Islands of the Heart, Iona

The renowned ISLANDS OF THE HEART 18th retreat on the Isle of Iona


Isle of Iona from the Argyll Hotel garden

2018 dates
Saturday 7th – Saturday 14th April (this week is for ‘core group’ Iona returners only with priority given by number of years’ attendance BEFORE 2015. Mainly poetry, mainly experienced/published writers. 1 place available for a returner.)

Tuesday 17th April – Tuesday 24th April 2018: ‘more group’ returners & newcomers both welcome (These groups are capped at a maximum of 14 now. This group is full, but there is a waiting list so contact me if you’d like to be put on it, with a little info about yourself. This group is more divergent in participants’ writing interests and experience, with more of a mix of poetry and prose.)

NB Bookings being taken for 2019:
‘Core’ group (provisional dates Saturday, 13th April – Saturday 20th) filling fast.
‘More’ group (provisional dates Wednesday 3th – Wed 10th April) has some bookings.

hebrides 1 oct 08003

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

‘It was transformational. I hadn’t imagined that 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…

WITH GREAT EXCITEMENT I WANT TO TELL YOU THAT my new collection of poems from the many years I’ve visited Iona, A Trick of the Light, is available now. I’m also delighted to invite you, should you be nearby at the time, even if you’re not coming to my retreat, to its launch in Iona Community Shop on Monday 9th April at 5pm.


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.

For nine years from 2000 I led a weeklong retreat on Iona with my friend, fellow author and poet Kenneth Steven. The many people who have attended, some of whom return every year, know what a unique, creative, therapeutic and frequently life-changing experience these days offer (6 days, 7 nights). You need to know that this is more than ‘simply’ a creative writing retreat. Also, some walking is an integral part of the course. It’s not obligatory, but some sessions are built around a walk.

 And – there’s still 1 place for anyone who’s attended the first of my Iona weeks, so a ‘returner’ – if they first came in 2015 or earlier. The second group has a waiting list and I’m currently taking names for 2019.

Please scroll down for some of the most recent feedback; there’s more here. Also below is all the practical info.

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).

Iona is and always has been a place to bring your stories and poems, your joys and sorrows, your laughter and your open heart. In addition, I added an extra focus: the theme of ‘islands’ as a starting point and medium for thought, creative expression, writing, and reflection. 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’.

If that doesn’t persuade you, this might: The poet Thomas Gray (‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’, 1751), says Madeleine Bunting in her book on the Hebrides, Love of Country, tells us that an annual pilgrimage to the Hebrides should be de rigueur for ‘poets, painters, gardeners and clergymen (in that order) and if they did not, “their imaginations can be made up of nothing but bowling greens, flowering shrubs, fleet ditches, shell grottoes and Chinee rails”.’ There. How can you miss it?

 * the green stones, Iona serpentine, have assumed mythical and talismanic proportions. Here’s Chloë’s from 2014:

chloe's greenstone


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 them and say you’re attending my course. SEE BELOW.

We keep prices as low as we can, and in 2018 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!)

Of course, nothing will beat the Argyll Hotel; they’re offering my groups 2017 prices for 2018. Check the website for their 2017 rates; bear in mind that you’ll cut the room cost in half if you share with another participant. The rate includes a generous breakfast.

It does of course make a difference to the experience to all be under the same roof; so 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. Sharing a twin room with a friend brings the costs down.

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 part of the group. We think you can eat well, on the fine mostly locally-grown and as much as possible organic Argyll fare, for around £20-25 per day (including simple lunch but excluding drinks), assuming you have breakfast wherever you’re staying (that’s included in the rate at the Argyll). (Plenty of other island options for lunches too.) Frugal people can of course probably improve on that! 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.

Lunch is up to you, but everyone is expected to join us for dinner and the evening session.

This is in two parts: my fee, and the accommodation. My fee for 2018 is £375; NB I will pencil your name in but will not take this as a firm booking until you’ve paid a deposit of £200. Latest date for the deposit for 2018 is 1st September 2017, with balance due by 31st January 2018; but see below; your booking is taken as agreement to the terms and conditions in ‘the small print’.

I need a deposit of £200 with your booking. The balance of £175 due by January 31st 2018 (instalments can also be accepted). Please contact me as below (NB my old P O Box is defunct). 01548 821136   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, which will be around £30 – and it’s more than worth it. You will probably see seals, and you may see puffins. Our skipper is extremely 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 late cancellations can make it hard to refill your place. If you cancel before January 31st, your deposit is refundable minus £50 admin (and/or readvertising) costs IF I CAN FILL YOUR PLACE. After that refunds are not possible. You might want to consider travel insurance. Please also note that the course fee, if you cancel, is not transferable. Your booking is taken as acceptance of this. 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.

In 2017/18 the course is six days, seven nights, and starts with dinner at 7pm and a brief introductory session on the Saturday (group 1), 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 in a tent, at the hostel, or in a B&B 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 late early 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.

Argyll Hotel: 01681 700334

The focus of the course is, loosely, poetry, and there are elements of creative prose-writing, reflection, journalling and experiential writing. It’s mostly poetry in Group 1; Group 2 is more general. It’s not 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

IF THE COURSE IS FULL, or you can’t do April, what about my WRITING THE BRIGHT MOMENT retreat in the lush and little-known Cévennes mountains in southern France, in September each year?


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 this year, 2017.

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, I believe, a week with a more Christian 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 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 [five] 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)

You’ll find other general course feedback here.