Ross of Mull and Iona
(The Lord will provide)
March 25th: Day 8.
Up early for the first ferry from Oban to Craignure on the Ross of Mull; there is no wind, the sea is once again like a mill pond and there are long clear views of the Scottish coastline and mountains. Duart Castle
, the restored 13th century castle, stands on a rocky outcrop posing for photographs. Behind it Dùn da Ghaoithe
rises, Mull’s second highest mountain iced with white on its peak.
I’m on the 8th day of my pilgrimage from Durham Cathedral to Iona Abbey and I’m getting close, I land on Mull with the plan to detour to Ardnamurchan Point. It is the furthest west on the British mainland and I’d like to tick it off my list of places to visit. The plan is to cover the 34km from Craignure to Tobermory in 90 minutes and catch the ferry.
With a slight tailwind I’m averaging 28kph along the beautiful coastal road northwest from Craignure, and I realise that I’d rather spend the day on Mull than detour to Ardnamurchan point. I change my plans and decide to circuit the top half of the island around Calgary and back past the Island of Ulva.
I pass through Salen and the road starts to climb a little on the craggy coastline. I see seals basking in the sunshine and herons flying along just above the water, with their distinctive necks bent in an s-shape.
A little further down the road I pass elderly boats left to crumble on the seashore, the tide is in and laps against them as they are propped up against abandoned jetties.
I find my accommodation for the night, Arle Lodge
. It is mid-morning, but because it is the quiet off-season, they let me check in and drop off most of my heaviest luggage in my room. I can now circuit the island with only essentials packed into my Carradice. Arle Lodge is a self catering holiday lodge and the owners have been gracious enough to let me stay for a single night. I think in the holiday season this would be a good base for exploring the island, especially as there is a small supermarket just back down the road in Salen.
The road climbs from here, but in the gentle breeze and the warm sunshine I’m down to shirt sleeves and enjoying every minute of riding. Eventually the recognisable seafront of Tobermory is revealed and the long descent to the town starts. Cycle touring at its best.
Behind me is the Tobermory distillery, but I gave the whisky tour a miss and gently coasted around the bay to the colourful shops on the far side. I’d made it with plenty of time for the ferry to Kilchoan if I wanted, but no – I was going to enjoy Mull.
At the far end of the harbour from the distillery there was a small side street signposted Dervaig and I set off on the rough surfaced climb in my lowest gear. The harbour rapidly dropped away until I had a magnificent view of the bay and the mountains of the west coast mainland across the Sound of Mull.
Turning west I headed for Dervaig and the journey was going to be difficult for the rest of the day, with short sharp climbs, twisty descents, rough and loose road surfaces – but the reward was the absolute isolation and miles upon miles of empty hills.
Reaching Dervaig there was a pub; the Bellachroy Hotel
which is apparently the oldest Inn on Mull. I stopped for a drink but it was still too early in the day and I headed off. I was aware that I’d now cycled from Craignure to Dervaig with only one bottle of water on a warm Spring morning and had no food or extra water on me. I needed to stop shortly.
I climbed from Dervaig and there were small farms and homes beside the road, many of the homes were being refreshed for the beginning of the April holiday season. I was now aiming for Calgary Bay and I was looking forward to seeing the wide open sandy beaches. I swept down one last hillside with the bay spread before me, passing the Calgary Farmhouse Tearoom
and thinking there would be a little pub or cafe on the seafront. This was a mistake, there was nothing.
The beach itself is clearly popular. Even in the off-season there were two families with pink coated/wellied children getting in every photograph I wanted to take. The grass area near the sea had benches and BBQ pits and it felt a bit of a let down – especially the tiny bits of rubbish and the inevitable broken glass. Why do we screw things up so much in beautiful places. Mull is not an easy place to visit with a car because there is nowhere to park. Calgary has parking. So this is where people will inevitably stop. Most of the rest of the island is single track roads with passing places and during peak season the passing places are needed for passing. So no stopping. One of the most wonderful pleasures of cycling is the ability to stop and admire the view whenever you like. I would heartily recommend Mull as a cycle touring destination and dream that motor-vehicles could be kept for just the residents.
I didn’t stop long, Mull was too nice to spend time here. I set off again, this time on a long climb from Ensay to Burg. I was conscious that I was very tired and out of water, it niggled at me that the sensible thing to do was turn around and go back to the tearoom because I had no idea what was ahead and it could easily be another 40km of hilly terrain without a shop or cafe. There was no traffic at all and the farmhouses looked empty. I climbed.
The view of Ben More
I was rewarded with was astounding. I propped my bike up and sat looking out over the islands of Ulva and Gometra to the snow capped peak scratching the clouds in the distance.
In this series of journal entries I’ve written about the link between prayer and exercise. My pilgrimage has been a journey of spirit as well as body. While I stood on this hill looking at Ben More I reflected on Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the hills –
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
Where will my help come from? It will come from the Lord, who made all this. The creator of heaven and earth is the source of all that I am and I can rely on him. This was going through my head as I prayed. Behind me was a cairn and I added a rock to the top; not for a superstitious reason, and not really ‘for God’, but simply because it was a cairn and visitors pile up rocks don’t they? Isn’t it a bit like signing a visitors book?
I started my descent down to the Kilninian coastline and at the first corner I came across a sheltered area next to the road, and in this sheltered area was a lamb.
I stood there stunned. Many things went through my mind. There were no sheep around, so where had this lamb come from. It was lost, what do I do? There were no farmers around to tell. I got off the bike and it ran up to me and played around my ankles bleating for all it was worth. I didn’t pick it up because I didn’t want to coat it with my smell, but at the same time I really didn’t know what to do. There was a second thread running simultaneously through my brain: “The Lord will provide”. To be clear – no, I did not slaughter the lamb and send it up as a burnt offering to God. (Rolls eyes.)
I decided to carry on and let the first people I met know. I also felt amazingly reassured that my lack of food and water would not be a problem – the Lord will provide I thought.
I was not surprised then, when round the next corner I met these two. A woman walking a dog – whose name I didn’t catch – and Martin (Izzy) Izzard. Martin had water for me, and a packet of biscuits. The lady offered me an SIS energy gel sachet. Martin is ex-Unilever and we had mutual acquaintances in PerkinElmer, the company I used to work for. I stopped for a chat about the pilgrimage, the birds, the sea-life, friends, retirement, and the wonderful world in which we live. As I left them I was feeling wonderfully blessed. Thank you both.
All the way down the coastline I had a great view of Ben More, following the B8073. At a small house I saw a family eating lunch and then spotted the “Customer Parking” sign; it was the Ballygown Restaurant
and I enjoyed a lovely conversation about where I’d come from, and was going, over a decent cup of coffee.
I continued down the coast and detoured to see the ferry to Ulva, which is actually just a small boat and only runs during the peak season after April. Turning around I was soon passing through Killiechronan and taking the left turn on the B8035 to make the 4km, flat, transition from the west coast to the east coast and back into Salen. I picked up some food from the supermarket and headed back to Arle Lodge; where my bicycle was offered a 5-star potting shed with chandelier. At the end of my first day on Mull I was left with a sense of the presence of God. of being sustained by his strength rather than my own. I was looking forward to the next day’s trip to Iona despite the weather forecast.
March 26th: Day 9.
The final stage of my pilgrimage to Iona.
The weather forecast was horrendous, the day dawned with 20-25mph winds direct from the west. Rain, with snow over high ground. Arle Lodge offers a self-service continental breakfast, so I grabbed a bowl of cornflakes and coffee before heading out into the rain. At first I’m sheltered from the wind on the east of the island, but as I pass Gruline and the Benmore estate I’m exposed to the headwind.
The road hugs the edge of the sea and the bottom of the cliffs. They reach up to the sky and intimidate me with their sheer dark grey and soaking wet immensity. The wind and rain lash against the cliffs and the waves splash up against the rocks below. The road surface is strewn with rocks which have obviously fallen this morning. I couldn’t get this section over fast enough, I literally couldn’t: the headwind was slowing me to a crawl. When I finally found somewhere safe, I turned and looked back. None of my photographs do justice to the ferocity of the weather and the vulnerability I experienced on that section of road.
The road started to turn south and climb, the wind which had held me back started to push me forward and I climbed swiftly. The air felt still as I floated uphill. Above me the water falling from the cliff tops failed to hit the bottom before being whipped away straight back up over the hills.
Climbing up and over the top of the pass under Ben More and down to Loch Scridain, there was a stillness to the world as I drifted along in a bubble in the wind. There was a stark contrast between the fierce wind which had been blowing into my teeth, and the peace I now found travelling with the wind to my back. I cruised around Loch Scridain to the solar powered bus shelter at the top of Loch Beg where the B8035 meets the A849.
With only 29km left to Fionnphort and the ferry to Iona, I turned back into the gale. This was tough. Before I had only to cycle into the headwind but now it had strengthened and I felt like I was grovelling along the road.
I stopped at the Pennyghael post office for a cup of coffee. Outside the wind and rain lashed against the window. The lady who runs the store, post office and cafe told me she’d rearranged this cafe seven years ago and as a result hadn’t seen her nearest neighbour since. People are strange.
I set off on the final leg, wearing every piece of waterproof and outdoor clothing I had. I became increasingly drained as I rode head first into the weather and slowing to a crawl. Someone had told me I ought to do the last part of my pilgrimage on my knees… and this was exactly what it felt like. Across the water I saw the dramatic cliff face and the waterfall again being blown back up over the hilltops.
I finally arrived in Fionnphort two hours after passing the solar powered bus shelter to see the 11:15am ferry sail away from the dock. I could barely stand up straight in the winds on the dock.
However the winds had blown the rain away and the skies were clearing, the afternoon was forecast to be sunny and I was about to finish my pilgrimage. I stood looking across the sea to Iona and the abbey on the far shore. The ferry runs every hour and I sailed on the 12:15, which rolled back and forth with the large waves.
Landing on Iona and less than a minute of cycling has me standing outside Iona Abbey and paying the £7.10 entry fee which includes a “free” audio guide. The end of my pilgrimage; Durham Cathedral to Iona Abbey.
Inside the Abbey (above) and St Columba’s Shrine (below). I stood in the shrine and read Psalm 121 again.
Whether it was the exhaustion from the final leg, whether it was simply that the journey I’d been doing for the last 9 days had come to an end, whether it was the phenomenon people refer to as ‘thin place’… I sat in the Abbey and prayed with tears streaming down my face. I prayed for everyone I know who is ill or suffering. I prayed thanks for my family and friends. I prayed for everyone I know around the world, from China, through India and Europe to Canada. I prayed for the vocation I’m answering in service of the Church. I sat in silence and wept. Thank you God: Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, thank you.
After walking round the Abbey, reading the plaques and listening to the audio guide I then walked further afield on Iona for the rest of the afternoon, once again in the calm and sunshine. I enjoyed the remoteness, the sandy beaches, the azure blue sea.
I sailed back on the last ferry to Mull, to my accommodation in Fionnphort. The evening was veering back to rain and wind. I slept well in a very luxurious bed at the Seaview Bed and Breakfast
March 27th, Day 10: Cycling home from Fionnphort to Criagnure and then catching a the ferry to Oban and a train home.
I was subdued as I ate delicious scrambled eggs and smoked kippers overlooking the bay and Iona, it was another sunny morning and all I had to do was cycle back to Criagnure; about 60km with only one small hill.
Mull was looking beautiful in the calm morning.
It was short-sleeved weather yet again in the sunshine. Cycling back on deserted roads I had the freedom of the island.
The only challenge remaining was the climbing through the centre of the island.
Although not so much of a challenge after the experience of the day before. Up in the middle of the hills the clouds were shedding their load of rain and I shrugged it off.
Arriving back in Craignure I was finished cycling and I’d also finished a circuit of the Ross of Mull with Iona.
The train back to Durham runs back through the fantastic Scottish scenery I’d ridden up through over the last few days, and eventually along the east coast past Holy Island and Alnmouth from two weeks before.
On this pilgrimage I learned that the Celtic saints will have been intrinsically aware of the vulnerability of life in the wilds of the coast and the isolation of the hills. They would have experienced a living faith and relied on the hospitality of those they met; unashamedly sharing the gospel and encouraging others.
I spent a lot of time in prayer. I originally thought pilgrimage was the wrong word to describe this “cycling tour of Celtic Christian sites” between Durham and Iona; but now that it is over I feel pilgrimage is exactly the right word. In a way, both the journey and the destination were linked together by something which went beyond the sense of physical achievement. I can’t credit the outpouring of emotion at arriving in Iona on the physical challenge because I’ve been tested much more deeply than this before. I can’t credit it to the beauty of Iona because I felt more deeply in awe of the beauty in Mull and Arran, than I did of Iona. There was something deeper, something spiritual, about both the experience of the journey and arriving at the destination.