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Meditations on a poetry writing retreat on the island of Iona in the western isles of Scotland

It was this time last year that I returned from our inspiring artists’ retreat at Prussia Cove in west Cornwall.  I remember eulogising about the dramatic storms that took place and the effects they had on our work.

A few days ago I returned from a retreat of a different kind – a writing retreat on the holy island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland.  Iona, as I’m sure you know has the most intriguing and engaging history and the place eventually caught me in its magic.

I’d heard much about the “thin air” and the “other worldliness” associated with the place and soon found myself caught up in its mystical associations. On approach across the sea from Mull, Iona doesn’t look like much, a thin strip of land only 3 miles long and a mile and a half wide, with a few lumpy rock outcrops and a scattering of tiny houses along its shore; even the solemn lines of the famous Benedictine abbey pale against the overpowering effect of the Atlantic sky. But the minute you step foot on the island things change.

There was much talk of pilgrimage. It was certainly a kind of pilgrimage to get there because I was keen to travel by rail to get the feel of distance, and from down here in the west country, distance it was! The penultimate leg, the bit of the journey I was most looking forward to, was a stunning train trip through the beautiful West Highlands between Glasgow and Oban. And the final stretch was an hour and a half’s bus ride across the strange moonscape of Mull to the little port of Fionnphort where I caught the ferry to Iona.

Once arrived I fell under Iona’s spell and, old fashioned artist that I am,  spent the whole 5 days indulging in my observations about the ever changing colours, forms and moods of the sea and sky and looking across the water to the atmospheric drama of Mull and the inner Hebrides.  It’s addictive; you’re constantly on watch for that perfect moment of light, or that sudden change of colour in the sea, or movement in the clouds!  Yes, I’m really quite an old fashioned artist.  I just love the meditation of observation and the opportunity to walk in the landscape unfettered,  or sit there and simply “be” in the manner of the good old Romantics!! And yes, I know I was supposed to be writing but, interestingly, the two creative forms almost became one and the same.  Someone said I was painting with words and one day I might have the courage to post one of these “word paintings” here.  But not now.

As I think I said this time last year, a trip like this refreshes me in every way, not the least my teaching. It injects a new lease of life into my approach and generates fresh enthusiasm which I hope to pass on. I might state that I’m an old fashioned artist myself but, and I don’t care how many times I repeat this, it’s certainly not reflected in the extraordinary scope of work that pours out of my studio every week and at the end of every course. Everyone works with such individuality and inventiveness, and has their own unique voice and message. I find it really inspiring to be part of people’s successes, not only on each personal level in terms of the small but joyful achievements on a day to day basis, but also out in the big wide art world.

Last year all those from my workshop who submitted work to the prestigious Royal West of England Academy Annual show in Bristol were successful, and there were also some successes at the National Original Print show at the Bankside Gallery, in London. To top it all, on Thursday, one of my students picked up the recent Call For Entries leaflet for this year’s Original Print show, flipped it over and to her joy found her own image on the back page, one of only three that had been chosen for the leaflet from the previous year’s entries!

So, I guess you could say we’re all on a pilgrimage here too, or if you prefer, a mission. And if you walk in on any of the courses and workshops that take place here you’ll be spell bound, not only by the atmosphere of enthusiasm, creativity and determination to achieve our goals, but also by the generosity and kindness of the people that work here.