Ayr, Sunday, 3 September          Day 127          3275 miles

Dear Jamie,

Two weeks ago I was on the little island of Iona. Somewhere in this package there is a stone I picked up from the beach for you. Show it to Father Oliver and he will explain to you why Iona is such a special little island. Four days later I arrived at Campbeltown feeling very sorry for myself (see the comments in the guidebook) which was the half-way point in my journey. I was very tired and the thought of another 3000 miles to go seemed very hard. But I've made good progress in the last week and I have with great relief left the Highlands behind. They are very beautiful but very hard work! All of a sudden I am south of the river Clyde in seaside towns with golf courses, beaches, and flat roads. In another week I will be back in England having been in Scotland for 12 weeks.

Lots of love,


After six days of cycling I was glad of a day mooching round Oban doing nothing very much. I shopped for film, envelopes, postcards, and another book to read. The bike shop failed to yield any decent twenty inch tyres so my shopper tyres would have to grit their treads for another few hundred miles of Highland roads. An enormous queue of people waited for accommodation in the Tourist Information Centre so I contented myself with collecting accommodation lists and tourist leaflets for later consumption.

Narrow lanes and alleyways climbed up between solidly-built houses to the top of Pulpit Hill. There I whiled away the rest of the morning writing postcards in the sun and watching the comings and goings of the ferries sailing from the harbour below me to the islands of Mull, Tiree, Coll, Barra, and Uist.

Walking back to the hostel I spotted TS Royalist tied up at North Pier so went across to talk to the Captain and the Chief Engineer. I had last photographed them three months ago in Hartlepool and with a little luck I might see them yet again in Greenock in three weeks time. Back at the hostel I read in the sun whilst my washing churned over in the machine. The afternoon and evening slowly drifted away.

At ten next morning I set out by ferry for the boat and coach trip to Mull, Staffa, and Iona. As we sailed around the tip of the island of Kerrera which protects Oban from Atlantic storms the sea was as smooth and the day as sunny as for my day trip to Orkney. The weather gods were rewarding all my hard work in between.

Landing at Craignure on Mull we picked up the coaches which would take us the forty miles across the island to Fionnphort. The single track road wound and climbed between the hills. There were five coaches in our convoy and it was a major task for oncoming traffic to negotiate their way past us. At Fionnphort we boarded Duncan Grant's launch Ossian of Staffa for the half hour voyage to the tiny island after which it was named. Around its dumpy waist the island of Staffa wears a fluted band of basalt slanting to the right giving a lop-sided tilt to the gaping mouth of Fingal's Cave as if the island was about to slip drunkenly into the sea. The hexagonal basalt columns were formed as a sheet of molten lava cooled and solidified over the colder bedrock below. This outcrop on Staffa is matched by the similar columns of the Giant's Causeway just over the water at the north-east tip of Ulster. It is a freak of nature that legend attributes to the building skills of the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill to help him stride between the islands.

The boat moored at the entrance to Clamshell Cave where the flutes of rock have been bent into a curve and laid down like the rib-cage of a stranded whale. We walked back around the headland along the slippery, narrow path that has been cut into the side of the rock face, leading right inside the vault of Fingal's Cave. The cave is 230 feet deep, 60 feet high, and 50 feet wide at the entrance. If ever a cave deserves to be called cathedral-like then this is it. Not because of its soaring size, but because the roof of the cave seems to be supported by the fluted columns of a medieval cathedral. In fact it seemed almost domestic in scale, not the wonder of the natural world which drew people from all over Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps I have seen too many wonders of the natural world on television.

Known only to locals, Fingal's Cave lay meekly in the path of the Atlantic gales until discovered for the chattering classes in 1772 by the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks whilst on an expedition to Iceland. The following year Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited Iona on their tour of the Western Isles but were prevented by high seas from landing on Staffa. But the Romantic movement doted on Staffa. Scott, Keats, and Wordsworth all wrote poetry about their visits, and three years after his visit in 1829 Felix Mendelssohn wrote his Hebridean Overture, more popularly known as Fingal's Cave. Queen Victoria brought respectability in 1847 and thought it quite splendid. But Tennyson, like Wordsworth before him, regretted the numbers of tourists. For once I was unconcerned by crowds of other people, happy to sit on a grassy cliff top watching the waves sluicing over the fluting on the Herdsman Rock below.

We left Staffa after an hour and sailed to Iona. From the sea the tiny village and the small Abbey church seemed hopelessly vulnerable on this small, low, insignificant island. Leaving Ireland in AD 563, why on earth did Columba choose to build here his first church in Scotland? Certainly his mission was successful for by the time of his death thirty-four years later his missionaries had spread the Christian message right across Scotland to the east coast of Fife.

Like the rest of northern Britain Iona was indeed vulnerable, if only to the marauding Vikings who sacked the Abbey and murdered the monks. Nothing remains from that period but such was the belief in the sanctity of Columba's foundation that sixty Scandinavian, Irish, and Scottish kings were brought here for burial, including Duncan and Macbeth. But the Graveyard of the Kings is a forlorn and uninformative place for any identifiable grave slabs and headstones have been removed for safe keeping. Those seeking comfort or inspiration from the lives of Scottish leaders now stop and pray, as thousands do, at the most recent grave, that of John Smith, the leader of the Labour Party whose sudden death in 1994 so shocked the nation. His simple headstone carries the brief epitaph, An honest man's the noblest work of God. It is a line from Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man quoted by Burns in his poem The Cotter's Saturday Night. Never can an epitaph have been more apposite.

Considering that the site has been derelict for most of its 1500 year history, it is a remarkable tribute to the tenacity of the Scottish sense of spiritual history that a Christian community has been re-established here. The present Abbey buildings are based on a thirteenth century Benedictine foundation but most date from a fifteenth century rebuilding which fell rapidly into decline. Four hundred years later the eighth Duke of Argyll had the ruins restored in the early years of this century and since 1938 the Iona Community have been rebuilding the physical and spiritual life of the Abbey.

Not all the restoration is entirely honest. At the entrance to the Abbey stand the magnificently carved Celtic crosses of Saint Martin and Saint John. Saint John's cross is in a perfect state of preservation considering that, according to its label and to the postcard of it which is on sale in the Abbey shop, it was carved in the eighth century. It is in fact a fraud, a modern copy, the broken remains of the original having been reassembled in a shed round the back of the Abbey together with an impressive display of medieval tomb slabs. Surely a Christian community should be more honest with its visitors?

Not being a devout person Iona didn't work its spiritual magic on me; I came as a tourist, not a pilgrim, and left still a tourist. But before taking the boat back to Mull I collected several pieces of pink granite from the beach to give to friends back in London whose sympathies I knew were with the Iona Community and would welcome a memento of this most revered of Scottish sites.

As we were boarding the ferry at Craignure to return to Oban the last two passengers coming out from the mainland disembarked, each carrying an enormous rucsac on their back, and a folding bicycle under their arm. Within a few seconds they had erected their Brompton bikes and rode off across the island towards the evening sun. Keen cyclists!

Sailing back to the mainland the lowering sun glinted on the peaks of the low waves of ship's wake leaving the troughs darkened in shade. All the way back I watched this scintillating, zebra-like skin to the sea, stretching ever further back to the silhouetted Duart Castle standing out on the point guarding the bays of Duart and Craignure.

Sunday was a day of preparation for the next week's cycling. Speeding down the hill into Oban three days ago the rear end of the bike had suddenly started wobbling from side to side. I feared a buckled wheel but was unable to spot anything wrong with tyre or rim. The wheel was certainly running true. The gears were also playing up again so I had to go through the complete rigmarole of adjusting the front and rear derailleurs. Modern indexed gear systems make for fast and easy gear-changing but are just as much a pain to adjust as derailleur gears have always been. To make sure I got it right I laboriously followed the instructions in the pocket maintenance book I was carrying. After an hour of cursing, the gear-changing was good enough for the time being but at some stage I would have to seek the help of a bike shop again to do a proper job. By the time I had finished and cleaned up the bike, most of the oil and dirt had been transferred from the bike to me and another washing session was called for.

The afternoon was occupied by stocking up with basic provisions and cash, and booking accommodation for the week ahead. From Oban I would be cycling southwards to the Mull of Kintyre before returning north to Inveraray in five days time. By then I would have cycled two hundred miles but be scarcely ten miles south of Oban. That's Scottish cycling for you!