Sunday, 28 August 2011

Iona - St. Columba and the Well of Age

I was drawn to the sacred island of Iona for several reasons, for its holy wells and fairy sites, and for its associations with mysticism and prophetic visions.

I started by climbing Dun I, Iona's highest hill, to look for the fabled Well of Age, also known as the Well of Healing or the Fountain of Youth. It is said that if you splash the water on your face at sunset it will "roll back the years", but it is also known as a vision site by mystics. The Celtic goddess Bride (St. Bridget) is said to have climbed Dun I, and after rescuing a lamb from a falcon at the Well of Age she drank the water and had a vision. She stepped through a magical gateway created by two rowan trees and was transported back to birth of Jesus by two angels to act as midwife!

The climb to the top was easy enough, but at first I couldn't find the pool, only a small puddle under a rock. I got my dowsing rods out to find out if I was in the right place, and after asking a few questions I turned around and there it was! A large pool perched upon the edge of a cliff.

The wind was blowing up there making quite a din, but as I climbed down to the edge of the pool all was calm and quiet. I sat by the pool in that sheltered spot and splashed the water onto my eyes, then sat down and meditated as the cold water slowly evaporated from my face.

I could sense small playful elfin creatures dancing and playing around the pool and then at portal opened at the back of the pool with stairs going down under the rock. I walked down and soon found myself in a beautiful passageway, with an ivory, arched colonnade to my left through which I could see the most breathtaking trees covered all over in bright pink blossoms. I knew that I was back in Elfland. To my right was an elven lady wearing a long white dress with long flowing yellow hair.

"It is always spring in Elfland", she said, "If you wish it to be!"

I knew that again I was being tempted to stay, and the place was so beautiful and calming that the temptation was great indeed, but I also knew that I had a job to do here on Earth, and no matter how difficult my life here on Earth might become, I had to complete whatever I had come here for before I could return.

Without a word, but with a knowing look of calm serenity she led me further down the stairs to a high colonnaded courtyard containing the most majestic and awe-inspiring tree I had ever seen. Its perfectly formed branches shone golden to hold aloft a perfect crown of leaves giving off a golden light in which were nestled a sparkling array of glowing gems of all shapes and colours that twinkled in the twilight.

"This is the tree of knowledge", she said, "but it is sick. You must heal our tree."

I knew that she meant there was something I must do on Earth in order to help heal the tree, but what that was I could not comprehend.

As the vision faded I head a voice say: "Come back at midnight and drink the water".

Afterwards everything felt otherworldly, almost like I was seeing our world superimposed upon another world that lies beneath, but more real and vibrant than our world.


I descended from Dun I, down the other side that led towards the centre of the island. My next destination was the Hermit's Cell, a place of "spiritual wish-fulfilment and mystical experiences" where Robert Ogilvie-Crombie had met with the god Pan and many people had had visions and mystical experiences.

After struggling across the rough and tractless terrain for about an hour I finally spotted some low stone walls by a large rocky outcrop, and from the descriptions I had read I knew I had found the place.

I climbed to the top of the rocky outcrop to survey area from above. To my right was a square enclosure incorporating huge boulders that looked like they could have been monoliths in their own right.

To my left I could clearly make out the Hermit's cell "Tigh nan Cuildich" The House of the Culdees, looking like a strange ulcer on the surface of the land.

I climbed down from my hilltop eminence, circled slowly around the cell, and then stood by the entrance and closed my eyes.

I could feel the energy emanating from the cell. A column of yellow light reaching up to the sky filled with flickering golden tendrils reaching up to the heavens. I stepped inside and basked for a while in that energy. It soon made me feel very spaced out! The energy seemed to be beaming down from an extra-terrestrial source as if it came from a flying saucer suspended in the sky. I felt myself being lifted up in the energy, growing taller and taller, until I was a huge being, like an ancient god, the Lord of All Wild Things. I looked down upon Iona from above and could see the Hermit's Cell at the centre, the omphalos of the island, it's centre of power.

I returned to my body and lay down in the cell, the energy formed a dome over me and I lay there feeling very otherworldly, in a deeply meditative state, until I was no longer aware of my body. I felt like I was in a dream.

Eventually I arose and walked back to the large square enclosure by the cliff. I found a deep crevice in the rock face and squeezed in there with my back to the rock, facing the landscape of Iona. There I meditated even deeper and released some of my deep-seated needs which I realised were focused too much on this material world. I had no need to prove myself or justify myself, for a while at least I could just be.

I walked back to the village by a long and boggy route, slightly lost my way, and then was attacked by an angry dog in a farmyard! Luckily he was on a long lead so I managed to get out of his reach just in time!

Back at my B&B I looked up the "Tree of knowledge" on the internet and found out that it was the tree from the Hebrew bible from which Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit. But the real meaning of this allegorical tale seems to be that the tree represents the knowledge that first separated mankind from the animals. We chose to become different from the other creatures in this world by eating of this 'forbidden' knowledge. It also seems to be linked to the advent of farming somehow, as Adam and Eve's descendants were farmers, no longer in complete harmony with nature but struggling against it. Another reference to the "ancient teachers of mankind" maybe?

I returned to Dun I later that evening in total darkness. There was no moon or stars, and the wind was whipping in from the sea, rattling wires and fences. Everything looked dark and spooky, some scarecrows by a vegetable patch had a demonic appearance and even a collection of garden gnomes clustered around someones doorstep had a sinister aspect. After passing through the village I set off up the tractless hillside in complete darkness, with only my weak head-torch to guide the way through the surrounding blackness. I could just make out the grey outline of Dun I in the darkness and so I headed in that direction, trying to avoid slipping into a bog or some treacherous hole in the ground. As my route started to get steeper and steeper I thought I must be crazy to be doing this! I persevered nonetheless, but did not like it one bit!

Eventually I reached the top and the cairn of stones, and was immediately almost blasted off my feet by the howling gale blowing in from the far side of the hill! The roar of the wind, the darkness and my small cone of light was all I was aware of. I struggled over the top and made my way down to the Well of Age, which was taking the full blast from the onshore wind. Climbing down into rocks by the pool didn't offer much protection, and the black surface of the well was being pummelled by the air as it crashed into the rock face, creating a constant rippling effect on the surface of the pond like it was being blasted by a giant hair-dryer.

I sat there and tried to relax. Turning off my torch I could see lights twinkling on the rock face and blurry patches otherworldliness passing over it that never quite coalesced into recognisable forms, but I could sense the presence of spirits nonetheless. I closed my eyes and tried to relax in the howling darkness, but it was no use. As I opened my eyes I noticed that it had got even darker. It started to rain. Clearly this was not the place to be right now! 

I made my way back down the hill, stumbling in the darkness. I imagined what it must have been like living here long ago, in the darkness, when the land was populated by malevolent spirits intent upon trickery and luring people to their deaths; urisks, mermaids, selkies, the sidhe and the walking dead. How superstitious and terrified people must have been on nights like this. What a comfort it must have been when the Christian missionaries arrived offering people the protection of God and the saints, and the sanctuary of the church. Is it any wonder that people converted so easily?

I was glad to make it back to the relative safety of the village. As I wandered past the abbey I noticed a flickering red light coming from the tiny window in the door to St. Oran's chapel. It looked warm and comforting so I decided to investigate. I pushed the door and it was open, so I stepped inside. The chapel was lit by the warm glow of a single red candle sat on the altar, it's light reflected from a polished steel Celtic cross set above it and illuminated the tombstones of old Highland chieftains that were set into the walls.

It seemed like a place of peace, contentment and spirituality, carrying none of the heavy energy I usually associate with churches. I sat on one of the benches and soaked up the air of calm serenity as I watched the flickering glow of the candle dancing over the walls.

I closed my eyes and saw a cowled figure step out from the corner of the room, his hand held up in a blessing. Was this St. Columba? He told me that I had come to Iona seeking spirituality, like so many others before me. He said I should stop chasing spirits [fairies] and serving them, and that what I really sought was my own spirituality. "Spirituality not wizardry" was his message to me. He anointed my forehead with oil.  

Feeling calmed by the experience I left the chapel and headed back to my lodgings.


The next day as I sat eating breakfast I could see dolphins swimming in the sound, leaping out of the water and playing as a yacht sailed by them. What a way to start the day!

After my experience of the night before I decided to visit the abbey. There was something about the Celtic church which interested me, it was not like the stuffy old churches I had been brought up with in England but seemed to be more closely linked to our spiritual and pagan past.

I sat in St. Columba's tiny shrine and started to meditate there when the caretaker suddenly stepped inside the door. He had come to clean the bird droppings off the walls which were deposited there by the nesting swallows. The very moment he told me this a swallow flew in, fluttered past our heads, and dropped into its nest above us! The swallows, already late for their southerly migration, only added to the magic of the place.

I wandered around the rest of the abbey and took note of all the ancient grave slabs of Scottish chieftains which had been moved in here from the graveyard to preserve them.

A Sunday service was going on in the main hall, and the ethereal singing would have created a perfect enchantment were it not for all the gaudily dressed, camera-touting tourists wandering around.

I decided I had had enough of this tourist circuit for now and so I headed out to the next place on the island I wished to visit; Sithean Mor. 'The Large Fairy Mound' was where legend said St. Columba had been spied upon by one of his young acolytes while communing with a host of glowing angels. I was intrigued by this story and wondered what St. Columba had been up to on this mound.

The wind was howling again as I made my way across country down a little lane. I found the fairy mound in a field by the lane, it was part of a farm called Sithean, which itself means 'Fairy Mound'!

I had intended to sit on top of the mound and see what I could pick up there, but I was being buffeted so badly by the wind that I decided to sit facing the mound in the shelter of Sithean Beg 'The Little Fairy Mound' instead.

I took myself back in time and saw St. Columba wandering over to the mound, his hand clasping a knobbly staff. He looked more like a druid than a priest, and it occurred to me that perhaps that was, in a way, what he was. A druid who also followed Christ. As he reached the top of the mound, a host of shining white beings descended from 'heaven' and then consorted with the saint.

So were these the Shining Ones? The secret teachers of mankind who reveal themselves only to a select few? The record states that St.Columba was certainly annoyed about being spied upon, and punished the priest who did so. So who are these Shining Ones? Are they angels, fairies, or extra-terrestrials? Perhaps these beings, wherever they came from, are the basis for all of these myths and legends? And what of the druids? Did they really die out, or did they become the priests of the Celtic church preserving ancient knowledge?

These questions I would not find the answers to today, so soon I decided to leave the island, knowing that the answers to these riddles must lie elsewhere.


Rob Wildwood (Aurvandil) has now released a book containing hundreds of his own stunning full colour photos of many of the magical places he has visited in his travels. The images capture the magic and mystery of each place and are enhanced by extracts of local folklore that reveal the magical lore of each place and tempt deeper investigation. Every site listed has full directions and map grid references that can be checked online, so join Rob Wildwood as you discover Britain's magical places at

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