Mallaig to Oban via Mull, Staffa, and Iona

Staffa has been on our “must see” list since we visited the Giant’s Causeway earlier this year, Staffa being the “other end” of the causeway which stretches under the sea between Northern Ireland and Scotland. We weren’t disappointed!

Overview: 5 days, 259 miles

We disembarked the ferry at Mallaig in pouring rain, but at least the rain was vertical not horizontal…. One of the first things we noticed as we drove east was that autumn had clearly arrived on the Scottish mainland during the two weeks we spent on the Outer Hebrides. You don’t realise how lovely trees are until you spend time somewhere that doesn’t have many….

About 40 minutes’ drive from Mallaig, we reached the Glenfinnan Monument. We were surprised by the number of vehicles (including motorhomes) in the car park and the number of overseas visitors; it was much much quieter on the Outer Hebrides.

It was at Glenfinnan that Bonnie Prince Charlie (yes, him again) raised his father’s standard in August 1745 at the start of his ill-fated uprising. The exhibition in the small visitor centre told us that on the fateful day,

Clansmen toast the prince in brandy, cheer and throw their bonnets in the air. The men have a supper of cheese and milk as they have left their oatmeal at home.

Brandy instead of whisky and no porridge? Well, it was never going to end well, was it? Mark insisted on referring to the rather wet figure on top of his pedestal as “Soggy Prince Charlie”……

Without further ado, we continued to Fort William to fill up with diesel and LPG, do some laundry, and do a food shop. Hurrah – a LIDL! We hadn’t seen a LIDL or an ALDI for weeks. Oh, the excitement…… We followed that with a quick trip into Morrisons for all the things that LIDL don’t sell: a distinctly underwhelming experience….

Our next stop was Glen Coe, where we found a fabulous place to park up for the night next to Loch Achtriochtan. There was even a phone signal in Glen Coe – with data! That was a big luxury after nearly a fortnight on the Outer Hebrides. We had a very quiet night, which was just what we needed after our broken few nights’ sleep due to Storm Callum and then the super early start to catch the 06.20 ferry back to the mainland. Here’s Mark scanning the hillside for wildlife before we left on Sunday morning:

Very helpfully, Glen Coe ski station has a motorhome service point. Mark spotted an interesting statue made out of old bicycle parts:

Needless to say, it was the bicycle saddle that he commented on!

After that, it was back down Glen Coe with a quick stop at the National Trust’s Glen Coe visitor centre. We arrived at lunchtime and had some difficulty deciding whether it was better to show up to a massacre on a full or an empty stomach. In the end, greed prevailed and we chose to have lunch first then go in. As it turned out, the exhibition wasn’t all about the 1692 massacre. There was quite a lot about the geology of the area as well as some history of rock and ice climbing before we got to a film about the massacre.

This took us back to the time of William of Orange. After trouncing James VII/II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 (we visited the battlefield earlier this summer; old post here), William found himself fighting a war with France but having to commit troops to keeping the peace in the Scottish Highlands. He needed to sort out the Scottish problem so as to be able to redeploy the troops elsewhere.

All of the clan chiefs were ordered to swear an oath of allegiance to William by 01 January 1692. The leader of the Macdonalds of Glencoe left it to the last minute, showing up in Fort William on 31 December 1691. He was told that no, he had to go to Inverary to swear the oath and, having been delayed by government troops along the way, only managed to swear a week or so later. Not to worry, he’d got there in the end, and off he went back to Glen Coe.

Unfortunately, the late appearance was received with glee by the Scottish government and it was decided that an example would be made. The Macdonalds of Glen Coe were to be wiped out, all 600 or so of them. However much William III knew or didn’t know of the plan, his signature is on the piece of paper.

Quite disturbingly, many of the troops involved in the massacre were billetted in the homes of the Macdonalds for a number of days before the order to carry out the massacre was received. “Only” 38 Macdonalds were murdered in the end by the soldiers; the rest got away, though in the depths of a Scottish winter and without shelter (their houses had been burned down), many more must have died.

Next time I have to listen to someone whimpering about being fined for submitting their tax return late (or any other such transgression against the rule of bureaucracy), I shall think of the poor Macdonalds of Glen Coe…..

Driving back west to Loch Linnhe, we caught the small ferry from Corran to Ardgour, which saved us a long drive round Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil. It was a bargain at £8.20….

We then had another drive down to Lochaline, with beautiful scenery and lots of deer along the way. From Lochaline, we caught a second ferry to Fishnish on the island of Mull (£11.95).

After spending Sunday night in the middle of nowhere in Glen More, listening to the stags shouting at each other in the middle of the night, we continued to Fionnphort on the south western tip of Mull.

Monday was, quite surprisingly, a glorious sunny day, and so we decided to go for it and take a boat trip to Staffa. Staffa had been on our “must do” list since we visited the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland this summer (old post here); we were told there that Staffa is the other end of the same formation.

We hadn’t booked a trip to Staffa but we knew when they left and that we could just show up and pay (£35 each) so long as there was space for us on the boat. One of the benefits of visiting Scotland in October is that we could be reasonably sure that there would be space – and thankfully there was. There were 16 passengers including us. Staffa Tours seemed a very professional outfit and Mark was impressed by the boat:

We stopped on the way to have a look at some seals:

Staffa has the same basalt columns as the Giant’s Causeway, but here you can see them sandwiched between smooth basalt and what the tour guides call “pebble effect” basalt.

A handrail allows you to walk along the top of the columns (which was very much like walking on the Giant’s Causeway), with waves crashing in not too far away:

Mark at Fingal’s Cave:

You can also climb up to the top of the island, from where there are some more fantastic views:

We got an hour on Staffa to wander around. In addition to looking at the basalt, we also had to find time to take in the wildlife. Some cormorants:

Seals frolicking in a bay:

There were a couple of seal pups on the beach, one of them very young indeed. Awwwwww…..

We both agreed that whilst we’d both enjoyed visiting the Giant’s Causeway, Staffa was in a different league altogether……

Staffa Tours pick up / drop off at both Fionnphort and Iona, so we got off at Iona on the way back. The island of Iona is only a few minutes away by from Fionnphort (on the bigger island of Mull) by boat and a Calmac ferry chugs back and forth. We visited the famous abbey then took the Calmac ferry back to SOK later in the afternoon (at £1.70 single, you can’t complain at the price).

Saint Columba, who was born in County Donegal, Ireland, in around 521 AD, arrived on Iona and set up a monastery in 563 AD.

There was an interesting parallel with Orkney (which we visited earlier this trip) here. Whereas at one time it was thought that neolithic monument building (stone circles etc) started in the south (with sites like Stonehenge) and spread north to Orkney, more recent discoveries have turned that theory on its head. Similarly, it used to be thought that monastic life on Iona was influenced by new ideas developed in Ireland. Now it’s thought that many of the most important developments travelled in the other direction. It’s thought that the very first high crosses were made on Iona and that the idea then spread to Ireland, for example. Even Ireland’s iconic Book of Kells is now broadly accepted to have been made on Iona around 800 AD and taken to Ireland when monks from Iona left to found the monastery at Kells in 807 AD.

St Columba’s Shrine or, as Mark called it, St Columba’s kennel – it’s very very small inside.

The small on-site museum had a fabulous collection of warriors’ grave slabs:

Back to SOK, we set off on the “scenic drive” round the Western side of Mull:

There was lots to look at along the way:

We found a spot to overnight a few miles along the narrow single track road, in the company of three other vans. The wind and rain made a comeback late in the evening – more bad weather that hadn’t been in the forecast the last time we’d had internet access to check. We were so lucky to have good weather on Monday for our trip to Staffa…..

We made it to Tobermory and had a look aound the town, which is basically spread out along the quayside. It’s quite touristy – gift shops, cafés etc, but very attractive with all its different colours. Why don’t more towns in the UK do that?

After a night on the campsite at Tobermory (£22 – ouch!), it was time to head to Craignure for the 45 minute ferry crossing back to the mainland (£20.60).

We arrived into Oban in bright sunny weather, wondering what the Roman Coliseum was doing on the horizon…. We’ll go and check it out and let you know…..


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