The Book of Iona

Edited by Robert Crawford, Polygon, £15

When Samuel Johnson visited Iona he launched into a grandiose meditation on how travel was good for the soul. “To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible,” he reflected. Far better to submit to your destination’s charms and revel in its history: “Whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.” In one of his most famous lines, Johnson declared that “[the] man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona”.

Johnson’s friend, James Boswell, expressed similar sentiments when confronted by the island’s ruined sacred architecture. He wrote that it “warmed my soul with religious resolutions. I felt a kind of exultation in thinking that the solemn scenes of piety ever remain the same, though the cares and follies of life may prevent us from visiting them.”

As Robert Crawford’s wonderful anthology reveals, many people have been drawn to this tiny island (just three miles long and a mile and a half wide) because of its astonishing religious legacy. Painters adore the place, too, for its landscape and light, described by Crawford with poetic sensibility: “Emerald, turquoise and viridian tides passing over sunlit sand.” Above all, though, Crawford cherishes Iona for the promise it holds out of “a haunting encounter with long-gone individuals” and suggests that “almost no one can catch sight of, let alone set foot on, the island without a stirring of the imagination”.

The dozens of contributions to this volume would seem to prove his point. Alongside many extracts from luminaries of the past, Crawford includes commissioned pieces by contemporary writers. These orbit around the themes of remoteness and connectedness, which makes sense in the context of Iona.

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