Starting mileage: 21524 km
Day started: 09:00
Day ended: 22:00
Another early ferry brings us – and a coach-load of Japanese tourists, whom we’ll be meeting in most places on our journey – from Oban to Craignure, a small port on the Isle of Mull. We haven’t had breakfast yet, and there’s a point not far from the harbour which looks promising on the map – Duart Point. There’s a castle icon at the end of it, but there are castles everywhere here, so we don’t make too much of that.
By the time the Duart Castle (Caisteal Dhubhairt) looms out from behind the last bend in the narrow road, I remember the name from the leaflets I had browsed a few days before. Duart is the main castle of Mull, and unlike the dozens of ruined shells dotting the Highland coast, this one is a complete building, restored to living conditions at the beginning of last century by a family of rich aristocrats; but more importantly than that, it’s the home of House MacLean – one of the largest and most important of Highland Clans. The castle rooms are filled with clan memorabilia, from Crimean War swords to World War II guns and Queen Elizabeth’s page uniform, all left by various distinguished members of Clan MacLean. The castle is in the care of Historic Scotland and costs £5.75 pp.
The castle is small and compact; the inside looks like an average-sized manor house of the Upstairs, Downstairs variety, except with battlements and dungeons added into the mix. The exhibition guides you through the story of the Clan and the castle, with some of the usual tacky mannequin-and-sound effects thrown in for good measure (focusing mainly on the story of the Spanish Armada sailors imprisoned in the castle dungeon).
After the Duart detour, it’s time for us to go back onto the main road – the only road on Mull; and while the views are stunning, the road is very much not. Of the hundred or so miles of the road on Mull, only a few are dual carriageway, and with the amount of traffic – especially between the ferry ports and the main attraction of Iona – that means going very, very slow, with lots of stopping on the passing points along the way. The van eats through fuel like a BP oil platform.
Still, the road is fantastic; snaking on the bottom of Glen More, climbing through the mountain passes, then descending onto the rocky shores of Loch Scridain: you couldn’t imagine a better setting.
There is an ear-piercing silence on Mull, even on the main road; rarely interrupted by a gust of wind, or an occasional passing car. The heathers are in full bloom, and the glen slopes glisten with waterfalls and mountain brooks that drop straight into the sea. Herds of sheep and woolly highland cows crowd the road as you approach the few settlements, and surround the car, making the place feel like some kind of livestock Serengeti.
The villages are tiny and far apart, inhabited by cattle farmers, organic growers and artists. The houses grow denser near the Iona ferry, with two actual villages at the very tip of the Ross of Mull. The ferry to Iona is mainly a passenger one, with cars requiring permits to cross – but that’s not much of a problem, as the isle is tiny and easy to walk around.
There is a great sense of community in Scotland, which is a far cry from anything we’ve encountered down south. The farms in England often do the honesty box thing for their surplus produce – but on Mull we found an entire organic farm shop working on the honesty box principle; the campsites work the same way, and there was a honesty cafe on Islay. In England, small coastal islands are owned by millionaire celebrities; in Scotland, they are bought up by the inhabitants, like the Gigha.
Iona is inhabited by a close-knit community of that sort, woven together by religion and common goals: a Christian commune, established in the 1930’s around the ruins of the world-famous abbey of St Columba. And they must be the nicest Christians we’ve ever met. The first thing we’ve noticed about them is that despite this being a Christian community, there were very few signs of overt religiousness on Iona – and most were confined to the actual church and the abbey grounds. The short route from the ferry to the abbey compound – the road every tourist on Iona takes – is dotted with art galleries, cafes, potteries and craft shops, all with products created here on the island; it’s a picture of pre-industrial bliss: a nice lady knits woolen caps that she sells, a focused man works on a piece of silver jewellery for his gallery. A baker bakes the last loaf of bread of the day: the best bread we’ve tasted since leaving London; incidentally, I believe Christians should be known world-wide for their bread – after all, it is the symbol of their God. The ones on Iona bake one that is truly divine.
The community works hard on restoring the abbey and the surrounding buildings; established in the Dark Ages by St Columba, the monastery rose to prominence as the chief sacred site of the Lords of the Isles, and grew from there, to become the most important Christian site in all of Scotland.
The monastery eventually fell to ruin, until another wealthy aristocrat decided to fully restore it (apart from the Nunnery, which is a separate site in complete state of disrepair); as a result, it’s one of the best preserved monasteries in the British Isles, with a roofed church and a lovely cloister; I had bemoaned the fate of the ruined cloisters before, and was delighted to see it in full glory here.
The church – now in a curious state, as its walls are still partially ruined, but it’s fully roofed and ‘in working order’ – and the surrounding chapels are all in use by the Iona community, even though the site is in care of Historic Scotland. Inside the church you’ll find many ways to support the community’s good work, including buying one of the several ribbons they have on sale: red, rainbow and or white (AIDS, Diversity and Peace in Northern Ireland).
The chief treasures of the abbey are not here: they were taken away to Kells, to guard them from the Vikings – including the Book of Kells, which was written at Iona; what remains, however, are the three magnificent standing crosses. One is still in its rightful place, in front of the abbey; the other two are in the museum, replaced by replicas. These are the first Celtic Crosses in history; Iona is where the shape had originated, and the development can be clearly seen in the way the earliest cross retains the shape of arms but without the supporting circle. St. John’s Cross was the first to have this feature, and it was still too big to stand on its own.
The island “closes” around 4pm – this is when all the little shops, galleries and tea rooms shut their door, and the inhabitants all go about their own ways. Some go back to their own houses, others – to affordable homes, being built by the community with the aid of charity; you can support that particular cause by “adopting a brick” on the scheme website.
There’s more to see and do on Iona than just the abbey and the village; the beaches here are made of that particular type of Hebridean sand which seems to glow golden-white even under an overcast sky; ancient rocks crop from under the grass, and if you’re lucky, you can still find pebbles of the famous Iona Greenstone, a semi-precious stone hidden in the marble veins. There’s even a campsite here, although it’s suitable only for backpackers, so we had to go back to the “mainland” of Mull for the night.
Fidden Farm is another campsite hidden among the dunes, right on the sea shore; it has the same drawbacks as Kintra on Islay – no hook-ups, distant facilities – and the same astonishing location, only the beach here is not as wide – instead it’s filled with ancient rocks and pools making it look like the setting of a movie set billions of years ago. One night costs £14 and you can choose to pitch wherever you wish.