Iona, Helmsdale, Winnipeg

In June this year I shall be participating in a conference in Winnipeg, Canada, representing the Iona Community, of which I am a Member.  I shall be there with another Member, and we have been asked to make a presentation introducing our Community to the other participants.  One of the things that makes us quite distinct from many ‘religious communities’ is that we don’t live together in one place – our membership is dispersed all over the world and meets together only occasionally, sometimes on Iona, and often elsewhere.  We do meet regularly in local networks, but the idea of a dispersed community, bound by a commitment to a common ideal, is not one that many people find easy to grasp straight away.

Iona Abbey, ca. 1990 or 1991

Iona Abbey, ca. 1990 or 1991

The Community was founded in 1938 by George MacLeod, a Scottish minister, who conceived of a community that would rebuild the ruined Abbey on Iona in order to work at rebuilding relationships within society.  He wasn’t interested in rebuilding the abbey for its own sake: rather, this was to be a place where the disconnect he saw in so much of the churches’ engagement with the public sphere was reversed, where prayer and politics met.  He was a mystic, activist, saint, thorn in the side of entrenched power and authority – and raconteur par excellence.  His telling of the founding of the community in a film available from the Community’s publishing division includes the immortal line that I have often used myself: ‘And if you think that’s a coincidence, I hope you have a very boring life.’

I recently read something about the statue dedicated to the Highland Clearances in Helmsdale, on the far northeast coast of Scotland (past Brora, before Wick) – and found out that there is a partner statue in Winnipeg, where a great many Scots ended up.  MacLeod’s line came to mind: if you think that’s a coincidence…!

Clearly, what this means is that I’ll need to make a trip up north to Helmsdale at some point soon in order to photograph the statue there – and then photograph the Winnipeg version in June.  For me there are clear links between the dispersed, diasporic community that I am a member of, and the diasporic spread of Scots all over the world, including in – by coincidence! – Winnipeg (though the Iona Community hasn’t ever engaged in the rampant ethnic cleansing that Scots in North America were part of…).  I’ve looked into trains, and an 18-hour day with about 13 hours on trains means I could make it there and back in a day with enough time to make some photographs in semi-decent light – I think I can manage that, even in the middle of the teaching semester, if I write new lectures on the train…


A note about the photograph of the Abbey: this is a scan of an 8×10″ print of an image I made in about 1990/1.  I can’t find the negative (I wasn’t as organised back then… it is somewhere…).  However, I have recently found this print, so for this website that is ok.  Although I can’t find the negative I think it will have been some kind of cheap Kodak print film, perhaps ISO200 or 400, which is what I used a lot at that time.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Community, I can warmly recommend this short history by a former Leader, available as a proper book, and as an ‘ebook’.  Or visit the Iona Community website.  Or write to me! 🙂