My Top Ten Things to Do on Iona
I’ve been very lucky to have spent the last three months living and working on Iona. I’ve been volunteering at the wonderful hostel. If you love nature, tranquillity, spirituality or beaches this is the place to come. I hope my top ten list will inspire more people to fall in love with this emerald isle.
Thank you to my friend Mel for the photos number 10, 6, 5 and 1.
10. Walk through fields filled with lambs and flowers
Most of Iona is inhabited by sheep covering a number of crofts, several farms and communal grazing areas. In the spring the fields and hills come alive with lambs and meadow flowers. Come in early spring for the cutest lambs or late spring for fields covered in vibrant colours. Iona is beautiful all year round, but spring is something else.
9. Spot a rare and elusive corncrake
Number nine is much harder to do. Corncrakes are a rare bird that are a real challenge to see in the wild because they are so small and love to hide in long grass. Even you can’t see them, hearing the male’s distinctive rasping is much easier, especially at night. Their calling sounds like a duck with a sore throat or a pepper mill.
A summer visitor to Iona, the corncrake somehow migrates here from Africa, despite only having tiny wings. It’s a goofy looking bird, once common across Britain until farming became more intensive. Iona has become a small haven for the birds with farmers and crofters agreeing to set aside land for long vegetation and to harvest land later in the season. Spring is the best time to see these funny little birds as the cover is at its shortest.
8. Get spicy in the nunnery
Up the hill from the ferry lies the Iona craft shop and the nunnery ruins. The craft shop is home to the best coffee and hot chocolate on the island. Bring your on take away mug for a nice discount. For something a little different try the deluxe spicy hot chocolate. I just love this combination of flavours.
Across the road the nunnery is the perfect spot to relax and sup a hot beverage. Once a medieval nunnery but now a historic monument in a peaceful garden. The walls are filled with tiny plants and in summer the ruins are transformed into a gentle kaleidoscope of colour.
7. Walk to Columba Bay
Columba Bay is where Saint Columba first landed on Iona and thus brought Christianity to Scotland in 563. Hence this rather plain beach is packed with historical and spiritual significance.
The main path to Columba Bay from the village is one of the most popular walks on the island and one of the most rewarding. First you walk through the farms to reach the Machair and the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. This beautiful landscape of grass, sand and sea will take your breath away. Turning south, the view only gets better as you climb up to Loch Staonaig which is the only Loch on Iona. Finally the path starts to wind it’s way down a grassy slope to reach Columba bay. On the left you can find a small stone labyrinth. Why not walk it and reflect on your journey here?
6. Become an amateur geologist
Iona is a geological paradise. In parts of Iona, the rocks are 2.9 billion years old, making them too old for fossils and some of the very oldest in the world. Other parts of Iona feature an array of colourful marbles from neighbouring Mull. Some rocks were even deposited here by glaciers during the last ice age. This is why the pebbled beaches here have so many different coloured pebbles on them. The best time to visit these beaches is just after it has rained so you can see the rocks at their most vivid.
If you are lucky you may find some local serpentine known as mermaid’s tears. Said to have magical properties, it can also be found worked into beautiful jewellery for sale in the village. Or for more information on the geology of Iona, visit the heritage centre museum.
5. Watching the sun set from Dun I
The climb up is short but steep enough to take your breath away, or is that the view? You can see most of Iona and on a clear day you can see quite a bit of Mull too. I’ve been up in the sunshine and in fog, during the day or for sunset. The way sunsets light up the sea is so incredible that I have to give them a special mention here. Even though sunsets are visible from a number of beaches, Dun I is the number one place to watch the sunset. The wide open sky is transformed by the intense colours, whilst Mull is cast into dark purple shadow. You won’t forget a sunset when you watch it from Dun I. (Weather permitting of course!)
4. Attend a service at the abbey
For many the abbey and the Iona community is the big reason they come to Iona. A popular site for pilgrims, the abbey is more than just a church. First established as a spiritual centre in the 6th century by Saint Columba and helped spread Christianity across Scotland. The lavish Book of Kells was probably written here and some great stone crosses were also made here. Like many places in Scotland, the abbey was dismantled and abandoned during the reformation and restoration didn’t begin until the 1930s.
Today services are held twice daily. The Tuesday healing service is very popular but for me the most interesting service is held on Sunday nights. Whilst a few prayers are read out, the service is held almost entirely in silence. For about twenty minutes the small congregation sits in quiet reflection. Peace isn’t in short supply on Iona and you can find silence elsewhere on Iona very easily. But sitting in silence with others and with such purpose is a rare experience. The intimate abbey setting is also perfect for this different take on worship.
3. Meet people and hear their stories
As I’ve alluded to in this set, travellers come here for many different reasons. Some are called here by the spiritual side of Iona. It is often said that the veil between Heaven and Earth is thinner on Iona than in other places. Other people come here to find solitude and tranquillity, or to see a corncrake or to just enjoy a beautiful beach. Iona is a mixing pot of people from across the world. Travellers who come here truly are a diverse group and you are never short of interesting people to talk to on Iona. I recommend taking the opportunity to meet new people and ask them what drew them here. I guarantee you will hear some fascinating stories and even make new friends.
2. Enjoy a perfect view of the stars
For a truly magical experience, spend the night on Iona so you can go star-gazing. On a clear night this can be almost overwhelming if you are used to cities and their light pollution. Especially when there is no moon the Iona night sky is positively teaming with stars. Seeing so many stars at once for the first time was quite intense. Unfortunately in Summer it takes a very long time to get dark so bring coffee or come at a different time of year.
1. Visit all the Beaches
I could have written a separate top ten list for beaches. For such a tiny island it harbours an incredibly diverse landscape. Beaches here range from golden sands, to colourful pebbles to rocky shorelines. Every beach has something unique about it. The most popular beaches are found at the northern end of the island. The water is so turquoise and the sand so golden that you would believe you were on a Mediterranean island, not a Hebridean one. Painters such as the colourists flocked to these beaches to capture Iona’s beauty.
Port Ban is another picturesque spot, where the narrow beach nestles between two cliffs and the shallow water shimmers in the sun. Other beaches are more dramatic. The “Bay at the Back of the Ocean” offers a panoramic view of the Atlantic ocean. If you time your visit correctly, you can watch the spouting cave in action as the tide is forced through a blow hole.
If you have the time, take a tour of the island and discover your own favourite beach. Plenty are off the beaten track so you can have the sand and the waves to yourself.