Scotland Travel: Iona, Book of Kells Island
The Isle of Iona is a tiny speck on the European map. A sort of end-of-the-world place that’s harder to reach from London than Bangkok, despite being in Scotland. You would hardly know it was there but in the 6th century, Iona was one of the most thriving centers of the Christian world. The abbey’s monks created The Book of Kells, one of the famous illuminated manuscripts in existence. The abbey attracted many kings, thousands of pilgrims and two centuries of Viking raids. Today, Iona is enjoying a renaissance as one of the rare Scottish islands whose population is growing. Its name still carries a mystical aura that makes it hard to resist if you’re up for an adventure.
Welcome to Iona, the Book of Kells island.
Let me set the scene, as you might wonder. In our over-connected urban world, Iona is a breath of fresh air. Literally. Gales batter the barren island during the autumn and winter seasons, which has a direct effect on vegetation – plants grow stunted and the few trees that manage to survive take root in strategic locations sheltered from the wind.
The island is also a sanctuary as far as transportation goes. Iona allows no cars for visitors. You can only get there by boat. Once you’re on the island, you walk.
Simple as that. Does it feel like a pilgrimage yet?
Journey to Iona
Obviously, getting to Iona is part of the adventure. After a night train journey on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William, my husband, my youngest daughter (then 11 years old) and I rent a car in Fort William. We take the Ardgour-Corran car ferry, go up and over the western highlands of Scotland and around a few lochs, then take another car ferry from Kilchoan to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. On the Isle of Mull, we drive on the single road all across the island to reach Fionnphort for the last ferry to Iona. This one is a pedestrian ferry. Door to door, the journey takes about 17 hours.
Of course, if you are one of the 177 residents of the island, you can board the 10-minute ferry from Fionnphort to Iona with your car but tourists are on foot. Though the Isle of Iona has a small (but well stocked) food store, most people carry their weight worth of food supplies. Hence many people carrying grocery bags or dragging wheeled suitcases. That’s fine on the ferry but once you’re on the other side of the narrow strait, you have to lug your belongings on the island’s rough gravel roads to wherever you’re staying. I’m so glad that we opted for backpacks. I would hate to drag a wheelie suitcase on the dirt road.
From the ferry, we easily spot the abbey and a few houses, white dots on the otherwise barren island.
I’ve booked three beds at the eco-hostel which, as we find out, is located at the northern end of Iona. I didn’t really bother checking how long it would take us to walk to the hostel as I figured it couldn’t be long on an island that’s only 6 km/4 miles long. Now that we carry breakfast, lunch and dinner for two days in our backpacks, in addition to our regular load, I realize that the walk is going to be the last stretch of that long journey – about 30 minutes.
When we reach the hostel, the front door is open and there’s a sign on the counter in the form of “Be back later.” The small snack fridge bears a typed note, “If broken, call Neil” with Neil’s phone number. We remove our shoes, arrange them with the other shoes already lining up the entrance room and walk past the door to the kitchen/dining room. The views through the wide bay windows are amazing – field, sheep, ocean. In fact, the hostel is located on the croft of Lagandorain, which the owner works in a relaxed sort of way with about 50 black Hebridean sheep (native to this area) for wool and meat. Nice.
With a massive wooden table by the kitchen area, the social room features comfy couches and warm lamps by the windows. In no uncertain terms, another sign asks you to NOT use any screens in the social room. Isn’t that awesome? Clue for board games, paper books, playing music (there’s a guitar) and journal writing. It feels welcoming and we haven’t even been welcomed yet.
Unsure where to put down our bags, we store our perishables in the fridge and make a cup of hot tea. The advantage of British and Scottish hostels is that the kitchen is always stocked so you can always make yourself a cup of hot tea and wait inside. I guess the weather may have something to do with that. Interestingly, there’s a note on the fridge, “For fresh fish, call Neil,” accompanied by an image of a fishing boat and Neil’s phone number. Who’s Neil? The guy’s clearly got many talents.
Motivated by the idea of freshly-caught local seafood, I call Neil. Would he get some fish for us? Alas, he’s not putting the boat out before Monday and that’s when we’re leaving. That’s OK, thank you Neil.
John, the owner, comes in shortly after and shows us to our room, a comfortable 4-bed bedroom. We are sharing with a young woman who’s very discrete. The wooden bed platforms have a unique design that makes storage very easy. We’re staying three days – this is going to be great!
That evening, we read the hostel’s eco-charter and marvel at how ingenious everything is. You can read their environmental credentials, they are pretty impressive and show that you can build and run eco-friendly hostels that offer great and affordable experiences for guests.
Dining on Iona
By the time we’re settled, it’s almost dinner time and I’ve booked a table at a restaurant by the ferry landing. When we start walking, the sun is setting over the horizon. It isn’t easy finding tables on short notice the Saturday of Easter weekend but to be fair, there are only four restaurants on the Isle of Iona, one of whom is a lunch place. When we step inside St Martyr’s Bay restaurant, the smell of bleach is slightly overwhelming. One look at the menu and we realize that our daughter won’t eat here. We don’t know it yet at the time but she already suffers from an eating disorder and none of the items on the menu will do for her. We apologize and get out.
The restaurant at the Argyll Hotel (best restaurant of the island) is full. The St Columba Hotel restaurant comes to the rescue – they have a table for us. It’s more expensive than our first choice but we’re happy. We walk back to the hostel by the light of the moon, enjoying a walk without cars and once in bed under comforters, snooze until 6am.
Early Morning on Iona
We rise at dawn for a 6am walk. My husband and I want to see the sun rise above the ocean and though getting out of a warm bed is never fun, we’re happy by the time we walk along the coast. John’s sheep are out in full force, skies are blue and when we get to the shore, we’re staring at a blue sea with surfacing boulders and sea birds close to shore.
The water is crystal clear, so clear in fact that we can see tiny seashells and maroon kelp poking out of the white sandy bed and floating at the surface. We walk in a northerly direction and past the wide open beach at the northern tip, then get to smaller sheltered coves. Watching small ripples break the surface is quietly contemplative and it feels good. Like the world is right and beautiful and you’re lucky to be here at all. If we had time, we would enjoy a swim in the buff right now but we need to get back for breakfast at the hostel at 8am.
We walk. Baa baa Hebridean sheep all around.
Easter Sunday at Iona Abbey
Easter Sunday on the Isle of Iona, now that is very special. I may not be a religious person but Easter Sunday on Iona is a thoroughly enjoyable spiritual experience.
John, the hostel owner, recommends that we get to the abbey early as it’s going to be crowded. When we push open the wooden gate leading to the church, the sun is high in the sky and a slight breeze is picking up. Gloriously yellow daffodils dot the front of the grassy lawn in front of the church, golden buttons in the green landscape.
We’re used to stuffy Catholic mass so the simple Easter service is a pleasant surprise. The nave of the church is decorated in ribbons and fresh flowers, natural green leafy plants and nothing else.
The vicar’s speech feels very relatable and when communion time comes, we choose the gluten-free and alcohol-free options – oatcakes and juice. It’s very thoughtful. If it weren’t for the hundreds of people squeezed in every corner of the church, it might feel like a family affair. We get out of the service with a smile of our faces. It is quite inspiring, in fact. No wonder people from all over the world come to Iona for spiritual retreats.
Easter Lunch & Swim
We can’t possibly not swim on Iona, it would be criminal. As we need to be at the wharf at 1pm for a trip to Staffa Island (more on that later), we picnic nearby on a beach, change in the tall grasses and merrily hop in the water.
It’s still a bit nippy (10C perhaps) so we just swim around a fishing boat for kicks, marvel at the variety of floating seaweeds and come back to the beach, energized. The wind has picked up, we eat as much sand as sandwich.
Hiking to Dun I
On the Isle of Iona, the highest hill called Dun I culminates at a lofty 101 m/334 ft above the Atlantic Ocean, about 30 minutes on foot from civilization. Hiking to Dun I is not exactly something to write home about, except for the wonderful panoramic views and the fact that the plateau features an arresting beehive-shaped stone hut. From the top of that hill you can enjoy a bird’s eye view on virtually the entire island. All you need to do is turn around and you’ll see it. It’s mind-blowing, as well as wind-blowing if you visit on a windy day like we do.
Though the map shows a Well of Eternal Youth nearby, we don’t quite find it and are certainly doomed to age naturally like the rest of the world but that’s fate. Now conscious of our mortality and buffeted by increasingly strong winds, we come down the hill without a fixed route, finding the best escarpment or gully to get down to sheep pasture level. It’s boggy. That’s Scotland for you.
Iona Abbey & Book of Kells
On our way to the wharf for our departure, loaded with our heavy backpacks, we stop at the visitor center for Iona Abbey. They are kind enough to let us drop our bags by a corner of their building while we visit.
The Celtic crosses adorning the grounds around the abbey are works of exquisite beauty but what strikes me most is Tòrr an Aba, the little hill above the abbey where St Columba is said to have had his writing hut. An illustrated sign shows how St Columba would have lived inside the one-room hut, copying scriptures and receiving scriptures.
After having taken calligraphy lessons, the art of illuminated manuscripts fascinates me and I avidly read that the scriptorium of the abbey produced several highly important documents. At its zenith the abbey produced the Book of Kells, a famous illuminated manuscript, described in the Annals of Ulster in 1007 as ‘the most precious object in the western world.’ It was written by the monks of Iona in the years leading up to 800.A.D. A masterpiece of Dark Age European art, the elaborately illuminated book containing the four Gospels was taken from Iona to Kells in Ireland and is now housed in Trinity College, Dublin.
If you haven’t watched The Secret of Kells with your kids, you should. This award-winning animated movie loosely tells the story of how the Book of Kells was made, featuring gorgeous Celtic symbols and a historical background of Viking raids.
On the second morning and third day of our stay on the Isle of Iona, we are leaving Iona. It’s ironic that we thought we would make a quick trip of Iona and call it a day. We feel like we haven’t covered much ground at all on the island and Iona still holds many mysteries.
We leave with the urge to return, which I think is the best tribute you can pay to any place. We don’t leave empty-handed though. On the way out, we stop at the grocery store to buy delicious loaves of bread and at the adjoining knitting shop, my daughter chooses a long Scottish knitted tunic. She still wears it every day at home.
If and when you do visit Iona, I hope that you enjoy it as much as we do. Do stay at the eco-hostel. You won’t regret it.