The Isles of Mull & Iona

Mull and Iona are two of the Inner Hebrides, islands off Scotland's western seaboard, and a microcosm of more than 1,500 years of successive waves of settlers and invaders. Sites scattered across these islands tell Scotland's story--culturally, politically and spiritually.
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Mull and Iona are two of the Inner Hebrides, islands off Scotland's western seaboard, and a microcosm of more than 1,500 years of successive waves of settlers and invaders. Sites scattered across these islands tell Scotland's story--culturally, politically and spiritually.

Today, these mere specks in the Atlantic are drawing a new generation of seekers: some are among the Scottish diaspora's 50-million members, others are modern-day pilgrims visiting the spot where Christianity reached Scotland, and many come to see the abundant wildlife--red deer, sea eagles, otters and puffins.

On Mull and Iona, the compelling history and spectacular scenery compete for your attention at every turn--if you aren't eagle-eyed, you are sure to miss a magic moment.

Just moments out of the mainland port of Oban on the ferry bound for Mull, I found myself rushing from one side of the deck to the other, torn between the vistas both port and starboard. My quandary deepened when a traveling companion began to provide color commentary.

"These are the old sea-roads of Argyll, when powerful clans patrolled their territories in oared birlinns," said Gilbert Summers, a Scottish travel writer.

Pointing left at a dramatic silhouette on Mull's craggy coast, he said "Duart Castle: the power-base of the MacLean clan from the 14th-century, though it passed into the hands of the 'top dog' Campbells in the 17th century. The MacLeans didn't buy the ruin back until 1911 and it's now fully restored as the seat of the current clan chief."

From the ferry, we turned onto the A849, otherwise known as "the road to Iona." This 35-mile, single-lane track, in use since ancient times, meandered across steep hills covered in pine, birch and larch. In the folds of valleys, crumbling remains of occasional stone houses stood sentinel.

Given Mull's nickname of "Eagle Island," it wasn't long before I got a glimpse of this cousin to the American Bald Eagle. But I learned that for almost 100 years, nary a White-Tailed Eagle could be found on Mull.

"There is now a healthy population on Mull but that wasn't always the case," explained David Sexton of RSPB Scotland, a wildlife preservation organization. "White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK in 1918 following hundreds of years of persecution. The eagles were accused of attacking livestock and ruthlessly eliminated. The last pair here was known to nest on a sea cliff in about 1877."

In 1975 a project to release 10 eaglets annually began on the Isle of Rum, just to the north of Mull. The program has been so successful that today Mull has about 20 breeding pairs.

Near Mull's southwestern tip, a wild stretch of land called the "Burg" sweeps to the coast of Loch Scridain, one of many sea lochs, or fjords, on the island. In the tiny settlement of Fionnphort we hopped on another ferry for the ten-minute ride to Iona.

Crossing Bay of Iona's turquoise waters, I soaked up the view ahead. Beyond the pier was a cluster of houses; to their right, an imposing abbey commanded half the isle, rising majestically from an immense verdant field. The monastic community here dates to 563 when St. Columba left Ireland for Iona as a missionary, seeking redemption for his role in a battle in which many men died.

"You think it was peaceful on Iona for the monks?" asked Gilbert. "Remember that their tranquil world was utterly changed by the first Viking raids. It was a truly 9/11 moment: when those sails came over the horizon, the monks had to realize their world would never be the same again."

"Later though, the Vikings settled here," he said. "Summer was the Vikings' raiding season--as a Scot whose seafaring family goes back generations, my own name Summers just might come from the Norse from across the sea."

Following in the footsteps of pilgrims past, we made our way to the cloister and crypts of ancient Scottish kings. The marble tomb of the 8th Duke of Argyll, head of the Campbell clan, was prominent inside the sanctuary. He bequeathed the abbey to the Iona Cathedral Trust the year before he died in 1900.

Long before Christianity, memorials to kinsmen were erected on Iona.

"The Bronze Age kerb cairn which sits at the back of my studio reminds me of the pre-Christian presence on Iona and of the deep layers of human occupation on the island," said artist and gallery owner Mhairi Killin, whose mother's family worked as weavers, silversmiths and crofters on Iona. "The island has inspired artisans for centuries; from the Book of Kells in the 8th century to the 20th century painters, the Scottish Colourists."

"For such a small place Iona holds many voices; songs, stories and poems created by Islanders and visitors, words from emigrants and pilgrims' prayers," Mhairi observed. "People often describe a sense of "otherness" whilst here, experiencing a place outside of time."

In contrast to the peacefulness and pale stone structures of Iona, Mull's main town of Tobermory is a bustling little port ablaze in color. The harbor is lined with old houses painted in rainbow shades. Restaurants, inns and shops nestle on the waterfront; among them is the Mull Museum.

"The area was colonized in the mid-5th century by the Scotti, a Gaelic-speaking tribe from Northern Island. They gave us the present name of Scotland," said Phil Siddall, the Museum's curator.

One group of annual pilgrims has itself become an attraction. From May to August, puffins return from the Artic to breed on The Treshnish Isles, which lie off Mull.

"Puffins are posers with a unique sense of the photogenic and very little fear of us lumbering homo sapiens," said Iain Morrison, owner of Turus Mara, which offers wildlife boat tours. "These wee comics do their best profile at less than a meter--no zoom lens required!"

Morrison said he coined the term "Puffin Therapy" after Nature Deficit Disorder became a medically recognised problem of the 21st Century, and "having observed how cheered-up city folk became while communing with puffins."

Iain was born in the croft house his grandfather lived in; while a mariner, his family has been rooted in this landscape for centuries. His dry sense of humor and deep appreciation for his heritage was typical of most Scots I met.

There is lively debate now among Scots about their identity. Next year, a referendum will decide whether Scotland will cede from Great Britain and become an independent nation again. Whatever the outcome, Mull and Iona will endure as places with a spirit uniquely their own.