Iona (Gaelic Ì Chaluim Chille) is an island one mile west of Mull in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. It's only 3½ miles long by 1½ miles across, with a population of 210 in 2019. Its main settlement Baile Mor (meaning "big town") is just a straggle of cottages. The reason to visit is the fine restored abbey, founded by St Columba (521-597). He grew up in Ireland and became a monk, but a dispute caused his exile. He sailed with several companions to Kintyre in Scotland but found it still within sight of Ireland, and therefore he was still within reach of his enemies, so they continued to Iona. In 563 AD they founded a monastery, which became a centre for pilgrimage, and the hub of a network of churches and monks across the west of Scotland. The religious complex fell derelict after the Reformation but was restored in the 20th century. Nowadays much of the island is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, with the abbey and associated sites managed by Historic Scotland.
1 Iona pier is where you land off the Calmac ferry from Fionnphort on the island of Mull. It runs roughly hourly 08:30-18:00, but on demand in summer, taking 10 min. Until 26 March 2023, return fares are adult £3.70, child £1.90. Bikes are free but visitors' cars are not permitted.
The ferry connects with Bus 496 from Craignure, which is the main arrival point in Mull, on the car ferry from Oban; and Oban has trains and buses from Glasgow. With an early start you can travel between Glasgow and Iona in a single day, taking five hours. Buses and ferries are held to make the connection but in bad weather, Fionnphort is exposed to the Atlantic and ferries may be cancelled. Ferry staff will advise non-residents against crossing if the forecast is bad.
With your own car, park up at Fionnphort. There's a free car park by the village community centre, but if it's full you'll have to use the pay & display, £1 per hour.
Boat and coach tours of Mull often include Iona.
Walk, it's not worth bringing a bike. Hotels or retreats may pick up from the pier, or bring a buggy for your luggage. A narrow but well-paved lane traverses the island, bringing you to the Nunnery, Duncan's Cross, St Oran's Chapel then the abbey, all within half a mile of the pier.
Iona Taxi (+44 781 032 5990) is run by the Skerryvore B&B. They can pick up from Craignure or even Glasgow airport.
- 1 Iona Abbey. Apr-Sep: daily 09:30-17:30, Oct-Mar: M-Sa 10:00-16:00. This is the main reason to visit Iona. The abbey was founded in 563 AD by Columba, who'd fled Ireland and established a monastic community here. It became a centre of scholarship, with the richly illustrated Book of Kells being created circa 800 AD. About that time, stone buildings began to replace the original wattle-and-daub settlement. But Iona came under repeated attack from the Vikings and many monks moved to Kells in Ireland, taking the book, which is now in Trinity College Dublin. It became a Benedictine abbey and was rebuilt in 1203, fell derelict after the 16th-century Reformation, but was reconstructed in the 20th century and remains an active Christian centre. The complex includes the abbey church, chapter house, cloister and infirmary, which is now the museum. Ruined chapels on the shore just north and south of the complex indicate the sorry state of the place before restoration. Adult £9.50, conc £7.50, child £5.50.
- St Oran's Chapel just south was built in the 12th century, pre-dating the abbey, but sharing its later dereliction and restoration. St Oran (or Odhrán) came from Tipperary and accompanied St Columba to Iona. This was over 20 years after he was supposed to have died, but he was forever popping out of his grave, and he's an unusual example in western legend of "foundation sacrifice" - being buried alive in the foundations of a building. Unless he'd already died, that is. The graveyard Reilig Òdhrain contains several early Scottish kings and nobles, but their plots are lost, and there's probably nothing like the claimed 48 - the number was inflated to boost Iona's prestige. A late-20th century extension, jutting north into the abbey precinct, contains the grave of Labour party leader John Smith (1938-1994).
- Stone crosses: there were some 360 of these on Iona, free-standing or as grave markers, but only three-and-a-bit survived the Reformation. St Martin's Cross is just outside the abbey church, as is a replica of St John's. The original St John's and fragments of St Matthew's are within the museum. MacLean's Cross 250 yards south of the abbey is richly carved and is 15th century. A fifth on the lane half a mile north of the abbey is Victorian, a memorial to the Duchess of Argyll.
- Iona Heritage Centre is a gift shop with a small museum display. It's just north of the Nunnery, open M-Sa 10:15-16:00.
- Iona Nunnery is in the village, 200 yards west of the ferry pier. It was an Augustinian convent founded in the early 13th century, now ruined.
- 2 Marble Quarry is a little cove reached by a rough boggy track. The vein of marble was worked from medieval times but is only 7 m thick, so it was never going to threaten Carrara, and by 1918 it was worked out. What remains is old machinery and blocks of granite that sandwiched the vein. Further west on the island the granite gives way to Lewissian Gneiss, 2 billion years old in hues of pink, white, red, green and black.
- Walk north beyond the abbey to the top end of Iona where there are several beaches with white sand, clear water and beautiful rocks. The views take in the Ross of Mull, Tiree, Coll, the Treshnish Isles, Staffa, the Small Isles of Eigg and Muck, and Skye.
- Walk southwest to the beach at Camas Cuil an t-Saimh, the "Bay at the Back of the Ocean". To the south of the bay there is a spouting cave.
- Golf: the 18-hole course is in the machair a mile south of the pier; free. The main hazard is the bull that frequents the ninth hole.
- Staffa Tours have boat trips to Fingal's Cave on Staffa; they pick up from Iona and from Fionnphort.
- Spar supermarket by the pier is open M-Sa 09:00-17:00, Su 12:00-17:00.
- There are a few gift and craft shops, and a post office.
- Heritage Garden Cafe is open M-Sa 10:30-16:00.
- You can get meals at Argyll Hotel, St Columba Hotel (their "Larder" is a takeaway) and Martyr's Bay, see Sleep.
It's either Martyr's Bay or the hotels. Gift shops sell mead, the monastic drink that may well have provoked Henry VIII's fury against the monasteries.
- 1 Iona Campsite, open Apr-Sep, is a mile inland, camping £10 ppn. Nice views but the site is breezy and boggy.
- 2 Green Shed (formerly Iona Hostel), Lagandorain, Iona (a mile north of pier), ☏ . Open all year, this is now self-catering in the former hostel dorms on a sheep farm near the north tip of the island. For greater seclusion, the Shepherd's Bothy is a metal trailer adjacent.
- B&Bs include Martyr's Bay, Iona Cottage, Ardoran House a little way south, and Skerryvore inland.
- Argyll Hotel (at ferry pier), ☏ . Lovely small hotel open Apr-Oct. Great comfort and cuisine, and the magical setting comes free. Dog-friendly. B&B double £120.
- Bishop's House, north end of the village, is a church retreat centre, 13 rooms sleeps 26. Tel +44 1681 700111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- St Columba Hotel is near the abbey, tel +44 1681 700304. B&B double from £200.
- Iona Pods north of the village are open Apr-Sep.
It's safe. The biggest danger on Iona is from the elements. In 1998, four men from Iona died when their boat capsized on an evening trip to Mull.
As of April 2022, Iona has no mobile signal from any UK carrier.
Back to Mull via Fionnphort it must be.