Is Iona the most video game-like place in Britain?

Packing lots of different ecosystems and landscapes into one small place has a magical effect of making a visit there feel like you’re getting so much more out of it. We were curious to see Jaunted touting Hawaii as a place to see loads of ecosystems in one day, so here’s an idea for you: is Britain’s answer the windswept island of Iona?

The Hebrides island may not have the vast range of tundra, lava fields and deserts that you get on Hawaii, but for an island that’s just 3.4sq m, it packs in a load of different landscapes. And – this might sound like a bit of a stretch, but come with us on this – the result is an island that feels more like the world-building of Zelda or Final Fantasy than it does a contiguous location. Let us explain with what’s actually on the island…

PortIona portBefore you can start a level on a video game, you need to get there – and it is a bit of a trek to get to Iona. It’s only 85 miles as the crow flies west of Glasgow, but you have to take two ferries to get there. Break it up by stopping off at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, better known as Balamory to millions of put-upon parents everywhere. Still, the last little ferry that runs across to the island is just the sort of dramatic entrance that starts off every adventure…

 

Iona Abbey Iona AbbeyEvery adventure game needs the ruins of a previous civilisation, and Iona bats this one of the park. Iona fell first within Dál Raita, the old Gaelic kingdom, and then the Norse Kingdom of the Isles. It was pretty important, as Iona Abbey provided a site of pilgrimage, and may have been where the Book of Kells – a major religious text from the Middle Ages – was started. Every game needs a sacred item, after all… The Abbey itself is still going and is full of seriously interesting historical items, including a graveyard with the burials of many Scottish kings, including Macbeth.

 

Iona NunneryIona NunneryIs the fully-built abbey not quite dramatic enough? Then pop through the ruins of the Iona Nunnery, founded around 1200. Sat near the island’s port, shops and restaurants, it’s an ideal stopping place. You won’t have a more dramatic sit down and a sandwich. Retreats Just in case you’re thinking religion is just a historical angle, the Iona Community was founded in 1938 and still operates on the island. That’s helped make it a destination for visitors all over the world, giving the island an unexpected international air – expect to bump into a lot of Americans in particular who come for both the religious aspect, and for writing retreats at the local hotels. If you want to make the most of the peace of the island, heading out of season isn’t a bad idea – half a million people visit every summer.

 

Dun IIona Dun IWant to see all of the island at once and suss out your terrain? Then head up the dinky hill, Dun I. You can see out to the neighbouring isles and realise just how far you are from the rest of the world. The Celts used to refer to Iona as a ‘thin place’ – somewhere where the gap between heaven and Earth is at its thinnest. Its a good spot to get a feel for what they’re talking about.

 

BeachesIona beachesHere’s some more scene-setting for you: the beaches around the island range from the broad flats of the north – perfect for stunning sunrises and sunsets – to the hidden, enclosed bays of the west. Up north, you can see out to to the uninhabited Staffa and Treshnish Isles, with astounding birdlife, but you can get a good taste for it in the western bays: Iona is set on some of the oldest rock in the world at 2,700 million years old, so the bay sides are banded with vast striations of colour. Hunt for stones and shells, or just sit down and look out at the Atlantic – past a couple of tiny islands, there’s nothing until Newfoundland. It’s the perfect place to gather your thoughts before it’s time to head south for adventure…

 

WildlifeIona sharkSo that’s the scene, but now we need a bit of movement to bring it to life. On Iona you have the ubiquitous corncrakes chirruping in the grasses pretty much everywhere you go, although you are seriously unlikely to see one – they can throw their voices to mask their location, and are rarely seen. There’s loads more birdlife around the island, with sandpipers and oyster catchers common sights. Seals are also a big draw to watch from the beaches, and the odd porpoise also pops up in the Sound of Iona.

The abandoned marble quarryIona Marble quarrySo where is the danger in this video game isle? Dropping south from the bays takes you across marshy land and down to St Colomba’s Bay – believed to be where the saint first arrived at the island. It’s a beautiful spot, but head along the coast a little further and you’ll find huge, abandoned quarrying equipment. Its been abandoned for almost a hundred years now, but was once used to try and mine the island’s Iona Marble, a gorgeous green stone you can expect to find on sale. It’s best to only head down there in good weather – it’s a long walk with a steep descent to get into it – but rummaging through the pools to find some stone of your own can help you land the best souvenir from the island possible.

 

Crofting and grazingIona sheepThis has been the scene setting: where are the people? The island has a long history of crofting, complete with a history of evil and good landlords (check out the heritage centre for full details). Smallholders still work this tricky land hard so be sure to respect their work while exploring the island. You’re also likely to bump into sheep herders in the wide grazing lands in the west, the Machair, where the sheep have to dodge golfballs on the 18-hole golf course. Fancy a game? Don’t be surprised if your balls get blown into the water…

 

VillageIona coastOkay, village might be stretching it a bit, but every game needs somewhere to trade goods and level up, and Baile Mòr does have a sprinkling of shops and restaurants. Refuel at the excellent St Columba Hotel and Argyll Hotel restaurants, complete with vegetables grown on site and fresh fish from the surrounding waters. There are loads of local craftspeople selling goods too – the Celtic style, rediscovered in an Arts and Crafts-esque revival on the island at the turn of the last century, is everywhere. Be sure to pick up a trinket before you head off to your next adventure…

Photos: timo_w2sLuxpimJema Smith, Jema Smith, Paul Miller, Stew DeanWilliam Marnoch, Paul Miller, Magnus Hagdorn, Bods

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