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.

News
people
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Arts and Entertainment
music
News
news

Sport
football

Follow the latest news and score as Chelsea take on Maribor at Stamford Bridge.

Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind"

PROMOTED VIDEO
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

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album