Scotland’s stunning Highlands are matched by its wonderful islands. And I enjoyed the best weather of my trip for a very busy, very satisfying day of island-hopping from the port of Oban.
From the busy harbor in Oban — the “Gateway to the Isles” — boats fan out to the Hebrides. I signed up for a long (10-hour) trip that included stops on three different islands.
You could spend days exploring Mull, the second-biggest of the Inner Hebrides. But I had one hour — and I used every minute to drive (on twisty, single-track roads) from the ferry port at one end of the island to the ferry port at the other end of the island. Parking my car, I had five minutes to enjoy this view of a rocky cove before boarding my next boat.
Just across a narrow channel from Mull is the Isle of Iona, the spiritual heart and soul of Scotland. This is where St. Columba, a sixth-century Irish monk, introduced Christianity to Great Britain. To this day, it has a spiritual aura. Church groups from all over the world come here to spend a week in soulful contemplation and kumbayah fellowship. Its mellow, nurturing spirit reminded me of the church youth groups I grew up attending. But all of that serenity is at odds with the many day-trippers from Oban, who have exactly two hours here before they have to make a mad dash back to the ferry.
For my work, I’ve been inside probably hundreds of churches around Europe. One thing they have in common is that, even if they seem nondescript at first glance, they’re packed with details that only become meaningful with explanation. Inside Iona’s historic abbey — which is still an active church — you’ll find eternally screaming faces hiding in the Gothic vaults, an ornate tomb of the local clan chieftain who donated the property back to the Church, and a sleepy cloister ringed with old Celtic tombs (dead clansmen holding massive Braveheart swords). If a place seems boring at first, you probably just don’t know enough about it yet.
One of the most pleasant surprises of my entire trip was Staffa. This uninhabited, castaway islet has always been there — hovering somewhere between Scotland and Ireland — but until now, has only warranted a brief mention in our guidebook. I noticed that the local boat companies are pushing the Staffa option now, so I checked it out. And I loved it.
Staffa is the “other end” of the much more famous Giant’s Causeway, across the sea in Northern Ireland. Hexagonal basalt pillars push up from deep below the sea. Walking across these natural formations reminded me of playing Q-Bert as a kid.
From Staffa’s boat dock, it’s a picturesque 10-minute walk (across those Q-Bert blocks) to Fingal’s Cave. There’s a legend about the Irish warrior, Finn Macool, and the cruel giant Fingal, and how the causeway was destroyed as the climax of an earthshaking feud between them…but I just enjoyed the view.
In the opposite direction from the ferry dock, it’s about a 15-minute hike to where the puffins hang out. Our boat captain explained that they scatter when the boat arrives. But if you head to their cove and just sit still, the curious sea birds will come to say hello. It was a nice excuse just to enjoy the sun and sea scenery. And sure enough, after a few minutes, I started to spot the adorable little birds bobbing through the air, fluttering to a stop just a few feet away. I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff in Scotland…but the puffins of Staffa were a particular treat.