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The pressure of national and international tourism here is more extreme here than anywhere else on the west coast, clearly the tourist office knows its business for Iona. Where else on the West Coast do the tourists feed and then overfeed the seagulls? Where else would an American tourist ask my very English friend from Dorset to pose for a photo as 'one of the locals around here'?! And where else is there a vegetarian dinner, bed and breakfast (no bacon for sure)? Mind you in winter everywhere shuts up, including both hotels, and the place is weirdly deserted, even though nearly 200 people live on the island.
But despite the extreme pressures of tourism, Iona radiates peace and charm, perhaps because of the remarkably temperate climate, or the fertile land in contrast to the formidable backdrop of the cliffs of west Mull, or the centuries of Christianity (of which there is a lot around after being brought here from Ireland by St Columba who arrived in the 6th century), I don't know. Certainly the wonderful quality of the light attracts artists, and the views across to Mull constantly amaze. And it attracted Kings from three countries to be buried here - Scotland, Ireland and Norway.
Although the anchorage is slightly dodgy and exposed, with a tedious swell and tide, it would be a shame for any boat not to stop, for a few hours anyway. It is frustrating not to be able to spend longer here. But you can always anchor in the Bull Hole, walk to Fionnphort - or even anchor there, although it is tricky with the ferry and various cables - and take the ferry.
The Iona Heritage Centre is a small and informative museum, with a lovely hidden away café and shady garden (not open evenings). It is in the old manse, another Telford, as is the adjacent 1828 parish church although it has been switched around inside so the original pulpit which was on the south wall has gone, and there is more of a lectern instead - rather dull.
Wait until later in the day when most of the tourists have departed by ferry back to Mull, but not too late or everywhere will have closed, before taking a look at the Abbey in peace and quiet (you can always escape later across Iona Sound for a more comfortable anchorage in the Tinker's Hole or the Bull Hole). The Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, was destroyed in the 16th century Reformation and lay more or less derelict until the mid 20th century when George MacLeod founded the Iona Community which remarkably brought together ministers and craftsmen to restore the Abbey to what you see now. Maybe it is a bit too tidy and thus sterile, but still an astounding achievement, and it is fascinating to compare the interior stonework - some new, other bits old and weathered from being so long in the open air. Lots of work for stonemasons here. The adjoining museum, opened in 2011, is very well done. Lots of high crosses and graveslabs. These days everything is looked after by Historic Environment Scotland but the Iona Community remains very active, a 'dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship'. 'Pevsner' as ever hits the nail on the head 'This is no ruin merely arrested in its decay to charm or intrigue the tourist but a working church restored to worship and religious study, brought back to the island, however improbable it may seem, by 20th century faith'. The 12th century St Oran's chapel in the Abbey grounds is a favourite of mine - very small, very quiet, very simple.
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St Oran's chapel
"For anyone who thinks at all it is impossible to approach this low, rugged, treeless island without at least some sense of wonder; some questionings as to the working of mind over matter" Frank Cowper 1896
The ruined Augustinian 12th century nunnery, again abandoned after the Reformation, is wonderful with carefully tended flowers growing on the old walls and in a wild garden. It was not quite as neat when Pennant visited in the 18th century: "The floor is covered some feet thick with cow-dung; this place being at present the common shelter for the cattle; the islanders are too lazy to remove this fine manure, the collection of a century, to enrish their grounds". He clearly had a very low opinion of the inhabitants "the most stupid and the most lazy of all the islanders" !
There is something very mystical about all this early Christianity; as a baptised and confirmed member of the Church of England, but no longer a believer if ever I was, it is impossible not to be affected by this place. Certainly years ago one of our crew was - she bunked off and took the bus home to London! The Iona Community welcome centre, gift and bookshop across the road from the Abbey has the biggest collection of religious books I have ever seen.
There are a number of food and crafty shops to wander around in the only village, and you can of course stock up on bread and milk if nothing else. There are a couple of Hotels which I have not properly explored. New owners took on the Argyll Hotel in 2012 (ph 01681 700 334). It has an excellent position and is more scenic outside than inside. The road in front of the Argyll Hotel is particularly charming, and note the Post Office. The St Columba Hotel (ph 01681 700 304) is an altogether grander place.
For young children, Martyrs' beach, right by the anchorage, is a tiny paradise of fine sand and turquoise sea, and at the right time of the year there are corncrakes calling. For the energetic, bikes are for hire to explore the island.
And if you must, there is - amazingly - an 18 hole golf course, so informal it is free. It is in a fabulous setting on the bright green machair less than a mile from the pier, no club house, no toilets but plenty of sheep and cows, and a bull. I could even be tempted to take up golf if I lived here. There is a good walk across the course to St Columba's beach at the south end of the island, about an hour from the anchorage. Great views out towards Jura, and an excellent variety of smooth sea-worn stones on the vast stony beach - granite, marble, limestone and so on. The great man himself came ashore here in his coracle in 563. On the way, just past the lochan above the golf course, turn uphill south east and then down to the rocky coast where you will find the very obvious remains of an abandoned - in 1919 - marble quarry (grid reference 268218).
From the George Washington Wilson and Co. Photographic Collection, courtesy of the University of Aberdeen. Ref 3792/C2540
The Abbey in the 19th century
So many, many tourists
"Perhaps in the revolutions of the world, Iona may be sometime again the instructress of the Western Regions" speculated Samuel Johnson in 1773 when he surveyed the ecclesiastical ruins and poverty that was then Iona. And that is indeed what has happened, at least partially.
St Columba's beach
A display in the Heritage Centre