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

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

after the islands

How strange to have been virtually without internet access for three whole weeks. How difficult at first, and then how blissful to adjust to other more natural rhythms. What a shock to collect about 600 emails (not including the junk folder).

It was an epic 20-hour journey back from three weeks in the wonderful Hebrides, on three different islands: the lush gentle Luing, the wild and dramatic Mull with its eagles, cut-off basalt cliffs, and spring flowers (thank you, Treshnish), and Iona, which is unlike any other island. 

We left for home on the 9am ferry from Iona last Friday, and myself, daughter, two dogs (one sick) and two friends all set off in my campervan, which had behaved impeccably in the 1000 miles we'd done in the previous three weeks. However, it had sprung a leak which the garage said would be impossible to fix without spare parts that, given a Bank Holiday, would take days to arrive. So we risked it, topping the radiator up every 100 miles or so of the 650 mile journey, after a cooling period. 

I arrived back home at 5am; minus sleep and short on sleep anyway from leading such an intensive course, I've rarely been so glad to arrive home intact, to bluebells and the dawn chorus in the early light.

It's hard to know how to speak of Iona and the retreat I lead there every year. This is partly because I've spoken and written so much about the island and the 15 courses I've led over the 14 years that it's held a significant place in my life, and partly because much of the experience, despite it being a writing retreat, is about the experience – the felt and imaginative response to this magical place, and the transformations it seems to trigger in the people who participate. So much of this is wordless, is beyond words; though of course we do use words to explore and express our responses. In a way, though, the writing is a doorway.

There is a shared language that we develop, those of us who come every year: the language of corncrake, waves on shorelines, the Iona greenstones, of white sand, of Gaelic place names, of history and myth. The group, like the island, expands to embrace newcomers, to rock them in the warmth, the continuity and the eternal newness that these island days, where we're exploring inner and outer landscapes, bring.

And it's not always an easy journey, this journey back home, back to the core of ourselves, that we find we make. This is a pilgrimage, rather than a trip: we're not tourists, but are undertaking an at times arduous journey, on so many levels, to the heart of things, and that has its cost. It requires a shedding of layers and of what no longer serves us.

Often, it seems, people come at a time of change or transition in their lives; often the week is both cathartic and transformative; this kind of opening can make one feel vulnerable, no matter how supportive and safe the group. Deep friendships are formed here, and in between there's much joy, lots of laughter, some tears and even some anger that's triggered as the island scours people free of past stories; enables them to release old patterns; as the group and my prompts bring things to the surface.

People bring who they are, and it's hard to escape the need to go deep, to peer into our lives – and indeed, for me and therefore for the course I lead, that aspect is very important: that of renewal, of restoration, of realignment with who we are meant to be; of a way of living that is more authentic, alive and true than much of C21st largely-urban existence can allow. 

It's also about dwelling: in a place, in a moment, in how things are.

I say in the blurb: '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.

'Here, surrounded by the seas that both connect us and keep us apart, is a good place to start the quest for the heart.' I have realised (with the support of Lucy – thank you, L) that there is a book to be written here; and there will be.

Meantime, for me, I hold close to my heart the bright sunny days (most of them, despite the fact that the pictures I took mostly don't reflect those days); the otter I watched just here, out of my bedroom window off the rocks below:

(in the picture too is Davy Kirkpatrick's wooden boat 'Iolaire' ['Eagle'] which took some of the group to Staffa for the Fingal's Cave and puffins-around-your-feet experience); the kindness of each member of the group; the wonderful poems that came out of the week; the corncrakes which are experiencing a resurgence on Iona, and with whose rusty-saw voices the day as well as the night was thick; the walking of the labyrinth after the obsessive hunt for greenstones; the hugs; the beautiful singing at dusk after a silent walk to the ancient Reilig Odhrain, the little St Oran's Chapel, one of the oldest buildings in Scotland and burial-place of so many kings, including the actual Pictish king Macbeth. 

Mostly I take with me the lit joyful faces of the 14 people who joined me this time.

NB you can read more about the course in previous blogposts from April each year; and also here: The retreat for 2015 is filling very fast.


  1. A lovely end-piece to another exceptional (when is it otherwise?) week, Roselle. I heard seagulls here today and wondered for a moment if I was back – reality is that strange at the moment. All year I live in two places at once, I find: here in Worcestershire, my mainland and there on Iona, my edge land.
    Sorry that my recent email was one of the 600, although it might be in junk. No need to look for it – I'll say it here instead: a huge thank you for making it happen and enabling us to find our own way so superbly; and also a big hug – I missed you on the boat.
    With love,

  2. Miriam, no need to apologise! I will reply soon - been hard to work out priorities, part of me still being up there.

    Your name's on the list for next year, and Jeff is pencilled. It was lovely to share that week with you, and to see you easing into Iona as the week went on.

    You know, I passed your junction at 1.30am on Sat morning - with another 3 or 4 hours to go I was SO tempted to take you up on your offer (all 4/6 of us!!) but realised that, even with a delayed plane, you'd hopefully be deeply asleep...

    Ah yes, the 'edgeland' - you named it that before, and it's perfect.

    Love to you both.



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