Iona - 'a green jewel in a peacock sea'
by Anne C » Fri Apr 29, 2022 9:20 pm
Route description: Iona Abbey, Dùn Ì and the north end
Date walked: 16/04/2022
Time taken: 3 hours
Distance: 10 km13 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
We spent 3 nights this Easter on Iona, a little gem of an island and only a 10 min ferry journey across the sea from Mull. The Sound of Iona is a gorgeous, shallow expanse of crystal clear, emerald and turquoise water.In fact, combined with this south-westerly area of Mull - the Ross - it is, to me, one of Scotland's most beautiful corners.
North End, Iona. by Anne C, on Flickr
That said, I’ll admit I was slightly worried about all that time based on tiny Iona (1.5 x 3 miles total) I love the island but I've mostly visited on a day trip from Mull. It’s a perfect place for chilling and relaxing but I don’t do either very well! But the wee cottage we took had a 3 night minimum stay so it was that or nothing, given we’d tried to get somewhere at such short notice during peak holiday season (and which didn't involve taking out a second mortgage )
It was a lovely ferry journey over to Mull itself from Oban to Craignure...
Lismore Lighthouse, from the Oban - Craignure ferry by Anne C, on Flickr
Duart Castle by Anne C, on Flickr
Initially, we headed for Loch na Keal for a bit of an explore, definitely the long way round to Fionnphort and the Iona ferry but one of my favourite areas on Mull and often wildlife central. Cloud had come in by now but was casting dramatic light on the stunning Ben More range:
Ben More range, Mull by Anne C, on Flickr
DSC_0178.jpg by Anne C, on Flickr
This route took us along the amazing stretch of coastline at Gribun, where it's a slightly nerve racking drive below the crumbling cliffs that tower above the road...newly fallen rocks on the tarmac confirm that rock fall is fairly constant
Single Track road, Isle of Mull by Anne C, on Flickr
When it’s cloudy on Mull, it often seems that the sun still shines on Iona, as it’s so low-lying
Iona and Baile Mor by Anne C, on Flickr
The west and south coasts are lashed by the Atlantic and not so well known to me so I wanted to explore that area this time around too. North End Iona is where I always make for, with its string of dazzling shell sand beaches backed by the otherworldly outlines of the Treshnish Isles (aka puffin central!)
On a sunny Saturday afternoon and being a beach fiend , the North End was definitely the biggest draw, offering a relaxing 5 mile return walk (easily shortened ) taking us past the world famous Abbey and across the machair onto three beautiful strands. Iona gets a lot of day trippers but most make for the Abbey, one of the oldest Christian centres in Western Europe and founded by St Columba in 534 AD. Relatively few head out to where we were going.
We left our little cottage for two – called Am Fuaran , meaning Little Spring - and walked along the colourful street of attractive houses which makes up Iona’s only village, Baile Mor.
Post Office, Iona village by Anne C, on Flickr
A path took us up by the pretty Argyll Hotel to join Iona’s single track road. This road is lovely to walk along, as only island residents have cars so it’s virtually traffic free.
As we headed out beyond the gardens of the Columba hotel, larks were trilling their beautiful song, so high above us they were invisible. Meadow pipits twirled back down to Earth like little parachutists, the males showing off to any female admirers!
Initially, we stopped off at 9th century St Oran’s Chapel, the oldest building on Iona.
St Oran's chapel by Anne C, on Flickr
The chapel is surrounded by a grave yard which is the resting place of around 40 of the ancient Scottish kings, including Macbeth. Beyond the old stone wall lay the sea, whipped into white horses and the orange-pink rocky headland of the Ross of Mull.
Ross of Mull from Iona by Anne C, on Flickr
Maclean’s Cross stands sentinel at the entrance to the 13th century Abbey. Beautifully carved and around 700 years old, it marks one end of the Street of the Dead, once part of the pilgrims’ route to the church.
The Abbey by Anne C, on Flickr
The walls of the lovely Abbey Cloisters are lined with intricately carved, stunning Warrior Grave slabs from the 13th century.
DSC_0221.jpg by Anne C, on Flickr
Warrior grave slabs by Anne C, on Flickr
Inside the small museum are even older Celtic crosses (8th/9th century) all exquisitely carved – what artists the stone-masons were! As were the monks who created the Book of Kells here in 800AD.
DSC_0227.jpg by Anne C, on Flickr
Book of Kells replica by Anne C, on Flickr
A Hurtigruten cruise ship had docked in the Sound so we were glad to have got in early before the hordes descended!
Heading west along the road again, the fields were dotted with new lambs, staying close to their mothers and watching us warily as we passed by.
It was still too early to hear Corncrakes with their harsh krek- krek - krek call. It’s a rare bird but common on Iona and some of the Outer Hebrides and a thrill for birders to hear; that said, Chris remarked that growing up on South Uist with a corncrake calling all night outside his bedroom, waking the whole family at 4am or earlier ALL summer, the ‘joy’ of hearing this rare bird quickly waned!
Once through the farm gate at the end of the road at Lagandorain, we branched off to the right to reach the first of the white sand beaches, lapped by a sea which was multi coloured - emerald, turquoise and amethyst. Eilean Annraidh sits offshore with enticing white sands of its own. This area was a favourite of the Scottish Colourists – Peploe, Cadell in particular - who captured so well, the colours of Iona.
1st beach, North End by Anne C, on Flickr
What a joy to walk across Traigh Ban nam Monach (which translates as White Strand of the Monks) with the tide well out and the sands exposed! I love low tide here. Not so idyllic during Viking times because this beach was said to be the place where many of the Abbey’s monks were slaughtered, the church itself being raided for whatever valuables it held. Apparently, the Book of Kells was hurled into a ditch, seen as something worthless and not found for centuries – the acidic peat however, helped to preserve it! Even a bog has a silver lining... :
The lovely blue-black and orange (felspar) rocks of Iona contrast gorgeously with the colours of the sea and sand. As we walked through a gap we found ourselves on the second beach - as I call it - with stunning views to The Wilderness coast of Mull with Ben More’s summit wrapped in cloud. The photo below was taken on a clearer day when Ben More was visible too.
Green Sea, Iona by Anne C, on Flickr
Time for a seat out of the wind, basking in the surprisingly warm sun (when sheltered) and enjoying a picnic lunch of cheese and onion sandwiches. It was a joy just to drink in the beauty of the place and also celebrate our luck in having a sunny day to see it all at its best.
Strand of the Monks, North End Iona by Anne C, on Flickr
It’s a lovely wander across the machair to the ‘third beach’ Traigh an t-Suidhe (possibly Beach of the Shelf or Seat) a kilometre stretch of shell sand with views to the ethereal Treshnish Isles. Staffa and Fingal’s Cave were visible, Lunga of the puffins was clear too.I once read of it described as ‘a green jewel in a peacock sea' a description that has stayed with
me over the years as it so evocatively captures the colours of these southern Hebrides when they are bathed in sunshine. We did the superb trip out to Lunga a few years back and I never thought it was possible to get so up close and personal to so many puffins! They were literally waddling around our feet. As we approached the island itself, it was covered in a lilac haze of bluebells.
Bluebells on Treshnish Isles by Anne C, on Flickr
Mr Puffin by Anne C, on Flickr
P1280086.jpg by Anne C, on Flickr
Back on Traigh an t-Suidhe...
Myself, 3rd beach by Anne C, on Flickr
On the horizon, the island that always draws my eye the most is Bac Mor or the Dutchman’s Cap, so named because of its shape. I’ve always felt a longing to explore it, what a viewpoint it must be, but landing is difficult – plus, there’s the small matter of not owning a boat!
Dutchman's Cap by Anne C, on Flickr
Third beach by Anne C, on Flickr
DSC_0292.jpg by Anne C, on Flickr
The sun felt warm again now we were out of the cool south-easterly, so we clambered onto some rocks at the very far end of the beach, overlooking a shallow, opalescent channel of water. It was time to look out for otters , a favourite past -time in the west, as it looked a good spot for them. Several names in the area suggested we might be lucky - the lovely looking hostel at Lagandorain translates as the Little Hollow of the Otter! Certainly some giveaway otter ‘mounds’ were visible in several places , favourite spots where otters bring in crabs and suchlike to eat and also leave their spraint. Over the years this fertilising creates little grass pyramids, evidence that an otter is a regular visitor.
No luck today though but it was a falling tide and so not ideal for seeing them.
We wandered back to a raised square of grass above the sands and memories flooded back of once wild camping here around 20 years ago! Frightening how times passes!
A grassy track led inland again, heading for Iona’s hostel. I’ve always fancied staying here as it’s in such a beautiful location and so close to the beaches. Had a wee look through the huge glass windows, revealing an atmospheric sitting room/kitchen with books lining the walls. That would do me👍
Heading back up to the road again, the wind had whipped up again and we took its full blast.Dun I, the island's highest hill was tempting and it's one we've been up many times. It gives a fabulous 360 degree panorama over Tiree, Coll and Rum, to Mull, Jura and Colonsay and of course, the Treshnish Isles. On very clear days, the elegant white pencil of storm lashed Skerryvore Lighthouse is visible too. Below Dun I, the soft lushness of Iona sets off the whole scene and I think the island richly deserves Lunga’s accolade of being 'a green jewel in a peacock sea.'
View to Mull from Dun I by Anne C, on Flickr
Paps of Jura from Dun I by Anne C, on Flickr
Untitled by Anne C, on Flickr
To St Columba’s Bay (6miles)
Sunday was due to be a wet day and sure enough, as we sat in the Columba Hotel munching on Malteser Slice and sipping Lattes (well, someone’s got to do it ) the rain pitter-pattered relentlessly on the picture windows. Ah well, a good excuse to browse the hotel's copy of Peter Irvine’s book ‘Islands’ and wait to see if it would defy the forecast and go off.
However, it didn’t look too promising by lunchtime either but we (correction - I ) decided we should don the waterproofs and at least walk out to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean on Iona’s west side. Otherwise it would be one of these days when we seem to never stop eating!
The first mile or so is on tarmac, passing a surprising number of houses, but after 20 mins we reached a gate leading onto a huge expanse of machair which must look fantastic in another month or so when the wildflowers are out.
Bay on the west coast by Anne C, on Flickr
After exploring the shingly sands and admiring the rugged looking coast, very different to the North End, I convinced Chris that the sky was looking much brighter so why not continue the walk for another few miles out to St Columba’s Bay at the very south of the island? Squinting up at the clouds, Chris wasn't convinced but we headed off anyway.
The route to St Columba's Bay by Anne C, on Flickr
I was amazed at how good the track was initially, broad and rubbly ( built by the Water Board.) It took us to a lovely small loch which I assumed provided Iona’s water supply. That supply as certainly getting well topped up because the heavens now opened with a vengeance, the brightness I'd imagined clearly a mirage (or wishful thinking )
In addition, we were now faced with a fork in the path - which way? We stood in the pouring rain barely able to see what lay in either direction, it had suddenly become so socked in! Should we just go back and forget about Columba’s famous bay? Chris asked the question but that just felt like abject failure to me – plus, as I reminded him, why have we got all this waterproof gear if it’s not to be put to good use? Then out of the gloom, a guy came trudging up the left hand fork (just after I’d said I thought we should go right ) and a quick question confirmed that that was indeed the correct way! The three of us stood in the downpour, water streaming off our hoods and jackets and off the ends of our noses, chatting about nothing in particular but getting wetter by the minute. The chap admitted that in the conditions, he’d cheated a bit, not going all the way down to the bay and happy to see it from a high point in the path.
Saying cheerio, we set off along the surprisingly well maintained path which even had duck boarding over some of the worst boggy bits. After 20 mins, the track began to descend and a half a mile or so ahead, we got our first view of St Columba's Bay.
The bay lies ahead by Anne C, on Flickr
St Columba's Bay by Anne C, on Flickr
The bay itself is backed by a huge expanse of machair, lovely to walk on.A tiny plaque on a small knoll declared that Columba had landed here in 563 AD. Chris now brought his naval expertise (i.e. none ) to bear and decided that there was no way Columba had landed here on this steeply shelving pebbly beach with all the reefs and islets off-shore too. Any sensible sailor would have made for further round the coast. I must admit I thought he had a point – it did look quite a dangerous coast for any boat.
DSC_0341.jpg by Anne C, on Flickr
If the weather had made it more inviting, we might have tried to find the detour to another bay where the marble quarry once was but the rain was on more than it was off , so we decided to head back. In nice weather this could be a lovely walk revealing a more rugged aspect of Iona. That said I was still delighted to have made it out here – at last. And to cap it all, we found several pieces of Iona marble - ivory/cream coloured stones flecked with green.
The pebbly bay by Anne C, on Flickr
Back to the west by Anne C, on Flickr
An hour later, we returned to Am Fhuaran absolutely dripping wet but as ever there was that nice sense of not having been beaten by the weather into doing nothing at all and having explored a new corner I'd always wanted to visit. Definitely a nice easy walk to do again on a drier day and enjoy it for longer.
A hot shower later and we were all set to enjoy the dinner we’d booked in the Argyll Hotel and excellent it was too; scallops and local lamb and beef which was absolutely superb, the meat cooked until it was falling off the fork - not a way it's often served these days. Sitting at the rain lashed windows of the hotel’s pretty conservatory, stuffed to the gunnels with good home-cooked food, looking out onto the turquoise sea beyond little gardens bright with tulips and daffodils, there were certainly worse ways to spend a wet evening!
A sunny day dawned on Easter Monday as we drove the hour or so back to Craignure for the afternoon ferry. But not before we stopped off at Duart Castle, looking magnificent since its facelift (still some scaffolding) and with an excellent tearoom doing good lunches and cakes.
DSC_0391.jpg by Anne C, on Flickr
We took take-away mugs of tea along a path below the castle, sitting in the shelter of some rocky ledges above clear, deep water and with wonderful views to the mainland hills of Morvern and Argyll. (The ferry in the photo was actually the one we were booked onto so we were soon high-tailing it round to Craignure )
Lovely picnic spot below the castle by Anne C, on Flickr
Ferry from Oban by Anne C, on Flickr
It’s always sad to say goodbye to Mull and Iona. I really love Skye too but I do sometimes think Mull and Iona offer a softer beauty and certainly Mull is far less populated and quieter which is always a draw in itself.
Craignure by Anne C, on Flickr
But whatever the merits of each of these islands, we will be back and I hope soon, to Iona and also Mull of the Cool High Bens. With any luck, we'll have the weather for the highest Ben of all, Ben More which we last enjoyed on a frosty but brilliantly clear New Year's Day in 2019 when the winter colours and light were unforgettable...
Wowed at the summit by Anne C, on Flickr
by walkingpoles » Sun May 01, 2022 2:42 pm
by Anne C » Tue May 03, 2022 8:53 am
by Sunset tripper » Thu May 05, 2022 3:15 pm
I've been many times since and can only describe it as a place of great peacefulness.
Great pics - cheers
- Posts: 2653
- Joined: Nov 3, 2013
- Location: Inverness
by RiverSong » Fri May 06, 2022 11:19 am
- Posts: 259
- Joined: Aug 31, 2013
by Anne C » Sat May 07, 2022 11:24 am
Sunset tripper wrote:My first time on Iona was a few months before I was born - so I've been told.
I've been many times since and can only describe it as a place of great peacefulness.
Great pics - cheers
Glad you enjoyed the photos, Sunset tripper - yes there is a great atmosphere of peace on Iona, despite the crowds.
by Anne C » Sat May 07, 2022 11:27 am
RiverSong wrote:Enjoyed your report and photos very much. Iona is a special place for me, so good to see it again 😊
Many thanks RiverSong and great to hear you enjoyed the report.I'd like to do that walk to the south of the island in better weather - next time hopefully🤞
by dogplodder » Sat May 07, 2022 3:34 pm
by Anne C » Sun May 08, 2022 8:36 am
by Milo12 » Sun May 08, 2022 9:25 pm
by Anne C » Tue May 10, 2022 9:15 am
by HalfManHalfTitanium » Thu May 12, 2022 4:50 pm
by Anne C » Sun May 15, 2022 8:56 pm
HalfManHalfTitanium wrote:Truly wonderful. Makes me determined to visit. And even if it is not the most musical sound, I would love to hear the corncrake - my Dad, who grew up in Wales in the 1920s, used to tell me how their calls would keep him awake at night. Hard to imagine now.
Many thanks Tim, great to know you enjoyed the report! It's well worth getting out to Iona - the journey alone through Mull is just beautiful too. A sad sign of the times indeed, that corncrakes are in such a very limited number of places now. I love hearing them, harsh call or not; it's so evocative.
Walkhighlands community forum is advert free
Can you help support Walkhighlands and the online community by donating by direct debit?