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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.



August 1, 2013
Nora, Cara and Freya

Nora, Cara and Freya

Snuffy and I were delighted to see Freya, Cara and Nora and their Mum and Dad again. The stayed for a week and Snuffy had the time of her life playing with them in the sunshine. If you look back the blogs, you’ll see a picture of the three musketeers a year ago. It was lovely to see them again!

It’s a busy year with lots of guests on the island. The hostel is running pretty well full and Dan, Jaishree and Flavia are all working hard to keep it fresh and welcoming. I was inspected a couple of weeks ago for the Green Tourism awards and though I’ve not heard officially believe that I’m still a Gold award. Good!

There have been some interesting wildlife sightings over the past few weeks. Several folk have spent time above the beach watching the otters feed, a group are sure that the saw an Orca (killer whale) off the North End -which is possible as there is a pod around these parts and sedge warbler’s (no, I’d never heard of them either…) are nesting in the willows. A couple of weeks ago as I took Snuffy for a walk in a pea soup fog three deer appeared from the mist, jumped the fence and vanished. A combination of a very low tide and flat calm conditions made for an easy swim for them. I’ve heard no more about them so presumably they’ve swum back home to Mull by now.




Carrie Robertson

July 13, 2013


Carrie Robertson died last week. For those of you who know the North End, Carrie owned the old grey caravan tucked into the rocks on Calva. She visited Iona and stayed at the North end every year since 1922. Yes, 1922. Last year was her 91st consecutive visit.

Carrie came from a prosperous family from Glasgow, who, like many others, holidayed on Iona. Until after the War, they came up as a family and stayed in Lagandorain. The Campbells moved out and into the simply converted byre for the summer and all the family and luggage would arrive via the old faithful ‘Dunara Castle’, the steamship that served these islands for generations. They loved Iona, Lagandorain and Calva in particular, and their times at the North End had a special place in Carrie’s heart for the rest of her life.

After the War, as was the way of things, the old ways changed and because the family was well known and liked they were allowed to bring a caravan onto the island and keep it at Calva. Apparently it cost around £800 (at the time you could buy a nice house for that!) and it was and remains an astonishing thing. Wood lined, with a stove and large folding bed it reminds me of something that Gracie Fields or Lucile Ball might have owned. It even has an aerodynamic ‘go faster’ slipstreamed roof. She even had a bath installed. Now it is a relic and is slowly sinking into the ground but not enough to have put Carrie off from visiting for a few days last summer. She was planning her summer trip with Jane (who previously owned Lagandorain) and I’ve been keeping an eye out for signs of activity when news came that she had died.

Bringing the caravan to Iona in the early ’50’s caused great excitement. It came up as deck cargo on a Clyde puffer and almost never made it as the puffer started listing with the weight on the deck and so had to stop at Crinan to have it re-secured and stabilised. The transfer from the deck of the puffer onto the old pier on Iona, with the aid, no doubt, of every available man, horse and tractor on the island must have been a sight. For the first many years it was pulled by tractor down to the beach at Calva for the holidays, but eventually the chasis collapsed and so there it remained below the rocky outcrop where it sits today.

Carrie was a fabulous and elegant character with dazzling eyes and swarthy suntanned skin like a gypsy. She was a GP in Oban for most of her working life and married to Eric, another doctor. They always must have had a great sense of fun and started the Oban Waterski-ing Club in the ’50’s. You can imagine what the Oban worthies though of that! She loved the water and sailed until just a few years ago when her eyesight failed. Perhaps six years ago she went off in the family yacht around the west coast of Ireland -aged around 86…

I loved her visits to Calva, for the stories, her sharp recall of the Lagandorain of the ’20’s and 30’s, her chic tartan trews, red wellies and lilac cardigan’s and her gift of introducing me to pink gin. We would sit in the caravan, the door wide open (Carrie immune to midges while I was being eaten alive) chattering away and sipping gin like there was no tomorrow. Like many of that age, her memory was prodigious. When I introduced Nathalie to her last summer, Carrie immediately remembered and commented upon her trip to Montreal in 1938.

And so now she’s gone and I’ll miss her sorely. Not only her, who I liked so very much, but as the last direct link to an Iona and Lagandorain of long ago.

John goes on holiday!

June 5, 2013


Solar panels up – waiting for sunshine…

May 5, 2013

And there was me thinking that buying solar panels would guarantee sunshine. It seems to have rained or been overcast since they were installed a few weeks ago and I’m wondering if I should send them back as faulty ? Nonetheless, in the meantime they have generated around 750 kw -so that can’t be bad.

It’s all, of course, excellent for the hostel. It helps reduce my carbon footprint, contributes to the wider good, saves me money (or will in ten years when I’ve paid it off !) and reinforces the sustainability message that is central to Iona Hostel. The photo’s below are an assortment of the panels being installed. In the rain and being supervised by Freya… The last ones more recently.

2013-04-11 12.19.28

2013-04-11 12.20.44

2013-04-11 12.24.082013-04-11 12.24.27

2013-04-19 15.25.30

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The Hostel is in full swing now with lots of folk passing through. Michael, Freya and Anne Marie are a lovely team, are fabulous and talented cooks and who regularly eat together -so I try to make sure I’m hanging around the hostel just as they are about to serve.  They keep the hostel immaculate, are a welcoming presence and are busy outside on various projects. The hostel windows are slowly (it’s painstaking work) being repainted with three coats, the croft generally being tidied up and the garden is tidy and just waiting for some warmth.

The prolonged lower than average temperatures has meant that the growth is away behind. Looking out the window the vegetation looks more like March than May -but I suppose an advantage is that no weeds are growing in the garden ! Mind you, nothing else is either. As with this place, however, the weather rarely stays the same for long, so most days have some sparkling sunshine. For those of you who don’t know Iona, we share the micro-climate of Tiree (an island a few miles further west) which is one of the driest and sunniest places in the UK. Our much closed neighbour to the east, high Mull, tends to get plastered by cloud and rain while the sun shines on us. But not today.

The Smirry Drizzle of Mist

Going down the shore on a morning, when the air was

without a breath of wind, there was peace throughout land

and sea, and a saftness from the clouds. Nothing was to

be heard through the stillness but a faint chirming of

birds. Everything was silent and dewy in the smirry

drizzle of mist.

There was no airt or direction to guide one on one’s way.

There was no place or time there, but one great, deep

stillness. The world was full of tenderness, under druidry

and under a cloak, and there was a fairy blindfolding on

my eyes in the smirry drizzle of mist.

Hillside and slopes were lost to sight in the clouds. There

was no colour or sound there, or hour, or light of day.

The slow, caressing rain was on the hill and hollow and

meadow, and the Wee Patch was in a smoke in the

foggy drizzle of mist.

The showers of drizzly mist came closely down, all

voiceless; whispering and fragrant, soft and fresh, without

voice or melody, they floated about hilltops and cliffs

and closed in about every hollow. Gentleness and

pleasure were drifting down in the smirry drizzle of mist.


George Campbell Hay.


2013-05-05 11.41.20

Dun I 10 minutes ago ! The rowing boat is ready to go in -but it’s just not settled enough yet.

What I crave at the moment, as much as a warm sunny day, is colour. I love it. The soft, muted melancholy of a smirry, drizzly Hebridean day is an acquired taste (something in the genes of the Scots and Irish) and best countered and complemented a blast of visceral, ringing and discordant brightness. Like this:


or this


or this


or this


That’s better !

Happiness is….

March 27, 2013










Bookart workshop

March 20, 2013

Rachel Hazell taught a bookart weekend in the hostel recently. It was a great success and everyone left clutching very beautiful driftwood-bound books full of their thoughts, lettering and illustrations. I sneeked in now and then to see what was happening and to hover around Anja’s cakes which she made for the group every day. One evening everyone squeezed into the crofthouse to watch ‘I know where I’m Going’ -an excellent old film and a must for any trip to Mull and Iona. Below are some photo’s of the course which will give a hint of what was going on.

This was a trial for me and turned out to be a great success -very largely down to Rachels’ inspirational teaching (though the big wooden table and Anja’s cakes had a part in it too). I was very pleased to see the hostel being used creatively as it’s an aspect of the hostel that I’ve wanted to develop for a long time.  So, if you have a course that you would like to run on Iona, say, between beginning of November and the middle of March -speak to me.







Things are going well around the croft and hostel. The weather, though cold, tends to be dry and bright so that is allowing us to get on with outdoor work. Every day, once the hostel is sorted Eva gets out to the garden while Freya and Michael paint, fix, tidy and generally move the place on. After a lull, the byre is now cleared and swept and ready for another run at it ! It’s so close to being done -I just need to set proper time aside for us to actually do it. In the meantime, as I pass the upturned ‘Black Boat’ (green) I slosh on some more paint.

For those of you interested in such things, I’ve just received a friendly email from the man who Clovelly was originally named after as a wee boy: the ‘Boy Jonathan’. He still lives around Stonehaven and was able to tell me her early story. In return, I’m able to pass on what became of her when she left his family. How satisfying. In fact, I think she deserves a photo here to remind you of what I’m talking about !


The biggest hostel news (certainly the most expensive…) is that I’m about to have solar panels fitted – 8 KW’s worth, which is quite a large spread of panels. It’s a long-term investment that makes good sustainable sense and that enhances the Hostels reputation as an eco-destination.  I’m excited about this and it’s happening just at the right time to make the most of the summer light. By the time I do my next blog it should be up and running.

Lastly, I’ve bought myself a lovely second hand bike on eBay -a huge Dutch Gazelle. A fabulous big thing with only three gears that will get my leg muscles squealing in agony as I cycle up the brae at MacLean’s Cross. Sort of apt. I’m determined to look stately and relaxed though -so that might fool some of the folk some of the time…