Island of Iona – captivating and rewarding on many levels

The island of Iona is a popular excursion for many visitors to Mull. A spiritual journey for some, for others the beaches and seascapes are more than enough. Take midge cream and factor in enough time to drive across Mull to Fionnphort, for the very short crossing.

You have to take the long (and, inevitably, a bit winding) single-track road westwards along the Ross of Mull – the southerly promontory of this quite large island.

It’s the most popular way to get to the Iona, though there are also mainland operators running boat trips.

But taking that long road west certainly takes a chunk out of your day. Remember that when route-planning.

Take The Long Road Across Mull

Griben Cliffs, Mull
Griben Cliffs, Mull

Let’s say you start from Tobermory. You can enjoy the Sound of Mull, Loch na Keal and the spectacular road that runs by the base of the Griben cliffs (pictured here).

The route then turns inland to drop down to Loch Scridain, then (frustratingly) turns east and round the head of the loch before finally you face west for Iona.

Now just relax and watch for oncoming vehicles, also oncoming sea eagles. (We saw a hen harrier, but it’s not the same….) Take your time. Still a wee way to go.

Eventually, watch out for sheep as you drive through the straggling community of Bunessan (nearly there).

It’s one of those places where the sheep enjoy the pavements, the carparks, the centre of the road and everywhere else.

Fionnphort, ferry for the island of Iona

And finally, you arrive at Fionnphort, where the toilets may be deeply grubby (you have been warned) and the car park is very large, both features indicating the popularity of the island of Iona.

(Phew, thought we’d never get here.)

Ferry to the island of Iona at Fionnphort
Ferry from Iona at Fionnphort with island of Iona in the background. Yes, it’s a very short crossing.

Iona ferry – five minutes from Fionnphort

The island of Iona is best explored on foot. Just as well, as only residents are allowed to take their cars across.

So that explains the large car at Fionnphort. The crossing takes about five minutes.

On the way, the most conspicuous feature is the view of the restored abbey in the shadow of the rocky dome of Dun I – the curiously named island high point.

Iona Abbey, from the ferry. Dun I behind. First impression of the island of Iona
Iona Abbey, from the ferry. Dun I behind.

Iona – ‘spiritual component’ convention?

It is almost mandatory when writing about Iona to mention a sense of spirituality and how many people make the ‘pilgrimage’ repeatedly and are drawn back.

Aside from the spiritual component it is the convention to attach to the island, it is also plausible that many visitors like the island anyway.

Its white sands and the tiny bays, the views from the top of Dun I, the distant colours of Mull and the glitter and wildness of the Sound of Iona can be enjoyed without any kind of hocus-pocus or religious gloss.

In short, the island of Iona is a lovely place and you can interpret it according to your own spiritual needs.

The Relentless Midges of the island of Iona

It’s got terrible midges, by the way. How these monks must have suffered. Midges and Viking raiders. Awful combination, though at least you could hide from the Vikings.

Martyrs Bay and the ferry
Martyrs Bay with the ferry en route for ‘mainland’ Mull. So called because the monks who refused to wear midge cream became martyrs.

So, you leave the ferry and have a choice. Turn right to wander along to the Abbey.

Turn left and eventually the road goes west across the island – eventually – via a sheep-nibbled golf course.

The track peters out at ‘The Bay at the Back of the Ocean’ – Gaelic Camas Cuil an t-Saimh (pictured below.) The white smudge above the shoreline, centre in the picture below, is a ‘spouting cave’.

‘The Bay at the Back of the Ocean’
‘The Bay at the Back of the Ocean’ – Gaelic Camas Cuil an t-Saimh – on Iona.
The Scottish Colourists And the Island of Iona

Here on the island of Iona’s far side, you’ll probably notice hints (no, I mean tints) of the ever-changing colours associated with the Scottish Colourists – Peploe, Cadell, Fergusson and Hunter.

Francis Cadell, after his WWI service, came here to recover, then was later joined by Peploe.

A distinctive body of work was the result: instantly recognisable, with rocks, sand, sea, and also Mull like a great battleship often anchored on the horizon. These canvases, naturally, fetch high prices.

Literal gateway to one of Iona's superb beaches.
Literal gateway to just one of Iona’s superb beaches. Mind you, as a gate, it doesn’t seem to be very effective!  Photo: Harriet Crawford.

Actually, it’s up at the north end, with its own little selection of beaches and coves, where you’ll think you’ve walked into a Colourists’ exhibition.

The interior of Iona
The interior of Iona – though the island is hardly big enough to have an interior. Sound of Iona distant.

And if you decide to circle northwards to find more beaches, you’ll find an Iona mystery.

North of the big bay mentioned above, there are little jewels of coves, where discreet bathers remove more than enough clothing to create midge paradise when it’s warm and still.

But the mystery is how few paths there are. It’s momentarily wild country. Even Dun I ducks down out of sight and navigation is (again momentarily) uncertain.

Iona and the illusion of wilderness

Unless you got here good and early, an irrational fear about the last ferry may come to mind – so good is this illusion of wilderness.

This sense of Hebridean wildness is made worse if you have already, say, spent a day on another Mull island, Ulva, with its friendly wee notices positively inviting you to explore. Unless, it’s all part of a plot by the National Trust of Scotland on Iona to herd you back to the Abbey?

The Mull ferry leaving Iona
The Mull ferry leaving Iona – a five minute journey.

In summary, the island of Iona is lovely. Go for the spiritual component or just the light and colours. Or both.

Don’t go for a drink at the Argyll Hotel at 5 o’ clock though, as they don’t want your business. At least, not when we were there.

They send you round to the Martyrs Bay Restaurant, Cafe and Bar, which is nice of them. (‘Look’, I said, ‘I’m not being a martyr…I just want a beer.’)

And then you finish your drink, as you can see the ferry crossing the Sound of Iona. From there it’s back along the long road across Mull.

You may leave with the sense that there is more to see.

Well, there is – the old Iona marble quarry and a spouting cave for a start. So, take your sketch book the next time and stay over. The island of Iona has an accommodation choice.

More information on other Scottish islands. And here’s Historic Environment Scotland info on Iona Abbey

Finally, it is also possible to visit the island of Staffa from Iona…

Boat trip to the island of Staffa.
Boat trip to the island of Staffa, famed for the basalt columns and ‘Fingal’s Cave’. Photo: Harriet Crawford.