Mull, Staffa and Iona

We were up early today because our itinerary was going to include three ferry trips, two boat trips and three island visits. The ferry terminal is just a couple of hundred metres from our hotel, so we walked over and stood on the end of the queue. Alongside us was the vehicle queue. They put them on first and we followed. We didn’t get away until 40 minutes after the scheduled departure time, but none of the crew seemed to be too concerned about it.

The crossing from Oban to Mull was very smooth. The weather was good and the sea was not choppy, so I went out on deck to take photos. Lots of people had the same idea. Minutes after leaving Oban we had a good look at Dunollie Castle just a short distance to the north. Some time later, on our starboard side we passed the Lismore Lighthouse in the Firth of Lorne, and not too long after that we had a good look at Duart Castle on our port side. It’s the ancestral home of Clan MacLean and it is located near Craignure on the Isle of Mull.

Mull is the largest of the three islands we visited today. It’s part of a group of islands known as the Inner Hebrides. It’s quite a large island, Britain’s fourth largest. It has a population of about 2500 permanent residents, but is a popular tourist destination in the summer. Tourists taking their vehicles across to Mull on the ferry will have to get used to driving on single track roads, as they form most of the road system on the island. There are regular passing sections where a car can pull in to the side to allow someone coming the other way room to get past.

We boarded a double decker bus for the one hour journey across the south of Mull to Fionnphort, travelling along a peninsula known as the Ross of Mull. It’s a brilliant trip, with great views of the Firth of Lorne to the south and Loch Scridain to the north. At times we were driving through dense forest, and then the countryside would open up to broad green grazing land. We saw plenty of sheep and were lucky enough to spot some highland cattle, Scotland’s famous ‘heery coos’. Marg and I spotted a couple of eagles soaring above us. Mull is home to large populations of sea eagles and golden eagles, which apparently are thriving on the island.

My favourite part of the journey was travelling through Glen More, surrounded by the high peaks of the Ben More mountain range. Ben More is Mull’s highest peak, and the only munro on the island. Munros are Scottish mountains higher than 3000 feet (914.4 metres). One of the most beautiful locations in Glen More is the Three Lochs, which apparently are fed by one of the island’s best salmon streams. We passed a number of small villages en route.

The bus journey ended at the small fishing village of Fionnphort. Its small white, sandy beach is bordered on each side by rugged granite boulders. Directly across the water from Fionnphort is Iona, which I’ll write about later in this post.

We were asked to make our way immediately down to the Staffa Tours boat for the half hour trip to Staffa. Staffa is a very small island which lies about six miles due north of Fionnphort. Our boat was much smaller than the ferry and the waters were a little choppier than the earlier crossing, but it was still a fairly smooth crossing. The skipper told us that earlier in the day the swell made it impossible to bring his craft in and disembark his passengers, so we were hopeful that we might have a better outcome when we arrived.

From a distance, Staffa looked unremarkable. But drawing closer, it became clear that this was an island like no other. The island was formed by volcanic lava, which cooled in such a way that its walls are formed of vertical, hexagonal basalt columns. A dominant feature is Fingal’s Cave. Visitors to the island can walk around to the mouth of the cave, but it is not safe to go any further. The cave has been visited many times over the years by famous people, including the writers Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Verne, painter JMW Turner, musician and composer Mendelssohn, and even Queen Victoria once came out here. No doubt each took inspiration from what they saw. Nobody has lived on Staffa for over two hundred years.

We were given just over an hour on the island. Our choice was to walk around the rocky base of the island for a view into the cave or climb the steep stairs and walk to a sheltered cove where puffins were nesting. We figured that as we’d had a good look at the cave from the boat, we’d go look for the puffins. Later, a guy told me that he’d gone to the cave, but building materials had been placed at the entrance, blocking him from even seeing into the cave at all. So I guess we made the right choice.

It was probably a 10-minute walk across the top of Staffa along a marked path to the puffins. It was a bit chilly up there, but thankfully the wind wasn’t howling, and there were not too many exposed sections of the path. There were a few signs along the way requesting us to observe certain behaviours which would protect the birds from the spread of avian flu. The views were amazing – rugged coastline, geometrical basalt formations, high cliffs, wildflowers and bird life. The sun was out and we had blue skies.

We walked over a rise and found ourselves standing just metres away from puffins. There’s something about them that just grabs you. I love all birds, but puffins have always been a species I wanted to see with my own eyes. So this was a very special event for me. The birds were spread out across the top of the cliffs above a sheltered cove. At times they paired up. We watched them going in and out of their nests, which were literally holes in the ground. The birds seemed quite oblivious to the tourists taking photos and at times wandered over to be literally only one or two metres away.

I’d say we probably watched them for about 10 minutes when, suddenly, every one of them turned and flew down from the cliff top and swooped out low over the sea before coming to settle on a calm stretch of water about fifty metres from the shore. It puzzled me for a second, as no one on the cliff top had done anything to disturb them. But then I looked up and saw the reason for their flight. A large predatory skua had arrived and was menacingly circling the area where the puffins nested. For the moment, thankfully we thought, it would have to remain hungry. We waited another five minutes. A puffin warily poked its head out of a hole in the ground, looked around, then flew out to where the others were bobbing up and down on the water.

We left before the birds returned, as it was a long walk back to the landing dock and we had been given a specific time to be there. That was one of the most memorable wildlife experiences I’ve ever had,

Walking back to the boat dock, my attention turned back to the remarkable geology of Staffa, so I took a few more photos. It’s a really beautiful place.

I was sitting out the back of the boat as it headed towards Iona, staring at the rugged coastline of the Scottish mainland, when two bottlenose dolphins suddenly leapt out of the water right in front of me. I brought my camera up, hoping they would do it again. Thankfully, moments later, the boat’s skipper announced that we had dolphins nearby. Everyone flocked to the sides of the boat with their cameras ready as the boat circled the area. The dolphins surfaced again, much to the delight of those around me. The captain told us they would probably come to us, rather than us having to come to them. He was right. For the next ten minutes, as we headed towards Iona, the dolphins swam alongside us, just outside our boat’s wake. At times we could see their ghostly shapes beneath the water and at other times they came right up and cleared the surface. I was amazed with their speed as they kept pace with us for so long. It was the icing on the cake to see the dolphins so soon after visiting the puffins. If you click on the photos below to enlarge them, you should be able to spot the dolphins swimming just outside the wake.

The dolphins eventually left us as our boat entered the calmer waters that lay between Mull and Iona. We were dropped off at the boat ramp. From the water, Iona looked quite stunning, so we were really looking forward to having a couple of hours to explore the island.

Many years ago, my goddaughter Claire gave me a stoneware coffee mug as a gift. She had bought it on Iona. It became a prized possession, the only coffee mug I would use in my office at work. When I told Claire this one day, she told me how much she loved Iona and said it was her favourite part of Scotland. So I was really looking forward to this visit.

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, so we stopped for lunch first. I had a big bowl of Mull mussels. They were delicious. I’m loving the seafood over here. Marg and Janie went off to visit some craft shops while Neil and I walked through the ancient nunnery and then over to the abbey, which was founded by St Columba in the 6th century. The chapel is still in use today. The burial ground alongside the abbey is apparently where 51 Scottish kings are buried, including Macbeth.

Vikings raided Iona on a number of occasions and murdered all of the monks in the abbey. Eventually those who settled here abandoned their Norse gods and converted to Christianity.

The views across the water to Mull are just beautiful. I guess we were lucky to have sunshine and blue skies today, so we saw Iona at its best. It’s a beautiful place. Claire was right.

We took an eight minute ferry trip back to Fionnphort and boarded the bus for the hour long journey through the Ross of Mull back to Craignure. I took a seat where I could enjoy views on the opposite side of the bus to what I’d seen earlier in the day. I enjoyed it just as much again. From Craignure, it was a relaxing 45-minute ferry trip back to Oban. We got in just before 8.30 pm. It had been a long, but very satisfying day exploring the Inner Hebrides.

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