‘A bunch of stories’

Shortly after embarking on the Iona Community’s Oral History Project, I faced a challenging question-time at a meeting of Iona Community members in London. One questioner was particularly dismissive of the concept of Oral History: ‘It’ll just be a bunch of stories, won’t it?’

He was partly right. The resulting Project is a bunch of stories. But to dismiss them as ‘just stories’ implies that there is some ultimate, objective ‘truth’ that we can appeal to as arbiter of our experience.

In the event, far from downgrading the value of stories, this Project has powerfully reinforced for me the need to acknowledge that ‘stories’ are all we have.

‘Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face’

In the often-quoted verse from 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul contrasts what we can know and understand in this world of time and space, with what we shall know and understand in the next world.

But the root of the Greek word, ‘enigmati’, which is so often translated as ‘darkly’, translates literally as ‘stories’. ‘Now’, says Paul, ‘we see the world and the human condition reflected in metaphors – in stories.’

Some stories, of course, become more dominant over time, and they are the ones that get written up as the official histories. A project like this allows us to hear also the ‘lost’ stories and the ‘hidden’ stories which, in this particular context, means the stories of the islanders; the wives; the children; and the employees of the Community.

The inclusion of their stories will, I hope, throw a little more light on the mirror.

The Scope Of the Project

The Interviews

The original remit for the Project, which was funded jointly by The Heritage Lottery Fund and the Iona Community, was to record the memories of approximately 60 people associated with the Community between the years 1938 and 1969, comprising:

  • surviving early member
  • the second generation
  • their spouses & employees

In the event, I acquired 86 interviews with:

  • surviving early members
  • their spouses
  • their employees
  • islanders of Iona
  • a member of Govan Old in the 1930’s
  • the children of significant early members who had died

Each interview is available as a .wav file or as an audio CD.

Each interview has been transcribed in full, and will have an accompanying index which allows researchers to find material which is of specific interest.

Each interviewee has signed a release form which allows the Iona Community to deposit their complete interview and accompanying transcript with the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Scottish Studies’ Oral History Archive where it will be made available to the public.


It was originally suggested that I collect:

  • a photographic archive
  • a small collection of artefacts

In the event, I collected:

  • 82 new photos of interviewees.
  • over 200 archive photos which interviewees loaned to me, and which I re-photographed, restored, and captioned.
  • a collection of original photographs donated by Faith Aitken, Raymond Bailey, Bill Cooper, Douglas Alexander, and Calthorpe Emslie.
  • a range of documents (letters, journals, pamphlets, books, guides)
    donated by interviewees and other interested parties, including Jack Kellet, Tom McAlpine, Annie Macrae, Douglas Alexander, Graeme Brown, Henrietta Trotter, Jim Hughes, David Jarvie, Goram Malmstein, Keith Weavers, and Ruth Burgess.
  • an assortment of documents which were loaned to me by interviewees including Molly Harvey, Ian Renton, Tom McAlpine, David Jarvie, John Sim, Rosemary Reid, and Beryl Jones, and which I have now returned.
  • a complete log of existing radio, television, and film archive of the early years of the Community.

In addition, I have had sight of a substantial collection of documents held by Maxwell MacLeod, Beryl Jones, Ian Renton, and Molly Harvey – all, as yet, un-conserved and un-catalogued.

Robert Abel has also offered to compile and donate a document illustrating the postcards produced by the Community, including information about dates of publication, the photographers, and the descriptive text.

As I had neither the time nor the skills to conserve these documents, and the Community does not, as yet, have access to a humidity and temperature-controlled space in which to store them, I did not remove them from their owners, but have simply acknowledged these offers, and noted their existence.


I was asked, originally, to provide a detailed report of the changing nature and understanding of 9 themes:

  1. The Original Community: foundation and organisation
  2. Re-building the Abbey
  3. Social Justice Issues including Work, the use of Skills and the valuing of Manual Work, and alternative Employment Structures
  4. Environmental Issues and early experimentation
  5. The Changing Role of Women
  6. Youth Work, including the Borstal links
  7. Music, Worship, and the ‘Celtic’ influence
  8. International links
  9. Response to Nuclear Weapons

As the interviews progressed, however, it quickly became apparent that some themes had played virtually no part at all in the thinking of Members during those first 30 years. Hence, ‘Environmental Issues’ is only a brief chapter in my findings.

‘Response to Nuclear Weapons’ is not included as a separate chapter at all. While George MacLeod was personally identified with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it was not reported as being a significant ‘Community’ issue in the early years. In fact, during the period which this Project covers, it was repeatedly rejected by the Community as a ‘whole community’ issue.

On the other hand, a theme which had not been suggested emerged as highly significant. As a result, there is a substantial chapter on the Community’s relationship with the Islanders of Iona.

Other themes produced results which were heavily weighted towards one aspect of the theme. Hence ‘International Links’ has become a chapter on ‘The Community and Africa’, and the chapter on ‘Social Justice Issues including Work’ has become a chapter focussing almost entirely on Work.

It also became apparent quite quickly that there was no ‘Big Bang’: the Community did not spring fully-formed into being, but emerged slowly over the first decade of its life. As a result, the first chapter of findings is now entitled ‘The Early Community’, rather than ‘The Original Community’.

It should also be noted that much of the material could easily have been included in more than one chapter, as it illuminates more than one theme.

I have tried to cross-reference significant points, and, on the assumption that some readers may only be interested in specific chapters, I have occasionally repeated significant extracts.

Hence the final list of themes covered by the Report is as follows:

  1. The Early Community: Foundation, Vision, & Organisation
  2. The Re-building of the Abbey
  3. Work: the use of Skills, the valuing of Manual Work, and alternative Employment Structures
  4. The experience and contribution of Women
  5. Youth Work: Camas, Borstal links, & The Christian Workers’ League
  6. Music, Worship, and the ‘Celtic’ influence
  7. The Community’s relationship with the Islanders of Iona
  8. Environmental Issues & early experimentation
  9. The Community & Africa

Publicising the archive

  • I was asked to draft a book which would be of popular interest, based on extracts from the interviews I recorded. This will be published by Wild Goose in 2008/9
  • I selected a series of extracts from the interviews and a number of relevant archive photographs for exhibition material which has been designed and produced by Peter Forrest, Head of Design for the Church of Scotland. The exhibition was launched on Iona in April 2007.
  • I prepared and led a Programme Week in Iona Abbey based on the Oral History interviews. I have also used insights gained from the interviews as part of the induction training for new Resident Staff on the island, and for new Members of the Community.
  • I have also researched the technology which would allow audio extracts from interviews to be used as Visitor Interpretation material, both on Iona, and on the mainland.



‘Oral history is limited by the number of interviews, the people interviewed, and also those who read the interviews. The group interviewed rarely fully represents the community. Yet history should not merely comfort: it should provide a challenge, and understanding which helps towards change. A history is required which leads to action: not to confirm, but to change the world.’
Paul Thompson: ‘The Voice of the Past’

Research: Selecting the interviewees

From the beginning, the Steering Group’s intention was that the people interviewed should be drawn from as wide a sample as possible.

Consequently, I set out to interview not just the ministers, but the craftsmen; not just members of the Iona Community, but members of the community of Iona; not just the women who were associated with the Community in their own right, but the wives of early Members; not just those members who have persevered to the present day, but the disappointed, the disillusioned, and the deposed.

The Steering group provided me with a list of over 100 names comprising current Members who joined pre-1969; former Members; Associates; spouses of early Members; Iona residents; and children of significant early Members.

From this first list, the Steering Group identified a priority list of 20 current Members; 10 former Members; 8 Associates; 3 spouses; and 6 children of early Members.

In the end, of that priority list of 47, I interviewed 34. Sadly, two of them were already too ill to be interviewed by the time I joined the project. One turned me down, and another two simply failed to respond to my letter and calls. The other eight, either could not be fitted into an itinerary that made sense, or I felt were too similar to others in their ‘category’ to be a priority.

Because there is a danger that people on the inside of an organisation will read significance backwards from the present day, I also felt that it was important to interview others who had not been identified as ‘priorities’ – those who might have dropped off the Community’s radar altogether – in order to ensure that we got a history which did not ‘merely comfort’, but would provide a challenge to currently dominant stories about the early days.

So, the other 41 interviewees I found by a variety of methods.

I asked each of the priority interviewees who they thought I should be talking to. This provoked a flood of names which had not appeared on the original list.

I also read every edition of the Community’s magazine, ‘Coracle’, from first 25 years of the Community’s life, and wrote down every name mentioned. Many had died, but those who survived made an enormous contribution to my personal understanding of the early years of the Community.

I conducted all but 2 of the interviews personally. I felt that there was a huge advantage to there being a single mind behind the Project. It was easy then to pick up patterns of consensus across interviews. And it was hugely advantageous to then be able to ask follow-up questions on the spot.

The other two interviews were conducted by Jean Young and Yvonne Morland.

Jean let me have a copy of a recording she had made with Uist Macdonald, two years before his death, and I am grateful to her for her contribution.

I also asked Yvonne Morland if she would record an interview with Sam Varner, while on a trip to the USA. She willingly did so, and I am grateful to her for going out of her way to secure this interview.

Some categories of interviewee, however, remain under-represented:

Members of the Original 1938 Community

By the time I joined the Project, two key figures were already too ill to participate. One of them was Uist Macdonald, the last remaining minister from the original 1938 Community. However, as mentioned above, Jean Young has contributed a brief interview which she recorded with Uist in 2002. In addition, Douglas Trotter, who accompanied the original 1938 Community to Iona as a general ‘dogsbody’, did speak to me, and his contribution proved to be extremely valuable.

Members of Govan Old in the 1930’s

As far as I could establish, only two remained, one of whom was suffering from dementia. In the end, only Annie Price represented this category.


This proved to be a very difficult category of interviewee to recruit. A number of islanders were happy to talk to me informally, but only 3 were prepared to go on the record. I am deeply grateful to Helen Grant, Davie Kirkpatrick, and Bobby Clark. Despite this being a small category, I believe it to be one of the most important.

Wives of early members

At first, these women were reluctant to be interviewed. They couldn’t think why I would want to speak to them, when I could speak to their husbands.

I had more success in persuading this category of interviewee that I really did want to hear their stories, and once I had, the floodgates opened. I consider this to be the most significant chapter of the Project’s findings.

Geographically isolated people

Unlike the subjects of most Oral History Projects, the Iona Community is not a well-defined, geographical community, but a very widely-dispersed one. Some people simply lived too far way from any other interviewee to justify the cost of a special journey to interview just one person. If I couldn’t build a logical itinerary around them, I had to strike them from my list, unless I felt they had an utterly unique perspective.

Listening: Constructing the Interviews

‘Oral History is different from other tellings, in that it tells us less about events than about their meaning. It tells us not just what people did, but what they
wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did.’ Alessandro Portelli: ‘Form and Meaning in Oral History’

The Interviewer

In conducting the interviews I tried to maintain a scrupulously neutral stance. I allowed myself, as far as possible, to be the passive recipient of the story, without expressing a personal view. In order not to contaminate their contribution, I did not share with the interviewee any story which had been told to me by previous interviewees, until their interview was over.

The Interviews

A few interviewees had a strong sense of what they wanted to tell me, and how they wanted to tell it to me. In these instances, I allowed the interviewee to tell their story uninterrupted, only following up for clarification. The vast majority of interviews, however, followed a very different pattern.

Having been given a number of themes by the Steering Group, I asked a series of open questions which guided each interviewee through those themes. If it became apparent that a theme was not relevant to a particular individual’s experience, I moved on. If it proved to be especially relevant, I stayed with it for as long as it took.

In order that these things be put on the record, I did ask descriptive questions: ‘Tell me about your first visit to Iona.’ ‘Describe a typical day for a craftsman.’ ‘How did you first get involved with the Community?’ But the more interesting answers were provided to questions about motivation, intention, and self-image: ‘What did you think you were signing up for when you joined the Community?’ ‘How did the Church of Scotland regard Iona Community Members?’ ‘How did you feel about your husband joining an all-male Community?’

The Challenges

We know that memories change over the course of a lifetime. We now know from neurological research that we literally ‘change’ our minds across the span of our lives. With each new phase of our existence, new experiences cause us to configure and re-configure the software of our brains, time and time again. We are literally different people at seventy than we were at twenty. It is, therefore, important to be aware that the interview a 70 year old has just given me for this Project would have been very different if I’d asked him the same questions 50 years ago.

It is also important to consider the extent to which interviewees perform for the microphone. Some people did, but I tried my best to minimise this risk, by using the kind of tiny lapel-microphone that interviewees tend to forget very quickly.

I was aware that some people were using humour to deflect difficult questions, but I suspect that this is something they use as a coping strategy for life in general. The vast majority of interviewees entered whole-heartedly into the exchange with me. There were lots of tears, and lots of laughter.

‘You must have heard this one?’

In the course of the interviews, certain stories were repeated over and over again. They were mainly stories which had originated with George MacLeod, and had been often repeated by him on his fund-raising tours.

Such stories are the common currency of any close-knit community, and there is now no way of knowing if they are factual. But the fact that these stories have been preserved, and embellished, suggests that they represent what people believe to have been essentially ‘true’ about the Community, and, therefore, I have included them all.

‘I told this story to Ron, but he didn’t believe me.’

One essential difference between an authored history of the Community and this Project, is that I ‘believed’ every story I was told.

When Ron Ferguson was writing his excellent history of the Community, ‘Chasing the Wild Goose’, he had to decide which story to tell about the Community. I tried not to choose. Each story in this Project has to be weighed against all the other stories. I did, however, rigorously follow up unexpected stories, and attempted to corroborate them by asking other interviewees who had been present at the reported events exactly the same set of questions I had asked the original informant.

In the event, I found major consensus, but there were occasional dissonant voices. I have, however, excluded only one substantial account. It was a story which would have had profound implications for the reputation of an individual, and when I followed it up with the person who was best placed to confirm or deny it, I came to the conclusion that there was no substance to the original story. I then reported my findings to the original informant.

The Technical Process

All but two of the interviews were recorded on a solid-state recorder. I chose a Marantz PMD-670 which uses Compact Flash memory. As I was travelling long distances around the UK, almost always by Public Transport, the PMD 670 had the advantage of being small, light-weight, and virtually indestructible.

I opted for Lexar Pro 1Gb CF cards which proved to be 100% reliable.

I decided to record at high quality (PCM 44.1 Mono), but this still allowed me to record a full 2 hours 15 minutes of speech on a single CF card. This meant that I rarely had to stop and change card during an interview – and so minimised the risk of breaking the interviewee’s concentration.

As I planned my itineraries so that I could travel between interviews without having to return to base each night, I found that I needed 3 x 1Gb CF cards in order to avoid the risky business of downloading to temporary storage while on location.

I hired 2 x Sony ECM-77 lapel microphones as required, preferring inconspicuous lapel mics to hand-held or stand mics which can intimidate interviewees, particularly those who do not routinely give interviews.

I burned a safety copy of each interview on CD, using TDK CDR-R80 discs, and archived each interview on high-quality HHB CDR-74 Gold discs.

I photographed the interviewees using a Nikon Coolpix 4300 Digital Camera.

The interviews were transcribed using WAVpedal® which allows the typist to control the playback of WAV files on her computer with a foot pedal.

When the transcriber clicks on the sound file she wants to play, it loads her word processor automatically, and associates the selected file with a word processor file. It was, therefore, possible, when transcribing, to slow down interviewees who spoke very quickly, and speed-up playback, when checking completed transcripts.

I stored all the Project material – audio, picture, and Word documents on a Maxtor One Touch 120GB external hard drive. As a result, all data can be easily re-configured for any end-purpose: books, exhibition material, radio programmes, PowerPoint presentations, publicity material etc.

Anne Muir

Click here to download an extract of the completed work 'Outside a safe place' - by Anne Muir

To add your own stories please visit the Outside a safe place blog

To buy a copy visit www.ionabooks.com

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop us a note so we can take care of it!