At school in the late 1970s, practically the only television we were allowed to watch was Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation on Sunday afternoons in the headmaster’s study. We sat on the floor while Hugh Watts – who founded Moor Park school, near Ludlow, with Derek Henderson after being wounded in the war and playing cricket for Somerset – loaded up an early Philips video-cassette recorder with the weekly tape.
The first episode, “The Skin of Our Teeth”, featured Lord Clark in a tweed suit and tie, standing on a white sandy beach in Iona with part of the ruined abbey in the background. After being founded by St Columba in the 6th century, Iona is described as a tiny holy outpost that Clark calls “secure and sacred”. “I never come to Iona without the feeling that some God is in this place,” he said. Note his use of “some”. By the time of his death in 1983, Clark had converted to Catholicism.
Ever since I heard Clark describe the “sense of peace” he found on the Hebridean isle of Iona, where he used to holiday as a child, I have wanted to visit. Clark likened Iona to landing at Delos in Greece. Iona is the earliest organised colony of Christianity in the British Isles, half a century older than St Augustine’s mission in Kent in 597 AD, which historians often cite as the breakthrough moment for Christianity in Britain.
In that unforgettable first episode, Clark made a useful point about the ebb and flow of western civilisation. Whenever you think the worst is over and mankind enters a period of grace and light – so-called “progress” – some menace or horror lurks around the corner, often from the least expected quarters or from within. For early pre-10th-century Christian villagers and monks, especially in the Scottish isles or on the Northumberland coast, the number one fear was the carved prow – decorated with a pagan symbol – of a Viking war vessel heading in your direction.
Clark seemed humbled by Iona. I came to feel the same way after spending a few days at the charming hotel next to the old Benedictine abbey. I had been warned the island had become “New Age” and cultish, like Glastonbury. But such fears were groundless, not least when I discovered that the island has a thriving Catholic spiritual retreat house which hosted the new papal nuncio to the UK on the June feast of St Columba this year. Clark came to feel guilty later in life that his TV comments had somehow spoiled the austere, simple beauty of the island. “I am afraid that the result of my enthusiasm may have added to the number of tourists, as a great many Americans write to me asking how to get to Iona.”
Clark gets St Columba’s arrival in Iona wrong by 20 years, saying he arrived in 543 AD when it was 563 AD. But then Clark was always unconcerned about dates, having been trained as an art scholar in Florence by Bernard Berenson, the great art connoisseur and collector whose attributions and dates have become the subject of considerable scepticism. When a new scholarly catalogue was published in 2016 on the Bernard and Mary Berenson collection at I Tatti in Florence, only one of 87 entries – some of which were fakes – retain the original Berenson (assisted by Clark) attributions.
Getting to the island is a challenge. My wife and I took a hairy, hour-long double-decker bus ride from the Mull port of Craignure to Fionnphort. The road is single track, built fairly recently, and vehicles often collide or swerve off or dent bridges. Although Iona is only 1.5 km from Mull, reached across the Iona Sound by ferry, the island has a different microclimate and tends to have better weather.
Despite its remoteness, Iona remains an impressive holy pilgrimage destination. It’s partly the thin blue light that floods the remote island, making distinctions between material and spiritual seem almost otiose. As the sun hardly sets in the summer, you can play golf through the night on the 18-hole “natural” course, founded in 1886 and grazed by sheep and cows. The island has pink and lichen-patterned rock, crystalline waters – much warmer than expected thanks to the jet stream – and tropical-looking white sand made from crushed limpet shells. Next time, I’ll pack my clubs.
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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