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On the idyllic Isle of Mull, a new trail is helping visitors get closer to the creative side of the island. We explore more below…
Words: Richard Franks
It’s a still autumnal morning and I’m drifting across the Sound of Mull to the Isle of Mull. Common seals bob around off the Isle of Lismore as Duart Castle comes into view ahead. Jutting above its rocky outcrop, this is an impressive approach for many a Mull visitor – no matter how many times you’ve been. It impresses me each and every time.
Duart is tactically positioned to command the surrounding waters between the Isle of Mull and the Scottish mainland. This famed Clan Maclean stronghold is arguably the island’s most iconic attraction – not least for its visibility – matched possibly only by Tobermory’s multicoloured Main Street. In fact, Duart is one of Scotland’s best-preserved castles and boasts a magnificent history to boot; its fine-tuned exhibitions show off a grandiose Grand Hall, a regal drawing room, and some incredibly dark dungeons.
While most visitors to the Isle of Mull tend to head straight off the ferry for the castle or Tobermory’s bright buildings, I’m back this time to delve into the island’s creative side: I plan on swerving much of the main drag for the nooks and crannies of the Mull & Iona Arts Trail. This DIY route takes in some 60 galleries, performance spaces, workshops, cafés, gift stores and more – many a little off the tourist track, but all with homegrown island arts in mind.
With a little over 50 stops on the Isle of Mull alone (eight are on the neighbouring isle of Iona) it is of course impossible to pack the entirety of the trail into one trip – nor should you attempt to. Mull’s natural beauty is best explored at a snail’s pace… so long as you’re not holding anyone up on a single-track road, that is.
Many stops stand out along the trail, but none are more influential than dual community hubs An Tobar and Mull Theatre (AT&MT). Operating multi-art form creative centres for an island network certainly doesn’t come without its challenges, but it’s something that AT&MT’s chief executive and artistic director, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, believes enables the hub to thrive.
“We have a theatre, music venue and gallery, and we also offer a year-round programme of workshops, classes and events across varying art forms,” she says. “Each year we produce up to six theatre shows in-house, which we then tour nationally and internationally to take the unique stories of our island home to the world.
“In this age of rampant capitalism and social isolation, organisations like ours are one of the few spaces left where people can find community and companionship without being expected to be consumers,” she continues.
Rebecca tells me the organisation is proud of its role as a community hub and a repository of civic and island pride. “Everything we do is focused on enriching the lives of those in our community while sharing their stories worldwide,” she says.
An Tobar, in the Isle of Mull’s capital Tobermory, is not too far off that aforementioned beaten track but is probably not somewhere you’d pass by accident. You do have to know about it to visit – which is where the Mull & Iona Arts Trail comes in.
“Plenty of visitors come to us as part of the trail,” says Rebecca. “It’s a great way to let them know what’s going on, and to point them in the direction of hidden artistic gems.
“I’d recommend a post-swim cup of tea at the Old Post Office in Lochbuie,” she continues. “I also love the work they do at KNOCKvologan and Calgary Art in Nature.” Handily enough, it’s Calgary I’m heading for next – and a new perspective on my favourite beach in the world.
It’s a 35-minute drive across the stunning north of the island, but you should leave time for the insatiable urge to stop, look around, and enjoy the scenery.
Near Dervaig, around 15-minutes before reaching Calgary, is the turning point for the Old Byre Heritage Centre, also on the trail. I pop in for a tea and a crofter’s soup in the café, but end up browsing its gift shop that is packed with crafts and trinkets from local artists, and perusing its Isle of Mull wildlife and local history exhibition upstairs. Calgary Art in Nature was set up in 1999 to showcase the work of local artists within its unique and lofty beech woodland setting. It’s a woodland walk I’ve heard a lot about – largely for its ability to offer a new perspective on a much loved, and often thronging, beach that just so happens to be my favourite.
Calgary’s Gallery houses one of Mull’s largest centralised collections of local artworks, with everything from oil paintings to sculptures inspired by island life available to buy on request.
Prints, candles, notebooks, and guides can also be purchased in its adjoining shop, while the co-operative workshop provides opportunities to see local artists in action. One such artist in residence is Matthew Reade, whose wood sculptures pepper the site throughout. One of his latest pieces, The Tower, was added to Calgary Art in Nature during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown as an educational piece that invites children to also enjoy a different perspective on a well-trodden area.
The sculpture walk leads a loop towards views of Calgary Bay. This is a broad beach backed by rare machair, a unique and delicate low-lying grassy plain only found on the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Calgary’s powder-soft white sands are sheltered by hills on either side, and its crystal-clear water glistens before the not-too-distant isles of Coll and Tiree ahead.
Clare McNiven’s From the Sea string person sculpture has fast become one of Mull’s most photographed spots – largely as it’s marvellous, but also for its accompanying view of such a beautiful landscape. I visit twice on my stay in the area; partly for the allure, but also because I forgot to bring a book the first time around. Views like these are worth drinking in, so that’s what I do.
The next day, suitably soothed from Calgary’s effortless tranquillity, I heed Rebecca’s advice and head for the Old Post Office at Lochbuie. Well, some of that advice anyway. While a hot drink is on the cards, it’s most certainly not post-swim; the waves crash so harsh along the shore that my car is periodically drenched.
The Old Post Office, on the Mull & Iona Arts Trail, is at the end of a 30-minute single track loch-side road teeming with wildlife, and acts as both a community hub for locals and visitors. Its shop sells both essentials and wares by local creators, and its café and larder support local producers too.
With the warming comfort of a strong black coffee and a slice of granny’s gingerbread, I’m mesmerised by those lashing tides. Unsurprisingly, I receive notification that my imminent ferry crossing is cancelled. Oh well. I’m in no rush.
Book your Hebridean home from home
Looking for an island hideaway for your next visit? Isle of Mull Cottages has a selection of self-catering holiday homes in idyllic locations across the Isle of Mull.
At Derryguaig Smiddy on Loch na Keal, for example, you can sip your morning coffee as you gaze over Ben More, while those wanting to escape the daily grind, will surely find the reset they need at Shore Croft (pictured), a stone cottage at the head of Uisken beach that has bundles of character and other hidden-away beaches, like Ardalanish and Kilvickeon, to discover nearby. Plus, the slipway at nearby Fionnphort is where the Iona ferry picks up passengers to spirit them away to the Isle of Iona for the day.
This is an extract. Read the full feature in the March/April 2023 issue of Scotland, available to buy from Friday 17 February.
Published six times a year, every issue of Scotland showcases its stunning landscapes and natural beauty, and delves deep into Scottish history. From mysterious clans and famous Scots (both past and present), to the hidden histories of the country’s greatest castles and houses, Scotland‘s pages brim with the soul and secrets of the country.
Scotland magazine captures the spirit of this wild and wonderful nation, explores its history and heritage and recommends great places to visit, so you feel at home here, wherever you are in the world.