Walk Of The Month: The island of Iona

Tiny, remote and windswept, the island of Iona has a rugged beauty all its own. Mark Rowe retraces the footsteps of St Columba through a landscape imbued with spiritual appeal

St Columba arrived in AD563, and in some ways the island has changed little since. It is only five miles from north to south, and barely two miles across the midriff, but it is still possible to give the crowds that visit its abbey the slip and wander among the small but tough hills that characterise the south of the island. Even at the height of summer, you are unlikely to have much company on the splendid beaches of the north of the island. St Columba's legacy also lives on in the religious tourism- some of it decidedly esoteric - which accounts for a good proportion of Iona's visitors: you will not lack opportunities to indulge in aromatherapy, acupressure or reflexology.

Today, most visitors make the 10-minute ferry trip from Fionnphort, the last community on Mull, across the Sound of Iona, in order to visit the abbey. But even on a day trip you have plenty of time to walk around the island. This is a magical way not only to explore Iona but to take in some of the best views of Mull.

Start at the ferry dock, go up the main street, and turn right by the nunnery. The road swings past the organic gardens of Iona's two main hotels to reach the abbey. The monastery was founded by St Columba, who arrived from Ireland with 12 followers; he recognised the island was convenient for travel to the Irish monasteries and as a base to spread the Christian faith in Scotland and northern England.

In a part of the world with plenty of beautifully located churchyards, the abbey graveyard is one of the most impressive. The graves include the final resting place of John Smith, the former Labour Party leader, who loved Iona. His grave is well-tended and is marked with the epitaph: "An honest man's the noblest work of God". Also in the graveyard are many early Scottish kings, as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France.

Leaving the abbey, continue north, with magnificent views over the Sound of Iona. After about half a mile, turn left through a gate parallel to a large white house with seven dormer windows, known as Bishop's Walk. Tramp across the grass and climb the hill, Dun I, which, at a mighty 101 metres, is Iona's highest point. An Iron Age hill fort dating from 100BC-AD200, you can still see the marks denoting ancient cultivation. There is a path up the lower flanks, but for the final third of the hill there's no clear way among the rocky moonscape and springy grass underfoot.

The peak is marked by a cairn, from which the views are outstanding. I struck lucky: the weather was glorious, with the varying depths of a millpond sea in different shades of turquoise. Gannets arrowed into the sea in pursuit of fish. The waters around Mull and Iona are a sealife playground and, if very lucky, you may even spot a sperm whale.

To the far north, the Cuillins of Skye peak up above the horizon. A little closer is the island of Rhum. To the west lie the thin profiles of Coll and Tiree. The most dramatic views are closer still, of Mull to the east, framed by the cone-shaped peak of Ben More, Mull's highest mountain. Nearer are the spectacular layered flanks of the Ardmeanach peninsula. One of Iona's many enigmatic sites, the Tobar na H-Aoise, or Well of Eternal Youth, is said to lie close to the summit.

Retrace your steps down to the road and bear left towards the north of the island. Go through a farmyard gate and walk to the shore. A pleasant place to stop is the Hill of the Seat, said to be the favourite site of St Columba. Just offshore is the island of Staffa, which is overrun with puffins in the early summer, and whose hexagonal basalt rocks represent the northern end of the Giant's Causeway, which begins back in Northern Ireland. The idyllic location belies a bloodthirsty history: to your right is a beautiful beach known as the White Strand of the Monks, which saw a 10th-century massacre of the island's religious folk by Norse invaders.

Return along the path and shortly after passing the abbey, you reach the island's heritage centre, which is well worth a visit and demonstrates that it wasn't just the island's monks who had it tough: farming, fishing and crafting have always been endeavours here. The centre's shady garden, with its café, is a pleasant stop.

Continue towards the ferry and take a detour into the 13th-century nunnery. Though less visited than the abbey, many visitors find it more fetching, perhaps because it retains many original relics among its ruins (the abbey and monastic buildings were restored more than 100 years ago).

Turn left towards the ferry and then right, passing a row of houses as you head away from the centre of the island. Follow the road for a good half-mile along the coast and continue along the track as it bears right uphill. The road continues for three-quarters of a mile, bisecting the island. Upon reaching a gate, strike out to the left across Iona's small golf course, following a line of water outlets, marked by small slabs. The path then follows the fence on your left as it climbs up through the small hills.

The terrain is almost moorland, and you may well have only yourself and some redstarts for company. You pass Loch Staoineag, a wonderfully brooding, silent, place, on your right and follow the track south, with planks over the boggier parts. Shortly after, the hillocks fall away and you arrive at the top of the greensward, with the natural amphitheatre of St Columba's Bay ahead of you. This is where the saint is said to have landed. It's a pebbly beach, and several cairns have been constructed over the years; one theory holds that they were begun by monks who built them to a size proportionate to the sins they had committed.

The bay is a pleasant place to linger, and it's fairly easy to climb up the hill Dun Laraichean on to Carn cul ri Eirinn - "the hill with its back to Ireland" - which records tell us was the site of a vain effort by St Columba to look back at Ireland.

Your return route is mostly the same. As you drop down on to the golf course, bear left to the coast and the beach known as the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. If you time your visit for low tide and there is a decent swell in the sea, the Spouting Cave puts on a show, gurgling up water high against the cliff.

Go through the gate and head back down the path towards the east coast. About two thirds of the way down, at a crossroads, turn left along a pebbly track. The path takes you, via Maol Farm, back to the nunnery.

With time before my ferry back to Mull, I ordered tea and cake in the pleasant garden of the St Columba Hotel, accompanied by the distinctive chirrup of the corncrake, a rare bird making a comeback in the Hebrides.

Distance: Eight miles

Time: Up to five hours, including stops.

Mark Rowe stayed at The Rowans (01688 302086; salmon lady.com/rowans.html) - a self-catering Victorian cottage overlooking Tobermory Bay on Mull, available from around £400 per week. He travelled to Mull with Virgin Trains (08457 222333; virgin trains.co.uk) which has fares from London to Glasgow Central from £30 return, and ScotRail (08457 550033; first group.com/scotrail) which offers return fares from Glasgow Queen Street to Oban from £16.50. For ferry services to Mull, visit calmac.co.uk.

For more information on Mull and Iona, go to visitscottishheartlands.com.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried