Isles of Mull & Iona

Touring by campervan is an amazing way to see the world and it's an especially great way to stretch the travel budget. This was especially true for us when Mady and I decided we wanted to tour the UK. We had previously enjoyed a shorter Spring Break trip to Ireland and we knew that there was so much more to explore. We had thoroughly enjoyed our campervan experience in Iceland and were confident in our ability to travel together in tight conditions. We also recognized the financial benefits of combining transportation and lodgings. We're both pretty tight with our pennies and are always looking for ways to get more travel for our dollar.


Our chariot for this trip was solid, reliable, and painted with zebra stripes and a rather evil glare. We were incredibly noticeable, much to the delight of many children we had passed along the way. We smiled and waved like parade princesses as we passed through towns. Our Zedbra Van had chugged along narrow and dodgy back country roads for a couple of weeks and we were ready to park the beast in Oban and let someone else do the driving for a day, so we signed up for a coach ride.

The Isle of Mull and its smaller neighbour, the Isle of Iona are part of the Inner Hebrides island group on the west coast of Scotland. This stretch of islands is located on the Gulf Stream and enjoys a surprisingly mild climate. The main industries on the islands are tourism, crofting, whiskey distilling, and fishing. There are many areas of particular significance in history and literature. Mady (with a degree in medieval English literature) was all a-tingle at the thought of visiting Iona Abbey. Iona is where the Book of Kells was created. Due to frequent attacks, the book was taken to Kells in Ireland for safe-keeping and can be seen today in the Trinity University Library in Dublin.

From Oban Harbour we caught our first ferry of the day to Craignure on the Isle of Mull. As we approached the harbour, we had a wonderful view of Duart Castle from the deck of the ferry. Our bus tour was labelled as being to Mull and Iona but, in reality, we only saw Mull from the bus or at the port waiting to board the ferry. We did enjoy the lovely drive as we crossed the island to Fionnphort for our second ferry to take us to Iona.


We then took a short 5 minute ferry to the tiny island of Iona. We were quite impressed with the Mediterranean blue of the water. Another tour could have taken us to visit the uninhabited Isle of Staffa, home of Fingal's Cave and some spectacular basalt formations. This is the Scottish side of Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway.


Iona is the home of the St. Columba Abbey, the birthplace of Christianity, learning, crafting, and architecture in Britain. The only cars on the island are there by special permit. The community was first established in 563 AD when St. Columba and 12 others arrived from Ireland. It is said that this is where the Book of Kells was created. After a Viking raid a couple of hundred years later, there is little remaining of that original settlement. It was after this raid that the Book of Kells was taken to Ireland.


The island has just over 100 permanent residents, who mainly work to support tourism, traditional farming and crafting. There are also residential centers for religious retreats operating on the island. There is a little village with shops, restaurants, and lodgings huddled around the port and all the sites are within easy walking distance. The only vehicles on the island are owned by permanent residents by special permission.

The little craft shops and beautiful gardens were delightful. The freesia hedgerows along the roadways were stunning.


The first set of ruins we encountered were those of the former Nunnery. The beautiful stone and architecture along with the beautiful warm day, made conditions perfect for exploring the ruins of the Nunnery. Both the Benedictine Abbey and the Augustine convent established in the early 1200s.


Much of the Nunnery ruins date from the 14th century. Like the abbey, it was used until the Reformation. Even though it had fallen into disrepair, the grounds continued to be used as a women's burial place for many years. The garden in what was once the cloister is a particularly tranquil place and we lingered here to enjoy a picnic lunch of sandwiches while we soaked up the sunshine and spirituality. I appreciated the subtle signage and discrete labelling which allowed me to learn information but did not dominate. It was also very handy having Mady nearby to fill in the religious background.


After visiting the nunnery, we walked to the Abbey. The Columban community managed to survive and continue through several Viking attacks and eventually, around 1200, a community of Benedictine monks was founded on the site by Reginald, son of Somerled, ‘King of the Isles’. The Abbey remained an important place of worship and pilgrimage until the Reformation in the mid 1500s, when monastic life came to an end and the Abbey largely fell into disuse.

The Abbey experienced a short-lived resurgence when Charles I reintroduced bishops to the Scottish Church and made Iona the seat of the Bishop of the Isles. But it didn't take long before bishops were once again abolished and the abbey continued its decline. Restoration began in the early 1900s and continues to be an important focus of the Scottish government.


The replica of St. Michael's Cross is in front of the St. Columba's shrine and is located so that the late afternoon shadow falls directly onto the St. Columba's Shrine. Iona is home to four "high crosses. These "Celtic" crosses were a way of comforting and encouraging pagans to convert by combining the sacred circle symbols with the Christian cross.




We were blessed with a fabulous Scottish summer day full of bright sunshine in which to explore much of the little island. The island itself is beautiful, experiencing much milder weather than mainland Scotland. As a non-religious person, I found the experience of visiting here subtly different from that of any other island. There is a strong sense of spirituality and mysticism evident even to those of no Christian faith.

 

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