An old travel diary, day 5: Pilgrimage to Iona

Day 5 dawned bright and early and a little crankily as the two of us, tired from a night of little sleep, scrambled downstairs for breakfast.  Here we learned something else about our hosts, as in one corner of the dining room a television showed what appeared to be something like the interior of an aviary or rabbit hutch.  Sure enough, after a few moments a plump, fluffy chick wandered by on the screen – not a chicken, though.
These were mottled and brownish and vaguely familiar…quail chicks, as our hostess informed us a few minutes later.  Quail almost never hatch their own eggs in captivity, it seems, since generations of incubated chicks have dulled the instinct, but somehow this particular batch did so.  (Taped below the television were a pair of cards congratulating our hosts, baby-shower style, on the fluffy arrivals.)
We paused for a moment to purchase some cold Scotch pies and sausage rolls for lunch before heading to the ferry for the first leg of our journey today: a ride to the Isle of Mull.  Mull is the third-largest of the Hebrides, and a popular spot for vacationers; certainly this morning’s ferry trip appeared to be full of them.   The ferry itself had a few interesting features, including a coffee shop, bar and cafe (all separate facilities) and an array of gambling machines.  There was also a bit of a clue as to the remoteness of the places we were about to visit – one of the vans was some sort of mobile branch of the Bank of Scotland, something I’ve never seen before anywhere, while another seemed to be the Royal Mail.
The crossing took about as long as my daily commute, and for a while there was little else to do except watch the landscape drift by and do our best to stay out of the rain.
The ferry from Oban lands in Craignure, and as far as I can tell there’s almost nothing there save the docks themselves – a visitor centre, a cafe, a petrol station, and a convenience store make up pretty much all the rest of the amenities.  From there, you have a momentous choice to make: go right to colorful Tobermory, unofficial capital of the island, or go left toward a second ferry trip that takes you to Iona.  There’s not really any way to do both in a day, and Mull’s most major road forms a “U” that essentially runs along one curve of the island, from one to the other.
We went left.
Here is the thing about the roads on Mull: even the most major of them is a single lane.  A single narrow lane, one that is often literally just wide enough for the car; every so often there are “passing places” into which, by some strange etiquette, one car will ease so that others may pass.  Even so, sometimes the passing places are so narrow themselves that I caught myself holding my breath a bit as a car pulled by.  Especially terrifying: passing, or being passed by, a bus on these super-narrow roads.  (It happened.  Several times.  Doesn’t get any less scary basically ever, let me tell you.)
This said, here is the OTHER thing about the roads on Mull: the countryside they pass through is gorgeous.  In the rain the craggy hills, green and implausibly steep, are cut here and there by these savage little silver ribbons which, close up, reveal themselves as rushing water.  Here and there a little farm or crofter’s house will suddenly manifest, white and gleaming even in the dimmer rainy light.  This is a place for the very, very deepest of introverts.
Every so often, a stone bridge of unknowable vintage would appear in or near our path, reminding us that humans do still have some impact in this place.  Or, perhaps, a ruin or old foundation, some long-ago person’s attempt at enduring change.  (Something has endured, but perhaps not what they believed.)
Other than that…sheep, of course.  There are sheep everywhere.  And cows, this time the shaggy, long-haired highland variety.  There are other animals too, of course: the sign that read “Slow Chickens” did indeed mean “hey, there are chickens wandering around loose in front of this cafe, please don’t run over them,” and “Otter Crossing 6 Miles” presumably meant just that, though to my sadness I didn’t see any.
As we approached Fionnphort and the ferry the rain gradually let up, though the sky did not lighten past a pale silver gray.  The ferry landing has even less going on than that at Craignure: a (closed) ticket office, a tiny shop, and an even tinier booth selling food called “The Creel.”  A house or two, and…that’s it.  Across the water the abbey we’ve come to see is visible.
This ferry, unlike the one from Oban, is tiny and mainly for foot passengers; it pitches and rolls with every heave of the sea, and though the ride is short I was glad to step off and be on land again.  Even in the gray light the sea looked greener here; a row of little buildings – one or two bearing signs indicating their status as guest houses, shops, or a pub – stretched out toward the abbey, and that was about it.  No great surprise, really; the entire island is only about one mile across and three miles long.
Perhaps it was my imagination or suggestion at work, but it felt a little different, somehow.  Perhaps it was the remoteness.  Perhaps it was the pilgrimage-like quality of the trek out there.  Or perhaps there is something to the story of a visitor who asked what made Iona special and was told that it was a “thin” place.  Somewhere that veils are readily pierced and an otherness closer to our everyday reach.
(Certainly it did a number on Mark’s phone, which mysteriously lost all battery power shortly after landing on the island.  I had to take over photography duties for a time.)
The island has been a place of worship for over 1400 years, and is still a place of worship today.  Long ago pilgrims would land there, as we did, and pause at huge stone crosses erected alongside the “road of the dead” to pray and contemplate as they approached the abbey.  This was founded by St. Columba, who came over from Ireland a preposterously long time ago and brought Christianity with him; the abbey he founded became a powerful pilgrimage site with a legendary scriptorium.  The Book of Kells was actually…written? Drawn? Composed? I’m not sure what word to use, but it came from here.
Pilgrimage sites were wealthy, of course, and that was bad.  Not because of the temptations of avarice for the Christians, unfortunately…in this case it was bad for the monks because Iona is pretty far north. And a certain people famous for raiding and ransacking places aren’t too far away.
Yep.  Vikings.  They raided the hell out of the place for what wealth it had, slaughtering many monks in the process.  It’s because of them that artifacts like the Book of Kells were taken to Ireland in the first place.  (An interesting aside, though: when the oddly named Magnus Barelegs came to raid the abbey he opened the chapel that contained the relics of St. Columba and, the story goes, stopped short and ordered his men not to touch it.  What power could make the man who supposedly burnt every tree on the Isle of Lewis check his swing, I don’t know, but I can see how the legend makes for a potent retelling.)
For a long time, the abbey was just a picturesque ruin.  It was one of the Earls of Argyll who rescued it, restoring the abbey to a workable state while retaining much of its ancient and historical properties.  Today, it’s still a working church and still conducts services; those seeking a deeper sense of communion can even come out and spend a week or two in retreat here, exchanging room and board and the chance at study for daily chores and such.
It’s not a large abbey, but it is weirdly lovely.  An artisan laboured for thirty years to carve the capstones for all the columns in the new cloister; the chapel that formerly housed Columba’s relics has been restored and now is a place for quiet prayer.  Saints of particular interest to the Celtic peoples (like Brigit, who shares a name with one of their great goddesses) are depicted in its tiny stained glass windows…though most windows are clear, letting in a clean, bright light that made my photographs look a bit as though I were trying too hard.  And what is, we were told, officially the very first Celtic cross ever carved – St. Martin’s cross – stands just outside St. Columba’s chapel, situated so that the light from the sun will cast its shadow to the chapel door.
In the nave, little clusters of quartz pebbles mark the graves of men who died so long ago their names are lost; they were found during the restoration.  The baptismal font is carved with Celtic designs that mimic the crosses outside; a plain silver cross sits atop the altar.  Stairs lead up to a tiny room barely large enough to sit in that holds a chair, a window, and a niche for prayer books – and nothing else; on the door is carved “Stand Fast.”
There are, here and there, elements that make me think as much of pagan acts of faith as Christian ones.  Seashells and stones and little trinkets are left in a window in St. Columba’s chapel.  Ferns sprout incongruously from the walls both within the abbey and without; these are, I’m told, a rare kind of fern that really shouldn’t be able to grow here.
As we explore, a service begins; as if on cue the sky brightens and sunlight spills over everything.  The wind outside the cloister is no less sharp or harsh or cold, but the change in the light underscores the point. Iona is a thin place, and good for contemplation.  Everyone seemed to feel something of the power of the place; Mark says there’s something about the austerity and the quality of the light that brings with it a sense of deep sacredness.
I obtain a trinket for my mother as thanks for her contribution to my funds for the trip: a tiny Celtic cross that echoes the ones outside, wrought in silver.  For myself, a different sort of trinket: a fragment of Iona greenstone, a weird combination of nephrite and marble that is reputed to have nebulously mystical properties.
The ferry ride back is even rougher than before as the wind picks up farther, but it is at least blessedly short; the sunlight stays with us as we return to Craignure, dappling the vivid green of the hills and making our next stop, Duart Castle, look impressive even with its unwieldy armor of scaffolding.
Duart Castle is the ancient home of the MacLeans, and is still owned by them; we were really just there to have a quick look round, as the place was about to close to the public any minute.  Had an unsuccessful attempt to geocache despite, I think, standing right next to it, though both of us accidentally discovered that stinging nettles are a thing in looking for it.  (I think I got off rather lightly, overall.)
A long ferry ride to Oban later we went for dinner at Oban Fish and Chips, centre of a local controversy some years ago when a BBC celebrity I’ve never heard of proclaimed their fish and chips “the best I’ve ever tasted.”  Good for them!  Less good: a second fish and chip shop apparently tried to sneakily suggest he’d said it about THEM instead.  It was written up in the local paper some time ago.  (Drama!)
Be that as it may, they were indeed excellent fish and chips, and the portions were MASSIVE; my “fish tea” would easily have been enough food for two people, really.  It was with very full stomachs indeed that we made our way up to the day’s final stop, as evening set in over Oban: “McCaig’s Tower,” a curious structure at the very peak of the Oban hills that vaguely resembles the colosseum, except all the arches are pointed.
Mr. McCaig was apparently a local banker who also fancied himself an art critic and philosophical essayist; his grand plan was to build a great tower in the middle of this construct and fill it with statues and portraits of his ancestors. It was to be a grand monument to his greatness – and if it provided some extra work for unemployed stonemasons, so much the better.
Unfortunately, he died before the grand project could be completed.  Oh, he left enough money to finish it, right enough – but, you see, his sister rather wanted all that delicious cash.  So it was that a deal was struck with the city: they could have the tower if she got the cash.
And so it was. Now “the crown of Oban” has worked its way into much of the city’s branding.  I wonder how Mr. McCaig would feel about that?