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The Holy Isle of Iona

Iona Abbey Photo, Isle of Iona, Scotland

The day dawned misty but bright and it would prove to be a clear cloudless sky by midday, a glorious day for our road trip. The breeze had a bit of a chill in it but it was a great day for weather and we had a really lovely trip.

Iain picked us up at 7:30 promptly and we set off on the scenic route to Oban with a view to catching the ferry at noon. We followed the winding roads around Long Loch and Loch Fyne. Iain’s wife, Ellen, packed a picnic (though she hadn’t come along for the ride) and we stopped at Arrochar for a bite and a stretch in the early morning. The mist was still laying over the water and the mountains were reaching up through it to what would eventually be a peacock blue sky. The waters in the lochs along the way were still as glass and reflected the spectacular hills like a mirror.

Iain kindly stopped in the car park of Inverary Castle for me to take a photo. This is the home of the Dukes of Argyle. We continued through the road rising up into the hills and the views were spectacular. We arrived in the town of Oban in plenty of time for the ferry.

Oban looked like a nice little town. On a hill overlooking it is a circular structure called McCraig’s Folly which was built in the Victorian era as a "make work" project. It was fashioned after the Coliseum in Rome but never finished. This is MacDougal country and there are ruins of their castle just at the edge of Oban harbour – we had a good view of it from the ferry. The ferry takes about 40 minutes to sail to Mull and there are also good views of Duart Castle on Mull. This would be the ancestral seat of the Clan McLean.

Our ultimate destination is the holy Isle of Iona and we headed straight out to Fionnport, where you get the pedestrian ferry to the tiny island. The road there is single track with side lay-bys to let oncoming traffic pass. The only vehicles that are allowed on the island are service vehicles or residents’ vehicles. It’s only a 10 minute sail across the narrow strait.

When we arrived in Fionnport, a small village with a general store/post office and a small craft store for the tourists, the thing that really surprised me was the colour of the sea. It was astonishingly blue, that bright peacock blue! There are sandy beaches and rock formations along the shore and alongside the pier and it looked for all the world like a scene out of Turkey, Greece or southern Italy, not the north Atlantic coast of Scotland.

St. Columba founded the Abbey on Iona in 563 and it turned into the cradle of Christianity in Europe. Over 3 dozen ancient kings of Scotland are said to be buried in the old cemetery, some graves little more than a rise in the ground with a small stone the size of a man’s hand wedged into the ground at one end. There are also some modern graves here including that of political former UK Labour Party leader, John Smith.

The village of Iona is tiny. There’s a small hotel and a few Bed and Breakfast establishments, a restaurant and a bar and a few small shops. It’s still very much a religious mecca of sorts as well. The island is only a few miles long with some high hills in the center and several flocks of sheep to be seen, one we encountered in a field beside the Abbey.

It feels a bit like you’ve stepped back in time on the island. It has that aura of tranquility and peace, a more humane pace of life than in the city for sure. We were enchanted! We headed off towards the Abbey down a lane that passed in front of a row of houses. On the sea side of the little track back yards and gardens, fenced or hedged off from the road. They seemed to belong to the individual houses because they contained things like children’s toys, flower beds, and in one, a wrecked shell of a boat.

I passed one where there was a group of about 3 or 4 women sitting on the grass having their afternoon tea. Behind them on a little rise was a white porcelain tea set, complete with cream and sugar bowl. And why should we not still have tea parties outside just because we’re grown up! They looked so "together" sitting there in the warm sun on the grass that gently inclined down to the jewel-like sea.

We continued on and discovered we were on the wrong path to the Abbey. We hit a dead end with a fenced in meadow full of sheep. Still, the barbed wire came with a cloth over it so we figured others had passed this way and we struggled gingerly over the fence rather than walk all the way back and around. Navigating the meadow was tricky. The sheep weren’t the problem. But the ground was riddled with.. well let’s just say it was safer to look down and watch where you walked.

Anyway we came to the Abbey grounds. There’s a small fee that goes towards the ongoing restoration of the Abbey and out buildings which was began about 40 years ago. Prior to that the Abbey was in ruins. The oldest building on the site is St. Oran’s Chapel and there’s also a little shrine dedicated to St. Columba. There are two lovely tall Celtic crosses standing tall outside the Abbey as well.

We went into the Abbey which is very peaceful. It was brightly lit from the sun streaming in the back windows. There is a tomb of an old Duke of Argyle off to one side and a little place to light candles and have a quiet prayer. We walked round the cloisters which captured the sun and shut out the breeze. There is a little gift shop at one end and I had a quick look and spied bottles of various sizes of a cream liqueur called Columba’s Cream. The clerk offered a sample and after trying it, I bought a small bottle. Cream, honey and whisky. No additives or chemicals and you can taste all three ingredients which are blended together formulating the most extraordinary liquid that ever passed your lips!

On the walk back to the ferry pier, after a quick look in the other gift shop, I took photos of the ruins of a 12th century nunnery and then a few more down on the sandy beach.

We headed back to catch the 5 o’clock ferry. Mull is very desolate with very few houses scattered along the road and just a couple of small villages on this side of the island at least. The low mountains are nearly treeless and barren, covered with heather, or so it looked like, which will bloom by summer and put a bit more colour it their cheeks, so to speak. The highest peak on Mull is Ben Mohr, about 3500 feet.

We headed north on the mainland along the A85. We drove into the southwest highlands and pulled off the road by a hill surrounded-cove at Taynuilt to have the last of our picnic feast including a lovely bottle of Iain’s favourite wine, Soave. We passed Loch Awe where there are ruins of Kilchurn Castle and where there was a sign pointing the way to the turnoff to what Iain said was a small stone bridge across the Lock with the utterly delightful name "Bridge of Awe". We turned onto the A82 which eventually takes you past the side of Loch Lomond. At 22 miles long, it’s the largest fresh water loch in Britain.

We finally got back to the hotel about 8:30. We were absolutely clattered and we only sat in the car. Iain must have been exhausted doing all that driving though he didn’t let on too much. He was very much looking forward to getting home and relaxing with a few glasses of Soave. Hugs and good byes imparted and he was off home.

We had such a brilliant day, so many laughs and Iain was a font of trivia, history and geography along our routes taken. Chris and I both fell in love with Iona, Chris being positive he could live there happily.

Chris and I were going to go upstairs to try out that liqueur but discovered that, in spite of our lovely snacks that we had, we were starving so we nipped around the corner to the pub and ordered burgers. Back to the hotel, we had a couple of nightcaps, testing out the Columba Cream and reliving our day.

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