Episode 29i- Bonnie Scotland Tour Day 10: The Isle of Iona

Today’s tour focus was the ancient and sacred Isle of Iona.

We got an early start to the day, leaving the hotel at 7:30 to arrive on the isle at noon, after 3 ferry rides and 2 overland drives. Those of you who know how very seasick I get will understand that I faced today with great trepidation, but 2 of the 3 crossings were great – let’s leave it at that.

The Corran Ferry took us across Loch Linnhe to Morvan (Mhorbaine). The Mull Ferry took us from Loch Alain (“the loch of the ford of the pool”) to Fishnish, near Craignure. Between those two crossings we travelled through sparsely populated territory: only 1 inhabitant per 7 square miles. This is mostly mining country: aggregate, silica, and Strontium 90 (named for the town of Strontian) – but there is also some forestry, hill farming, and mussel farming in the loch.

Once on Mull, we were in MacLean clan territory, and our proud MacLean driver regaled us with stories about Duart Castle, clan history, and even his experiences as personal driver for Lady Elizabeth MacLean. Our fellow travellers seemed intent on making him park in one of the roadway passing places so they could take a picture of the hairy Highland “coos” grazing the hillsides but, in addition to parking there being illegal…. we had another ferry to catch!

Ferry #3 took us off the isle of Mull and onto the isle of Iona. Our first glimpse of the island combined fishing village with mediaeval abbey. Wow.

On the isle, local resident Janna gave us a guided tour of the ancient Augustinian nunnery ruins and the restored Benedictine abbey, as well as lots of facts about Iona’s history, geology, and the lifestyle of the present-day Iona community of only 150 people.

The island itself dates to pre-fossil times, with the rock on the west side being Gneiss that is over 2 BILLION (2000 million) years old, and the east side around 1 billion years old. There are a huge variety of rocks on the island, but the most famous is green serpentine, believed to be lucky. Iona is also of great religious significance to the Catholic church, since it is where St. Columba came on pilgrimage in AD563 and where his relics were buried. In later years, important leaders wanted to be buried near St. Columbo so that their path to heaven would be sped up by proximity. The graveyard here is called “The Graveyard of Kings” and contains the graves of 42 Scottish clan chiefs and kings, including MacBeth. Sadly, salt air erosion has made the markers unreadable, and others were moved into the abbey for safekeeping, so it’s almost impossible to know who was buried exactly where.

We took lots of pictures of the religious sites, which are Iona’s biggest tourist draw… although the landscape and the freshly caught seafood are pretty enticing too!

The Augustinian nunnery, built in the 1200’s and allowed to fall into ruin after the Reformation in 1560, and our tour group listening to Janna. Naturally, I am taking notes.
Top: St. Oran’s chapel, dating to about 1200. Bottom L to R: MacLeans Cross (aro AD1500); St Martin’s Cross (aro AD 780); St. John’s Cross replica (original is in the Iona museum)
Iona’s Benedictine Abbey, built aro AD 1200 and restored in the 1930’s as a working church
Top to bottom: the abbey’s font of red granite from Mull, with serpentine-veined Iona marble in the pedestals; the sanctuary roof interior supports; the marble tomb of of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll
Top surface and front carving of the serpentine marble altar
The abbey cloisters’ interior square
Details of the cloister pillar decorations
The museum in Iona has a copy of The Book of Kells, also called the Book of Columba. The original dates to around AD800 and was created by Columban monks, possible on Iona, but is now safeguarded in Ireland.

If all of this looks romantic and makes you wish you lived on Iona, keep in mind that:

  • the doctor visits only once per week, the dentist, optician and even hairdresser are a ferry ride away
  • children can attend the primary school on the island (there are 23 students right now) until they are 11 years old, but then they need to board out on Mull for further education
  • there is no real grocery store on the island; fortunately Tesco delivers by ferry, but you need to stock up in the winter (our guide told us she has 3 freezers for a family of 4 with both children boarded out at school during the week)
  • a mobile bank visits once per week
  • the library, donated by Andrew Carnegie, is staffed on Sundays from noon until 12:30 – on other days, get the key from the post office!
  • almost everyone’s income is dependent on tourism, so you need to make enough between March and October to last for the full year; be prepared to have several jobs

On the other hand, winter in a small community can be fun. Hogmannay (new year’s) is a multi-day event involving sharing whisky, food and ceremonial gifts of coal with every other household on the island! AND they have zumba and a winter book club!

Off to Tobermory and Oban tomorrow. Yes, #2 son, we are planning to buy you a bottle of Oban whiskey!


    • Thank you! Just 4 days to go….. plus an entry devoted to the food here…. and the blog will go quiet for a couple of months. Really glad to have you following along!


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