After some considerable effort: a car ferry, a one hour drive, and then parking and catching a short pedestrian ferry (no tourists are allowed vehicles on the island) I arrive in the tiny sacred island of Iona… permanent population around 100.
It is very close to the far western end of the island of Mull, but they will never put a bridge across here as the remoteness is part of its charm. The last ferry departs at 6:30pm. After that it’s just the locals and the lucky few guests. I had only booked for one night- that was all I could find online, but then was taken under the wing of the entrepreneurial Grant family, who own everything on the island, and I stayed another two nights.
They run the upmarket B&B, the std B&B, the shop, the tour boats, the restaurant and the bar. So they turn up serving breakfast, in the shop, or behind the bar in the evening. The charming young men in the family skipper the boats for nearby Staffa island, which took some skills on the day I went.
So what’s the deal with Iona? Well 50+ Scottish kings are buried in the cemetery, including McBeth! it has a picturesque abbey, and importantly for us, Ireland’s second most famous saint (after St Patrick), was St Colomba, and he came by boat from Ireland so time ago and bought Christianity to Scotland. There is a bay on the south coast where he landed, and lived… in a cave.
So, what about this O’Donnell saintly connection? Well I was looking at the brochures for Iona and they kept featuring a shield… as all the clans have, and the Iona one looked familiar. Why (I asked myself) does the Iona shield look like the O’Donnell shield? So I googled it, as you do, and lo and behold found that the mighty St Columba was an O’Donnell. No wonder the locals were looking after me. Surely ( I thought) this should entitle me to a front row pew in the abbey, and maybe even a little cushion on those damned uncomfortable wooden seats, if I ever turned up for a service… (which I didn’t)
Clearly the family’s saintliness and general religious outlook has taken a downturn in recent generations and we’re unlikely to spawn another saint…. unless I can find someone to go and live in the cave? There is wifi on the island so maybe Reilly Patrick could give it a go. He’s got the good Irish name for the job.
However, there may be competition for the cave. A collection ( shall we call them) of energy specialists was arriving on the island, gathering at St Columba’s beach where apparently 7 different natural earth ley line energies cross. They were going to enhance the energy/ help the earth/ the world population??? and were camping out there… 4 miles walk out of town across the golf course and some private land. Well I don’t mind a bit of woo-woo as you know, but never got to the bottom of what these guys were actually up to.
Interesting… so you have a mix of people on the island. Standard religious people centred around the abbey and going to church at 9pm every night. Some new age energy healers doing their thing, artists, dead kings, entrepreneurial families, some potential inbred families, Scottish people who had been returning every year for generations, artists, an American girl with a puppet, and the occasional foreigner like myself. An eclectic mix for the bar in the evening.
Anyway, I settled in. I went out to Staffa island with the young Grants. ‘Squally’, is how I’d describe the weather, with ‘a bit of swell’ was how they described it. So I got completely drenched and people threw up…. but not this descendent of St Columba obviously!
I’d gone to see the puffins but unfortunately they’d just left, but the rocks and cave were pretty good too. Apparently very similar to the giants causeway in northern island, so St Columba would have been at home here too.
When I got back from the trip, cold and damp, one of the sisters heated me up a nice hot bowl of soup.
In the evening at the bar there was a selection of whisky to taste. I’m not really a fan of it, but ever polite, did try some. Actually my friend John started my education when I was in Bristol. He said “ whatever you do….don’t have the peaty one… you won’t like it.
So I’m standing at the bar with all available locals and visitors advising on what whiskey I should try. I go with the recommendation which was promised as being non-peaty (but wasn’t ) They took pity when they saw my face and bought me another one…they didn’t know that that was just my standard face when drinking straight-spirits!
So then I had a little line-up of drams at my table which convinced my new friends that they needed some too… and I awoke the next day with a headache (after 2.5 shots!) It must have been the peaty one that caused the problems. Not to worry though – ever thoughtful, one of the sisters whipped me up some porridge!
I enjoyed my time in Iona and was sad to leave.