26. Iona

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Tràigh an t-Suidhe, North Iona (c) Duncan Hutt

Please note that we visited Mull and Iona just before Coronavirus advice would have suggested we should not travel.  Had the trip been planned for a day or two later we would not have gone; it is unfair to enter small rural communities with the potential of transferring a virus to an area less well equipped to cope with the consequences.

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Juniper and crowberry with heather (c) Sally Hutt

The north west coast of Iona is wild and remote.  It’s not a long walk from the ferry to the east end of Tràigh an t-Suidhe, the wild beach that lies at the north end of the island, but the wind made it harder than it might have been.  Here sand mixed with jagged rocks and waves whipped up by the wind that nearly caused us to fail to get to the island at all.  The beach walk west was relatively easy but when the sand petered out the route ahead became tougher.  A small path was barely discernible through the landscape of rock and heather, crowberry and juniper, but it climbed up little gulleys, crossed peaty bogs and skirted craggy outcrops.  This was a landscape in miniature, mountains shrunk to mere ripples but each another mini battle to cross.  At its southern end the fertile plains, green grassy fields on the sandy soils, abutted abruptly against the rock.  Sheep grazed the lush grass like bison on the mid-western plains coming up against the Rocky Mountains, albeit in tiny form. In the fertile central belt were the farms and houses that extended away from the very village like village of Baile Mòr.

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St Mary’s Abbey, Iona (and lunch spot) (c) Duncan Hutt
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Abbey stonework (c) Duncan Hutt

The ferry that brought us had rolled about in the Sound of Iona but the island itself had sheltered us from the worst, with a forecast of improving weather we felt sure we wouldn’t get trapped on an island that was closed for winter.  As we reached the Abbey the sun came out and we propped ourselves up in the lee of its sturdy walls for our lunchtime sandwiches.  Greylag geese grazed in the nearby fields and the shrill call of oystercatchers cut through the blustery air.  A celandine or two added a speck of yellow into an island just escaping another winter.

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Barnacle geese in the Sound of Iona (c) Duncan Hutt
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Song Thrush (c) Duncan Hutt

On a summer day Baile Mòr would have been packed with people, trooping from ferry to Abbey, perhaps stopping for a drink at one of the hotels or visiting the heritage centre.  But on a blustery Sunday in March everything was closed and it seemed that we, alone, were the day’s tourists.  We arrived a little early for the return ferry, pre-booked according to the requirements of the winter timetable.  Barnacle geese flew in formation up the Sound of Iona and a unperturbed song thrush hunted on the grass by the upturned boats near the pier.  Here we found the National Trust for Scotland shelter closed.  Clearly word got around and soon a scooter appeared and an apologetic man came to open up for us with his thought that there was no-one on the island that might need shelter.  We had the warmth and relative comfort to ourselves until the ferry brought some cars over from Fionnphort and took us, again alone, back to Mull.

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Leaving Iona (c) Sally Hutt

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