Oban, Mull & Iona

“That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer amid the ruins of Iona.” (Samuel Johnson)

I actually find it a bit difficult to bring any attention to Iona, but not for difficult reasons… when an island is this remote and beautiful it makes me feel like I want to protect it and not draw any attention to it so that it just remains the way it is.  It’s remoteness is part of why the island has become home to a Christian retreat centre founded around the Abbey which was originally established by St Columba when he fled from Ireland in 563AD, but this doesn’t stop around 1000 people per day at the height of the season, making the day trip from Oban.  It’s not a straight forward trip though – the ferry from Oban takes around 45 minutes to Mull, then you have to drive across Mull for about an hour and a quarter – standardised day trips are available through Caledonian MacBrayne ferries during the season.  If you are driving though, you have to time everything to coincide with the timetable of the crossings to Iona on the little foot ferry which takes about 10 minutes to get across to this beautiful island of only 3.4 square miles, but beware of this short crossing as the Sound of Iona is treacherous water and it is a notoriously rough crossing.

The island is rich in what has become known as ‘Iona Stone’ or ‘Columba’s Stone’ which is a kind of green/white marble containing a substance called serpentine.  Even the crystal white sands of the island are rich in this serpentine so much so that when you cross the Sound of Iona from Fionnphort on Mull, you can look down into the water and pretty much see the bottom through the most uniquely green hued water.

There are few places for lunch on the island, but the Martyr’s Bay Restaurant beside the jetty, opened especially for us as I called them to say that we were coming as a group.  They’re normally open from Easter until the end of the season.  Other than that there are a couple of shops but mostly just selling souvenirs.  However, most day trippers come to the island to visit the Abbey and the ruins of the Benedictine Nunnery from the medieval period.  The modern Abbey is in fact a reconstruction from the early 20th century, but of considerable historical interest nonetheless.  The Mound of Kings which is in front of the Abbey is the resting place of many Scottish nobles and Kings, allegedly including Macbeth of Shakespearean fame!  The Abbey’s beautiful collection of Celtic High Crosses is also not to be missed in their little museum, where the carefully preserved St Oran’s cross is one of the oldest of it’s kind anywhere in the world.  While visiting I was told the story of St Oran which I’m rather dubious about but is rather interesting  – apparently when Columba landed on the island it was decided that one of their number should offer their life as a sacrifice as a first offer of penance.  Oran offered himself and his burial took place shortly afterwards, but after a while his coffin was re-opened and he was found to be alive, but apparently he said that he’d been to both heaven and hell and hell wasn’t such a bad place after all so Columba quickly instructed that the coffin was to be sealed again in order to stop Oran from spreading such dreadful stories!!!

When I first visited Iona in 1995 it was far more unpopulated than it is now, with an increase of new houses by what must be almost 70% in 17 years.  There’s also now a small golf course at the back of the island, and a campsite has also opened nearby.  The island is ownership of the Scottish nation but there are supposedly restrictions in place as to how much building can be done… whatever those restrictions are, on seeing the island you can only hope that they’ll be tough, and that they’ll be enforced in order to maintain the sense of beauty, remoteness and tranquility that this amazing place instills in the discerning visitor.

Mull on the other hand has a lot more to offer as it’s a far bigger island.  The vast majority of visitors don’t see much beyond the road between the jetty where the ferry to Oban berths, and Fionnphort on the far south west of the island from where you catch the foot ferry to Iona.  But there’s plenty more worth exploring on Mull.  The main settlement is Tobermory which is on the north east coast and a short driver from the ferry at Craignure.  There are fairly regular public bus services from Craignure and around the island, which are often used by bird watchers carrying all their equipment as Mull is the home to a large number of nesting Golden Eagles and White Tailed Sea Eagles.  We didn’t see any during our visit, but apparently it’s not unusual to see them floating around above the deep sided glenns.  Duart Castle, seat of the Clan MacLean and close to Craignure, is also worth a visit and is in pretty good condition (it should be as it’s still used as a family home for most of the year).  There only open to the public during the season (Easter onwards) but we stopped just to look around the outside of the castle and admire some great views across the water towards Oban and the mainland.  There are also plenty of Highland cattle in the surrounding fields if you like taking photos of hairy cows with long horns!

We stayed for 2 nights at the Columba Hotel (which was excellent!) in Oban while we visited Mull and Iona and if you’re planning a day trip, you’ll definitely need a 2 night stay as it’s a long trip.  Otherwise, finding accomodation on Iona or Mull is best booked well in advance to ensure you get availability.  I’d recommend Oban though as it’s a really nice town to spend some extra time exploring – there are a few castles and monuments within hiking distance, and the nearby island of Kerrera is also reachable via a little ferry which runs fairly regularly.  On Kerrera there is a marina and a stunning castle with a recently opened visitor centre and cafe.  Oban has plenty of high street shops but also some which sell local produce and art so it’s definitely worth taking the time to browse.