May 20, 2018

Song of Iona

This place is noisy in the best way.
In a weird sense, it feels like the quietest place in the world. No cars, no motors, and very few voices. When you're walking, everything feels silent. But as soon as you take the time to listen, music appears.

First there is the wind, of course. Strong, wild wind, coming from the south, but more often from the west, blowing across the Atlantic on a long stretch, nothing to stop it. Sometimes it brings icy crystals and hits your face like a hand wearing too many rings. It gets everywhere, whispering its way under coats and sweaters and making you shiver. You can't always distinguish it from the waves, but the closest you are from the shore, the clearer you'll hear them, softly rolling on the fine white sand.

Overhead the birds fly and sing. First the seagulls, then the ravens that seem to congregate on every mount and hill. Sometimes, a flash of black and bright white light will signal a guillermot. And of course the little robins are everywhere. There is one living in Saint Oran's Chapel, dancing lightly between the benches and the nooks of the stones. It will land of your hand if you stand still enough, and twist its head to look at you and ask for crumbs.

Around the croft, in the morning and at dusk, the sheep cry out. They stomp and run to me when I walk over with a bucket of food, and they huddle together under the rain, their black wool covered in little pearls of hail. Walking down the village, there are more sheep on the road, the Hebrideans with matted black wool, the scottish Blackface with their mask on. They bleat as you walk by, sometimes putting their head close to the fence looking for scratches. The highland cattle, five bulls in a field, look over the graveyard. Each of them a different color, from clay to sand to the darkest black, they look like they just climbed out of a cave painting. They are gigantic, slow, and timeless. Their bells echo along the shore.

There are so many more sounds on the island. The little brook next our house gargling through irises ; the clings and clangs of the otter playing in the barn. There is the sound of my wellies getting stuck in the bog, the sound of the purple heather breaking underfoot. And everywhere, all the time, the wind. Rattling the fences and making the metal pipes sing. Howling as it blows under the tiled roofs. And whispering a forgotten song, running through the ghost grass, making ripples and waves. Always circling, looping, retracing it's steps. It feels like the wind is drawing one of these celtic patterns, weaving a complex mandala around the island.

Sometimes I go out in the evening, and sit on the bench overlooking the water, down by the beach. I listen to it all – the wind, the waves, the sea birds, the voices who carry so far on this flat piece of earth. It fills me with a calm I've never known.

April 22, 2018

Scotland, November

When Saoirse was born and we decided to come back to Europe, we didn't have a plan. We just knew that we wanted to be safe, to find somewhere to live, and to have as much time as we could get with our new baby. There was of course the option to move back to London, but it would mean one of us working crazy hours just to make rent, and the other one staying at home alone – so we decided against it. We started thinking of Scotland, and we found a hostel looking for people to work over the winter. It turned out to be the best decision we made.

Iona is a small island, but it is a special place. My favourite name for her is “an island off an island off an island”. It sits about two hours away from the mainland, connected to the vast island of Mull by a ten minutes boat trip. The small ferry runs a few times a day. With her grasslands so pale and her long stretches of white sand and turquoise water, she definitely belongs to the Hebrides. There are almost no trees, and the only hill rising from the flat land is called Dun I - “the Mountain” - an Iron Age fort settled in 100 BC.

This place is so old, its history is almost undistinguishable from its legend. In 563, an irish monk called Columcille founded an abbey here with twelve of his companions, and from there converted most of Scotland to christianity. The abbey became a beacon of learning and creativity, producing many important manuscripts. Many kings, warriors and priests are buried here. It's a place full of spirit, a “thin place” for some, where the barrier between heaven and earth is stretched at its thinnest. The clouds feel so close you could touch them.

There aren't a lot of people on this island (around 125), and now us three. This season we'll be stewarts in one of the hotels – the only one staying open through the winter. As soon as we arrive, we find ourselves at home. There isn't much – a small grocery store that opens at 10 and closes at 4 ; a post office ; a tiny shop who serves good coffee. Most other businesses close the same week we arrive, and soon the travelers will be few and far between, but we don't mind. We have a warm room of our own, and the openness of this unique landscape surrounding us. At night, the stars are so clear you can walk without a torch.

Life is simple here. Everyday we wake up with the baby, watch the sunrise over the sea. Then we each work for a few hours – me inside so that I can watch her, and my love on the croft, sanding and painting boats or digging trenches. If weather permits we'll sometimes walk down to the village, buy groceries or go have a coffee. Everybody here says hello and stops by for a chat. There are a lot of children on the island, and you can see them rush by on their bikes, carrying vegetables from the school garden. In the evening, we walk down to the beach, two minutes from the house, and watch the tide turn pink and grey in the dusk. When the wind howls outside, we'll cosy up with a book and light a fire in the stove, listening to the rain battering the windows.

It's a quiet life, and it's perfect for us.

March 23, 2018

A season in Scotland - Autumn

The place we're going, I've been before.

As the train leaves King's Cross Station I retrace the road in my head – the fast line up the misty coast, to Edinburgh ; the scenic, slow train through the islands, to Oban, and then there will be a boat, a bus, and another boat.

We stop in Edinburgh for a couple of nights. Being there again is like meeting an old friend, one you haven't spent much time with but with whom you can reconnect in an instant. I find my way through the streets to my favourite café, my favourite bookshop, shamelessly relishing the nostalgia that wraps around my mind like honey. Of course, this time, I bring my daughter along with me. She stills fall asleep in minutes everytime we put her in our carrier, and I feel so eager for a day where she'll be grown and we will start introducing her to our favourite places in this world. For now, I stroke her head and describe everything – the charming stairwells, the red stones, the bagpipe playing on the Royal Mile and the taste of my cup of matcha.

Edinburgh is cold and wet, but still magical. One evening we go out to see a Samhain celebration (which we'll end up missing entirely by standing on the wrong side of the stage). We get fish and chips and eat it whilst walking. It feels like a date, but again, now we're parents and our little girl is with us, sound asleep, like a secret nuzzled against her papa's chest. On our way back we talk about how much we love this city and how we dream of living there someday.

The next day the train takes us to Oban through mountains and valleys and forests – Scotland showing off outside the window. Saoirse spends the trip looking at the trees. Every minute reality is being superimposed on my memories, like a sketch being slowly coloured in. In Oban, we jump on the last boat, slowly crossing the sound of Mull. We cross the island of Mull on a bus – the jurassic mountains dusted with snow, the heather a vibrant brown. Then we catch the last ferry to Iona.

I was there a year ago, on my own – just after my 26th birthday. I spent just a day here, a grey, drizzly day spent exploring the island from north to south. I knew this place was special the moment I saw it from the ferry window, the only street of white and grey houses growing closer – Baile Mor, they call it – the big town. You have to love their sense of humor. I never thought this would be our home one day.

We are picked up from the pier by a gentle giant called John MacLean and his lovely wife Rachel. He is immense and wears wellies and a weathered trenchcoat – she has lovely golden curls and a colorful dress, and her eyes sparkles when she speaks. I stayed in their hostel on my first visit, and now it's where we're going to live, for the winter at least. At the very northern end of a tiny island, off another island, somewhere on the west coast of Scotland. As soon as we've arrived and our bags are emptied, we look at each other and again feel this wonderful chill – are we really here ? What have we gone and done this time ?

But there is tiny baby asleep on the bed, who doesn't even notice we've traveled half the length of country in a few days and that we are now standing at the edge of the world. If she's not worried, why should we be ?