Hugh Ouston wanders the rugged green of

Iona and muses on the

nature of spiritual peace

IT WAS George Macleod of Fuinary who said that the island of Iona was a thin place. He meant that the veil between the physical and the spiritual, the mortal and the immortal, was almost transparent in the intensity of its pellucid skies and its religious history. He knew.

He used to describe the feeling he had standing on the pier at Fionphort looking across the sound to the Abbey as being like moving up to the front line at Ypres. Maybe that was his own work: he more than anyone relit in the twentieth century the first flame of spiritual passion with which the island was historically associated, and thereby reclaimed it from a merely antiquarian and touristic significance.

He had plenty of tinder to light. Everyone knows that Samuel Johnson felt human piety would always grow warmer among the ruins of Iona. What better place to start a blaze? It is a weel-kent story now, the story of Iona, and a weel-trodden island, but you ask anyone why they feel this is a special place and they will answer in terms that are topographical as well as historical, natural as well as human. I once stood on that pier with an old minister whose vision had drifted to the peripheral and he told me he could still know, looking west, that he had come to Iona - ``it is the quality of the light''. It was as if the curtains had grown paler. A thin place, indeed.

Though Iona is unique as a landscape in Scotland, it raises a question which is universal. Is the way we react to a place defined by its objective physical qualities or by what we know about it? Why should someone love Iona? Because it is green and white after the red rock and grey cloud of Mull? Because from the bay at the back of the ocean you can look westwards into the sunset and know it has not yet risen over America? Or is it because they know it as a cradle of Scottish identity, have experienced some spiritual renewal there, know it meant a lot to a friend, or simply were happy there themselves once? It is not possible to disentangle these things. Just as no landscape in Scotland has remained unaffected by human activity, so we decorate every landscape with our culture.

For once, let us not start a walk on Iona at the abbey itself, except to remark in passing that if the project to rebuild the caphouse on the tower succeeds, every owner of those wonderful Caddells will have to reach for the felt pen. Let's get ourselves to the nunnery. Here is still a quiet ruin, pink walls open to the skies and jackdaws peering down from missing stones. The unobtrusive neutrality of the little flowery cloister comes perhaps from the fact that it has been abandoned as a place of worship for much longer than it was functioning. Its spirituality has long since seeped into the lawns and flowerbeds, unlike the productive fertility of the abbey along the shore.

It is supposedly a challenge to circumnavigate Iona's cliffs and crevices below the high tide line. From a little farther back the walk round the island is a perfect day's excursion. It would not be surprising if you got no further than the white sands of Martyrs Bay, where generations of digging, running children are slowly covering over the memory of the butchered and flayed bodies which lay here for the ravens a thousand years ago. But carry on over the sward to the beach of Sand Eels Bay, which looks across to Stevenson's Erraid. I camped here once and was woken by the scratching of an otter's tongue on our old frying pan six inches from my ear. Every spring the wheatears dance and flick here among the grey stones and white lambs.

Clambering now up the chasms and fortalices the rock has twisted itself into, you cross the peaty moor to the south end, where you can peer down to the rusted Edwardian machinery of the marble quarry. There is hardly a pebble left to take away, but the vein of green-streaked white marble has been worked since antiquity.

And yet the remaining rocks of the island are as lovely, if you look. They lie in pink-grey shoals and shingle ridges across the bay where St Columba is supposed to have landed. Some have been heaped to cairns for a long lost reason, but the whole bay is bright with the scintillations off the sea which is now to the south, to Ireland.

It is rough going round the south west corner of Iona, the prow that hits the Atlantic storms. Along at the spouting cave a geo throws a high white fountain in even a moderate swell. Here you come suddenly back to the sand and machair, to the long strand of the bay at the back of the ocean. The rocks and weed here are always alive with birds: with turnstones and oystercatchers, shelduck and divers. At Port Ban, a white scallop of sand at the head of a westerly fjord, you can find half a dozen colours of flower in a natural garden on the rock and half a dozen colours of rock in an arm's stretch on the shingle. And here, as a balance to the layers of human religious experience, you can, in Seamus Heaney's words, find ``only the secular powers of the Atlantic thundering''.

There is more to see in the north of the island: ravens round the iron age fort of Dun Cuil Bhuirg, buzzards along the lip of the island's spyglass hill, Dun I, and mergansers diving through the deep blue sweep of the sound off the north end, with the skerries to either side, the islet of storms below you and on the northern horizon the unmistakable silhouettes of Staffa and the Treshnish. Every view of and from Iona has such a familiarity and a resonance that it is only the changing light which makes you look at it actively not passively each time, makes you work at the place with your thinking eye, rubbing it thinner still.