place, a strand of light between land and sea, a tuft of grass on the edge of the ocean, three and a half miles long and one mile wide. You could smell religion and its ghosts in the wind. You could feel it in the stone.
We pitched our tent in the field near the Priory and walked to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. The sand was made of shells and the light was soft and pagan,
—like daylight through a pub window,
The beach and sand were a flowering at the edge of the sea. Stiff grass and silt where the curlews picked and strutted in the swash and drift of the tide. The clouds rolled across the horizon. The waves were long and slow.
We walked back to the field and lay in our tent and listened to the sound of the wind. Our dreams were of each other and the slap of the wind against the poles, and we didn’t stir until one of the young Christians from the abbey put his head around the flap of our tent.
—You can’t do that.
But he didn’t seem to notice.
—Pack up your tent and come to the Chapter House,
—We’re having all night prayers and a talk on the war in Ireland.
Columba fought a war in Ireland. He went to war over the right to own a book. His enemy was Diarmait mac Cerbaill who decreed, ‘To every cow belongs her calf. To every book belongs its copy’ and thus denied Columba the right to keep the copy he had made of the psalter of St Jerome. The book was made of vellum. Vellum was made of calf skin. Columba took his revenge at the battle of Cúl Dreimhne in County Sligo. Three thousand and one men fell in the battle over the right to own the book. Columba was a prince and a monk and a scribe. Diarmait mac Cerbaill was a King of Tara. Three thousand of the dead were followers of Diarmait. One was a follower of Columba. Columba was sent to Iona to pay penance for the slaughter, and brought Christianity to the Picts.
—Bring your sleeping bag. You can sleep on the floor,
said the young Christian,
—There’s a force nine gale on its way, and if you stay in your tent you’ll be blown away.
We took him at his word. Not that we were afraid of the wind, but we hadn’t had a bath in weeks. It was the possibility of a bed and a bath that tempted us to pack up our tent and go in search of a B and B among the upright and tidy houses of Iona. We asked in the shop and one of the women told us of someone who did that sort of thing on the other side of the village. By the time we got there she had been on the phone to warn that we were coming.
—I’ve heard about you,
said the woman, peering round her door.
—There’s going to be a storm,
—and we need a bed for the night.
—You’re not wearing a ring,
—Are you married?
—You can’t stay here.
said the woman, and made as if to shut the door.
—But you can try Mrs McSweeney. She takes your sort.
By now the dark had closed in. And the wind was getting up. Mrs McSweeney had heard about us too.
—Do you have a room?
we asked, and she said,
—You can’t stay in the house. But there is a barn.
The barn was a shed that may once have been a crofter’s blackhouse, a homestead under a turf roof with living space at one end and a cattle byre at the other. The roof had been replaced with timbers and a covering of corrugated iron, and there was a dividing wall and a cow on the other side. The dividing wall didn’t reach to the roof.
—A pound a night in advance,
There was a hurricane lamp, a high bedstead, a bunk bed against the opposite wall, no windows, an old school desk and a single chair. It was dry and clean, but there was straw on the floor and we could hear and smell the cow over the wall, and if we stood on tiptoe we could see it. After she shut the door, we hugged one another and laughed.
—Just like Joseph and Mary,
There was a rucksack and a violin case by the bunk bed and we realised we were not alone. We had a companion who turned up just as we began to settle in. He was bespectacled and shy and came from Germany. He sat at the desk and made notes in his journal by the flickering light of the hurricane lamp, and we lay on the bed with our books, and listened to each other. He was a young Christian and came to Iona every year and always stayed with Mrs. McSweeney. One year he had stayed in the back of a disused car in her yard and she had taken a pound a night from him, to stay in the car.
He didn’t stay with us. He walked out into the wind with his shoulder bag and took his books to the Chapter House for prayers and a talk about the war in Ireland. On his way out he popped his head around the door and said,
meaning to say goodbye. The wind howled through the door and we imagined him blowing down the lane as he walked to the Chapter House.
We lay on the bed in the barn and listened to the wind and the cow. The wind was worse than we had expected, and the rain was long and hard. The cow was unsettled and kept us awake through the night. Maybe it had been separated from its calf, or maybe it was the noise of the wind, rattling the edges of the roof and throwing things across the yard that disturbed the cow’s equilibrium, but she wasn’t quiet and she was not still.
The barn was like the barn in a painting by Marc Chagall. Harmonies in the colour and dissonance of bed and fiddle, paraffin lamp and Alice in her skirt over her jeans, and her walking boots that looked out of place. And the unexpected low of the cow that shook the walls.
Alice, rising off the bed, moved the chair to the dividing wall, stood on the chair and looked over the wall at the cow. A curious music went on between them. I looked over the wall and the cow flicked its tail and moo’d and Alice began to sing, a strange guttural song that echoed between the rafters as if she knew what the cow was feeling, with her arm hanging over the wall and the wind tearing at the roof.
I asked why she was singing but she ignored me and sang to the cow, and the cow moved towards her and licked her hand. The cow went calm and we went back to bed. They had found a harmony between them.
Columba didn’t like women or cows. He once decreed ‘Where there is a cow there will be a woman, and where there is a woman there will be mischief,’ and cows were banished from Iona to The Island of the Cows, and women were banished to The Island of the Women. Such was the symbolism of the woman and the cow.
And when we awoke in the morning a thin light seeped across the sky and the air was oddly still, as if filled with guilt and remorse for the storm the night before. The storm had cleared the air. We washed under a tap in the yard, and followed our star to the south of the island and the Bay of the Buried Coracle, where we camped for a week, and left on the ferry one evening when the sun was hooked like a dying mackerel along the line of sea and sky.
On the wall above the urinal in the toilet next to the ferry landing someone had scrawled ‘At this moment Iona is the spiritual centre of the universe – Mrs Mcleod, Iona Grocery store.’
Richard Hillesley is a freelance writer and editor who has published features, stories and poems in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, most recently Prole, Storgy, Cafelit and The Angry Manifesto. He is a former editor of LinuxUser magazine and feature writer for The H. The Wind and The Cow was inspired by a visit to Iona in 1975 during a summer spent hiking and camping around the Highlands and Islands.