Under Hebridean Skies

Ok, so it’s not that Germany lacks nature: there are broadleaved forests galore, meadows, lush river valleys and of course the wonders of the Alps, the Black Forest and the Bayerischer Wald. But somehow, in Germany, nature can sometimes seem just a little too structured, over-manicured and somewhat overpopulated with visitors. For real, wild nature, big empty skies, tangled coastlines, deserted beaches and true emersion in the raw elements, I sometimes just need to head North and West and back to the Hebrides – far away from the purveyors of hectic, routine and “ordnung” to a place where winds, ocean swells and tidal streams dictate timescales and schedules instead of just smartphones or school term times.

In May we spent a fantastic week on the Isle of Mull, based around the colourful coastal town of Tobermory. This picturesque little gem of a place was made famous to a whole generation of millennium toddlers as the setting for the kiddies cult TV series “Balamorie” – it was also responsible for providing the name for one of the esteemed 1970s “Wombles” characters.  With such credentials it’s hard not to fall instantly in love with Tobermory; it’s got a nice laid-back Hebridean feel about it, with cheerful multi-coloured houses clustered around a sheltered anchorage with working fishing boats tied up at the quay, shops selling all manner of nautical bric-a-brac for yachties, atmospheric pubs offering occasional live music, eclectic eateries and a burgeoning selection of wee craft shops selling paintings and pottery depicting the place.

Despite its apparent quaintness, however, within a few minutes from the town you can walk the famous “lighthouse path” along the unfolding, precipitous coastline through ancient woodlands bedecked with bluebells, primroses and wild garlic – suddenly to emerge into a different and more elemental world – a world of rock, sea and sky with sweeping views across the Sound of Mull to the distant Hills of Ardnamurchan and beyond; this is the quintessential  sense of “islandness” described and observed by many writers and wilderness enthusiasts such as Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley.

From the lighthouse you might well be rewarded with views of some of Mull’s famous and often, not so elusive, wildlife. Sea eagles, reintroduced to the Hebrides 30 years or so ago, nest on the lofty cliff tops and headlands around Ardmore Point whilst minky whales, basking sharks, bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises patrol the waters of the Sound.  Common and grey seals abound and otters can often be seen foraging close to the shore amongst the rocks and kelpbeds, searching for fish, crabs and other tasty morsels. All this abundance of wildlife has spurned a burgeoning ecotourism business on the Isle of Mull with wildlife watching trips being a favourite for many visitors; indeed there are now more wildlife watching boats than fishing boats moored in Tobermory harbour these days. We decided to take a boat trip from Tobermory with “Staffa Tours” out to the Treshnish Islands, a small volcanic chain of rocky outcrops scattered in a line across a peacock coloured sea of turquoise and aquamarine.

Lunga, the biggest of the Treshnish Islands is home to a large breeding colony of puffins. These cheerful, comical, little characters are one of our most endearing seabirds. They spend many months, or even years, at sea before returning to breed on small coastal islands such as Lunga which offer some protection from natural predators and access to rich fishing grounds. The puffins rear a single chick in an underground burrow. Needless to say ecotourism is now bringing more human visitors to their remote nesting grounds, however the puffins seem to positively welcome this development – the tourists scare away predatory seabirds such as skewers, which would otherwise wish to rob them of their hard earned catch of sand eels or even possibly take the young chicks from the nests.

The resourceful puffins therefore actively wait for the tourist boats to disgorge their human cargo before retuning to their nest sites; a clever ploy, which offers them a degree of protection from the predatory skewers or bonxies (as they are known in this part of the World). The puffins seem remarkably amiable and tolerant of humans. It’s therefore not so difficult to get super quality pictures of puffins as you can literally get within a couple of metres of them without causing alarm. My kids loved the chance to do a bit a close-up wildlife photography with some very convincing results to match anything produced by the BBC Blue Planet team (well maybe).

Close by the puffin nesting area is an impressive sea stack occupied by over 20,000 other breeding seabirds which include guillemots, razorbills and shags. The high-rise sea stack community is generally a much noisier and more hectic residence than the more gentile clifftop lawns of the puffins,  but the overall effect is stunning as the birds wheel around the stack, borne aloft on rising oceanic air currents. Lunga is also impressive for its surprisingly rich and lush flora with sea pinks (thrift), bluebells, sea campion and vibrant yellow kidney vetch abounding everywhere amongst a rich green sward of maritime grasses.

There is also a derelict settlement on Lunga where the remains of several ruined blackhouses can be seen at the North East corner of the island. These used to provide an isolated home to a community of around 20 people who scratched a basic living from their harsh surroundings through grazing cattle, crofting and fishing – enduring storms, salt spray and the wild seas through the long dark months of winter. It’s an evocative scene walking amongst the crumbling remains of the derelict buildings which face out to sea towards Mull and thinking about the simple Gaelic speaking people who once lived here. This is a scene echoed all across Mull, where extensive ruined townships bear testimony to the harsh realities and injustices of the Clearances during the 1800s. These were some of the most extreme in the Highlands, with landless poor including children, the frail and the terminally ill literally burned out of their cottages to be shipped off to the New World. Meanwhile a brutal and uncaring aristocracy obsessed with economic self-betterment washed their hands of blame, as the emigrant ships disappeared over the horizon.

Fortunately that tide has now firmly turned due to, amongst other things, the Scottish Land Reform process which is creating a new generation of community land owners across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Just before our visit to Mull, it was announced that the North West Mull Community Forestry Trust had been successful in its acquisition of the 2000ha Island of Ulva for social, environmental and economic regeneration purposes. Before the Clearances the island once boasted a population of 800, which in recent years has now dwindled to a mere handful. During my visit I had a chance to talk to the Community Trust about their plans for the environmental regeneration and repopulation of Ulva which I found very inspitational and reassuring. On the way back to Tobermory from Lunga, we also made landfall on Staffa with its superb columns of hexagonal basalt lava. These bear a close similarity to the Giants Causeway just across the sea in nearby County Antrim. (I wrote previously about a visit to Staffa and Iona also on this blog).

Back in Tobermory and new adventures awaited; after exploring some of NW Mull including beautiful Calgary Bay, which is responsible for the origins of its namesake in Canada, we wanted to get out to the famous lighthouse at the end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. This marks the most Westerly point of mainland Britain, though many falsely assume that it’s actually Land’s End. It’s a short ferry trip from Tobermory to Kilchoan, a small, quiet village located near the end of the Peninsula. Although joined to the mainland, Ardnamurchan itself feels more like an island than Mull, it being otherwise physically isolated by mile upon mile of narrow, twisting single-track road. It’s a short but slow drive out to the lighthouse on the tortuous, winding road – at last the lighthouse is sighted and a huge panorama opens up across the Western seaboard. We opted to take a tour of the lighthouse itself; from the top distant the islands of the Hebrides appear to hover above the horizon due to an optical trick of the light; Barra, South Uist, Muck, Eigg, Rum and the Black Cuillins of Skye are all visible. The waters around the Point are also a great spot for whale and dolphin watching.

Whilst in Ardnamurchan, one place I had to get to was nearby Sanna Bay, famous for its beautiful white shell sand beaches and machair; a type of species-rich meadow found only in the Hebrides. I have a picture on my wall of Sanna Bay by Scottish landscape painter Jolomo; the image is alive with energy and colour; the foreground capturing a sunlit sea of aquamarine and turquoise and the latent motion of the outgoing tide. Meanwhile brooding storm clouds gather ominously over distant Rum in the backdrop – the ever changing interplay of light and shade of the Hebrides, reflected also in the personality of region’s people, their music and their culture (ranging from pure joy to the depths of despair in rapid succession).

I promised that one day I would take the kids there to see this magical place and just to show them that the colours shown in the Jolomo print were actually the genuine article and not merely a figment of the artist’s imagination. And undoubtedly they are real ! Intense colours alone, however, don’t do justice to the full wonder of this place with its vast, open seascapes, its cheerful chorus of skylarks and meadow pipits and the endless song of the surf eternally caressing the shell sand beach. To get to Sanna Bay you also have the added adventure of driving through the remnants of the Ardamurchan volcano, a stunning geological feature dating from the Tertiary period and one which is clearly visible from space. Along with the Mull, Rum and Skye volcanoes, lava erupting from this feature helped long ago to create the distinctive landforms and islands of the inner Hebrides.

So it was back again to Tobermory and all to soon, however, week on Mull was drawing to a close. It was time to make our way back to the mainland and then onwards to that even bigger “outside world”; the one the Gaels referred to less affectionately as “the Crowded River”, that great bustling tide of humanity stretching out across the Continent of Europe. Already though I’m thinking about other adventures and other islands to explore – I think that the Hebrides must hold a special place in my soul. Which island will it be next time: Coll (Katie Morag’s island) ? Tiree (for sail boarding and sunshine) ? Barra (for super beaches) ? Colonsay (for quiet unspoiled beauty and a unique bee population) or the Uists perhaps (for bogs, corncrakes and machair) ? The choice is endless; time marches ever onwards but there are still many places to discover and many more miles to go…

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