from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Mull & Iona: heartlands & homelands

Hello from the islands at the edge of the world! I’m leading my 12th or 13th retreat on the sacred Isle of Iona (see my posting in February: ‘Islands of the Heart’) and the experiences here always are so rich, so profound, that I find it really hard to pick out what I want to write about, and usually can’t till I’ve had some weeks’ or even months’ distance from it all. (Plus the broadband here is very erratic, in terms of accessing my blog). So I’m posting a bit of a ragbag selection here from previous years’ writings.

And we like migrant birds blown in to here
Where all our stories meet…

For me, the week begins as we sail out of Oban harbour, with the tiny sub tropical island of Lismore on our right, and ahead of us the Isle of Mull. Each yard that the ferry covers lightens me by another kilo or two of stuff-left-behind (sadly that’s only metaphorical: as course tutor I am only too burdened with books and papers, and clothes for both evenings in the hotel, and a long possibly wet or cold trek midweek, and maybe a boat trip to Staffa).
   Crossing the Sound it’s hard to choose between looking at the mountains behind us and the islands on the horizon, and watching the water for dolphins. As we near Mull, the light invariably seems to pick out in silver the dramatically sited Duart Castle, ancient home of the MacLean clan; once I turned in time to catch a trio of dolphins wheeling in front of the castle.
    The ferry docks, and there’s an hour’s bus journey across the wild hinterland and snaking along the west coast of the Ross of Mull, whose geology is some of the oldest in the world. Camouflaged against the hills are stags and does, buzzards, maybe an eagle, a harrier. The wild waterfalls stream down like unkempt hair from the bald pates of the tops. At Pennyghael or Bunessan, in the tidal inlets with their ochre, rust, egg-yolk lichens, their blond grasses, their olive and peaty wrack, kelp, dulse, sometimes you’ll spot an otter. Or maybe you just think it is:
Ahead, in the shallows, the light
is an otter, playing

Then, on the ten-minute ferry (this time rough, beamside on to great white peaks of breakers; I swayed for 24 hours afterwards! – But that also might have been the hundreds of miles I’d driven first to my sister’s in Wester Ross and then down the Great Glen) crossing over the glass-green water between Fionnphort (maybe we’ll see a seal there, and probably gannets and razorbills out in the Sound) and Iona, the atmosphere amongst the passengers, first-timers and seasoned Ionaphiles, is electric with excitement for the little island we’re about to disembark on – all three miles by one and a half of its rocky self, with the unbelievable turquoise waters, the white shell sands and the light… and its long and powerful history…

What is it about islands? Small, rocky, seabound – and extraordinary in their otherness, in their own right and also symbolically. They have a powerful and often otherworldly quality – set apart from more mundane expectations, somehow, while still being a microcosm.
   An island is both a physical point in space, and, metaphorically, a place where we might bring ourselves home. Iona is one of those places where, as the Celts describe it, the veil is thin. It has probably been a place of pilgrimage for 1000s of years; it was a Druidic teaching centre before the arrival of Celtic Christianity. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, if any, you cannot help but be aware on Iona that there is more to everything than the physical dimension alone.
   Iona is and always has been a place to bring our stories and poems, our joys and sorrows, our laughter, our open hearts. The theme of ‘islands’ as a starting point and medium for thought, creative expression, writing, and reflection has been fruitful. Here, surrounded by the seas that both connect us and keep us apart, is a good place to start the quest for the heart.
   For nine years I led this retreat with my friend, fellow author and poet Kenneth Steven. The many people who have attended, some of whom return every year, seem to recognise their time here as a unique, and frequently life-changing, experience. It’s a bit of an alembic, or crucible, and there’s also nowhere to hide. Islands generate particularly intense encounters, somehow, whether with others, the land, oneself or the numinous; and also offer the experience of accessing deep seams of inspiration and a kind of rock-memory. In such a place a quality of trust and companionship evolves swiftly in the group, aided by the dramatic and fast-changing land-sea-and skyscapes, and people very quickly leave their habitual lives behind. It’s then, perhaps, that one learns how to live in each moment as a new experience.


Fishing boat

In the tidespill boats rock, masts tuned to the gale, playing it like blind Ossian’s harp. This is the art I would like to perfect: to be a vessel for light and cloudplay, being only oneself without knowledge of oneself, in flux, at the nexus of ocean and sky and riding that dance in stillness, yielding, fluid, tethered only to each moment and every passing wave beneath the keel. To know nothing of fear, or striving.


In the tiny ruined graveyard, me and the daffodils

I would like to believe
that nothing is ever lost
that time is a Möbius strip
endlessly looping back on itself
flooding and ebbing
and returning
like the sea


Whales (from Looking For Icarus, bluechrome 2005)

The last night I sit outside
till day has bled itself west over the islands;
Coll with its crescent beaches a smudge
under the horned moon, my hand
cramped on my cooling mug,
and the sea annealed silver;
and they don’t come.

                                    Still I
leave the window open. Bunched shadows
of deer veer past
wary, a hare nudges
the berry-black mass of sky.

All night I ebb and flow; I am
the rise and fall of the sea’s breathing.

                                    A god, when it appears
smacks you awake, does not tread lightly.

                          Towards daybreak
cresting the waves, I’m blasted
from sleep by a great flank, dark, shining,
ploughing the thinning air

and when I swing my feet to the floor
I’m plunged chasms down in that single
sonic throb, bone-jarring –

            in freefall now, and all the walls dissolving.


Walk to Traigh Mor

Past the flag iris spikes
                                    & the new lambs
shoals of limpets, yellow periwinkles, wrack, forests of kelp –

lone gull crowning an ochre boulder
                        rock pipits, dunlins, oystercatchers
bobbing & scurrying at the tide
                                                (or maybe guillemots)

            behind me the big steel ferry
                        tannoy      across the water

you do what you do
            & the world keeps turning
                                                            by itself
            you take one step, & another
breathe, keep breathing ­–
                        flicker of light, cloud-shadow, larksong, rain –
                                                the whole of it

                        there in its radiance
            you’re alive

bootprints, not mine

                        & not quite aligned, mine

tang of seaweed, sewage, salt
                        wind flicking my face

limp rubber dinghy tethered to a gate
                        in case of a mad bolt                                   
                                                for freedom


            two men in blue overalls                        
fixing a roof
                                    a line with purple sheets
                                                            in flight, horizontal –
boy with a football

            wooden sign Traigh Mor

green plastic barrel
                        white sand, whiter gulls
& a trio of hooded crows


the curve of cove, yielding to waves

                        if death could be like that

the little cairn
            I place a stone, & another
one for you, in memoriam

on the sand ‘DAVE’ someone’s written, &

            always succumbing to tides
                        & the washing away –
the J & then the E & then

it took a balance of elements to endure, they used to think
            only exact proportions of earth, air, fire and water would remain
                         in their slowness
                                    their hardness –

                                    a diamond
                                                      even an oak

but we being human
            and soft, & mostly water
wash away
            wash away...

at my back      blue on blue on


&     silence



Roselle Angwin

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