THE THIN PLACES OF SCOTLAND
There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only 3 feet apart, but in the “thin places” that distance is even smaller and you can get a sense of what lies on the other side. The Rock of Cashel in Ireland is said to be a thin place, as is the Island of Iona. We took a trip out to Iona today and, though we cannot verify exactly how close to heaven it is, we CAN say that Iona is most definitely a special place.
Oban is an important ferry port, acting as the hub for transport out to the Hebrides islands. It was easy proposition, therefore, to catch a ferry across to the Isle of Mull and then hop across to Iona. When we left early this morning it was cold, raining, and grey. As the ferry pulled out of Oban and headed west towards the Isle of Mull, the skies got darker and we wondered what kind of weather we were heading into!
Luckily the clouds began to lift as the morning wore on and by the time we rounded the Gort headland, on Mull’s southern side, there were even glimpses of blue skies above! As the ferry rounded the headland Duart Castle came into view. This large Medieval fortress dates back to the 13th century and was the seat of Clan MacLean, who once ruled the Hebrides Islands.
We soon landed in the small port town of Craignure and, after a quick look around the village, boarded a bus headed for Mull’s western edge*. The bus trip took about an hour and took us past some incredible scenery along the way.
*The Island of Iona is just 2km from the western side of Mull and it’s easier to reach Iona from there than it is to sail directly from Oban.
Mull is the 4th largest Scottish island, with a coastline that runs for 500km and a population of almost 3,000. The island is peppered with munros, corbetts, grahams and donalds*, each divided by deep valleys known as glens. The end result is an island of spectacular beauty.
*The Scots take their mountains very seriously and have particular names for different types of mountains. For example:
• Munros: Mountains over 3,000ft (914m) in height are called munros.
• Corbetts: These are the Scottish hills that are between 2,500ft to 3,000ft in height.
• Grahams: Scottish hills between 2000ft and 2500ft in height.
• Donalds: These are hills in the Scottish Lowlands with a height of less than 2000ft.
The population of Mull used to be much higher, but the Highland Clearances* of the 19th century reduced the population by two thirds. During our drive across the island today we saw a number of cottage ruins, left abandoned during the Clearances.
*During the Clearances, Highland land owners were encouraged (by the English) to move from crop farming, which supported a large tenant population, to more profitable sheep farming. Surplus tenants were “cleared” off the estates, forcing many to move to the cities to seek employment or to emigrate across to the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It’s still a sensitive subject here in the highlands as the cumulative effect of the Clearances was the destruction of much of the Scottish Gaelic culture.
Farming and fishing have always been the mainstays of life on Mull, with tourism being a relatively new addition to the local economy. Tourists flock here to enjoy the beautiful landscapes, go trekking through the hills, and to see some of Mull’s wildlife (the island is home to over 250 different bird species, including white-tailed eagles; as well as otters, red deer, seals, basking sharks, minke whales, and dolphins).
We glimpsed some dolphins on our ferry trip over, but the only wildlife we saw on Mull itself were not really that “wild” at all. Both highland cows and highland sheep are plentiful on the island and, though not wild, are certainly photogenic! With their fop of hair and shaggy coats, the highland cows were especially cute. Both breeds are favoured because they survive the highland winters without needing to be sheltered or fed silage – they happily continue to forage for themselves all through the winter.
Our bus journey ended in Fionnport, a tiny port town on Mull’s western side. Here we stopped for some lunch and a wander along the beach before catching the ferry across to the Island of Iona.
Today Iona is home to just 120 hardy souls, but once it was a centre of learning and spirituality, home to hundreds of monks and visited by thousands of pilgrims.
The ancient Gaelic name for Iona was Innis nan Druinich (“The isle of Druidic hermits”), referring to the role the island played as centre of mysticism in pre-Christian time. When Christianity came to Britain in the 6th century, Iona became a centre of Gaelic monasticism. It was here that the Celtic cross first appeared.
According to tradition the monastery was founded in 563 by the monk Columba who had been exiled from his native Ireland. Columba and 12 companions went into exile on Iona and founded a monastery there. The monastery was hugely successful, and Iona became a renowned centre of learning. The famous “Book of Kells” which we got to see at Trinity College in Dublin, was produced on Iona towards the end of the 8th century.
When the Kingdom of Alba was established in the 9th century, Iona became even more important. The ruling dynasty of traced its origin to Iona, and the island became an important spiritual centre of the new kingdom, with many of its early kings buried there.The ancient burial ground, called the Rèilig Odhrain, contains a number of graves of many early Scottish kings.
The Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s saw the eventual downfall of Iona. Buildings were demolished, treasures plundered, and the island’s fame erased. Things remained that way until the early 20th century when pilgrims once again began returning to Iona, drawn to this “thin place”.
Today the abbey stands once again, restored and open to the public for day visits. Retreats are run at the abbey too, for people seeking peace and wanting to enjoy the island’s unique tranquility.
We got to sample some of the island’s peace and beauty for ourselves during our visit as we left the other tourists behind and went for a walk around Iona’s northern tip. From there we could see all the way cross to the Outer Hebrides and enjoyed some glorious views of the ocean when the sun came out in full force. We never expected to see such beautiful blue water in Scotland!
The last ferry back across to Fionnport left at around 3:00pm, so we had to leave Iona after just a few hours and make our way back. We retraced our path back across Mull and then back to Oban, tired but happy after our great day exploring the islands. This part of Scotland is beautiful and more than just a little mystical. Thin places indeed…