Having spent the last couple of days staying at the fabulous Ardoran House while exploring Iona and its amazing history, I am keen to find out more about its neighbouring Islands.
Iona sits within several interlinking groups of Islands, so there is no shortage of place to visit and each of these Islands has its own character. Mull to the North is the biggest of the Inner Hebrides and has a thriving population of around 3000 people.
To the west of Iona are the Treshnish Islands, now uninhabited these islands are home to the greatest colonies of sea birds in Western Europe and include Staffa and Fingal’s Cave, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This group of Islands sit in pristine seas teeming with ocean life and one of Europe’s premier sailing destinations.
As a young man I spent a lot of time on a friend’s fishing boat in and around these Islands, but today I am going to use a fantastic local company Staffa Tours to take me to see some of the best wee Islands perched here on the edge of the Atlantic.
Gordon Grant and his family have run Staffa Tours for over 3O years and their boats depart from Iona, Tobermory on Mull and Ardnamurchan, which means you can cut down on your driving and enjoy an exciting boat trip.
Today I am leaving from Iona and heading to the Treshnish Islands. My first stop will be Staffa, them sailing past the Dutchman’s Cap and Cairn na Burgh, Flagga to Lunga.
Stretching over 5 miles, this small archipelago is formed by a series of small islands and skerries (a reef or rocky island) and is part of the Inner Hebrides chain of islands.
Uninhabited since the late 19th century, these islands were once home to a thriving community, who carved out a touch existence in fishing and seaweed harvesting as well crofting. Although Lunga is the largest of the Treshnish Isles and the century’s old heritage of its church and settlements can still be found, the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly Staffa and its incredible Fingal’s Cave, where we are heading.
I love boats…I don’t know if it is the smell of the sea, the feel of the waves beneath, the wind or the sound, but I have always felt right at home and the seas around Iona are some of the most beautiful in the world. Today we are taking the MV Fingal out to Staffa where we will land and explore the island including the astonishing Fingal’s Cave.
Staffa is simply magnificent, made entirely from hexagonal basalt columns, identical to the Giants Causeway in Ireland; there is strong evidence of a geological connection between the two. However to stand on a boat in an ocean swell and to see the size of the cave is breath-taking and to stand inside Fingal’s Cave, with its roof of pillars the height of St Paul’s cathedral, is something to behold.
It’s no wonder that some of the most famous people of the 18th and 19th centuries visited Staffa and the highlight of Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebridean overture is the piece ‘Fingal’s Cave’.
I keep remembering that I am following in the footsteps of Jules Verne, Wordsworth, Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Pink Floyd and Queen Victoria. Jules Vern was so taken by the island that he mentions it in ‘Journey to the centre of the earth’ and standing in Fingal’s Cave looking at the bizarre natural architecture you can see why.
While there is no doubt that Fingal’s Cave is the highlight of Staffa, the rest of the island is certainly worth a walk. At one point this tiny island supported several families, before it became uninhabited in the 1800s. Again, fishing, seaweed gathering and subsistence crops, supplemented with seabirds and their eggs were all part of a very tough life and looking around this speck of rock on the edge of the Atlantic, I wonder how the heck people clung to this place in midst of the winter storms.
Today however this is one of those astonishing Hebridean days where the blue sky reflects off an ocean teaming with life. The sense of being this close to nature is overpowering. A pod of dolphins have been following us out since we cleared Iona and their antics seem to captivate everyone on board, even the crew who have no doubt seen this a thousand times.
The waters around Iona and Mull are a haven for whales and dolphins. Pilot whales, Orcas and Minke whales are regular visitors as is the world’s second largest fish, the Basking Shark. When I first came to Mull thirty years ago, basking sharks were thought to have been wiped out, these days they can be seen in pods of five or six, all over the Hebridean Islands. You can even get up close and personal and dive with basking sharks (they eat plankton!) insert link www.baskingshark.co.uk
The waters here are clear and clean, with few major shipping lanes and no heavy industry nearby. This is why Hebridean seafood is valued all over the world and tastes delicious!
With my camera full of images of this amazing Island and its cathedral like cave, we head back to the welcoming MV Fingal. The trip to Staffa takes about 3 hours, but I am taking the all day trip which takes in Lunga and the sea bird paradise of Harp Rock.
After a great lunch I’m raring to go and can’t wait to see Lunga and some of the most entertaining characters in the natural world, the Atlantic Puffins. Check back soon.