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Three favourite children’s books

January 15, 2015

It’s difficult to pick up again with my blog after such a long pause. I blame facebook… in the summer I was advised that I just had to have a presence on it to promote the hostel, I succumbed and needless to say I’m now addicted.

So in an effort to wean myself off it and learn to use words again I’m going to talk about books. I enjoy having a small library in the hostel. I tend to stock it with books from my house but sometimes I’ll see a must-have in a shop and justify buying it by telling myself it’s for the hostel. A good trick that usually works. It’s a pleasure trying to keep an interesting selection and guests seem to enjoy it. People are so honest. It’s amazing how many packets I receive in the post of books being returned from guests having borrowed them to finish elsewhere.

Iona itself has a lending library -the little pitch pine lined building between the school and the village hall. It’s one of my favourite building on the island and the lending service still operates on Saturday mornings. The Abbey has a splendid barrel vaulted library and it is my favourite room on the island. It is currently being catalogued with discussion as to its conservation and future use. Its a significant island resource which could probably be make better use of.

I enjoy children’s books, probably because of the pleasure and excitement they brought me when I was wee. My three current favourites have been bought from the two bookshops I go into at any opportunity: Golden Hare Books in Stockbridge, Edinburgh and the vast arts bookshop in the Pompidou Centre.

Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (Gecko) is the kind tale of a duck who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Death. The Tulip is a curious character (the most interesting?) and held in Death’s hand for the first few pages but kept well hidden from Duck’s sight. Movingly, it reappears when Duck dies.  It’s a curious book but one with a simple story and gentle and elegant illustrations. From reviews, it appears to be suitable for five’s and over.


Nuages by Gong Gwang-kyu (Picquier Jeunesse) is a gorgeous large format picture books of clouds -and the animals that they can look like -or are? Dragons, horses, pigs and a dog that looks uncannily like Snuffy are there. Beautifully produced and illustrated. Any age.


and lastly,

This is not my hat by Jon Klassen (Walker Books). I bit of an international hit, this one. The story of a little fish that makes the mistake of stealing the hat of a bigger fish. Great romping story line with a moral and brilliant illustrations. I love it -so, any age!


Enjoy them.




Beach art

July 18, 2014

There is always something new to be seen on my twice daily walks on the beach with Snuffy.

Beach art is a bit contentious. On the one hand leaving a mark on the beach gives many folk pleasure or is significant to them. On the other, people visit places like the North End of Iona for its pristine and unspoiled beaches. Some visitors take the ‘leave only your footprint’ approach and only use materials that will be swept away by the next tide. Others have more monumental ambitions. As steward of Traigh an-t Suidhe (the strand of the seat) I tend to remove these offerings after a few days -particularly if stones are involved. It’s astonishing -little stone cairns seem to breed like rabbits. However, some art, if I think it is particularly special, I’ll leave alone. As in any cultural landscape, the beach is what we choose it to be. I tend towards maintaining it in as natural and as pristine a way as possible as I think that that is what most people appreciate. It also reflects my lifelong resistance to signage and intervention in relatively natural places.

Being Iona, most offerings are of the celtic doodle variety, with a smattering of names, labyrinths and such like. The most unusual, in March this year, was a 3 metre phallus, painstakingly picked out in small pebbles. It must have taken hours. A conversation piece, certainly…

I’m writing about this now because there are presently two sculptures on the beach that I love. The photo’s tell it all.





These are others that I liked from over the past couple of years. The last photo is of a giant bear which took about six weeks to erode and vanish. I ended up feeling very protective towards it and was sad to see it go!


sacred geometry 054



Creative retreats

June 17, 2014



As many of you will know, issues of sustainability and environmental awareness are central to the ethos of Iona Hostel. The marriage of hostel, land / croft and a creative response to cultural landscape are close to my heart and I’m keen to develop a more overtly artistic opportunity and response to this remarkable place. Though I have little artistic skill myself (I guess I view Lagandorain as my canvas!) the artistic process, metaphor and interpretation are close to my heart. I’m reassured by the idea of the poet, the Makar, being at the right hand side of God. Good company.

I’ve decided, therefore, to offer four week self-directed residencies over the winter in the Shepherd’s Bothy. Between mid October and the end of February, visual artists and writers now have the opportunity to pursue a personal project on Lagandorain. As many of you will know, Lagandorain and the North End were the creative and spiritual home of the Scottish Colourists.

While there is no theme specified for the residency, successful applicants will be expected to reflect Iona and an awareness of environment and sustainability in their finished work. I am keeping this deliberately loose as it’s creative interpretation and interplay rather than polemic that interests me and seems to better reflect our human nature.

Along with the Bothy, the Byre will also be available as a big workspace.

If you are interested in terms and prices, please do get in touch.



Who mentioned haircut?

June 9, 2014


Yes, it’s June and time for Snuffy’s  jaunt to Salen for her annual haircut. Today, an adorable ball of fur, tomorrow skinny, pink and bald. Who says that pets don’t look like their owners… If you want to make yourself smile take a look at the Pixar short cartoon Boundin on youtube. Brilliant.

A good week for the Hostel!

It’s been awarded a TripAdvisor Five Star Certificate of Excellence, and, the Hostel has once again been nominated for the Green Tourism Business Scheme annual Goldstar Award. This is for being one of the highest scoring Gold Hostels in the UK and Ireland in 2013 and the last time round (2011) Iona Hostel came 2nd in the UK and 1st in Scotland.


Below is a photo of myself brainstorming the next great wheeze for the Hostel.


Bees, boats and gramophones

May 26, 2014

Lagandorain now has a bee-hive! I’m very excited about this and am regularly to be found standing in the willows peering at it, willing something to happen. Other than a few bees buzzing around it all seems rather quiet but then I suppose that’s how it’s supposed to be.


Friend Alan who knows about bee keeping has gone into partnership with me. He supplies the knowledge (and our first hive) and I supply the setting, the flower meadows and cups of coffee. (You could say he was the worker and I the drone…) It’s tucked up among the willows, brambles and iris’s beyond Cnoc Buie  -a lovely quiet spot and hopefully well out of the worst of the winds. It’s all very gratifying. Along with the trees that have been planting over the past twelve years have come lots of birds and beasties. The place is teeming with life. Coupled with the fabulous flower meadow in the mid parc this all now seems like a micro-heaven for bees.

It’s interesting how the introduction of one small feature can entirely change a landscape. Norman MacCaig hits this dead on in his poem ‘Intrusion of the Human’ (‘…till round the skulled headland a tiny sail loafs into view. And everything becomes its setting.’). Knowing that the little hive is there, full of life, has imperceptibly changed my perception of Cnoc Buie. It’s the bees home now and the landscape adjusts around their little presence.




Last week the Black Boat was launched (now almond white with a fetching light blue upper stake) on the day that Mulls new ‘St Ayles Skiff’ came to visit. Here is a photo of Dan and myself down at the pier. It is Dan who gets all the credit for painting her so beautifully.


If you don’t know of the St Ayles Project, google it. For years rowing has slowly been dying. I remember a few years ago being ‘rescued’ on the Forth by the RNLI because someone on the shore saw me rowing and simply presumed I was in distress. The SW of England has always had it’s gig racing (very long and very expensive rowing boats) but there has been no equivalent in Scotland. The St Ayles skiffs have filled this gap in a peculiarly Scottish way. The purpose of the project was to design a boat that could be cheaply built by any community group which could then be raced against other boats in the class. Costing about £4,000 to build they have taken off in a completely unexpected way. There are some 70 Skiffs now all round the coast with 25 or more currently being built. It’s an astonishing project and it’s the ‘small is beautiful’ and democratic nature of the thing that makes it, for me, so characteristically Scottish. It’s also something that everyone can take part in: young and old, women, men and children.




John the (boatbuilder) and Lynne came over to Iona with their Skiff and gave folk the opportunity for a row. I went out with them and with Mark and Anja and the thing fairly flew. Four rowing and one at the tiller. It was interesting to see their boat next to mine, with perhaps a hundred years separating them. Both similar yet different and both very beautiful in their ways. As George Campbell Hay put it: ‘her mood is moulded on her and the mind that made her’s in her’.  The photo below shows John taking the Black Boat for her first spin.



My gramophone has come home having been exquisitely restored by Mr Mark Gray of Glasgow.  I spent a tremendous few hours with him in his home as he fed me tea and cake and played a selection of Caruso and John McCormack on my machine. To set the scene, I sat in the centre of his sofa facing the mouth of the gramophone horn, which for various good reasons was suspended by a string from his chandelier.  You could call it an early version of ‘wrap-around’ sound. He is what in past times would have been called ‘an original’ and on the back of all this sheer nuttiness, his good companionship and after such a pleasant afternoon I have applied to joint ‘The City of London Phonograph and Gramophone society’. More to follow.

Shepherd’s Bothy

May 1, 2014

I’m excited to introduce you to Lagandorain’s beautiful Shepherd’s Bothy.




Contrary to what you would expect, it is very difficult to find secluded and simple accommodation on Iona, somewhere to just sit and reflect, write or go on quiet retreat. My hope is that the Bothy will offer this to those who want it. As either a retreat or a romantic getaway it’s something very special.

Hand-built recently in England along the lines of the traditional Shepherd’s Hut it’s on four big cast-iron wheels, clad in blue corrugated tin, weighs in at a ton and a half and is a truly magnificent thing. I’ve always wanted such a hut (or bothy as they’re known in Scotland) for Lagandorain and a generous friend out there has made it possible. So thank you again, ‘out there’!




She’s tucked away among the rocky outcrops behind Cnoc Buie (yellow hill), the little hill behind the Hostel. This is where I’ve been planting trees over the years so she’s surrounded by young willow, birch, hazel and oak. (and a couple of baby monkey-puzzle trees …but that’s another story). It’s a lovely secret spot, quiet and secluded yet within three or four minutes walk from the Hostel. The intention is that Bothy guests can use the hostel toilet and kitchen facilities, do a bit of socialising if they want, then retire to the peace of Blawlowan (blow softly) when they are ready for a bit of peace.

She’s beautifully furnished inside, with a single bed that pulls out to make a double, an old dresser and a Lloyd-loom table and chair. There is a rolled umbrella, a torch, a hot water bottle and an oil lamp. Everything you need really apart from chocolate (which you can now buy in the hostel). It has electricity so there is bright overhead lighting if you want it, a cosy bedside lamp and an electric fire. The Bothy is very heavily insulated so you shouldn’t need it too much.





Something to point out is that one persons rural idyll can be another’s scary darkness and it can take a while to get used to the silences, sounds and darkness of a country night. The drumming of a snipe has sent many a brave heart under the covers, never mind an amorous corncrake yelling for love in the grass outside! It’s very comfortably furnished, homey and safe but at the end of the day it’s only a little hut in what is a very big and wild landscape.




For those that are comfortable with such living, it’s a spectacular place:

a place for thought and for unthinking

a place of reflection and calm,

A place for gazing west over the sea.




April 13, 2014

Rachel Hazell’s Driftwood Book Retreat and Jill Calder’s Illustration Course were a great success. We had participants from across the UK, Norway, France and the States. The courses complimented one another and the quality of work produced was memorable. Both Jill and Rachel are practiced teachers and in spite of some initial nerves and ‘creators block’ everyone produced some beautiful pieces. I sat in on both the final ‘show and tell’ sessions and was moved not just by the quality of work but by the pushing of personal boundaries that had gone on to reach this goal. As with the best of courses such as these, they were a subtle mix of a light touch, fun, personal processing and challenge. I think that everyone left Iona happier and a little bit richer than when they arrived.

Next winter I hope to host more courses of this kind. If you have a course in you that you would like to teach, why not get in touch with me?

Big Marc has just left for a few months in the States. We’ll miss him. He’s done some great work around the croft, planting ever more trees and building fences and generally imbuing the hostel his own air of attentive gentleness. Dan has been steadily busy painting the hostel and he has made a lovely job of it. He’s now out in the barn painting the Black Boat (now white with a pale blue top plank), spoiled rather by 007 the super-sheep getting in last night and rubbing himself against the wet paint. It’ll be the only boat with a black woolly coat. Louise has been a great addition to the team for a few weeks and worked wonders on the garden. She’s now up on Eigg but hopefully we’ll see her here again. Petri is back to continue on with the garden in her calm way and help with the hostel and Tereza from the Czech Republic has come back to join us. She helped in the hostel four years ago and so it’s a pleasure to see her again. I feel very fortunate to have such a great crowd of helpers around the croft and hostel and the place certainly benefits from their care and hard work. Put more bluntly -I couldn’t be doing this without them.

As I write, a wedding is taking place in the hostel. The ceremony was on the beach and now they are all up in a splendid marquee next to the hostel having a meal. Tonight  they will have a ceilidh. The weather today has been windy and squally and everyone (including the piper) sighed with relief that the beach part of the celebrations took place in bright sunshine. Hopefully I’ll have some good photo’s for my next blog.

To end, here are a selection of images from Rachel and Jill’s courses.







My first Skylark

February 28, 2014

Walking above the beach in the sunshine this morning the air filled with skylark song. Spring is just round the corner!


Titanic 3rd Class

February 19, 2014

You will be delighted to know that my gramophone player is now in the safe hands of the excellent Mark Gray for repair and cleaning. Mr Gray comes in twice a week to the Gramophone Emporium on St. Stephen’s Street in Edinburgh. A wonderful elderly character, he summed up my gramophone as ‘Titanic 3rd Class’ Not particularly flattering, I suppose, but powerfully evocative. It turns out that it is older than I’d originally thought and probably dates from around 1910 to 1920. When I described to him my musical taste (1920’s / ’30’s dance hall and vocalists, Frank Crumit et al), his nose wrinkled in disdainful pity. One of these moments when I wish I could have come up with some super-arcane blind (pref.) jazz instrumentalist…

Old horn gramophone’s are glorious things and I recommend that you go out and buy one now. It won’t cost you more than many electronic gizmo’s but be careful not to buy an Indian repro (usually the ones with brass horns). What you get is something raw and unmediated. They touch and move you, because you know that there are only a very few steps from the singer singing, all these years ago, and their voice filling your sitting room. I find myself peering down the horn as if expecting to see someone. In contrast, think of an iPod: does anyone still believe that they are listening to a voice or anything remotely human? On an old record, scratches and all, you are transported back to the moment of creation. What they offer, then, is a small doorway to Wonder, a quality increasingly absent in our present world.

One of the more spine-tingling and haunting memories of mine is of hearing the first (1920’s) recording of Tutankhamun’s war trumpets played after a silence of several thousand years. You can listen to it on youtube if you want. Have a tingle.

Things go well in the hostel. Marc is busy outdoors working on the fences and trees with a bit of drystane-dyking thrown in. Dan and Louise are making a lovely job of painting the inside of the hostel. It’s a few years since it had such a thorough job and looks all the better for it. Following the current museums /arts vogue for Curiosities, stuffed animals and juxtaposed such like I’m going to turn the lovely old telegraph box in the hostel corridor into a Cabinet of Curiosities. All the better as an excuse for me to buy more junk. The original 17th and 18th century Cabinets were gruesome and scary affairs, but mine will reflect our more tender, politically correct sensibilities (no stuffed anythings -I promise). So next time you visit, be prepared to be wowed. Dan has already painted the inside of it a rich, dark blue so things are progressing.

Jill and Rachel’s courses are coming up fast and I’m looking forward to them. As I’ve probably mentioned, I’m keen to develop a more arty / crafty focus for the hostel over the winter months so if any of you are keen on running a weekend course from 1st Nov. to mid March next year, just get in touch. I can offer a good deal and the more the merrier.

Things are gradually brightening up on Iona. Today is almost spring-like! The terrible conditions suffered by half the world (it seems) have largely passed us by. Wet and windy -but we’re used to that in the winter. My heart goes out to all these folk who have suffered from this strangest of winters. Nathalie from Quebec sent these photo’s -it’s still down around the minus 30’s and 40’s 0ver there and Anne in Manitoba tells me the same. The photo’s are fun; the situation less so.




Dawn at dusk

January 15, 2014

It’s 4.30 in the afternoon and the light is fading. All day the rain has come down. It’s been as dismal as it gets, with fields sheened with flooding and the dispiriting drip of a leaking window. However, over the last hour a weather front is moving in from the Atlantic and as I write, above me the sky is cut in two, like two pieces of contrasting fabric. To the east receding over Mull is a turbulent and sodden mass of cloud while to the west, a pristine and dusky blue. Where they meet is a thin band of salmon and rose as the setting sun catches the last of the cloud. There is no wind. It’s exquisite and is one of those moments when you just stop and breathe out. The air seems to hold still. Adding to the loveliness is the knowledge that fine weather lies ahead and that slowly the light is returning after this stormiest of winters.

After the jollity and disruption to life over Christmas and New Year, life on Iona is resuming it’s usual shape. The ground is water-logged but the cattle and sheep seem well enough. Mine are relieved to have the machair to graze: it’s not trampled to mud, there’s still roughage for them to munch on and compared to the other fields it is dry underfoot. They too get bored and like a change.

There doesn’t seem to have been a lot of damage from the storms. My old byre is a bit worse for wear, but repairable, and the house has lost a few tiles. Nothing drastic. We’re lucky though, I don’t think there is anywhere on the island prone to flooding and we’re used to the wind. Certainly, over the last couple of months gusting Force 8 and 9 seems to have been the norm but maybe that’s just what it feels like! The worst of it for me is that the exhaust on my old Subaru fell off (£££) and whilst listening to Frank Crumit sing Abdul Abulbul Amir (You-tube it, it’s fantastic) on my wind-up gramophone a couple of nights ago, the main spring broke. Where on earth do I get a 1920’s gramophone player repaired?


2013-03-21 19.20.16

Dan is busy painting inside the hostel and making a lovely job and Elsa is back for a few weeks to push forward a set of nature information boards we have thought up for the Hostel. Dan came up with the title ‘Snuffy’s Snippets’ which sort of catches an appropriate mood of enthusiastic amateurism that seems to be my guiding star. Marc is coming back in a week or two and in early February Lou is coming to replace Elsa when she heads off on her travels. The photo below is enclosed simply because I think it’s funny -and you have probably had enough of waves in the meantime… (I’m giving Snuffy a biscuit, by the way, not pulling her nose!)


Iona is buzzing just now! There was a fantastic party in the Village hall on Hogmanay and tonight that excellent movie ‘Untouchable’ is on in the Hall. There is so much going on, so many groups doing different things and so many children on the island now. The demographic has completely changed: when I came here 14 years ago the average age was probably around 60. Today it is probably about 12. Ok, slight exaggeration -but Mexico City does spring to mind. In a population of around 150 there are probably around 30 children under the age of 15. Brilliant. It’s a fascinating time and a great time to be involved in the Community Council.

A major project for the coming year is that the Iona Community and the University of the Highlands and Islands are discussing the possibility of developing a small campus on the island at the MacLeod Centre. The island community broadly supports this initiative and are pressing for a centre of international excellence rather than simply a local vocational outpost. Vocational study is valuable but we are already well served in that respect. Rather, we want to appeal to international students -as was the way on Iona a mere fifteen hundred years ago. Orkney already has a Centre for Norse Studies, and how appropriate it would be for Iona to have a ‘Centre for Celtic Studies’, for example. Iona has such international cache and was an international centre of scholarship centuries before any universities were dreamed of. How exciting that the newest university in Scotland should find a home on this oldest centre of learning! I would personally love to see learning once again on the island (and all the accompanying artistic and cultural opportunities) and feel that this could have real significance for the island over the next decades -rather as the rebuilding of the Abbey had mid last century. All the agencies, (Iona Community, University of the Highlands and Islands, Historic Scotland, The National Trust for Scotland) and the local community would draw behind this, support it and benefit. What they call a win/win. Early days, but I’ll keep you posted.

Remember that Gill and Rachel are holding their illustration and paper art workshops in the hostel in March (see the website). Why not book and come along -they’ll be good!