Iona is an enchanting, magical, and very special place. Today some 140,000 people make their way here each year. In doing so, they follow in the footsteps of pilgrims who have been coming to Iona since not long after St Columba's arrival in AD563: and of tourists who have been visiting for over three hundred years since Martin Martin published his guide to the Hebrides in 1703. Samuel Johnson visited Iona in 1773 and commented: "That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona".
Iona is a small island some 3½ miles long and, at its widest, 1½ miles wide. It is aligned approximately north east to south west, and lies just under a mile off the south western tip of Mull. It is geologically distinct from its larger neighbour, and what you find is a generally low lying island with a rocky spine that rises to a high point of 100m: and a selection of lovely white beaches.
These include, on the western side of the island, the wonderfully named Bay at the Back of the Ocean. The island has been in the care of the National Trust for Scotland since 1979.
Iona's proximity to Mull places it a short ferry ride and some 38 miles by road from the terminus for the Oban to Mull Ferry at Craignure. Anyone thinking of driving across Mull needs to know that this will seem a long 38 miles as it is entirely along single track roads, and in normal traffic conditions the journey will take at least an hour.
You can also get to Iona by booking with one of a number of companies who run day-trips from Oban via the ferry and by coach. The road across Mull ends in the village of Fionnphort, and from here you catch the Iona Ferry for the ten minute hop across the Sound of Iona to the island itself.
The Iona Ferry, the MV Loch Buie, lands you at the main (and only) village on the island, Baile Mòr (or Big Town, though it is anything but). Only residents and essential service providers can take vehicles on the ferry, so like most visitors (both today and back through time) you will probably be on foot. Everywhere you are likely to want to go on Iona is a short walk from the ferry slipway, and the comparative absence of vehicles really adds to the wonderful atmosphere of the island.
Having disembarked from the ferry, the established tourists' route leads you up the slight hill ahead until you come to the reddish stone ruins of Iona Nunnery on your right. A gate in the wall gives access to the body of the ruins of the nunnery, which was built in the early 1200s by Reginald MacDonald of Islay, one of the sons of Somerled.
Despite appearances, this is actually one of the best preserved medieval nunneries in Britain. Reginald installed his sister Bethoc as its first prioress. The remnants on view today show the nunnery had a church and cloister, and in many ways was a miniature version of Iona Abbey, which comes into view ahead as you exit the far gate of the nunnery grounds.
As you follow the road towards the abbey, beyond a field to your left you can see the manse built in 1828, which now serves as the Iona Heritage Centre. Near it is Iona Parish Church, which is open to visitors. On a corner in the road a short distance from the church is the free-standing MacLean's Cross, a rare survivor of the hundreds of stone crosses that dotted Iona prior to the Reformation.
The road onwards is dominated by the steadily growing bulk of Iona Abbey, which you access via a gate on the right. Make sure that the pull exerted by the abbey doesn't cause you to overlook another of Iona's treasures, beyond the wall to your right as you approach the abbey. Here you find Relig Odhráin & St Oran's Chapel: the oldest religious building on Iona, standing within an even older graveyard, the burial place of generations of Scottish kings.
And then you come to the highlight of any visit to Iona, its abbey. It is difficult to believe today that this stood as a crumbling ruin from the late 1500s until the 8th Duke of Argyll started preservation work in the years from 1874. In 1899 he transferred ownership to the Iona Cathedral Trust, and in 1902 work began on a restoration that was only completed, under the auspices of the Iona Community, in 1965. In 2000, care for the abbey, nunnery and historical monuments was passed by the Iona Cathedral Trust to Historic Scotland.
Today's visitors to Iona Abbey can only marvel at the quality of the workmanship that went into transforming a ruin back into a living, breathing place of worship. During your visit make sure you leave time to see the intimacy of the Michael Chapel, at the rear of the abbey complex, while near it is the abbey infirmary, now the Infirmary Museum. This is home to one of the best collections of stone crosses and grave slabs you are likely to find anywhere in Scotland.
The main religious and historical attractions are the key elements of any visit to Iona: but there is much, much more here besides. The Iona Community operate a gift and book shop opposite the abbey, and the island also offers a further bookshop, other shops, a pottery and a gallery, and an arts and crafts centre.
There are also two hotels, the St Columba by the road to the abbey and the Argyll overlooking the shore in Baile Mòr. This may only be a very small island, but you could easily spend several happy days under its enchantment!
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