Today was perhaps the warmest and sunniest day of cycling I have experienced on this trip so far in Scotland. I even wore sun cream. Well, you can’t be too careful. But it truly felt that warm. A perfect day, then, for a morning’s excursion to Staffa and the famous Fingal’s Cave.
After the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, Fingal’s Cave is the best known and most celebrated example of a basalt column rock formation in the UK. I had also seen something similar and possibly larger this January in a huge basalt cave on a black sand beach in Vik, on the southern tip of Iceland. That was accessible on foot – if you were careful of the very strong waves – but Staffa lies six miles north of Iona, itself an island off the end of the Ross of Mull. So I booked onto a morning cruise and we landed on Staffa after seeing some Minke Whales on the way out, their likely presence given away partly by a very large gathering of Manx Shearwaters on the calm surface of the sea. There must have been a lot of food on offer.
The cave is reached by a path from the jetty that takes you hop-scotch like across a pavement of hexagonal black stones around the low cliffs until you reach the cave entrance. You hold onto a handrail with one hand to enter the sea cave. It is an eerie and impressive place that inspired Felix Mendelssohn to write his Hebridean Overture upon his visit to Staffa in 1830. I bet there was no handrail then.
The boat dropped me off in Iona where I repaired to the front garden of the Argyll Hotel for lunch, overlooking the beach and the Sound of Iona, where the Calmac ferry shuttled backwards and forwards to Fionnphort on the Mull side. It was an idyllic scene: the sand was white, the water was turquoise and the garden was filled with brightly coloured flowers like fuchsias and crocosmia. It had the feel of somewhere subtropical, and I could have stayed a long time. But time was catching up with me again. I had a ferry to catch from the other side of Mull, 35 miles away, to get me back to Oban, and the last departure was at 7.30pm. So I needed to take the 3pm boat back from Iona and start riding.
That just gave me time to wander through the village up to the Abbey and back. Iona is the founding place of Christianity in Scotland and was an important cultural site as far back as the 6th century, when it was first settled by St Columba and his group of monks from Ireland. It has experienced ups and downs over the years, including viking raids, but it remains a place of religious pilgrimage and attracts many visitors. There is certainly a sense of arrival after the long and at times difficult journey here, which must have been all the more meaningful in days before modern transport. It is still a very remote spot, even on a warm summer day with a good number of visitors around. Only 150 or so people actually live here year round; but that number must increase substantially in the summer months.
The ferry back at 3pm was certainly full and I sat on the dock wall to change into cycling shoes, watching a herd of highland cows standing on the beach. They seem to just stand. I saw another, larger herd in the shallow water at the top end of Loch Scridain, halfway back to Craignure. The tide was slowly coming in. Their hooves were in the water. But they just stood, while passing cars stopped to take photos.
I made it back over the mountains to discover that (1) it wasn’t at all sunny on this side of the island (indeed a little rain fell); and (2) the penultimate ferry to Oban was still loading. This was very good news, as it saved me over an hour. This boat is a new, smaller addition to the Calmac fleet, brought over from Norway where it had been working in the fjords. It is smaller and looks nothing like the larger ships that typically ply this sea route. The Calmac staff I have spoken to seem less than convinced; but they had to do something to boost their ageing fleet. I hope this new addition works out in Scottish seas when the winter arrives. Anyway it got me there smoothly and quietly. It even had fancy new bungee cords for securing the bikes on the car deck. I have become very used to old bits of rope. All very Scandinavian.