The young monk looks up from his work in tilling the fields near the sea-shore. This job never gets easier, he thinks. Still, I am lucky to be here. He is on the holy island of Iona in the kingdom of Dalriada, but only joined the abbey just on a year ago after leaving his home in Ireland and putting his life in God’s hands. So far he had enjoyed it and had taken to his Latin lessons with enthusiasm.
His eyes narrow as he looks out to sea. On the horizon he thinks he can see a number of sails. Even though boats are a commonplace mode of transport around Iona, and indeed essential, there is something different about these – the brightly coloured square sails contrast with the drab brown sails of the everyday boats. That can only mean one thing – the men from the cold wastes of the North, the Vikings. They had last been here four years ago, and that hadn’t ended well for the monks. He hadn’t been here then, but the older monks still talked about it with fear in their eyes. He drops his hoe and with his heart in his mouth runs to the cathedral to warn the others. The bell begins to toll ominously.
The Viking commander signals to the other longships in his fleet. On the horizon, he can now see his target – the abbey on Iona. The plum is ripe for the picking, he thinks. All those valuable treasures and no one to defend them. He could never understand these wimpy Christian monks – what on earth would make a real man want to spend his life worshipping a God who only wanted to be loved? Surely a good bit of raping and pillaging was what the gods wanted? And it’s fun into the bargain. He is looking forward to the massacre later in the day – the nice thing about an island is there is nowhere to hide.
He orders his sails to be trimmed in response to a slight shift in wind direction, and feels a surge of pride as he glimpses the name of his longship on the crossarm – Rauðr Týsdagr – named after the day of worship of the red-haired god of combat, the great Tyr.
We are just passing the green buoy marking rocks in the Sound of Iona. It takes me a few seconds to realise that I am not a Viking sea captain, but just plain old me. I have been trying to imagine what it might have been like on the day in AD 806 when the abbey was attacked by Viking raiders and 68 monks were killed in Martyrs’ Bay, just across from where we are now. Walter Mitty has nothing on me!
The Sound is shallow – just 40 cm deep in places – and we have to pick our way carefully through the narrow route that has been identified. Over to our port side is the impressive newly reconstructed Iona Cathedral on the same spot that St Columba built his abbey as the centre of Celtic Christianity in the early Middle Ages. From there the Celtic brand of Christianity spread through the west and north of Britain and Ireland, with different ways of calculating Easter and with different styles of monks’ haircuts from the English brand that was centred on Canterbury.
We decide to push on to Staffa, about seven miles north of Iona. As we approach it, I am reminded of the baleen in a whale’s mouth open to catch its breakfast. It seems that the Vikings saw it in another way – the name Staffa derives from the Old Norse word for staves, logs placed vertically to build their houses. We consider anchoring and rowing ashore to explore the island, but there is too much swell coming in from the Atlantic and breaking on the rocks, and we don’t want to leave Ruby Tuesday unattended, so we content ourselves with getting reasonably close to see inside Fingal’s Cave, and then motoring around the island. Fingal was a hunter-warrior in Irish and Scottish mythology, but the Staffa cave only gained his name from Sir Joseph Banks in the eighteenth century. The basalt columns were formed by volcanic activity around 60 million years ago – when lava cools slowly, it forms hexagonal columns. It is the same geological structure as the Giant’s Causeway that we had seen on our stop-over in Northern Ireland last year.
At lunchtime, the First Mate drops the anchor and we sit in the sunshine and eat our sandwiches prepared in the morning. We are just opposite McCulloch’s Tree, a fossilised conifer that was entombed in lava from the Mull volcano 60 million years ago as the Atlantic Ocean began to open. The tree itself has mostly disappeared; what is left is an imprint. Up against one side of the tree are the layers of lava that came to rest stacked up against the tree and cooled into a curved shape. It is possible to walk to it on land, but it requires a long walk from the nearest road along the top of the cliffs, descending some height down an iron ladder onto the beach, then clambering over slippery rocks and past two waterfalls, all timed to complete the beach vit at low tide. We can see the ladder and shudder – getting to the tree by sea is so much easier! We try to imagine what that day must have been like as the volcano erupts and the lava rolls down its flanks engulfing everything in its path.
Sandwiches and coffee finished, we weigh anchor and set off on a pleasant beam reach northwards towards the island of Inch Kenneth in the north-east corner of Loch na Keal, and anchor in the shallow anchorage to the east of the island. Inch Kenneth is perhaps best known for its association with the Mitford family during the Second World War. Several members of the family were ardent supporters of the Fascist movement in the UK, one daughter, Diana, being married to Sir Oswald Mosely, the leader of the Fascist Party. Another daughter, Unity, was personal friends with Hitler, and helped him draw up lists of British people who would either collaborate or be shot. When war was declared on Germany, she was so distraught that she shot herself in the head, but only succeeded in disfiguring and partially paralysing herself. She spent the rest of the war on Inch Kenneth planning her own funeral.
We think about anchoring here overnight, but the small bay is rather exposed to the north, and a change in wind direction to the north is forecast overnight, so we decide to sail over to the south side of Ulva to a sheltered little anchorage called Craigaig. We navigate our way though the numerous small islands that protect it, and drop anchor at the top of the bay. Three other yachts are already there. We open a bottle of wine and sit in the cockpit marvelling at the play of light and shadow on the cliffs on the Ardmeanach peninsula in the distance, the seals basking on the rocks off to our left, a fat heron preening itself on the shore of the small island to our right, and the oyster-catchers flying overhead emitting their piercing shrieks.
We don’t realise it at the time, but there is a darker side to this beautiful place – it used to be a thriving village in the nineteenth century, but was a victim of the clearances to make way for sheep, and now nothing remains but a small bothy. There is also a poignant story of two sisters, one of whom ate a piece of cheese while the other, Charistiona, was out. Charistiona returned and discovered the cheese gone, and decided to extract a confession from her sister by dangling her over a cliff with a shawl. As you do. Unfortunately the shawl slipped and the poor girl was hanged by accident. Grief-stricken, Charistiona confessed all to the islanders, but they decided that she still needed to be punished and so wrapped her in a sack and left her on a rock that was covered at high tide. Needless to say, she drowned. The rock is still known as Charistiona’s Rock.
The Scots seem to have been quite taken with this form of punishment, as there is a similar story from Duart Castle on the other side of Mull in which the badly behaved wife of a MacLean chief is punished in the same way.