On Rona: an essay by Kathleen Jamie

While Stuart spoke to the birds, Jill communed with stones. First she concentrated on Saint Ronan’s chapel. It’s just a shell now, the stones of its western gable much collapsed. It stands at the southern wall of an enclosure, and within the enclosure is a little graveyard, very old. The turf has risen over the centuries, so the humble gravestones, hewn of the sparkly island feldspar, tilt this way and that like little sinking ships.

Nothing is known of Saint Ronan but his name, which, oddly, means “little seal”—as if he’d been a Rona selkie who’d swapped his sealskin for the habit of a monk. Doubtless he was one of the early Scots-Irish monks who sailed from his monastery to seek “a desert place in the sea” where he could live a life of austerity and prayer. Hundreds of years later, the people built the chapel in his name and buried their dead beside it. Now those people are gone, too, and their graveyard is a poignant place.

But suddenly it was en fête. This was Jill’s doing. One day she went around the graveyard and festooned it with little orange flags on wires, one beside every stone, and the flags snapped in the breeze, so the cemetery seemed to be celebrating a day of the dead. She was plotting the grave markers on a chart; the orange flags helped her see them as she measured their distance from a baseline: a measuring tape strung across the enclosure wall to wall. She was doing this because the stones were going missing. By studying black-and-white photographs from the 1930s or ’50s, she could tell that the stone crosses were being quietly stolen away—and by dint of wind and weather, the medieval chapel was ever more collapsed. It troubled her. The chapel, village, and all the surrounding fields are a scheduled ancient monument, in the care of the state, but the state is far away and has more pressing concerns. So Jill said, “We can at least plot them, so there’s a record of what there was.” Really, she’d like to get people out here, experts from official agencies, an architect, or a drystone diker, who could do some discreet shoring up and save the chapel from complete ruination.

One bright afternoon I held measuring poles and called out the numbers she needed, while Jill, a black baseball cap pulled over her thick hair, bent over a board and mapped the people’s graves.

Of course it made us think of them. The long-dead people whose graves we knelt on. We called them “them” and spoke about them every day. How did they live, what were their lives like, these people who’d managed for generations out here alone in the sea?

The Rona people weren’t unique, they were Gaels, part of the wider culture of the Western Isles; and as Jill kept reminding us, the sea then was a conduit, not a barrier. Nonetheless they lived a long way from any neighbors, had to fend for themselves with their fields and few cattle and sea birds’ eggs. But by the time Martin Martin wrote his travel journal of the Western Isles in 1695, the people were already gone. “That ancient race,” he called them, “perfectly ignorant of most of those vices that abound in the world”—and when you wander round their village and look out at the uninterrupted sea, you know why.

Ronan’s name is known, but the names of those buried under the turf are lost, save for one tantalizing detail, which Martin provides: the Rona people, he says “took their surname from the colour of the sky, rainbow and clouds.”

“Such work,” Jill would say, as we strolled through the overgrown fields. When I asked her who had first come to Rona, if it was Neolithic or Bronze Age people or what, she just smiled and said, “Ooh, we don’t know, do we?” The sea may have been the highway then, but it was still a long way to venture in a skin-covered boat.

The work indeed. All those acres of undulating fields, built up by hand of the scant earth and seaweed. Outwith the enclosing dike lay the rest of the island, which the people must have known down to every blade of grass, every stone. They must have felt acutely the turning of the seasons, the need to lay down stores and supplies, because summer was brief. We arrived in early July, when bog cotton was in bloom, soft white tufts facing into the wind. Two weeks later, its seeds clung to rocks and grasses, or were out to sea and lost.

Daily, our sense of time slowed, days expanded like a wing. The days were long in the best, high-summer sense; at night we put up storm shutters on the bothy window to make it dark enough to sleep. Time was clouds passing, a sudden squall, a shift in the wind. Often we wondered what it would do to your mind if you were born here and lived your whole life within this small compass. To be named for the sky or the rainbow and live in constant sight and sound of the sea. After a mere fortnight I felt lighter inside, as though my bones were turning to flutes.

Saint Ronan rode to Rona on the back of a sea monster, so the legend says. Monster or boat, he’d have jumped ashore giving prayers of thanks sometime in the eighth century.

Whether he was really alone, as romanticists would have it, or whether others came with him—monks, lay penitents, men without women—well, as Jill would say, we don’t know, do we? Surely it would have taken more than one to do the spadework; even saints must eat. And if there were people on Rona already, people who knew exactly how many souls the island would support, watching as the Christians’ boat drew nearer—we don’t know that either.

But we know what the saint sought, because on faraway Rona, there survives something unique. A tiny building. To enter, you must first enter the chapel. Then, low on the eastern gable is another doorway, just a square of darkness with a lintel of white quartz, as though it were Neolithic. You have to crawl, but once inside you can stand freely. At first it seems wholly dark, and it smells of damp earth, but as your eyes adjust, stars of daylight begin to spangle here and there overhead, where, over the many centuries, the stones have slipped a little; so after a while, it’s like being in a wild planetarium.

Darkness, earth—and a sudden quiet; no wind or surf—you find yourself in a place from which all the distracting world is banned. Then you see the stonework. The little oratory is beautifully made, and has stood for twelve hundred years. A low stone altar stands against the east wall. So there is one thing we know of the saint—he had a feel for stone; strong hands. Or someone did. Having sailed here and claimed this island of sea light and sky and seals and crying birds, he built himself a world-denying cell.

Two or three times, when Stuart was inquiring of the birds, and Jill of stones, I crept into the oratory and waited till my eyes adjusted to the low light. I went warily, because a fulmar had made her nest in a corner; too close and she’d spit. A fulmar guarded the saint’s cell, and it was strange to think there were Leach’s petrels secreted in the walls. Seabirds, named for Saint Peter, who walked on water, had colonized a cell built by a saint named for a seal.

I crept in just to wonder what he did in there, Ronan; to imagine him right there, in front of the altar, wrapped in darkness, rapt in prayer, closed off from the sensory world, the better to connect with—what?

Printed in A Public Space, Issue 16.

Posted: August 15th, 2013
Categories: Detour/Dérive
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