As the ferry crossed from Oban on the west coast of Scotland to the Isle of Mull, we were shadowed by a pod of porpoises, their dark grey backs gleaming as they leapt, arching from the water. Further out we saw gannets fishing; beautiful big white birds, they fold their long, pointed, black-tipped wings against their bodies the instant before they enter the water in a near-vertical dive. Gannets have been hit very hard by avian influenza, so it was a real joy to see them, apparently healthy and just doing what gannets do; a good omen for our trip to Mull.
We have wanted to visit Mull since we learned that it’s one of the best places in the UK to see white-tailed, or sea, eagles; they had been shot and poisoned to extinction across Britain by the early 1900s, but a programme of reintroduction was instigated, and there are now thought to be around 150 breeding pairs in Scotland. They are not universally welcomed and are still at risk of persecution, but there are many people like us who are drawn to the island in the hope of seeing them.
Mull is a beautiful place; not a large island – 25 miles-ish long and the same wide, but it seems bigger because most of the roads follow the coastline, which has innumerable bays and inlets and is 300 miles around. Much of the terrain inland is barren and wild, with volcanic peaks and its own ‘Munro’ (a mountain at least 3,000 feet high), but the coastline is spectacular – many of the beaches are almost-white sand and the sea is azure blue. The small island of Iona lies a ten-minute ferry ride from Mull and there is nothing beyond that till north America, so the sea can be rough, but it looks crystal-clear and clean.
We had underestimated how long it would take to drive anywhere on Mull; almost all the roads are single-track, albeit with frequent passing-places. At the time we went – September – there were still many other tourists, so we were constantly having to pull over to permit oncoming traffic to pass by, or the inevitable parcel couriers (of whom there were many) in their transit vans to overtake. We learned to allow at least an hour to travel 30 miles. Day-trippers visit Iona from the mainland all year round and if we mis-timed setting off from our rented flat, we would meet half a dozen huge coaches, all rushing from the Oban ferry to Fhionnphort pier for the Iona ferry!
We had booked a day’s wildlife tour and our guide, Peter from Wolverhampton (yes, really), virtually promised us we would see a white-tailed eagle, which seemed rash, given the notorious unreliability both of wildlife to co-operate, and the Scottish weather. In the event, we saw eight sea eagles that day, most lounging around on the beach at the head of one of the sea lochs, but others in flight. Taking photos with a mobile phone would have been futile but I hope I shall always be able to recall how thrilling it was to see such magnificent birds – their wings can span 8 feet – flying apparently so effortlessly, gliding on the wind with scarcely any movement except in the very tips of their wings, where the long feathers separate into ‘fingers’ in the updraught.
We also saw two otters, which was another thrill. They are famously elusive at the best of times and are easily frightened by human activity, but we saw an adult female lying on a rock not more than 30 feet from the shore, apparently quite relaxed and unconcerned although she must have seen us. Swimming around the base of the rock was her cub. We watched for perhaps 20 minutes while the youngster came out, shook the water from its coat in a shower of rainbow droplets, checked in with its mum and re-entered the water, before the adult joined it and they both swam out of view.
The wildlife tour was an absolute highlight of our holiday, but there were many more. We spent a day on Iona (getting there early to avoid most of the coachloads of visitors – lots of Americans!). I think Iona can genuinely claim still to have a spiritual atmosphere: a religious community lives and works in and around the Abbey founded by Saint Columba in AD563. The building (not the original of course: the Reformation saw to that) is impressive, if austere – apart from the restored columns around the cloisters, which bear the most beautiful, detailed carvings (all different) of flowers and birds. The beaches on Iona are quite breathtaking, with white sands and turquoise waters.
We also visited the most remarkable garden I’ve ever seen, located in a truly remote part of Mull. Made – built – almost entirely by one woman working alone on a steep, rocky hillside, Lip Na Cloiche (it means ‘edge of the rock’: very apt) is full of ‘tender’ plants – Mediterranean oleanders, Australian acacias – which would succumb to their first winter in east Devon! Despite it facing the sea and being buffeted by salt winds, Lucy Mackenzie has planted her garden with delicate acers, salvias and the like; the echiums grow fifteen feet tall like those you see in Cornwall, studded with dozens of bumble bees when they are in flower. During the winter she beachcombs, and decorates the garden with her findings: interestingly-shaped driftwood, sea-bleached tree trunks, seaglass, pebbles, shells… and she ‘salvages’ all kinds of other objects too, installing them in the garden as props for plants, edging for paths, or just to look at: rusted iron wheels, ploughshares, forks … it seems almost anything can have a useful second life. The garden is fascinating, and so unique that it has featured in many glossy colour magazines, and deservedly so.
On our travels around Mull we formed some surprising impressions. One was how many English people live and work on the island; in fact, we were told that a third of the 3,000 population is English. Working in the shops and cafés were people from all over England, and at least one explained to us that her former home town could now offer her and her family nothing but anti-social behaviour and the stress resulting from it: they had chosen to come to Mull for some quiet, and community spirit. Many of the settlements and villages on the island are very small and isolated, so islanders have to rub along together and help each other out when in difficulty. Most of the farms we saw are small by English standards, little more than crofts which must offer barely more than subsistence farming, so many farmers and crofters have (in ways familiar to those elsewhere in these straitened times) ‘diversified’ into other businesses. Some run holiday lets; our landlord, born into a several-generations farming family, also owns the fish and chip shop in the village – although the demands of farming have to take precedence, as the sign in the window showed.
Being holidaymakers, it was almost impossible for us to know how well-integrated and accepted ‘incomers’ are on Mull; many we encountered were involved in one way or another in the hospitality and tourist industries on which so much of the economy of the West Country is also based, and I wonder whether, perhaps, the born-and-bred islanders are too resentful of the tourists to want much direct involvement. Perhaps they (and we here in the south-west) would do well to remember sometimes when we are cursing the ‘grockles’ that it is only tourists’ money which enables many small businesses to survive and to continue offering employment on some level.
Perhaps – almost expecting it – I imagined it, but I thought there was a slight cooling of the atmosphere if we were asked by Scots where we were from and we said, “the south of England”; I found that if we replied “Devon, in the south-west of England”, that seemed to be more acceptable! “The south of England” seems universally to imply “London”, which apparently has unpleasant connotations. However, even around the very small village where we stayed, and in other parts of Mull, we saw the ruins of abandoned cottages and farmhouses: some the relics of the devastating ‘Clearances’ of the 18th and 19th centuries. The folk memory persists of landowners, many of them from ‘down south’ (ie, England), forcibly evicting tenants and crofters in favour of more-profitable sheep. If there is still resentment, perhaps it should be understood. The Clearances led to the dispersal of Scots all over the world, and there is a ‘heritage centre’ in the village which is visited not infrequently by people from the US, Canada, Australia… who want to trace their family roots.
We were conscious on a few occasions that there are still many Scots who want independence from England; not the (perhaps more pragmatic) majority, especially now that the Scottish National Party is under a cloud; but sometimes in the most remote or unexpected places we would come across a plea to break away: “YES” painted in huge letters on the side of a barn, or more subtly, as here: a hand-painted plaque on a house windowsill.
Other impressions: how utterly dependent the islanders are on the ageing and increasingly unreliable ferries from the mainland to bring almost every ‘essential’, and how, for example, restaurants unavoidably run out of ingredients from time to time. And that, despite the impact of the Scottish weather, the distances involved and the practical difficulties, most of the roads – albeit single-track – were in infinitely better repair than those in Devon! In the west of Scotland as a whole, we found the trains and buses ran largely on time, and they and the stations were tidy and clean, and many of the station platforms were decorated with colourful flower beds and hanging baskets which had not been vandalised or used as ashtrays! Most of the public toilets, even in small towns, were clean and properly serviced – a novelty in England. (These things acquire increasing importance once you’re over 60…)
We both felt, in a vague way, that it was also pleasant to be so distant from Westminster and the behaviour of the current government; we were not in merely another country – one led by a progressive administration with socially-responsible policies – but, although ostensibly part of the ‘United Kingdom’, what felt like another world. I can entirely understand why people living so far north believe that what goes on in London should have no effect on their own lives.
The converse of this, of course, is that because it’s so very far from our home in Devon, we shall probably not visit Mull again; but in many ways it is an exceptional place and it’s given us some wonderful memories.
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