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May 25, 2002
Alba: Oban, Mull, and Iona (Russell)

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Oban (McCaig's Tower is in the background)

Oban, a small town in northwest Alba, does not have a lot of tourist sights.  Its main landmark is McCaig's Tower, a very strange and out-of-place-looking "Roman Colosseum" on top of the hill that was built a hundred years ago to create employment (it was never completed).  What Oban does have going for it is its harbor.  From here, the massive (and subsidized) Caledonian MacBrayne ferry line runs continuous commute ships back and forth from the nearby Hebrides Islands.  Oban therefore makes an excellent base for exploring this area of Alba.

We are staying in Oban for four nights.  We were absolutely amazed to find a vacancy at very short notice at Rick Steves' number one listing, the Tanglin B&B.  This charming house, a mere five minutes' walk from just about anywhere in Oban (it's a very small town) is run by a Scottish couple, Jim and Liz Montgomery.  As we have discovered with almost every other host in the UK, Jim and Liz are extremely warm, friendly, helpful, and humorous.  (Interestingly, the Tanglin B&B, which is listed in Rick Steves, had a "No Vacancy" sign up for the entire time we were there.  The half-dozen other B&Bs along the street, which are not listed in Rick Steves, all had vacancies.)

As we were checking in on May 24th, we met another "mixed" couple -- he's Chinese and she's Scottish.  They weren't staying at the B&B.  They have just moved to Alba (her request) after living in Singapore for the past 11 years (his request).  With their two sons (aged 5 & 8), they are looking for a livelihood here, and one possibility is to run a B&B.  We extended several offers to get together while we are in town, but somehow we don't think that they'll take us up on it.  She is very conversant, but he hardly said a word.

The rest of our day was spent lazily settling in (Gail is fighting a cold).  For dinner we walked down to the harbor to eat at Mondo's Italian Restaurant, where the food was good but the service wasn't (not impolite -- just unacceptably slow).

On May 26th we wanted to hit the ground running with our excursions into the Scottish Highlands.  The first showstopper was when we awoke to heavy rain.  Nevertheless, Russell walked down to the harbor after breakfast to book tickets out to the islands; Bowman's and MacDougall's Tours offers a day trip to Mull, Iona, and Staffa all in one day.  The second showstopper was when they informed Russell that the weather was too bad to go all the way out to Staffa.  In an executive decision, Russell went ahead and booked tickets for the Mull and Iona daytrip without Staffa, and walked back to the B&B to get everyone else.

In the meantime, Gail had been reading several articles about how wonderful Staffa is, and was disappointed to find out that we weren't going there.  After some discussion, Gail and Russell decided to walk back down to the Bowman's office to see if we could get our money back -- we would prefer to wait and see if the weather improved over the next two days.  We got halfway to the office when we decided to go ahead with the plan as is -- we would settle for just Mull and Iona.  We walked back to the B&B, got Cameron and Joss, and walked back to the harbor.

We boarded the 10:00 AM ferry from Oban to Mull, went up the stairs, and found seats on the upper floor (but inside) near the windows.  The 40-minute ride was uneventful; and when we landed at Craignure on the east side of Mull, we immediately boarded a charter bus to take us all the way across Mull to catch a second ferry to Iona.

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The Caledonian-MacBrayne ferry

The Isle of Mull is the third largest in Alba (with 300 miles of coastline), yet remains very rugged and natural.  Our 35-mile route from the east side to the west side of the island was almost completely on one-lane roads.  Despite frequent pull-outs so that oncoming vehicles wouldn't hold each other up, the ride takes 75 minutes.  Fortunately, Bowman's prides itself on its chatty bus drivers, and ours -- John -- offered a wonderfully educational and entertaining running commentary in which he talked about everything from the natural history of Mull to quoting Scottish poetry (Mull and its people are very laid back and unstressed about life).  It was still pouring rain, but again this resulted in dozens of rivers and waterfalls running down the hills on all sides.  We also saw many "fuzzy" Highland cows (or in the vernacular, "heilan' coos").  Joss, who had taken a Dramamine, fell asleep for most of the ride.  Upon our arrival in Fionnphort on the west side of Mull, we boarded a much smaller ferry and made the 10-minute ride over to Iona.

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"Heilan' coos"

Compared with Mull, Iona is tiny (it measures three miles by 1.5 miles), but is famous as the birthplace of Christianity in Alba.  According to legend, a war-weary and disillusioned St. Columba left Ireland in 563 AD vowing never to return.  After setting sail, the first land that he saw that wasn't Irish was Iona, so he stopped here and founded the Iona Abbey.  The famous Dark Ages illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells, was supposedly written here before it ended up in Dublin.

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Iona Abbey

Today, the abbey -- which was destroyed during the Reformation -- has been almost completely restored, although the nearby Benedictine Nunnery has not.  We had almost two hours to explore the island on our own, and we visited both the ruins of the nunnery and the restored abbey, as well as the Reilig Oran -- the "burial place of kings".  According to yet another legend, the infamous Shakespearean king MacBeth is buried here.  We didn't find his grave, but we did find that of John Smith (as far as we know, the one of Pocahontas fame).  Cameron and Joss also had a lot of fun running around on the tor (hill) outside the abbey.  We finished our Iona visit by playing on the beach and getting our feet wet as the tide came in.

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Getting our feet wet on the beach at Iona

After the ferry ride back to Fionnphort, John the bus driver engaged us with yet 75 more minutes of entertaining narration as we made our way back across Mull to Craignure.  We had to wait for more than half an hour in the rain before we could catch the 6:15 ferry back to Oban (luckily there was a TI that everyone crowded into).  We arrived late and tired enough that we just returned directly to our rooms and had instant noodles for dinner.  Gail has passed fighting her cold and is now in the process of catching it.

All in all, the day began with rain, became sunny on Iona, and then returned to rain again by late afternoon.  Fortunately, we have found another excursion company that makes a daytrip to Staffa without having to repeat Mull and Iona.  If the weather improves -- and even if it doesn't -- we'll try again tomorrow.


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