Isle of Mull – attractive alternative to Skye

Great for seafood, sea views and sea eagles

The Isle of Mull is fun. It’s got great seafood, slow roads, boat trips, otters, whales and sea eagles so big they blot out the sky (according to some tourist literature). Rugged and atmospheric, it’s a good alternative to increasingly crowded Skye.

“Sing ye o the Cuillins of Skye / Of Harris or Eigg or fair Iona / Joy of my heart Isle of Muile”

‘Muile’ in the quotation above is pronounced ‘moo-la’ and the song quoted here affectionately describes the pull of the Isle of Mull – Scotland’s fourth-largest island.

It’s big and empty, and beautiful in a poignant way – or it certainly feels like that as you swing your way over the seemingly endless single-track road that leads across the Ross of Mull, at the south end, and ends at the Iona ferry.

Isle of Mull, formerly ‘The Officers’ Mess’

Decades ago, Mull also acquired the nickname of ‘The Officers’ Mess’ as a reference to the numbers of ex-military folk from other parts who came here to live out a prosperous if slightly isolated retirement.

Many of that generation are no longer around, but Mull is still a place where the tongue of the Muilach (Mull native) is eclipsed by accents from elsewhere.

In that sense it is no different to other parts of the western seaboard of Scotland.

Part of the waterfront of Tobermory 'capital' of the Isle of Mull
Part of the very pleasant Tobermory waterfront.

Isle of Mull For Foodies

Mull today, from a visitor point of view, has plenty in its favour.

As mentioned on the Mull ferry page, the seafood preoccupation of the ferry-port of Oban, the island’s main gateway, whets the appetite for the menu on the island itself.

Mull is no culinary backwater – the dining choice in Tobermory (waterfront pictured), for example, is excellent for a town with a population of only 700.

And at least one restaurant has its own boat, with the catch landed more or less at the kitchen door.

Tobermory fish and chips
Famous (over-hyped?) fish and chips on the Tobermory pier.
Fish and chips - Tobermory pier
Consuming famous fish and chips on the pier

And if you decide that more squat lobsters, or scallops or, anyway, another meal at, say, Cafe Fish or the MishDish is just going over the budget, then there is always the famous Fish and Chip Van on Tobermory’s Fisherman’s Pier, (back view of it, pictured here).

It is patronised by plenty of local yachtie folk and also, in its day, yon King Charles mannie when he was but a prince (though I hope he got a bigger portion of scampi than I did). Actually, read the TripAdvisor reviews.

Wait while the fish is cooked to order, then find a spot amongst the creels and detritus of a working fishing pier to eat it. (Am I making this sound like a must-do Mull experience? Hmm.)

We found the boxes, ropes etc were ideal to discreetly keep out of sight the drinks bought from the local Co-op! (Faintly decadent picture above.) 

Alternatively, and even cheaper, for lunch buy a Cornish pasty from the Tobermory Bakery and picnic on it in a secluded spot. The Isle of Mull has plenty of those.

Now, look what’s happened. I’ve got side-tracked by all this food available on the Isle of Mull. Still, must mention An Tobar as well. It’s the local arts centre with cafe and small shop up one level behind the sea-front.

Friendly folk and the best coffee, plus lovely views across the bay when the sun shines.

But, best of all is strolling the waterfront, scanning menus and making your restaurant choice. It’s almost like…being abroad!

(Wait, though, for some readers it will be abroad, obviously.)

Mull signpost
Mull signpost on the single-track A849. Ben More in the distance.

Isle Of Mull Touring

OK, can we get the boots on, and bring out the right map of Mull? If you still prefer paper, then it’s covered by no less than three OS Landrangers – grrrr… and get into the hinterland, please?

First of all, as mentioned on the Mull ferry page, the island roads demand care.

Work out the mileage to a place, estimate a time you would take, then double it – not just because the going is pleasantly slow but because you’ll probably be stopping for photography, sea eagles (we’ll get to them in a minute) and other scenic distractions.

Sea Eagles, En Route For Ulva

I think we should go to the little island of Ulva. The ‘quickest’ way is via Salen, past the much photographed but otherwise sad hulks of abandoned and gradually disintegrating fishing boats by the bay, then west to Loch na Keal.

This is a noted haunt of sea eagles. Having said that, other than, say, the games room of the isle of Mull ferry, just about everywhere around here is as well.

I’ll be frank. We didn’t see any on our last trip. But, boy, did we look. And those common-as-anything buzzards caused us to drive up the verge a few times and fumble for field-glasses.

Abandoned fishing boats, Salen
Abandoned and disintegrating fishing boats, Salen, isle of Mull.

You’ll read in the local tourist guides and brochures (for instance) that the re-introduced sea eagle (the fourth largest eagle and a close relative of the American bald eagle) is sometimes called ‘the flying barn door’.

I recall that after they were first reintroduced (to the nearby Isle of Rum, in 1975), jocular birdwatchers referred to them as ‘flying doors’ as the big dark square wings made them look like, well, doors in the sky. A useful and pretty accurate analogy.

Since then, they seem to have grown in the promotional tourism literature, which is often written by non-birdy types anyway. Typical.

So you can now read that the eagles are ‘flying barn doors’ and next year I expect them to be described as flying football pitches, double-decker buses or jumbo jets.

Windy morning in August at the head of Loch na Keal, isle of Mull
Windy morning in August at the head of Loch na Keal, isle of Mull
Griben Cliffs, Mull
Griben Cliffs, Mull
A Mull Corniche

The road round the north side of Loch na Keal leads by the head of the loch then on the south side reaches the impressive corniche-like road by the Griben Cliffs.

These rocky ramparts are a reminder of the Isle of Mull’s wild profile.

Looking across from the north side of the loch it’s hard to believe a road threads round these steep faces (pictured above).

But it does, via Glen Seilisdeir, a good place for sea eagles, and down to Loch Scridain, a good place for etc.

For now let’s stick to the north side of Loch na Keal, as we are heading for the little island of Ulva.

Exploring The Island Of Ulva, now community owned

Anyway, there’s the sign for Ulva. You get the ferry across by turning a white square (on a noticeboard – pictured) red. The ferryman sees it, puts down his home baking and comes across for you. (Pictured here.) 

It’s very charming, as indeed, is the home baking and the rest of the menu at the Boathouse on the island, (also in the picture, background) in this remote spot surely one of the most perilous (but worth supporting) enterprises, on Mull.

The drive is worth it for the mackerel pate alone.

How to summon the Ulva ferry.
How to summon the Ulva ferry.
Ulva ferry
Ulva Ferry en route

But we are here to walk and Ulva thoughtfully provides mossy mellowed signs to encourage this. (One actually says ‘the sea, the sea’, and was perhaps carved by a fan of the novelist Iris Murdoch. I wonder how many get the reference?)

You can walk all day here, leaving the sheltering woodlands behind for the starker interior. Nice wild flowers and they also have a rare burnet moth as a speciality. (Nope, didn’t see it.)

Make sure you note the last ferry time though – and the cafe closes earlier than that, probably having run out of lemon drizzle cake. (Ulva manages to be faintly decadent and rugged at the same time.)

Ulva view
Ulva view, looking back to the main island of Mull

There is plenty of walking choice actually on Ulva – but don’t miss that ferry to get back to your car! That way you can circle back to Tobermory in time for dinner.

In the summer of 2018, the island of Ulva was bought by the local community. Hurrah.

The hills of Mull from Ulva.
The hills of Mull from Ulva.

From Ulva back to Tobermory via Dervaig

We’ll come back to Tobermory via Loch Tuath and Calgary, the latter a famous strip of silvery sand. The cliffs above the bay are noted for their….well, you’ll know by now. (Look out for something huge, blocking out the sun, like in the movie Independence Day.)

Calgary Bay
Calgary Bay

The road then snakes over to Dervaig, passing on the way the arrestingly modern building that holds Am Birlinn Restaurant.

If you’ve done the research for the trip, then you’ll know it’s the same folk who run Turus Mara boat trips.

They go to Staffa to see the famous Fingal’s Cave (you know…dum-dum-diddle-dum-dum – Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and all that).

Ulva Ferry is their departure point. Staffa is a really good place to see puffins in Scotland on the west coast.

By the way, Turus Mara is one of few tourism activity operations on Mull run by an indigenous family – so you get an extra cultural and heritage dimension – and they know their way around, having done it for more than 40 years.

They also have excursions to the Treshnish Islands and Iona and have a courtesy bus for pick-ups from Tobermory. Great for birdwatchng and whalespotting.

Boat trips, one way or another, are another Isle of Mull ‘must do’. The waters round the island have some impressive cetacean sightings every year. (Not a phrase that’s easy to see after a few drams.)

But there is another ‘must see’ and that is the island of Iona.

And one more thing….consider visiting Mull along with Ardnamurchan. Follow that link for more. The Isle of Mull is one of a huge choice of Scottish islands.