It was bright and sunny when I woke and the fine weather urged me to get out and about. When I’d walked to the northern tip of the island I’d passed a high outcrop of rock marking Iona’s highest point and I could just make out a couple of people by the cairn, so this seemed a good plan for a hike. Again, there was no signpost to guide us from the paved road. Soon we were scrambling up a path that was more of a sheep track than a
footpath in places. The makers of the said track eyed us suspiciously, watching our shenanigans with amusement, or was it pity? There was a large cairn on top, and yes, the view was indeed wonderful. Just slightly west of north I could pick out a distant island – possibly Tiree. It was quite wet underfoot and going down I had to resort to my ‘Heather special’ – sliding down on my bottom rather than risk going head over heels on the slippery grass. We had fine views of the abbey far below us and I wondered idly if the monks and nuns ever came to this very spot. I’m sure they must have – “nearer my God to thee.”
By the time we got down to sea level again it was still only 11:30 but we decided on a very early lunch at the Martyr cafe which seems to be perched on the ocean when you’re inside, and retired for an hour before visiting the abbey – this time by daylight. Many of the capitals in the cloister have been newly carved with surprising modern scenes. Several portraits appeared to be African.
For me the highlight was the museum containing the broken remains of several ancient Celtic crosses held in place by ultra
modern contraptions of metal and glass, forming a wonderful contrast to the ancient carvings. All this was highlighted by dramatic lighting looking more like a stunning lighting set for a modern drama than a traditional museum. Some of the grave slabs were carved in the 1300s representing knights of the MacKinnon family, and they were very well preserved. Other satellite chapels had sprung up around the church. One, Michael chapel, was constructed in the 1200s and featured wonderful piscina arches with statues of heads weathered until this look decidedly ghoulish.
I inquired at the bookshop about the writing of the Book of Kells. I’d grown up with an awareness of this illuminated manuscript of the gospels after doing a project about religion and art in high school, and when I was in Dublin earlier this year I’d hoped to see the original book but the museum was closed. Written around the 800s at Iona the book had been taken to Kells, Ireland for safekeeping to protect it from the Viking invasion. Though the Vikings couldn’t read they knew a valuable artifact when they saw one! I saw a poster advertising a talk about this book, starting in an hour, so off I trotted. About twenty people were gathered in the bookstore to hear Jan Sutch-Pickard talk about her sabbatical learning about the making of the book and how she uses the information that she gleaned in her own poetry. I discovered that the blue coloured paint used in the book is made from ground up lapis lazuli (I have a jewelry set of that stone) which could only have come from Afghanistan – in the 800’s! Ultra-marine actually means from ‘beyond the sea, or from beyond these shores.’ Some people believed that the book had been written by angels, so intricate is the workmanship. THAT would certainly have been from some other world. Jan had also visited the extensive library at Cheetham school in Manchester, which I’ve visited, as part of her research. Apparently ancient books should not be stored on oak shelves, because the oak is a living organism. They should be stored on steel shelving. How dull! This research has resulted in the entire library at Iona being rethought.
I headed back passing St Oran’s chapel, the oldest intact structure on the island being built in the 1100s. I wanted to take a look around the extensive organic gardens, the perimeter of which I’d passed several times each day. The gardens are open for anyone to walk through and the produce is for sale to the public, but also used in the kitchens of the 2 hotels. I had been very surprised to see so much fruit on this remote Scottish island and here the boughs of the apples trees were bending low with the weight of their bright red fruit. Rows upon rows of veggies, neatly raised and well weeded, stretched almost down to the pier. Amazing!
I stopped off at the Argyll and ordered a Thistle cider just to be able to sit in the hotel’s garden overlooking the Sound of Mull. After 20 minutes or so the wind grew fierce and
as I headed by to the St Columba Hotel a faint rainbow joined Iona to its big sister. We had dinner in the hotel then strolled down to the Martyr’s cafe for a cup of tea before returning to the hotel to back for the long trip home tomorrow.
We’d rented a car to explore Mull but unfortunately we’d had to pick it up all the way in the Northeast of Mull, to Tobermoray in fact. It wasn’t so much that the distances were long but the roads on Mull are mostly single track with passing places every few yards so the driving speed probably averages something like 25 per hour!
The weather was changeable all day – one minute we were basking in bright sunshine, the next we were being oppressed by black clouds heavy with rain. Google maps estimated the drive time from Fionnphort, Mull’s south west tip, where we’d left the car to the deserted villages of Crakaig in the northwest of the island as 2 hours and 10 minutes for the 52 miles. We ended up with a long day of driving – 7 hours all told. And this was difficult, intense driving with sudden pullouts into the passing places every couple of minutes.
We took the 10:10 ferry from Iona across to Mull and apart from a 50 minute hike I did to see the village of Crakaig we were driving all day. Lunch was just a quick stop in a layby to eat our sandwiches and give the driver 5 minutes’ rest. I’d read about the Highland clearances and two villages, long since deserted, were high on my list of ‘must see’ on Mull. I’ve spent many many vacations exploring ghost towns of South West America, had made the long arduous trip to St Kilda, and now, here was a chance to see two more abandoned villages. I knew that the footpath led behind Reudle schoolhouse, described in my
guidebook as ‘a tall gaunt building. It is now ruined an deserted. Scratched into the plaster of the walls you can still see graffiti of full-rigged sailing ships and the initials of scholars long gone.’ This was a place of my dreams. There are so few buildings in this heather covered landscape! A village might consist of 5 to 10 buildings so when I saw a lone, isolated two storey building on the hillside I presumed this was the schoolhouse. I questioned my judgement for a minute though, since this place was obviously lived in – smoke coming from the chimney, car outside, and it looked newly painted. We back- tracked for a couple of minutes and set off up the steep track. Keith continued while I ran back to the car for my camera and by the time I got back he’d check out the trail. It was
severely water-logged. In fact, much of it looked more like a stream than a trail, so while I set off into the heather Keith settled for a bit of r and r back in the car. Just as on Mull there were no footpath signs anywhere indicating that I was on the correct trail. Occasionally I had to leave the trail to scramble over rocks to avoid the deepest puddles but eventually I was rewarded with a distant view of ruined buildings.
There was no cell phone connection but I’d told Keith to give me 50 minutes before sending out a search party. I did get to Crakaig, but didn’t have time to reach the second village of Glacguagairidh (Hollow of the dark grazings). As many as 200 people once lived
in these houses, surrounding an ash tree from whose branches a villager committed suicide by hanging many years ago. According to my guide book “There have been well substantiated reports of the ghostly sight of a unaccountable dark figure flitting past the doorways of certain houses.” I certainly felt ill at ease, but I put that down to fear of
getting lost and having no cell phone! As coincidences go, the fact that Brian had sent me a map of the track to the villages (which he had no idea I’d planned to visit!) the night before was at least somewhat reassuring, and fortuitous since I’d only had a few minutes of internet service in which to see and download the map!
Our return to Fionnphort was another two hours of difficult driving, exacerbated by endless roadworks and roadside pruning, but Keith put his foot down wherever possible and we caught the next to the last ferry back to Iona, where we found we were the only ones aboard.
We’d booked a table for dinner in the hotel at 6:45 so we had half an hour of r and r before heading into the lovely dining room with wonderful sea views. My butterfly chicken with portobello mushroom and cherry tomatoes was delicious and Keith tried haggis, tatties and nips for the first time, beautifully served in a whiskey sauce.
So, it was now 8 o’clock and we’d finished dinner. There was no TV, no internet, so I couldn’t even listen to the radio, so how should I spend the evening? Well, this being Iona, so go to church, I guess. There’s a service a 9 every evening so ‘the tolling of the iron bell calls the faithful to their prayer.’ I’d not been inside the abbey so far so it was rather splendid to set foot inside by candlelight just as it would have been for the monks. I was quickly shown to a seat in the choir stalls and as I sat I immediately became aware of the music. Someone was playing an improvised version of the first Bach Prelude in C major, and was having quite a few problems with it. This was the piece I had played in Glasgow Central station on my way up to Oban, and I know the piece well. The service began by a not very skillful cantor teaching the congregation two hymns to ‘La.’ This wasn’t what I’d expected at all. People of many nationalities had gathered together in this place which many find highly sacred and somehow I’d expected a high standard of music. In fact, the following day a choir from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, were providing the music. Various readings were spoken, perhaps by members of the clergy but they were not wearing any specific pieces of attire that would distinguish them as such. One reading was an excerpt from George Eliot’s Silas Marner and one was an exhortation written by two 14 year old boys when they were on a religious retreat to the island. Many members of the congregation, which numbered around 40, sat with eyes closed, a beatific expression on their serene faces.I gazed around looking at the strange combination of the original parts of the building and the obvious restoration work. I rather liked the contrast.
The service was short, lasting just 40 minutes and I hung around afterwards taking photos of giant carved tombstones, and through an open door I caught glimpses of the now dark cloisters and decided i needed to come back in daylight hours. By the time I left it was pitch dark, not a single light to be seen anywhere. I was glad of the flashlight on my phone!
I’m watching a group of pied wagtails weaving in and out of the fence close to the lounge window. Beyond them a field of lazily grazing sheep lead my eye to an undulating ocean, more grey than blue.
The half hourly ferry boat comes into view making its crossing from Fionnphort on the far southwest coast of Mull in a matter of five minutes. Last night, when Keith and I travelled on that ferry at 4:30 we were the only passengers but this morning our morning walk just happened to coincide with the arrival of the ferry on Iona and in minutes multicoloured raincoats were bobbing about the slip like brightly coloured row boats on a wavering sea. Within five minutes the group had split into two faction: those heading directly to the abbey, and those eager to fortify themselves in the Martyr’s cafe before heading inland. We stepped into cafe for a moment ourselves, just to see what was on offer for lunch but the long queue and its accompanying noise after our isolated walk was just too much to bear and we settled on a picnic lunch. With sandwiches from Spar and black charcoal cheese from the Low Store with Haggis flavoured crisps we were all set for our picnic chez nous.
Beyond the ferry the white houses of Fionnphort faded into the gathering gloom, and soon too the whole of Mull was ‘obscured by clouds.’
Keith sits beside me, absorbed in a book I’d discovered in the hotel library at breakfast time. Written by a retired landscape archaeologist from UC Berkeley the book documents her six month stay on Iona. I had glanced through it remarking on her strong sense of place, something that I share with her, and soon I found references to The Bay Bridge, Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and even Walnut Creek. It explores her relationship with her father and children as she describes the landscape of Iona. Keith was quick to add it to his ‘must read’ list and later managed to download it so that her could dip into it on our trip whenever the opportunity presented itself. A couple of days later I found Highland Cottage where she had stayed, just across from Iona’s post office.
Our morning walk had taken us south on the island. The feature of Iona that has surprised me most has been the vegetation. I found myself thinking back to the time I came to Skye with my parents. I was 14 years old, and my dad was fascinated by the effect of the warming gulf stream had on the gardens of Skye. Bright red apples added colour to my photos of often grey sky and sea, and I’ve never seen as many fuschias in such as small area. Wild flowers in full bloom edged the entirety of the three miles of paved road on the island, and the two hotel and school share an expansive organic garden stretching from the St Columba to the ferry.
We crossed the island to the West coast to The Bay at the Back of the Ocean. We crossed the machair part of which is now used as a gold course. I’d learned that word recently reading Peter May’s Black Hose trilogy, and now I had bought his latest book I’ll Keep You Safe at Waterstone’s in Oban wanting something local to read. During this year I’ve purchased a Detective Montalbano book in Sicily, Jane Austen’s Persuasion in Bath, Simon Armitage’s The White Stuff in Haworth, Tony Hawks’s Round Ireland with a fridge in Dublin and Halldor Laxness’s Independent People in Iceland. Keith’s friend Cynthia, who had invited me to tea in Bath a couple of weeks ago, had sent me a gift of Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country – a Hebridean journey.
Sitting on the beach at The Back of the Ocean I consumed my picnic elevenses: Haggis flavoured chips and a few swigs from my water bottle from my Donner Party hike! I sat on the brightly coloured pebbles, scattered with brilliant red seaweed and relaxed to the soothing whisper of the green water washing over the pebbles onto the white sand. I
don’t think I’ve ever seen such a colourful array of pebbles. Iona is noted for its green serpentine that is sometimes known as Columba’s tears. Apart from the remnants of fishing creels that were half buried in the shore we were the only people, or evidence of people, visible.
After our picnic lunch and the black cheese, which really WAS totally black, I left Keith to work on his sight reading books I set off to do some more exploring – with the biggest grin on my face. I had always been a family tradition that on every long trip we wrote down our ‘best’ of the trip: best hotel, best meal, funniest saying, worst campsite. Well, Keith’s quote won best quote of the trip. On seeing a lovely shortbread mold mould in one of the Iona gift shops Keith had said, “Why would you want to make shortbread in the shape of a pineapple?” I pointed out that it was, in fact, a Scottish thistle, and next time I saw a live one, perched on a hillside covered in Heather, I drew his attention to it! I also pointed out the Heather.
I headed north again, trying to find the path that hugs the coast but it seemed to keep coming back inland so i gave up and headed for the farthest point north on the island. It was still very foggy, but just as I sat down on the machair to eat my snack in the shelter of a rocky outcrop the clouds parted and for a few seconds the isle of Staffa and other Treshnish islands came into view. I listened to Arvo Pärt’s Fur Alina which seemed to fit the expansiveness of the landscape here. This was the only spot on Iona that I’ve had internet service too, and I chatted briefly to Anna and Sarah to let them know I’d not disappeared off the ‘edge of the world.’ Rachel’s still zooming around Africa, glamping, and viewing endangered white rhinos – not to mention the Victoria Falls.
Later, we checked out the only other hotel on the island, the Argyll, thinking it might be fun to have dinner there, but we both glad that Keith’s friends had recommended the St Columba over the Argyll. It seemed rather dark and cramped compared with the St Columba with its expansive sun lounges and brightly lit dining rooms. We ended up having dinner at the Martyr bar, perched at the very edge of the ocean, where my ‘small’ plate of local mussels, was the biggest serving I’ve ever laid eyes on! Rain streamed down the window as we ate.
It was much warmer this morning. In fact, it was hot and uncomfortably humid. Keith came over to look at my flat and say hello to my host before we headed out for a wander around town. For the first time since I arrived it was warm enough to eat outdoors and we had a lovely lunch overlooking the harbour, watching the boats going by. We walked up the coast to Dunollie castle, stepping in the footsteps of Turner, Walter Scott, Mendelssohn and Wordsworth. The main tower has a commanding view over the whole bay and adjacent islands. Once completely ivy covered the gardeners were hard at work to rid the stonework of this invasive vine.
The location of the castle has been occupied for over 1000 years. The family moved into a ‘modern’ house in the 1740s and there was an interesting collection of kitchen equipment dating for over a century. I recognized many items from my own childhood!
A willow garden, a fairy garden and a display of ‘Viking’ sculpture added to the interest, and a working loom had been restored and was creating family tartan fabric. We had tea and cakes at the tea shop before heading back into town to collect our bags and board the 3:55 ferry. Keith worked out that he hadn’t been on a ferry since a trip to Calais when he was 21. The sun was out and the visibility was superb. The clarity of light, the expansiveness and the bare ness of the landscape reminded Keith of New Mexico. I had recently had a conversation with someone about how these remote Scottish islands have become my substitute for the desert scenery I have reveled in for many years. There are even ghost towns in Mull that are, of course, high on my ‘must see’ list. We had on the deck and I enjoyed a beer brewed in a Mull brewery commemorating the sinking of a galleon from the Spanish Armada that sunk in Tobermory bay!
We walked the 15 minutes to the Mull hotel and spa which is in a wonderful location just along the coat from the ferry terminal at Craignure. It’s an ugly building, probably built in the 1960s, but the quirky things about the facilities and the service had me more amused than upset. We walked down to the ocean where Keith soon made friends with a doggy eager to ‘go fetch’ and I wandered off to take photos of ruined boats. What else?! We had dinner in the restaurant with a view all the way back to the mainland and we both selected seafood which seemed to be the only possibility in
these surroundings. During dinner we planned our itinerary for tomorrow while commenting on the fact that we seemed to be the youngest people in the restaurant, which was very busy with a large tour group. After dinner I wandered along the shore alone for a while watching the moon rise.
An easy day for my last day in Oban before departing for Mull and Iona. Again, a grey day was in store and I decided you explore the shops again. This time I hit the charity stores where I found a blouse and a fun purple waistcoat. I also tried on lots of shoes, well, boots really. I’d seen them in the window the evening before. Now that I live in the north of England boots are a daily requirement for several months rather than an occasional item as they were in Santa Cruz. I really liked them but perhaps they were just too hippy dippy to wear in Santa Cruz. What do you think?
After lunch I spent an hour in the small but very full museum which won the
Queens award for voluntary service in 2011. It paid honour to the service men of the war years.
Back in my flat I packed my bags and made my way down to the train station to await Keith’s arrival on the 7:43, the same train from Glasgow that I’d arrived in 5 days ago. There’d been some problem with the train however, and everyone had to transfer trains so I waited in a very busy Wetherspoons. He’d travelled on 5 trains during his journey from Bath and as soon as he’d checked in at The Perle, right on the waterfront he was ready for dinner and an early night.
If the weather had cooperated I would have been on a 14 hour excursion to the isle of Coll today. I’d never heard of the place until I met someone in a Meetup group who talked about a visit there. However, no boats were going to Coll or Staffa today so all in all I felt very fortunate to have had such a glorious day going to Staffa and Treshnish islands.
I indulged myself in a late start, leaving my flat til 10! I set off to explore the back streets of Oban, heading in the general direction of ‘up’ , intending to go to McCaig’s tower which the Rough Guide poetically describes as ‘the only truly remarkable site in Oban.’ I wandered around residential streets with a variety of houses built through several centuries. When I go on ‘walkabout’ by myself it feels very empowering and exciting. It’s a fairly new experience for me and I like the way it felt in Sicily and Iceland. I’d seen virtually no toursts by themselves since arriving in Oban. Eventually I arrived at the strange edifice, reminiscent of a Roman colosseum except this is circular, not oval. Built by some rich guy in honor of his family a century ago it was never completed. I had the place to myself until a couple emerged from the opposite side, who I quickly commandeered to take my photo. The views must be magnificent on a clear day but the islands were enveloped in thick fog which looked as if it had settled in for the day. But I quite enjoy this kind of weather. It reminds me of growing up in Affetside and it inspired me to take photos of things falling apart, or things that need some tender loving care hmm….. like me?
Returning to town I decided to hit the tourist trail and look in the shops- not something I usually indulge in. I found a fabric store where I purchased a counter cross stitch hedgehog and when I showed the shopkeeper my hedgehog socks he pointed out a bolt of hedgehog covered fabric. Yep! Bought some of that too, along with a Heather embroidery to do. I found a wonderful chocolate shop where I did indulge in a special got chocolate with cream, and a lemon meringue pie. I sat across from an American couple, the first Americans I’d encountered. I made some comment about how delicious their waffles looked but they didnt appear to be in the mood for company. I left them to their discussion of how many steeps their fitbits had recorded. I also bought the new Peter May book I’ll keep you safe, set in Paris but the story is about a fabric designer from the Hebrides.
I returned to my flat to get out of my wet clothes and eat the dressed crab I’d bought at the ferry, and then, donning dry clothes I set off again, following my nose, on a street adjacent to my flat that I hadn’t been down before. It soon had me climbing high again and I found myself on a footpath marked Pulpit Hill. I felt like I’d discovered its very existence. Again, I’d left the tourists far behind and I had a bird’s eye view of the bay. I came back down by a different route, fully satisfied by my ramblings. I completed the day with my first venture into a bar, adjacent to The Perle hotel. Only two couples were in at this early hour and I enjoyed a window seat overlooking the harbour sipping a Blue Moon. My evening’s entertainment was provided by watching an outrageous performance of Grieg’s piano concerto live from the BBC proms. I could not watch the soloist. She put Lang Lang to shame. For the most expressive passages her hair fell completely over her face. It was like watching a spoof of a concert pianist. At least we had fun with it! I tried to text Sarah that I watching it but autocomplete kicked in to say I was watching the ‘grief’ piano concerto. Autocomplete for once got it right!