Prayer Brochs

I spent New Year on my beloved island of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides. I hadn’t been there all year long and, as always, I began to pine for it. I wanted also to spend time hidden away and praying: there are worries and fears in my family, and I needed time alone to think and be still. So I stayed at the House of Prayer for three days. There was no snow on the surrounding island hills, but the light was magical, as it always is at that time of year. Sometimes it was so dark and foreboding in the morning it felt still like night: then suddenly a great sweep of light, and sea and shore would be transformed so magnificently my breath was taken from me.

I invented something, perhaps. I created what I called Prayer Brochs. Brochs were ancient stone towers in Scotland that were set up to keep people safe from raiders: they are tall, round structures that let in all but no light. I took with me candle stubs from the mainland and carried them with me to my favourite place on earth: Columba’s Bay. This is the beach where the saint is supposed to have landed from Ireland as he came bearing the Christian gospel. I found sheltered corners and set up candle stubs, and surrounded them with stones so they were protected from the wind. Then I lit them, and shielded them so they stayed alight. I photographed them so I would always have a memory of them. And I remembered and prayed for those I had gone to be close to.

During my days on the island I wrote the poem below. On Iona the wind rages night and day: there is seldom a day of total stillness, even in the middle of the summer. And I thought now of how much stronger the wind is right out on in the last wilds of the Atlantic, on St Kilda. There was a population there until 1930: then, finally, they gave up the struggle and came to the mainland to live.


St Kildans were born into storm:
all winter long a buffeting and tugging,
the hurrying sky above.
They grew up with gale,
knew the right way
to walk the length of the wind,
to steer around and against it,
and find a place carved deep beneath it
for light and fire.

When they came to settle on the mainland,
some in cities, how they must have listened
to the strange silence of the night, hearing
the sweet-soft birdsong in the morning
gone out to walk the empty, un-held air
and yearned sometimes for nothing more
then to climb back inside
that crow’s nest of an island, worried by weather,
and held in the wind’s hands.

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