“At the hearth-side, too, the women, carding wool, knitting, telling tales, singing songs, dreaming – these know her whether they name her in thought, or have forgotten what was dear wisdom to their mothers of old.”
Fiona MaCleod, “St. Bridget of the Shores”
In May 2011 I travelled as part of Kathy Jones’ Bridie Retreat to Iona. I was seeking time away from distractions and responsibilities. To reconnect with my soul skin. To leave my stories of St. Bridget and Bride’s Mound and go in search of my Nana’s voice whispering of Bridie of the Shores and her oystercatcher. But would I find her? In the end the land sang so strongly, there was nothing to do but open my heart and listen. No option but to see Her bones emerging from the green as they did everywhere, rounded rock and hill framed by the silver sea.
View towards Dun-i & Iona Abbey
We stayed at a communally run hotel where I gloried in being cooked for and not making my own bed. I cherish the moment a woman came into our room to clean, saw me surrounded by paper, clapped her hand to her heart and exclaimed, “But you’re writing! I can come back later!” and left me again, blessedly alone. When I look back at the poetry I wrote that week it speaks of an unravelling of knots. A startled recognition of deep connection; covered over maybe but still there pulsing beneath. A deep ancient dreaming of the land.
Every day we would have a sharing circle, an adventurous walk. There would be beautiful food, and gifts, and being read to aloud. Sitting and spinning and knitting. A lot of laughter. And everywhere I looked – the sea, and the land in the sea. One day we had in silence. Kathy offered each of us a reading or a healing session. There were her research notes and collection of writings on Bridie to read and refer to. The pace was relaxed but rich and I luxuriated in it.
The well of eternal youth
One joy was that we could be away into wild hidden places in minutes. Like it was the dawning of the world.
The tides brought different treasures to each beach; my inner beachcomber responded with glee and I was soon smiling into the eyes of the local women pacing the tide lines. To be on Iona is to become one with the Land, with the Elements. At the highest point of the island in a storm I held onto a cairn, rooting myself. I could feel the rocks moving and resettling inside. The heart-shaped Spring of Eternal Youth nearby was jewelled with moonshaped raindrops. I began to dream of a sea temple, perched high on one of the headlands, leaning out into the singing sea, “May you lean into your life, as into a keen wind at the land’s edge; finding your balance, arms raising like the wings they are…”
In the 12th century Nunnery there were deeply hued granite bands in reds, greens and black. We sat in silence in the Chapter House looking out on the view that a Sheela-na-Gig has had for eight hundred years and miraculously the sun came out and began to warm us.
Speaking to the Ocean
On our last day I set out determined to return to the shell beach and swim. Lured into the craft shop by jewellery made of the luminous green rocks I had seen on the shore, I met the owner, curious as to what the group of women at the hotel were up to and delighted to hear we were in search of Goddess. She told me the “Greenstone” was the tears of the mermaids who were driven out by the monks when they came. They cried as they swam out to sea and their tears had turned to the stones which still returned to the beaches after storms.
Swimming like a Selkie
Heart singing I walked to the shell beach and towards the water. It stung my skin and I found myself muttering our prayer to Bridie to help me keep my nerve, “Bridie – awaken my spirit…” and then I was bobbing in the waves like a Selkie, soul streaming with joy at the surge of the sea and the dazzling blue of the sky above me. Looking back at the land I saw only mermaids, not monks. And Goddess’ body rising magnificent from the sea, energy spiralling up with the birds. Later, lying sheltered behind a headland I dozed, transfixed by the warmth of sun on my face, shell sand blowing gently against my cheek, the land swelling beneath me. I knew deep in my bones that all was well, that all would be well. An oystercatcher, Bridie of the Shores’ totem bird, landed on the beach and began to comb it; heralding, among other things, the return of the fish, and that the worst of the winter was past.
Sheela-na-Gig in the wall of the Nunnery
Photos ©Kathy Jones