Oban, Mull, Iona and the Slate Islands (April 2022)

I‘ve travelled quite extensively around Scotland so when I had a week off to do more traveling I consulted the map to see where I hadn’t been. Oban, on the west coast, seemed like a good choice - there’s a scenic train journey from Glasgow through the Highlands, and Oban itself is known as the Gateway to the Islands because of its excellent ferry connections.

I was particularly interested in visiting the island of Iona, the site of an early monastery founded by the Irish monk St. Columba, and a place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages.

The scenery on the train journey from Glasgow to Oban is stunning. The journey takes about three and a half hours, and I almost wished it had been longer.

The view of Oban from the hill behind the town, with the islands of Kerrera and Mull in the background. The red and black chimney is part of the distillery, which was established in 1794.

Oban has a nice easy-going feel to it. In summer it becomes very busy with day-trippers but at this time of the year, April, it felt perfect - the weather was great and there was a bustle, but it wasn’t overwhelming.

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This Colosseum-like structure sits above Oban and dominates the skyline. It was comissioned by the wealthy banker John Stuart McCaig partly as a work creation schema for local stone masons. Construction began in 1897 but McCaig died before it was completed, so only the outer walls were built.

I encountered this amazing and rather imperious-looking cat while walking up the hill to McCaig’s tower.

One of the most striking things about Oban was its beautiful setting. This was the view across to the island of Mull one evening; the light on the mountains was ever-changing and always beautiful.

While I had fantastic weather on my visit, the journey to Tobermory, on the island of Mull, was one of the rare moments of rain.  I’d taken the ferry from Oban to Mull (a journey of about 50 minutes), and then the bus to Tobermory. This was the view through the window on the top floor of the double-decker bus. 

I did think the ferry was incredibly good value. A return journey cost something like £7.

The little village of Tobermory, famed for its colourful sea front buildings. It was a little overcast during my visit, unfortunately. Tobermory was the setting for the children’s television series Balamory. It’s quite a big tourist destination these days.

Lunch in the Mishnish Inn in Tobermory, one of the colourful buildings on the seafront - beef stew and a pint of Belhaven stout, both excellent. 

This tsunami of clouds over Mull was visible from the ferry on the return journey.

Next day’s trip was to Iona, a place I’d wanted to visit for many years. Getting there involved a ferry from Oban to Craignure on Mull, then a bus to Fionnphort on the east of the island, then another ferry to Iona.

The weather forecast was perfect; this was the ferry over to Mull.

A Highland cow near Fionnphort doing its own thing. The bus driver lived locally, and knew the cow by name. He was very entertaining  (this was just a normal bus, but they seemed to like doing a tour guide routine), commenting on who everyone we happened to see was, how long they’d been farming, what bad luck such-and-such had because his grandfather had knocked down a standing stone in a field decades ago, etc etc.

Getting off the little ferry from Fionnphort to Iona. The crossing only takes a few minutes.

The Nunnery, and "The Street of the Dead” connecting Iona Abbey to the burial ground, and the landing place at Martyrs' Bay - pilgrims from medieval times would have walked along this route

The grave of the former Labour leader, John Smith, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994. He was buried on Iona - I remember the funeral at the time and thinking what an amazing place it looked. The inscription is hard to make out but it says:

An Honest Man's

The Noblest

Work of God

Reputedly 48 early Scottish kings, including Macbeth, are buried in this little graveyard.

Iona is famed for its elaborate high crosses. This one stands in front of the shrine to St. Columba. It was deliberately placed so that the shadow of the cross lies across the entrance to the shrine at a particular time of the day. 

In the background you can see the rocky outcrop on top of which St. Columba reputedly had his writing hut.

The little stone shrine built over the original wooden one that held the relics of St. Columba. Apparently the monks dug up Columba’s body after a couple of years to put it in a casket in the shrine. Understandably they were a bit concerned about being haunted by his ghost after this slightly un-Godly treatment.

They were just taking down the Easter decorations as I was visiting the abbey.

The cloister of the abbey had a great sense of serenity, especially in the beautiful sunshine.

What must be the most picturesque setting for a post office in the British Isles.

The colours of the sand and water were just amazing.

Sitting outside a little cafe on the island - the sounds of the birds singing was wonderful.

I thought Iona was going to be the highlight of my trip but actually I think it must be Easdale, one of the Slate Islands off the west coast near Oban. Easdale was the centre of a huge slate-making industry in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century - there are Easdale slates on roofs as far away as Nova Scotia and New Zealand. Then in 1881 disaster struck - a huge storm and subsequent massive sea swamped all the quarries on the island. All the machinery was lost and mining had to end. The quarries are still filled with water today - the mining machinery is still at the bottom of some of them, so they’re quite eerie and a wee bit sinister. And the island is covered with bits of slate, millions of pieces of it. It’s very other-worldly. 

The picture shows Ellenabeich, on the mainland, from where the ferry goes to Easdale. I’ve never been to Norway but I’ve always imagined it looking a bit like this.

Here comes the ferry! Or motorboat as it’s otherwise known. You have to press a button - or possibly two, it was a bit confusing - in the hut on the Ellenabeich side to let the ferryman know that you’re there and want to cross. 

The ferryman doesn’t need a coin these days - he accepts contactless payments. Though he told me that today was the first time he’d ever tried it, so we were both very surprised when it actually worked.

The little village at the centre of the island. The houses were built originally for the men working in the quarries.

Yes - Lima, Beijing and Basra are all quite far away. There was also an African parrot in a cage outside one of the houses, though I couldn’t get him to say anything.

The thousands - maybe millions - of pieces of waste slate that cover the island give it quite a strange, otherworldly feel. 

Easdale’s main claim to fame today is that it’s the location of the World Stone Skimming Competition - hence this picture of me skimming a stone (a passing local insisted on taking the photograph).  The competitors stand on the big flat stone in the picture.

One of the water-filled quarries; there’s something distinctly sinister about them. You can see how close they are to the sea - it’s perhaps not surprising that they got flooded so easily.

Nothing creepy here at all...quite a few people have suggested that the islands would be a great setting for a murder-mystery.

Hot tub with a view to die for.

We can work that into the plot of the murder-mystery.

In the interesting little museum on the island - unlike the ferry, their internet actually wasn’t working and I had to pay with cash. I was so preoccupied with the idea of using actual physical money that I didn’t at first notice the till that was being used - it’s the antique one in the picture, almost two hundred years old and still working.

I thought the picture of the old wagon at the bottom of one of the flooded quarries (on Belnahua, one of the other islands) was amazingly eerie.

Sitting in the sun waiting for the next ferry back, with delicious fish and chips, and a nice bottle of Fyne Ales Vital Spark. They were a bit miserly with the portion of chips, though.

Next day’s trip was to another of the Slate Islands, Luing. This friendly dog travelled back and forward on the ferry. The owner, who was collecting the tickets, told me that they’d actually got the wrong dog - they’d picked a different puppy from a litter but accidentally ended up with this one, and couldn’t be happier. “She picked us”, she said.

Like Easdale, Luing has quite striking geology. The walk I was following went around the coast, with a slightly hairy bit where you have to scrabble across some large boulders (and at high tide it’s actually impassable).

There are also lots of pieces of rock with Fool’s Gold (Iron pyrite) imbedded in them.

Ever heard a deer bark? Well watch this video and you will. I thought it was some bird making this strange noise, and kept zooming about trying to see it, with no luck. Then my cousin, who lives in Italy, identified the noise as coming from a deer - she’s heard it there.

This house was precariously perched on the edge of a former quarry, now filled with water.

The only shop on Luing. A local shop for local people. It actually had a very comprehensive range of goods.

There was a long, long wait for the bus back to Oban, but at least the scenery was beautiful, and the sun was shining.

Final day and final island (the fifth in five days) - Kerrera, which is just off the coast from Oban. The ferry goes from a terminal a bit outside Oban. It’s quite a walk so I would definitely recommend taking a taxi to it.

Kerrera has some wild goats, like this one, and lots of sheep and lambs. I saw some birds of prey flying about but couldn’t identify what they were.

I did a circuit of the island in glorious sunshine.  There were phenomenal views of the other islands and the mountains on the mainland. 

The castle has a gruesome history. The occupants were all slaughtered by Covenanters in the Seventeenth century. The castle was set on fire and has been unoccupied ever since.

The white house in the picture used to be an inn. I'm not sure what it's used for now, as it's pretty remote. For many years the island was a stepping-stone for the transportation of cattle from the other islands to the mainland, so maybe the drovers would have used the old inn at that time.

On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. A picture taken from the bus back to Glasgow, a journey which was just as scenic as the one by train.

I was really impressed by Oban and the whole area around it. There was lots to see and do, and the ferry connections made it easy to get around. Even in six days I didn’t really see everything, so I suspect I will be back some day. 

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