Trip 10-17 August 2018
By Barbara Orton and Dieneke Ferguson
Our trip to Mull was a real feast – great crafts, excellent fresh local produce, daily fish and exciting scenery.
Mull is one of the artsiest corners of Scotland, with galleries and local produce in gastro pubs and cafes. It is an island of the Inner Hebrides situated off the West coast of Scotland, it has magnificent scenery, mountains, beaches, grandure, and thrilling wildlife – whales, puffins and sea eagles. It is a notoriously wet island, but once adjusted, the changeable weather just adds to the misty magic…
Our trip really started in Glasgow – to celebrate, we had a classic French fish soup – bouillabaisse, with a fiery rouille to go with it – a great seafood taste of things to come.
The next day we set off by car up through the Highlands, stopping off at Tyndrum’s Real Food Café for coffee and a huge cream scone, and a visit to the Green Welly Shop over the road to buy a bottle of Avon’s precious ‘Skin So Soft’ – the secret Scottish midgie protector.
We continued across Rannock Moor and through the majestic Gencoe to arrive in Oban in good time to catch the ferry to Craignure on Mull in brilliant sunshine. From there we drove to our B & B Otterholt just outside of the village of Salen on the main road to Tobermory, the home of Bev and Martin.
For breakfast next morning our hosts served us yellow scrambled eggs from the hens in the back garden although we were to find Bev the landlady specialised in unusual breakfasts. Next day it was yogurt, muesli and raisins soaked in green tea, the next quail eggs.
Our first stop was Tobermory, the principle town on the island of Mull. It was built as a fishing port in the late 18th century. Now still unspoilt, the harbour side is full of small traditional style shops and cafes full of the best of Scottish traditional knits, kilts, cut price rain proof indoor and outdoor clothing, photography, arts and crafts – the genuine crafts wonderfully outweighing the small amounts of ‘tourist craft’ on display. Inside a local church we found an extra ordinary exhibition and sale of Nepalese crafts – we bought colourful warm woollen gloves and a Tibetan bowl to chime.
The day we arrived it was Fundraising Day for the local Lifeboat Association. Demonstrations in the harbour had people getting rescued from the sea with all sorts of contraptions, old and modern, demonstrating indeed funds are always needed for upgrades.
Everything on the stalls that day, from eats to crafts was from prime quality local producers. The 800 prawns hand peeled and made into prawn cocktails sold out fast, so we had instead delicious locally produced organic burgers, and irresistible hot smoked salmon on brown bread with mayonnaise and crisp salad leaves. A fine quality chocolatiers shop and cafe supplied the hot chocolate, home baking and one or two home produced chocolates.
Tobermory’s Aquarium just by the harbour is one of a unique breed of new aquariums, one of the first in Europe to tell a story of what’s out there in the sea around the coasts of Mull, the display tanks full of the marine life caught in fishermen’s nets that day crawling crabs, starfish, urchins, seaweeds. Most species are kept for a month and then released – Octopus, notorious escapers, were the exception and released after two weeks.
Our next stop was to the Isle of Mull Cheese Farm and Glengorm Castle.
Glenmore Estate and Isle of Mull Cheese
Glenmore Estate is a 19th century country house.
The Glass Barn, Isle of Mull Cheese.www.isleofmullcheese.co.uk
Isle of Mull Cheese is made on a small family farm near Glenmore Estate and is the only dairy farm on the island. The family have developed this distinctive award-winning cheese following an ancient craft. It is a traditional hard cheese produced with its natural colour, its flavour coming from the abundant lush grass and herbage grown on the farm, helped by the wet climate. Every morning the freshest of milk from the cows is sent direct to the cheese-making vat in the milking parlour, the cheese is made and stored in blocks which are turned and matured over many months. Visitors are welcome to walk around and see the whole process.
The Glass Barn café is full of local cheese, meats and local jam on sale, with an Honesty box set up for out of hours payment. The whole barn is a fantastical decorative crafts creation – someone’s dream vision realised.
On way back to Salen the car had a puncture on the single track road. So many drivers stopped to help us – a hapless French couple were the first, but they were able to drive off when a local man with a big jemmy got us back on the road in no time. His friendly ‘keep on the black’ was a reference to the sharp tarmac edges of the single track roads all over Mull. Most places in Mull are reached by single track and the ‘passing places’ driving culture has to be learned, as we did to our cost.
At night the meal at the Glenforza Hotel near our B & B was a traditional Scottish fish soup – Cullen Skink made with smoked haddock, milk and cream, and the grilled mackrel caught by line just 4 hours earlier, with new potatoes
Staffa is a National Nature Reserve primarily made of basalt formed from a lava flow 60 million years ago. It is a beautiful uninhabited island rock, home to hundreds of seabirds, including puffins in the summer season. It is best known for the magnificence of its basalt columns, and in particular Fingal’s Cave. A visit to the island and cave was particularly popular in Victorian times, and still is a big draw for Mull visitors.
There are many companies running boats out to Staffa from Mull and Oban, but we took the local Morrison’s boat, the Taurus Mara who have taken both visitors and scientists out to Staffa and the Treshnish Islands to see Puffins and seal pups for many years.
Our boat skippered by Colin Morrison, took it’s turn to go right up to the mouth of Fingal’s Cave and like all the other boats, over their tinny loud speaker gave us tourists a quick blast of the famous Mendelssohn Overture.
The island of Ulva
The tiny island of Ulva is a minute’s sail off Mull’s West Coast and is a paradise of tranquil woodland walks and unspoilt scenery. It has been in private ownership for most of its history and has seen its population fall from 600 in the 19th century to only 6 people today.
On 21 June 2018 the Community of Ulva bought the Island through the Community Right to Buy legislation of the Scottish Government. This island community now wants to attract more people to Ulva and create opportunities for economic and social development to encourage and sustain repopulation. This includes improving infrastructure, expanding agriculture, unlocking the tourism potential, promoting the island’s cultural heritage and supporting fishing. They are continuing to raise funds for this. So far they have received 150 expressions of interest to settle on their website.
The 2 minute crossing on the little ferry to Ulva cost us £6 each. A steep fee, but this was to help towards the community buy out loan of millions.
It is home to the Boathouse, a hidden gem of a restaurant serving the best and freshest of Scotland’s seafood and home baking.
Our lunch was exquisite: Squat lobster on flatbread, fresh crab with a thick slice of lovely homemade bread, served with a simple tasty chopped tomato and red pepper salad.
Sheila’s cottage on Ulva is undergoing restoration as a traditional thatched cottage, it serves as Ulva’s current museum and heritage centre. It is named after Sheila MacFadyen, who lived there from about 1900. She worked as a dairy maid at Ulva House. Skilled crafts people from Mull, Skye and Ireland are helping to restore the cottage, completing the first part in 1998.
We went past IES FORS by car. This is a spectacular falling waterfall and picked some bog myrtle with it’s deep purple flowers – a plant that thrives in Mull’s soggy, boggy, conditions.
The Hen House, West Coast
The Hen House is a cute and delicious road side cafe on the single road going up the North West coast of Mull. At every turn there is stunning views of the Treshnish Islands, Ulva, Gometra and Ben More.
The Hen House is run by Anne Fanmore. Her mother had a van on that same spot, and when she died recently Anne vowed to build a shed and keep up her mother’s tradition serving hot drinks, home baking, and simple food.
Anne sells the local chutneys, jams and pretty home crafts she makes over the winter to the travellers who stop along this most remote craggy, spectacular of places along Mull’s West Coast. It was such a welcome stop.
Next day it was off to Calgary which is located on the North Coast of Mull. We walked on the big wide crescent shaped beach of pure white sand, even if the wind was howling and coupled with a heavy rain shower…
Calgary Art in Nature was set up in 1999. Its aim was to site pieces of sculpture within the woodland at Calgary that will create awareness of art in nature. It is a 10 minute art-trail walk down through the woods strewn with naturally crafted creations and surprises, and which ends up in an Art Gallery full of marvellous original paintings, prints, and photographs. This includes work from Lucy Mackenzie.
Heading back to Tobermory, it’s famous Cafe Fish was full, at 6 pm! We were discovering people eat early in Mull. We settled for smoked fish platters, sea bass and thick salty chips at the Mishnish Hotel restaurant, the pub at the Mishnish is an institution in Mull.
AnTobar and Mull Theatre
We finished the evening with a traditional music gig at AnTobar, the schoolhouse turned Arts Centre and Gallery. AnTobar plays host to the best arts and music on tour in the Highlands. This night was a performance by a talented close harmony American duo called the Fellow Pynins. They were in love with Scotland and its celtic music, ending their set with the purest harmonic version of ‘Bonny at Morn’, popular in Scotland and the North of England.
En route to Iona – Tiroran House
The next day it was off to Iona via the glorious West Coast, this time heading south on the spectacular single track road hugging the coast line, again with breathtaking views on every corner turned.
Stopping for coffee at Tiroran House Hotel and cafe, we had a sample dram of their own brand 47% Whitetail gin – it’s botanicals come from the estate – the heather, sea-kelp, pine and winter savory are picked by hand, then sent south to London to be distilled
Our new B & B in the village of Fionnphort was very close to the ferry to Iona. We just missed the ferry, which gave us an excuse to order a portion of battered scallops from the little fish hut by the pier. Unlikely as it sounds – on such a misty, cloudy day, they were an utter delight, hot nuggets of deliciousness, thin batter and big fat scallops, served on paper with fresh tartar sauce. 10 mins later, the ferry was there.
Iona has a 13th century abbey, chalk-white beaches and the graves of Norse and early Scottish kings. Above all, it is one of the most iconic and sacred places in Scotland. A spiritual place steeped in history, a seat of Christianity, the abbey founded by St Columba when he landed from Ireland in AD563, the place where the Book of Kells was scribed by the monastery monks.
Pre St Columba’s time there were already settlers. Iona was a central point of contact for ancient seafarers and became a focus for religious and political power, a burial place of kings and a base for missionary work. In more modern times the grave of ex Labour leader John Smith, a Scot, can be found there.
Next day in the cosy B&B, over a big juicy fried Scottish breakfast from one picture window west overlooking Iona, we witnessed a bright sunny day, clear sky… from the other towards the east, a rain cloud over the mountains, our direction home towards the Craignure Ferry.
Our last stop on the way back to the Craignure ferry to Oban was the Ardelanish Weavers.
The Ardelanish Weavers work from a farm on the remote and beautiful south coast of Mull. From the Hebridean sheep and highland cattle brought into the farm they weave and dye yarn to make rugs, scarves, jackets in tweeds and their own patterns, and sell the beef and lamb.
It began with Bob and Kathy Ryan who moved their weaving business from Torosay in Mull moving their original Dobcross looms to the Ardanalish peninsula in 2003 to set up the first organic ethical tweed mill in an old cow shed, with a shop and stores in the outbuildings. When Bob and Kathy retired Ann and Andrew Smith took over Ardalanish in September 2011. Bob continued to assist them on a voluntary basis and continues to train and inspire young people and pass on his weaving and technician’s skills. In recognition of that in 2016 on his 80th birthday Bob was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).
Ardelanish Weavers now employs 6 people as well as apprentices and still use the old 50’s looms weaving their own new Hebridean patterns alongside traditional ones using the natural brown coloured wool of the Hebridean sheep, as well as buying in fleece from native Shetland and Manx sheep. Monica, has been a weaver there for 30 years, also experiments making their own dyes (with bog myrtle, pomegranate and avocado stones)
The wool arrives back from being spun on large cones and from these the warp is wound in sections onto a large wheel before being transferred to the loom. The weft threads are wound onto bobbins ready to load into the shuttles for weaving.
Later that day we arrived at ferry. Opposite the ferry was a ‘tourist’ coffee shop, a bit further down was Arlene’s coffee shop, with lovely homebaking and reasonable prices.
We got on 1.30 instead of 12.30 ferry. There was a mix up over the booking, but it wasn’t a problem at all.. more time for homebaking and the buying of puffin paraphanalia…
In Oban we had fresh crab sandwiches and hot scallops in garlic from the super busy sea food hut on Oban ferry Pier. Huge platters of seafood were going out every minute, there was a scrum of different accents and orders, everyone sitting outside in shed like constructions, very rough and ready, but fantastically fresh and varied seafood, including reasonably priced half lobster platters, and hot mussels in white wine dished up from a big boiler.
Here Barbara bought a freshly dressed crab to take home, and round the corner, a new tyre!
Angus Garden and Real Food Cafe
We stopped off at Angus’s Garden up Glen Lyon turning right off the Oban road going south. Angus was a journalist, his garden was created by his loving parents around the slopes of a small loch to commemorate his death in Cyprus at the hands of terrorists. It’s a contemplative place, but best visited in May when the Rhododendrons and Azelias are out. By way of compensation we found a huge mushroom in the garden, and took it home thinking (hoping) it might be a giant Chanterelle, but on further investigation – it ended up on B’s compost heap…
Thanks to – Peter Irvine, author of ‘Scotland the Best’ – who guided us past the worst… and the best travel book in Scotland, made with love.