BOB BONE'S TravelPieces   


The town of Oban, with its permanently unfinished coliseum.

Isles of Old -- Scotland's Inner Hebrides

Text and photos by Robert W. Bone

Fingal's Cave inspired Mendelssohn and others.

          GLASGOW, Scotland -- We picked our way gingerly over the difficult landscape, the surging ocean below us threatening the consequences
of any misstep. Under our feet there was no dirt, only bizarre stones which seemed to be hexagonal stairs carved by an inebriated architect who didn't know whether to go up or go down.

      A pathway was worn over the centuries by fellow tourists, beginning perhaps with the Vikings. They named this island Staffa, the Norse word for the vertical staves once used for building Scandinavian houses. We
were walking on the smooth ends of these strange columns of volcanic basalt, shaped millions of years ago by forces which were never satisfactorily explained.
      Today Staffa is a small, rugged and uninhabited piece of Scotland, a steep islet off other islands of the Inner Hebrides. Our careful route was also selected by numerous august personages of the past, including 18th and 19th century Romanticist poets and artists.
      John Keats, William Wordsworth, Jules Verne, and Joseph Turner were among those who wrote, drew or painted their awe-inspired impressions of the unusual island. Even Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal children managed to explore the place in 1847, the queen pronouncing it "most extraordinary."

      Our hike ended just inside the entrance to a grand, columnar
cavern, into which the sea surged back and forth with ear-splitting roars for 277 feet into the dark recesses at the end of the cave. The noise was accompanied by countless echoes,

Inverary Castle, home of the Dukes of Argyle.

 drowning out the cries of scores of sea birds. We felt we had ventured inside a huge pipe organ, and indeed this place inspired another visitor, Felix Mendelssohn, to write his Hebrides Overture, subtitled with the name of this natural feature, Fingal's Cave.
      The island was last privately owned by an American, John Elliott of New York. In 1986 he gave it to the National Trust for Scotland in memory of his wife.
      Staffa with its dramatic caves and flocks of puffins and guillemots was a highlight of a week-long excursion by car and ferry northwest of Glasgow. The route first took us through the county of Argyll (or Argyle), previously known to me only as the home of that diamond pattern popular on men's socks. (Of course you can buy them there.)

Ancient Celtic footprint, used in coronations.

      Here, too, was Loch Lomand, celebrated in that "high road, low road" song that once hummed, is hard to get out of your head. Actually Loch Lomand's bonnie banks were no bonnier than those of many other lochs in this part of the country. Locals say it got its reputation mainly because the lake is close enough for day trips from Glasgow, Scotland's largest city.
      Argyll is also the site of Inverary Castle, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Argyle, and most of it is open to the public. The dukes were
Campbells, the clan that spent much of Scottish history warring with Highland clans, notably the MacDonalds.
      A kilt-wearing friend named Ian MacDonald joked that he felt a little uneasy wearing his MacDonald tartan while touring here in Campbell
country. Ian is a thoroughly modern Scot, who finds his traditional leather sporran a handy pouch for carrying his cell phone.
      In Argyll, too, we climbed the hill called Dunadd, where a footprint carved around a millenium ago in the rock at the summit figured in the inauguration of the Celtic kings. This may be where the Picts and the Scots first came to some agreement, and some historians now call Dunadd the ``birthplace of the Scottish nation.''

Lachlan MacLean, at home in Duart Castle.

      One of our first objectives was the small coastal city of Oban, distinguishable from other Scottish communities not by a castle, but by an
incomplete reproduction of the Roman Coliseum perched atop a nearby hill. Its eccentric builder died before finishing it, and his heirs put a stop to this outflow of funds immediately after his demise.
      From Oban, the ferry leaves for Mull, the largest island of the Inner Hebrides. Historically, Mull was the home of the MacLeans, considered
the third most powerful clan in the country, and one which spent centuries often involved in the difficult relations between the MacDonalds and the Campbells.
      Almost the first sign of habitation on the ferry route across the Sound of Mull is Duart Castle, the traditional home of the MacLeans, perched alone on a windswept headland. Later, when we toured the ancient

Tobermory, a colorful coastal village.

stronghold, our guide turned out to be Lachlan MacLean himself, the current head of the clan and who grew up playing within the structure's battlements.
      Duart Castle was used as a set for the film "Entrapment'' and the duke became friends with actor Sean Connery and others while his home was used for several important scenes in the thriller.
      The 350-square-mile Island of Mull today is a popular summer getaway for British visitors charmed by its small towns, narrow roads, and
friendly residents. A professional theater troupe, the Mull Players, is headquartered here in a tiny theater, and it often takes its productions all
over Scotland. Its principal town, Tobermory, presents a whimsical face with a series of waterfront businesses painted in bright contrasting colors for no discernable reason.
      Mull is not only the jumping off point for Staffa, but also for Iona, a sacred island since

Iona, a sacred island for more than 1000 years.

Celtic times. Iona became the Scottish headquarters for the traveling Saint Columba in 563 when he began to spread Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. The richly illuminated Book of Kells was begun on Iona, but finished in Ireland, where it was considered safe from the frequent raids of Norsemen.
      Like nearby Staffa, Iona has been visited by the great and the powerful over the centuries. In the Middle Ages its abbey and other ruins
were considered so sacred that many secular and religious leaders of northern Europe sought to be buried there. The real Macbeth is spending
eternity on Iona, along with his victim, Duncan, and 46 other Scottish kings. Their graves, like those of many early rulers, are unmarked but are
certainly somewhere under the Street of the Dead near the ancient cathedral.
      Among later travelers, Dr. Samuel Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell, visited the McLeans of Mull and then the island of Iona on their trip through the Hebrides in 1773, long after the religious complex fell into decay.
      "We are now treading that illustrious island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion,'' wrote an admiring Johnson.
      The great lexicographer was noted for his reluctance to leave London for any reason. But he made a once-in-a-lifetime exception for his excursion to Argyll and Mull.
 

###

Read Solving the Loch Ness puzzle.

Home