The Independent 1997
My daughter reached roughly twice my size and was making none too subtle hints about my leaving home. I decided not to argue, and set off on a spiritual quest, saying as I left with what I hoped was a stern and decisive air : "I will be back."
My destination was the tiny island of Iona in the Hebrides, home of the 6th century Saint Columba, and reputedly a powerful source of peace and spiritual renewal - an ideal temporary refuge from the complications of city life. The 6th century seems to have been teeming with saints buzzing around doing useful things - according to legend Saint Columba bashed up the Loch Ness monster soon after he arrived in Scotland from Ireland, having quarrelled with the king over a library book.
another famous Celt of that time, Saint Hya, who travelled around on
a leaf, I had to resort to more mundane methods of travel, which did,
however, require saintly patience. Travel by leaf was probably a lot
faster and more ecologically sound than the circuitous routes for my
journey suggested by several helpful members of the Rail Enquiry office
at Euston station.
At Crianlarich, whilst waiting for my next connection (to Oban) I drank strong tea at a little platform cafe with faded travel posters, and waited two hours for a handsome young Scotrail official to arrive with a large key to open the Ladies' lavatory. The West Highland line, opened in 1894, (and with a free copy of a "Window Gazer's Guide" for every passenger), branches off westwards through spectacular scenery to the coast. It passes enormous Loch Awe with its little steamer, the ruins of Kilchurn Castle, a Campbell stronghold struck by lightning in the 1700s, and curves round Ben Cruachan.
Ferries to the islands sail from Oban, Argyll's main town and harbour - but where was I? The Roman Coliseum seemed somewhat disconcertingly to dominate the harbour view. Mr. McCaig, 19th century banker and art critic, decided that the best way to keep unemployed stonemasons busy (and provide a family mausoleum) was to do a bit of job creation on a grand scale, hence the granite replica.
Don't visit the
Tartan Centre if you have a headache - everything (chocs, whisky and
walking sticks etc.) is covered in tartan packaging. In the serious
section upstairs a computor helps you to discover your Scottish connections
and then you can kit up in the appropriate kilt. Amazing how entangled
Japanese and Scottish family trees can be. Unfortunately I didn't have
time to discover the correct tartan for the clan McKindberg as I had
a CalMac ferry to catch, to Craignure on the island of Mull, the next
stage of my journey.
The bus took me to Fionnphort, and from there I sailed a short distance by ferry to the isle of Iona. The point about Iona is that you can happily do very little there. The island is three miles long and one and a half miles wide, there are no pubs and one small hill called Dun I.
I spent much time
walking about or sitting on silvery beaches, thinking about monks, eating
the odd KitKat and looking out to sea at the Treshnish (not to be confused
with the Fishnish or the Mishnish), one of whose islands is shaped like
The early monastery
was rebuilt in the 11th and 16th centuries, ransacked in the Reformation,
and restored again in the 1930s by the Rev. George Macleod who left
his Glasgow parish to set up the Iona Community and rebuild the Abbey.
Anyone can stay
at the Abbey, which has bunk beds and is rather cold. Staying there
seemed to involve lots of joining in and not complaining. Later I investigated
a rival spiritual haven, the Episcopalian Bishop's House, which has
comfy beds, a sunny lounge and T.V., and realised that my spirituality
is not up to much.
Another day I took the Essbee bus (Hughie again) back across Mull and hired a bike to cycle to Duart Castle perched on a spit of land overlooking the Sound of Mull. The castle, dating from the 1300s, is the family home of the Clan Maclean and contains lots of Scouting memorabilia, family photographs of small men with large sporrans and Nanny Wildbore's Pencil Sharpener Collection - Dora Wildbore was the current Lady Maclean's old nanny.
On the way back
from the castle I visited the famous Weaver of Mull, a gloomy man who
discouraged conversation. After some time on and around Iona I realised
that I felt refreshed and restored, both physically and mentally. I
was ready for anything. Which was just as well, because that night i
received a phone call from my daughter, who asked in an aggrieved but
conciliatory tone: "When are you coming home? The bath's leaking, giant
killer ants have taken over the kitchen, and there are bills to pay.."
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