Friday, 28 December 2012


In 1829 a 20-year-old composer set out on a boat trip around Mull, calling at Iona and Staffa, which is characterised by its basalt columns. By all accounts he did not pick the best day for the trip: the weather was wild and people were throwing up all over the place. However, the composer was sufficiently impressed at the sight of Staffa, and in particular Fingal's Cave, that he was inspired to write a piece of music which was to become an all-time favourite. The composer was Mendelssohn, and the musical work was the Hebrides Overture.

It is perhaps not surprising that the cave provided musical inspiration, since the basalt columns that make up its sides resemble a grand church organ. The cave is a unique phenomenon: nowhere else does a sea cave exist that is formed completely from hexagonally jointed basalt. A visit to the cave is enhanced by the fact that a naturally formed walkway allows visitors to venture some distance into the cave. All of which is accompanied by the resounding swell of the sea. The name Fingal is thought to date back to an Irish general who led an incursion into Scotland prior to the Norse raids. In fact, it was the Vikings who gave rise to the name Staffa, which derives from the Old Norse for "stave" or "pillar island". The pillars reminded them of their homes built of vertical logs. There are a number of other caves around the island, such as Goat Cave and Clamshell Cave. Such is the renown of Staffa that there are numerous boat trips on offer during the summer months from Mull, Iona and the mainland.

of the area.

© 2005 Josi, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 26 December 2012


In my piece on Ulva, we met the "Father of Australia" Major-General Lachlan MacQuarie, who was born on the island. MacQuarie rears his head again here at Salen, as it was he who established the village at the start of the 19th century, considering the location ideal, being the closest point on the Sound of Mull to his estates. MacQuarie is buried in the MacQuarie Mausoleum two miles from Salen at Gruline. The original community here which predated Macquarie's village was visited by St Columba, who preached here, although he was allegedly disappointed by the turnout. Salen used to be a stopover point on the ferry service from Mull, but Craignure took over as the main ferry port on the island as bigger vessels came into service, rendering the pier at Salen redundant. The pier was in a state of disrepair for a number of years, but has now been restored. There is still a crossing nearby at Fishnish, linking the island to Lochaline on the mainland. Salen does retain one transport link out of the island in the form of the airstrip adjacent to the Glenforsa Hotel. The airstrip, one of the most picturesque in the country, does not have any scheduled services, but acts as an air ambulance evacuation facility. Two miles north of the village lie the ruins of Aros Castle, one of a series of castles built to defend the Sound of Mull in the 1200s. The castle was last occupied in 1608.

Map of the area.

© 2008 Vangobanshee, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 23 December 2012


In my previous post, I talked about Duart Castle. If you catch the ferry from Oban to Craignure you will get a wonderful view of the castle as you approch Mull. Craignure is the main ferry port on Mull, and the 40-minute crossing from Oban runs every 2 hours. The town itself is a picturesque blend of houses, shops, a tea room and an inn. About a mile to the south is the Victorian mansion Torosay Castle and its gardens, which used to be open to the public, who could travel from Craignure by narrow gauge railway. However, earlier this year it was reported that the castle had been sold to a mystery Swiss buyer, not without some relief for the seller, given the repairs needed which would have totalled over £1 million. As a result, the castle is currently no longer open to the public, and sadly the railway has also closed down. In July 2008 an extraordinary find was made in a sideboard in the castle: the oldest bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne, dating from 1893, which is now on display at the Veuve Clicquot Visitor Centre in Reims. One would have thought that the find, which was described as "priceless" would have been enough to fund the repairs!

Live webcam.

Map of the area.

© 2008 RichTea, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 21 December 2012


What do Duart Castle and Sean Connery have in common? Well, for a start the castle was the ancestral home of the MacLean Clan, and Sean Connery has MacLean ancestry on his mother's side. Added to which, appropriately, the castle was used in the film Entrapment, starring Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Another film featuring the castle was When Eight Bells Toll, starring Anthony Hopkins. It is not surprising that the film-makers were attracted to the castle, which makes a magnificent sight on a mound overlooking the Sound of Mull. The castle dates from the 14th century, when the 5th Chief of the MacLeans, Lachlan Lubanach, married the daughter of the Lord of the Isles Mary MacDonald, and she was presented with Duart Castle as her dowry. During the 17th century, the castle was subjected to repeated clashes between the MacLeans and the Campbells, until in 1691 the castle was surrendered to Archibald Campbell, 1st Duke of Argyll. The Campbells then set about demolishing the castle, and it remained as a ruin until the 27th Chief of the Clan MacLean, Sir Fitzroy Donald MacLean, bought it in 1911 and a painstaking restoration was begun. The resulting born-again castle is now open to visitors, who can also enjoy the Millennium Wood, a collection of trees and shrubs indigenous to this part of Scotland which was introduced by the present Clan Chief Sir Lachlan MacLean.

Map of the area.

© 2010 Philippe Giabbanelli, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 19 December 2012


Lochbuie is a tiny community named after the sea loch that adjoins the eastern end of the Ross of Mull. So tiny, in fact, that during the 2005 general election the local populace had their polling station installed in a caravan. However, for a place of its size it has plenty of interest. The most prominent buildings are Lochbuie House and Moy Castle. Lochbuie House was built in 1752, and took over from Moy Castle as the seat of the chiefs of the Maclaine clan, the dominant clan around these parts. Within the grounds of the house is a group of standing stones dating from the Bronze Age. Moy Castle is a castle in need: according to its website the castle urgently needs a new front door, as part of ongoing work to stabilise the structure. All donations gratefully received. The castle played a starring role in the 1945 film I Know Where I'm Going, which tells the story of an upwardly mobile middle-class woman (played by Wendy Hiller) who falls in love on Mull. Like all good castles, Moy Castle has its resident ghost: a headless horseman who rides around the castle at great speed, said to be a son of the Chief of the MacLaines who was decapitated during a battle with his father. St Kilda's Episcopal Church lies on the shore of the loch, and was built in 1876 by MacLaine of Lochbuie. The most interesting feature of the church is a yellow sandstone Celtic cross built into the south wall of the porch. The cross was discovered when the foundations of the church were being excavated, but its origins are unclear, since there is no history of a chapel or burial place on the site.

Map of the area.

© 1999 Dave Fergusson, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 17 December 2012


St Columba's name has cropped up several times already in this blog, but nowhere is the saint's legacy more enduring than on the tiny island of Iona, just off the tip of the Ross Of Mull. St Columba crossed to Iona from Ireland in 563 with twelve companions and founded a monastery there, from whence missionaries went forth to the mainland to spread Christianity. Columba's monastery had a turbulent past, destroyed on several occasions by Norse invaders, then around 1200 Reginald MacDonald of Islay stepped in to turn Iona into a major centre of Christianity, replacing the Columban monastery with a swanky new Benedictine one. He also built an Augustinian Nunnery on the island, which retains its chancel, nave and parts of the Chapel roof. There are also nuns' graves still on view, including that of the last prioress, Anna, who died in 1543. To the west of the Nunnery is the Street Of The Dead, which leads from the Martyrs' Bay to the cemetery known as Reilig Oran, referred to as the "Westminster of Scotland" for the number of kings buried there. The former Labour Party leader John Smith, who loved Iona, is also buried here. The cemetery adjoins St Oran's Chapel, which has a simple but beautiful Norman doorway. The Abbey Church on Iona became a cathedral in 1506, when Iona became the chief seat of the Bishop of the Isles. The Church of Scotland partly restored the church in the early 1900s. Behind the Cathedral is Dun-I, the highest point on the island, from which the view takes in more than thirty islands.

Faced with all this ecclesiastical grandeur, one should not forget the natural beauties of the island. These include the intriguingly named The Bay at ahe Back of the Ocean, from where there are views to the Spouting Cave, which as its name suggests produces a substantial fountain of sea spray when the conditions are right. Other beauty spots include Port Ban with its lovely white sands, Port na Curaich, or Harbour Of The Coracle, the landing-place of St Columba, and the remains of the Iona Marble Quarry, which ended production at the end of World War I. Iona is reached from Mull by a short ferry crossing from Fionnphort.

Map of the area.

© 2008 RichTea, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 16 December 2012


Going to the pub is one of the pleasures of a visit to the British seaside, and at Christmas the pub comes into its own. Whether you have been for a bracing walk along the seafront with a fierce souwesterly hurling seaspray across your path, or whether you have spent a pleasant interlude pottering around a harbourside, dodging the waves crashing over the harbour wall, there is only one place to head for to warm up: a cosy pub with a roaring fire, the heady aroma of hearty pub food and mulled wine, a clutch of local characters of varying degrees of eccentricity putting the world to rights and a jolly array of Christmas decorations and lights. The following is a list of my personal favourites, but it is by no means exhaustive. I would be delighted to hear about other people's beloved seaside pubs, so feel free to add yours to the list via the comments.

Penzance, Cornwall: The Turks Head

I had to start with my home town, and of all the pubs there it had to be the Turks Head. The oldest pub in Penzance, and situated in its most historic street, the pub is entered via a small door in its white facade, and is on two levels, with the bar on the ground floor and extra tables for eating downstairs. The good pub fare on offer includes a range of excellent fish and seafood options. The pub dates from the 13th century and has seen its fair share of action over the years, including part of the building being burnt down during the Spanish invasion of the 16th century, and the activities of smugglers making use of the tunnel leading from the pub directly to the harbour.

Polperro, Cornwall: The Blue Peter

Wandering through the impossibly picturesque streets of this Cornish fishing town you pass a series of increasingly inviting restaurants, cafes and pubs. Then, just when you think you've seen them all you come to the Blue Peter, right at the bottom corner of the village, overlooking the harbour. As well as a range of ales, ciders and wines, including mulled wine at Christmas, the pub offers meals and frequent live music, which has always been excellent when we have been there. Be careful on the way out: the only exit from the pub is not through the door at the front, but via a substantial flight of stone steps to the side. I shudder to think of the accidents that must have taken place on those steps.

Dartmouth, Devon: The Cherub

The Cherub is equally appealing outside and in, with its quaint black-and-white exterior and rickety interior with a roaring fire in winter. The building, the oldest in Dartmouth, dates from the 14th century and is thought to have been a Merchant's House originally. Upstairs, the restaurant does a nice line in fine dining, while lighter bar snacks are also available.

Seatown, Dorset: The Anchor Inn

Whether you've spent the morning huffing and puffing up and down the roller coaster clifftop paths on this part of the Dorset coast, or whether you've been wandering along the palaeontologist's dream of a beach, head down, fossicking for fossils, relief is close at hand in the form of the Anchor Inn, marvellously situated overlooking the beach, near the cliff's edge. In summer there are outside tables to enjoy the view from, but in winter it's all about wood-burning stoves and good value, warming pub food.

Lymington, Hampshire: The Kings Head

We stayed in Lymington a couple of years ago in the month of October, a time of year when I start to yearn for hearty, warming comfort food, ideally served in cosy candlelit surroundings with a lively, convivial atmosphere, and the Kings Head delivered on all counts. Occupying the top end of a quaint little street leading down to the harbour and marina, this pub also satisfied on the drinks front, serving my husband's favourite ale (London Pride) and my favourite cider (Aspalls).

Whitstable, Kent: The Old Neptune

I have to be honest. The beach at Whitstable is not going to win any beauty contests, but the sunsets just might. And the best place to view one of them is on a bench outside the Old Neptune or Neppy to its regulars, which occupies a prime position right on the beach. In fact, given its precarious location it is a miracle that there is still a pub there. The original building is long since gone, washed away by a storm in 1897, the second time that century that it had taken a lashing. However, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the pub was rebuilt, although it still retains a somewhat fragile appearance. The interior of the pub has a pleasingly lived-in look, and attracts an eclectic clientele. The walls are covered with an array of interesting artwork and photographs of celebrities such as Iggy Pop. Continuing the celebrity theme, scenes from the film Venus starring Peter O'Toole were shot in the Old Neptune bar. Live music is a regular feature at weekends, which always makes for a good atmosphere.

(Sorry, bit of a crap picture!)

Aldeburgh, Suffolk: Ye Olde Cross Keys

In a town full of quaint buildings, Ye Olde Cross Keys is one of the quaintest. Set slightly back from the seafront, the pub is perfectly placed to be dived into after a bracing walk along Aldeburgh's beach. Cosy and inviting inside, with a roaring log fire, the pub serves locally caught seafood washed down with Adnams ale. One evening during our stay in Aldeburgh we found ourselves sharing the bar with a large group of young musicians, not surprising in this town, which is famous for its musical connections, most notably its association with Benjamin Britten.

Whitby, North Yorkshire: The Duke of York

Ideally situated as a bolt hole after descending the steps from Whitby Abbey, the Duke of York has a history stretching back 1,000 years to the days when the monks landed their produce from the sea at this spot before taking it up to the monastery. You can satisfy the inevitable hunger and thirst produced from walking up and down all those steps courtesy of the pub's decent standard pub fare and local ales, while enjoying fabulous views of the harbour.

Seahouses, Northumberland: The Olde Ship Inn

I fell in love with the Olde Ship during two self-catering weeks in Seahouses, especially the main bar, which is stuffed full of nautical photographs and artefacts. Unfortunately, the pub's popularity proved to be its downfall on weekend nights, when the main bar could get uncomfortably crowded. During the summer, relief is at hand in the form of a small garden out the back. I have not experienced the pub during the winter, but I'm sure it would be the perfect place to head for after pottering around the harbour or going for a long walk along the fabulous beach between Seahouses and Bamburgh. The Olde Ship also offers accommodation and serves meals in a separate restaurant area.

Inverary, Argyll and Bute: The George Hotel

The George Hotel is a historic coaching inn. We were so taken with it on a visit to Scotland a few years ago that we drove all the way over from Loch Awe to have an evening meal there, something my husband does not do lightly. As the pub's website suggests, it owes its existence to the architects Adam and Milne, who were responsible for Scotland's first planned town.

Caernarvon, Gwynedd: The Black Boy

Although just a minute's walk from Caernarvon's famous castle, the Black Boy is tucked away in a narrow side street, so it may take some unearthing. However, it is worth the effort, as the main bar provides a welcome respite from Caernarvon's lively weekend atmosphere, and the restaurant is a popular feeding post for those in search of decent British pub food.

Porthgain, Pembrokeshire: The Sloop Inn

I have only visited the Sloop during the springtime, but I can well imagine diving into it after an invigorating winter walk on the Pembrokeshire coast path, which passes through here. Porthgain has an interesting past as a quarry port, offloading slate from the surrounding areas. The interior of the Sloop has bags of character, and the food is pretty good too.

Lynmouth, Devon: The Rising Sun

The Rising Sun ticks all the boxes for a traditional harbourside inn, although it is also an upmarket hotel, occupying a whole row of cottages in this prime location by the side of Lynmouth harbour. We once spent a lovely New Years Eve at the Rising Sun, culminating in a 60s singalong to the live musician in the main bar. Every time I hear You've Lost That Loving Feeling by the Righteous Brothers it reminds me of that night!

St Ives, Cornwall: The Sloop Inn

The Sloop Inn in St Ives occupies a superb harbourfront location, nestling among the bars, restaurants, gift shops and amusement arcades. At Christmas it is ablaze with lights and decorations, and there is a range of delicious seafood specials on offer as well as mulled cider, a welcome change from the usual mulled wine.

Saturday, 15 December 2012


The Ross of Mull is a large peninsula extending south west from the centre of the island - the word Ross comes from the gaelic 'ros' meaning peninsula. The eastern end of the peninsula is characterised on the map by its tightly packed contours, while the western end is a mix of lochs, inlets and small islands, one of which, Erraid, featured in Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, whose main character David Balfour was marooned for a while on the island. The peninsula has a rich variety of wildlife, from otters to adders, corncrakes to red deer and mountain hare. There are wildlife tours by minibus available for visitors to the peninsula who want to have the best chance of spotting its creatures. The peninsula also holds plenty of interest for geologists, with its columns of basalt, ravines and caves, most notably the Carsaig Arches, basaltic formations which have come about by the action of the sea, very similar to the more famous ones on Staffa. The tip of the peninsula is noted for its red granite, which has been extensively used for construction, including such famous London landmarks as the Albert Memorial, Blackfriars Bridge and the Holborn Viaduct. The peninsula has a scattering of tiny settlements, some of which offer accommodation and other facilities for visitors, such as Bunessan, Fionnphort - the departure point for Iona, of which more in the next post - and Carsaig, set in a beautiful bay with excellent walking options. The Ross of Mull Historical Centre is next to Bunessan old mill, and acts as a repository for historical records and data for people around the world who have traced their roots back to this area.

Map of the area.

Carsaig Arches © 2009 Hopgrove James, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


In an earlier blog post I mentioned the fact that the west coast of Scotland is so peppered with islands that even the offshore islands have offshore islands. One of the islands off the coast of Mull is tiny Ulva, just eight square miles in area but packing in its fair share of beauty, wildlife and natural wonder. The island is reached via a short passenger ferry ride from Mull. Wildlife watchers will find plenty to look out for: on the land red deer, mountain hares or stoats, in the water Atlantic grey seals, otters or cetaceans, while feathered varieties include eider ducks, oystercatchers, shags, herons and corn crakes. But that is not all: the island is famous for its moths and butterflies, particularly the former, which include the striking Slender Scotch Burnet, which can be found on grassy banks and cliffs during the day, unusually for moths.

History buffs can follow in the footsteps of the Vikings, who washed up here around 800AD and named the island Ullfur, the Viking for "wolf island". However, they were not the first people to wander these shores: there are signs of habitation going back several millennia earlier than this. Relics from this time include standing stones dating from 1500BC, while a cave called Livingstones Cave houses a shell midden with remains dating to around 5650BC, along with signs of prehistoric wildlife including Arctic Fox and lemming. The missionary and explorer David Livingstone, whose ancestors came from Ulva, was reportedly full of tales and legends of the island passed down to him from his grandparents. The remains of Livingstone's croft, where the family lived, are near the aforementioned cave. When I was on holiday in Sydney a few years ago I had my picture taken sitting on what was known as "Mrs Macquarie's Chair". It turns out the lady in question was the wife of another Scot who ended up halfway round the world: Ulva-born Major-General Lachlan Macquarie, former governor of New South Wales and described back home as the "Father of Australia", quite a leap for someone who hailed from this tiny outpost of the Inner Hebrides. Near the harbour slipway is an old cottage called Sheila's Cottage, which houses the island's museum and heritage centre.

Map of the area.

© 2007 Chris McLean, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 10 December 2012


Calgary occupies a particularly lovely corner of Mull, nestling in Calgary Bay with its brilliant white sands. The beach, dunes and machair which make up the bay have been turned into a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in recognition of the need to preserve this beautiful location, where the wildlife includes otters, seals, deer and a variety of sea birds. From the beach, the Calgary Art In Nature sculpture walk leads to an art gallery with accommodation, weaving around the woodland, with interesting artworks around every corner. Calgary House, previously known as Calgary Castle, is a gothic mansion dating from 1817. One of the castle's guests in the 1800s was the head of the Canadian North West Mounted Polilce, Colonel James Macleod, and on his return from a stay there he suggested a fort back in Canada be named Fort Calgary. This in turn gave rise to the present-day city of Calgary, gateway to the Canadian Rockies. During the Highland Clearances people from settlements around the Calgary Bay area were evicted from their homes and many made their way to Canada. One of these settlements was Invea, above Calgary Pier, where the remains of the abandoned homes of the former inhabitants can still be discerned.

Map of the area.

© 2004 David Hambidge, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 4 December 2012


To get to Dervaig from Tobermory involves the thrill and challenge of following a twisty single-track road with hairpin bends. The road is a favourite with the drivers who take part in the annual Isle of Mull rally, held every October. Those who undertake the drive are rewarded with a picturesque village set at the head of the narrow Loch a'Chumhainn, with the distinctive whitewash pencil-shaped tower of Kilmore Church poking above the trees. Dervaig was established as a planned village in 1799 by the Laird of Coll to provide accommodation for the Quinnish Estate, although its only inn, the Bellachroy, predates it by nearly two centuries, having opened in 1608, making it the oldest inn on Mull. The name of the village suggests that the Vikings were here first, since it derives from the Old Norse for "good inlet". Another sign of earlier habitation in the area is the presence of the Cnoc Fada standing stones in a clearing to the east of the village. The Old Byre Heritage Centre near Dervaig has displays on Mull's history and wildlife as well as a tearoom and gift shop. The Dervaig Village Hall not only acts as a community centre hosting a range of events, but also offers hostel accommodation.

Map of the area.

© 2007 Mrs V Bryant, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 2 December 2012


Mull is the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides after Skye. The island's stunning scenery and wildlife earned it a place on our TV screens in 2010 when the Autumnwatch series featured the story of the re-introduction of white-tailed sea eagles to the island. Tobermory, the capital of the island, has also played a starring TV role as Balamory in the popular children's series of the same name. The brightly coloured buildings which feature in the show are not a figment of the producer's imagination, but are a reflection of the real-life town of Tobermory, where the town's buildings are every bit as colourful as those depicted in Balamory. There is also a children's book called The Tobermory Cat based on a well-known ginger tom, so well-known in fact that he has his own Facebook page. However, the cat unwittingly became the focus of a spat between the author and the artist who created the Facebook page, who accused the writer of stealing his idea, although the cat was well known before the Facebook page was set up.

The name Tobermory derives from the gaelic Tobar Mhoire, or "Well of Mary", a reference to the since disappeared St Mary's Well and St Mary's Chapel which dated from medieval times. There is a monument marking the spot where the well stood. The town lies on Tobermory Bay where, in 1588, one of the ships of the Spanish Armada was allegedly sunk with a quantity of gold on board. Although the area has been inhabited for several millennia, the present-day town was established in 1788 by the British Fisheries Society. The town never achieved the Fisheries Society's aim of becoming an important fishing port, but the harbour still provides a safe haven for vessels. As would be expected for an island so well stocked with wildlife there are a range of wildlife watching tours available from Tobermory. Walkers can head to Aros Park which is reached by a scenic path from Ledaig. For history buffs there is a group of standing stones called the Baliscate Standing Stones just outside the town. The Mull Museum in the main street is full of artefacts relating to the island's history. Cultural activities include the Mull Theatre at Drimfin, just outside Tobermory, and the An Tobar arts centre overlooking the bay.  Other attractions in  the town include an Aquarium and a Distillery with Visitor Centre.

Events in Tobermory include a Highland Games in July, and a regatta in late July/early August. For a list of events, see here.

of the area.

© 2009 David Baird, via Wikimedia Commons