Ruth Craine’s latest travelogue takes us on a journey to the ’three islands.’

‘The cave is well known for its natural acoustics, it is here that the composer Felix Mendelssohn reportedly jotted down the opening to his Hebrides Overture.

Following on from my article about Loch Etive, I decided it might be nice to share some photos and information about our three islands tour, taking in Mull, Staffa and Iona. The tour company we booked with operates from an office on the quay side in Oban, near to the Caledonian MacBrayne (known to most as CalMac) ferry terminal. It was a full day trip starting at 9:30am, arriving back in Oban at 8:30pm. The itinerary for the days was as follows:

The first leg of the journey was to be a 50 minute ferry crossing to Craignure on Mull. That was to be followed by a 1 hour 30 minute bus ride across the island to the little village of Fionnphort, a distance of 35 miles. We couldn’t quite fathom at this point why such a relatively short distance was to take so long, that became clear later.

The next stage of the tour would  be a small boat to Staffa, from there the same boat would take us to Iona. Later in the day there would be a short  hop on a ferry back to Mull. The return long bus trip would have us back in Craignure in time to catch the CalMac ferry back to Oban. On the day of departure we arrived at the ferry terminal as instructed on our tickets, 9:30am for the 9:55am sailing to Mull.

Once on board we headed off in search of breakfast. After a bacon roll and a cup of tea from the not very well organised, over priced cafe, we headed outside to take in the views. The weather was OK, not great, but not raining and the sea state was calm.

On deck and looking out to sea we’d not really any idea what direction we were looking in, or what at. After a few minutes on deck faffing with our iPhones, checking the maps app and trying to orientate the compass, we came to the conclusion that the snow capped mountain in the distance, on the above picture, was possibly, maybe, could be Ben Nevis. A few minutes later our guess was confirmed by a voice on a pre-recorded information message.

Once we arrived at the small ferry terminal in Craignure we were directed to our bus, a double decker. We headed to the upper deck for a better view, heeding the ‘Mind Your Head’ signs as Old Man River can crack his open on a cotton wool ball. 

After we’d left the village behind it soon became very clear why this 35 mile journey was going to take 1 hour 30 minutes. Although we were on and A road, it was single track all the way with passing places. This size of bus on this type of road seemed strangely bizarre. As we proceeded along the route we met every tractor, cyclist, car and bus heading towards us from the Fionnphort direction. It turned out to be an interesting ride.

Although the scenery was lovely, photo opportunities were rare, not helped by the fact that the taped ‘tour guide’ recording informed you about places of interest along the route 200 yards or so after you’d passed them.

It wasn’t until we transferred to our small ‘Islands Tours’ boat, for the 30 minute journey to Staffa that things got a little more interesting.  The skipper stopped so we could have a look at some seals basking on the rocks. Sorry not the best photo, taken on a bobbing boat, with 20 or so people jostling for the best position.

Leaving the seals behind we continued on to Staffa, famous for being the home of Fingal’s Cave. The boat stopped again for a while so we could gaze into the cave from the sea, before continuing around to the jetty. If you look closely at the photo you can just make out some people in blue jackets, on the right just inside the cave. They are standing on the viewing platform which is reached by a walkway across the basalt columns.

The skipper informed us that we were lucky, there wasn’t much of an Atlantic swell, so we’d be OK to be dropped off on the island for an hour. Once we’d all disembarked the boat motored away out to sea, I did start to wonder at this point, what if the weather took a turn for the worse and he couldn’t get back for us, we’d be stuck on an uninhabited island for, well who knows how long ?

Thoughts of being stranded put to one side, as I’ve just mentioned, the island is not home to any people, just wildlife. The National Trust for Scotland own Fingal’s Cave as part of a nature reserve.

According to one legend, Fingal was a Gaelic giant who had a falling out with a giant in Ulster.  In order to fight Fingal the Ulster giant built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. When the causeway was destroyed during their battle, only the ends remained. One is Staffa, the other is Giants Causeway in Antrim.

It actually  became known as Fingal’s Cave after the eponymous hero of an epic poem by the 18th century Scottish poet and historian James MacPherson. 

The cave is well known for its natural acoustics, it is here that the composer Felix Mendelssohn reportedly jotted down the opening to his Hebrides Overture.

The name Staffa is thought to come from an old Norse word meaning ‘building staves’ which look similar to the islands basalt columns. These spectacular columns were formed from a lava flow around 60 million years ago. As the 1200 degrees Celsius liquid cooled, it hardened, shrank and fractured into a regular series of stone pillars as can be seen below in the photo of Clamshell Cove.

After a picnic lunch and a second visit inside the cave,  we went for an explore. As luck would have it, quite by accident we came across some puffins. Prior to us disembarking from the boat, the crew told us  where the best place on the island was to see these iconic birds. It turned out that everyone who’d taken their advice saw nothing, so we though we were very lucky to see these and get a photo or two.

Sat high on the cliffs above MacKinnon’s Cave, these birds nest in burrows and rocky crannies all over the island, where they lay one egg in the summer months. Their main food consists of sand eels, which they catch by diving up to 60 meters below the sea surface.

The time on Staffa, although short had been very enjoyable, but now was the time to return to the boat, assuming it was able to return for us. I must point out that we hadn’t eaten all of our food, just in case.

Luckily we were able to board and make our way to the Island of Iona, a 30 minute journey away. Once there we’d be free to explore for two hours before catching the ferry for the return to Mull.

Iona has been at the centre of Christianity in Scotland since St. Columba’s arrival in 563 AD. Around the year 1200, Reginald MacDonald of Islay, one of the sons of a Gaelic-Norse warlord called Somerled, decided he would revive the Christian traditions which had been mostly lost due to Viking raids. His idea was to turn Iona into a centre of Christianity important enough to rival anything in Europe.

We started off our walking tour around the island with a look in the visitors centre. We then went in search  of the abbey, only to find it was still closed to visitors due to Covid restrictions. It was also mostly covered in scaffolding. Historic Scotland were using the closed period to carry out much needed repairs. I did however manage a photo of the half of the abbey that was building work free, my thoughts being that half an abbey was better than no abbey.

Situated a short walk from the abbey is Caibeal Odhrain, also known as St. Oran’s Chapel. It was the burial chapel of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. It was built in the 1100’s and is the oldest in tact building on the island. The land surrounding the chapel is the final resting place of abbots, monks, great lords and warriors. Tradition says it is also the burial place of kings, but the number of 48 Scottish kings has been recently disputed.

As you can see it’s not the largest church in the world, a photo of Thanks the interior is below.

The inside is unadorned except for this elaborate tomb recess, built into the chapel wall in the 1400’s.

Leaving this lovely little church behind we stopped to eat the remains of our packed lunch, safe in the knowledge that the next two ferry journeys were not in danger of being cancelled due to inclement weather, there was also a pub on this island should we get stranded.

Our next stop was at the ruins of the nunnery.

The earlier mentioned Reginald MacDonald built this Augustinian Nunnery in the 1200’s, his sister Bethoc was its first prioress. It is now ruins, but despite this it remains one of the best preserved medieval nunneries in Britain, and one of only two houses of Augustinian nuns established in a Scotland, the other was in Perth.

With our two hours on the island nearly at an end we made our way back to the small beach by the ferry terminal. We could see the ferry leaving Fionnphort on Mull, it was only a 10 minute trip, so time for one last photo of the beach before our 5:15 pm crossing. The sand on the island is very fine and is almost white.

A few minutes later we were on the ferry making our way back to Mull. What followed was a rather uneventful 1 hour 30 minute bus ride to Craignure. An exhausted Old Man River spent some of the journey taking a nap, whilst I tried to remember all the points of interest mentioned in the out of sync information recording first heard this morning. 

Perfect timing, we arrived at the ferry terminal a few minutes before boarding commenced for our return to Oban. The evening weather was very pleasant, the last photo of the day was taken as we were passing Lismore Lighthouse, with a backdrop of the Ben Nevis mountain range.

The lighthouse stands on Eilean Musdale, an islet to the south west of the isle of Lismore in the Inner Hebrides. The island lies at the entrance to Loch Linnhe, it is separated from Lismore by a sound of about a quarter of a mile across. The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1833 at a cost of £4260.

At 8:30pm we docked in Oban, an 11 hour day trip at and end, and well worth the time taken, even taking into account the bus ride. This was not an adventure you’d want to undertake in bad weather, luckily apart from a few clouds the weather gods were with us today.

Thank you for looking, I hope you enjoyed the narrative and the photographs.

Writing & Images Ruth Craine Winter 2021