My first trip through the western Highlands was a wonderful discovery of old and new. Coming from Ireland originally, I have strong beliefs that the Irish countryside will always be the most beautiful I’ll encounter but I was happy to find stiff competition on these magical islands of Mull and Iona.
I knew things were off to a good start when after collecting my ferry ticket at the harbour in cheerful Oban, I enjoyed some enormous ice-cold oysters opened in front of me at a fresh seafood stall right next to the ticket office. I held on to that marvellous flavour of the sea as we set off, setting the tone for my trip brilliantly. As the weather was crisp and dry, I wanted to take advantage of it so I wrapped up warmly and took in the view from the open air deck, enjoying the picturesque Eilean Musdile lighthouse bathed in the late afternoon light as we passed. On arrival on Mull we drove to Tobermory through the setting sun, catching the brightly painted harbour front just before darkness.
Mull is known for its wildlife as much as its beauty so the following day we went out with some local experts to see for ourselves. The day’s arc was perfect; birds including white tailed eagles in the morning, otters at lunchtime and red deer late afternoon. I was struck by Mull’s changing scenery as we went – volcanic pillow lava causing rocky terrain, soft rolling fields and woodland covered in soft green lichen – all confirming the pure air on the island. Another fun sight was the ubiquitous sheep nibbling seaweed at the water’s edge. I was kept going myself by a lovely spread provided by our guide: hot soup, sandwiches, coffee and cake. I enjoyed a rounded education of the island from nature to history, learning of islanders of times gone by suffering the effects of the Highland clearances and using seaweed to fertilise meagre potato crops by the rocky coast, and returned to Tobermory with insider knowledge of my surroundings.
The Isle of Iona was next on the itinerary, beginning with an early rise and drive to Fionnphort on the opposite side of the Island. We parked the car and could see Iona waiting for us as we boarded the ferry as foot passengers. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was as we alighted but something about Iona is instantly warming. I was lucky to enjoy a tour of a hotel garden by the resident gardener and was delighted to see seaweed feeding the soil as a nod to traditions of the past. Home grown produce is common on these islands to ensure freshness rather than rely on deliveries and I loved seeing beds full of fruit, vegetable and edible flower seedlings waiting for next season’s guests to enjoy.
Though I had planned on seeing it, the Abbey came as almost a surprise on this tiny island, such was its magnitude thrust into sharp relief by its diminutive surroundings. The remains of the nunnery was an interesting wander also, the nuns on Iona having enjoyed a thriving social life on Iona as active members of the community. It was easy to see why Iona had and has a deeply spiritual resonance for some; it feels somehow brighter than the rest of the world when you are there.
But all good things must come to an end and the drive back through Mull brought new discoveries as we went. I returned to Glasgow with warm memories of two magical islands.
Words & images by Caoimhe O’Brien @ McKinlay Kidd