Hebrides: Island 16 of 51: Isle of Iona

Isle of Iona: Population 177 (2011), Mull Group, Inner Hebrides
Isle of Mull: Population 2990 (2011), Inner Hebrides (3rd visit)


As with my last blog, today’s trip to Iona was on a tour organised by Caledonian MacBrayne from Oban.

Mull continued to tease and torment me with it’s changeable weather, which seems to be a recurring theme throughout this project!

The forecast right up until the night before the visit was “sunny spells and light cloud” for western Mull and Iona.
I woke at 5am to heavy rain, left around 6am and drove through Glasgow and north along the shores of Loch Lomond towards Oban in a constant downpour.
“Iona has it’s own micro climate and the weather here on the mainland is usually nothing like what it is out on the island” I overheard a tour operator calmly reassure a visitor at the Oban ferry terminal before we sailed…

We boarded the MV Isle of Mull and made straight for the restaurant.  The early start had meant no breakfast and with it being a non-stop tour the prospect of nothing else to eat until at least 6pm when we returned to the mainland, meant food was needed!

After a hearty breakfast I headed out on deck to see if I could grab some shots through the rain, but, the visibility was so poor I could hardly make out the mainland so I decided instead to head back inside and attempt whatever the opposite of a rain-dance is!

It didn’t work.

We still had some light drizzle when we arrived at Craignure and made our way off the ferry towards the bus stops and onto the coach for the next leg of the trip.
We handed over our tickets for the journey and settled down for the 1hr trip across the Ross of Mull to Fionnphort and the ferry to Iona.

Iona, or to use its Gaelic name, “I Chaluim Cille” (Iona of Saint Columba), lies just 10 minutes from Fionnphort at the end of the Ross of Mull.

insta_3W2A0146(above: The ferry at Iona, with Mull in the background)

Iona is a beautiful island; just 4 miles long by 1 mile wide, and steeped in history.

If you read my first Hebrides blog (Gigha – blog 1) you’ll have read that Columba, an Irish monk, established a monastery here around 563AD after being exiled from his native land as a result of his involvement in the battle of Cúl Dreimhne (Battle of the Book), thought to be one of the earliest conflicts over copyright theft in history.
In short: Columba copied a manuscript with the intention of keeping the copy – but the original manuscript’s owner, Saint Finnian, argued that as he owned the original, he also owned the copy.   When King Diarmait ruled in favour of Saint Finnian – “to every cow belongs her calf; therefore to every book belongs it’s copy” – Columba started a rebelion against the king, which resulted in more than 3000 casualties, and ultimately to Columba’s exile from Ireland. (who said copyright isn’t important!?).

Once part of the ancient kingdom of “Dal Riata”, then part of the Norse “Kingdom of the Isles”, before being restored to the Kingdom of Scotland in 1266, Iona has enjoyed / endured many cultural influences over the years.  It has held many names: Ioua, Hii, Eoa, I Cholaim Cille, Hi, Eo, Ioua Insula, as well as the modern, Iona.

insta_3W2A0151(above: the view north towards the Abbey from the ferry port)
insta_IMG_9731(above: the same view, on a previous visit – in better weather!)

From the ferry port we wandered west, past the post office and turned right into the remains of the old Nunnery, before continuing north past the Heritage Centre to the Abbey and the ancient burial ground of Rèilig Odhrain.  This burial site is believed to contain the remains of 48 Scottish Kings, 8 Norwegian Kings and 4 Kings from Ireland.
Probably most notable are the graves of the real MacBeth, Duncan and Malcolm.

Sadly the precise locations of these graves have been lost in time as the inscriptions have been worn away by the elements, but, these royal graves, together with those of several saints and at least one modern day politician make Rèilig Odhrain an important historical site.


I’d visited the Abbey on a previous trip (well worth a visit if you’re on your first trip to the island) so decided to walk further afield and continued past the Abbey and out towards the northern tip of the island.

insta_IMG_9650(above: the tomb of the 8th Duke of Argyll and his wife, from a previous visit)

We passed the path to Dun I, an ancient hill fort on top of the highest point on the island, and continued north to the beautiful beach of Traigh an t-Suidhe (Beach of the seat), a beautiful beach with views north towards Staffa and the Treshnish isles.

insta_3W2A0208(above: the Isle of Staffa on the horizon as seen from Iona)
insta_3W2A0214(the beach at Traigh an t-Suidhe, with Dun I in the background)

I spent some time at the beach, shooting video mainly, then after a while made my way back to the ferry port for the return trip over to Mull.

The weather had improved somewhat for the return trip to Craignure, so I used the trip back through Glen More to do some location scouting for my next visit to Mull, which hopefully will be in the next few weeks.

Once on board the ferry we had time for an overdue cold beer before we arrived back in Oban and set off once more on the 120 mile drive home.

I still have another 2 satellite islands to do in the Mull group, possibly 3 if I decide to include Lunga which, like Staffa, is uninhabited but seriously photogenic, so I’ll definitely need to return to Mull at least another once, twice if I include Lunga.

Hopefully the weather will have improved by then!

Hebrides: Islands 14 & 15 of 51: Isles of Ulva and Staffa

Isle of Ulva: Population: 11 (2011), Mull Group, Inner Hebrides
Isle of Staffa: Population: zero, Mull Group, Inner Hebrides
Isle of Mull (2nd visit): Population: 2990 (2011), Inner Hebrides


I spoiled myself today and handed all transport concerns over to Caledonian MacBrayne and their affiliate Turus Mara, a Mull based tour operator, and had a great day just relaxing, walking, sailing and photographing.

My day started with a pre-breakfast departure from a hotel on the banks of Loch Craignish in Argyll and a 30 minute drive north to the town of Oban to catch the 09.50 sailing to Craignure on Mull.

Unlike my previous visit to Mull (Blog island 7) the weather was perfect for walking and photography.  More importantly, it was perfect for landing on the isle of Staffa as landing here is very dependent upon weather conditions, so it was with some optimism that I boarded the MV Isle of Mull and we sailed out past Kerrera and the southern tip of Lismore and on towards Craignure and the isle of Mull.

insta_3W2A9759(above: The Sound of Kerrera, with the mainland to the left, Kerrera on the right)

I arrived on Mull and walked out to the bus stops where several tour coaches were waiting, found the mini-bus with “Turus Mara” written on the side, and jumped on board for the trip north to Salen then out westwards towards Ulva ferry, along the northern shore of Loch na Keal and with stunning views across to Ben More, Mull’s only Munro mountain at 3169ft.

It’s not very far from Ulva Ferry to Ulva and they have a great system for crossing.  When you arrive on the Mull side, you slide a small wooden marker over to reveal a red background.  The ferryman will see this red marker (sooner or later) and set off across the water.  As soon as you see he’s on his way, you slide the marker back to white and wait for the ferry to arrive.  It takes maybe 2-3 minutes to cross.

insta_3W2A9794(above: looking across to Ulva from Mull)

It was an interesting crossing: there were only 3 passengers (including me) and the other two were there to try to spot otters and white tailed sea eagles.  The ferry man pointed to his life-belt and some clear “evidence” of a recent visit by some wild-life and explained that every night when he moors the ferry an otter and her cub climb on board and mark it as theirs!  He found it ironic that people were paying a small fortune to visit the island in the hope of seeing otters at a distance and here was him trying lots of different schemes to keep them away!  His latest scheme, a bottle of “cat and dog repellent”, was at best useless so every morning he still has to clean otter… evidence… from his boat!

Once on Ulva, the first stop is the Boathouse, a seafood restaurant which sits next to the ferry jetty and which also serves as ticket office for the ferry.  As I’d pre-booked my trip through Caledonian MacBrayne, I just had to show my ticket and pick up a complimentary map and guide to the island before setting off to explore Ulva.


Initially, I’d hoped to trek out to the island of Gometra (population: 1) but it’s a 5 mile walk each way and I only had 2hrs so couldn’t complete the trip before I had to be back on Mull for the next sailing to Staffa, so instead I decided to go visit the Thomas Telford church then follow a well defined path around Coille a’ Mhinisteir, before returning again to the ferry port in time for some lunch at the Boathouse then the ferry back across to Mull for the Staffa sailing.

I found Ulva quite a poignant, almost sad, place.   There are signs everywhere that a thriving community once lived here, but, is long gone.

At it’s peak (in 1841), the island – together with nearby Gometra – was home to 859 men, women and children, spread over 16 villages.  There were craftsmen, farmers, fishermen, musicians, boat builders, tailors, weavers and merchants.

When the potato blight devastated harvests across Europe in the late 1840’s the island’s owner, a Francis William Clark, began a particularly brutal clearance policy because, in his own words, he was left with “too many unoccupied tenants”.
What followed was a harsh and cruel eviction from lands that generations of families had lived on for almost 900 years… there are accounts of entire households being evicted, with no warning, when their homes were set on fire and they were turned out into the night.

Most of the residents left for other parts of Scotland, or went abroad to Australia, New Zealand or North America, but the saddest story is that of the residents of Aird Glass. These poor souls could find nowhere else to go as they were old, frail, or disabled, so they were gathered together and left to eke out a meager existence scavenging seaweed and shellfish on the shores below their cottages.
Aird Glass Point still has its row of roofless cottages; bare now and stripped of all belongings and the stone walls and empty windows still stare north out over Loch Tuath. Were the residents to return, they’d no doubt recognise their former homes as nothing much has changed, except the name…  it is now known as “Starvation Point”.
I don’t think any further explanation is needed.

From the boathouse, I walked over to Sheila’s Cottage, a reconstructed traditional thatched cottage, which now acts as a visitor centre.


After some time reading about the history of the island, I set off towards the church.
I’d really hoped to visit some of the ruined villages on this trip, in particular the cottages at Starvation Point, but, as I didn’t have time to explore far from the ferry port, the church served as a good illustration of just how many people have been forced from this island over the years.  Built in 1828, the church has the capacity to hold more than 300.  A stark reminder of just how many people were torn from this community.  The current population is just 11.

insta_3W2A9840(above: the church, Ulva)

After a walk around the church (inside and out), I left some money in the donations box and headed back out to continue exploring the island.  The weather had changed a little and there were now a lot more clouds in the sky so I was keen to make the most of the dry weather, just in case it decided to rain!

From the church I followed a steep path through some trees and out on to a bare hillside, clearly weather beaten with trees stunted and permanently twisted and bent by the prevailing wind, it’s clear to see that this island isn’t always as mild as it was today.


I followed a path which climbed above the woods then followed the line of the trees until it dipped once more into hollow where a wider path followed the line of a stream back down towards the coast.  There was once a quarry further up the road and the remains of buildings could still be seen next to the stream.

I paused by a small pond which had formed behind a dam in the stream to grab some shots and a much needed mouthful of water (from a bottle, not the pond!)


From here it was a short walk back down through the woods to the coast and a well needed bite of lunch.

The Boathouse was very busy when I arrived, with all the outside seating full, so I headed inside and ordered something to eat.  The food was lovely and I’d definitely recommend you pay a visit if you’re over on the island.

After lunch, and with the weather improving again, I paused to take some photos at the jetty until I noticed the Turus Mara boat returning from it’s morning sail to Staffa.
With just around 15 minutes until the next sailing I caught the ferry across to Mull and made my way to the queue for the next leg of my journey.

(above: The Staffa boat returning along the Sound of Ulva, with Ben More behind)

Now, I know I’ve said several times since starting this project that I was trying to visit all the permanently inhabited Hebridean islands, and I’m sure you’ll have noticed that I’ve listed the population of Staffa as zero, so I probably should explain why I’m visiting this particular island…

I really wanted to visit it! I’d never been before and it’s such an iconic “must see” location for many visitors to Scotland that I decided I’d break a few of my self-imposed “rules” and treat myself to a trip while I was in the area.  I’m really glad I did too!

We boarded the boat and set off on time back out along the Sound of Ulva to Loch na Keal then skirting the southern coast of Ulva we headed out past the island of Inch Kenneth and into the Sea of the Hebrides.

Shortly after passing the island of Little Colonsay the ship stopped and we were given a guide to which islands were which as spread in front of us was an impressive array of islands and skerries.  To the south we had the Ross of Mull, the long low lying peninsula I’d driven along on my previous visit to Mull, then Iona, with the Paps of Jura lying beyond, then out in front lay our destination, the Isle of Staffa, with the Treshnish Isles, uninhabited, but an important wild-life habitat, to Staffa’s right, then further out we see the Isle of Coll and it’s neighbour Tiree, then to our north, the Island of Gometra and the south western parts of Ulva, with finally the Isle of Mull beyond.
I found this very helpful as several of these islands are on my to-do list, so it was useful to get some appreciation of where they all lay in relation to each other.

After the break, we continued on to Staffa and the first of several unexpected treats of the day… instead of simply dropping us off at the landing spot, the boat sailed right around to the entrance of Fingals cave and then up into the mouth of the cave!
I wasn’t expecting that at all.



After seeing the cave from the outside, we were taken to the landing jetty and as conditions were perfect for landing, we were dropped off.  With only an hour to see as much as possible, and with at least one other boat full of visitors already on the island and using the narrow walkway around to the island we were faced with two options when we landed.  The first is go around to the cave, the second was climb to the top of the island and go wild-life spotting!

I decided to opt for the cave first, on the basis that this was a one of a kind and unless they had some dodo birds nesting on the island, I could – in theory at least – spot any wild-life present on the island today somewhere else on a future trip…

So, off I headed, along the walkway towards the cave.

I paused at the mouth of the cave to grab a shot of the waves crashing against the basalt columns with the Isle of Iona on the horizon, my next target island.

I’d brought a mini-tripod with me as I expected the cave would be busy, and with the low light, I’d planned to shoot long exposures of the interior in the hope that this would give a nice smoothing effect to the sea, plus have the added bonus of removing many of the people as their motion would blur them from the final image… a reasonable plan, I thought, although I didn’t take one thing into account when devising this plan… most people when encountering something as dramatic as Fingals Cave for the first time do pretty much what I did and just stop and stare, so don’t blur in the long exposure images much!

So, although the people remain in shot, I was happy with the sea smoothing effect, and the fact that the images are sharp.  Not something I could have managed had I opted to shoot hand-held.

After a while in the cave taking some close up abstract shots of the basalt columns which I won’t bore you all with here, I decided to head out and back along to the landing spot then up onto the top of the island to have a look around.


I found the coastline of Staffa almost as fascinating as the cave, with the basalt columns forming huge waves of solid rock which seemed to undulate off into the distance, echoing the sea as if saying “anything you can do I can do better!”

Once on top, I decided to avoid the throng of people heading north on the look out for Puffins and headed over to the other side of the island instead which was much quieter.


After a while shooting some more coastal shots, and a lovely patch of bog cotton I found while wandering over towards the landing spot, I headed back to the landing area to shoot some timelapse video and capture my only “wildlife” image on the island…


We boarded and set off for what I expected to be a return trip via the same route, but, the captain announced that he’d spotted some Puffins on the water further up the coast, so were treated to a detour to go see them!




Once again I was impressed that the boat had done this, but, this was not the last unexpected treat as the captain announced we’d be going back a different way, we were to sail north, loop around the northern tip of Gometra and return to Ulva Ferry via Loch Tuath.  This was because he knew the location of a nesting White Tailed Sea Eagle!

On the way across we passed a large black fin in the water, but, I’m afraid no-one was entirely sure what it was… opinions ranged from Minke Whale, Basking Shark to Orca / Killer Whale!  I’d like to think it was an otter on it’s way to a fancy dress party, but, maybe that’s just me!

If you read my Skye blog (island 10 of 51) you’ll know that I’m not the best when it comes to wildlife spotting or identification (“what’s that big brown thing”) so if it hadn’t been for the captain stopping the boat and pointing the eagle out, I’d probably never have noticed it sat in the tree overlooking the loch!


From here we continued back to the ferry port, pausing only to catch some pics of seals lounging on the rocks.


Once back on shore, we headed for the mini-bus and the drive back to Craignure to catch the last ferry of the day back to Oban.

Another benefit to having someone else do the driving, I normally stress about being at the port on time and invariably end up being embarrassingly early for the ferry.  Even more so when I know it’s the last sailing of the day, but, not today as the bus pulled into the bus stop just as the ferry came into view on it’s way in.

Twenty minutes after getting off the coach I was sitting in the bar of the MV Isle of Mull enjoying a beer and feeling like I’d had an excellent day.

I’d thoroughly recommend taking the trip if you find yourself in Oban with a day free, especially if, like today, the weather is perfect for landing on Staffa.
Make sure you book the tour in advance though! It’s very popular!

My next trip is another tour.  This Sunday I’ll return to Oban, sail once more over to Mull then take a coach out to Fionnphort for the sailing over to Iona.

If the trip is half as good as today’s, I’ll be very happy when I get home on Sunday evening!