1997 Colmcille: Iona


In the wake of the Colmcille, Accross the sea to Iona and Return from Iona

The Colmcille project was conceived during the Portrush Traditional Boat Rally of September 1996 when Robin Ruddock shared his vision of how the 1400th anniversary of St. Colmcille’s death might be commemorated in a unique way. The vision, which involved retracing the seafaring Saint’s epic voyage by curragh to Iona, was shared by a sufficient number of interested members of the Causeway Coast Maritime Heritage Group to enable planning of the first Colmcille expedition.

The curragh Colmcille was commissioned, built and sea tested in 1997. Crews were then assembled and trained, finance was raised and press coverage obtained. An extensive education pack was circulated to schools in Northern and Southern Ireland, Argylle and Bute. With awareness of the project established on both sides of the North Channel, events reached their zenith on 9th June 1997 when, following a service in St. Columb’s Cathedral in Londonderry, the crew of 14 oarsmen and women set off by curragh on the 135 mile voyage to Iona, under the direction of skipper Robin Ruddock. Despite being stormbound on Rathlin and having to row to a tough schedule, the boat and its crew successfully reached Iona 6 days later to recount tales of foul weather and wonderful encounters with minke whales, seals and otters.

The aims of this voyage – the establishment of a community spirit amongst the crew and the communication of some positive aspects of Northern Irish life – were achieved and reinforced later that summer. In July a return crew, including some of the people who had accomplished the outward journey, left Portrush by fishing boat one Friday night. They arrived in Iona at dawn the next morning and, after retrieving the curragh from its boat house, making appropriate preparations by having a ‘shake-down’ row to Staffa island, set off on a challenging week’s rowing and sailing back to Ireland.

This journey was instrumental in bringing the spirit of Colmcille to the crew itself and to many Scottish and Irish coastal communities who, generously and selflessly, made church halls, local restaurant floors, pubs, food and other resources available to the Colmcille travellers.

map 1997

In Our Own Words..


On Sunday, June 17th, the Colmcille successfully reached the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides at 10 am. We had half an hour to spare. At 10.30 the service to mark the 1400th anniversary of the death of St. Colmcille, the ‘Dove of the Church’, would begin. Colmcille, or Columba as he is known in Scotland, died on June 9th, 597. He founded his famous church on Iona after he was banished form Ireland over what was probably the first court case dealing with breach of copyright.

A week earlier, we had gathered for the first time as a crew at the gates of Derry Cathedral. Wearing g our green T-shirts and holding our oars aloft, we walked towards the cathedral for the service of celebration. There were thousands of people who had come from all parts of the world to pay homage to the saint. Their pilgrimage was about to end. Ours was yet to start.

That night we slept in the Cathedral library, surrounded by hundreds of old, historic books. At midnight the bells of Derry peeled out, but we slept through them. Breakfast was provided by the church authorities, a forerunner of the hospitality that was to come.

The boat was brought alongside the quay below the Guild Hall from its overnight mooring in the river and packed with stores ready for out departure. At midday Derry Cathedral, unable to hold the volume of worshippers, and well wishers, echoed to a service of blessing and communion for our varied crew, comprising four women and ten men from mixed religious backgrounds and countries. We ranged in age from mid 20s to late 50’s and had been training for the last six months or more. This was to be a true pilgrimage. We were going to Iona by our own efforts, without support boats or a back-up team.

The service over, we took up our oars and with the clergy in front, followed by Robin Ruddock, our skipper, and organisers holding a six-foot cross, made from the old roof timbers of the Corrymeela Centre at Ballycastle and presented to us by Colin Craig, the centre leader and a member of the crew, we made our way to the Diamonds and through the gates before taking our places for the start of an adventure that had taken two years in planning.

With an escort of fishing boats and a final wave from the crowd, we made our way down the river with our oars dipping into the water in perfect unison. In the estuary, we hoisted the sails for the first and last time – after stopping at Moville for afternoon tea the wind went calm and veered to the north-west where it remained for the rest of our voyage.

Our intention was to stop as often as possible along the route to meet and talk to local people. We called at Portstewart, cooked tea on the harbour, then moved on to Portrush where we stopped for 15 minutes. Everywhere people were wishing us well – even after dark lights flashed from the cliff tops – and at midnight we passed the shadow of Dunluce castle and into Portballintrae where we slept on the boat under fly sheets. We had covered 36 miles, 20 of them under oar.

Tuesday was bright and calm. Although the forecast was poor, we were all enthusiastic to get going, but the further we got out rain and mist closed in. The wind was rising and we were tiring fast, so with the last of our energy we pulled for Rathlin Island. Progress was slow; then we put our backs into it as Rathlin grew in size. We rested for an hour under Bull Point before rowing into Chapel Bay in perfect stroke to the appreciation of the islanders. We slept that night in bus shelters.



The weather was worse next day. We visited the local school and talked to the children, which was part of the voyage plan – an extensive education pack has been prepared and is being followed by primary schools throughout Ireland and Scotland.

The alarm was set for 2 am and, as so often happens on a summer’s night, it was flat calm. At 2.30 we slipped out of Rathlin without a soul to see us go. It was pitch black, misty and a fine drizzle descending. There was not even a sound of breaking water to warn of rocks, just the gentle rise and fall of 12 oars. No one spoke in this mystical farewell to Ireland, which sent a shiver of excitement through all of us.

Then the sea began to dance. The waves did not seem to be going anywhere, just leaping up and down and having fun with us – we were in the McDonald Tide Race. It pushed us out into the North Channel where we got the north going tide towards Islay.

Apart from a light head wind it was perfect and we arrived at the Ardmore Islands by 11 am. The Laird appeared and shouted: ‘ Welcome ! Welcome ! Come up to the house for a wee dram and lunch.’ Sixteen of us shared the Scottish hospitality around his table.

It was while approaching Ardmore that we saw our first whale of the journey. Then porpoises appeared and seals by the dozen. We also saw sea otters on the shore and a few buzzards overhead.

Our next port of call was Port Askaig in the Sound Of Islay. Here we slept in our second bus shelter. During the night we were spotted by the manager of the local estate who transported us to the big house where we stayed in a comfortable room off the yard. The walls were decorated with antlers and a huge log fire burned in the open grate.

The next day was Saturday and time was running out. We were heading for Colonsay and the wind was down a bit. Halfway across the Sound it increased again, forcing us to strengthen our strokes, and we made it to Scalasaig in time for tea.

Three visiting yachts from Lough Swilly supplied us with Irish coffees which considerably lifted our flagging spirits. Again we found a waiting room to sleep in with a promise from our friendly yachtsmen that they would wake us if the wind moderated. Not only did the wake us, they also supplied us with more Irish coffees and at 3 am we departed into the night once more, this time to the strains of ‘Speed Bonny boat’, form our new-found friends.

We had seven hours to get to Iona and the two female strokes set a hot pace of about 50 strokes per minute. Clear of Colonsay, the sea was calm and the clouds were glowing with the first rays of a sunrise that promised a perfect day.

Suddenly there was a hiss of compressed air and breaking water. A whale had surfaced alongside us and vanished again, all in the space of two seconds. We renewed our efforts and slipped into an idyllic cove of high cliffs, white sand and blue-green water.

We had an hour to spare, time to freshen up with a swim – for some of us the first wash for a week – tidy the boat and put on our green St Colmcille T-shirts. Then we rowed the last half mile, arriving exactly on time at 10 am. TV cameras, radio, families, friends and well-wishers were there – it was an emotional arrival.

Then with our oars aloft and a cross in front of us, we made our way to the abbey for a service of thanksgiving attended by hundreds of pilgrims from all over the world.

Among the lasting memories form the journey are the unity of our group and the hospitality of the people we met. This was the spirit of the early pilgrims. For all but two of the crew, the adventure is over. For me and Jim Allen, it is only half way through. On July 26th I will be skippering the Colmcille on the return voyage to Ireland. We will take a different route, but once again we will be taking in the heritage of St. Colmcille.



In Our Own Words…

RETURN FROM IONA by Donald Nelson

ceilidh garveilach iona life2


The Colmcille, a 37ft Curragh was built in Dingle, Kerry, and launched at Easter. On 9th June this year, it left Derry on a pilgrimage with a crew of 12 rowers to commemorate the voyage of St. Colmcille/Columba who died 1400 years ago. Now five weeks later a new crew went to Iona to bring her home. Donald Nelson continues the story………

Friday 25th July
One week after the pre-voyage briefing we met at Portrush harbour at 7.30 pm. I decided a night crossing might be calmer. Often on a summer evening the wind dies away and so it did, this time. This was a new crew except for myself as skipper and Jim Allen. I took my son John as navigator and my reserve, an essential member of the crew as we found on the outward voyage to Iona. Instead of going over in the comfort of the motor cruiser as arranged (but which was no longer available) we loaded our watertight plastic barrels and gear into an open fishing boat, not the easiest place to sleep. Arriving at 4.00am we shattered the dawn silence with our exhaust noise.

Saturday 26th July
The next morning a breakfast of porridge and toast was very welcome in the Abbey refectory; then it was back to the harbour to stow our gear in the ‘child’s hut’ belonging to the Abbey. The curragh was extracted from its cramped position in the boat house, and launched using our inflatable rollers. We made a test run to Staffa five miles to the North, landed, and had a look at Fingal’s cave. While most of the crew were ashore she grounded on the falling tide, but because of the flexibility of the canvas and lathe hull she sustained no damage, apart from a broken oar, which had been used as a lever.

Sunday 27th July
On the Sunday after breakfast of porridge and toast in the Abbey we loaded the barrels and gear into the curragh, which was hauled out on the beach. Then at 10.30am we went back to the Abbey for morning service at which I was asked to speak to the congregation. The first hymn was,
‘Jesus calls us to each other,found in him are no divides,
race and class and sex and language.’
I said, I thought that these words exemplified our mixed crew and also the majority of people in the North of Ireland. I found it a very moving experience to speak to a packed Abbey. A very poignant sermon was preached by John Harvey, a previous leader of the Iona community;
‘Who are we, what are we doing, why are we here?’
A question that was repeated frequently during the course of the voyage home!

At 12.30 pm we made our farewell, on the crowded beach, and as we boarded the boat each of us inadvertently took some Iona sand on our feet, a constant reminder of our pilgrimage. We rowed past the Ross of Mull within an oar’s length of the rocky shore, in perfect weather. At Rubh Ardalmaish Point we set sail and for 8 miles lazily drifted down the coast. An inquisitive inflatable came out and they photographed the curragh under sail, with our cameras. We rowed to the Garvellacks where St Columba’s mother lived, near enough to be useful, far enough to be out of the way. What an awkward, rocky place it was with no safe mooring, a few went ashore briefly to see the beehive huts. It was 8.30pm and a fair wind so the sails were goose-winging and a course was set for Easdale, where we arrived at 11pm in the dark. Within minutes locals appeared offering us accommodation, ‘The Hall, the pub, the restaurant’ Fiona called from her bed, opened the restaurant, moved the tables to give us sleeping space on the floor, and let us use the kitchen and toilets.

Monday 28th July
The next day locals along with Jim, Kathryn and Dan gave us an impromptu Ceilidh on the pier. We were excited with the prospect of a strong tide through the Cuan sound, but we were too early for the full tide. We stopped to rest at Toberonochy and found a notice saying, ‘MEET DONALD NELSON AND THE CREW OF THE COLMCILLE AT CULLIPOOL TONIGHT’- but we were a day ahead and had to go on. Off Shuna Point a fishing boat changed course and came alongside. The skipper shouted across, ‘Which is Donald Nelson’. It was Hugh McQueen, whom I had hoped to meet at Cullapool. He understood we had to go when the weather allowed, (the forecast was force 8 with rain) we must be in the Crinnan Canal tomorrow.

David Clough from Kilmartin House, Dunadd, had offered to meet us and put us up for the night and he was down with a mini bus within half an hour of our arrival. All we needed was our bedding and some food. He supplied the rest including a beer all round. Kilmartin House is a newly opened museum, all the work of David and his wife, and it is just about the best I have seen, its design, layout, audio visuals – it is a triumph for free enterprise. It lies within a fascinating area for archaeology for Dunadd was the Seat of the Kings of Dalriada who ruled North Ulster and SW Scotland as one Kingdom, and who gave Colmcille the island of Iona.

Calm row2


Tuesday 29th July 8am
The following day we were the first boat into the canal but were not allowed to row. We did not even have to ask, the next boat ‘Cracker’ in from St Kilda offered us a tow. The forecast was correct, the wind increased, with heavy rain all day. No overnight arrangements had been made for Ardrishaig and the canal Office tied up their phone for about half an hour trying to contact someone. Eventually, although he Minister was away, we got into the Church Hall and with the heat turned on full we quickly dried out. It calmed in the evening but the forecast was bad for Wednesday.

Wednesday 30th July
Wind NW 4-5: we were the first out of the canal and we hugged the coast almost too close at times, passing inside rocks close to the shore. It’s marvellous what you can do with only nine inches draught. Yachts, out in the open, were reefed right down and still lying over, it was blowing 5 and gusting 6, and the rain was continuous. As we rounded Barimone Head the wind tried to push us backward. I had both feet on the gunwale holding the steering oar. I was horizontal then the handle broke. The reserve crew put his back to it. Norman the Chief Stroke yelled at the crew, they responded and we moved ahead, we had just proved we could row in a force 6, I heard someone say, ‘Why are we here?’.

We rowed smartly into East Lough Tarbert, they did not expect us in the bad weather and our berth had gone to another, but we got the berth of a local motor cruiser which was away and would not return in this bad weather. Peter asked a truck driver at a nearby filling station if he would help transport our barrels. We were soon in the Church Hall, heat on and clothes steaming. Kathryn was delighted to find a piano tuner just finishing and our musical trio lifted our spirits from the prospect of being storm bound. The one toilet was not prepared for a crew of 16 and gave up !!

Thursday 31st July 8am
Mr McSporrin, the Sexton, called to wind the clock and as he was a plumber our problem was solved. He told us the history of the McSporrins and the Church as he showed us around. By mid morning the wind was moderating and the broken steering oar was fixed. I decided to go for Campbelltown, resting at Skipness point, under the invisible eye of the radar dome. Our chart was small scale and the coast is without definite landmarks, so the crew groaned with disappointment when Carradale was not the next headland, but a further five miles. A child had brought the news of a strange boat approaching and the Minister and half the village were waiting. As soon as the boat was secure above the high water mark, we were transported in a fleet of cars to the Church Hall about three miles away, and a fish supper was provided for all.

1st August
The next day after the Rev. Dunlop lead us in prayer, the cars returned us to the boat and in a fresh 4-5 from the NW, we departed. The sail was hoisted but we were blown down wind three miles before we could get it down, leaving us with a very hard row against force 5 gusting force 6. We eventually rested under the ruined church at Macrinnan Point, berthing two hours later at the pontoon in Campbelltown where the Minister, John Oswald, the press and the local radio were waiting. We were told there was food in the fridge at the hall, and to our delight we found the ladies of the church had our evening meal ready and waiting. That evening most of us went to a local ceilidh, which was a strange mixture of old and new.

2nd August
A perfect day for the channel crossing, wind NW 1-2. After a short prayer with the Minister we said our farewells. We had to row against the last 4 hours of the flood and be at Sanda for the full ebb across the North Channel. We were at Sanda in 3 hours, and through the Sound to the Mull of Kintyre. A fishing boat and two yachts changed course in our direction and the new Ballycastle/Campbelltown ferry passed very close slowing down and blowing its horn. Hoisting the sails we created a respectable bow wave, without the use of human energy. We were at peace with nature watching gannets, petrels, fulmores and terns and twice we were approached by porpoise. When the wind died the crew went back to the oars, and Fair Head gradually towered above us.

The Rathlin ferry radioed us to go inshore, but that manoeuvre caught us in a counter tide, so out we went and fought the tide for an hour, gained half a mile, then worked our way up the shore to Ballycastle. A very tiring finish, but one filled with mixed emotions – exhilaration that we had completed the pilgrimage, joy at our home coming, sorrow that it was over so soon and we didn’t have longer to stay with new found friends. We were a team and only as a team could we have come through. This voyage has changed people and their outlook on life, my mind went back to the Abbey on Iona.

campbelltown fair_head