The tiny Isle of Iona, nestled in the choppy Atlantic waters beyond the furthest reaches of the Isle of Mull on the west coast of Scotland, isn't the most obvious place to go for a hike, but it is a place so crammed full of historical significance and atmospheric landscapes that it becomes an essential destination.
It was with a sense of inner calm that myself, Big Col, John and Matt embarked on the small ferry from Fionnphort to make the short crossing to Iona.
Well, it would have been if it weren't for the fact that we only made the ferry by the skin of our teeth having driven across Mull from our overnight lodgings in Tobermory. Despite the fact that this was early in March and the car park at the port was deserted, I still managed to park at the furthest point from the ferry, which necessitated a panicked and ungraceful sprint from four middle aged blokes down the slip road, under the watchful gaze of the captain. No sooner had we stepped on board than the door clanged closed and the boat set off for the 10 minute journey across the Sound of Iona. There were only a couple of other people on the boat, excluding crew. We all looked out of the windows across the sea, the view distorted by the raindrops cascading down the sides of the boat.
The island is only approximately 3 miles from north to south and 1.5 miles from east to west. Hardly the place for a long hike, unless we were to start counting the laps. But there is enough distance in a journey to the furthest tips of the island to make an enjoyable day trip.
As quickly as it had arrived, the ferry disappeared along with every other human, leaving us standing in the village of Baile Mor, simply known to locals as "the village". We made our way past the small array of boats by the pier to the information boards. Would it be too much to ask for a coffee? Well, yes. There are 2 hotels on the island, as well as other cafes and shops. Most of them had signs on the doors with such greetings as "See you in 2016". With the exception of the village grocery shop, Spar.
Dutifully, we made our way in to the shop in order to buy some provisions for what was likely to be a lonely, wet day on the island.
And so, with our stocks replenished or, at least, with a twix in each pocket, we set off to explore the Isle of Iona.
St Ronan's Bay, as well as being home to Baile Mor, also houses the islands two hotels, the post office, the school and the ruins of the Nunnery.
Visitors to the island are only a few steps from the ferry pier before they are standing amidst some of Iona's fascinating history.
From around the year 1200 to the 1600's, this was the Saoghal Nam Ban; the World of Women. The realm of Iona's religious women, largely made up of nuns from noble families, providing refuge for unmarried daughters, widows, illegitimate girls and estranged wives. Images of nuns living a life of poverty and seclusion are wide of the mark though. The women supported themselves financially, living off income from nunnery lands of Iona and Mull.
All that remains nowadays are ruins of the former buildings, including the church and the refectory.
Faint but still visible, over the window of the refractory, is a symbol which was very common in Ireland; a Sheena-na-gig, in the form of a naked woman. These symbols were intended to ward off evil, with the name coming from the Gaelic "Sile nan Cioch", or "Sheila of the Breasts". We left before Big Col had the chance to say anything.
Following the main street, which takes us past the gardens of the island's two hotels, it's impossible to miss the imposing Iona Abbey.
This is the next clue to the island's past, thought to be built on the site of the original church constructed by St Columba, who arrived on the island in the year 563AD from his native Ireland. Born in 521AD and a prince of royal blood in Ireland, being the grandson of the Irish High King Niall. As a young man, he fell foul of the ruling authorities in relation to the copyright of a book. At that time, a book was a rare item which was regarded as the most valuable of possessions. The dispute led to his raising an army which fought the Battle of Cuil Dremhne, in which his warrior family prevailed but it is said that 10,000 men were killed in battle.
Remorseful of the deaths he had caused, he fled into exile with a handful of followers. They settled on the Isle of Iona, being the first place they landed where they could not see the shores of Ireland.
With his companions, he set about building Iona's first church, constructed of clay and wood. This is thought to have been the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland, as Columba utilised his skills as a persuasive speaker on his increasing numbers of followers.
Nothing remains of Columba's original abbey or settlement buildings. To the side of the Abbey entrance, though, can be seen a small roofed chamber. This is believed to be the site of St Columba's tomb, following his death on Iona in 597AD.
Following the death of Columba, over the ensuing centuries, the monastery was subject to various viking attacks, resulting in the monks relocating to the Abbey of Kells in Ireland. The island fell under the control of Norway for a period before Irish rule was established in 1164. The abbey's construction was commenced in 1204 on the site of Columba's original building, but fell into dis-use after the reformation, when abbeys throughout Britain were abandoned and their monks dispersed.
The abbey was reconstructed in 1938 and is now in use as an ecumenical church.
The area surrounding St Oran's chapel, became royal burial grounds during the 9th to 11th centuries.
In 1549, it was recorded that the grounds contained the graves of 48 Scottish Kings, (including MacBeth, of Shakespearean fame), 8 Norwegian Kings and 4 Irish Kings. None of these graves are now identifiable, their inscriptions having been reported to have worn away at the end of the 17th century.
But a notable grave from more recent times is clearly visible and it is that of John Smith, former leader of the Labour Party, who passed away in 1994.
The abbey itself is well worth a visit, although we didn't do so on this occasion, with most of us having covered that on a previous trip.
Instead, we headed north along the main street, which quickly left the village and provided wonderful views across the sound to the mist covered mountains of Mull. Separating the road from the shore were fields of sheep, resigned to the elements as they fed from bales of hay.
We were bade good morning by a couple of kilted walkers as they made their way towards the abbey. But even the quietest of places provide an opportunity for a comedy photograph of Big Col.
Eventually, the road led us to a gate, which warned that there were no bikes allowed beyond this point. We climbed over the stile and continued to the most northern point of the island.
All was peaceful now, as we walked alongside the White Strand of the Monks and eventually came to the Beach of the Seat, on the tip of the island. Lobster pots and fishing tackle were secreted between the rocks at the top of the beach, which provided wonderful views as we clambered over the banks of seaweed to the shoreline. On a clear day, you can see Staffa and even the towering peaks of the Isle of Skye.
After a stroll on the beach, we retraced our steps until we reached a small signpost directing us towards the highest point on the island. Don't get too excited, it's only 333 feet above sea level, but the hill of Dun I is well worth a diversion.
The climb itself was easy, but the descent did claim the dignity of two members of our party, who landed on their respective behinds on the slippery, mossy slopes. It would be wrong of me to identify the two victims and, thus, open them up to public ridicule. (It was Col and Matt.)
We gingerly made our way down to the Main Street again to retrace our steps to the abbey. Instead of turning back towards the dock, we crossed the top of the village and followed the road, which became a farm track and eventually came to a cross roads. Turning right here noting a sign advising us to look out for corncrakes, the track brought us past the camp site and across the golf course, to the beautiful - and beautifully named - Bay at the Back of the Ocean.
We followed the coast around the edge of the golf course until we came to the small range of hills which we had to cross.
Once we had climbed these, we came to the banks of Loch Staoineag, a silent, mysterious place amidst the hills. The path continues across the boggy terrain, keeping the loch on our right.
We were grateful for the fact that parts of the path had been boardwalked. We soon came to our first view of the southern end of the island, St Columba's bay. It was here that our party split into two. One half intrepid, the other half thirsty. Matt and I pressed on to reach the southern shore, whilst John and Col headed back towards the village, doubtlessly hoping that the pub had opened.
We walked across the flat grassland, past a labyrinth of stones, before we reached the point where St Columba is thought to have landed in his coracle, 1,453 years earlier.
Christian pilgrims look for green-flecked stones on the beach, which are said to be tears of Columba. In fact, they contain traces of Iona marble, which led to a marble quarry being established further around the coast.
It is said that, if you carry one of Columba's tears in your pocket, you will never drown.
We set off across the hills and around the inland side of the golf course, back to the road past the camp site. This time, we continued straight on at the cross roads towards the coast line at Martyr's Bay: not named after the monks who were slaughtered here during a viking attack, but in honour of the couple of dozen men from the island who gave their lives in WW1 and WW2.
Views across the bay offer a glimpse of the tidal island of Erraid, once the summer home of Robert Louis Stevenson.
We were anxious as we neared the ferry pier. Anxious that John and Col had enjoyed a pint or two while we had been exploring. As it turned out, we needn't have worried. The pub was closed.
Matt and I arrived at the pier just in time for the last ferry back to Mull, with a newly found sense of inner peace and with one of Columba's tears in my pocket, I had no fear of the ocean.