The journey to Iona from Glasgow is beautiful, meandering, and usually unpredictable. It generally takes about 5 or so hours by car, if you time the ferries right, but can take longer if using trains and buses. The drive takes you by Dumbarton Rock, the early medieval capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, then north along Loch Lomond, which hosts an entire island inhabited only by wallabies. It continues north through Tarbet, which formed part of a Viking portage route, before you inevitably find yourself stopping for coffee and a bacon roll at the Green Welly.
This portion of the journey was perfectly pleasant for us, save for a bit of dreich, drizzly-mist for much of the drive along Loch Lomond. The coffee was warm and the bacon rolls delicious. We were worried about making our ferry on time, so we stopped only briefly before hopping back in the land rover and heading west to Oban.
We made surprisingly good time, arriving in Oban about an hour before we absolutely needed to be there. We ended up exploring the seaside a bit before meeting up with some other members of the team and heading onto the ferry. We had now been travelling for roughly 4 hours.
The ferry takes you past Dunollie Castle, a major centre in the early medieval period. The castle was attacked three times, in 686, 698, and 701, then rebuilt in 714 by Selbach mac Ferchair – the very man who was credited with destroying it in 701. The site used to be covered in ivy, but it has since been conserved and is now quite prominent in the view from the ferry. You also pass Duart Castle on Mull, which dates to the 13th century and is known as the seat of Clan MacLean.
Then begins the hour-long drive across Mull to the small village of Fionnphort. We spotted an eagle being attacked by a crow shortly after setting off – a fantastic sighting this early in the trip. The drive takes you past several lochs, one of which has an old crannog, or loch-dwelling. Crannogs were fairly common in Scotland and consist of a man-made island often connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge or pathway. It was around this crannog that we received a text from another member of the team that the Iona ferry wasn’t running at the moment – technical problems meant they couldn’t take people across. Other boats were taking pedestrians, but vehicles were out of the question until the ferry had been fixed.
So we stopped worrying about getting to Fionnphort in a timely manner and instead meandered along through Pennyghael and Bunessan. Upon arrival in Fionnphort, we hashed out a plan for how to get all our gear across with fewer vehicles and then sat down to a tasty lunch at the seafood shack just next to the ferry port.
The ferry was indeed fixed, and we did make it to Iona today, though we honestly weren’t sure that would happen for a while. A journey that usually takes around 5 hours actually took about 8, but we are all on the island and settled in. The equipment got across and we dropped what we could at the Abbey to begin organising everything tomorrow. We moved into our house for the month, set up some equipment, and then most of the team immediately set about making dinner. So we got here in the end, but with a bit of a hiccup in the middle that, in the end, involved a degree of problem-solving and a nice lunch.
The Iona Research Group is excavating on Iona from 5 May – 2 June 2018. If you’re in the area, feel free to stop by and say hello!