Off Roading


After driving around the top of Mull, passing yet more bluebells, fields of flag iris, and small families of Highland Cattle, we arrived in Fionnphort to catch the foot ferry over to Iona. Despite our eagerness to arrive and our pleasure at being here, we all immediately headed back off the island, some to Staffa to visit Fingal’s Cave, while the rest of us ferried back to Mull for an afternoon of personal pilgrimage and adventure. Our goals were threefold:

PhoneFirst, we were on the trail of a much-loved Powell and Pressburger movie that was filmed in Carsaig, Mull in 1945. I Know Where I’m Going tells the story of learning the difference between money and happiness, and features local landscape, including a scene shot at a red telephone box next to a rushing waterfall. Apparently the scene was written in when Powell visited Carsaig and spotted the waterfall with the phone next to it and thought it too good to miss. We had heard that the telephone was still there, perched by the waterfall where conversations are still drowned out by the roar of the rushing water, so we studied our OS maps and set off down a series of single lane tracks leading to Carsaig pier. Because of the recent heavy rains, the waterfall was roaring with its full force of water. Delightful!

SheelaSecond, we wanted to see a sheela-na-gig on a nearby church. Now abandoned church, the chapel at Kilvickeon was probably built in the 12th century, and for centuries it served as the parish church. Of particular interest to me was a sheela-na-gig on the wall near the door of the church. Sheela-na-gigs are sometimes described holy hags, and are found in Celtic lands. Although they are often quite graphic and grotesque, and no one knows exactly what purpose they served, they are much loved by the communities in which they are found. This one was badly weathered, and seemed a bit unusual in that it stuck out quite a bit from the wall in which it is situated.Interestingly, one of our fellow travellers is descended from a family who once lived in the area, and the Kilvickeon chapel would almost certainly have been their parish church. We searched for family names amongst the gravestones in the churchyard, but most of the older ones were too weathered to read now.

ArchFinally, returning from Kilvickeon, we went back to the main road to pick up the next track over. This, too, led down to the sea, going through the tiny community or Ardchiavaig at the top of the beach. Once upon a time our friend’s ancestors lived there, and we could see quite a few remnants of the old community. The ruins of abandoned houses stood dotted around the fields, some pretty much intact, others completely crumbled into heaps of stones  which had then been plundered for building new homes and stone walls for ensuing generations. We didn’t know exactly where her family farm had stood, but we knew we knew we had found their neighborhood.

One of the things I like most about our travelling style is that we can head off road as and when we please… when we have something to search for, be it labyrinth, sheela, or ancestral home, we go beyond the tourist trails as we explore roads and tracks so tiny they would usually be passed by unseen. We see the animals, the birds, the hidden secrets of the communities, and from that we get an incredible sense of the people who populate our path and the places they call home.

We are back on Iona now, and tomorrow we will explore this beautiful island. Although we know it well from past visits, I suspect there will still be surprises in store.

3 Replies to “Off Roading”

  1. Hi Kimberley, lovely to ride along with you vicariously on this adventure. I didn’t know about that sheela-na-gig (and I can’t find Kilvickeon on the map either!), but she seems to be a feature of the area and I wonder if there’s a connection with the one on the nunnery on Iona? On the OS map I spotted a ‘nun’s pass’ along the beach to the west of Carsaig… interesting stuff.

    1. Quite possibly,Grahame. The turn off to Kilvickeon is very close to Bunessan on Mull. The ruins are maintained by Historic Scotland, and the sign there mentions the Sheela on the Iona nunnery. Also, the grave slab of a bishop from Kilvickeon is now displayed just inside the door of the abbey on Iona.
      The labyrinth on Iona looked great, by the way. Will try to post pictures today. Sadly, the newer one on the beach behind the golf course must have been washed away in the winter storms. We walked the whole beach looking for it.

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