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They went to Iona  

25 November 2016

David Adam finds delights old and new in an anthology

The Book of Iona: An anthology
Robert Crawford, editor
Polygon £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50



THE BOOK OF IONA is a treasury of gems to delight in and look at again and again. It captures the radiant light that small islands can have — and Iona is a shining place. It is also a small island, which helps one to focus on what is there. Here, past and present, saints and sinners, sacred and secular rub shoulders and stir the imagination. Over the centuries, it has attracted poets, novelists, and writers.

Of the earliest writing, we have the Gaelic poems attributed to St Columba, and their translations by Edwin Morgan and Robert Crawford. Throughout the book are Crawford’s translations of Adomnan’s Life of Columba into English verse, which gives a new life and vitality to Adomnan’s work. These include the encounter of Columba with the Loch Ness monster: the first written account of this strange creature.

We do not remain only in the distant past; for there are two stories of the digital age by Alice Thomp­son and Alan Dearle. There is a poem by Crawford on George Macleod and his desire to rebuild the ruined abbey, which he fulfilled with the help of the unemployed from Glasgow. Seamus Heaney also contributes his poem on gravitas.

There are specially commissioned Iona stories, and poems from writers including Meg Bateman, Jennie Erdal, Meaghan Delahunt, Candia McWilliam, Ruth Thomas, and Alice Thompson. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and John Keats all give amusing accounts of their visit to the island.

William Wordsworth and Walter Scott are also visitors; Robert Louis Stevenson and Queen Victoria tell of sailing past; and Fiona Macleod’s The Sin-eater gives us a glimpse of the poverty and ancient beliefs of the island.

There is enough to stir your imagination, bring back memories, or invite you to “come and see” this amazing place.


Canon David Adam is a former Vicar of Holy Island.

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