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Iona: A History of the Island
Appendix I. The Neighbouring Isles and Staffa


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 old distich:

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 southern isles.

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 a night.

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 of Iona.

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 inspection.


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