If you didn’t know that Robert Crawford, the editor of The Book Of Iona: An Anthology, was one of the foremost academics in the field of Scottish writing you would soon guess. There is an academic rigour in evidence, married to what feels like a literary obsession, which is admirable and initially perhaps a little daunting. The writing includes poetry, prose, essays and other non-fiction, and stretches from the sixth century to the twenty-first, including works in Latin and Gaelic as well as Scots and English. In my ignorance, I believed an anthology of writing focusing on Iona would be a thin tome, but this is not only a comprehensive collection, but also eclectic and expansive. Crawford has not restricted himself and, as a good editor should, he has been brave and bold in his decisions.
A quick look at the contents pages offers up modern and contemporary writers such as Candia McWilliam, Edwin Morgan, Mick Imlah, David Kinloch, and Meg Bateman, as well as work from Crawford himself. It is in the present day writing that my own highlights from the anthology are to be found. Alice Thompson’s ‘Hologram’ is a slice of magical realism, which, like the anthology, is run through with religion, philosophy, and mysticism. Sara Lodge’s ‘The Grin Without A Cat’ is about obsession and art, and is such a sensual piece of writing as to be tangible. It is possibly the best short story I have read this year.
But the more eye-catching, and dare I say interesting, names whose work appears in The Book Of Iona are those from the past, many of whom are as unexpected as they are exciting. Adomnan was an Abbot of Iona Abbey and is best known as the biographer of St Columbus, the Irish monk who set up a monastery on the island in 563AD, so it is perhaps unsurprising that his work appears. The presence of Scottish literary legends Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Buchanan and James Boswell are arguably even more predictable, but welcome all the same as they include lesser-known work by all.
However, my eye was immediately drawn to writing by William Wordsworth, John Keats, Thomas Pennant, Herman Melville, and even Queen Victoria. Crawford allows us just a glimpse of ‘how others see us’, and this is not only informative for this collection, but is something of which other editors of such anthologies should take note. Writers writing about home are only half the picture. A visitor’s viewpoint is just as valid. Crawford’s own poem ‘Iona’, and the fact it sits across the page from one ascribed to the aforementioned Saint Columba, lends the collection a nice symmetry, bringing together the past and the present as well as the editor and earliest named contributor.
It so happened that while reading The Book Of Iona I began another anthology of Scottish writing, one that is also based on place, Umbrellas Of Edinburgh: Poetry and Prose Inspired by Scotland’s Capital City. While quite individual undertakings, it is informative to consider the two together and what they tell us about a wider national literature. The capital city and one of Scotland’s more remote islands – in these two places extremes meet, and anthologies such as these help give us a clearer and more insightful picture of Scotland than we had previously. The Book Of Iona shows just what an anthology can achieve when approached with an open mind and imagination.
*A version of this review first appeared in Gutter Magazine.