Iona: a new favourite place

When we first began planning a visit to the Isle of Mull, off Scotland’s west coast, we decided to stay in the tiny port of Fionnphort. We chose the Seaview bed and breakfast primarily because we’d planned to visit the island of Staffa, travelling by boat from Fionnphort to see Fingal’s Cave, but also because its location on the part of the island known as the Ross of Mull seemed to be more attractive than the northern and eastern towns. I like to try and stay on or near the coast if possible, being land-locked in Switzerland for much of the year, as it presents easier opportunities for coastal photography and often restaurants with more scenic dining. John and Jane couldn’t’ve made us feel more welcome in their home, and we can highly recommend their bed and breakfast accommodation if you’re on Mull.

Off the western coast of Mull is the tiny island of Iona, which can be reached from Fionnphort by a short ferry ride. As our main goal for this leg of our holiday had been Staffa, I’d not really intended on spending much time on Iona, other than going over to see the remote abbey on the site of the starting point of Christianity in Scotland. Columba (Colm Cille) founded a monastery there in 563; the island remains a place of pilgrimage and contains a tangibly spiritual community.

St. Mary's Abbey, Iona

The weather dictates everything in Scotland and so when the westerly winds arrived to churn up the seas, we abandoned our plans to visit Staffa – a challenging boat ride at the best of times – and spend our day exploring Iona instead. And, boy, were we glad we did.

After getting some tips from the bed and breakfast owners, we caught the rocking ferry across the narrow channel to the island, hid in the ruined nunnery whilst a rain squall blew past, then headed for the higher of the two hilly parts of the island: Dùn Ì, at 101 metres above sea level. Glad that we had the presence of mind to wrap ourselves in wind- and rainproof outerwear, we tromped up the boggy and rocky hillside through strong gusts and alternating hail and sunshine to take in the view. Although the hill isn’t high, the fact that it’s on a small island makes the views terrific; out past the islands of Coll and Tiree into the Atlantic to the west, and back to the mountains of Mull and the Ardnamurchan peninsula to the east.

Having grown up amongst the busier towns of the south of England and now living in the compressed environment of Switzerland, where truly empty countryside is a rarity, I relish being in places which feel more remote and where large tracts of land remain empty. Both Jo and I really enjoyed our time on Iona; so much that despite tired legs, we wanted to make the most of our day on the island and see as much of it as we could. After a wander around the abbey and a short break on a white-sanded beach, we walked across the island and across the golf course past some hardy players doing battle with the wind to visit the beach of Camas Cuil an t-Saimh. In English, the bay has possibly the most charming name of anywhere I’ve ever been: The Bay at the Back of the Ocean.

I have been reading Anna’s blog “Little Red Boat” since she spent time living in the abbey community over ten years ago. I followed the snippets of life in a comparatively remote community with interest, wondering just what these places looked like and what it felt like to be on a tiny island, off the coast of a slightly larger island, off the coast of a big island, off the coast of mainland Europe. Now we know just how wonderful Iona is – albeit, perhaps, tinged positively by our luck with the weather – we’ve vowed to return and spend more time there.

Update: I’ve added this YouTube video filmed from the summit of Dùn Ì.

The full set of my photos from Iona is in my Flickr photo stream.