Alison Thomas

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Magic Mull

I've been sorting out my pictures of Mull and it has taken all day. Literally. Mull in the sunshine, parading its landscapes and seascapes in a kaleidoscope of soft, Hebridean colours and rich textures. Mull beneath stormy skies, all moody and broody and full of atmosphere. Mull at dusk, when amber-tinged clouds skimmed over shadowy headlands and clung to the tops of tawny mountains. Even the ones I took in the rain are too precious to discard. So many memories. I long to go back.

Our cottage was on the west coast overlooking Loch Tuath, which together with Loch na Keal almost slices the island in two. We had window-seat views of its shifting moods but that wasn't enough for me. Every morning I gobbled a slice of bread (no time for toasting) and set off along the hillside, coffee in one hand, camera in the other.

To my left the mountains of central Mull rose out of the water with the lofty Ben More at their heart. To my right the curiously-shaped Treshnish Isles lined up on the horizon like a flotilla of battleships guarding the inner waters. Straight ahead lay the layered, shelving contours of Gometra and Ulva. I lost all track of the time and my fascination was enhanced by the antics of my neighbours. Not the human variety — they were few and far between. No, I'm talking about sprightly, black-faced sheep that played follow my leader on a bracken-clad ridge and oh-so-cute Highland cows with moptop hair-dos and handlebar horns that hid in the trees or stood gazing out to sea.

And oh so stubborn. If our paths happened to cross when we set off in the car, persuading them to move was well-nigh impossible. For the one thing you can't do on Mull is hurry. Apart from a few brief stretches of modern tarmac, single-track roads bump up and down over moors and through glens and along the shores of the deeply indented coastline. When we weren't held up by livestock or motorists, we were brought to a halt by other distractions. Was that a curlew or a greenshank? Quick! Get the book out. Did you see those wild geese? Look! There's a heron coming in to land.

The wildlife on Mull is phenomenal. The clear waters are home to minke whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals; if you're lucky, you might even sight an otter foraging in seaweed close to the shore. The birdlife is equally rich. There are ptarmigan in the mountains, waders in the estuaries, songbirds and warblers in the woods. Raptors abound, including the majestic golden eagle and its white-tailed cousin, the sea eagle. Wildlife guides will take you to prime locations, but even as a novice, if you keep your eyes peeled, you'll spot something of interest wherever you go.

This abundance goes hand in hand with more scenic variety than anywhere of comparable size in the UK. One day found us driving beneath the gaunt Gribun cliffs on our way to Loch Scridain and the wild, lonely grandeur of Glen More. Another was taken up by a trip to the islands we could see from our holiday home. We followed a woodland trail on a hillside above the pretty little village of Dervaig. We sat by Croig jetty watching a handful of boats bob at anchor with the mountains of Rum beyond. It wasn't just the ever-changing vistas that held us enthralled. It might be a copse of low, twisted trees, their ancient branches smothered in lichens and moss. Or a sprig of Scottish bluebells sheltering between weathered boulders on a windswept moor.

All these glories come at a cost and when rain swept in from the Atlantic we turned our attention to history. Perched on the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Sound of Mull, Duart Castle was the feudal stronghold of the clan Maclean until they lost out to the Campbells in 1691. 220 years later, Sir Fitzroy Maclean, 26th Chief, bought back his ancestral home — now a derelict ruin — and set about restoring it. Today you can tour the dungeons, kitchens and banqueting hall, then climb up to the state bedroom and out onto the roof of the keep, pausing on your way to peruse an exhibition charting the clan's turbulent past.

Tobermory provided another refuge, although it has to be said that the island's capital is far too pretty to be saved for a rainy day. Familiar to children nationwide as the setting for the popular Balamory television series, its brightly painted houses cluster around a lovely horseshoe bay, where the comings and goings of fishing boats, yachts, lifeboats and ferries are a constant source of interest. Onshore attractions include Tobermory Distillery, Mull Pottery, Mull Museum and some enticing shops and restaurants. We stocked up on Isle of Mull cheese and Glengorm Highland beef curry at the bakery-deli, indulged in a little luxury at the handmade chocolate shop and finished up at Café Fish for a lunch of mussels and langoustines straight from the sea.

If Mull's diversity is compelling, so too is the strong community spirit and the warmth of its people, be they native inhabitants or part of a growing band of incomers. They are also remarkably resilient, but when you live on an island you have to be. I was chatting to the owner of the vibrant Mediterranea Restaurant in Salen one morning when her husband appeared holding a broken cooker part. Unless he managed to mend it himself, they would have to close for several days while they waited for a replacement to arrive from the mainland.

It certainly complicates life, but their reward is the privilege of watching the seasons go by in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Since coming home I've been reading the online diary of wildlife guide, David Woodhouse. "There is a serenity about the islands at this time of year which is impossible to put into words. The colours are wonderful and the atmosphere is so clear," he wrote in December. And again, in the same month, "The sea is like glass, it's warm and sunny and Ben More is sticking its snow-capped peak above a belt of grey clouds like Mount Fuji." Now I know what I want for Christmas. Anyone care to join me?

Island expeditions

The Treshnish Isles


A vast array of birds breed here, undisturbed by two-legged inhabitants or four-legged predators. Razorbills, guillemots, shags, fulmars, kittiwakes . . . the list is long. And puffins. Thousands of puffins. Unfortunately, by the time we turned up they had already made their grand exodus and only a few stragglers remained. So I wasn't too hopeful as we landed on Lunga and trudged uphill in the drizzle.

Then suddenly, there she was, standing behind me and I hadn't even noticed her arrival. In her beak she held a fish destined for puffin junior, who was hidden from view in the nest. But first she just stood there, cocking her head from one side to the other. When she had delivered her catch she re-emerged for another performance.

It was pure magic, an experience I'll never forget.


Towering columns of basalt, created by volcanic activity 50 million years ago. Fingal's Cave, immortalised by Felix Mendelssohn and visited by a string of other illustrious 19th-century tourists. Fingal himself, the Gaelic giant whose arch rival, Finn McCool of Ulster, built a causeway from Antrim and challenged his opponent to a trial of strength. That, in a nutshell, is Staffa. One of the wonders of the natural world.


Privately-owned, this richly-varied island is accessible by ferry, a curious, Heath Robinson affair which you summon by uncovering a red panel on a homespun wooden board. Full of history, it has lovely sign-posted walks and you can finish at The Boathouse for homebaking or freshly-caught oysters or crab.

We visited Sheila's cottage, a traditional thatched croft house, before wandering through mixed woodland to the church, a telling reminder of more prosperous days. For the clearances that devastated Mull in the 19th century were especially cruel here. Following the collapse of the kelp market and the scourge of potato blight, the laird evicted his crofters and torched their houses so they couldn't return. By 1851 a population that had once exceeded 800 had plummeted to 150. 30 years later, only 57 people remained.

Getting there

  • Mull: Caledonian MacBrayne sails from Oban to Craignure, Lochaline to Fishnish and Kilchoan to Tobermory.
  • Treshnish Isles and Staffa: We sailed from Ulva Ferry with Turus Mara, tel 08000 858786
  • Ulva: Ferry on demand from Ulva Ferry Monday-Friday and Sunday in summer (foot passengers only).
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