Day 7 |
May 16, 2010

The Islands Of Iona And Staffa, Inner Hebrides, Scotland

By Dr Chris Edwards, Geologist

Co-ordinates: 56°26’N, 006°24’W

Weather: Light rain showers in early morning clearing to sunny intervals with altocumulus cloud in afternoon

Air Temperature: 12C

Sea Temperature: 9C

Pressure: 1018hPa

Wind: Southwesterly Force 2

Our departure yesterday evening from Islay was southwards and round the southern end of this, the most southerly of the Inner Hebrides. During the latter part of dinner, the pitching of the ship was modest and there were one or two Ooohs! and Aaahs! from some of the guests as the Prince Albert II sailed bravely over a wave or two. During the night there was also a period of pitching as we altered direction towards western Mull and the Sound of Iona and indeed breakfast was somewhat sparse in the number of people in The Restaurant.

A burst of noise from the bow thruster motor and shortly after the rattle of the anchor chain meant that it was useless to try and prolong the comfort of my bed. A quick shower, and a peek out of the window showed a moderately high cloud cover, a modest sea with not too much wind and the island of Iona in the distance.

As I was loading the first group of guests, there was a brief shower but this had stopped before we reached the slipway on Iona as the cloud swept through. After another trip I was then free to meander with a group through the sleepy (or sleeping!) village into the Nunnery site, an early 13th-century group of buildings, stopping briefly to give a few words about the buildings. By this time the sun had started to break through, promising a fine morning. A gentle walk brought the group up to the 15th-century cross at the roadside where we paused to marvel at the skill of the craftsmen at creating this object that had survived virtually unscathed for some 500 years. The serenity of Iona was beginning to work its magic with a lack of cars, noise and the hustle and bustle of some parts of the world as we reached first the ancient burial ground and then the entrance to the Abbey.

It has been some time since I had had the opportunity and luxury of being able to visit the inside of the abbey where a service was shortly to start – it being a Sunday. Meanwhile, I took the time to refresh my memories of the cloisters and the superb range of ancient grave slabs lined up against the wall. We are very fortunate in having this ancient history on our doorstep and yet always wonder how few people actually appreciate how much time and how much effort it took to create these slabs and with only a minimum of tools. In the 12th century there wasn’t the possibility of running out for a new chisel when yours broke on a particularly hard piece of rock. Try stone carving and see!

Leaving there, someone suggested it was worth having a look in the museum. I don’t recollect ever being aware of this small building tucked away behind the main Abbey buildings but it should be on everyone’s “must see” list. Many fantastic grave slabs and the original St Martins cross dating from the 11th century are housed in the museum. Once again I marvelled at the skill of the carvers, having tried to draw out on squared paper an interweaving pattern such as is often found on these slabs.

My duties as a Zodiac driver required that I head back to the pier, although I stopped briefly at the Nunnery again for another quick inspection to reflect on the architecture of the main Abbey and relate it to the remains of the cloisters and chapel in the Nunnery. At least two corncrakes were busy scratching away their less-than-melodious call in the vicinity of the Nunnery. As usual, they were lost to view in the long vegetation, but to hear them is testament to the land use and cultivation techniques utilised in order to preserve at least some habitat suitable for these migrants.

Another cruise vessel had hove into view as the last remaining guests prepared to re-embark the Prince Albert II. A warming glass of Baileys awaited those to whom the vagaries of a Scottish spring were not quite as warm as they might have hoped.

Rounding the southern end of Iona, a short journey accomplished during another “food fest” lunch in The Restaurant, brought a return of the rolling motion as we were again exposed to the North Atlantic swell.

After lunch as we approached the strange geological phenomenon that is the island of Staffa, I took control of the broadcast mic from the Bridge and gave a few comments about the island, its striking columnar jointing and the famous Fingal’s Cave immortalised in the eponymous overture by Felix Mendelssohn. In the background we could easily make out the sub-horizontal nature of the landscape created by the gigantic but now extinct volcano of Ben More on Mull that last erupted around 65 million years ago, the lavas from which helped create the island of Staffa.

Turning away we headed for our next attraction and one that was unscheduled. A visit to the small village of Bunessan on Mull can be easier or more difficult depending on the state of the tide. A scout boat sent in to investigate discovered that shallow water stretched several hundred yards from the shore, which meant that a landing could only be made some ten-minutes walk from the promise of tea and scones (or perhaps something stronger) in the local hotel the Argyll Arms. However, given that the weather was very pleasant, a short walk to work up an appetite for a West Highland afternoon tea was just perfect. I am a scone connoisseur and so was horrified to discover that I talk too much and by the time I had finished answering questions and discussing the finer points of wearing the kilt, the scones had “evaporated”. One of our guests took pity on me and I managed to sample a half a scone that met or exceeded the “Edwards scone quality seal of approval”. Another gentle walk took us back to the pier – it must have been rush hour as 4 cars passed us in 10 minutes – by which time the wind was freshening somewhat and with the sun lower in the sky it was getting cooler. A Zodiac sprint back to the ship and everyone was back in the warmth of the Prince Albert II and ready for dinner.

Shortly after departure from the shelter of Bunessan Bay, the ship started to pitch as we headed to the south end of Tiree, south of Barra and thence towards St Kilda overnight.