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Issue 32 - An island of contrasts (Isle of Mull)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 32
April 2007


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An island of contrasts (Isle of Mull)

The Isle of Mull in Scotland's Inner Hebrides is more than just a coach ride to Iona. John Hannavy reports

Iona is the day-trip centre of the Hebrides. The CalMac ferry MV Isle of Mull leaves Oban mid-morning, every morning, packed with visitors bound for the tiny island. They arrive at Craignure on Mull and are met by a fleet of coaches which snake their way down the single track roads to the south west tip, reaching the little ferry pier at Fionnphort at lunchtime. The peace and tranquility of Iona is forgotten for two or three hours until the coaches start the long trail back to Craignure.

However, the first ferry leaves Oban much, much earlier, and connects with a service bus at Craignure. For the early riser, the reward is two or three hours on Iona with the island almost deserted. Time to wander over the nunnery ruins, time to enjoy the abbey and its environs – and to be able to stand back and admire. And it was in making that journey nearly 20 years ago that I first ‘discovered’ Mull. I have since ‘rediscovered’ it with increasing frequency.

That first experience of the rural bus journey across Mull was a delight – stopping at road-ends to wait for locals who depend on the service to do their shopping. To so many people, Mull is little more than an unspoiled interlude between the bustle of Oban and the tourism of Iona – and that is a pity for the island is unique. From the bustle and brightly-coloured 18th century charm of Tobermory in the north, to the superb beaches in the south, and from the 500 year old cross in Pennygown Church near Salen to the only island railway in Scotland, Mull is an island of contrasts and surprises.

Buzzards abound – and there are sea eagles and golden eagles for the lucky observer. Along the rocky coasts, seals – both common and grey – can be seen in season, and the island’s turbulent past can be sensed as one visits the rugged Duart Castle – centre of the Clan McLean – overlooking the Sound of Mull, and the several other ruined castles dotted around the island.

Driving around Mull’s coast is a lengthy experience, but a wonderful one. On several of my visits to the island I have stayed in the excellent Calgary Hotel north west of Tobermory up at the northern tip of the island, overlooking the beautiful small beach on Calgary Bay – I love the drive to get there, from Craignure to Salen, then through Glen Aros to Dervaig.

The coastal drive from Calgary to Ulva involves the negotiation of a narrow twisting road – but it is well worth the effort as the route takes in some of the finest coastal scenery in Scotland. High cliffs and sheer drops, breathtaking waterfalls and stunning views across to the Treshnish Isles and then Ulva. Afew miles short of Ulva Ferry the road crosses a small stream just west of a little waterfall – striking enough to make drivers stop and look. Hidden from view is one of the most spectacular of waterfalls, for a few yards west of the road the small river cascades over the cliff and falls 100 feet to the shore. This spectacular sight goes by the name of Eas Fors Waterfall – I tell you this because ‘Eas’ means waterfall in Gaelic, and ‘Fors’ means waterfall in Norse. So this, literally translated, is Waterfall Waterfall Waterfall.

A little road about a mile nearer Ulva Ferry leads off to the right and, at its end, a track leads down to the beach and the foot of the falls. Amore precarious descent from where the road crosses the river zigzags down the cliff and is not for the feint-hearted. I had climbed down and then back up before I discovered there was an easier way.

Near the junction with the road from Salen, a signpost directs us to Gruline and the MacQuarie Mausoleum, a squat stone building reached by a 300 yard walk through the grounds of some holiday homes. On the outer walls of this tomb are inscriptions celebrating the famous General Lachlan MacQuarie who was born on Mull and, after a distinguished military career, was the first Governor of New South Wales between 1810 and 1821. He is often referred to as the ‘father’ of modern Australia. The MacQuarie dynasty continues in Australia to this day, with banks and other huge commercial and industrial interests.

At Salen, standing in the roofless ruin of the 13th century Pennygown Church, a fine early 16th century cross shaft with intricate carvings on both faces has been re-erected.

One face of the cross intertwined plants above a griffin and a sailing galley – above all of which can just be seen the base of a crucifix – while the other bears the carved relief images of Virgin and Child. No signposts tell you it is there, but if you go in to the old chapel ruins at the right time of day, with light glancing across the faces of the stone shaft, the relief effect is fantastic.

Mull has several castles, each with its own charms – the fragmentary ruins of Aros Castle near Salen, the restored formidable splendour of Duart, and the mid-19th century mock-baronial delights of Torosay Castle near Craignure. And how best to get to Torosay? By steam train from Craignure, along a delightful mile and a quarter narrow gauge track through lush woodland where, if you are lucky as we were, your train will come to a standstill while we wait for a buzzard, sitting on the track, to decide to move. I told you Mull was an island of interesting contrasts.

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