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Isle of Mull
Iona Abbey
Iona Nunnery
Duart Castle


May 19

We were up early today, but we didn't take showers because they were on the first floor (we were on the third) and all in all it was just too much of a hassle to coordinate with the other two floors of people. I washed my hair by hanging over the edge of the bathtub on our floor's bathroom. Obviously, I should never opt for hostelling (not that this was a hostel, but it was far more hostel-like than guest-house like, what with tiny bunk rooms and overly-shared bathrooms).

Really I don't need ensuite. I'm perfectly willing to share a bathroom. I just start having issues when there are two showers (tucked into closet-like rooms several floors down) for most of the rooms in the place. Not the best set up in the world. Quite utilitarian, though, and I must say that everything was relatively clean and comfortable.

We met a fascinating man at breakfast this morning -- a BBC radio producer/reporter who was traveling round mull to the Cheese Festival and onward to some other cultural extravaganza. He was recounting his weekend with the artisan cheese makers and we got sucked in to a conversation about the waning use of Gaelic on the island (the lovely woman serving breakfast was a native Scots Gaelic speaker from Lewis, and her dialect was very, very different than the local in both syntax and vocabulary (she was from one of the more northern islands). I speak a bit of Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) and we compared notes. The BBC guy tracked down interesting/unique stories and we told him that he was really missing out by not having a Frozen Dead Guy Day festival, like we do in Nederland. After explaining in detail about how this came about (guy frozen in a Tuff Shed on dry ice, waiting for a cure to whatever killed him) he agreed. He was heading out to Iona today, too, so we bid him a good morning and took off.


That's probably an understatement. Perfect weather, glorious scenery…to everyone who insisted that we spend some time on Mull, thank you. We drove the 'long way" around the island (out and back on each finger on the western coast) to get to Fionnphort and the ferry to Iona. It takes double the time to get anywhere, of course, what with the teeny, windy roads and convoluted coastline, but the views off the cliffs into the water look like scenes out of a travel magazine. The colors are unreal. I've read descriptions of Mull as "Scotland in Miniature" - wet lowlands, rocky west coast, sunny east, windswept highlands. It apparently is also one of the wettest places in Scotland -- although you'd be hard pressed to prove it by us: blue skies, fluffy clouds, perfect sunny day for us!

I was telling Mark about the island sheep (not here on Mull, of course, but it seemed relevant, given that we were on an island) who are completely unsheeplike - they cannot be herded by dogs, like regular sheep, since instead of clumping together like "normal" sheep when a threat appears, they will startle and run away at high speed and will often face down dogs and people. Once a year, the entire island population gets together to get them to good pastureland for shearing and lambing. This sparked a long and rather bizarre conversation about Carnivorous Sheep populating the wilds of Scotland. You never knew when these docile, plump, shy sheep will suddenly turn into Zombie Sheep out for Braiiiiiins.

I think we've been the car too long.

Sprinting ahead of the tour busses

Like almost every other visitor to the island, we took the passenger ferry to Iona to see the Abbey - the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland, or so say the guidebooks, and burial place of many of the kings of Scotland. We managed to get on the ferry the same time as the NINE tour busses arrived (eek!) so when we landed on Iona, we fairly RAN to get up the hill before the hordes of octogenarians. (We were still outpaced by a lot of people. Read into that whatever you want).

I didn't realize that the abbey is a fully restored and relatively modern installation. It's a working monastery, with a thriving community living here, on the site of a early monastic foundation by Columcille (Columba). The oldest parts of the church and cloister buildings are from the 12th century, but a large majority of the abbey itself is a modern or fairly recent creation. I was actually a little disappointed that it was not more ruinous. The road system is interesting, though - you can see the faint remains of the 'death road' from the ferry port (which obviously hasn't moved much in the last half-millennia) to the abbey - the cobbled road runs fairly straight along the shore.

Inside the church, there are decorations and arches from a number of different periods, and in the completely rebuilt cloister walk is a huge collection of Pictish and early-Christian grave slabs. Behind the main church is a small stone chapel that is worth poking into. IT's an interesting site.

We started walking back to the main town and stopped for lunch at one of the hotels. We were attracted by the large green lawn and picnic tables and the absolutely gorgeous view back to Mull. Close to lunch time, plenty of time…We ordered the soup of the day and grilled salmon and a couple of beers and lounged about in the sun. It was a great, relaxing lunch.

Up the road a bit is a ruined nunnery, associated with the abbey. Not much to see, but the site is covered in wildflowers and the retaining wall is almost complete. We trotted down to the ferry to ride back and get out of Fionnphort before the tours busses could get moving. Seriously -- there is ONE road that goes back toward the main tows. One way to get anywhere. Just one. And it's a ONE LANE road. You don't want to be behind on of the tour busses when it pulls out of the single-track road in Fionnphort.

He was wearing 'war fur'...

So, we opened the windows in the car and took a huge and slow detour to see Moy Castle -- drove through the farms and around the coast, went along a teensy single-track road through the sheep fields (avoiding a number of free-ranging sheep) until we finally wove through to the beach (passing farmhouses and people cutting down brush and a couple of "weak bridges" and a few roads where we were driving on the gravel at the edge of the beach. We parked and walked down the shore to find the castle -- which is entirely encased in scaffolding and plastic. We're not sure if they are just stabilizing the ruin, or if someone is doing restoration work intended to live in the tower. In either case, the walk along the beach is pretty and for the first time a while we're not rushing off to anything else. (This will change, trust me!)

By the time we got back to the car, we realized how late it was and I still wanted to see Duart Castle on the coast just south of Criagnure. It as on the way, I protested - and we could just swing by for a quick look and we had plenty of time before the ferry….so we arrived in the parking lot about four minutes before they closed. Figures. We stopped t the ticket office to ask if it was ok to walk around the grounds a little and take some pictures, and she let us in anyway with the admonitions that we should go "very quickly" around the castle while they closed up. We hurried inside and through the main floor and scared the bejeesus out of one of the guards on the third floor in the gallery. He wasn't expecting to see anyone, but he happily took Mark up on the roof and talked about the history of the castle and the views from the wall and where the 'sister' castles would have been (the castles all within view of Duart, which could signal each other with bonfires when danger approached) .Mark had told me that this is what they were for, as we walked up to the castle, and I didn't believe him. He was very nice, especially since we were keeping him after hours. I got a chance to look through the hundreds of family photographs before we had to leave.

I'm still a bit irked at Mark for not stopping to take a picture of the Highland Cows on the way into the castle demesne. We were ripping along the farm road and he suddenly says, "Did you see that calf? The one with the funny hair on it's face?" No, I admitted, I had not seen it. 'It was wearing War Fur." he added. War Fur? What? What does that look like? Why did you stop and take pictures, if it was enough to make you laugh out loud? Pffft! So, a funny aside, and I have no way to even show you what we were laughing hysterically about.

We met the BBC guy again at the ferry terminal. We all sat at the little café across the street and drank coffee and ate cookies while we waited for the ferry to arrive. If we'd planned a bit better, perhaps, we would have stayed another day on the island. It really is beautiful and relaxing. But then we would have missed our B&B for tonight, Alltavona, which is an absolutely fantastic stay right on the harbor. We stayed in the 'new" wing of the house, which was purpose built with three rooms and a full kitchen. It was the nicest place we'd stayed so far - new, incredibly well decorated, best blasting shower, comfortable bed, huge flat screen television.

But is the fish fresh?

The host offered a couple of suggestions for dinner that we could walk to in Oban as we schlepped our bags inside, and we grabbed our sweaters and walked along the harbor, admiring the great houses along the quay and the compact little downtown of Oban. Its' a really neat little town, kind of funky, definitely geared to be the gateway to the western isles. We walked all the way back around nearly to the ferry port to have dinner at the new seafood restaurant there -- Ee-usk (the Gaelic word for fish is iasc, so I suppose this is a phonetic representation) .

Fancy place, very nouveau-cuisine sort of place, but with a surprisingly homey feel - absolutely packed full l of people, and we barely squeezed in upstairs (we must be that right combination of hapless and friendly that convinces maitre d's to squeeze us in without reservations). WOW was the fish good. I suppose is has to be when you can see the guy down on the pier unloading the fish that are taken directly up to the restaurant for the nightly special. Fresh is almost an understatement here. Had perfect scallops, I had the catch-of-the-day (well, one of them) turbot and Mark had a roasted halibut steak that was divine. Lovely bottle of wine and bread pudding and sticky toffee for dessert and they're lucky we didn't just fall asleep on a bench outside the restaurant. IT was a long, long walk back to the B&B!