Visiting Scotland had been on my “must” list for years. I don’t know exactly when it caught my imagination, but my undying love for the Outlander books for more than a decade certainly played a part. After my parents and I visited Ireland (still our favorite trip to-date), we decided that Scotland was the logical next step.
Our trip was honestly kind of a mixed bag, because the weather just didn’t cooperate for most of the trip. We visited at the beginning of September, but they were having a super cold and wet summer—even the locals up in the Highlands and islands were complaining about it.
The time we spent on the tiny Isle of Iona were the one exception, though. For three days we had picture-perfect weather, which allowed us to soak in the peaceful beauty and history of the island. And I completely fell in love…when I look back on our Scotland trip, the few days here were easily our favorite part. I’m hoping that my photographs below will convince a few of you that this little remote corner of Scotland.
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We took a ferry from Lochaline on the mainland, over to Fishnish on the Isle of Mull. Then we drove the (sloooow) scenic route around to Fionnphort (known for its pink rocks), where we parked our car and waited for the ferry over to the tiny Isle of Iona. Almost no outside cars are allowed on Iona (you have to have a special permit), so we hauled our luggage on foot (Tip: leave any things you don’t need in the trunk of your car, where they can’t be seen).
We had a break in the rain, which meant we could enjoy the waves and clouds on deck for the 10-minute ride over.
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Once we arrived, our B&B host met us at the ferry and drove us over to their home, since we had all our luggage with us. The weather wasn’t quite cooperating, but we walked down to the town for dinner (only a 10-minute walk or so).
The next morning I was up early to get out and explore the island, so put on my running clothes and ventured out. It was fairly dark and gloomy, and chilly rain was spitting at me a bit. At first it looked like the sunrise would be a wash.
Then all of the sudden a little light peeked over the horizon, and the clouds started to rush away.
There it is.
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I couldn’t believe it. Out of nowhere, the most stunning sunrise developed and literally took my breath away! I can’t even really claim to have gotten much exercise that morning, because I was stopping every few minutes to snap pictures.
I hit the town and pier, then kept going past the ruins of the Iona Nunnery (cira 1203) on the corner of town, toward the famous abbey of St. Columba.
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The now-restored abbey was founded in 563 AD by St. Columba, and was a center for the spread of Christianity in Scotland among the Picts and Scots. The famous Book of Kells (a beautiful illuminated manuscript) is thought to have been produced here in the 8th century. The monastery weathered multiple Viking attacks over the centuries and the Isle of Iona was even held by the King of Norway for about 50 years (I had no idea!), and while it rose and fell in prominence, it was likely never abandoned altogether.
Fun fact: the cemetery just outside the abbey is reputed to be the final resting place of 48 kings of Scotland, including Macbeth.
And on this quiet, chilly morning, it was beautiful silhouetted against the rising sun.
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One of the things that really strikes you about Iona is a feeling of absolute serenity and quiet on the island. With so few cars on the island (and people as well), it’s like you’ve gone back in time. You can feel the history here.
As I continued on past the abbey, I came upon a group of elderly ladies doing some kind of exercises out in the chilly dawn. Can you imagine having that backdrop for your morning cardio?? Look past them to those shadowy islands and the glow of the sunrise. Absolutely perfect.
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Once I got back to the B&B and we had our breakfast, my parents and I walked back down to the village and explored the nunnery ruins and the abbey a bit, then headed down the road to climb Dun I (“dun-eee”).
The island is only about 1 mile across and 3 miles long, so it’s easy to explore by foot. Dun I is a nice, occasionally-muddy climb (not difficult) that rewards you with a 360-degree view of the island and surrounding islands as well.
I scrambled up to snap a quick pic of my dad, mom, and grandma coming up the path. You do lose the path occasionally but that’s not an issue, just find whatever way up works best for you. You can shorten it and do a bit of a scramble, or go a longer way for a gentler climb.
Totally worth the climb (and slip in the mud on the way down…fell on my butt but somehow neither my coat or jeans held onto the mud long-term).
We lucked out with the most beautiful weather for our hike, clear enough to get good pictures of Mull and other islands in the area. You can actually see a little rainstorm moving on the right in the pic below, which was cool to watch.
Time was starting to get away from us and we had a boat to catch, so we headed back down the hill and grabbed a lovely lunch at the St. Columba Hotel. We wanted to have dinner here one of the nights, but they were booked…make sure to get reservations ahead of time for any dinners in Iona, if there’s a place you specifically want to eat. There are only a few restaurants, so it’s easy for the nicer ones to be full.
For our afternoon we were taking a boat tour over to the mythically-awesome Isle of Staffa, so we wandered down to the pier to meet our boat, and boarded the Iolaire of Iona.
You can read all about our amazing visit to Staffa and the famous Cave of Melodies (and see all the cool pics of the hexagonal basalt stone) in A Day on Scotland’s Magical Isle of Staffa!!
It was awesome to spend the afternoon on the water (I love being on a boat!) and we couldn’t have asked for a prettier day for both Iona and Staffa—seriously, it was the nicest weather of our entire trip. When we returned from Staffa, we walked around a bit and then had an early dinner in town.
This is the view from our B&B walking toward town (notice how you can see the water).
And this is the view walking from our B&B toward the other side of the island, which is where we headed to try and see the sunset on our last night there. You can (almost) see both sides of the island right from our B&B.
We were hoping for a spectacular sunset, but it was cloudy and misty, and quite windy. We got a few tiny glimpses of sunset, but the clouds moved in only a few minutes later and the rest fizzled out.
We were up early the next morning to get the ferry back to Mull, get our car, and head back to the mainland. But tiny Iona really stuck with us for the rest of the trip, and I’d recommend a visit to anyone wanting to really experience the heart of Scotland and unplug for a day or two.
Visting the Isle of Iona
Iona is located in the southern group of Inner Hebrides, along with Mull, Staffa, Ulva, Islay, Jura, and others.
- How to get there: you’ll need to take the ferry from Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull
- You’ll get to Mull from the mainland via Oban/Craignure, or Lochaline/Fishnish or Kilchoan/Tobermory. I found the TripAdvisor forums incredibly helpful in figuring out which of those made sense for our itinerary.
- Check the ferry timetables to make sure you don’t miss the last one out (usually around 6pm). You can find them at the Caledonian MacBrayne website, and no need to buy your tickets ahead of time.
- Where to stay: we stayed at Torrasa B&B, with Sara and Graham’s family and it was lovely
- You can read the TripAdvisor reviews as well, I highly recommend
- This website can help you find a place to stay. Bear in mind that technology isn’t a huge driver on Iona and while people have email, most places don’t have websites. A phone call may be necessary.
- Many people will recommend you stay on Mull instead, and ferry over. There’s definitely more accommodation on Mull, though I’d argue you miss the sunrises and sunsets of Iona, which are peaceful and gorgeous and my favorite part of staying there.
- Where to eat:
- I wish I could remember the two places we had dinner, they were fine though not particularly memorable. Definitely get a reservation at the St. Columba Hotel if you can, or at least have lunch.
- We didn’t get a chance, but I had several recommendations to have a coffee and chocolate brownie in the gardens of the pretty Argyll hotel
- What to do: walk!!!
- Obviously I’ve covered Dun I, and I definitely recommend it. There are a few others I had recommended but we didn’t get to do, outlined here.
- The north end of Iona is about a 15-minute walk beyond the abbey, a beach area which many say is one of Scotland’s most beautiful places and much nicer than the “Bay at the Back of the Ocean” (where we wanted to see the sunset just above). Enjoy the wildflower-strewn machair (grassland) and shell sand beaches and a deep green ocean.
- If you have time, walk across to the far side of the island to the “Beach of Many Coloured Stones”…take a picnic lunch (you can pick up sandwiches in a shop or cafe) and enjoy a beautiful day
- If you’re interested, you can tour the inside of the abbey as well, and make sure to take a walk around the nunnery ruins
- Iona is one of the places you can use as a base to go to the Isle of Staffa
Have I convinced you to visit Iona? Most people don’t get much past the major cities in Scotland, and it’s such a bummer since the Highlands and islands are so amazing!
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