A thin place - the sacred isle of Iona, Oban and a train trip to Mallaig.

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June 15th 2018
Published: June 15th 2018
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Leaving Glasgow was a little complicated, with a miscommunication about the rental car, the Hertz office moving, Peter having to walk there twice because they had given away our car and him not realising that the left lane in the city is only for taxis and buses (that might have been a fine!). Oh, and switching sides back to the left again!

Eventually we were off in our shiny red Clio and suddenly the city turned into country and we were heading north. There is such a characteristic look to the north country forest: a row of grass and dock weed yellow flowers, then bracken fern with lots of light green fronds at the moment, then seedling oaks and other low shrubbery, dotted with lots of pink foxgloves and pale pink rhododendrons (both seem to be self seeding invasively). Above that are the trees- lots of oaks, some conifers, aspens and birches. It is truly beautiful and continues right up to the west coast islands.

Aware that the weather was about to deteriorate, we made the most of the drive beside the lochs, and had a leisurely lunch in Ardlui, beside Loch Lomond. Sun on mirror water, with bare mountains rising steeply: peaceful paradise. We pressed on and just before we arrived, slammed on the brakes when we saw the historic St Conan's Kirk on Loch Awe. Built by Walter Campbell for his wife and family to save them travelling so far, it must be the most magnificent site for a church! We just missed a Scandinavian string quartet, but had a good look around. It seems to be used mainly for arts and cultural events these days. Just beautifully picturesque, complete with sun dial and lake views.

We finally arrived at the Lochnell Arms hotel in North Connel, just under the Connel bridge and saw the breathtaking view across the loch that we would enjoy for the next few nights. We went for a walk and breathed in the fresh air - so refreshing after being land locked for a while. The sun went down at 10.15pm and the twilight lingered until well after 11 - we had to draw the curtains to shut out the light which would return before 4am. Very strange feeling.

By this time the weather forecasts were worrying: rain, more rain, storms and gale force winds coming across the ocean! Our first trip would be to the Isle of Iona and we had booked the car ferry, so there was no turning back. I really do struggle with going in the water, and this was going to be a return trip to the islands with four ferries, so I felt quite anxious. But we were committed to this pilgrimage so I prayed that I would stay calm so that we could get there. We had to organise some packed food as we would leave too early for breakfast. We haven’t had these early getaways on this trip, so had organise ourselves.

We made it into the big vehicle ferry in Oban and had an uneventful 45 minute trip out between the islands, with Kinloch on our right and Mull on our left. When Castle Duart appeared on the outcrop we were nearly to Craignure. We knew that we had to drive the length of Mull to the next ferry but we had no idea how challenging that drive would be. The GPS said an hour, but it seemed to get longer and longer, with the arrival time getting further out, like some time travel episode where we would never reach our destination! It was spectacular scenery.

The road itself was only wide enough for one car, so every time a vehicle came towards us, we or they had to pull off into a little parking area to let the other one through, and this went on dozens and dozens of times (which is what extended the time). We were in a line of cars that all seemed hell bent on traveling the island as fast as possible, so we careered along, screeching to a halt every few hundred metres for an hour and a half! By that time it was raining, and instead of having plenty of time for the next ferry, it began to feel tight. Peter, the rally driver, enjoyed the challenge, while I nearly made a hole in the floor of the car looking for brakes!

Arriving at Fionnphort we could see no sign of the pedestrian ferry, nor any way to buy a ticket. The word was that it was running a different timetable, so we had a bit of a wait and needn’t have hurried. By now the rain was driving and I had a sinking feeling as we embarked a ferry for the second time and I looked at the white caps out on the water. We rocked and rolled our way across the straight and suddenly we had arrived. Already pretty wet, we zipped everything up and looked up the hill to Iona Abbey. This was what had come for and we decided to ignore the rain And any other distractions.

It was a challenging uphill push for me, but as we walked I began to close out the craft shops and cafes and other people. the hood of my parka helped me to focus until we arrived at St Columba's Abbey, rebuilt on the site he chose in 563AD. The church, the cloisters, the high Celtic crosses and St Columba's chapel where he was originally buried were special places and there was a real sense of quiet spirituality. It was a personal pilgrimage and it seemed appropriate that it hadn’t been easy to get there.

One of the places we saw was the ancient nunnery, from the 1200s, and only one room had a fire in it, called the warming room. I cannot imagine how they survived living in the stone building on a windswept island in winter, but they were dedicated women with passion and compassion and I saluted them as we walked past the graves. Many destitute girls were cared for there.

The rain was now almost horizontal and we were very wet and a bit chilled. We ate our sandwiches standing under an oak tree for lack of any other place and completed our tour of the island. Then they started to arrive - dozens, maybe more than a hundred Canadians in bright blue wet weather gear from a cruise called Canadian Adventures. There were so many of them that they swamped the paths and sites and we were glad we had some time before they came. We started our return with a very rocky ferry crossing back to Mull and then the reverse of the long drive. At least we were back in the car with the heater on and began to feel less chilled. We tried to get on an earlier ferry home but every other rain soaked bone chilled person had the same idea, so we had to wait. We chatted on the boat about what the day had meant to us in spite of the challenges. I actually feel physically refreshed and as if I can breathe to the bottom of my lungs for the first time since my heart blip event. I don’t need to go to a special place to know God's presence but I surprised myself as my heart responded in the so called thin place between earth and heaven - the Celtic term for where heaven and earth collide and the walls are weak. In a strange way, being there reinforces our humanity. I salute St Columba.

This blog is getting long as I try to catch up! We are on the road now with fewer spaces and more deadlines. Yesterday was the day we had booked the famous train trip to Mallaig on the north west coast. The forecast was grim, but it couldn’t be any worse than being on boats! We drove for an hour to Fort William through breathtaking mountain scenery, mostly winding beside loch after loch. Soon the white tots were up and the usually calm lochs were looking like surf beaches! The tops of the rugged mountains were swathed in storm clouds as we swung right and left around the right curves.

We planned to explore Fort William, which is a hub for the Scottish mountain expeditions to Ben Nevis and Glencoe, but it was pouring down, so we gratefully huddled in the station waiting room, where steam rose from crowds of wet people in rain gear. Even going to the loo is tricky because it only took a 20p coin so we had to buy coffee to go - sounds a bit counter productive on a cold day. It took Peter three trips to get the right money to pay for parking, so he was wet. I managed to retrieve our online tickets and we were set.

It is supposed to be a magnificent trip, and it probably would be in better weather. We were sitting on the lee side of the rain, so at least could see the beautiful green rising up to mountains with waterfalls rushing down, and raging streams in the valley. The big highlight, especially for Harry Potter fans, is the Glen Finnan aqueduct, so as the train approaches apparently there is danger of it tipping over as everyone flocks to the viewing side! I didn’t want the trip to go too quickly as we wondered what we would do in the rain for three hours before our return. One excitement was that the famous Jacobite steam train was at the station when we arrived, so we saw it without paying the huge cost of riding it.

Mallaig (we are still trying to pronounce it properly) is a tiny fishing town which is now a popular little resort lined with tea rooms and restaurants for tourists who have three hours to fill in! The best thing was that the rain stopped, so we put our original plan into action and Peter headed off for a circuit walk up the mountain and I browsed the town. There is a Norwegian feel to it, reminding us of our trip there and we were amused to see a Norwegian flag planted in a plant pot - the Vikings are back!

The highlight in the end was an incredible hof chocolate in the Garden Tea Rooms which involved stirring a lump of dark chocolate into steaming milk. That did the job! The return trip was pleasant, although we were both snoozy from a disturbed night. We sat opposite an Irish geologist leading a tour, and a local Mallaig high school teacher who was keen to talk. We learnt a lot from her about Gallic and other things, and as the time went on she began to ask about us. It was one of those amazing conversations that she pursued, and when she finally found out Peter's background, she said, “I thought so! You look like an Amish man”... I don’t think the Amish are on an iPad and SLR camera. Her name was Fiona, of course, and we enjoyed the interaction.

Another big drive home and we are thankful we can get a meal in-house in the tavern. For some reason we are not looking for nightlife around here. The Scottish air is doing is good and we slept deeply, thinking we may have a quieter day and do a local wander between the showers before we hit the road to Inverness tomorrow.

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