20 July 2011

The wave on the shore, and the sun on the height

Exploring Mull, Iona and Oban in the west of Scotland

Last month I was lucky enough to spend the best part of a week exploring the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, with friends. Fiona, who until recently lived in Edinburgh, was already planning to travel to Mull with her friend Hilary, and they both kindly invited me along for the trip, knowing that I was very keen to explore another part of Scotland and see the isles once more. My only other trip to the area was in 1997, when I relished the beautiful scenery on the Isle of Skye for two fantastic days. I was looking forward to a new Scottish adventure, particularly as we were staying in the much-admired fishing town of Tobermory, and because it would be possible to pay a visit to the historic sites on little Iona, an island with a rich heritage located just off the western coast of Mull.

Day 0:

The first logistical issue was how to get up to Edinburgh to join the others. Flying and the train were both rather pricey, and since speed wasn’t a particular concern I opted for a coach journey instead. This turned out to be something of a master stroke – the Megabus ticket for a nine and a half hour coach journey from London Victoria to Edinburgh was a mere £5.50 on an advance booking fare. It wasn’t the most scenic of voyages (the train has more pleasant views, if you’re heading that way yourself), and the two rest breaks were at the traditionally dispiriting and institutional British motorway services depots at Watford Gap and Scotch Corner. But I had my iPod and a book to read, and at that ticket price I was very pleased.

The only concern, apart from the strange fondness of Scottish planners for single-lane highways with no overtaking bays to pass the seemingly endless queues of slow-moving lorries, was the invariably unpredictable Scottish weather. On the journey north the skies were grey and the temperature dial hovered around 12 degrees. Would this be a Scottish summer holiday trip without the all-important sunshine?

Day 1:

George Square, Glasgow
After catching up with Fiona and meeting travelling companion Hilary for the first time, we had a leisurely start to our journey. We made our way to Edinburgh Waverley station in the heart of the city for the first step of the journey: one of the multitude of trains that ferries passengers between the rival cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. I had a brief ten minute window before our next train to explore George Square next to Glasgow Queen Street station, and made a point of fitting in a Gregg’s cheese and onion pasty from a nearby shop (just like Marilyn Manson). Sure, it’s not authentic Glasgow cuisine like a deep-fried Mars bar or a Munchy Box, but it was certainly deliciously bad for me and it was one of the British culinary treats I was soon to leave behind.

Kilchurn Castle
The two-coach service along the West Highland line to Oban soon departed Glasgow and made its way north out of the city through the grey tower-block suburbs. The journey was to take over three hours, and during the northward run it ran beside chilly grey lochs, huge forestry reserves, and jagged granite peaks, punctuated with stops at increasingly smaller intermediate stations with grand names like Garelochhead, Crianlarich and Falls of Cruachan. Fiona perused her novel while Hilary and I scanned each side of the track for suitable photo opportunities. Every now and then a bird of prey swooped past the train, on the lookout for stray rabbits or mice in the fields. The scenic highlight of the journey was probably the ruins of Kilchurn Castle at the head of Loch Awe, which the West Highland line takes a broad circuit around, affording an impressive view of its crumbling battlements and gaping, glassless windows.

By the time we rolled into the pretty port of Oban, located on a sheltered portion of the Firth of Lorn, the gloomy grey clouds had been dispelled in favour of shining blue skies. We lugged our bags around the crescent harbour to our respective hostels. I had booked afterwards so was staying separately in Corran House, a tidy, worthwhile waterfront ex-B&B by the look of it. Then we met up to get our bearings.

Oban waterfront

After exploring the waterfront we continued northwards along the coast a short way to climb up to the ruins of Dunollie Castle, which sit in ivy-covered splendour on a headland guarding the harbour. Indeed, such was the growth of the vines over the castle keep, it seemed that the vegetation was probably doing a great deal of work to hold the stonework upright.

Dunollie Castle

Dunollie Castle

As the daylight ebbed away we returned to the centre of Oban and hiked up the steep hill overlooking the town to the prominent McCaig’s Tower, a concrete Victorian folly in the form of the Colosseum which was originally intended to serve as a family memorial. Now it’s a grand memento of an eccentric local benefactor, with superb views over the whole town.

McCaig's Tower, Oban

We rounded off our day with a slap-up meal that Enid Blyton would probably have envied (unless it was too working class): golden haddock and chips from the Oban Fish & Chip Shop on George Street, which has received glowing praise from celebrity chef Rick Stein (they quote him as saying it’s the best fish and chips he’s ever had). I have to admit, as we sat at the harbour’s edge and enjoyed our meals while the low-lying sun crept closer to the placid, milky water, in a lifetime with a fairly large amount of fish and chip consumption I struggled to find an example to top Oban’s finest takeaways.

Day 2:

Duart Castle, on the approach to Mull
We spent the morning loafing about in Oban and stocking up on a few supplies for the trip out to the island.  We also paid a visit to the charming little Oban Museum, which was packed with local detail and some interesting background on the town’s role as a seaplane base during World War II. At around midday we departed on the ferry, heading westwards into the grey, flat sea, with Mull our final destination. The fine sight of Duart Castle loomed into view on the port bow (more on which later) and we edged into the pier at the tiny settlement of Craignure, the gateway to the island. We were finally ready to explore Mull.

Oh the Island of Mull is an isle of delight
With the wave on the shore, and the sun on the height
With the breeze on the hills and the blast on the Bens
And the old green woods, and the old grassy glens
- ‘The Island of Mull’, Dugald Macphail

The bus to our final destination, Tobermory, was awaiting the ferry, and we soon set off on the hour-long dash across the northern arm of the island. The journey took in plenty of rolling Hebridean farmland, passing derelict fishing boats stacked and leaning on the shore, and the tumbled-down ruins of Aros Castle on a headland overlooking the sound. Finally, after a long descent and a brief detour around the upper town, the bus delivered us to the harbourside of Tobermory, our base for the next few days.  The broad curve of the harbour wall is lined with the same multi-coloured shops and houses that have delighted visitors for decades, and as we walked the length of the arc to our accommodation we savoured the sea air and the lively atmosphere. We were staying right on the harbour-front in the town’s YHA, which is housed in a jolly pink dwelling near the fishing wharf. Just beyond the wharf is the spot where a lost Spanish galleon is said to have sunk following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Tobermory at dusk
On our first patrol of the environs we walked up the steep hill to the upper town, which afforded us splendid views over the harbour. On talking to a local nature photographer we also spied our first example of the local wildlife: a church spire afforded a graceful peregrine falcon an excellent vantage point from which to keep an eye on the pigeons fluttering around the town below. Later, down near the marina, we met the town’s one true celebrity: none other than Tobermory Cat, who has his own Facebook page and a loyal internet following.  (There are actually two TCs, a pair of brothers, which helps them to patrol their turf. This basically includes the whole waterfront). There was clearly plenty of history and plenty of Mull to explore in the coming days.
Tobermory Cat
Peregrine falcon

Day 3:

Duart Castle
With a watchful eye on the island weather forecast, the next morning we boarded the speedy but rather expensive bus from Tobermory to Craignure. (I concede that the journey is 21 miles, so it’s not exactly short). Once there, another bus with a cheery driver took us the short journey westward to our destination: the proud edifice of Duart Castle, the ancestral home of Clan McLean. There’s been a castle here since at least the 13th century, and the current upright square keep dates from the 14th century. Its commanding position on the approach to Craignure allowed the castle to control an important channel and access to Mull, while making assault by land or sea difficult. 

Our entry tickets were sold by a distinguished gentleman in a kilt – later I wondered if he was actually the laird. Alas, no photos were permitted inside, but the castle was an intriguing mix of medieval and early 20th century living, with strong touches of family history in every room. The grand hall was particularly impressive, with its grand piano, many-pointed deer heads, and photos from two of the most prominent movies to have been filmed at the castle: When Eight Bells Toll from 1971, featuring a young and clean-cut Anthony Hopkins, and 1989’s Entrapment, with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones. In the beautiful Sea Room the McLeans could keep an eye on the busy sealane in fair weather or foul, and the view from atop the castle battlements on this clear, calm day was quite stunning.

Before we departed we ventured down to the water’s edge to eat our lunch and admire the castle from the seaward flank. The crag on which it’s perched is still as impressive as when the castle was first built, and visitors can easily imagine how difficult it must have been for the McLeans’ enemies to attack.  Indeed, nothing short of a heavy naval bombardment would likely have startled the castle inhabitants.  Nowadays the main inhabitants of the grounds are plenty of nimble swallows, darting hither and yon in search of an insect meal.   

Upon being dropped back in Craignure by the trusty bus driver, we promptly headed out of the hamlet again, this time to the nearby Torosay Castle. To reach it we walked along a pretty forest trail, getting as close as we could manage to a herd of Highland cattle, whose lavish brown fringes tickled their moist noses. Torosay isn’t open at the moment, but you can put in an offer if you feel like buying it to add to your castle collection. So the day we visited the main attraction was the journey back to Craignure on the Isle of Mull (miniature) Railway, a labour of love for the island’s rail fans.  It’s a pleasant 15 minute journey along the shore and through dense woodlands back to Craignure on the tiny train, and it’s still an enjoyable treat even for grown-ups.

Highland cattle

Torosay Castle

Mull miniature railway

We made our way back to Tobermory – becoming old hands at the island’s buses, we were – and settled in for a quiet evening. Tobermory seemed to come alive once the last bus of the day departed, taking with it most of the daytrippers to the ferry. Down at the harbour, where the tide was far out in the bay, the fishermen scraped their hulls. Up in the town people popped into the Co-op for their supplies, and carted beer and snacks for an evening’s entertaining. We did the same, enjoying a meal around the kitchen table in the hostel, and then a few tunes from my iPod upstairs.

Day 4:

Our next day was spent in the vicinity of Tobermory, in part because the weather forecast was poor and we didn’t want to risk being trapped at large in a downpour. So we chose to don our hiking boots and explore some of the walking trails to the south of the town, in an area known as Aros Park. This used to be an imposing estate surrounding Aros House, owned by the Allen family, who made their money from the shipping trade. The Allens owned Aros from 1874 until 1959, but by the end of the family’s tenure at Aros the Forestry Commission had acquired the surrounding land, and soon the house itself was in a dangerous state of disrepair. Sadly, it was demolished by the Army in 1962, and now a carpark, several barbecues and a public lavatory occupy the site on which the grand dwelling once stood.

Fortunately there are numerous trails running through the forests surrounding the old manor house site, winding through forestry land and circling a calm lake replete with spreading lily pads. We took our time to admire the many waterfalls in the park, and in particular the highest one, which roars over a rocky cliff and can now be admired from a safe distance in a smartly-built modern viewing platform. Further from civilisation we encountered an eerie dell of ranked pines in which stood an abandoned stone three-room hut, hard up against a hillock that would have blocked both the easterly gales from the sea and the warmth of the morning sunlight. Here and there we saw red robins darting, and on rare occasions fellow humans. The promised downpour never turned up, but we were glad of the chance to see some of Mull’s flora and fauna at close quarters.


Upon returning to town that afternoon we paid a visit to the excellent little Mull Museum, which details the history of the town and the island. Apart from the expected tales from prehistory and World War Two, my favourite was the story of the Newfoundland three-masted schooner Neptune II, which was blown far off course during a routine overnight passage from St Johns to its home port in Bonavista Bay in November 1929. Instead of a 100-mile journey, the five crew and five passengers were thrown into the mid-Atlantic, and repeated storms forced the vessel further and further eastwards, away from home. In one of the sensational news stories of the year, the Neptune II eventually found a safe harbour in Tobermory in January 1930 after a 3000-mile journey lasting 48 days, with all crew and passengers disembarking safely.
In another historical oddity, Tobermory contains not one but two rarities: Edward VIII red postboxes, erected before the King’s forced abdication in 1936. One is located next to the fishing wharf (pictured) and another is in the upper town. 


We also ventured out to sample some of Tobermory’s nightlife, but probably not in the way you’re expecting. We walked up to the parish church for an evening recital of handbell-ringing from a visiting troupe from Dunkeld. A most enjoyable hour it was too, even if it did seem like we were the youngest people in the audience!

Day 5:

Finally on our fourth day on Mull we took the plunge and committed to the long cross-island journey that would take us to the far western tip of the isle, and thence on to the historic isle of Iona. It entailed getting up early for the 7.30am bus, if that’s any measure of our dedication to the touristic endeavour. This was one of the high points of our Scottish adventure, because Iona is a major drawcard for thousands of visitors every year. Just as Canterbury is famous as the home of English Christianity, because it was there St Augustine founded England’s first abbey in 597, Iona is famed because this small island was home to an evangelising saint, St Columba, who brought Christianity to the north from the 560s until his death in 597. And this task, which was no mean feat in an age of barbarism and paganism, was accomplished a generation before Augustine’s crossing from Europe.

St Columba has many legends attached to his long life. This one’s rather quaint, as related by Otta F. Swire in her 1964 book, The Inner Hebrides and their Legends:
St Columba & the squirrel
He had grown tired and dispirited, as who does not at times? [...] Feeling as he did, he decided to leave Iona for a time and consider in peace and solitude what his future should be. So he took a coracle and set off by himself for Mull, where he landed and wandered into the woods which then covered the island, to meditate and pray... At length he came to a forest pool. On a stone at its edge sat the red squirrel, obviously so busy and preoccupied that she did not even hear the saint's approach. And she was busy in the queerest way. She was dipping her beautiful bushy tail into the pool and then shaking it dry over the grass behind her. St Columba watched for a time, then, coming quietly forward so as not to startle her, he asked what she was doing. 
"I'm trying to empty this pool," said the squirrel. 
"You can never do it like that," exclaimed the saint. "Why, it would take you years and years, longer than you can hope to live" 
"That's true," answered the squirrel, much impressed. Then her lovely little prick ears and her tail began to droop and she said sadly, "I suppose you're right. It's all no good. I've just wasted the summer. I'd better stop" 
She climbed down from her stone and stood thoughtful. Then she suddenly jumped up on it again and began soaking her tail once more, remarking, "Anyhow, I'm making it easier for the next squirrel, if only a little" 
St Columba gathered a large handful of nuts and placed them beside her. Then he returned to his boat and his job. He had had his sign.
In the 6th century AD Celtic Christianity, originating in isolated sects of Irish monks, was one of the few literate influences in the British Isles. St Columba was famed for arriving on Iona, a low sliver of an island just off the coast of Mull, and building a monastery there that stood as a beacon of civilisation for centuries, until constant pillaging by murderous Viking raiders sent the monks packing for Kells in Ireland. (And if you’ve seen the world-famous Book of Kells in Trinity College Dublin, then you might be aware that scholars believe it actually originated in Iona, before being moved to Kells by fleeing monks). The monastery fell into disrepair for several centuries after the raids, until it was revived as a centre of pilgrimage in 1200 on order of the King. After the Reformation it fell into hard times once more, and when Samuel Johnson paid a visit in the 1770s the abbey was unroofed and derelict. The effect of the visit upon Johnson, was clearly undimmed by this:  
We were now treading that illustrious Island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion.  To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible.  Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.  Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue.  That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona! 
- Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, 1775.

The abbey has been the subject of major restoration since the 20th century, and now stands complete, despite the odd bit of scaffolding on the church tower. The abbey can be seen clearly from the shoreline on Mull, at the tiny hamlet of Fionnphort, where you board the busy ferry for the ten minute crossing over to Iona: a rugged, sandy-brown medieval complex, set against low green hills dotted with outbursts of bare grey rock. Pride of place in front of the abbey goes to the imposing St Martin’s Cross, an original eighth century Celtic stone cross with finely carved designs on both sides and a landward side covered in a sprinkling of moss. The cross stands in front of the current medieval abbey, with modern cloisters on the left, a medieval church on the right and a separate but attached shrine to the saint himself located in the centre. Perhaps the best view of the abbey is from the small hummock just in front; there’s a socket for a now-vanished medieval high cross here, and it’s reputed that St Columba had his own humble dwelling on this spot.

Iona Abbey
St Martin's Cross
Hilary had visited Iona once before, so we split up to explore different parts of the island and meet up for the ferry later. Fiona and I headed west along farm lanes until we reached a broad sweeping bay on the sandy western shore of Iona. Here we paused for lunch in the bright Hebridean sunshine and happened to spot a local seal bobbing in the waves, looking for a meal close to shore.

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Iona shore

After a celebratory icecream in Fionnphort, which was barely disrupted by a family of long-horned sheep rambling up the main road past all the parked tourist coaches, we boarded our bus for the long journey back to Tobermory. It had been a particularly successful sojourn.

Back in town, we decided that we’d spent too much of the day sitting down – it was more than two hours by bus each way to Iona – so after dinner al fresco on the pier we donned our boots once more and walked the cliff path northwards round the coast to the lighthouse. Despite clinging mud on the path and vertiginous drops to the shoreline below we emerged at the lighthouse unscathed. It was perfect timing too – we arrived at 8.30pm and the sun was still reasonably high, casting a golden light over the calm, flat ocean. We were able to get a good close look at the lighthouse (which was erected by the famous lighthouse builders, the Stevenson Brothers, in 1857) and a family of nearby oystercatchers, whose distinctive cries were the only sound in that peaceful place. By the time we departed at 9pm the light was still strong, and our half hour walk back to town was lit by a pale but clear light of the setting sun, which reminded me how much I enjoy high latitudes in the warmer months. 

Tobermory lighthouse

Day 6:

Finally it was time to head back to the real world. We had one last morning to enjoy the gentle charms of Tobermory (and the scones from the bakery!).  Just before midday we rolled out of town on the bus for the last time, joining a few of the locals heading to the football club near Craignure to watch a social game. It was another brilliantly clear Scottish day, and we relished the ferry ride back to Oban from the open top deck, photographing the watchful seagulls swooping in the ship’s wake, eagle-eyed for scraps of discarded lunch.


Back in Oban the crowds were out in force for a local fete along the waterfront. Yes, there were bagpipes. The sun was hot and plenty of pale Scottish skin was sizzling. We stocked up with supplies for our long train journey ahead, and rejoined the mainland set. Within an hour of our 4.10pm departure the gleaming sunshine had turned to dank, sweeping rainclouds – perfect timing and perfect train weather when you’ve already seen the route you’re travelling on. Soon we were back in beautiful Edinburgh, our expedition to Mull chalked up as a resounding and memorable success.

Last morning in Tober
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