With only a few days left on my pilgrimage to Ireland and Scotland, we landed on the island of Iona. I’ve longed to see this place since sixth grade, when someone gave me a bookmark showing old stone ruins against a blue sea and clear sky. Iona is a storm-swept rock in the Hebrides, an island a mile and a half across and three miles long. It was an early foothold for Christianity in Scotland; St. Columba established an abbey there in 563. Viking raids and the Reformation took their tolls on the good saint’s abbey. All that remains are a few bits and pieces, but it is the place that seems holy to me. Iona’s often described as a “thin place,” where heaven and earth are sometimes very close together and spiritual encounters are a possibility.
On my last morning on the island, I ate my yogurt and granola quickly and left my friends at the breakfast table. I wanted one more look at the rebuilt abbey before we had to catch the 10 a.m. ferry and begin our journey home to Portland. I half-ran up the spiral staircase to my room, grabbed my coat, dashed downstairs and opened the outside door of the inn. The early morning glistened. The torrent of rain that had pelted my window and woke me up before it was light had been swept away by winds. I could still hear them wrapping themselves around the hotel and ruffling the treetops. The odd sparkling raindrop fell on my uncovered head.
At the inn’s gate, I turned right right and began walking toward the abbey, maybe a block away if there were blocks on this ancient island. I walked on a road, paved but broken in places and awash with puddles. Wide enough for a few pedestrians or one car at a time. Verdant grass hugged the roadside and swept right up to the stone walls that keep sheep and cattle in their places. Between the inn and old but still used cemetery, I passed a metal gate. It's three horizontal bars reached across a wide opening in the stone wall. I stopped and as I lifted my eyes, expecting to see the blue-gray Atlantic and the shoreline of a neighboring island, a pair of large, wet brown eyes met mine.
Above them, red hair coiled between the two worn, brown horns of a highland cow, or as a Scot would say, a “coo.” This particular coo blew out steamy breath as she stared at me, so close I could have run my hands through her bonny curls.
Neither of us moved. Our eyes locked as I marveled at her size and solemnity. I wondered if she could bend the metal bars of the gate with her horns or massive hooves and walk right over me. But she held her power perfectly still, watchful, curious even. The island around us was quiet, save for a flock of small black birds that swept past me in search of food and the hesitant wind that buffeted the sturdy stone walls. Several seconds passed. I snapped a photo as unobtrusively as I could. Still she stared at me. I sensed movement over her shoulder and saw her friend ambling through the pasture toward our private meeting place.
“You are a beauty,” I said softly to her mate at the gate. “I will remember you.”
I turned away and resumed my walk toward the then-and-now graveyard and the re-emerging abbey next door. A handful of buildings have been mostly restored, including the tall and narrow abbey church. It is the crowning glory for a rugged landscape that never has promised safety or security, only the possibility of a thin place and the chance to be surprised by beauty.