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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!


Another day, another storm.

December 16, 2013




Inchcape Rock

November 20, 2013

The wind still howls and the bell outside my backdoor rings and rings. All very Inchcape Rock, if you know the poem by Southey. A couple more pictures of the beach from a few minutes ago to give you a brrrr of pleasure before the night sets in! An evening for the fireside.





November 20, 2013

A fabulous day on Iona. Just back from a walk on the beach with Snuffy with a storm blowing in from the north. Totally exhilarating – like being on laughing gas! The wind force flattens the waves and the blowing sand and spume scour your face  -not sure what Snuffy makes of it, but she seemed delighted. Marc, in the meantime, calmly does a little force 9 fence building for relaxation.





Snow on Ben More

November 9, 2013

Winter is coming, with slanting sunshine interspersed with squalls of  sleet. It’s cold and exhilarating today and I’m quite happy to be toasty indoors. A day for sitting by the fire with a book: ‘The Innocence of Objects’ by Orhan Pamuk being my choice.




Big Marc from last year has reappeared, which is a pleasure, and he is doing some fencing, Elsa is busy making the hostel beautiful and Dan is on a day off, nursing a migraine, poor man. The hostel is full tonight, which is good going for November! It’s surprisingly busy for this time of year and clearly far more folk are travelling and on the move than in previous years. Tonight: Polish, German, Dutch, English and Scottish -a good mix. The reward for those that make the effort is a very quiet and elemental island. Those who know Iona only in the summer might find the island strangely empty and still. Various businesses close over the winter yet several either stay open for winter travellers or offer a reduced service. The hotels serve food on short hours and the wonderful Iona Craft Shop remains open where Mike serves excellent coffee (a social service if ever there was one!) In spite of this rollicking weather a deep calm pervades the place: a strange mix of ravishing and kinetic landscape and thoughtful interiority.

Remembrance Sunday tomorrow and as Convenor of Iona Community Council I’ll lay the wreath at the War Memorial. A slightly tricky one for me in that I suspect I lack sufficient ‘patria’ to be able to (inside at least) wholeheartedly embrace the ceremony. As with many others, earlier in my life I would have described myself as pacifist and though that conviction has long gone I am left with a subjective hierarchy of wars and the difference between what constitutes the ‘just’ war and sheer folly. On this graph, pretty clearly the First War was folly whilst the Second was defendable and Just. Why, then, can I stand in calm respect to honour the dead of the First War -whilst honouring the dead of our foray’s to the Falklands or Iraq fills me with discomfort and anger? Folly is folly, after all. Perhaps it’s simply that time blunts and even the most politically culpable act will eventually fade to symbol and memory.

I see myself as one of those contradicted yet lucky men: the generation largely defined by the Second World War yet never actually having been called upon to make such decisions or commitment. The War had had a profound effect upon my life even though I was born ten years after it ended. My father was seriously wounded during the latter part of it and my early years in particular largely formed by that fact. Likewise, my grandmother’s first fiancé died on the Somme. My childhood memory of my parents peers were of silent men with bits missing (metaphorically or literally), single middle-aged women,  horribly jovial men (who never saw action) with bullying tales of derring-do, or smugly nuclear couples (War ? What war?).  Not exactly Otto Dix, and I got away lightly, but the damage and consequences of such events are far reaching in every sense.


On a different note Iona Hostel is hosting two weekend workshops in March. This is something I’m keen to promote as it brings people and interest to the hostel at a quiet time of the year, it allows me the pleasure of using the hostel as a creative space and benefits course organisers as I can offer a healthy discount for such courses. So, if you want to run an art / craft course at the hostel between November and mid-March please do get in touch.

The first course is the long weekend 6th – 9th March inclusive and is led by award winning illustrator Jill Calder (From Cellardyke so she must be fine!). Called ‘Inkery on the Island, the course will focus upon ‘creating finished illustrations based upon unexpected forms of text, inks, drawing, paper, looking, thinking and random elements of playfulness…’ Have a look at for more information. £400.  She’s good.

The second course, ‘Driftwood Binding: A Creative Retreat’ is by inspirational book-artist Rachel Hazell, who also ran a course in the hostel last March. The dates for this one are 13th – 16th March inclusive. ‘Exploring Inner and Outer Landscapes: using folding, cutting, painting, mapping and story-telling to create your own personal book-art’. Rachel is a natural-born teacher -take a look at her website: £350.00. And Anja supplies a fresh cake daily!

And lastly, for Snuffy lovers (Snuffophiles?) out there. Adorable as ever, Snuffy is presently asleep by the fire having scoffed all the offcuts of mutton from a soup I made this morning. She’s had a good summer and after a ruthless haircut in July she’s finally (and just in time) grown a good tousle of hair to keep her warm through the winter.