The Isle Mull and neighboring Iona are two of the Inner Hebrides, islands off Scotland’s western seaboard, and a microcosm of more than 1,500 years of successive waves of settlers and invaders. Sites scattered across these islands tell Scotland’s story culturally, politically and spiritually.
Today, these mere specks in the Atlantic are drawing a new generation of seekers: some are among the Scottish diaspora’s 50 million members, others are modern-day pilgrims visiting the spot where Christianity reached Scotland, and many come to see the abundant wildlife of red deer, sea eagles, otters and puffins.
On the Isle of Mull and Iona, the compelling history and spectacular scenery compete for your attention at every turn—if you aren’t eagle-eyed, you are sure to miss a magic moment.
Onward to Lands of Castles and Clans
Just moments out of the mainland port of Oban on the ferry bound for the Isle of Mull, I found myself rushing from one side of the deck to the other, torn between the vistas of both port and starboard.
My quandary deepened when a traveling companion began to provide color commentary.
“These are the old sea-roads of Argyll, when powerful clans patrolled their territories in oared birlinns,” said Gilbert Summers, a Scottish travel writer.
Pointing left at a dramatic silhouette on Mull’s craggy coast, he said “Duart Castle: the power- base of the MacLean clan from the 14th-century, though it passed into the hands of the ‘top dog’
Campbells in the 17th century. The MacLeans didn’t buy the ruin back until 1911 and it’s now fully restored as the seat of the current clan chief.”
Restoration of Native Eagles on Mull and Iona
From the ferry, we turned onto the A849, otherwise known as “the road to Iona.” This 35-mile, single-lane track, in use since ancient times, meandered across steep hills covered in pine, birch and larch. In the folds of valleys, crumbling remains of occasional stone houses stood sentinel.
Given Inner Hebrides Isle of Mull’s nickname of “Eagle Island,” it wasn’t long before I got a glimpse of this cousin to the American Bald Eagle. But I learned that for almost 100 years, nary a White-Tailed Eagle could be found on Mull.
“There is now a healthy population on Mull but that wasn’t always the case,” explained David Sexton of RSPB Scotland, a wildlife preservation organization. “White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK in 1918 following hundreds of years of persecution. The eagles were accused of attacking livestock and ruthlessly eliminated. The last pair here was known to nest on a sea cliff in about 1877.”
In 1975 a project to release 10 eaglets annually began on the Isle of Rum, just to the north of Mull. The program has been so successful that today the Isle of Mull has about 20 breeding pairs.
A Rainbow Town and Ancient Settlers
Mull’s main town of Tobermory is a bustling little port ablaze in color. The harbor is lined with old houses painted in rainbow shades. Restaurants, inns and shops nestle on the waterfront; among them is the Tobermory Hotel. This 200-year old property, once a row of fishermen's cottages, offers plain but comfortable rooms, many with spectacular views of the harbor.
The Mull Museum just down the street is crammed with information about the history of the Isle of Mull and its people which the archaeological evidence says dates to pre-history.
"I am sure that the first Mesolithic inhabitants arrived merely because it was an ideal place for hunter-gatherers, with lots of easily obtained seafood along the shorelines,” said Philip Siddall, the Museum’s curator. “The Neolithic inhabitants, who may well have been their descendants, found there were areas of good fertile soil for their crops, and good pasturage for their animals. The number of Iron Age duns and forts suggests that there had become a bit of competition for these areas by the first century B.C."
"The area was colonized in the mid-5th century by the Scotti, a Gaelic-speaking tribe from Antrim in Northern Island; their name eventually coming down to give us the present name of Scotland,” he explained. “Later Norse came to settle and farm, with Mull forming part of a Norse kingdom stretching from the Isle of Man to Orkney. The Norse place names still account for about 12% of the Mull total, a smaller percentage than the Outer Hebrides, so Mull was probably never densely settled.”
On a rainy day, I hung out at An Tobar Cafe, a cozy place reached by a five-minute walk from Main Street up a steep hill. The spot affords incredible views of Tobermory Bay I went back another evening for some great shots of the sunset. The venue is located in a Victorian-era school building; the fare is vegetarian with wonderful soups and home-baked goods. An Tobar is part of Comar is a multi-arts organization that presents about 100 events a year across the disciplines of live music, visual arts, theater, crafts, dance, films, literature and comedy.
Gifts from Mother Nature’s Skies
On a twisted ribbon of road running alongside Loch na Keal on the Isle of Mull, I witnessed a wall of weather that seemed to explode upwards from the horizon line. As I jumped out of the car and ran toward the water, my sneakers sunk into the spongy peat moss and the sheep scattered. I felt a jolt of electricity surge through my body, sending me upward and I let out a primordial howl.
The powerful blast of energy that coursed through me was an intense sensation of awe, and the cry that erupted from deep within me was a heartfelt “Woooooow!”
That I should experience such a high voltage moment of amazement in Scotland is only fitting. Perhaps not surprisingly, the word ‘Wow’ is Scottish in origin. It appears in Robert Burns 1791 poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ in the line “And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight!” It’s believed the word is probably a contraction of the interjection ‘I vow!’
Rainbows are more common in Scotland than in Massachusetts. During this two-week visit, I enjoyed a steady diet of a phenomenon that I consider to be a wink and a nod from the Universe.
Eyes ever skyward, I marveled at Mother Nature’s fast-changing moods and the ongoing lightshow at this latitude. As I traveled across the Highlands and islands with my companions, they become inured to my sudden shouts about another rainbow or cloud formation and good- naturedly pulled over for a photograph.
Pilgrims Find Solace in Natural Occurrences
Near Mull’s southwestern tip, a wild stretch of land called the “Burg” sweeps to the coast of Loch Scridain, one of many sea lochs, or fjords, on the island.
“For those on the ‘pilgrimage’ to Iona, Loch Scridain is their companion on the northern or right-hand side,” Gilbert said. “There is no other way of reaching Iona, this ‘Cradle of Christianity’ in Scotland. But what a companion for the journey on the winding western road. Scridain is a sea-loch that starts with the gentle salt-flats, seldom covered by the tide, and the haunt of curlew and other waders. Then the loch deepens. Keep a watch for sea eagles.”
“West and west again, till opposite lies the Burg – the westernmost tip of the peninsula on the far side of Loch Scridain – roadless, trackless, remote – a glimpse across the water to a landscape of wild Scotland that few discover,” he continued. “Onwards, west again, till the loch becomes the open sea, punctuated by islands, the most notable of which is Staffa, inspiring the composer Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture ‘Fingal’s Cave’.
“Peerless sea views over Scridain makes the road to Iona a joy, no matter the light or weather,” he said.
Ferry to Ancient Pilgrimage Site of Iona
In the tiny settlement of Fionnphort, you can hop on another ferry for the ten-minute ride to Iona, where its Abbey was a center of Gaelic monastic life for three centuries and today is still a place of pilgrimage and spiritual retreats.
Crossing the Bay of Iona’s turquoise waters, I soaked up the view ahead. Beyond the pier was a cluster of houses; to their right, and Iona Abbey, now an imposing ruin that commands half the isle, rising majestically from an immense verdant field. The monastic community here dates to 563 when St. Columba left Ireland for Iona as a missionary, seeking redemption for his role in a battle in which many men died.
"St. Columba picked on Iona for the foundation of his monastery in 563, as it was the first island he came to from where Ireland was not visible,” Philip of the Mull Museum had told me. “He had left Ireland after being involved in a rather bloody battle, and wanted redemption by converting as many souls as he had been responsible for killing.”
“You think it was peaceful on Iona for the monks?” asked Gilbert rhetorically. “Remember that their tranquil world was utterly changed by the first Viking raids. It was a truly 9/11 moment: when those sails came over the horizon, the monks had to realize their world would never be the same again.”
“Later though, the Vikings settled here,” he said. “Summer was the Vikings’ raiding season as a Scot whose seafaring family goes back generations, my own name Summers just might come from the Norse from across the sea.”
Despite the violence inspiring Iona’s settlement, its atmosphere is the antithesis of conflict.
Rulers of Days Long Gone By
Following in the footsteps of pilgrims past, I made my way to the cloister and crypts of ancient Scottish kings. The marble tomb of the 8th Duke of Argyll, head of the Clan Campbell, was prominent inside the sanctuary. He bequeathed the abbey to the Iona Cathedral Trust the year before he died in 1900.
"Iona has an aura of peace, a wee jewel in the Western Ocean,” observed Iain Morrison, skipper of Turus Mara, a family business that runs wildlife boat trips from Mull. “The un-visited and untouched parts of Iona, the colorful beaches in the south and west, the relentless swells are all there to be enjoyed. Although a few hundred thousand visitors step ashore on Iona each year, hardly any venture into these wilder and more exposed areas. There is a spiritualism about the island which I sense despite not having a single religious cell in my entire body.”
Long before Christianity, memorials to kinsmen were erected on Iona.
"The Bronze Age kerb cairn which sits at the back of my studio reminds me of the pre-Christian presence on Iona and of the deep layers of human occupation on the island,” said artist Mhairi Killin, whose gallery Asodana can be found a ten-minute walk from the ferry slip, at the St. Columba Steadings, a lovingly renovated collection of farm buildings opposite the St. Columba Hotel. Mhairi’s mother’s family worked as weavers, silversmiths and crofters on Iona.
"The island has inspired artisans for centuries; from the Book of Kells in the 8th century to the 20th century painters, the Scottish Colourists,” Mhairi explained. “For such a small place Iona holds many voices; songs, stories and poems created by Islanders and visitors, words from emigrants and pilgrims’ prayers. People often describe a sense of “otherness” whilst here, experiencing a place outside of time."
Puffins Are Isle of Mull Pilgrims of Another Variety
One group of annual pilgrims has itself become an attraction. From May to August, puffins return from the Arctic to breed on The Treshnish Isles, which lie off Mull. “Puffins are posers with a unique sense of the photogenic and very little fear of us lumbering homo sapiens,” said Iain Morrison, owner of Turus Mara, which offers wildlife boat tours. “These wee comics do their best profile at less than a meter no zoom lens required!”
Morrison said he coined the term “Puffin Therapy” after Nature Deficit Disorder became a medically recognised problem of the 21st Century, and “having observed how cheered-up city folk became while communing with puffins.”
Iain was born in the croft house his grandfather lived in; while a mariner, his family has been rooted in this landscape for centuries. His dry sense of humor and deep appreciation for his heritage was typical of most Scots I met.
There is lively debate now among Scots about their identity. In 2014, a referendum on Scotland ceding from Great Britain and becoming an independent nation again failed by a small margin. Strong support continues to exist for Scotland to become a sovereign state. Whatever the outcome, Mull and Iona will endure as places with a spirit uniquely their own.
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