A more idyllic rural portrait is hard to paint than the ruins of a 12th century Celtic abbey standing in a rich undulating meadow where hairy Highland calves frisk and play and seagulls sweep low over the sea.
Yet this is not a painting, this is pleasing reality. On the Scottish island of Iona on a sunny autumn afternoon. A scene I enjoyed seated cosily on a soft armchair gazing out from the lounge of the locally-owned St. Columba Hotel.
Named after a 6th century Irish monk who formed a religious community here and became a celebrity cult figure whose name still attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims to the island, this charming hotel combines central location with an impressive heritage.
Originally built as a Free Church Manse in 1846 and owned by the Duke of Argyll, it soon moved into different ownership and was transformed into a hotel while undergoing various renovations over the last 100 years.
Presently owned by a group of local people, the hotel offers a convenient place from which to explore this tranquil western Scottish island’s many attractions, all within walking distance. These include fine-grain sand beaches with rocky backdrops at the North Strand, a golf course overlooking the sea, the ruins of a 13th century nunnery, the famous abbey itself and an ancient graveyard, known as Reilig Òdhrain.
To make souvenir buying easier, two arts and crafts shops ‘Oran’ and ‘Aosdana’ stand immediately outside the hotel’s wooden entrance gate, and another, Martyr’s Bay Shop, is located on the main pier, a 15-minute walk away.
Aside from picturesque views from its spacious lounge, the hotel also boasts what it terms its ‘Quiet Garden,’ a large grassy area embraced by hedgerows and flowers with large wooden picnic tables for guests to enjoy food and drinks alfresco.
Our room, Number 5, was bathed in natural light that flooded in from two large windows. One granted uplifting views across a verdant green meadow to the sea and the mainland beyond, with a side view of the 12th century Benedictine monastery, believed to be the original site of Columba’s 6th century monastery.
The second window, in an alcove, overlooked the hotel’s gracious garden and the old stone ruins of 12th century ‘World of Women’ convent, beyond which lay a basket of islands nestling in the gleaming Atlantic Ocean. Here, our pre-and-post-dinner drinks before us on a small table, with adjoining armchairs, we enjoyed whiling away relaxing hours in philosophical conversation. Other furnishings included a desk, twin beds and wall paintings, mainly seascapes. Our bathroom comprised a combined bath and shower with toiletries by The Scottish Fine Soaps Company.
Food at the hotel is refreshingly diverse. Starters range from gazpacho, with the ingredients harvested from the hotel’s own vegetable and herb garden, to an innovative, earthy twist on the most traditional of Scottish dishes, haggis – offal is wrapped in prosciutto with an accompaniment of truffled potatoes, kohlrabi thyme confit and a whisky and apple sauce.
Mains comprised a balanced mix of meat and fish ranging from grilled mackerel with roasted marrow and cucumber puree and seared fillet of sea trout with cauliflower, leek and baby potatoes to fillet steak and Moroccan-style marinated duck breast. The vegetarian option was wild mushroom and spinach pie and desserts included a delicious rosemary and lavender panna cotta. Service is warm and friendly.
For an intriguing sense of authentic history while walking the island, cast your eye along the outer wall of the nunnery until it falls upon a strange, barely visible carving. This is what is termed a ‘sheela na gig,’ an ancient figurative depiction of a naked woman, her legs spread, indicating female power and influence during ancient Celtic times. A graveyard a short walk away is thought to be the final resting place of medieval royalty of Norway, Ireland, and Scotland, including the eleventh-century King Macbeth of Shakespearean fame.
Don’t forget to spend a few moments on ‘the mound,’ a small grassy knoll beside the abbey. Depending which story you prefer, this is either the home of the island’s faeries or the place Columba came to meditate with angels. Either way, it’s worth enjoying the rejuvenating silence, as it is enjoying a stay at St. Columba’s Hotel.