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
Sunday 04 June 2006
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.
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