The numerous islets lying off Iona are more or less of
similar aspect: bird-haunted rocks, grown over with turf and heather,
appearing at first sight barren and devoid of interest, but in reality
possessing a peculiar charm which only intimate acquaintance can reveal. On
a diminutive scale they are full of feature, for nature, whose hand alone
has touched them, abhors monotony. Each has its particular view-point of the
wide, Hebridean seas and skies. Each, too, has its population, its little
life of small, shy creatures that haunt beach and bog and meadow, and, as in
the remoter Orkneys, its surface “is ever beat upon by soft, soundless feet
and shadowed by swiftly moving wings, and many a little comedy or tragedy is
played out upon its stage. We walk upon it in spring or summer through an
air fragrant with the perfume of innumerable small, sweet flowers, with the
music of birds and bees about us, and ever, under and behind all song, the
voice of the great sea, full of undefinable mystery, as of a half-remembered
dream ” (Duncan Robertson).
EILEAN A’CHALMAIN, off the southern extremity of the Ross of
Mull, is one of the most charming of these islets, especially in early
spring, when it is festive with wild flowers. In autumn it yields a rich
harvest of brambles.
EILEAN NAM MUC (Island of the Sea-pig or Seal) takes its name
from a species of seal that used to haunt its shores. In the month of August
the island is white with the heather that is said to bring luck to all
finders; but unfortunately the vandals amongst the yearly visitors are
reducing the carpet to patchwork.
EILEAN NA H’AON CHAORACH (Island of One Sheep) lies south of
Port na-Curaich. The name gives the measure of the islet’s pasturage.
EILEAN NAM BAN (The Women’s Island) lies close to the Mull
shore, just opposite to the Iona ruins. To this place, tradition says,
Columba banished all women and cows from Iona for a reason preserved in the
Far am bi bo bidh bean,
S’ far am bi bean bidh mallachadh.
Where there is a cow,
There will be a woman;
And where there is a woman,
There will be mischief.
Probably the island was set apart for the wives of labourers
employed by the monks.
SOA, which lies well off the southern shore of Iona, was in
early times the monastery seal-farm, which helped to supply the table on
fast days. Adamnan relates how a thief named Ere hid on the shore of Mull “
that by night he might sail over to the little island where the sea-calves,
ours by right, are bred and breed ”. Seals still make their home on the
lonely islet, and their movements may be studied here at close quarters.
ERRAID is a larger island—practically an isthmus at low
tide—close to the Ross. The relief men for the Dhu Hearteach lighthouse are
stationed here, and signal twice daily to the men on duty, fifteen miles
south-west. Robert Louis Stevenson once spent some time on the island, and
David Balfour, the hero of his Kidnapped, is wrecked on its shore at the
beginning of his adventurous journey across country.
From the high ground of Erraid there is a fine view of the
MULL is one of the largest islands in the Hebrides, and is so
indented with bays and sea lochs that though its greatest length is only
thirty-five miles, its circumference is actually three hundred.
The Ross, or south-western extremity, off which Iona lies, is
unimposing in line, but has great beauty of colour. The picturesque hamlets
of Fionphort and Kintra are within easy boating distance, but finer far is
the sail through dark Loch Scridain, on the inner side of the rocky headland
Bourg, to Pennyghael, whence the road to Salen traverses some of the wildest
and grandest country in Scotland. The squalls that descend frequently from
the hills to the loch give a spice of adventure to the trip (and,
incidentally, call for oilskins). Near the head of the loch, the ascent of
Ben More (3097 feet) may be made. This country is the scene of William
Black’s Macleod of Dare.
The outer side of the Bourg is also well worth exploring.
Myriads of cormorants nest in the shelving rocks, and wild goats wander on
the grassy slopes below. A fine cave, known as Mackinnon’s, lies a little
south of the Isle of Inch Kenneth, where Dr. Johnson and Boswell once spent
Other islands within reach by open boat—though the remoter
ones should be attempted only in the most favourable weather—are Ulva, a
name familiar to readers of Campbell’s Lord Ullin's Daughter; Gometra, close
by Ulva; the lonely Treshnish Islands, including the quaintly-shaped
Dutchman’s Cap; Tiree, closely associated with the ecclesiastical history of
Iona; and Staffa, which is described separately.
STAFFA (Stafrey, the Isle of Staves or Columns) is a rocky
islet about one and a half miles in circumference, lying eight miles north
In the remote past, the north-west coast of Scotland was the
scene of violent volcanic action, which has left traces along the west
coast, in a line extending from Skye to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. In
consequence of the subterranean disturbances, large volumes of liquid basalt
were thrown forth, which, when it began to cool, formed in Staffa, as
elsewhere, tiers of columns, curiously symmetrical in shape and size. The
action of the waves and the weather throughout the centuries that followed
created the amazing caverns of Staffa—
“Where as to shame the temples decked
By skill of earthly architect,
Nature herself, it seemed, would raise
A Minster to her Maker’s praise.”
—Sir Walter Scott.
Fingal’s Cave, the “ Minster ” of the above lines, is the
largest of the caves, and, as a rule, the only one visited. Its old Gaelic
name is “Uaimh Bhinn”, the Melodious Cavern. The grandeur and solemnity of
this mighty cavern cannot be fully realized amongst the motley crowd in
which the majority of visitors make their approach. “ How could we feel it?”
asked Wordsworth; “ each the other’s blight.”
“ One votary at will might stand Gazing, and take into his
mind and heart,
With undistracted reverence, the effect Of those proportions
where the Almighty Hand That made the worlds, the Sovereign Architect, Had
deigned to work as if with human Art.”
The height of the great arch, at mean tide, is sixty-six teet;
the depth of the sea below is about the same; and the cliff above rises a
further thirty feet. The interior length is two hundred and twenty-seven
feet—half as much again as that of Iona Cathedral. The sides, at the
entrance, are vertical and nearly parallel, and are composed of black,
basaltic pillars, of which the majority are pentagonal or hexagonal in form,
and divided transversely by joints, like the columns of ancient Greek
temples, at almost equal distances of two feet. The lights that tremble and
flicker over the pillars reveal in the dark basalt warm tints of red and
brown and russet; here and there the rock is crusted with gold and green
lichen, and the depths of the clear green sea below abound with polyps and
the beautiful blue medusae. A constant boom, as of distant thunder, fills
the air as the Atlantic swell bursts into the cave, and the voices of the
sea-birds ring high and clear above the tumult. Here, one feels, in the
ocean solitudes, the elemental forces have hewn a temple of wild and noble
splendour, wherein to worship the Power that rules them; and the awed
observer perforce bows with them.
“I have seen the temple not made with hands," wrote Sir
Robert Peel, after a visit to Staffa, “and have felt the majestic swell of
the ocean—the pulsation of the great Atlantic—beating in its inmost
sanctuary, and swelling a note of praise nobler far than any that ever
pealed from human organ.”
From the landing-place to the top of the island, a stair has
been formed, and glimpses of the cliffs and caves on the other side of the
island may be obtained. The Boat Cave, accessible only by sea, is one
hundred and fifty feet long; the Cormorants’, or Mackinnon’s, is two hundred
and twenty feet in length, and fifty in height at the entrance; the Clam
Shell is smaller, but is interesting because of its shape, the columns being
bent like ship’s timbers.
Not far from Fingal’s Cave is the Giant’s Colonnade— an islet
formed of a group of columns about 30 feet high, and well worthy of