Mull, Staffa and Iona - 3 Scottish islands in one day

Thursday, 27th June 1996

I'd decided to stay here in Oban for two nights and to take an all-day "Three Islands" trip, departing on the early morning ferry. It was only a short walk from the guest house to the port, with plenty of time for breakfast before leaving.

Caledonian MacBrayne's "Isle of Mull" arrived and turned around very quickly, only spending about twenty minutes tied up to the dock and departing on time. This was a full-sized seagoing ship which in addition to this short route also travels further west to the islands of Coll and Tiree (about 4 hours away). First of all we headed north out of the bay and past the tip of Kerrera island (which shelters Oban from all but the worst weather), before turning north-west across the Firth of Lorn. Very soon we passed the lighthouse guarding the southern tip of Lismore island, and then approached Mull for the first time with an excellent view of Duart Point and its castle lit up by the sun. From here it was a short run (the entire crossing having taken about forty minutes) across the bay to the ferry port at Craignure.   [Island Map]
Map of Mull and the surrounding islands
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Tobermory town and harbour
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  A fleet of coaches were waiting here to take the various parties onwards: I managed to locate the appropriate one, which turned out to be the only one running this particular trip (with a total of about twenty people). We set off northwards out of the town ("town" used here is a relative term: Tobermory in the north of the island is probably the largest, with most of the others being simply a collection of a few houses and maybe some shops and a pub) and along the main coast road. Along here and throughout the trip, the driver gave us an excellent commentary on the sights to be seen and some interesting insights into island life.

Here is the sort of place where one could get away from it all and still retain some trappings of civilisation: although there is much tourist traffic at this time of year, the island is quiet and isolated in the winter (which, however, are not particularly cold - the Gulf Stream reaches even to here! - although it is often very windy on the seaward coast). Mull and its outlying islands together have a population somewhat less than a thousand, but there is apparently no shortage of employment: in addition to conducting coach trips in the summer, our driver breeds angora rabbits for a living (collecting and selling their wool), and is also a part-time coastguard and worked as a truck driver for the water pipeline project. Vehicle ferries run from Tobermory and Craignure to the mainland, with a passenger ferry from Ardtornish Point across to Lochaline; there is also a small landing strip near Salen for light aircraft. Obviously, anything needed from outside has to be brought over on the ferry; the island has some primary schools (secondary pupils travel to boarding schools on the mainland) and limited medical facilities (urgent cases are taken to the mainland either by lifeboat or by helicopter).

The island's main products are fish and timber, as well as the inevitable cattle and sheep (which are kept mainly for mutton - the wool that these hardy breeds produce is too coarse for clothing and is really only useful for carpets).

We continued northwest along the coast road, with the Sound of Mull (roughly two miles wide) on our right and the mainland clearly visible. This part of the island is fairly flat, with pine forests reaching up to the mountains inland, and with small villages spread out along the road. At the Salen junction we turned left and the scenery began to change: as we headed towards the west coast the forests gave way to peat moors (still widely used for fuel) with isolated farms and houses the only signs of life. Emerging onto the coast again at the head of Loch na Keal, we turned right along its northern shore and followed the road (which was becoming increasingly narrow and steep!) to finally end up at the landing stage just opposite Ulva island, only a hundred yards or so across the water.

Ulva is inhabited (although it has no main roads), and a ferry boat crosses from here to the island. We didn't do that, but instead boarded the "Hoy Lass" (a small twin-engined workboat, thankfully with an enclosed cabin) and set off southwards past the island and into the open sea. The boatman again gave us an interesting commentary as we passed Eorsa island (mainly flat, but with high cliffs at its seaward end; German VIPs were interned here during WW II) and Little Colonsay (now a bird sanctuary). Inch Kenneth to the south (with its old monastic settlements) is linked to the land by a line of broken rocks fallen from the unstable Gribun cliffs above: it is said that the bodies of an 18thc couple, whose cottage was crushed by a falling boulder on their wedding night, still lie here...

Ahead was Staffa, our next destination; beyond that, the three Treshnish Isles could be seen, with Tiree and Coll just visible in the distance.

Staffa island is formed out of hexagonal basalt pillars (similar to the Giant's Causeway) with a crown of broken rocks and soil. It has never been inhabited, apart from the occasional hermit, and is now owned by the NT and kept as a nature reserve: there are no natural harbours and the only man-made constructions are the landing stage and the walkway leading to the cave. We approached it from the south - having taken some fifty minutes to get here from Ulva - so as to get as close as possible to the island's main attraction, the black hole of Fingal's Cave set into the cliffs. The cave is named after Finn MacCool, a legendary Irish hero, and gets a mention in Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides Overture' (he was apparently an avid traveller, although visiting the island must have been far more difficult in his time!). It also features in the film "When Eight Bells Toll", where Calvert can be seen firing a flare into the cave.   [Fingal's Cave]
Fingal's Cave from the sea
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[Inside the cave]
Inside the cave
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  After sailing back and forth past the cave several times - mainly to give everybody time to take photographs, although also to kill time until the tide had risen sufficiently - the boatman brought us up to the landing stage. This was a very skilled operation given the state of the sea and the wind, and the rocks that we had to squeeze past! - but we arrived there safely, and everybody left the boat to explore the island for an hour or so.

There are only two ways to go from here, the first of these being a narrow walkway (thoughtfully provided with a wire handrail) across the tops of the columns to the mouth of the cave. It was even more spectacular to stand here with the roof high above and the sea rushing in and out just below: naturally, since the rock is black the interior of the cave is dark and forbidding. The walkway continues a short way into the cave (but not quite as far as the back wall, some 230 feet from the entrance); looking back outwards, Iona island (our next destination) was clearly framed in the opening.


After visiting the cave I returned to the landing stage and climbed up the steps to the top of the island, covered in grass but with nothing larger than a gorse bush growing. There are seabird colonies among the cliffs to the north, but there was no time to go all the way there and back; instead I watched as the boat returned to the landing stage (a slightly easier operation this time, as the tide had risen further) and then we set off southwards on the next stage of our journey.   [Boat at Staffa]
Eight miles out into the Atlantic, in this?
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Iona island is separated from the western tip of the Ross of Mull by a mile or so of sea: it is mostly flat and green, with hills rising to some 330 feet in the north, and - unusually for these parts - has beaches with fine silver sand. Its first religious settlement was founded in the 6thc by St.Columba, an Irish monk who went on to establish a series of similar communities throughout Scotland and northern England. This initially flourished (the famous Book of Kells was probably written here in the mid-8thc, and many crosses and monuments remain from this period), but after Viking raids in the late 8thc most of the community returned to Ireland. Some devoted monks and hermits remained, but in the early 13thc the present Benedictine abbey was established under the patronage of the powerful MacDonald clan, the Lords of the Isles. After the Lordship was forfeited in the 15thc, the abbey was caught up in the religious turmoil of the time and gradually declined; by Victorian times the buildings were ruined and the community had again been dispersed. Tourist travel to the islands reawakened interest: the buildings were restored in the early 20thc, and in 1938 the current Iona Community was founded (an offshoot of the Church of Scotland) who now hold the buildings in trust; the remainder of the island is owned by the Scottish NT. It has a permanent population of about 100.


[Iona Abbey]
Iona abbey, looking over the Sound of Mull
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  We passed through the Sound of Iona to the island's only village, on the eastern shore facing the Ross of Mull, and tied up to the pier - the crossing from Staffa having taken about forty minutes. Here we finally left the boat, having about 1½ hours to explore the island before catching the ferry back.

I set off along the island's only main road through the village, first passing the ruined nunnery (dating from the same period as the Benedictine abbey) and the present parish church with the 15thc Maclean's Cross still standing in front of it. This is almost at the edge of the village: a short way further on is the abbey and its grounds.


Two 8thc crosses stand in front of the abbey buildings. St.Martin's Cross is the original, still standing in its granite base, but the spectacular St.John's Cross (with a 2¼ metre span, the largest of any such cross in Britain or Ireland) has been moved to the abbey museum and a concrete replica now stands here. The local stone is unsuitable for carving such monuments (even with the typical Celtic reinforcing rings), and the raw material for both these crosses was apparently brought over from the mainland.

From the crossroads in front of the abbey, the medieval paved Road of the Dead led to St.Oran's Chapel and its burial ground. Legend has it that ancient Scottish, Irish and Norse kings are buried here, but there is no evidence to support that and the earliest tombs here are those of various lords and clan chiefs from the 15thc. In modern times the burial ground has been used exclusively for island residents and members of the religious community: special provision was made for John Smith, buried here in 1994.


From left to right: Maclean's Cross, St.John's Cross (replica), St.Martin's Cross
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[Iona village]
Iona village and harbour
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  After exploring the abbey, its museum and the burial ground, it was time to return to the village and catch the ferry back to Mull. Caledonian McBrayne again, of course: the "Loch Buie" runs a regular passenger and vehicle service, although permission is required to take any motor vehicle across to Iona which is normally only granted to permanent residents. This took some ten minutes to cross to Fionnaphort (pronounced "Finafore" to rhyme with "pinafore"), the end of the main (and only!) road along the Ross of Mull where our coach was waiting.

From here back to the east coast is probably the longest journey that can be made on the island, nearly forty miles. The first village that we passed through after leaving the port was Bunessan, at the head of Loch na Lathaich. In the 19thc a lady living here wrote a number of hymn tunes: one of them, named after the village, is probably better known nowadays as "Morning has Broken". From here the road followed the southern shore of Loch Scridain, where we stopped to watch seals resting on the rocks. The Ardmeanach peninsula to the north rises some 1600 feet out of the sea in huge steps; along its southern shore, McCulloch's Tree, a fossil some forty feet high and fifty million years old, looks out southwards over the loch.

Halfway along the road we came to the junction at Kinloch: normally this means "head of the loch" and is always associated with the name of a loch, but here it suffices as a name alone. After leaving the sea here we followed the Coladoir river through Glen More, passing between Ben More (the island's highest mountain, 3171 ft) to the north and Ben Buie (2354 ft) to the south. This road is fairly recent, but it follows an older military road constructed in the 17thc and in use until the mid-20thc; we followed some long stretches of this old road, with its many stone bridges still standing. As we passed the "Three Lochs" (Loch Airdeglais, Loch Sguabain and a small unnamed one) the driver told us the local legend of Ewan-of-the-Small-Head (follow the link for the full story).

Almost at our journey's end, we passed through the tiny village of Lochdon - with its own post office, apparently due to local demand, in a hut somewhat smaller than a garden shed - and then the two castles on the eastern tip of the island, Torosay with its private railway connecting it to the port and Duart on the headland overlooking the firth. Unfortunately there was no time to visit either of these (but they will definitely be worth a repeat visit some time). Finally we reached Craignure and left the coach for the last time, to board the "Isle of Mull" again for the journey back to the mainland.

The journey back again took about forty minutes, arriving at Oban late in the evening where it was time for a very welcome meal - there having been no other opportunities to eat on the trip, although packed lunches were being sold on the ferry this morning. And I really should have got one...

The weather is always unpredictable in this part of the world: today started off rather dull, but it cleared up on the island although the sun didn't really come out until late in the afternoon. It was windy at sea, which made the small boat rather bumpy, although it (and the passengers!) handled the conditions well.

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