How to spend a long weekend on the Isle of Mull

Although just off the Scottish mainland, the Hebridean island of Mull can feel light years away — and its fiercely beautiful coastline and rugged highlands provide ample opportunity to truly escape.

By Ben Lerwill
Published 6 Aug 2019, 08:00 BST
Walking group on the summit of Ben More, Mull
Walking group on the summit of Ben More, Mull.
Photograph by Alamy

On paper, the crossing to the Isle of Mull is a simple journey — a 45-minute car ferry ride from Oban, on Scotland’s west coast, to the small island port of Craignure. In practice, it’s more than that. The world slows a little. The skies expand. Part-way through the crossing, a sea loch furls out to the north and the hills and ridges of Mull come into focus ahead. The British mainland recedes. In more ways than one, the ferry transports you.

Mull is the second-biggest island in the Inner Hebrides, sitting some 30 miles south of the larger, and more visited, Isle of Skye. Its coastline is fiercely beautiful — a world of wild inlets, soft beaches and otter-patrolled bays — and its highlands swell up to above 3,000ft, eulogised by hikers and overflown by eagles. On a fine day, and even on a grey one, Glasgow feels a long way away.    

The most obvious focal point is Tobermory, Mull’s tiny but charming ‘capital’, where a row of gaily painted buildings — several of them pubs — frame a handsome natural harbour. As a result, many visitors see only the northern coastal road between Craignure and Tobermory, which means missing out on a vast part of what makes Mull so magical.

Head further south and the rewards are huge. The roads narrow, the phone reception vanishes and the landscapes broaden. There are castles, cafes, galleries and gardens, but the backdrops dwarf the lot. Some of the views around the Treshnish peninsula and the Ross of Mull are as sweeping and spectacular as you’ll find anywhere in the UK.

A trip here, however, is about more than just Mull itself. It would be a crying shame not to include Iona, the low-lying island off Mull’s southwestern edge, and the uninhabited islet of Staffa, which moved Mendelssohn to write an overture in its honour. Mull and its surrounding islands are full of evocative human stories — not least the 18th- and 19th-century Highland Clearances, which saw the local population forcibly evicted by landowners — but the overriding motif of any visit lies in the work of Mother Nature.

For the eagle-eyed
The white-tailed sea eagle, often referred to as a ‘flying barn door’ thanks to its eight-foot wing span, is the UK’s largest bird of prey. The species disappeared from Scotland around 100 years ago but has since been successfully reintroduced. Join Mull Eagle Watch, a non-profit venture, to within binocular-distance of a nest, explaining the eagles’ habits and showing what makes the birds so renowned among wildlife-lovers. Book in advance. Runs from April to September.

Hit the town
Wander the brightly hued harbourfront, then follow the woodland trail into nearby Aros Park, before returning to town. Eat at one of the pubs or tuck into battered scallops and chips from the waterside fish and chip van. Looking for a place to bed down? On the slopes above town, Strongarbh House is an elegant four-room hotel with a library full of art books and a tempting selection of single malts.

Walks of art
The sheltered beach at Calgary is among the most popular spots on the island — but there’s more to admire than its pale sands. Calgary Art in Nature is an outdoor installation of locally inspired artworks, designed to create a thought-provoking walking tour with fantastic views.   

Take a hike

Treshnish Coastal Circular
Regularly described as Mull’s most scenic coastal walk, this four-hour circular trail winds around part of the Treshnish peninsula, passing old crofters’ villages and a cave once used for making whisky. You’ll find parking at the side of the B8073, a couple of miles from Calgary Beach.

Ben More
The only Munro (a Scottish mountain over 3000ft) outside of Skye and the mainland, and the highest point on Mull, Ben More is unique in that any ascent has to start from sea level. The simplest route is an up-and-down from Loch na Keal, but hardy hikers will enjoy the scramble up A’Chioch ridge.

Carsaig Arches
This wonderfully secluded  six-hour route begins at Carsaig Pier, leading you beneath tall sea cliffs on the island’s south coast and finishing at a pair of impressive natural arches. Expect wildlife sightings and take care on the exposed section between the two arches.

Photograph by Visit Scotland, Paul Tomkins

The Wild Isles

When porpoises appear over breakfast, you know it’s going to be a good day. I’m tackling a plate of smoked trout and scrambled eggs at the enjoyably unpretentious Argyll Hotel, on the Isle of Iona, when I look towards the water and spot three porpoises, their dark backs gleaming. Beyond them lies Mull, washed in sunshine. The animals swim slowly, taking their time. They have the right idea.

People have been making the pilgrimage from Mull to Iona for close to 1,500 years, ever since an Irish missionary — now known as St Columba — arrived in AD 563 and used the island as a base from which to spread Christianity across Scotland. The island’s abbey, built on the site of St Columba’s monastery, continues to draw pilgrims. On my first night here, I follow a pub tip and end up at a 9pm service. There are chants, candles and Celtic crosses. It’s stirring stuff.

Iona by day is no less meditative. I walk out to the broad sands known as the Bay at the Back of the Ocean, where eider ducks are my only company. I spend an hour wandering out to the remote beach at St Columba’s Bay, where the waves roll in off the Atlantic and oystercatchers quickstep on the shore. And I climb the grassy hill of Dun I, where the sunset views are shared with a herd of stoic sheep and the ‘crek-crek’ rattle of corncrakes.

The next day, I board a small boat heading out to Staffa, a striking little island jutting out of the sea on hexagonal basalt columns. We pass a colony of seals, lying fat and placid on rocks, then follow a trail up to the clifftops. Puffins are fussing around in their dozens. “They like humans,” says the boat captain, explaining why the birds are happy to waddle by just feet away. “The gulls and skuas clear off when we’re around.”       

The region’s wildlife generally does the opposite of clearing off. Back on Mull, I watch a golden eagle soaring above the hills, its fanned wings outstretched. Wild goats stare from under curved horns; great northern divers shape and shimmy offshore; wheatears and herons appear almost everywhere I go.

The best moment of all is when I drive along the road leading from Loch Beg to Salen. In the honeyed light of late afternoon, the views are near-celestial, and I pull over to gaze at the quiet hills and bays. The evening is still — all greens, golds and blues — and, as if on cue, an otter emerges, brown fur spiked and wet. For 10 minutes I watch it dive and feed, the water rippling as the day dissolves. Mull shivers with life — and it knows how to conjure moments that stay with you.

How to do it
Macs Adventure offers a seven-night ‘Walking & Wildlife on Mull and Iona’ package from £755 per person, including ferry crossings, a guidebook and B&B accommodation throughout, with three nights on Iona and four on Mull. Package available between March and October.

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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