Islands of the Heart, Iona

The renowned ISLANDS OF THE HEART writing retreat on the Isle of Iona: 2020 is my 20th year (much feedback here; scroll down)

JUNE 2019: listed by The Telegraph as one of the world’s ten best writing holidays!


Isle of Iona from the Argyll Hotel garden

IONA a-special-place GS


NEW The ‘Plus’ group: September Saturday 21st – Saturday 28th 2019. Newcomers and returners, poetry & prose, all levels. Please be in touch if sharing a week when the island is less busy with people but perhaps more elemental with weather might interest you.  This week will have the additional focus of listening for stories carried on the wind or brought in with the tides that might shed light on the stories of your life. (One place left, due to a cancellation; 2019 course fee is £375 exc travel & accomm.)

2020 – my 20th year of leading retreats on this unique island

‘Core’ group FRIDAY 17th – FRIDAY 24thApril 2020. (This week is for ‘core group’ Iona returners, or invitees, only with priority given by number of years’ attendance IN OR BEFORE 2015. Mainly poetry, mainly experienced/published writers. (FULL)

‘More’ group TUESDAY 28th April – TUESDAY 5th May 2020. Women only. These groups are capped at a maximum of 14. This group is for returners and newcomers alike and is more divergent in participants’ writing interests and experience, with more of a mix of poetry and prose. DUE TO A CANCELLATION THERE IS ONE PLACE AVAILABLE FOR 2020 AS OF JUNE 2019.

MY COURSE FEE FOR 2020: £395 (see below for accomm & travel)
Each week is 6 days, 7 nights. Please ensure you’ve read ‘The Small Print’ below.

2021: ‘CORE GROUP’ Monday to Monday 12th-19th April; ‘MORE GROUP’ Thursday to Thursday 22nd-29th April (tbc)


hebrides 1 oct 08003

‘…the most luminous week of my life…’ (VF)

‘It was transformational. I hadn’t imagined that this week could be so powerful. I think it was the best week of my life. I’ll be back next year.’ (BK)

Argyll Hotel
Isle of Iona

PA76 6SJ

01681 700334

And we like migrant birds blown in to here
Where all our stories meet…

My new collection of poems from the many years I’ve visited Iona, A Trick of the Light, is available from the link, or from me.


An island is both a physical point in space and metaphorically a place where we might bring ourselves home. Iona is one of those places where, as the Celts describe it, the veil between ‘this’ world and the Otherworld is thin. Now seen as remote, once Iona would have been at the heart of Atlantic seafaring peoples’ voyages, and has probably been a place of pilgrimage for 1000s of years. It was supposedly a Druidic teaching centre before the arrival of Celtic Christianity. All of this is palpable on this little speck of dust in the vast Atlantic ocean which draws to it many thousands of people from all over the world each year.

Here, surrounded by the seas that both connect us and keep us apart, is a good place to start the quest for the heart. We are brought here, somehow, with some kind of deep longing, or yearning, often for we know not what; ‘hiraeth’, the Welsh call it; ‘cianalas’ in Scottish Gaelic. We come, whether or not it’s intentional, in a kind of spirit of pilgrimage.

For nine years from 2001 I led a weeklong retreat on Iona with my friend, fellow author and poet Kenneth Steven. The many people who have attended (from five continents and many countries), some of whom return every year, know what a unique, creative, therapeutic and frequently life-changing experience these days offer.

Smiles in the Nunnery[1]

In 2009 I launched the Iona event as a solo adventure for me. I changed the name from ‘Into Blue Silence’ to ‘Islands of the Heart*’, but kept the spirit of our shared venture: the ambience and format; the wonderful Argyll Hotel, right on the water; the walks; the warm gatherings; the workshops, discussions, talks, poems and readings; the daylong pilgrimage to St Columba’s Bay gathering silence, green stones, and the voices of the air; looking for seals; the boat trip to Staffa (weather permitting). The green stones, Iona serpentine, have assumed mythical and talismanic proportions.

Iona is and always has been a place to bring your stories and poems, your joys and sorrows, dreams and memories, longings and search for belonging, your laughter and your open heart. Central to these weeks is the deepening of the connection between inner and outer landscapes, remembering the ancient and abiding web of relationship with the other-than-human that holds and sustains us all. Being present in the continually-moving unfolding of the stories of earth, sea, sky, the edges between them, and the many other species with whom we share this island – and planet – helps to inspire memory, tales, poetry and a profound sense of interconnectedness. Inevitably, we will become more aware of how we live our lives and what really matters; many people find this process both exhilarating and healing.

Although this is not ‘in your face’ and is not affiliated to any one path, there is a psychospiritual dimension to the week, so you need to be comfortable with that. I’m passionate about consciousness and, as the Buddha said, ‘waking up’. (You will write, you will go deep, you will laugh, you may weep. You will come away with new soul-friends.)


This is more than ‘simply’ a creative writing retreat. You probably won’t finish – or even start – your novel. You will, however, probably go home with a full notebook and many ideas that will continue to unfold over months. You will likely also go home with an indefinable but profound sense of uplift and deep nurturing. We use writing as a means of creative expression, but also as reflective practice, for the imaginal and experiential exploring of our edges, for self-knowledge and awareness of our interrelationships with each other, with sea, land (Iona’s bedrock is some of the oldest on the planet), wildlife, the elements, soul and the numinous. We work both indoors and out-. Also, some walking is an integral part of the course; some sessions are built around a walk.

So the week is holistic and intensive and we work at some depth. People often find the week to be deeply transformative and healing as well as richly creative, but it can also be quite emotionally demanding: the island has a way of first ‘scouring’ you, then offering deep restoration of the heart.

The groups are invariably warm, trusting and supportive. The group cohesion, dynamic and process depend on a commitment to attending all the morning and evening sessions (see SMALL PRINT 2 below).

Put off yet? If not, you might want to scroll down for all the practical info. There’s also some of the recent feedback; there’s more here.


The first thing is PLEASE BE SURE TO BOOK WITH ME FIRST, or you may find that you’ve a room on the island but no course to go to, as the places are reserved very quickly!

THEN find your room: the Argyll Hotel holds rooms as a block booking for me so on the website it might say ‘full’, but telephone or email them (FAO Katy) and say you’re attending my course. If you possibly can, stay in the hotel – it makes a big difference to your experience of the course.

We keep prices as low as we can, and in 2019 the hotel is holding the previous year’s prices for my groups. You book the course through me and pay my fee, but you need to book and pay for the travel and accommodation separately. Choose a place to stay to suit your budget:

  • A tent for the hardy, 20 minutes’ walk (basic farm camping, showers and loo, tent/sleeping bag/roll mat all available to hire if necessary, was £6.50 a night in 2016) (01681 700112) 
  • The wonderful Lagandorain eco-hostel, also a 20+-minute walk in the opposite direction (around £20+ a night) – ‘the best eco-hostel in Scotland’ (Green Tourism awards); it also offers a secluded shepherd’s hut. Click HERE (Both this and the above option might provide a corncrake experience!)
  • The local B&B Ardoran House comes well-recommended if the Argyll is full (5 minutes’ walk). 
  • Margaret MacDonald’s B&B also comes well-recommended: 10 minutes’ walk 
  • NEW IN 2018: Iona Pods 
  • The St Columba Hotel is 5 minutes’ walk away.

Of course, nothing will beat the Argyll Hotel. The rate includes a generous breakfast. Bear in mind that you’ll cut the room cost in half if you share with another participant, friend or partner.

If you choose the hotel, I’d advise very early booking. 01681 700334.

The lovely owners are willing to negotiate timing of payments. The staff will tell you about it all (Katy usually deals with room bookings for my course).

See and under their ‘essentials’ button you’ll find a link to other island accommodation.

We’ll be at the Argyll for all the indoor sessions (morning, late afternoon, and evening) and we all share dinner at the hotel, as a group. We think you can eat well, on the fine imaginative, mostly locally-grown and as much as possible organic Argyll fare, for between £15 & £25 per day (including simple lunch but excluding drinks and desserts), assuming you have breakfast wherever you’re staying (that’s included in the rate at the Argyll). Frugal people can of course probably improve on that! The hotel is adept at catering for vegan and gluten-free diets as well as fish- and meat-eaters. There are plenty of other island options for lunches, in addition to the Argyll.

By the way, you don’t need to book a table for dinner, as it says on the Argyll’s website, if you’re coming on the course – I do a block booking.

This is in two parts: my fee, and the accommodation. My fee for 2020 is £395. NB I will pencil your name in but will not take this as a firm booking until you’ve paid a deposit of £225. The balance of £170 is due by 31st January 2020 (instalments possible) for the spring 2020 groups; by June 30th 2019 (ditto) for September 2019 (my fee for this one in 2019 is still £375), but see below; your booking is taken as agreement to the terms and conditions in ‘the small print’ (in red).

If you haven’t worked with me before, on applying please tell me just a little about yourself and why you want to join us. The work goes deep, and the group dynamic depends on creating a safe and trusting ambience very quickly, so it helps to know a little about the participants.

I need a non-refundable deposit of £200 (2019), £225 (2020) with your booking. Please contact me as below (NB my old P O Box is defunct). 01548 821718 (answerphone)  roselle.l.angwin[at]gmail[dot]com OR roselle[at]fire-in-the-head[dot]co[dot]uk

Prices do not include the optional boat trip to Staffa (‘Staffa Trips’ on Iolaire), which is around £35 – and it’s more than worth it. You will probably see seals, and you may see puffins. Sometimes there are dolphins; always many seabirds. Our skipper is knowledgeable about the history, prehistory, wildlife and general natural history and geology etc.

You will need to make your own travel arrangements: see below.

The small print 1
It’s advisable to book this and your accommodation asap, as the course fills fast and I often turn people away. I keep my own fee as low as I can, but I also need to book the hotel so am myself committed and ask that you too commit if I hold you a place.

Please note that if for any reason I cancel the course, your fee is fully refundable.

The last few years this course has consistently had a waiting list over and above the 14 (maximum) participants I can accommodate. I know that life can sometimes get in the way of the best plans, but despite a waiting list late cancellations can make it hard to refill your place and I am committed to the venue. THE DEPOSIT IS NON-REFUNDABLE. I have had to become strict with this. If you cancel before January 31st for spring, June 30th for September, any balance you have already paid is refundable, minus £50 admin/readvertising costs. After that no refunds are possible. You might want to consider travel insurance. Please also note that the course fee, if you cancel, is not transferable. Clearly, in the highly-unlikely event that I have to cancel the course, you will have a full refund.

Your booking is taken as acceptance of this and also the content of Small print 2, below; and, too, of the fact that if you sustain any kind of accident or injury while on the course you accept liability for it (though I and we will of course will take all reasonable precautions to prevent it). See also here.

Small print 2
Also you need to know,
especially if you’re staying any distance away from the Argyll, that this is a structured retreat, and because of the high levels of trust and intimacy we create, it’s important that you plan to attend both morning and evening sessions, including dinner in the hotel (obviously emergencies excepted). Afternoon sharing-work sessions, and any trips out (other than to St Columba’s Bay midweek), e.g. to Staffa, are optional, so if you like space and downtime in between sessions, the afternoons can accommodate that need for free time.

The course now is six days, seven nights, and starts with dinner at 7pm and a brief introductory session on the Saturday (groups 1 & 3), Tuesday (group 2) evenings, and participants leave after breakfast on the following Saturday/Tuesday, after our final celebration the evening before. You do need to attend the whole course.

Note that the last ferry from Mull to Iona is just after 6pm usually at this time of year; please check with Caledonian MacBrayne times of crossings from Oban to Craignure on Mull in order to take the bus to get you to the Iona ferry at Fionnphort in time for the evening opening. Usually you can assume that if you get the 4pm ferry from Oban to Mull (Craignure), and catch the bus, you’ll make that last ferry, just. Better to catch the 12 noon or 2pm sailing, but do check bus timetables on the Calmac site or with West Coast Motors coach company detailed on the Calmac site. There should be a bus to meet some of those Oban ferries, and to get you to Fionnphort in time for the last Iona crossing, and they generally wait for each other (within reason).

NB if you’re staying anywhere other than the Argyll you will need to arrive earlier, as there won’t be time to get there and back before the evening gathering if you come on the last ferry.


Flights or trains to Glasgow (I personally recommend the train whenever possible for two reasons: one, the environmental – walking lightly on this earth is part of the ethos of Fire in the Head; and two, the spirit of pilgrimage is best honoured by including time for the soul to keep up with the body).

Then take the West Highland Line to Oban (beware that the train often splits at Crianlarich for Fort William!). I like to do this in daylight because travelling along Loch Lomond and past the castle ruins on Loch Awe is a treat.

There is then the ferry sailing to Craignure on Mull (Caledonian MacBrayne, or ‘Calmac’, as above); a bus journey (the buses normally tie in with the ferries) across Mull to Fionnphort; finally the ten-minute ferry crossing to Iona.

The Argyll Hotel is visible in front of you to the right.

In April we’ve usually been lucky with the weather: mostly fine bright days (and 24 hours of dramatic and rare snow in 2016). But it can be chilly; there’s often a wind, and we have to allow for stormy weather. We do quite a lot of walking, too, so warm clothing, waterproofs, windproofs, gloves and scarves and walking boots are musts. The September course is an unknown quantity; we’ll be discovering together.

The bedrock of the weeks is, loosely, poetry, with elements of creative prose-writing, memoir, reflection, journalling and experiential writing. However, Group 1 consists of experienced poets and poetry is very much our focus; Group 2 and Group 3 are more general. None of the weeks is about being ‘good at’ something, but about exploring words, their possibilities for connection, their richness and their edges.

Iona: The Glass-Blue Day

The way sky inhabits the creases
smears colour that steals your breath

The sand so pale it might be grains of light

The big Hebridean night that opens its arms
and drops its creel of stars

towards our upturned faces

(Roselle Angwin)

Iona window


I write about Iona every year, in April or early May, on my blog:

There’s a lovely article on Iona by writer Linda Cracknell here.

A ‘newbie’ on group 2 writes here about her experience in 2017.

And because things sometimes don’t work out according to plan, you might be interested in 2018 participant Susan Jordan’s experience here (plus the preceding 2 posts).

A participant in 2014 wrote a blog about it here.

And finally: you can find out more about Kenneth Steven, who co-founded this retreat week with me way back when, and still offers a week with a Celtic Christianity emphasis on the island, and his books here.

me luing

There is a great deal of feedback on the Iona groups. Here’s some; there’s more, & more recent, testimonials on the ‘What They Say’ page.

‘I am slowly coming down from the Iona high… I was unbelievably happy to be back with Islands of the Heart, and what a privilege to develop such warm and lasting friendships from the course…Thank you for your unfailing inspiration and for your skill in holding us together as individuals and a group, in both our fine and our squally weather; and for being your dear and lovely self.’
(Participant on Islands of the Heart, Iona, 2015)

‘A huge thank you for another exhilarating, fulfilling week on Iona… What is so special is the way you bring all of us likeminded (mostly) but diverse individuals and inspire such a tangible sense of acceptance, empathy and belonging. I arrive home feeling affirmed both by the group and myself; feeling that things are really possible. It’s a community quite unlike I experience anywhere else… an avalanche of energy pouring forth from you, the group, the place.’
(Participant on Islands of the Heart, Iona, 2015)

‘Heartfelt thanks to you for a spectacularly inspiring week.’
(Participant on Islands of the Heart, Iona, 2015)

‘…you must know how much I enjoyed the week and how much I valued your inspired input – you’re an absolute star and everyone says so! What you have to offer is completely unique – that really hit home when I was sitting around in Oban yesterday reflecting on the Iona “experience”. You’re always so clever at opening the lock gates without causing an overwhelming gush of self-indulgence. The week was invaluable to me and has sparked lots of little epiphanies, not to mention quite a few pages of emerging ideas… Yesterday in Oban, I was still writing and looking out at the sparkling sea and those lumpy crags, already wishing to be back there in Iona… So – again – a hundred thanks for masterminding such a wonderful experience with so many good (in every sense!) people.’ (Participant on Islands of the Heart, Iona, 2015)

‘Thank you for a stimulating and fulfilling [six] days.  The retreat gave me just what I wanted and some things I did not know I wanted! … Giles Fraser’s piece in The Guardian last Saturday focused on the theme “the arts should be one of the places to challenge the idea that our political and financial masters have a monopoly on what counts as established reality… something we used to call vision, a sense that the world could be otherwise…”  On Iona I was reminded of a much wider world where creativity flourishes.  A salutary reminder. Thank you.’
(Participant on Islands of the Heart, Iona, 2015)

‘I just wanted to say how profoundly happy and grateful I am to be have been part of the Iona retreat in 2015. What a supportive, stimulating, transformative environment you created for us all. Can’t wait until 2016!  I know that the effects are still percolating, and I’ve continued to have insights and to enjoy the opened floodgate of new writing. Thank you!’
(Participant on Islands of the Heart, Iona, 2015)

‘[A] terrific week, at the time terrifying and challenging… The notion that we are all engaged in a pilgrimage is one that I find obscurely moving and meaningful. I have come to realise that I should be desperately sad not to be there next year, so please can I ask to join the Iona group again in 2016? So from me, many heartfelt thanks for – well, I’m not quite sure what for! For a wonderful week, of course, but also for a seed set growing, a piece of grit slipped into the oyster, feet encouraged, driven, even, to set out on a journey to a destination I can’t foresee.
(Participant on Islands of the Heart, Iona, 2015)

‘This might seem a bit out of the blue to you but… I just want to express my thanks to you for all you do and especially how you hold the space in Iona. I really only got the slightest handle on poetry writing on my first retreat with you. I am so full of gratitude. Not quite sure how you do it, but thank you.’
(October 2018 from a now-regular participant on the ‘newcomers & returners’ group on Iona, who’s just had her first collection published)

‘Congratulations on the Telegraph*! But of course you are in the top 1!!’
(June 2019 from someone who joins us from Canada each year)
* The Telegraph listed this course as one of the world’s ten best creative writing holidays

You’ll find more, plus other general course feedback here.