After a quick breakfast of porridge with Ewan, we head off to the train station where we say goodbye. I walk down the ramp and board the waiting 7:15 AM train for Glasgow, the first of a multiple leg journey to the Isle of Iona. Minutes later, the train rolls through the countryside, stopping every so often at a station where an automatize voice of a woman encourages folks to “Please mind the gap when alighting this train.” As it’s a Saturday morning, the train isn’t very busy and the conductor spends time with me, telling me where the best to get coffee in the Glasgow Station (which he recommends over the coffee they serve on the train). I ask him where I can find a bank machine (they don’t call them ATMs over here) and we talk about the West Highland Line which I’ll be taking to Oban.
I only have fifteen minutes in Glasgow. I grab coffee and then head to the bank machine. My card is denied. I try again and it’s denied again. The conductor is making a call to board the 8:21 train north. The next train is two hours later and I don’t want to wait. I have some cash on me, maybe 50 pounds, but know that once I get to Iona, I will need cash as I’ve been told most places won’t take plastic and there are no bank machines. Thankfully, I’ve prepaid for the week. At least I will be able to eat.
The train pulls out of Queen Street Station and soon we’re leaving the city behind as we race along the north bank of the Clyde River. I try to reach my bank by cell phone. This isn’t a local back, it’s a rather large regional Midwestern bank, but even their call center has “banker hours.” Its 3 AM back in Ohio. I hope I will have time to get things straightened out during my short layover in Oban. I want to kick myself for not calling them before leaving the country. I try to put the worry behind me as there is nothing I can do about it at this time. I look out the window. It’s rainy and gloomy.
At Dulmuir, a group of five women get on. They’re loud and keep jumping back and forth from seats. I offer to trade with one of their party who is sitting at a table with a couple from Glasgow, so they could all be together. Furthermore, I can be on the side of the train with the water. The train is now moving northwest, running alongside Gare Loch and Loch Long, both salt water lochs open out into the Firth of Clyde. The couple tell me there’s a naval base along here for submarines. Their son has spent his life at sea, mostly as an officer on a merchant vessel. The woman tells me about his ship being at Newark, New Jersey on that fateful day in 2011. As it was mid-day in Scotland, he called to talk and was on the phone when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. He has since given up traveling the world and today is a captain of a buoy and lighthouse tender. His ship is in Oban for the day, so they’re taking the train up to have lunch with him.
|A view from the train|
The train leaves Loch Long and passes over a short bit of land before coming into Talbert, on Lock Lomond, one of the more famous lochs in Scotland. We run alongside the loch for ten or so miles before climbing into the hills north of the loch. At Crianlarich, which appears to be just a train station in the woods, the train splits. I’d been informed in Glasgow to be sure to sit in the front two coaches. We’re bound for Oban. The last four coaches are bound for Fort Williams and Mallaig (a line I plan to ride next Friday). After a few minutes, we’re riding through the woods. After Dalmally, we come alongside Loch Awe (what a wonderful name). In the middle of the lock are the ruins of a castle. We are heading west now, and soon pick up Loch Etive, which is open to the sea. I’ve recently read that the furthest you can get from the sea in Britain is sixty five miles and looking how these salt water lochs reach so far inland, I understand how that’s probably the case.
After having worried about my bank card all morning, it dawns on me that I have another bank card with me, from a bank that we don’t use as often, mainly as a place to hold cash. As this was a local bank, and I had made a deposit into this bank a few days before leaving home, when I informed the teller that I was going to be out of the country. She said she’d make a note on my account. I have this bank card in a belt under my pants, along with some extra cash and my passport. I’m more than a little relieved as I’m not sure I’ll have time to contact the other bank when in Oban.
|Lighthouse/Buoy Tender at Oban|
The couple's son is the captain
After Connel, the train turned south and we’re soon in Oban, an old town built around a harbor. The couple point out their son’s ship, docked just behind the ferry terminal. I bid them farewell and wish them a wonderful lunch and walk out of the train station looking for a bank. It all falls in place. There’s a Bank of Scotland with an ATM just across the street from the train station. On the other side is the ferry terminal. I have nearly an hour before it leaves. I withdraw 200 pounds from the bank, then walk across the street and buy lunch from a vendor (a tuna and cucumber sandwich and an apple) and then get into line to board the ferry for a fifty minute trip to Craignure on the Isle of Mull. With spendable cash in my wallet (my American dollars aren’t much good), I’m at ease. I find place on the upper deck, where I’m sheltered from the weather, but am able to be outside. I sit down and enjoy my sandwich as the boat pulls away from the port and makes its way through the harbor. There are a number of sail boats moored, and another makes it way in the harbor as the ship pushes off from the pier. It’s a stormy day and I’m wearing a rain jacket. The entrance to the harbor is rather narrow. The ship slows to let a small passenger ship (or a large yacht) make its way into the safety of the harbor. As we go outside, the waters are rougher. I can’t imagine sailing in such waters in the small boat as had just made for the harbor. As we leave the mainland, I think about my destination. I’ve wanted to visit Iona for a long time and now am able to achieve this goal.
Iona has been a destination for pilgrims and the curious for nearly 1500 years. In 563, an Irish abbot named Columba and a group of twelve disciples (sound familiar) land on Iona, where they find a religious community. At this time, sea travel was easier than traveling overland on non-existent roads, and the small island becomes a center of faith and learning that extends throughout the British and Irish mainland and the islands that surrounded them. The Book of Kell's was supposedly produced here, and some think the practice of carving large stone crosses which are prominent on Ireland and on some of the Scottish Islands, also began on Iona. The community thrived until the 10th Century when Viking raiders began to pillage the islands. Although a few monks continued to live on the island, the center of learning was moved to Ireland where it was safer from these raids. In the 12th Century, after the Viking threat had waned, the island began a new period of importance as a Benedictine monastery was founded on the site of Columba’s monastery. About the same time, an Augustine nunnery was also founded on the island. These two continued until the Scottish Reformation in 1560. Afterwards, the site slowly begin to crumble, but became a place for artists and authors to visit (a who’s who of British literature in the 18th and 19 century made journeys to Iona). Eventually, the site became property to the Duke of Argyll, who allowed it to be used as a place of worship for all denominations (Church of Scotland/Presbyterian, Roman Catholics and the Scottish Episcopal Church). In the late 19th Century, he turned the site over to a Trust who worked to restore the ruins. In the 1930s, a new Iona Community emerged and continues to this day.
|Passing a ferry returning from Mull|
|Rough seas off Fionnphort|
Coming into Mull, at Craignure, we pass the ruins of the Durant
Castle. This country feels old. Soon, we pull up to the pier and those who
have cars below are asked to go below and prepare to disembark. Along with maybe a hundred or so others, I
disembark down the gangway to a line of buses. I find the bus for Iona and stow my backpack
in the luggage compartment and pay the 15 pounds (for a round trip as I’ll be
returning this way next Friday) and take a seat in the back. It’s nearly fifty wet miles across Mull,
mostly on one lane roads (with turnouts so that vehicles can pass one
another). The bus runs across Glen More
in the center of Mull, and then drops down to the Ross of Mull, where we run
along Loch Scridain. The driver is a bit
of a maniac, gunning the engine where there is nothing ahead and at times
stomping on the brakes in time to pull into a passing place. It’s still raining but the countryside is
beautiful, with lots of rocky hills, plenty of wildflowers, fields covered with
ferns, and interesting varieties of cows and sheep. The distant hills and mountains are shrouded
with fog. After nearly an hour, we pull
into the small town of Fionnphort, where we unload.
|Waiting on ferry to Iona|
|First View of the Abbey|
Everyone on the bus is headed to Iona, with most spending a week as a part of the Iona Community. Some. I began to introduce myself to folks who have been on the same train and ferries going back to Glasgow. We all stand at the ferry terminal, with our packs and suitcases beside us, watching the ferry bounce around in the water as it makes its way across. Iona is easily seen in the distance. This ferry is a lot smaller than the other one. There are just two cars going across (you have to have a special permit to take a car to Iona). Most of us are going on foot. We board and I find a sheltered place up top, where I can watch the island approach.
The Iona Abbey is easy to spot. Soon, I’m on the last leg of my journey, a fifteen minute ride across the Sound of Iona, in which I gain my sea legs. The ferry pitches and rolls and struggles to dock against a strong wind and tide. Once we arrive, we have to time the waves in order to get off the ferry’s loading ramp to solid ground with dry feet. There are vehicles waiting to take our luggage, while it’s up to us to walk a third of a mile to the Abbey and the MacLeod Center (I’ll be staying in the later). I find my bunk and unpack. It’s an hour before dinner, so I lay down and watch through the window the grass blow in the wet wind. I love the sound of the wind, and soon am napping to its calming presence.
Dinner is simple but delicious: carrot and turnip soup, good chewy bread, raw vegetables, fruit and desert with coffee. Afterwards, we spend a few minutes getting to know everyone, learning our duties for the week (I’ll help out at breakfast and chopping vegetables for the lunch and evening meals). At 7:30 PM, we all walk in the rain down to the Abbey for the welcoming worship service. The place is beautiful, as the stone walls are lighted with candles. It’s still light after the short service, but I decide to go back and get to bed early. It’s been a long day.
|Evening Service in the Abbey|