Iona Community Unlocked Evaluation Report 2022

1. Background

In keeping with our Rule of Life to account for what we do with our time and resources, the Iona Community worked through its Unlocked Programme to make places at Iona Abbey, and one of our cottages on the Isle of Iona, available to people who need a holiday most.  Our guests in 2022 included:

  • Families living in flats with children
  • Key workers experiencing trauma, burnout or compassion fatigue because of their work during the pandemic
  • Those who have been bereaved during the pandemic and have been unable to grieve properly
  • Kinship carers who are exhausted and could do with a break
  • Refugees
  • Families and people on low incomes who have not had a holiday away from home for a long time

2. Unlocked Guests 2022

Kinship carers from Glasgow, always on the alert in case their grown children or grandchildren need urgent help, were able to make full use of the lulls between emergencies.  They went down to the beach, enjoyed each other’s company by the log fire in the Common Room, contributed to the worship, laughed around the refectory tables and shared their hard won experience of deep listening with our young volunteers.  They knitted a colourful banner and presented it to the Abbey at the end of their stay.

Black young people living with poverty in flats in London travelled together to Iona with older family members, using long-distance trains and boats for the first time. It was a risk to travel so far from home, away from support networks and friends. From two church congregations, they had not left London since the beginning of the pandemic, and, it emerged, many of them had never left London at all.  Tentatively at first and then with increased confidence, they found a welcome and a place to be themselves, exploring the natural beauty of the island, worshipping in the Abbey Church, playing football and taking part in robust and heartfelt conversations about racial justice.

Refugee families found a safe haven away from the harsh realities of life in small, upstairs flats, with no places for the children to play, aggressive insults and discrimination.  Holidays away are a dream for them.  One of the mothers said, “We were talking about Iona recently and the memories brought a smile to us of our happy memories and helped our mood all day.”

Young parents, struggling for years to make ends meet, relaxed and played with their children in the garden which runs down to the beach.  The box of essentials waiting for them in the kitchen, including freshly baked bread from the Abbey, was a welcome surprise, and they could use the £80 cash at the island’s grocery shop.

Guests who had been bereaved found some stillness and acceptance in the Abbey Church.  Some lit a candle, or went to pray or sit each day.  Others went for long walks to the north and south of the island.  A chance to tell their story, often more than once, was helpful.

Burnt-out activists, bravely supporting others in their community during two lockdowns and finding their own income dropping as a result of the pandemic, were able to take care of themselves, engage in honest conversations about the difficulties facing their communities and concerns about the future.

People from different religious traditions and cultures cooked meals in the Abbey kitchen, shared tips with the staff and found a place of welcome and laughter instead of hostility.  Finding parallels within their own traditions of building community, peace-making and challenging injustice, they made plans to return to Iona with a larger group.

3. Unlocked Partner Organisations

As in 2021, we have been fortunate to work with five partner organisations who can identify people within their communities who would benefit the most from a break on Iona.

Guests are invited through our five partner organisations:

  1. Poverty Truth Community, Glasgow
  2. Church of Scotland Urban Priority Area Team
  3. Church Action on Poverty
  4. Faith in Community
  5. Poverty Truth Community, Morecombe

Fifty-one guests referred by our partner organisations stayed at the Iona Community’s cottage or at the Abbey during 2022.  Twenty-seven stayed at the Abbey and 24 at Shuna, our holiday cottage.

A further forty guests were identified by Iona Community Members, staff and Common Concern Networks, making 91 guests in total.

4. Eligibility for the Unlocked Programme

Of our 91 guests (and some were eligible for more than one reason):

  • 35 lived in flats with children
  • 25 were in receipt of benefits
  • 22 had mental health challenges
  • 15 were refugees or waiting for leave to remain
  • 13 were kinship carers
  • 11 were key workers
  • 10 were working for a low wage
  • 7 were single parents
  • 5 were bereaved
  • 1 was a pensioner
  • 1 had a terminal diagnosis 

Twenty-six children, from a babe in arms to a 17 year old, were amongst our guests. Sixteen stayed at the Abbey and 10 at Shuna, our cottage.

5. Unlocked Guest and Partner quotes

‘They still talk about the peace and tranquillity that they experienced on Iona; that it was a taste of what is possible. Even the grumpy teenagers now tell others about their adventure.’

‘The programme workshops were really transformative, too. I was not the only one who was helped in a really deep way by our journey in them too.’

‘It was very healing for me. It was the bravest thing I had done since my husband had left. It made me much more confident that I would be able to cope.’

‘This year has been really difficult for many of our group. I am amazed at how important the memories of Iona are. They have given people hope to get through some of the challenges and an understanding that nature, a simple life, community, eating together, a rhythm of prayer all helped to make a healing experience.’

 Catriona Robertson, Iona Abbey Warden, January 2023


Unlocked 2022 – Evaluation Report


Amazingly valuable

…is how Iona Unlocked has been described by partners. The impact that it has had on families and individuals has been widely felt and witnessed.  Unlocked plays a crucial part in making Iona more accessible to people who may not otherwise stay at the Abbey, often due to a multitude of reasons.  For this report I spoke to members of partner organisations and gathered guest feedback, to try and delve into what the longer-term impact of the Unlocked programme could be and any challenges or complications that could be improved for future offers. Any recommendations made will be mindful of the resources of the Community.

Value and Impact

Spiritual nourishment

For this section I just want to acknowledge that I did not gather any primary feedback from guests for this report, as a lot of feedback has already been gathered by partners who have trusted relationships with participants.

Wayne Green, a long-term activist with Church Action on Poverty wrote a beautiful reflection on his time on Iona with CAP, who took a group of 20 to Iona in 2022 to celebrate their 40th anniversary. Wayne described anti-poverty work as ‘an emotional rollercoaster’ and a world ‘not many want to see or hear’.  As someone who lives on his own, he spoke of his appreciation at having the chance to be in community with others and was struck by how open and welcoming people were. He described himself as ‘not a Sunday Church person’ but found that his time on Iona gave him ‘much spiritual nourishment’.

This experience was echoed by other guests, who similarly would not have described themselves as religious but still got a lot out of their visit. Mary, who would describe herself as someone who ‘doesn’t do faith’ spoke of leaving Iona with ‘a deep sense of peace and purpose’ after her stay at the Abbey. I think it is important to recognise here that, like with other groups, the people accessing Unlocked will come from all faith backgrounds or none and it is extremely heartening to hear of people for whom Church is not a familiar place having such a positive spiritual experience. For Wayne, this culminated in him performing a stunning Saxophone solo in the Abbey Church at the end of the week.

The CAP group spent the week exploring the themes of Dignity, Agency and Power and forming deeper understandings of the systems and structures that contribute to poverty. Half of the group were people with lived experience of poverty and half of the group were people without. A strong sense of community was built which has continued since that week. Tracy, a participant, spoke of leaving feeling ‘invigorated, with a renewed energy to help change the systems and services in our country that no longer fit the purpose they were supposed to’.

It is more than clear, from these stories but also from those which we have already heard in past reports that Iona Unlocked provides an invaluable opportunity for those who need it the most. People working at the margins, experiencing disillusionment or burnout often leave feeling more refreshed, rested and energised. They can go back to their communities with a renewed sense of purpose and hopefully feeling less isolated. Mary points out that poverty work can ‘feel quite lonely’ and she greatly appreciated the time spent with like-minded and passionate individuals from different areas across England during the CAP week. The impact of Iona Unlocked extends far beyond the people that physically visit Iona, it echoes back into their communities.

Partners on the value and impact of Iona Unlocked:

Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty who was leading the CAP week spoke of it being ‘life-changing’ for some and highlighted that having a larger proportion of guests who are staying at the Abbey through the Unlocked programme ‘qualitatively changed the dynamic’ and led to guests building a stronger sense of community throughout the week. This was said in recognition of the fact that during the majority of weeks held at the Abbey it is very unlikely that such a large proportion of guests would be people with lived experience of poverty and that this is something Unlocked can help balance.

Elaine Downie, Co-ordinator of the Poverty Truth Community (PTC) sent a mix of families and individuals to Iona through Unlocked in 2022 as well as a group of 20 kinship carers. She spoke of people being able to relax and breathe, individuals enjoying the sense of community at the Abbey and someone even learning to swim! For most people it was their first visit to a Scottish island and for a few people it was their first time going somewhere in Scotland outside of Glasgow.

Preparation and Follow-up

It’s just so valuable for our work that people are able to have that opportunity and that bit of joy in their life – Elaine Downie

The partners I spoke to for this report represented Church Action on Poverty, The Poverty Truth Community and Church of Scotland Priority Areas. All reported varying levels of preparation needed with regards to supporting participants to go on an Unlocked trip. One common theme was how participants were found and the logistics relating to that. Overall, the general feeling seemed to be that the more people able to go the better. As previously mentioned, Church Action on Poverty ran a week at the Abbey and were able to take a significant proportion of that group through Unlocked.  PTC and Priority Areas sent both families and individuals, with families staying at Shuna and individuals in the Abbey. When there was a request for a larger group of kinship carers to go to the Abbey through PTC this was made possible. The practicalities of choosing people to go when the demand was always going to be high, varied, and all partners thought carefully about how they could find people fairly. Sometimes this looked like drawing names from a hat, sometimes a partner would opt for weeks that can be booked out at the Abbey which would accommodate a greater number of people (as opposed to sending one or two individuals alongside a programmed week). Priority Areas put the offer out amongst their networks and congregations and encouraged them to make direct contact with the Abbey Warden if they knew of anyone who was interested. This initially worked very well with lots of interest generated, however when more dates were put round by PA to their networks they didn’t get any responses back, possibly due to it being a tight turnaround.

In terms of supporting people practically, this varied from buying the travel and then meeting with families or individuals to go through the journey and what things might look like when they get there, to travelling with people. Partners made several interesting points with relation to the journey and the practicalities of this for people who have never made it before. The amount of support people needed to make the journey once they had accessed Unlocked depended on their individual situations. Niall from CAP pointed out that he had some members of the group who would not have been able to make the journey on their own and the fact that he was also going and could accompany people made a big difference. He also made the point that, as was the case when CAP travelled to Iona, when things don’t go according to plan due to factors outwith their control, it can be helpful having someone there who can absorb any unexpected costs like emergency alternative travel arrangements or overnight accommodation. However, there was also a recognition from partners that many people accessing Unlocked are more than capable of making the journey unaccompanied and navigating any complications along the way.  Therefore, the amount of support partners needed to give was assessed on a case-by-case basis and relied on them having already established a relationship with that group, individual or family. In my conversation with Elaine, she told me of when her colleague reassured her that the people they had travelling to Iona that week would be fine because they had made hugely difficult and long journeys on their own before. This is a good point; however, I think it is important to note that while resilience is a valuable resource, people shouldn’t have to be resilient all the time, especially if they have previously had to rely heavily on it for survival. It would still be valuable to think about how the logistics of travel are navigated from the Iona side and how we can best support those travelling.

Partner Feedback

The more coherent the programme becomes, the easier it is for us to work with it.

When partners were asked what they needed from the Iona Community prior to sending someone to an Unlocked trip, themes relating to communication emerged. These were primarily requests for more clarity and coherence in the communication around what dates were available and how many a certain partner could fill.  As Elaine pointed out – if you showed her a spreadsheet of the entire summer holiday she could fill it and so could others. There were also requests for dates as far in advance as possible and consistent communication in order to be able to confirm families quickly and put the plans in place. Shirley Grieve who coordinates the Priority Areas work of the Church of Scotland noted that sometimes people can make things work last minute but it is helpful to have an idea of dates ahead of time. Partners noted that it could be difficult for a family when they didn’t hear back for several weeks if their trip was definitely confirmed. They also said that sometimes changes had to be made at the last minute because the accommodation was needed for other purposes and that this could be difficult if plans had already been made with families, although of course extenuating circumstances can arise. Shirley suggested that a bi-annual meeting for partners could be useful so that they had a space to communicate with each other about the project, what needs to be developed and how they were using it.

Some other factors that were discussed as useful to clarify ahead of time, related to individuals staying at the Abbey, particularly how they navigated certain aspects of being there alongside a bigger group and an ongoing programme. Partners said that it would be good to have some clarity around how much people are expected or welcome to take part in the programme or not as they may feel and also if there are people there of other faiths or none, how much they are expected to take part in worship and how they slot in around that. Elaine suggested that it would be useful prior to the guests arriving, to communicate to the Iona staff a bit more information about who was coming, particularly if it was an individual. For example – this is someone who has been experiencing acute loneliness and would really benefit from a strong sense of community and being encouraged to take part in the week; or this is someone who has been working 60 hour weeks and needs a total break.

In terms of follow-up, evaluation was recognised as a nuanced area as how often would someone other than trip advisor come round and ask you about the value of your holiday? However, for some partners (CAP in particular who ran a programmed week), a great deal of valuable feedback was gathered from guests, some of which has already been referenced. PTC work closely with the families and individuals they support and any follow-up from Unlocked would often happen as a natural continuation of that longer-term work. From an Iona perspective I think more follow-up work could be done and is important to consider, as long as the medium chosen is mindful and sensible – for example a feedback form at the end of the week or simply gathered from informal chats and check-ins throughout the week with guests.

Further Suggestions

Despite Unlocked being a generous offer, it was noted that additional support towards travel and participation costs would be beneficial particularly for those travelling from further afield. Also, the reality of participation costs needs to be recognised; for example, in order for a Staffa trip to be a genuine option for someone the money for that trip needs to be available to them daily, not reserved by someone who needs to be asked for it. Therefore, the spending money per person per day needs to account for this. Shirley spoke of applying for a small amount of additional funding so that people going on an Unlocked trip could buy things ahead of time that they needed and maybe this is something for other partners to think about too.

There were also suggestions that Unlocked could work condensed over a number of weeks, for example with 12-15 spaces available each week. This would mitigate any potential feelings of isolation that could come from being a sole individual or family who was there through Unlocked. I think this suggestion is worth exploring especially now that Shuna is no longer an available property for the Unlocked programme and all participants will be staying at the Abbey. This is a slightly different experience as already mentioned above – at Shuna a family would have their own space and be able to freely do whatever they liked during their stay. However, at the Abbey alongside an unfamiliar programme, people might not as naturally slot into that sense of ease. Having a bigger group who were all there together or able to form a community together over the week could maybe help.

Something noted by all partners was that it would be good to have a staff member whose role was to organise travel, be in contact with guests and maintain a clear line of communication between partners and the Abbey. So far, this role has been with the Abbey Warden – however the Warden is often incredibly busy and stretched in the season and I don’t think it is realistic for Unlocked, if it is to truly have a chance to grow and improve, to stay as a part of their role. This is not to disregard any effort put into Unlocked by previous Wardens which was undoubtedly substantial and heartfelt. Rather it is to argue this should ideally have never fallen to them in the first place.


I hope that this report has gone some way to illustrating the value and impact that Unlocked has had – particularly over the last year – and provided some in-depth views and advice around preparation from the perspective of partner organisations. There was a huge amount of positive feedback from guests and partners relating to the value of the programme and a lot of gratitude that something like this was available for people. There was also a desire from partners to see it grow and improve. Communication was recognised as something which needed to become more efficient and consistent in order for the offer to reach its full potential. While a new role is perhaps not realistic at this current moment, it seems to me that the remit of Unlocked would ideally lie with someone who has the time to grow it as a project, focus on the logistical aspects and provide that desired clarity for partners and guests.

Cat Muckart, Camas Activity Programme Worker and Mac House (Glasgow) Team Member

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