Crystal clear water and vivid, tropical colours above and below the surface, Iona is a gem for wild swimmers. Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve swum there more than anywhere else, evolving from a Sunday splasher to a regular outdoor swimmer and swim teacher who’s made the Mull to Iona crossing three times now.
Certainly, there are plenty of lovely beaches and bays on nearby Mull, as well as on Erraid (and I’m well aware that many of you will have your own favourite Hebridean paradise), but I think most folk who know the Isle of Iona would agree that for variety, beauty, choice and quality, Iona must be one of the nicest islands to swim at in Scotland.
Generally, all these beaches listed below will have you swimming over pristine sand in clear, crisp water, and occasional patches of seaweed stretching up from the bed below.
Jellyfish seem to be few and far between, although maybe I’ve just been lucky. The blues and moon jellyfish don’t have a bite, but stay clear of the red Lion’s Manes, though they’re very rare.
Temperatures, probably around 6C in April, rising a degree or so a month until peaking at September where – if you’re lucky – it might reach 13C/14C.
So, for those of you planning a visit to Mull and Iona (or just dreaming about it!), here’s my wee guide to wild swimming on Iona.
And, finally, be mindful of weather and tides, please. Iona is a joy to swim around but do trust your instincts and swim at your own risk.
Arriving on Iona
Unless you have your own boat, chances are you’ll be arriving at Iona on the Loch Buie, the wee Calmac ferry that dots between Iona and Fionnphort on Mull. You can’t take your car over but bikes are welcome, and the fare’s only a few pounds. Stand on the top deck and look at the lovely clear water below!
Assuming you’ve just made the short crossing and are now standing amid glorious sunshine at the top of the pier, you’ll be wondering where to go for a dip. You’ve plenty of great options. Let’s start with the closest one, then head south, before looking at the trio of beaches that form the North End.
St Ronan’s Bay
This is the wee stretch of sand and rocks immediately north and adjacent to the ferry pier. Look out for the wee lane leading up to the island’s Post Office: it’s reminiscent of the Caribbean! Countless families have built sandcastles on St Ronan’s Bay, and countless more have watched the ferries roll in and out, boatmen motor off and return, the sun set, the tide ebb and life itself pass, oblivious to clocks, deadlines and the world outside. This is the beach that most folk who come to Iona will visit, and where most of the islanders’ boats are moored. It’s also the beach that’s featured on most postcards of the island (the paintings tend to be of the North End). It’s a cracking wee bay to start your Iona swim safari.
Protected from the strongest of the tides thanks to the pier, a nice wee circuit is a loop of the boats and the buoys, paying heed to any traffic coming in to the jetty and pier. Swim a wee bit further out past the Birthe Marie and Iolaire (both do superb trips to Staffa and beyond) and you’ll quickly get a feel for the force of the tide.
My favourite times for swimming here are earlyish morning (before the crowds) and evening (after the worst of the crowds have moved on). The Staffa boats tend to crew up around 9am and pick up passengers about 9.30, so by 10am the bustle has quietened down. Same after 5.30pm.
Jumping off the pier is a family favourite for many, with 6.30pm the traditional rendezvous time. This is a great way for kids – and adults! – to gain confidence as they can swim up from the patch of sand by the pier. Another popular pastime is diving off the rocky spit that defines the first section of the bay. Time-wise, I find an hour before or after high tide is best for that (slack water), but the bay’s pretty easy at any state of tide, though I maybe wouldn’t bother on a low spring tide.
If you want to stretch out a bit and enjoy a longer swim with some interesting current, go a few hours before high tide when the tide is flowing north. Swim out towards Mull and in line with the pier, then once past the buoys, you rocket across the bay before cutting back in past the boats and swim back in to the bay (where the tide is less strong) and return to the pier for a repeat. A loop’s about 300-400 metres.
After your dip at St Ronan’s Bay, rejoin the road, pass the pier and the local pub on your left, and head south along the shore for 100 metres to Martyrs’ Bay, another moderately sheltered bay with clear water and sand below. Similar in many ways to St Ronan’s Bay, it actually feels a bit more private, and you won’t get hordes of spectators like you do at St Ronan’s when there’s a queue for the ferry (though some folk might like that!).
A lovely route is to jump in from the wee pier at St Ronan’s Bay and swim to Martyr’s Bay and back, sticking close to the shore when the tide is running (if ever that becomes a problem it’s easy to get out at any point along the shore). Just make sure you watch out for the ferry and other boats when crossing over the pier, although I’ve never had a problem.
Shelly Beach aka Sligneach
It was only in the past few years that I realised this beach was called Sligneach – we’d always called it Shelly Beach on account of the cowrie shells and the likes scattered among the sand and rocks. This long beach is about 500m south of Martys’ Bay. I’ve never just swum here, but certainly splashed about a bit. And I have swum here from St Ronan’s Bay and back, which was a lovely and fairly demanding swim. I raced down with the tide then had to battle back against it. About halfway back, as I was trying to pass the church house just before Martyrs’ Bay, I remember making almost no progress against the tide. While a return to Shelly Beach was certainly an option, instead I cut in tight towards the shore where I got better protection in the lee of Martyrs’ Bay.
On hindsight, I had been swimming over a spit of rock where the tide was probably running faster and I suspect I may have found it easier slightly further out from shore. But I wasn’t going to try that! Once past the Church House it was fairly easy as I swam close to the shore over seaweed and rocks and back to St Ronan’s. I’ve done this a few times and it’s a good swim around the 2km mark. You’re probably never more than 50 metres from shore though I think you’d be fine being a bit further out.
Occasionally, you get some boat traffic between St Ronan’s Bay and Martyr’s Bay which you should be mindful of.
Gaelic for the the big beach, you access this grand beach down the track that continues south as the road makes a sudden veer to the west and the Machair. Through the gate and pass the farm on your right, then down on to the beach in front of you. Dried seaweed and scattered sheep droppings can make it feel dirtier than it is at the tidal mark, but once in it’s beautiful.
At low tide Traigh Mhor beach stretches out far in front of you – limiting your wild swimming options! – but at mid or high tide it’s a delight to swim in. Shallow, clear over sand and very sheltered.
A lovely, lovely swim (one of my favourite) is to swim from Traigh Mhor to Sandeel’s Bay (see below) and back. You can do a nice bit of distance and it’s super safe and shallow with little in the way of current.
One of my favourite places to swim. Safe, sheltered and mostly private, Sandeels Bay can feel a bit busy if there’s another family or couple kicking about, which will happen on sunny days. Like Port Bahn (below) there are some great rocks to play about on and get changed among.
About 100m to sea, facing the sandy bay, is the long reef that stretches down from Traigh Mhor, creating a wannabe lagoon that is a joy to swim round. Even at mid-tide you can swim across though at the reef side you may have to pull yourself through some weed. Better at high tide when you can look down upon this submarine botanical garden. For a longer distance swim, go back and forth to Traigh Mhor, though another, bolder option is to swim a bit further south to another very secluded and tiny beach. The shoreline in between is very rocky and with cliffs, so no exit to speak of, so one for slack water and calm days.
Shamefully, I’ve never swum here, but I have seen a few others splashing about. I’d probably only ever have a paddle here, and think twice about a longer swim, though it’d be nice to make the loop between the two wee bays that are separated by a large rocky spit that dominates the bay. I’ve been warned by a couple of local boatmen that the scattering of wee islands and undersea reefs create powerful and sporadic currents that are difficult to read, so I’d be wary. Also, it’s a rocky beach so not great for sensitive soles.
Bay whose name I can’t remember
On the remote and wild south west of the island there’s another wee bay that might make for some swimming. It’s actually a rock climbing venue and home to a series of fairly serious routes on Raven’s Wall. Not swum here and probably won’t.
Bay at the Back of the Ocean
This is the vast sprawling bay on the islands’s west side, accessed from the island’s only road. Plenty of people have swum at the Bay at the Back of the Ocean, but I’ve yet to do anything more than a wee splashabout. I’m personally not keen on it for anything more than a paddle. There are dozens of wee islands and underwater outcrops that I reckon cause odd currents on a strong tide. Also, I’ve heard of two experienced swimmers who got into difficulty here, possibly due to a rip tide. Obviously, we wild swim at our risk, but I’d recommend this for experienced swimmers only. Spend a bit of time gauging the sea and tide, try to go with other experienced swimmers or – better – some of the local islanders who swim here. And go in at the northern half of the bay rather than the south. Or better still, carry on for five minutes’ walk to one of the world’s loveliest wild swimming venues, Port Bhan.
Another 500 metres or so north of the Machair is the joy of Port Bhan (white bay). Just make sure you pass the first wee beach a few hundred metres after the stile at the north end of the Bay at the Back of the Ocean.
With crags stretching out on either side, Port Bhan is a delight to swim at. It’s sheltered, shallow, safe and feels a bit warmer than the eastside, it’s also I think the island’s most popular location for wild swimming.
Its sheltered and shallow bay is great for kids and swimmers newly introduced to open water swimming. My preference is a couple of hours after low tide. You can venture fairly far out while still remaining in your depth. Or do lengths of the bay – just depends on the tide. The mouth of the bay is about 500 metres away so you get very little chop or current. Instead, the wee waves lap around your ankles.
Like most of the bays of Iona, it’s almost exclusively sandy below you. Strands of seaweed do tickle your ankles, and I’ve never seen any jelly fish there. Maybe once but never a stinging Lion’s Mane.
There is also some cracking longer distance swimming here too, if going back and forth across the bay isn’t enough for you. Swim out towards the mouth of the bay and loop back behind the three wee islands at the bay’s mouth. This is one for stronger swimmers. Swim straight out towards the mouth, keeping the wee islands on your left. At the edge of the bay the seabed and seaweed you’d been watching below you suddenly drop away into eerie darkness and you quite suddenly feel the force of the sea, powerful and exhilarating. The wee waves lapping on the shore a few hundred metres away have now become a big swell that lifts and lowers you. Look west from here. Next stop America.
I loved this swim, but have only down it once with a friend, and would only ever do when the tide was coming in. Strongly advise doing it on an ebb tide.
Sand-wise, like Sandeels, Port Bhan is more tiny wee bits of shell rather than sand, so less castle-making potential. It’s great for a various ball games and general running about to warm up afterwards. There’s also some good rock climbing here as well, with the routes detailed in the SMC Climber’s Guide to the Inner Hebrides and Arran.
North End of Iona
While you can certainly walk from Port Bhan to Calbha, it’s a bit of a rough meandering hike, although not that far. More likely, instead of heading south off the ferry you’ll take the road north, passing the Spar, Iona Craft Shop, the Nunnery, the St Columba’s Hotel and a collection of wee craft, jewellery and food shops, the Iona Abbey and Iona’s highest peak, Dun I.
Follow the road to its end (about 2km from the pier) until you get to a couple of gates with the farm and hostel down a track on your left. Go straight through the double gates in front of you, and you’ve a choice to make.
Head left for Calbha; straight on for the North End; veer right for the White Strand. Each is lovely, but for swimming, head for Calbha or the White Strand of the Monks (Traigh Bhan Nam Monach).
I don’t know the circumstances, but I have heard of a drowning at the North End/White Strand, and someone being pulled out by a rip tide. Possibly the same person, and I’ve no idea how recent it was, nor how strong a swimmer they were. Just be a bit cautious here, please.
I love swimming at Calbha, and am slightly loathe to share this secret swim spot. Follow the path down from the road, through the two gates and along the fence on your left. Go left as soon as you can and walk along the field edging towards the machair, and dropping down on to the beach after about 500 metres and once you’re through a second gate.
Few people come here, and there’s every chance you’ll have this gorgeous quiet beach to yourself.
There are a few nice swims here, although the classic challenges is a quick dash across to Calbha Island, an easy enough 100 metres or so. Be warned, the tide does flow through here and you will notice it, though I’ve never found it stronger than crossing a river, which is what it feels like. Nice one to do with kids as it’s a great achievement.
On your way back, and if the tide is flowing north swim with the tide into Calbha bay for a longer swim back and forth.
The North End
North of Calbha is the North End. Both are part of the same long bay but separated by low-lying rocks and a massive bulbous boulder.
The North End is easy to get to, and accordingly more popular. With the right winds and tides, you get some waves here to play about in, although I’d be wary of doing any serious swimming here. Like the Bay at the Back of the Ocean, it’s more craggy and I suspect is more subject to difficult currents. Besides, I’d rather swim at Calbha or the White Strand.
White Strand of the Monks
This is the part of Iona where the Scottish Colourists Francis Cadell and samuel John Peploe came and painted, enjoying the lush colours and stunning views. And it has a pretty awesome name, too: White Strand of the Monks, or Traigh Bhan Nam Monach in the Gaelic.
The northernmost part of this beach is for playing. You get good waves and a strong swell here and it’s great fun; but approach with caution, and stay close to the shore.
Further round to the east, the long bay facing the pink granite coast of Mull opens up. There is lovely swimming here along the shore. Swim over pristine sand and the colourful submarine garden. Up and down the bay is fairly safe but given the area’s reputation, probably not for weaker swimmers.
One long route I’d love to do is swim from this beach south to Martyrs’ Bay, a long enough swim (2km or so), but achievable with an ebb tide and some company.
I’ve never made this short crossing to this wee island, but it’s been on my wishlist for a while now. Like much of the swims around here it’s probably for stronger swimmers, and I would only attempt at slack water (an hour before or after low and high tide). The current’s a tricky one to gauge as it’s where a number of tidal flows meet, and I’ve been warned against doing this when there’s a westerly or northwesterly wind blowing. Incidentally, its name translated from Gaelic means Island of Storms.
After your wild swim on Iona
For a wee island, there’s is some decent choice for post-swim food and drink. The local Heritage Garden Cafe near the nunnery does a superb stew, as well as a vegetarian option, and hot drinks. The St Columba Hotel, midway between the nunnery and the abbey is another spot for hearty food. And then of course there’s the Martyrs’ Bay pub, with its massive glass windows that look over the Sound of Iona to Mull, speaking of which …
Mull to Iona
The crossing from Mull to Iona is one of my all-time favourite swims. I’ve done it a few times now, and each time in very different conditions, tides, company, states of hangover … A fuller account and description will follow …