According to Dr Johnson,
That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer amid the ruins of Iona.
There is something moving about the windswept little island just over a mile off the Ross of Mull where Saint Columba and twelve companions founded Britain's first Christian community. If that movement can be seen as the first stirrings of piety is another matter.
My last visit was more than ten years ago and something has changed since then. I am more sympathetic to the religious impulse now, but I found the place less moving. The ecumenical religious community there thrives but is less in evidence. There is more paraphernalia of 'heritage'; standardised signage badging everything in a Gaelic I have never - in all my trips to the Highlands and Islands - heard used for real, neat little buildings to collect money and nationalistic 'history'. All womanned by neat smiling ladies pushing 'membership' of Historic Scotland - a government agency that belongs to me - as a taxpayer - already.
This shrine may have been built to stand over where Saint Columba's remains may have rested. Or not.
The old stones still speak. The buildings have been so often restored as to have little physical connection with Columba. The original abbey was abandoned after Viking raids made it untenable and allowed to fall into ruin. The saint's remains were removed and divided between Ireland and Scotland as the jewelled casket containing them had been a fatal magnet for raiders. Ironically, as his mission to Scotland began as a penance for vengefully urging an Irish clan to war, the Scottish share of his bones was later carried into battle in a special reliquary.
More moving than the buildings are the gravestones, particularly those of the professional warriors for the Lords of the Isles - Scots samurai, if you will - who commissioned them during their lives in the hope of securing salvation despite their bloody profession.
Whatever your religious or historical bent, this place is special. It was a long drive to get there and back; much of it on single track roads of highly-variable quality. Still, when one considers the hardships of medieval pilgrims to reach the little shrine above Saint Columba's former grave, I have no complaints.
In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the drive back across Mull from Fionnphort to Craignure. I pulled over to let a local van driver go by and followed him as he traversed the island at a blistering 55-65mph. His elevated viewpoint, local knowledge and conviction of immortality allowed me - by dint of staying in close convoy and trusting my ceramic brakes - to reduce the journey time by almost half. We only slowed when we encountered other cars and 'Hamish' - as I dubbed him for the duration of our odd convoy- soon intimidated them out of our way.
In convoy with CalMac
Speranza's two sea voyages (her first since returning from the US) went smoothly and she was much admired by the CalMac crew members. One young guy stood by her when we docked at Oban just to hear me start her up. His big grin and thumbs up at the roar of her V8 made me laugh and forged another brief brotherhood to rival that with Hamish. I had enjoyed my time on deck trying - mostly in vain - to capture images of the grey grandeur of Scotland's seascapes.
I even enjoyed, after picking up an Indian take-away in Fort William, the final twilight drive along the tracks 'home'. I counted eight deer, including one magnificent stag, in the encroaching darkness on the final ten miles of that run. Four of them crossed my path. Had Hamish been there, my Indian meal would have been warmer but I would have missed seeing them (unless he had hit one).
I love this place so much I can understand - at an emotional level - the petty nationalism of its more narrow-minded inhabitants. It is a warped expression of that same affection and I can see that some sad loser with no personal achievements might take that path of borrowed pride. Good though Scotland's independence could be for England economically, I would still regret her departure from the United Kingdom. Tomorrow I will sleep what may be my last night here as part of my home country and that's just a sad thought.