I picked this up on St Columba’s bay on Iona in 1995. Iona is a tiny island off the coast of Mull, one of the largest islands in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland. It’s an extraordinary place and this particular beach is where St Columba is supposed to have landed from Ireland. It’s the point from which Christianity spread throughout Britain. It’s renowned for its green stones and I have a few of those about the place as well.

I can’t remember now which side up it was lying when I first saw it. I think it was this side which made me think of a skull …


I picked it up and turned it round and then I saw this which I interpreted as a lopsided  smiling face…


At the time I had come to the island to make some decisions. I wanted to take time out to write but I was very frightened about taking that step. My mother had died at the beginning of the year and I had been reading all these books on grief that stated you shouldn’t make any major decisions in the immediate aftermath of a death but at the same time I felt this reckless energy to tear up my life and move on. Her death had come as a shock. She was only 69 and, in the way death can, it acted as a wake up call. But along with the reckless energy there was colossal fear. I felt as if I was in a pressure cooker.

Holding this stone in my hand on that beach released some of that pressure and made me smile – one side is so sweet and one side is so sinister. By July of that year I had handed in my notice at work and moved into a housing association house in Finsbury Park. I was living with an actor, a musician, a Tai Chi teacher, and someone who was training as a Cranio-sacral therapist: a fluid group of people who needed cheap rent to pursue their creative dreams. And I began pursuing mine by writing my first novel. God, it was hard and I struggled! But it was a start and finally I was taking myself and my ambition seriously.

Maybe one day I’ll travel back to Iona and return the stone to the beach where I found it. After all it’s a long way from home. Maybe I’ll make that journey one day but for the moment it’s on my desk and I hold it in my hand and turn it back and forth, between the skull and the smile, most days.


  1. What a gorgeous story and a beautiful stone. Truly yin/ yang. Iona is such a special place, I can understand why you found yourself there at the cusp of change. And aren’t we readers glad you did!


  2. What a fabulous find – I think the earth, and the sea, has a way of giving us what we need when we need it. You may already know, but a piddock probably made those holes – they’re also known as angelwings and they bore the tunnels to create a home just perfect for themselves – quite appropriate for the way you created your life at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great stuff. (A terrible confession: not being a religious person, and having scant knowledge about early Christian Church history and saints and scholars, I’m always mixing up Columba and Columbanus. You’d think they would have been given better advice by their Agency People about how to differentiate their brand identities, marketing collateral, domain names etc)


    • Well, you know, I completely agree those saints should get their act together it’s extremely thoughtless. But then I’ve always thought saints would be hell to live with. How are you by the way? I’m now going to ask you the question that usually has me reaching for the gin or a gun. How’s the writing going?


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