My destination was the tiny island of Iona in the Hebrides, home of the 6th-century saint Columba, who arrived here from Ireland having had an argument over a library book with the king. The place is reputedly a powerful source of peace and spiritual renewal.
Unlike another famous Celt of that time, Saint Hya, who travelled around on a leaf, I had to resort to more mundane methods of transport, which did, however, require saintly patience. Travel by leaf was probably a lot faster and more ecologically sound than the circuitous routes for my journey suggested by several helpful members of the rail enquiry office at Euston station.
I took the sleeper from Euston, an expensive single berth that included useful free toiletries such as a razor and after-shave, and woke up early one morning in the middle of the Highlands, surrounded by mauve mountains and lochs lying like giant silver fish outside my window.
At Crianlarich, while waiting for my next connection (to Oban), I drank strong tea at a little platform cafe with faded travel posters, and waited two hours for a handsome young Scotrail official to arrive with a large key to open the Ladies' lavatory.
The West Highland Line, opened in 1894 (with a free copy of the Window Gazer's Guide for every passenger), branches off westwards through spectacular scenery to the coast. It passes enormous Loch Awe with its little steamer, the ruins of Kilchurn Castle - a Campbell stronghold struck by lightning in the 1700s - and curves round Ben Cruachan. Ferries to the islands sail from Oban, Argyll's main town and harbour - but where was I? A Roman coliseum seemed somewhat disconcertingly to dominate the harbour view. Mr McCaig, 19th-century banker and art critic, decided that the best way to keep unemployed stonemasons busy (and provide a family mausoleum) was to do a bit job creation on a grand scale, hence the granite replica.
Don't visit the Tartan Centre in Oban if you have a headache - everything (chocs, whisky, walking sticks, etc) is covered in tartan packaging. In the serious section upstairs, a computer helps you to discover your Scottish connections, and then you can kit up in the appropriate kilt. Amazing how entangled Japanese and Scottish family trees seem to be. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to discover the correct tartan for the clan McKindberg as I had a CalMac ferry to catch - to Craignure on the island of Mull, the next stage of my journey.
From Craignure I travelled west on an Essbee bus playing melancholy country & western music. All Essbee drivers seemed to be called Hughie. The various Hughies drove at a maximum speed of 20mph, stopping occasionally for a sheep to cross the road. The bus took me to Fionnphort, and from there I sailed a short distance by ferry to the isle of Iona.
The point about Iona is that you can very happily do very little there. The island is three miles long and one and half miles wide, there are no pubs and there's one small hill, called Dun. I spent much time walking about or sitting on silvery beaches, thinking about monks or even nothing at all, eating the odd KitKat and looking out to sea.
St Columba and his monks set up a Celtic Christian community on Iona in AD563, which flourished until the 9th century when the Vikings did horrid things at Martyrs' Bay, now the site of a depressed cafe. The early monastery was rebuilt in the 11th and 16th centuries, ransacked in the Reformation and restored again in the 1930s by the Rev George Macleod, who left his Glasgow parish to set up the Iona Community and rebuild the abbey.
I met some of the Community when I went to a candlelit Friendship Evening in the abbey. Two large people with fluffy chins and sandals played the recorder and guitar and we sang jolly hymns. Afterwards a kind man with several teeth introduced himself as Keith from Watford and brought me a cup of tea. Everybody seemed very happy. Anyone can stay at the abbey, which has bunk beds and is rather cold. Staying there seemed to involve lots of joining in and not complaining. Later I investigated a rival spiritual haven, the Episcopalian Bishop's House, which has comfy beds, a sunny lounge and TV, and realised that my spirtuality is not up to much.
On a calm day you take a boat from Iona to Staffa, sailing past The Island of Women, so called according to the boatman, because St Columba had banished several women there after they had distracted his monks.
Despite looking like something that has boiled over, smelling strongly of fish and being covered in feathers, Staffa inspired Mendelssohn to write "Fingal's Cave" in honour of the black basalt colonnaded cavern in its side. You can do touristy things there such as sit on Fingal's Throne, or look for puffins.
After some time on and around Iona I realised that I felt refreshed and restored. I was ready for anything. Which was just as well, because that night I received a phone call from my daughter, who asked in an aggrieved but conciliatory tone: "When are you coming home? The bath's leaking, giant killer ants have taken over the kitchen, and there are bills to pay ..."
Unfazed I said: "I'm on my way"n
The island is challenging to reach. Taking Glasgow as a starting point, you first have to travel to Oban. Scotrail (0345 484950 for rail information) has three direct Glasgow-Oban services a day, taking about three hours. An adult return costs pounds 22.20. Scottish Citylink (0990 505050) has a number of coach services from Glasgow to Oban, 8.15am and 12.15pm every day except Sundays, 6pm every day and 10am on Sundays only; return fare pounds 16.80.
From Oban you catch a ferry to the island of Mull, which takes 40 mins. Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac, 01475 650100) runs a service every two hours from 10am-6pm. Return tickets cost pounds 45 for a car and pounds 5.40 for an adult. You then drive or catch an Essbee bus to Fionnphort (pounds 2.60 return), where you board another Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Iona for pounds 2.75 return. Cars cannot be taken to Iona, but must be left on Mull.
Oban Tourist Information (01631 563122) runs tours to Iona leaving Oban at 10am daily and returning at 5.40pm. Tickets are pounds 15.Reuse content