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Issue 31 - Now who be ye, would cross Loch Gyle? (Ulva)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007


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Now who be ye, would cross Loch Gyle? (Ulva)

John Hannavy visits Ulva, a tiny island off the west coast of Mull

My title this time comes from a line in a traditional Scottish poem by Thomas Campbell entitled Lord Ullin’s Daughter, a story of forbidden love, and the tragic efforts of the girl’s father to part the young couple.

A Chieftain to the Highlands bound Cries ‘boatman, do not tarry!

And I’ll give thee a silver pound To row us o’er the ferry!’ ‘Now who be ye, would cross Loch Gyle, This dark and stormy water?’ ‘O I’m the Chief of Ulva’s isle, And this, Lord Ullin’s daughter.

Loch Gyle, or Loch na Keal, is the sea loch which separates Gribun on Mull from Ulva to the north. The ‘Chief of Ulva’s Isle’ would have been a member of the MacQuarie family, who were the lairds of Ulva for 900 years.

Both the chief and his young lover perished in the stormy waters of the sea-loch, and are buried on the island of Mull, although despite my many visits to this delightful corner of the Hebrides, I have never yet walked down the mile-long signposted track from Ulva Ferry to their grave. Lest you fear the same fate, their crossing from Gribun was across a wide stretch of notoriously turbulent water.

Today’s little ferry crossing is a lot shorter and a lot safer.

With its northern partner Gometra – to which it is connected by a small bridge – Ulva was once quite heavily populated.

With 16 small villages and a population of more than 600 a century and a half ago, it was once a centre for the production and processing of kelp ash (produced from the seaweed kelp), which found a variety of uses from glass-making to medicines, thanks to the carbonates and iodine it contained.

This was a highly labour-intensive industry. About 500 tons of seaweed had to be gathered from the foreshore each year – which then had to be cut, transported, dried and burned to produce about 25 tons of mineral-rich kelp ash each year.

The ruins of those settlements, and of many crofts on the island, still abound. Near the boathouse, Sheila’s Cottage, an authentic reconstruction of what living conditions on the island were like, is a fascinating eye-opener.

‘Sheila’ was Sheila MacFadyen who lived there a century ago. It is a low-built thatched cottage, constructed of rough-cut local stone.

Alittle note of incongruity found on this step into the past is the modern electronic keypad lock on the front door.

Until relatively recently a private estate and closed to visitors, Ulva now has a visitor information centre, well marked and often challenging walks, lovely coastal views, a regular ferry crossing, and an excellent tea shop with soup, fresh sandwiches and spectacular home made cakes.

So, it will be clear, I like the place – but not everyone in the past has felt about Ulva as I do. “To Ulva we came in the dark” noted Boswell when he and Johnson arrived in 1773, “and left before noon the following day!” The island, he said, offered “nothing worthy of observation.” How wrong he was – Ulva is beautiful, peaceful and full of interest.

In its days as a private estate, Ulva played host to other famous people. You will not be surprised to read that Sir Walter Scott stayed on the island twice, in 1810 and 1814, on his way to Staffa and Fingal’s Cave – and Keats, Mendelssohn and Wordsworth are all also believed to have spent a night on the island on their way to Staffa. In more recent times, our present Queen stepped ashore at Ulva Ferry in 1956.

In the late 18th century, the grandparents and parents of David Livingstone were forced to live in a cave on the island’s shore while waiting for a croft to become available.

Recent archaeological excavations in the cave have revealed that it was probably first inhabited more than 7,500 years ago.

Livingstone’s Cave, as it is still known, can be reached by a rather convoluted walk south west from the boathouse.

One regular visitor, a keen botanist who must have found Ulva’s flora a powerful magnet, was Beatrix Potter, whose cousin lived at Ulva House.

Although her pioneering botanical researches proved not to be the subject for which she is best remembered, her frequent visits to Ulva provided inspiration for many of the characters in her children’s books. Indeed, her Tale of Mr Tod bears the dedication ‘for William Francis of Ulva – someday!’ William Francis Clark was her cousin Caroline’s son.

A few hundred yards from the jetty and the boathouse visitor centre – which was once the island’s inn – there survives a Parliamentary Church, one of a series of Churches designed by Thomas Telford and built with government money to demonstrate official ‘support’ both for the island communities, and for the established Church of Scotland – just before the Free Church of Scotland broke away.

From Ulva Ferry, or from Fionnphort on Mull – the usual departure point for journeys to Iona – daily sailings to the Treshnish Islands, and to Staffa, promise sightings of seals and tens of thousands of puffins, and a chance to walk inside Fingal’s Cave.

But Ulva is much, much more than just a staging post for journeys to islands further afield