By 1015am, we were standing outside a wooden cabin below Glenaros Lodge, waiting for the owner of the bicycle hire business to attend to us. He was up in the lodge, which we assumed he was renting from the Estate. His wife (or was it partner?), who was rather well built and wore a kaftan, making her look rather like an aged hippy, came out to tell us that her partner would be down soon. He arrived soon afterwards and was definitely the other half of this aging hippy couple. He had long, grey hair, a pot belly (it must all those mung beans and lentils) and wearing a grey, long sleeve t-shirt and faded jeans.
He was telling us that his main business was a bicycle shop in Edinburgh and that his season on Mull was only three to four months a year. We followed him to what Penny described as something he had bought from a circus’ garage sale. It was a star-spangled yurt in which were a number of bicycles for us to choose from. He continued to say that he was taking some bikes to Edinburgh that afternoon and was then flying to the Netherlands for Easter.
The bikes he gave us were aluminium framed ‘Ridgebacks’ with internal gears on the back wheel and disc brakes on both wheels. I had a different type, also a Ridgeback, but with derailleur gears. As we were walking back down the hill I mentioned that we had run a cycle tour business some time ago (briefly). He lit up and asked if it was one which was based in Warwickshire. I said it wasn’t and he retold how he had nearly bought a cycle tour business there but had dithered and missed the opportunity.
Penny started to write a cheque out for the bike hire, and the owner told us he had to drop his prices from £20 per day per bike to £15 per day because a competitor had started up in Tobermory and was charging that amount. He laughed at his competitor, saying they had no bikes to rent out. Walking away soon after, we laughed at his lack of business prowess. ‘If they’ve no bikes then why are you matching their price?” We also noted that there was another algae covered yurt on the right hand side of the drive as we walked to the road to set off.
On the bikes, we headed up the road towards Tobermory and soon turned off to the left by Forestry Commission offices, following the marked cycle track. Emily was soon trailing and Toby was looking at though he had had enough already.
The track was stony in places and took us through the pine woods laid out by the Forestry Commission but soon opened up onto pastures with plenty of lambing sheep. A slope took us to a junction with another track from which point there was a magnificent view to the north over Loch Frisa. On the southern shore was a beautiful farmhouse which had a paddock and a school. Penny and Emily were drooling over it.
There were two other cyclists behind us as we dropped down on the track in glorious sunshine to one of the ‘Eagle Watch’ hides which are there so people can view the Sea Eagle nests. This was one was empty although a green van was coming down the track towards us looking rather official. It was driven by a friendly looking woman who waved as she came up to us and parked nearby.
She hopped out of her van and come over to ask us to make as little noise as possible and not to stop before we got to the other hide up the track which was through the woods ahead. This was because of the Sea Eagle’s nest in between the points. We set off, obligingly, on our bikes to the next point, the road taking us through cool pine woods until, up ahead, we could see a group of people wearing outdoor clothing and sporting an impressive array of binoculars and monoculars.
Coming closer to this group of people, with age ranges from about nine to ninety, I could not help but feel as though we were an intrusion to their view. I overheard the woman in the van from earlier, who had now returned, saying that were two groups of cyclist coming up the track (one was the Hawkins family) and it was like “Piccadilly Circus” along the trail today and that they knew we were coming because we had crossed an infrared beam which set of an alarm. What with this alarm and the signs nearby talking about the CCTV system in place, it felt like a Big Brother was watching in this remote part of the world.
However, on looking at some of the posters in one of the two huts they had there it was clear why they were so scrupulous about security. I had not realised just how much damage was caused by people who collect eggs and chicks illegally.
Nevertheless, the Eagle Watch staff were generous in their offer for all of us to use their ‘scopes’ to take a look at the Sea Eagle chicks in their nest. It was wonderful to see such a bird in situ.
Not long afterwards, we were all zooming down the track towards the road to Dervaig, still giving Emily a hard time about being so slow on her bike. We paused at the road side and said hello to a lone cyclist at the junction who said he was waiting for two friends behind him. The other two cyclists were the people we had seen earlier.
From there, we joined the smooth tarmac road and turned off a couple of kilometres down the road onto a cycle track which was to take us around the hills to Dervaig. We stopped for lunch in a grassy area off the track but not before Emily, jokingly, said she hated me (for taking her on such an arduous route. After our picnic lunch, we shot down the muddy track which brought us into the outskirts of the tiny village.
Here, we cycled down the hill to the high street of the village, past a shop called ‘Books & Coffee’ which the hippy owner of our bikes had told us about the eccentric owner who took ages to serve coffees. We were heading to the local shop but it was shut for lunch so we returned to the local Inn, which had been there since 1608, for a drink while we waited for the shop to open for the children to buy chocolate bars.
Outside the Inn, we saw three other bikes which turned out to be those of the other cyclists we had met earlier. They were inside eating. The friendly waitress (a very busty black haired Scots girl) served us our tea and cokes. Once finished, Emily and Toby went to the shop to buy chocolate bars for us all.
Penny and Emily went to the local church nearby to take a look at the stained glass window while I waited for Toby to go to the loo. The church had a spire more like a minaret.
After a slow start, a walk up to the hill fort behind Kate’s Cottage and lunch, we set off via Salen and Dervaig for Calgary Bay on the north western coast of Mull. We only saw two cars and a lorry on the road across the island until we got to Dervaig, which is a small village at the head of a loch. We past some broken down crofts, some by the roadside and others on the far side of the valley we were in.
There were a few more cars as we headed around the coast towards Calgary Bay until we came to the gallery and café before the beach. At one point, we came to a restaurant which we had heard about the day before from the female crew member on the Hoy Lass who was its manager. It was a new building with a good looking seafood menu.
Calgary Bay opens out to view when you pass the café and descend the road to the small car park. The tide was out revealing the wide, sandy beach set in the long bay. There were a few other people on the beach including an American family we had been on the boat with the previous day. Emily and Toby ran to the water’s edge. Toby immediately wanted to swim. We persuaded him that paddling would be better and he soon realised why when he felt the cold, Atlantic water.
Penny and I walked around the beach throwing Archie’s tennis ball for him until we came to some rocks where we stopped and watched the children play in the water. Across the bay, we could see people walking along the coastal path and stop on a stone pier.
Behind us, high on a rocky edge, we could see four Golden Eagles soaring and circling. To our right, about half a mile away, were some tents by a stream which we soon found out was a ‘wild’ camping site.
Soon, we were back at the car and driving around to see the camp site. There, we decided to stay an extra night on Mull so we could camp there on Saturday. We, then, stopped at the café for a cup of tea and for me to log on to the internet.
We drove back towards Tobermory and past a handful of rude drivers who did not thank us for letting them pass by (mainly women, for some reason). In the town, we walked up and down the road looking at boats including a compact cruise liner called ‘Lord of the Glens’ with an older set of passengers. Supper was fresh fish and chips from the stand on the jetty and then a drink at a pub opposite the colourful side of Tobermory, before heading back to the cottage.
We arrived at Ulva Ferry at about 11.15am to catch the ‘Hoy Lass’ to the islands of Staffa and Lunga. At Ulva Ferry, there is a stone jetty from which you can call a ferry to cross the water to The Boathouse restaurant which is no more than two minutes’ journey. To call the ferry, you need to slide a board, which is on the side of a building, to show the red square which notifies the restaurant to come and pick you up.
There were about thirty of us taking the Hoy Lass out to the islands plus three crew members. The skipper was a friendly Scotsman with a dry sense of humour. His assistant turned out also to be the manager of a restaurant between Calgary Bay and Dervaig, further round the coast to the north of Mull. The third crew member happened to be the chef at the same restaurant. They were there to also do some fishing.
We set sail on the boat with half of us on the open, top deck. It was a bright day and the high cloud soon cleared to bring us fine, blue skies for the first leg of our trip. After an hour, we were at Staffa with the skipper giving us views of the wonderful Fingal’s Cave which is made up of hexagonal basalt columns. After the group photo shoot of the cave, the skipper took us to the small pier through the light Atlantic swell where we stepped off one by one.
The National Trust island of Staffa has a steep set of steps leading up onto it to allow you to wander over it. The four of us walked over the near northern side to sit on an outcrop which overlooked a small bay where we watched shags and gulls feeding and swoop around, while we ate our lunch. We had an hour on the island which soon passed before we were back on the Hoy Lass.
Less than an hour later, we came to Lunga, part of the Trish Nish Islands, where the boat came alongside a pontoon tied to a buoy. The crew tied the pontoon to the boat and then untied to pontoon from the buoy, before moving the shore to allow us to get off onto the seaweed covered rocks.
The skipper advised us to walk up the cliffs, past the puffins, onto the area of the cliffs occupied by the shags and gulls, and view the puffins on the way back. He added “Nobody ever listens to that advice, though!” with a wry smile on his face.
He was right. From the shore, we could see the puffins flying from their burrows on the cliffs. On reaching the top of cliffs, we saw hundreds of puffins sitting outside their burrows. I could see why nobody listened to the skippers’ advice. Seeing the puffins was just mesmerising and they were so tame that you could get very close to them to take photos, and the puffins were amusingly obliging models.
It felt very special to be able to see the puffins so close up. We soon decided to move along the coastal path to see the other birds on Lunga. The pathway had puffin burrows either side of it and we could hear the low grumbling noise they made. Some were on rocks or tufts of grass before flying off in their high speed manner.
The path came to cliffs on the northern side on which many gulls had made their nests. Shags were sunning themselves on top of the cliffs. We were taking photographs and video shots as if there was no tomorrow.
Finally, we returned the way we had come to make our way back to the puffin burrows, where we lay down next to some birds which provided us with plenty of material for photographs. A number of our fellow passengers (including Germans and Americans) had some serious cameras and equipment and were taking photos as much as us. The sun was warm and all of us made the most of this little slice of heaven.
We were soon on the shore waiting for the Hoy Lass to come to pick us up again. The skipper had been fishing but had not caught anything. Penny fell over on the rocks and damaged her hand. Back aboard, we were on the top deck and the female crew member came up with the first aid kit to help patch up Penny.
The Hoy Lass took us by the smaller northern islands showing us the Atlantic seals and the remnants of 17th century barracks and a 12th century chapel before winding through the loch back to Ulva Ferry. There were a number of isolated houses on the Mull side of the loch.
By 5.20pm, we were back ashore and walking up the short slope to our car, and an hour later we were back at Kate’s Cottage.
We decided to go to Tobermory for supper and, on the way, we saw a Golden Eagle by the side of the road which was very exciting. For supper, we ate at the local Indian restaurant which was overpriced and not very good. We should have eaten at the quayside fish and chip stall which had scallops and chips at the head of its menu. Still, it had been a wonderfully memorable day and we had fallen more deeply in love with Mull.
Oh, for an extra hour or two in bed, and that’s what we all took. The sun was up and the mist was flowing along the Sound of Mull as we got ourselves ready for another day of exploring the island. On the road between Salen and Gruline we picked up a hitchhiker and dropped him off just past the MacQuarie Mausoleum (Australia’s first Governor). He was planning to walk past Loch Ba and up Beinn Talaidh (761m) and had been camping in Salen.
The road from Gruline which follows the south side of Loch Na Keal provides stunning views and takes you below cliffs which look as though they could come down on you at any time. The road turns south as it passes the island of Inch Kenneth and past secluded houses. One house was flying a Royal Marines flag outside.
The road wound up through the hills and down to follow Loch Scridain. There were few cars but plenty have been catered for judging by the number of passing places provided on all of the islands’ roads. We followed the road around the loch to the Pennyghael post office and shop. It was run by a friendly woman from northern England and we chatted about seeing eagles and otters while buying lunch and a map.
Soon after, we were driving up the “challenging road” to Carsaig on the Firth of Orn. At the end of the road, having past a lone cyclist, the route drops down to an area where only five or six cars can park. Having parked, we had our lunch by the storm damaged pier. In the car park, one couple in a mobile home were struggling to get up the hill but were soon helped by a family in a four wheel drive truck. We soon set off on the coastal path towards the Carsaig Arches near Malcolm’s Point. At Carsaig, there are a handful of houses in the small, green valley. The path takes you along the scree from the cliffs above which occasionally flew some golden eagles and plenty of crows.
Penny and Emily stopped after about an hour of walking while Toby and I pressed to try to reach the Arches. Some way further, I spotted an adder sliding under a stone by the path. I rolled the rock away to show Toby the grey and silver snake which hissed and looked ready to bite, before once more escaping to somewhere shadier and safer. Rounding the next headland, I decided the Arches were too far for us on this trip so we headed back to the girls, and back to the car.
Back in the car, we had to reverse back up the hill, having a similar problem to the earlier mobile home couple. After some clutch burning activity, we headed up the hill again and back to the post office and shop at Pennyghael for a cup of tea and a break.
Our homeward route took us through Glen More towards the beautiful Loch Spelve and Craignure, before stopping in the shop at Salen for supplies.
Mull is stunningly beautiful, wild and moving. We talked about the possibility of moving here to live today and yesterday. It sounds like a pipe dream but it’s one worth thinking about.
From the Crossan ferry to Lochaline, the road takes you through wild, open country for an hour on a single track road through the glacial landscape until you arrive in the small ferry terminal where the friendly port assistant sells you a ticket and briefs you about the short crossing to Mull.
The ferry dropped us off at fishNish, which is not much more than a concrete ramp, and we soon joined the main road on the east of the island, heading north. The road soon turns into a single track with plenty of passing places as it undulates and twists along the coast. Emily & Toby's excitement grew as we saw Tobermory in the near distance and they recounted stories about the characters and scenes from ‘Ballamory’.
In April, Tobermory was surprisingly empty of tourists and its shops were catered not for tatty mementoes and souvenirs but for local art, food and activities. The town has three distinct industries, namely fishing, whiskey and tourism.
Our home for the week, Kate’s cottage, formerly a bothy named after the centenarian occupier in the 1900s, was on the Glenaros estate overlooking the tumbledown castle below.
We've today arrived on the Isle of Mull after a day near Ben Nevis walking and sleeping, writing from a cafe in Tobermory. (The drive up to Fort William through Glencoe was beautiful, wild and inspiring.) We drove from Fort William this morning, took the short ferry ride from Corran and then drove down to Lochaline to take the 15 minute ferry ride across to Mull.
We plan to do some whale watching, bird watching and plenty of walking. It's great to be away from most of it (the internet does reach here!).
Will Hawkins lives in Lincolnshire with his family and is now a magazine editor and occasional adventure cyclist.
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