Our relationship with the ancestors is a two-edged sword. We are required to separate from those elements in our multi-generational stories that can bind us to repetitive stories of feuding and addiction, hatred and abuse. Then we are free to claim our connection with wisdom-keepers of earlier times who can help us to bring about cultural soul recovery, reclaiming traditions and elemental connections that support life. We may even find, embarked on this purpose, that we are in direct contact, mind to mind, with ancestors and counterpart personalities across time and space.
I was thinking of these things as I rode a train from Glasgow into the Western Highlands. This must be one of the lovelies train rides on the planet. We passed Loch Lomond on the right, later Loch Awe on the left. Near the stations great walls of wild rhododendrons rose high. The foxgloves were out everywhere. From time to time I caught a glimpse of red deer. The antlers of the bucks were still fairly new, trailing velvet. The red deer appeared and disappeared so quickly it was easy to understand why the old ones called them Fairy cattle.
We crossed Mull from Craignure to Finnphort, where the main traffic hazard is sheep droppings. We took a little boat to Staffa, the strange island of basalt columns, and walked a high narrow ledge to the mouth of Fingal's Cave, that fascinated poets and musicians since Joseph Banks noticed it in the 18th century, and inspired a work of Mendelsohn named after it. On to Iona, which Fiona MacLeod, in a moment of rhapsody, called "the metropolis of dreams". He ("Fiona" was a pen name) suggested that to find the true Iona we must be willing to enter into a dream in which pagan and Christian found a place together, for a time. Columba, who founded the monastery here as a missionary from Ireland, knew things in the way of a Celtic seer, and worked magic in the way of a high druid, to judge by the biography penned by his devout coarb ("heir"), Adomnan, the ninth abbot, which was among my travel companions.
When I walked the hill to the Abbey, I found a church service going on. In the final prayer, the priest called for the intercession of the sainted Columba in our lives today, and that the spirit of the holy man work in us. I contemplated the signs of old wonder-working in front of the Abbey. A stone trough of water where the pious washed their soles, but where, also, by contributing three cups of water a mariner might hope to secure a favorable wind. A stone by the well, hollowed by pilgrims who turned a white stone ball inside it as they made their wishes; it was said that when a hole opened all through the stone, the world would end. The moody weather reminded me that Columba was renowned as a weather shaman, who would always have a following in these islands.
What seized me most strongly on this return visit to the Abbey of Iona was the ferocity of
the burial images of the men in iron - Lords of the Isles and their armored followers - formerly interred in the Rèilig Odhrain (Oran's burial ground), now gathered in the fine little museum behind the abbey itself. On his grave slab, one of these lords had himself represented drawing his sword as he prepares to enter the afterlife. This made me wonder what kind of afterlife he expected. Other knightly figures look hardly less relaxed. Far from quietly reposing with their hands folded over the hilts of their swords, they look ready for battle, still full of wrath and ready for revenge on their enemies.
This is not the aspect of the ancestors I am eager to reclaim in my present life! Yet I have been called into the times of these men in iron. Once it was the red fox that brought me back. Another time it was a red deer, standing in goodly Monarch of the Glen pose above a waterfall, who drew me. Behind the waterfall, I found a Cave of the Ancestors, and inside it, the glowing figure of an ancient tribal king, wounded and bloodied and exhausted, who was desperately calling for my help. I accepted that I had to go back, in one of the most powerful and challenging shamanic journeys of my life, to aid him in his own time, calling in forces I did not know were available until I made the appeal. Chief among them was a giant Bear. The rest of that story is for another time, but I learned from it that we never need to be prisoners of the past, once we awaken to the fact that we can reenter the past and change things for the better,
Photos of grave images from Iona (c) Robert Moss