Thursday, May 31, 2012

small world...

Some of this week’s guests at the Iona Community are a group of people discussing the on-going Israeli occupation of Palestinian land/siege of Gaza. Garth Hewitt (singer, songwriter, writer and political activist in support of “justice and peace for forgotten communities”) played a powerful concert in the Abbey church last night. He’s been addressing the Palestinian situation for over 20 years.
Knowing that Garth and his wife Gill were coming to Iona, my great friend Si Smith had asked Gill to look out for me (he knows her from Greenbelt) – so we had a good chat after yesterday’s supper. Their son Thomas had established Umthombo in South Africa over the past 15 years (one of the Amos Trust projects), focusing on the plight of the street children. Our lovely friend Wilf, from Bristol, had been involved in producing a brilliant Umthombo book – and, of course, Gill knew him well (I’d also done a little work for the charity at Greenbelt etc some three years ago and promoted it in some school assemblies).
It's a small world…
Photo: a rather “atmospheric” (ie. poor quality!) pic of Garth performing in the Abbey church (click on image to enlarge).

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Mo left Iona this morning at the end of his stint of volunteering with the Community. Not only is he an absolutely lovely, amusing, gentle, generous man, he was the Community’s musician over recent months. He’s been absolutely brilliant. One of my long-lasting memories of my stay on the island will be his piano accompaniments at the twice-daily services in the Abbey (as well as his skills on the saxophone!). He would play the piano for about 10 minutes before the services started (getting there early was a “must”!) and has an amazing ability to blend his own compositions, established tunes and improvisation with apparent ease.
Absolutely breathtaking at times.
Goodbye, lovely man… we’ll miss you terribly.
Photo: Mo on the jetty before departure.
PS: fortunately, I’ve got a CD of some of his own music and it’ll be something I’ll treasure from my time here – bringing back memories of Mo and his sublime music.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

more postcards...

I’m continuing to enjoy spending a little of my free time doing very quick sketches around the island. Apart from one drawing (part of a stained glass window, which took me some 25 minutes – and proved far more complicated than I’d first imagined!), I’m really pleased to find that I’m keeping to my target limit time of 15 minutes for each drawing. Again, the quality isn’t wonderful, but they’re a good “snapshot” of my time on the island.
Very surprisingly, I discovered last night that I’d already completed 29 postcards (and I’m only half way into my 8-week stint), so the pressure's off!
My original intention had been to produce 20 sketches and 20 pieces of text. In reality, this has changed somewhat – I’ll probably end up doing all but say 5 or 6 as drawings – but that’s fine.
Photo:  the lastest batch destined for today’s post.

Monday, May 28, 2012


My lovely friend, co-volunteer and fellow-shopworker, Franziska (from Leipzig) has been arranging  simple, weekly Taize services in the Abbey (after the main Sunday evening “quiet place” service).
Each week, some 50 people turn up each time and either sit on cushions in the chancel or in the choir stalls.
Franziska has a simply beautiful singing voice (don’t tell her I think so!) and the rest of us follow her lead (both the gifted singers and those, like me, that don’t fall into this category!).
The overall effect is quite magical and it’s a powerful, and fitting, end to the day.
Photo: candles at the altar.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

big gig in iona library

Had a wonderful evening yesterday in the equally wonderful Iona Library to see/listen to King Creosote+Jon Hopkins. The library is TINY (just 10x6 paces externally!) but still managed to cram in a small stage (just over ONE metre deep!) plus seating for perhaps 35(?)… it was a sell-out and it was indeed full to bursting. I’d bought their brilliant “Diamond Mine” CD a couple of months ago and, since then, have sent copies to my brother Alan and great mates Adam+Si. Much to my utter amazement, I received a message from Ian a couple of weeks ago explaining that they were “playing Iona Library” on 23 May… so, obviously, I just HAD to be there!
I arrived early - only to watch people piling cardboard boxes of books outside the library – to maximise space for chairs! KC+JH were great – not quite up to the musical standard of their CD, but very entertaining. It appears that that they’d spent from mid-afternoon at the Argyll Hotel being plied with a series of triple gin-and-tonics (which continued right through the performance!)… they also joined everybody in the Bar on the jetty afterwards!! They might not welcome this morning’s bright sunshine!
Definitely an evening I’ll remember!
Photo: poor quality pic of KC+JH concert – but note the wonderful library book shelves!!
PS: if you’ve never come across them, I suggest you click here to get a “feel” of their music.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Janelle, Krystof, Joshua, Adam+I went to the beautiful island of Staffa yesterday (just a 45 minute boat ride away). I’d been there five years ago, but had failed to see any puffins – they’d apparently left the week before! The weather was fine and the sea somewhat choppy (but invigorating!) and, this time, we were indeed fortunate enough to see puffins. They’re amazing birds – very quick through the air but also comparatively docile when on land and, at times, being prepared to settle only a matter of a few metres away from people. I managed to take some photographs – but some of my best opportunities were dashed when my zoom lens temporarily jammed! Hey ho! If I’d have be braver (ie. if I wasn’t scared of heights!), I might have ventured closer to cliff edges (see above photograph of Adam, for example!) and been able to capture more images.
Given time restraints on the island, we decided to focus on trying to find puffins and, although the others quickly ventured into Fingal’s cave (I’d been in last time), I spent the remainder of my time on the island being mesmerized by the wonderful rock formations.
On the boat, we also saw seals AND a dolphin (which suddenly leapt out of the water right next to the boat and then disappeared, never to be seen again – by us at least!)… but I don’t think anyone (on a boat FILLED with people with very expensive cameras) managed to take a picture.
A brilliant morning. If you ever get a chance to visit Staffa, this is a MUST-do!
Photo: Adam getting up close to puffins.

Monday, May 21, 2012

abbey music

The Abbey is a very atmospheric place and a wonderful setting for music (for me, especially when played on the piano). I’ll no doubt write about the Community’s current wonderful resident musician, Mo (from Germany), on another occasion but sometimes guests contribute to Abbey services too. As you can imagine, the quality of the guest pianists can be a little variable! However, in the past week, we have been treated to some sublime music from professional concert organists/pianists (Willeke and Arno from Holland) – featuring works by Bach, Chopin and Mozart. As a final offering, they had written a special piece of music for one of the other guests (Ann, a church minister from Michigan) which an ad-hoc choir performed at the short “farewell service” on Friday morning.
Utterly beautiful and completely captivating.
Photo: grand piano in the Abbey (north gallery/music loft).

Saturday, May 19, 2012

happy hellos and sad goodbyes

I’m now well into my third week on Iona and realise that the weekly rhythm is a mixture of hellos and goodbyes as new people arrive on the island and others bid farewell. Guests arrive on Saturday afternoons and depart first thing Friday mornings. In addition, there are always some volunteers leaving and this generally happens on Wednesday mornings – with new replacements arriving during the course of Wednesday afternoons. This provides a strange, but rather lovely, structure to every week. As far as the guests are concerned, we’re meeting up with complete strangers, getting to know some of them quite well (through daily mealtimes and services in the Abbey… and even the odd drink in the bar by the jetty!) and saying goodbye within the space of just six days! For the volunteers, it’s a little different – people are generally on the island for between 8 and 12 weeks (but for some, much longer); this is certainly long enough to develop good friendships and, so, the farewells are often quite emotional affairs!
All available staff and volunteers meet up on the jetty to “send-off” those leaving - this can be a very poignant time for all concerned – guests, staff members and volunteers.
Photo: more jetty farewells (this one for volunteers Janice, Friedhelm and Dennis) – these are just SOME of the volunteers and staff members… the others are “on duty”.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

time out

When Ruth first suggested the “postcard” project for my time on Iona , I thought it was a lovely idea. By the time I arrived on Iona, however, I’d started to get “cold feet” – the prospect of producing 40 sketches (or pieces of text) seemed a little daunting (to say the least)!
But, actually (in my third week on the island), it’s proving to be a lovely little project that occupies a portion of my “day off” times (as a volunteer working in the community shop, I have three days off every fortnight).
It’s also been a great discipline to try to limit my time for each sketch to 20 minutes (absolute) maximum – and I think I’ve now already completed 16 thus far.
The quality is far from impressive – but it’s the thought that counts!
PS: the sad thing is I've been reminded that I hate drawing/painting seascapes/landscapes... I definitely prefer some building to focus on. hey ho!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

rainbow warriors

Every week we bid farewell to a number of volunteers at the Iona Community (and greet their replacements). On Monday evening, we had a barbeque as a send-off for Julia, Janice, Dennis and Friedhelm. Although it had been a reasonably good day weather-wise, there was always a chance of a shower or a downpour… and, sure enough, the heavens duly opened as we gathered around the newly-christened barbeque beside the beach. In typical British tradition, however, the party continued despite the rain and, rather magically, was blessed by the sight of a beautiful rainbow over the sound to round off the evening.
Not quite rainbow warriors perhaps, but…
Photo: rainbow barbeque.
PS: we were treated to the performance of a rather fine folk/children’s song by our German volunteers – only to be followed by our own rendition of the “hokey-cokey” (which apparently some seemed to find somewhat bemusing)! Surely not?

Saturday, May 12, 2012


As you're probably already aware, I'm currently living on a small island (approximately 3x1 miles).
I climbed the only "proper" hill on Iona (Dun I, 328ft high) first thing today on a beautifully sunny morning. The above rather, ham-fisted photograph is a panorama of the entire island (complete 360 degrees) - which, hopefully, gives you a sense of just how small the island is. I always love the view from the top of Dun I - with the sea in vision in all directions.
Photo: panorama - with the Abbey (just) in view about half way along the photograph, immediately next to the sea. 
PS: double-click on the photograph to enlarge (albeit only slightly!).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

life on iona

Well, I’m now into my second week on the island and things seem to be going pretty well (apart from missing family and friends, of course!).
There is a lovely quiet rhythm that life with the Iona Community provides. Each day is punctuated with a brief morning and evening liturgies (generally at 9am and 9pm) in the Abbey. There’s no rule that people need to attend these, but I’ve found that they act as very good “bookends” to each day’s routine. The volunteers have lunchtime and evening meals with the guests (ie. those attending one of the courses with the Community). All volunteers work five-and-a-half days per week – so life is pretty “full on”. Having said that, all my work and house-share colleagues are lovely and this obviously makes things a lot easier.
As you are probably aware (if you’re on facebook), I’ve been taking LOADS of photographs since I arrived – taking advantage of the beautiful weather in my early days on the island! No doubt, these will progressively reduce in quantity over the course of my stay – but apologies for the abundance, nevertheless!
Iona is a very special place and the Iona Community is a very special “organisation” – with lots of simply lovely special people.
Photo: North End (on a sunny day - it rained ALL day today!).

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

steve's little iona project

Well, I've actually made a start on my "Little Iona Project"!
This involves producing and sending out 40 postcards to family and friends over the course of the next 7 weeks or so. I'm intending that these postacrds take the form of quick drawings (or perhaps pieces of text) - I've set myself 15 minute "deadlines" to complete them which, for those who know my labourious drawing technique, will provide me with a very real test! I've already emphasised to people that they shouldn't expect very much in terms of quality (I'm not competing with Hockney!). 
Four down and only 36 to go!

Sunday, May 06, 2012

settling in

Well, although I only arrived on Iona last Wednesday, it feels as if I’ve already been here much, much longer (in a nice way)! I’ve been introduced to what seems like a bewildering number of new colleagues from all over the world, but don’t seem to be able to remember anyone’s names! As far as nationalities are concerned, for instance, I’m living in a houses shared by 12 volunteers – from Paraguay, Japan, Germany, Canada, USA, Scotland, the Czech Republic (two), Australia (two) and England (two)!
My volunteering role over the next two months is working in the community shop (essentially books and “gifts”) and I’m really lucky to be with some really lovely colleagues who are sympathetic to my lack of cash register skills!
Guests are generally on the island for a week at a time and it’s rather lovely how friendships, albeit very brief, develop in that time over meals and the like (in my case, even if it was over a couple of days last week) – lots of hugging as the community staff and visitors waved guests off from the jetty on Friday!
We’ve been amazingly lucky with the weather so far, but this will no doubt change in the course of the next few days – last week’s guests all went home with suntans.
Photo: early morning view (30m from my back door!).
PS: The birdlife on the island is absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, my bird-spotting skills are poor in the extreme so, hopefully (with the help of the odd reference book), this will be something I’ll be able to work on over the coming weeks. Amongst those I’ve seen thus far: golden eagle and buzzard (on Mull); curlew, cuckoo, crow and corncrake (I’m very proud of this because, apparently, although you hear them all the time here, you very rarely get to see them!).

Thursday, May 03, 2012

iona revisted

The stunning weather continued for the second (and final) day of my journey. The 45 minute ferry from Oban to Craignure on Mull couldn’t have happened in better conditions – virtually windless and the water almost mirror-like. This was followed by the 70 minute bus ride across the island of Mull. In the past, this has almost invariably taken place in very murky, cloudy conditions and presented Mull as quite a menacing place - with the dark grey mountains really looking quite overbearing. My journey took place in perfect conditions – the sea and the sky were both brilliantly blue (AND I saw a golden eagle soaring above our bus!).
I met a fellow-volunteer (this was his FIFTH year as a volunteer!) on the Iona ferry and we were warmly greeted on the quay as we arrived on the island and taken to our respective “homes” (I’m staying in staff house called Cul Shuna – with perhaps 10 volunteers staying there? – and sharing a room with a Canadian guy)(I had been told I might have to share with four other blokes!).
I’ve been made to feel very welcome, given the usual staff briefing and have been introduced to (what seems like) dozens of people! I find names difficult to remember at the best of times, so I think this might prove a little challenging!
I managed to get a little exploring time during the afternoon and walked up to the beautiful North Beach (white sand, blue/turquoise seas – you get the general idea!).
Very tempting to make this into a blog diary – but, frankly, it would have been REALLY boring (and repetitive), so I’ll limit stuff to occasional observations…
Photo: Iona Abbey.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

en route to iona

Seemed strange flying off from Bristol (in the POURING rain) on May Morning… with memories of our Oxford days and straining to hear the choirboys on Magdalen tower at 6am!
Flight and journeys all pretty straightforward – although I was VERY unimpressed by the EasyJet check-in arrangements! Five staff on duty – four to deal with 200 odd queuing passengers and one to handle to the very short “pay-lots-more- money-quick-check-in-queue” people… then, on three occasions, having late passengers “pushing in” (ie. people who’ve clearly arrived very late at the airport) because their flight had just been called! It took me nearly an hour to eventually pass through check-in and security.
Arrived in Glasgow (dry and bright) before 8.30am and immediately caught the excellent airport bus to Glasgow Central station (dumping my heavy bag at Left Luggage) and then eased my way out on to the streets of Glasgow for coffee and a bacon roll (for a total of £3.08!).
In 2007, I travelled to Oban on the bus (which was fine) but, this time, decided that I should “treat” myself to the train ride (just £6.20 with my Senior Railcard – even though it’s a three hour journey!).
And WHAT a journey – just stunningly beautiful scenery, running alongside gorgeous lochs AND stunning, mountainous countryside (snow-capped too!) AND the sun shone AND the sky was blue!!
The Iona Community needs me to be on Iona by 2.30pm tomorrow so, inevitably, this means an overnight stop-over. On the basis that the coming 8 weeks are likely to be a little on the cramped side (note: I COULD be sharing a room with four other blokes!), I decided to book (online) into a cheapish hotel (the Columba Hotel on the north pier). This turned out to be a good move and I ended up with a very good room on the third floor overlooking Loch Linnhe (see pics!).
For simplicity, I also decided to have an evening meal at the hotel’s own restaurant (I was only SLIGHTLY embarrassed to be drinking red wine with my fish-and-chips, but hey!).
After eating, I walked up the hill to the Coliseum (McCaig’s Tower) – a folly built at the turn of the last century and then watched the sun set over the loch.
All in all, a REALLY wonderful day (reality will start to hit home tomorrow, no doubt, and the rain will start again!).
Photo: it seemed that EVERYONE wanted to take pics of the sunset from Oban's north pier!