Isle of Mull - great for seafood, sea eagles and sea views
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. Think about it.
Isle of Mull
Muile in the quotation above is pronounced 'moo-la' and the song 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.
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.
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.
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 Prince Charles (though I hope he got a bigger portion of scampi than I did). Wait while the fish is handcooked to order, then find a spot amongst the creels and detritus of a working fishing pier to eat it.
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 here.)
Tobermory’s al fresco fish and chips are just about a Mull must see, or rather, must experience. The van even has a special Les Routiers award, in a category all of its own. 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.
Isle of Mull Touring
OK, can we get the boots on, bring out the right map of Mull (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.
Alternatively, sit back in comfort and explore Mull on a three day tour with a highly recommended tour company. That way, you can spend your time looking for those eagles, instead of navigating! You spend two nights in Tobermory - and you get to go to Iona as well.
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 photogenic but otherwise sad hulks of abandoned fishing boats by the bay, then west to Loch na Keal. This is a noted haunt of sea eagles, though 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.
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 eventually started to refer to them as ‘flying doors’ as the big dark square wings made them look like, well, doors in the sky.
Since then, they seem to have grown in the promotional tourism literature, which is often written by non-birdy types anyway. So the eagles are now ‘flying barn doors’ and next year I expect them to be described as flying football pitches, double-decker buses or jumbo jets.
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 and 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 in close-up (pictured here) - 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
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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 Fingal’s Cave (you know, dum-dum-diddle-dum-dum – Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and all that) from Ulva Ferry. 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. But there is another ‘must see’ and that is the island of Iona.
Oh, and the Scotland island accommodation page gives a few hints on where you might want to stay if visiting Mull. 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.