Journal writing time in the lounge of the St Columba hotel

I’m watching a group of pied wagtails weaving in and out of the fence close to the lounge window. Beyond them a field of lazily grazing sheep lead my eye to an undulating ocean, more grey than blue.


View from the lounge

The half hourly ferry boat comes into view making its crossing from Fionnphort on the far southwest coast of Mull in a matter of five minutes. Last night, when Keith and I travelled on that ferry at 4:30  we were the only passengers but this morning our morning walk just happened to coincide with the arrival of the ferry on Iona and in minutes multicoloured raincoats were bobbing about the slip like brightly coloured row boats on a wavering sea. Within five minutes the group had split into two faction: those heading directly to the abbey, and those eager to fortify themselves in the  Martyr’s cafe before heading inland. We stepped into  cafe for a moment ourselves, just to see what was on offer for lunch but the long queue and its accompanying noise after our isolated walk was just too much to bear and we settled on a picnic lunch. With sandwiches from Spar and black charcoal cheese from the Low Store with Haggis flavoured crisps we were all set for our picnic chez nous.


Indoor picnic with Haggis chips and charcoal cheese

Beyond the ferry the white houses of Fionnphort faded into the gathering gloom, and soon too the whole of Mull was ‘obscured by clouds.’

Keith sits beside me, absorbed in a book I’d discovered in the hotel library at breakfast time. Written by a retired landscape archaeologist from UC Berkeley the book documents her six month stay on Iona. I had glanced through it remarking on her strong sense of place, something that I share with her, and soon I found references to The Bay Bridge, Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and even Walnut Creek. It explores her relationship with her father and children as she describes the landscape of Iona. Keith was quick to add it to his ‘must read’ list and later managed to download it so that her could dip into it on our trip whenever the opportunity presented itself. A couple of days later I found Highland Cottage where she had stayed, just across from Iona’s post office. img_8766.jpg

Our morning walk had taken us south on the island. The feature of Iona that has surprised me most has been the vegetation. I found myself thinking back to the time I came to Skye with my parents. I was 14 years old, and my dad was fascinated by the effect of the warming gulf stream had on the gardens of Skye. Bright red apples added colour to my photos of often grey sky and sea, and I’ve never seen as many fuschias in such as small area. Wild flowers in full bloom edged the entirety of the three miles of paved road on the island, and the two hotel and school share an expansive organic garden stretching from the St Columba to the ferry.

We crossed the island to the West coast to The Bay at the Back of the Ocean. We crossed the machair part of which is now used as a gold course. I’d learned that word recently reading Peter May’s Black Hose trilogy, and now I had bought his latest book I’ll Keep You Safe at Waterstone’s in Oban wanting something local to read. During this year I’ve purchased a Detective Montalbano book in Sicily, Jane Austen’s Persuasion in Bath, Simon Armitage’s The White Stuff in Haworth, Tony Hawks’s Round Ireland with a fridge in Dublin and  Halldor Laxness’s Independent People in Iceland. Keith’s friend Cynthia, who had invited me to tea in Bath a couple of weeks ago,  had sent me a gift of Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country – a Hebridean journey.

Sitting on the beach at The Back of the Ocean I consumed my picnic elevenses: Haggis flavoured chips and a few swigs from my water bottle from my Donner Party hike! I sat on the brightly coloured pebbles, scattered with brilliant red seaweed and relaxed to the soothing whisper of the green water washing over the pebbles onto the white sand. I

don’t think I’ve ever seen such a colourful array of pebbles. Iona is noted for its green serpentine that is sometimes known as Columba’s tears.  Apart from the remnants of fishing creels that were half buried in the shore  we were the only people, or evidence of people, visible.


Colourful beach at The Bay at the Back of the Ocean


After our picnic lunch and the black cheese, which really WAS totally black, I left Keith to work on his sight reading books I set off to do some more exploring –  with the biggest grin on my face. I had always been a family tradition that on every long trip we wrote down our ‘best’ of the trip: best hotel, best meal, funniest saying, worst campsite. Well, Keith’s quote won best quote of the trip. On seeing a lovely shortbread mold mould in one of the Iona gift shops Keith had said, “Why would you want to make shortbread in the shape of a pineapple?” I pointed out that it was, in fact, a Scottish thistle, and next time I saw a live one, perched on a hillside covered in Heather, I drew his attention to it! I also pointed out the Heather. IMG_8773

I headed north again, trying to find the path that hugs the coast but it seemed to keep coming back inland so i gave up and headed for the farthest point north on the island. It was still very foggy, but just as I sat down on the machair to eat my snack in the shelter of a rocky outcrop the clouds parted and for a few seconds the isle of Staffa and other Treshnish islands came into view. I listened to Arvo Pärt’s Fur Alina which seemed to fit the expansiveness of the landscape here. This was the only spot on Iona that I’ve had internet service too, and I chatted briefly to Anna and Sarah to let them know I’d not disappeared off the ‘edge of the world.’ Rachel’s still zooming around Africa, glamping,  and viewing endangered  white rhinos – not to mention the Victoria Falls.

Later, we checked out the only other hotel on the island, the Argyll, thinking it might be fun to have dinner there, but we both glad that Keith’s friends had recommended the St Columba over the Argyll. It seemed rather dark and cramped compared with the St Columba with its expansive sun lounges and brightly lit dining rooms. We ended up having dinner at the Martyr bar, perched at the very edge of the ocean, where my ‘small’ plate of local mussels, was the biggest serving I’ve ever laid eyes on! Rain streamed down the window as we ate.


Dinner in the Martyr bar