On my wall hangs a picture by Scottish landscape painter John Lowrie Morrison, showing a brilliant white shell sand beach washed by a sea of aquamarine and turquoise. Although almost childlike in character, the picture buzzes with latent energy, the brooding peaks of distant Rhum suggesting an incoming storm on the way. Visitors are surprised when I point out that this is a picture of Scotland and not St Lucia or Turkey’s Lycian Coast; after all, surely it always rains in Scotland, doesn’t it ?
The brilliant colours of Scotland’s West coast are one of the country’s greatest surprises for visitors; one minute you can stare out across a steely, cold sea under a gun-metal grey sky; however, wait five minutes and the whole landscape comes to life as the sun bursts through. The whole scene is dynamic and tactile in a way not found often in Continental Europe.
Nowhere illustrates this more than the magical Isle of Iona, an island jewel to the West of Mull, pounded by Atlantic breakers and inextricably linked with the life of Saint Columba. Columba founded a Celtic monastery on the Island in AD563 and introduced Christianity to much of Scotland. Later, Iona became the chosen destination of artists, most notably the renowned Scottish Colourist painters, including Cadell and Peploe, who were attracted to Iona by the intense colours, the clarity of light and the superb natural setting of the Island.
As a result of Columba, Iona became one of the most significant religious centres in Western Europe. As many as 48 early Scottish Kings are reputed to be buried in the churchyard, along with kings from Norway, Ireland and France. Although this is sometimes disputed, the burial ground was certainly significant for the Lords of the Isles and Chiefs of the Clan Macleod. The fabulous Book of Kells was also scribed on Iona by monks before being taken to Ireland for safe keeping from Viking raids. The Abbey was significantly restored during the 19th Century but has still managed to retain much of its early Celtic Christian character.
The sheltered Eastern side of Iona, where the Abbey and the majority of houses are located, receives the bulk of visitors to the Island. Most days there is a surge of visitors around lunchtime when tourist buses disgorge day trippers eager for a quick visit to the Island. On the whole though, Iona feels remarkably peaceful with the wild Western, Atlantic facing coast offering the greatest solitude and most spectacular scenery. The short walk over to the West coast provides breathtaking views out over a myriad of small islets, with a huddle of perfect secluded bays and white sand beaches tucked away amongst the rocky coastal terrain. If you’re lucky (as I was) you might even see a school of bottlenose dolphins making their way around the headlands, leaping gracefully out of the water just to add to the spectacle.
From Iona, it’s possible to get a boat out to the Island of Staffa, made famous through Mendelsohn’s “Hebrides” overture, which the composer wrote following a visit in 1830. Staffa is a wonderful, rugged island perched right on the very edge of the Europe. The remarkable, hexagonal basalt columns, echo the structure of the Giant’s Causeway over the Irish Sea in not-too-distant County Antrim. The Cave has been gouged out by wave action through the millennia to create its present unique form. In Celtic myth Fingal’s Cave is linked with the legendary Irish Warrior, Finn MacCumhaill who lived around 250AD. It’s possible to enter the cave on foot, an experience described by Sir Walter Scott as,
“…one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld. It exceeded, in my mind, every description I had heard of it …composed entirely of basaltic pillars as high as the roof of a cathedral, and running deep into the rock, eternally swept by a deep and swelling sea, and paved, as it were, with ruddy marble, baffles all description.”
Standing right on Staffa’s highest point really does feel like being on the edge of the World; the perpetual motion of ocean currents and tides, the cry of seabirds, the smell of salt spray and shimmering reflected light casting a potent spell. However the boat will not wait forever; the long trip back to Iona and then across the Island of Mull towards the Scottish Mainland awaits. I was glad I made the trip though to this truly remarkable outpost of Scotland.