MULL AND IONA – 3 days on the white sand beaches of wildlife central

 

Mull and Iona are absolute gems. Mull is wildlife central and if you want to see otters and eagles in superb scenery, this is the place.But what has also captured my heart on both islands is their pristine shell sands: as a beach fiend they win me back every time. It is no wonder that this slice of paradise is included in Scotland’s officially recognised ‘Top 40 Outstanding Landscapes’.  On a cold, sunny April morning, the first ferry swept us out beyond Oban bay and into the island – studded Firth of Lorn. Ben Nevis and many of the big peaks of the west central Highlands were crystal clear, rearing 3,000ft out of the sea.Stunning in the cold morning light. We passed close to the lovely island of Lismore with its pristine Lighthouse standing guard over a lonely shore.

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Duart Castle, seat of the Macleans and used in several movies, never fails to impress,  a wonderful introduction to Mull’s southern shores.

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But much as we love this end of the island we were headed to the less visited northwest, a good hour or so’s driving from the peaceful ferry port of Craignure.

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We had spotted the dot on the OS Map that was Langamull Beach, a string of small, shell sand coves, a short walk from a Forestry Car Park. It was an easy 40 minute stroll on a good path on a glorious day, good to stretch the legs after the journey and breathe in the crisp clean air.

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Beyond green machair, the first cove appeared, then another. Deserted, pristine sands and turquoise water with views across the  ocean to Rum and Ardnamurchan Lighthouse, the most westerly point on the UK mainland. Truly magic

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This was our camp spot for the night and there wasn’t a soul around.Bliss. My favourite time of day had arrived – eating time! Preceded of course by a plastic cup (or two) of sparkling wine which I had popped in the river earlier.  Does any Michelin meal taste as good as BBQ’d steak and sausages, Morton’s Rolls and tomato ketchup, as the sun goes down over a mirror- calm sea dotted with islands? The sea really was like a mill pond but thankfully the lack of wind, so common in the evening, didn’t bring the dreaded midges ; the air was still too cold.

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Langamull at 9pm felt like a tiny slice of paradise. An otter swam across the inlet and disappeared amongst the rocks. A curlew’s lonely ‘curl – oo’  broke the silence. C was reading his book and I was scanning the sea with binoculars when incredibly, the unmistakable dorsal fin of a Killer Whale broke the surface about a mile or so offshore. Then another and another appeared…4 in all. Wow! An unforgettable sight.My husband has incredible eyesight and saw them easily without the glasses. They are around these waters but not often seen and almost as soon as they surfaced they were gone into the depths once more.

The sunrise next morning was equally beautiful, the air cold and fresh. After a breakfast of gallons of tea, we decided to explore round the rest of the deserted headland. It took us about 40 minutes to stroll across springy, short cropped grass, skirting low cliffs and inlets to reach the lovely white sand coves of Port na Ba – the white port. Just a few attractive stone cottages, holiday lets most likely, with broad grassy tracks leading to them. 4×4 territory.  Truly, far from the madding crowd. P1000917

At 10am it was with heavy heart that we packed up and headed back to the car.It was another glorious day but I had coffee and cake withdrawal symptoms so the lovely farmhouse cafe and art gallery above Calgary beach beckoned.

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It’s a fine spot to while away half an hour or so.It was nearly lunchtime by now but our snack had filled us up and we were keen to drive the superb single track road past Calgary and round to stunning Loch Tuath (the North Loch) and Loch na Keal (Loch of the Church).This area of Mull is officially ranked one of Scotland’s most beautiful landscapes and in decent weather, lives up to that easily. What few houses there are tend to be traditional stone cottages, beautifully kept. It’s impossible not to stop at Calgary beach. It is beautiful and we were lucky to see a golden eagle pair soar across the bay. Incredibly, my photo turned out not to be the usual blur!

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It is a cracker of a drive up and over to Loch Tuath with coastal  landscape on the grand scale.The Treshnish headland with the islands of Tiree and Coll shimmering on the horizon, looked inviting , as wild and lonely a walking area as you could wish for. We stopped halfway along the road where it heads inland across the emptiest moorland just to get out and enjoy the silence and the air. There are huge tracts of this big island that I do wonder whether anyone has ever walked recently.Lonely, remote country and all the better for it.

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We both drew breath as the car topped the highest point of the road and swept down towards lovely Loch Tuath (pron. too- a ) Ben More rose like a pyramid ahead, three thousand feet straight out of the sea. Ulva and Gometra sat offshore, beautiful and unspoilt islands.

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The Treshnish Isles themselves – haunt of seabirds –  float further out again. Even their names are so evocative : Lunga : The Dutchman’s Cap : Staffa of world renown and which inspired Mendelssohn.Ethereal in shape, uninhabited.A favourite sight – amongst many –  on the western seaboard.

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The West Coast of `Scotland is made up of big sea lochs, making 250 miles of seaboard , closer to 2500 miles. We stopped beyond Ulva Ferry and walked onto some open flat ground to admire the superb view. It would make a magnificent camp spot but is exposed to westerlies. The wind had got up already and the forecast suggested that it would strengthen, so not this time.

In 1.5hrs of driving in February we saw 8 otters along the Loch’s southern shoreline. A rising tide is best. This time, we watched a family of three near a small pontoon.

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They have poor eyesight and if you stay quite still when they come onto the rocks, they may get quite close before they spot you. Loch na Keal is also incredible for sea eagles – enormous birds, more vulture looking than golden eagles, often spotted on the shore too.

Otter , Loch na Keal
Otter , Loch na Keal

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It was a cracking day so we decided to do the long drive out to the Ross of Mull and Iona, an hour or so away. Round the ‘scary’ Gribun headland, with its single track hugging the crumbling cliffs above. Beware falling rocks! Then past a lovely holiday cottage we’d stayed in several times, before the road wound its way high above Balmeanach. You just have to stop and take in the grandeur.

The terraced green flat topped hills of The Wilderness, the Treshnish Isles, Inchkenneth island and Iona are now visible and still very far away. It’s a perfect spot to watch the sunset.

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Even so early in the season, parking was at a premium for the 5min ferry crossing to Iona. But 15mins later we were sailing away from the stunning pink rock and aquamarine seas around tiny Fionnphort, the flat bottomed boat soon bucking a little in the choppy waters. It was busy! Iona is a popular day trip from Oban but the crowds soon disperse on landing. Most head for the Abbey and it is certainly worth seeing,though to my mind, more for its location and the excellent Museum, which houses some ancient and very beautiful Celtic crosses.

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The Abbey itself is a little over restored and untidy inside. The Nunnery itself, a ruin, is more atmospheric.

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But the real gem is the island itself. The village is one of Scotland’s prettiest, a string of traditional sandstone cottages overlooking white sands.

The village

The tiny post office  – ferry arriving in the background.

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The Argyle Hotel is a fine little place and serves excellent chocolate brownies! The Columba Hotel is newer build but has a nice garden to sit out in.

Tea and Brownie at The Argyll Hotel

The real joy is heading out beyond the Abbey, listening to the elusive corncrake krek – kreking in the undergrowth. Walking across the machair to Iona’s North End,takes you through the haunts of the Scottish Colourists who captured the dazzling colours of it’s stunning seascape 100 years ago. Nothing has changed and the sands, especially at low tide, would shame the Caribbean. The sea really is the most incredible green.

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Green Sea, Iona

Mull sits serenely on the horizon with deep lilac shadows etching her cliffs and gullies. Magnificent.

One of Scotland's most beautiful corners
One of Scotland’s most beautiful corners

Dun I (pron. ee) is the highest point on the island at barely 330 feet, a rough track taking you up in 30mins or so. Do it on a clear day for a superb 360 degree panorama of islands from Jura and Islay to Coll and Rum.It’s a difficult spot to leave.

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View from the top, Iona

Finding a good camp for the night was now the priority and Ardalanish Beach was our favoured spot. We had time for a latte and excellent home baking in the Argyll’s lovely garden beside the shore. The owner even offered us a free camp on his lawn if we stayed for dinner! Temptation! But our next lonely, beautiful pitch beckoned despite Iona’s charms.

Iona is a hard island to leave….I always regret saying goodbye to her.

It’s a short drive to the turn off for Uisken and the rough track that is sign posted to Ardalanish. Unfortunately, it’s a heavily crofted and farmed area and there were ‘No Camping’ signs everywhere! A first for Mull. In fact, it was a bit of a Nae Nothin’ area. No cars… no this, no that. A lovely area nonetheless, so we sauntered down to see the beach itself. The sand is quite hard and silvery with the most incredible views to the Paps of Jura.Low green hills fringe the background.A delightful spot.There were 4 other people on the beach….busy for Mull!

Ardalanish Beach and Jura
Paps of Jura from Ardalanish Beach

It was after 5pm by now.There was plenty daylight left, but we’d been up early and had packed quite a bit into the day including the driving.Time to set up for the evening, get the cooking underway and relax. Loch Scridain was looking magnificent in the late afternoon sun as we drove the coastal road back towards Kinloch. The bluebells were out in force, splashing the moorland and roadside verges in lilac, incredibly striking against the deep yellow of gorse and broom.Bluebells

Shalastair was also out – or yellow flag iris as it’s more commonly known; but I like the   sound of the Gaelic word better.

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We decided to head for the north shore of the Loch itself, protected from the strong wind and overlooked by the Ben More range. It makes for a lazy wild camp too and we found a lovely spot just off the single track road, beside the loch. There is such little traffic, especially at night that even so close to the road feels quiet and peaceful.

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Ben More from Loch Scridain’s single track road

We were soon set up and I risked getting out the new camp chairs I had invested in, much to C’s disgust. ‘We’ll be setting up the stove in motorway lay- bys next! ’ says he, eyeing the chairs with horror. However, I am getting to an age where perching on a rock for the evening is not doing my back any good. So…the chairs were getting an airing! Much as it pained him to sit on one, he forced himself to do so, popped his drink in the dinky wee holder and ……we have never looked back! They’ve been used all summer, when we’ve not had a long walk in, a simple pleasure to look forward to at the end of the day. Ah…age doesn’t come alone! Oh, that first tumbler of Cava when the tent is all set up and food is on the go. Magic.More BBQing, this time  venison sausages which we’d picked up in the shop in Fionnphort and very good they were too. Lots of oranges afterwards – my husband goes through about half a ton of these a week and insists on peeling me a few too to stave off the scurvy. A few squares of chocolate marzipan care of Ritter Sport and another fine meal was had on lovely Mull.

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Evening sun, Ben More range

We watched the moon come up in the east, rising above the hills of the island, a bright half moon.It barely gets dark at this time of year but I got up once during the night , emerging into what seemed to be semi daylight, so bright with moonlight you could have walked up Ben More. The stars were faintly visible….none of the pit – dark skies of a new moon in winter when they are sprinkled like glitter and the milky way looks like a thick white cloud. The only benefit of having to get up once a night is seeing the most incredible night skies or the first flush of dawn. Often both. Our last morning dawned bright and calm… midgie hell in fact! On with the new head nets (suffocating to wear ) and a few cups of tea brewed and enjoyed in the car. It was just too awful being outside and a bit of a trial to get packed up and ready to leave. We were headed for the mid morning ferry, as there was a family dinner to sort out later on, with the boys both around for tea. I’m always sorry to leave Mull as the ferry pulls away from Craignure. But we had discovered some new and beautiful spots on this most magical of islands and had seen Iona at her best.Much to be grateful for.

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