Iona, Scotland’s sacred isle

This tranquil isle has attracted saints, raiders, kings and pilgrims all with an eye to creating, viewing or stealing the art within.

Columba (Callum), an Irish missionary, traveled to Scotland to convert the Picts to Christianity and inhabited the island of Iona starting his mission from a cave.

He arrived in 563 AD with twelve dedicated companions and built a monastery, which stands to this day with pilgrims by the thousand visiting from every corner of the world each year.

Monking slouch

Monks were technical masters in agriculture, irrigation and building and monastic communities became trailblazers in trade, agriculture and learning, securing themselves a pivotal, authoritative and long lasting position in society. Monks of the time were no slouches.

The island gained a history of global importance and, as a result, Iona receives over half a million visitors annually. Not bad for a windswept island with no cars, barely one mile square.

Human sacrifice

When Columba was building the first chapel on Iona, and in line with other British legends of foundation sacrifice, a voice is said to have told Columba that the walls of the chapel would not stand until a living man was buried below its foundations.

Unfortunate Odan

The legend is that Odan, another missionary who had preceded Columba’s arrival at Iona, asked to be buried alive beneath the chapel and, in accordance with his wishes, was consigned to the earth believing his soul would be saved. Hence the name Odan’s Chapel (Reilig Odhrain)

Generous burial

According to different versions of the same tale, either Columba wanted to see Odan again or Odan attempted to climb out of his grave, and in both versions Columba quickly covered the pit with earth to save Odan’s soul from the world of sin.

Odan was the first of many to be buried there – it became a burial place for the Lords of the Isles and Scottish, Viking and Irish kings alike are all buried here.

Iona Abbey

Columba went on to build Iona’s great abbey. The abbey stands to this day and has become one of the most iconic centres of Christianity the world has known.

From a network of churches, starting at Iona and stretching all over Scotland, Christianity eventually spread. Much credit is due to later missionaries, but they all drew their inspiration from Calum Cille, ‘the island of Columba’s church’.

Murderous pillage

When Vikings landed at Iona in 795 AD, fuelled by the taste for previous sackings of ecclesiastical outposts such as Lindisfarne, they killed some 100 monks in a single day on what is now known as Martyr’s Bay.

The massacre made distinct from other bloody events on Britain’s coastlines only by the sheer numbers involved. The Vikings also laid waste to the abbey.

Cows and women

Columba is known for his abstinence and he banned cows and women from the island. He is believed to have said ‘where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there are women there is mischief’.

Cowboy builders

However, in 1203 AD a chieftain called Macdonald Reginald rebuilt the abbey and, doing away with traditional ways of Iona, added a nunnery.

Clearly Columba had the last word for it lies derelict today with the roof caved in and some walls falling in – perhaps the builders had omitted the burial of a living man below its foundations.

Iona today

Today visitors come in the hundreds daily. Iona is at the end of long pilgrim route, similar to Santiago de Compostela only much, much older – indeed its history precedes Columba with St Oran arriving even earlier.

Beautiful Benedictine cloisters are preserved, ancient Celtic crosses and artifacts, works of art and stained glass windows – the abbey is a most tranquil and refined place in the wildest of locations.

Mochalattéd masses

For those who can’t bear the madding crowd, visitor centres and those convinced a hiking stick is necessary for walking between coffee shops, there are some hidden gems on Iona.

The absence of cars on the island means many don’t, won’t or can’t venture beyond the ferry terminal, the coffee shop and the abbey so it’s easy to find deserted white sand beaches, wilderness coves, aqua marine waters and abandoned bothies.

I recommend the disused quarry and quarrymen’s croft, well worth a visit.

How foraging became hoovering

The islands surrounding Staffa are as protected as can be. They are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and visitors require permission if they so much as consider breaking wind. Yet, under the water’s surface, around Scotland’s most protected land, the dredging continues.

The Mull coastal economy (fishing, diving, boat and wildlife tours, kayaking, rambling and camping) benefits from a bountiful and sustainable intertidal and shallow water ecology. Even the creel fishers, who account for 75% of the Scottish inshore fishing fleet, benefit from working in beds undamaged by trawlers. However, the dredgers don’t have such a good record.

The remote islands of Staffa (with its world famous basalt columns and Fingal’s Cave) Little Colonsay, and the Treshnish Isles (Lunga, Fladda, Cairn na Burgh More, Cairn na Burgh Beg), The Dutchman’s Cap and Iona may seem like protected pristine wilderness to the passing eye, but the waters surrounding them have little protection – under the water line it’s a wild-west dredging frontier.

Eco desert

One of the largest environmental disasters in modern British times happened in the Clyde in the 1970s. The sustainable fisheries at Carradale and Girvan first fitted steam-powered engines to their trawlers and diesel followed enabling them to go further, for longer and with bigger nets. Then fish finding sonar was discovered ‘and soon fishing became hoovering’ as trawlers netted herring in numbers never seen before.

When the herring ran out the fishermen switched to saithe and when this ran out they switched to cod, then plaice and then sole and when there were no fish in the water column they started dredging scallops from the mud. The more fish were caught the more needy were fishermen to pay for their new televisions, microwaves, cars and expensive technology reliant fishing boats. Now there is nothing left.

Not many people know of this disaster of desertification of the Clyde because it occurred under water and beyond the ken of environmental nimbys preoccupied with the demands of questioning windmill aesthetics. Also because the Scottish fishing fleet is an influential political force of national employers and no organised pressure groups were around to question their decades long inept handling of fish stocks. However, all that is changing.

Dredging ban

West coast scallop stocks have declined since 2011 yet scallop production and yield is increasing at a dramatic rate with new and additional boats entering the fleet. Mull Aquaculture & Fisheries Association say Nethrops (‘shrimp’), brown crab and velvet crab are all over exploited around Treshnish.

Nethrops are getting smaller and competition for them is increasing. According to official government figures published in the Scotland Marine Atlas: south and west areas of Mull are ‘heavily exploited’, Demerol stock ‘a concern’, Sandeel stock ‘in decline’, Whiting stock ‘in decline’, Treshnish burrowing Sea Anemone ‘at risk’, Fan Mussels are rare’, Ocean Quahog ‘in decline’, Seapens and Megafauna ‘at risk’ at Gometra and Ulva and Fireworks Anemone ‘scarce’. Tall Seapens of Inch Kenneth and The Wilderness are of ‘global importance’ and the Maeri beds at Treshnish represent 95% of the global volume of the species.

Signs the fleet learnt lessons from history are few so, when they cried for ministerial help to continue dredging MPAs, Environment Minister Richard Lochhead retorted with a ban. Such is the public consciousness of the marine ecological environment that pressure from campaigning groups such as COAST has brought results. Indeed, the 30 MPAs themselves are a result of Hugh Fernley–Whitingstall‘s own campaign Fish Fight which revealed 50% of every UK fish catch is thrown overboard, dead.

Trawlers have had to widen the mesh in their nets to reduce bye catch, reduce their number of fishing days and provide escape hatches for fish. Nevertheless, 77 million Nethrops are discarded annually (with a 75% mortality rate) and up to 50% of the overall catch is discarded (a large proportion of this being juvenile cod). For every kilo of Nethrops caught in the Clyde 9kg of bye catch is discarded. Dr S Campbell, Community of Arran Seabed Trust, says, “These parameters suggest that in time the Nethrops fishery will collapse”.

Day-trippers to Staffa, in fear of the eco Stasi, ensure they don’t use colourful language in front of the puffins whilst we watch dredgers tear up the Treshnish Isles’ surrounding seabed.

Catching brown crab

Not easy to find but, if you know the types of nooks they live in, patience and a lung full of air is all you need to catch a fair size brown crab for the pot.

On this occasion the sea is choppy and, not wanting a kayak anchored on the surface whilst diving, I swim to a reef previously spotted from cliffs above, take a lung full of air and dive to orientate myself with the lie of the bed.

On a second descent I start my sweep at the deepest part of the reef where the rock meets a sandy gully. Visibility is limited today to about thee metres and I swim and wriggle and pull myself along looking under rocks, ledges and cracks in a methodical manner so as not to miss any ground.

Wearing dive gloves I am mindful that a veteran could otherwise have fun with my fingers. Its claws are designed to sever flesh and to break bones and any animal cornered is treated in much the same way as a car meeting its life’s end at the hands of the wrecker’s claw.

First, the saw claw cuts and sevvers flesh and sinew and then the other club claw squashes and breaks bone and cartilage. Both claws are differently shaped for efficiency with each separate task. If the crab is attacking crustaceans it uses the two claws in reverse to above.

A dimpled edge to their body gives them the comic resemblance of a Cornish pasty. This said they have the charm of a battle tank. Red brown in colour, robust and heavy set, with a bone hard shell and a low gait defensive profile; their powerful claws are menacingly highlighted with black tips at the business end.

The brown crab is the most popular edible crab in the British Isles and the one most likely to be seen on ice in supermarkets.

A decent sized crab is a good meal full of vitamins and minerals and the sure way to know how ‘full’ a crab is under its armour is by judging the age of its shell – if it’s covered in barnacles and marks it is mature and the crab will be sure to have grown into its shell suit. If on the other hand the shell is new then it is likely the crab within is still growing.

Before completing my sweep around the reef I find a crab. Decent sized and aware of my presence, he has backed up under a ledge making it hard to grab his claws. I reach down to my ankle strap where I keep a crab hook by way of a fashioned coat hanger and slowly pass the tool over the his back and behind into the rock cranny to stop him backing up further. I carefully pull the crab towards me, his claws snapping at my fingers, both of us stare at each other all the while.

Running low on fuel, I know that if I did not have him swiftly on the open sand I will have to the surface. As he slides into the open I use the hook to keep him low to the sand with a downward pressure on his carapace whilst I grab beyond his claws for the forearms.

With the hook between my teeth I swim to the surface, both my hands holding claws. I gasp for air at the surface and wonder which is more difficult: swimming to shore laden with dive weights, both hands occupied with an angry crab or treading water in choppy sea whilst trying to put the warring beast into a dive bag.

Either way supper will be delicious.