Scotland’s secret island with pilgrimage pedigree, white beaches and no tourists

Scotland’s secret island with pilgrimage pedigree, white beaches and no tourists

In the meadow in front of the cabin, John is scything paths through the long grass; it’s a scene straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel, but this is not rural Wessex, it’s the tiny Hebridean island of Iona.

Kicking off my flip-flops I wander barefoot through the field, buzzing with insects and laced with vetch and frothy cow parsley, down to the shore. Leaving my clothes on a rock, I wade out into the waves.

After a skin-tingling swim I collapse onto the silky white sand, a stash of pretty pebbles, pink granite, pearly marble and greenstone, like a magpie’s jewels beside me. Out at sea a lone kayaker glides past, a flash of kingfisher colour. A seal’s slinky head appears in the waves. I’m mesmerised by a couple of ringed plovers scuttling along the beach. Behind me, sheep graze in the dunes. The light shimmers and shape-shifts over the scene. It’s a sunny afternoon but there’s not a soul in sight – although souls are what Iona collects.

This Hebridean rock, dangling off the Isle of Mull casts a hypnotic spell over visitors. Many who make their way to this tiny island, a mere mile and a half wide by three long, are pilgrims of one sort or another, following in the footsteps of St Columba who washed up here from Ireland in the 7th century with his followers after what has been jokingly called the first copywright conflict. He made an unauthorised copy of St Finian’s bible and the older saint turned litigious. Others come because of the tales of its ethereal Lotus Eater-style beauty, the white sand beaches lapped by a turquoise sea.

The Columba hotel has sea views (Photo: Peter Titmuss/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The Columba hotel has sea views (Photo: Peter Titmuss/Getty)

What is so surprising is that for such a small island, with such a famous history, it is so tranquil. In summer the population of 150 swells to 300. Daytrippers tumble off the foot ferry from Mull, its bigger, busier neighbour, onto the slipway and snake in a Gortex-clad procession up the lane to the abbey.

A few stay in the couple of small hotels in the village but most make their way back over the Sound at the end of the day. The island empties out and breathes again.

The waterfront village and the abbey hum with activity, but away from the holy hub it’s a different story – especially at its northern tip where I’m holed up with a handful of friends on a coastal croft.

It’s a half-hour walk from the village up the lane (the island is car-free) past the abbey, hedgerows a tangle of yellow flag irises, topped with mountaineering snails, fields full of sheep, a sign pointing the way to “the hill” – more mole-hill than munro.

A Celtic cross inside the Abbey (Photo: Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images)
A Celtic cross inside the Abbey (Photo: Yuriko Nakao/Getty)

When the road runs out, you’re there; Lagandorain croft is the traditional white, turquoise-trimmed home of John Maclean and his wife, Rachel Hazell, The Travelling Bookbinder, who runs retreats here. And through a small wooden gate across the field, is the Green Shed.

John bought the 60-acre smallholding more than 20 years ago. He farms a flock of Hebridean sheep (“the girls are going grey now,” he tells me with a smile), and built the island’s only hostel.

Abandoning the architect’s drawings, he chose instead an agricultural-style building to blend into the landscape. He ran the hostel until the pandemic; it’s now a quirky self-catering property that’s perfect for an old-fashioned seaside holiday.

One sunny day we pack a picnic and hike the three miles to St Columba’s Bay on the southern tip of the island where the saint is said to have landed with his followers. The trail passes through the village and out the other side, the path weaving across rough sheep-grazed ground and the wildflower-laced machair. The beach is pebbly, the water crystal clear. We swim, eat our sandwiches and scour the shore for the teardrop-shaped translucent green pebbles supposed to resemble St Columba’s tears.

Another day we take a boat trip out to the island of Staffa to see puffins nesting on the cliffs and the geological spectacle that is Fingal’s Cave with its towering basalt columns. The little wooden boat is late back from the morning run as we wait on the slipway. “We spotted a pod of Orcas,” skipper Graham Tindal explains.

The Island of Staffa is also Famous which has the famous for Fingal's Cave and the spectacular Hexagonal Basalt volcanic rocks.
The Island of Staffa is famous for Fingal’s Cave and its puffins
(Photo: Pierre Longnus/Getty/Photodisc)

At the Abbey and its museum, we learn about Viking raids and murdered monks and the Rev George MacLeod, who set about restoring the ruined abbey and founding a new community here in the 30s.

A holiday on Iona feels like stepping back in time, where you can buy fresh-off-the-boat langoustine, lobster and crab from Iona Seafood. We have supper one evening at the white clapboard St Columba Hotel after wandering around its organic kitchen garden, a highlight the heritage beetroot carpaccio with garden rosemary syrup, burrata and matcha crackers, before wandering slowly back up the lane as the sun goes down.

They say Iona is a “thin place”, the veil between heaven and earth gossamer fine. When I return home, old-school postcards written, sand in my shoes, the island fills my dreams. My soul is still there with the snails climbing the flag irises.

How to get there

Passenger ferries run from Mull and take around 10 minutes,

Where to stay

The Green Shed – the Sea Room (sleeps 10), the Snug and the Studio (both sleep two) – from £1,200 for a four-night stay,

Order fresh seafood for delivery on the island from Iona Seafood,

Visiting there

Staffa boat trips cost £40pp, £20 for children,

More information

Small islands off big islands

Other quiet corners: the smaller, sleepier neighbours of Scotland’s more popular islands.

Raasay, Inner Hebrides

Rugged Raasay is just a 25-minute ferry ride from tourist honeypot, Skye. It’s 14 miles long by five wide, peppered with secluded bays, ruined castles and craggy peaks to climb. There’s a distillery with rooms ( or for a more off-the-beaten-track stay, with views over to Skye, book Toby’s Remote Raasay Cottage on Airbnb ( an old whitewashed croft house sleeping five from £131 per night.

Papa Westray, Orkney

Take the world’s shortest scheduled flight, under two minutes, to little Papa Westray, (four miles long by one mile wide), from its big brother, Westray. Papay, as it’s affectionately known, is one of the smallest Orkney islands. Stay at Nistaben a traditional Orkney house with its own beach within walking distance of the airport, archaeological sites and RSPB North Hill Nature Reserve. Sleeps 4 from £170 per night

Baleshare, Outer Hebrides

The small (3.5 square miles), flat, tidal island of Baleshare is accessed via a causeway from its larger neighbour, North Uist. Home to a remote crofting community – and one of the most stunning, deserted, beaches in the Outer Hebrides it’s off the well-trodden tourist trail. Bunk down in Baleshare Bothies’ two glamping pods with views out over the North Atlantic from £190 for a two-night minimum stay.

Burra, Shetland

Shetland, a cluster of about 100 islands, only 20 inhabited, is the most northerly archipelago in the UK. The little islands of East and West Burra are accessed via a bridge from the ‘Mainland’, Shetland’s largest island. Home to the pretty little fishing village of Hamnavoe, sandy beaches and wildflower-laced clifftops Holmfield is a contemporary grey clapboard holiday cottage surrounded by meadows at the end of the road. sleeps 4, £800 per week.