Many moons ago (during the summer of 96 ) I graduated from the University of Edinburgh after four years of partying, punctuated with frantic bouts of study. A large chunk of my studies had been devoted to Scottish history. Through those studies I became fascinated with the Isle of Iona. A few weeks after graduating, I visited the island for the first time.
Since then I’ve returned countless times, turning Mr G into an Iona aficionado too. My daughters would probably also confess to having a soft spot for the Hebridean isle. What child doesn’t dream of visiting the burial place of Macbeth after all?
In twenty-two years I’ve only spent one night on Iona. Thankfully, we rectified that last month with a weekend break on the island.
Day 1 – Isle of Iona
Swapping the rat race for Isle of Iona calm
Catching an early ferry from Oban, we arrived on Mull and wound our way towards Fionnphort to hop on the Isle of Iona ferry.
Minutes after stepping off the ferry we’d checked into our lovely, garden view room at the Argyll Hotel.
Our en-suite had a bath tub and smellies from Scottish Fine Soaps – perfect for a bubbly, soak after hiking.
Rumbling stomachs told us lunchtime had arrived, so we left our bags and set off in search of food.
A leafy lunch at the Iona Heritage Centre
We lunched at the Iona Heritage Centre’s Garden Cafe. The quiet, leafy garden was the perfect place to kick-off our relaxing island escape.
Soup and toasties hit the spot perfectly.
After lunch, we meandered north towards Iona Abbey, stopping briefly to say hello to some heilan’ coos.
Iona Abbey – still enchanting after 22 years
Iona has been an important place of Christian worship since Saint Columba arrived in 563 AD.
The modern-day church was re-built from a ruinous shell in the 1960s, but its historic heart is 13th to 16th century.
As we approached the entrance to the abbey I heard Mr G mutter “oh no, not again”. Soon he was snapping ornate Celtic crosses and I was left to indulge my history obsession.
Tòrr an Aba is a rocky knoll in front of the abbey. It’s where Saint Columba’s writing shed is thought to have stood. The view from the summit would inspire anyone to put pen to paper.
The boy looked pleased with himself and posed happily for a photo on top of Tòrr an Aba (despite a stiff breeze threatening to whip his whiskers off).
The abbey interior is simple and understated, but there are some lovely stained glass windows, and the carved pillars in the cloisters are a work of art.
One of my favourite artefacts Inside is St Columba’s Pillow. The circular stone marked with a cross, was discovered by a crofter in 1870. It was thought to be the stone pillow that Saint Columba slept on, which later marked his grave. There’s no evidence to back up this theory though.
Visiting Iona makes me appreciate just how lucky we are in Scotland to be surrounded by so much history.
Take St Martin’s Cross for example (one of Iona’s four high crosses). For the past 1,200 years it’s stood on the same spot, bearing silent witness to Viking raids and royal burials.
No visit to the abbey would be complete without me paying homage to my favourite medieval knights in the Abbey Museum.
Scotland’s finest medieval grave slabs were carved by stonemasons on Iona. The detail on them is incredible – they always leave me awestruck.
A wee ramble to Iona’s north beaches
After leaving the abbey we continued north, stopping frequently to snap photos.
Approaching Iona’s north beaches we couldn’t contain our excitement when we caught a glimpse of turquoise water. “Oh wow, look” we cried as we sprinted towards the sand like lunatics.
The boy charged across the beach, before clambering onto rocks to peer into rock-pools.
The machair was teeming with birds, and every so often they’d shoot out of the grass and fly in a loop. It delighted the boy, and another fast running frenzy ensued.
As we trudged back to the hotel the sky turned grey and the heavens opened. Ahead of us, a stooped figure wearing a brown hooded robe swept silently out of the abbey grounds. I stared in disbelief. Was this manifestation a medieval monk? It turns out I was staring open-mouthed at an elderly lady wearing a long brown raincoat.
Home comforts and fine dining at the Argyll Hotel
Back at the hotel, the boy donned his drying robe and settled down for a snooze.
We dined in the sunroom that evening.
There’s a misconception that Scottish cuisine is dominated by the deep-fried Mars Bar and all things offal. Yet up and down the country you’ll find exceptionally good restaurants in unexpected corners.
The Argyll Hotel is one of those culinary gems. The hotel’s organic garden produces a bountiful supply of fresh fruit and veg, and meat, seafood and cheeses are sourced locally.
Mr G and I waxed lyrical through three fantastic courses, only stopping to gaze outside at the view or quaff prosecco.
We started with garden carrot and coriander falafel, cashew nut puree, pickled beets, basil pistou radish and spinach for me, and Isle of Mull scallops, pea and garden mint puree, Iona crab and cucumber wraps, leek and apple salad, scallop roe and tarragon pate for Mr G.
For main Mr G devoured the ‘catch of the day’ which was stone bass, and I tucked into charred cauliflower florets, garden lovage gnocchi, kohlrabi & cabolo nero salad, spring onion mojo dressing and cauliflower leaf hummus. I love gnocchi, but it’s usually heavy. This was as light as a feather and the best I’ve ever eaten.
We finished with Canadian butter tart, smoked peach puree, brown butter ice cream and nut crumble. The ice cream was out of this world.
As we walked the boy after dinner, we were treated to a gorgeous display of candy floss clouds and bobbing boats.
It was a scene of perfect tranquillity.
Day 2 – Isle of Iona
hiking in heather and sunshine
We woke the next morning to the sun shining – yay.
We ate a tasty cooked breakfast in the sunroom, champing at the bit to get outdoors.
Buoyed by caffeine we left the hotel and headed south.
Although only a short hop from the village, Iona’s south beaches and coves are relatively people free.
After running out of beach to walk on, we left the shore and followed a faint path inland.
We arrived at a pretty cove surrounded by heather covered hills. The boy bounded into the sea and I watched him play, laughing at his antics.
Mr G went off to find something dangerous to climb – he succeeded. The rocky vantage point he chose had a sheer drop on one side, and a steep slope on the other. He climbed it effortlessly, but descended less gracefully, gathering speed as he went. He arrived back on the beach running at full pelt.
Walking in the footsteps of St Columba
We partially retraced our route, then turned west towards Iona’s 9 hole golf course.
In early summer the distinctive call of the corncrake can be heard along this route.
We crossed the golf course to the wonderfully named Bay at the Back of the Ocean, hoping to watch a collapsed sea cave known as Spouting Cave shoot seawater high into the air. The sea was calm, and Spouting Cave gave a half-hearted splutter then was still.
We left the shoreline and followed a rocky track uphill.
We stopped briefly at Loch Staonaig to admire the bonnie bloomin’ heather and to set the boy up for a nice floral photo. He posed like a pro.
A short while later we made a heathery descent into St Columba’s Bay. The rocky beach is where Saint Columba arrived on the island in 563.
The bay is one of our favourite spots on Iona.
A short scramble up a rocky outcrop on the beach rewards with a gorgeous view.
The boy tackled the rock like Spiderman, then sat at the top gazing into the distance. I sat with him – Mum and boy enjoying some quiet contemplation together. Mr G wandered off to snap photos from the end of the rock. It was so nice to sit in silence for a while.
To the south I could just make out the mountains of Jura rising from a shimmering sea. I felt a twinge of longing to return.
Our efforts had given us an appetite, so we clambered down from our rocky perch and headed back to the village.
We were ravenous by the time the village came into view.
Lunch al fresco at the St Columba Hotel
We decided lunch would be eaten al fresco in the lovely garden of the St Columba Hotel.
Seated in the garden with soup, scone, wine and the sun beating down, I was in no hurry to move.
Judging by the way Mr G was ‘quenching his thirst’ with beer, I didn’t suspect he’d be badgering me to recommence our hike any time soon.
The boy looked like he was there for the duration too. Lying flat out on the decking, he was enjoying a well-deserved, sunny snooze.
More history and new hats!
Two hours later, we left the St Columba Hotel and headed to the centre of the village. We’d spotted bobble hats in the window of the Iona Craft Shop. With a holiday to Iceland approaching we’d convinced ourselves that new hats were a must. Plus, by buying Scottish knitwear we were supporting the local economy. When you looked at it that way, we were almost duty bound to buy hats.
We left the gallery, me the proud owner of a lovely Fair Isle patterned hat and Mr G with a natty, heilan’ coo number.
Shopping done, we stopped at the ruins of Iona’s medieval nunnery.
I’ve often wondered what the nuns who lived in the nunnery would have been like. I imagine pious and prim ladies, yet carved on the nunnery wall is a worn figure thought to be a sheela-na-gig (a naked female figure with legs spread). It was meant to ward off evil, but it’s hard to imagine medieval nuns passing it without blushing.
Back at the hotel, we sat in the garden for a while. I don’t think there’s a hotel in Scotland with a finer view.
Day 2 – another incredible dinner
We ate in one of the hotel’s guest lounges that evening so the boy could join us for dinner.
We worked our way through tempura green tomatoes, monkfish, more gnocchi, a selection of dessert made from garden vegetables (surprisingly sweet and delicious) and a cheeseboard.
It was another superb meal.
Old romantic, Mr G had brought a bottle of champagne to Iona with him. He’d hoped we could drink it on the summit of Dun I as we watched the sun setting, but clouds put paid to his plan. (I’ve written about Dun I before, so if you’re interested you can read about it here).
The beach was deemed a suitable alternative, so we found a spot outside the hotel and popped the champagne into a rock-pool to cool.
Within seconds Mr G’s arms were flapping like a windmill. We’d been joined by a swarm of midges.
Defeated, we retreated to our room to drink our champagne sans midges.
leaving Iona – A stormy departure
The next morning we woke to grey skies, heavy rain and an extremely choppy sea. I didn’t think the ferry would sail, but was advised CalMac would manage the crossing no bother. Drat, no stranding on Iona for us then.
After breakfast we said our goodbyes and left to catch the ferry.
We boarded, dripping wet and with heavy hearts. Our trip had flown by far too quickly.
Our crossing to Mull was rough, but instead of feeling nervous I felt exhilarated.
The boy’s sea legs held fast. He wasn’t bothered by the rocking of the ferry, or the seawater seeping under the passenger lounge door.
Back on Mull we peeled off our wet waterproofs and piled into the car.
It was back to the rat race for us – traffic jams, crowded streets, working 9-5 and longing for island escapes.
Until next time …