By Gayla Marty
The Isle of Iona appears across the water, a patch of green interrupting the blue of sea and sky. It’s small, a rocky outcropping off the west coast of Scotland, no more than a mile east to west, four miles north to south. From the ferry port a mile away, Iona’s gray stone medieval abbey and graveyard are clearly visible north of a tiny white-washed village hugging the isle’s shore.
Crossing the strait, modern-day pilgrims join multitudes over the centuries who have made this journey, including kings of Scotland, Ireland, and Norway en route to their final rest.
In May, David Bienhoff of St. Anthony Park and his daughter Estelle Batal of St. Paul traveled to Iona, Scotland, a significant place to their family. It was a pilgrimage in honor of Dave’s late wife, Eleanor (1929-2015), and youngest daughter, Jan (1963-2011). And it was a journey made with a lot of care and consideration, since Dave Bienhoff now travels in a wheelchair.
Inspiration and solace
The little isle was the site of a monastic community founded in 563 by St. Columba. Eleanor (Elli) learned about Iona after her and Dave’s grandson, Calum, was born in 1980—Calum’s mother is a Scot, and his name is a form of Columba. Elli later studied the Gaelic language on the nearby Isle of Skye, and she and Dave traveled to Iona for a day in 1998.
Elli found inspiration and solace on Iona that never left her, from the restored abbey—now the heart of the thriving ecumenical Iona Community—to the ruins of a nunnery active from about 1200 to the late 1500s. She shared her experience with many, including her pastor, Rev. Doug Donley at University Baptist Church (UBC) in Minneapolis’ Dinkytown neighborhood, who went on to attend a retreat at Iona in 2011. At the Bienhoffs’ request, the pastor carried a portion of their daughter Jan’s ashes to Iona. After Elli died in 2015, daughter-in-law Alisoun and son Paul carried some of her ashes to Iona as well.
A lifelong traveler, Dave longed to revisit Iona himself. This spring, Estelle worked with him to make that dream possible. They were accompanied by caretaker Kim Cerise from Home Care Solutions and by UBC friend Gayla Marty, the author of this article.
A ‘thin place’
Iona is part of the Hebrides’ distinct geology, some of Earth’s oldest rock at the surface: Precambrian Lewisian gneiss untouched by glaciers that transformed the landscape just across the narrow strait. No wonder travelers of old recognized Iona’s special character and considered it sacred. For centuries it has been called a “thin place,” where only a veil seems to separate the physical and spiritual worlds.
Dave’s group stayed overnight at the St. Columba Hotel, where they enjoyed local food and spectacular views adjacent to the beautiful old cemetery. Oran’s Graveyard is the reputed resting place of such luminaries as Duncan and Macbeth, though it’s impossible to verify the bones or even stones of the nearly 50 kings, since they have been moved and rearranged so many times over the centuries.
A high point of Dave’s journey was attending Sunday worship at the Iona abbey on May 7. The Rev. Ian Bradley of St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, preached, and Jen Morell, ordained in the Anglican church, presided over communion, which would have pleased Elli enormously. Afterward, in the cloister garden, the worshippers enjoyed tea and conversation with fellow travelers from across the United Kingdom and other nations.
Most precious of all, over three days, Dave and Estelle were able to spend several hours in the gardens of the nunnery ruins that meant so much to Elli, among flowers, birdsong and memories.
“It was a time of both sorrow and joy,” Dave said, “to be able to recall our loved ones and restore them in our memories.”
Glasgow and the Isle of Mull
Arriving and departing from Scotland, the group stayed overnight in Glasgow, experiencing the grand architecture of the bustling city center and industrial port. On the three-hour trip northwest from Glasgow to Oban, by train one way and by car on return, they were treated to the beauty of famed Loch Lomond.
The rest of the days and nights, they stayed on the Isle of Mull, situated between the mainland and Iona, connected by ferry. Dave noticed a big change since his last visit in the paving of Mull’s single-track roads.
From the village of Craignure, they enjoyed day trips through the stunning landscape of mountains and lochs on this island known for its wildlife, including otters, seals, deer and many species of birds, including eagles and puffins. They saw sheep and red-coated Hebridean cattle with shaggy forelocks in pastures lined with hedges of golden gorse in full bloom. They visited the picturesque fishing village of Tobermory and the castles Duart and Glengorm. Everywhere they talked with local residents.Meals included lots of seafood—salmon, scallops, sea bass, mussels and langoustine. Estelle took a liking to haggis, Scotland’s singular hotdish.
Dave is known for his thrilling piano music, and sure enough, during the trip he encountered two grand pianos and played to the delight of all within earshot. And during one night’s dinner at the Isle of Mull Hotel, the diners were treated to music of the Mull and Iona Pipe Band, a joyous young group of bagpipers and drummers.
Defying Scotland’s stormy reputation, it never rained, and nearly every day of the trip was sunny. Elli and Jan had to be smiling.
Gayla Marty is the author of “Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm,” published by the University of Minnesota Press.