Isle of Mull – An Autumn Treat

It’s taken me an age to get around to writing this post – must try harder! Towards the end of October I returned to the scene of some of my happiest times during my year off in 2011/12; the Isle of Mull. It wasn’t the first Scottish Island I’d visited, Islay and Jura came first, but this really was the place that kicked off my long, interrupted, odyssey around the Hebrides and Northern Isles.

I had promised myself not to return to previously visited islands until I’d been to all the larger islands or archipelagos but I had a choice – Shetland in October or a return trip to a previous spot.  Of those I’d been to before, Mull was an easy choice; it’s relatively easy to get to, it’s less exposed than others to those autumn storms, and it’s just that little bit more cosy than some of the others.

I’ll stop talk about ‘I’ now as there were two of us on this trip, and that was another reason for choosing Mull. One of us hadn’t been there before and it was somewhere I had a good chance of playing the ‘Wildlife Guide’ for a week having previously spent a fortnight getting to know the place very well, or at least some of the best wildlife-watching spots.

The route to Mull was quite simple for us, up the M6 to the Border, past Glasgow and over the Erskine Bridge and then alongside the lovely Loch Lomond. Just past the northern shoreline, we turned left and headed west to Oban, where was found a lovely bright autumnal day. Having arrived early for our booked ferry we tried to get on an earlier one but in the end we were grateful that we didn’t. The short crossing to Craignure, only an hour, was spent up on the deck and we were given a spectacular view towards the setting sun with light shining between the heavy, brooding, rain-laden clouds.

Another reason for deciding on Mull was the cottage we found. I can very honestly say that it was the best holiday cottage I’ve stayed in and by quite some margin. That’s no reflection on some of the other great places I’ve stayed, rather it’s just that the Old Little Theatre at Dervaig is unique. We arrived as dark was descending so we didn’t get a great view of the outside but on opening the front door and walking in, it was even better than the photos had shown. It was once the smallest professional theatre in the world and, essentially, just a small stone garage-type building. Now it has been extended with the addition of several modern rooms at the front and sides, to make a stylish but quirky holiday home. Whilst it is in many ways very modern, it still has little touches of its old use with theatrical flourishes and artefacts dotted around the inside. The single bedroom has a huge floor to ceiling picture window which enables you to lie in bed looking out across a lovely wide, flat-bottomed river valley. The place is just about perfect!

With six full days on the island, we spent them looking for wildlife and at the scenery, despite the mixed weather. The rain and wind with some occasional sunnier weather were not exactly unexpected conditions for the Hebrides in the autumn. Our first full day was our only really perfect one, weatherwise, and our visit to the main town, Tobermory, included a sit on a quayside bench in the surprisingly warm autumn sun. We then did a big loop of the island driving around clockwise on the main road down towards the Ross of Mull before turning right onto the north side of Loch Scridain. There are actually two loops, a northern and a southern, which intersect at a short cut-through from Salen on the east coast to Gruline on Loch Na Keal on the west coast. On that first day, we did both loops, driving almost the entire road around the island but missing out the Ross. This then became a familiar route with parts of the loops done most days in amongst other activities. 

For much of the route around the island, the road picks its way along the edge of sounds and lochs, sometimes coming inland to rise up through mountain passes. The road is often just a single track with passing places but there are sections of standard single carriageway along the east and southern sides of the island, making journeys a little quicker than along the west and north coasts. The scenery is dominated by hills and mountains as well as the hugely indented coastline. There is a mixture of green pasture and high grassy hillsides with many of the valley bottoms swathed in damp oak woodland. The autumn had brought an orange and yellow tinge to the views with the oaks and larches vibrant amongst the rusty-turned grasses and bracken. 

For me, the most memorable moment of our rambling journeys around the island was on the last day. We were getting a bit desperate in our searching for an otter; we’d looked in all the places I’d had success before but without even a momentary glimpse. My otter-sense, which has worked very well on Mull and Skye preciously, was letting me down. We’d stopped at a pull-in to the north of Salen quite a few times, or so it seemed, but we had to give it one last chance. The conditions were just about perfect for otter spotting; a low tide and still, calm waters. We spent a little while scanning the water and were just about to give up when I spotted some movement in between some little, seaweed topped islets. I thought it would probably be just a rock, again, or another sea-going Mallard but after blinking a couple of times I was sure. The three little blobs in a row were unmistakable; an ottery head, back and tail. It didn’t take long for it to roll head first/tail last down under the surface and disappear. We thought that might have been it but we spotted it again a minute or two later coming around the far side of the larger of the islets. There we watched it for what must have been at least an hour; otters seem to have some kind of time-bending capabilities. It spent a lot of time climbing on and off the seaweed covered rocks and fishing in the shallows. At one stage a group of Brent geese approached but were soon paddling off when they spotted the otter close by. Eventually, we had to leave and we moved on as the otter disappeared below the surface and behind the islets again.

That spot north of Salen was like looking at one of those nature reserve information boards that has the view painted behind a selection of all the creatures you had even a slight chance of seeing but usually don’t. In this case, we were blessed with a view of so many of those creatures actually out there where they are supposed to be. In addition to the otter was a wide selection of birdlife. From the waders feeding at the water’s edge, curlew and redshank, and the range ducks, including mallard, widgeon and a solitary eider, to a few gulls and the ever-present herons. The corvids were there too with quite a few hooded crows picking amongst the seaweed and a raven cronking overhead. A few more water birds were dotted about with red-breasted mergansers in the outfall from the river into the sea and that small group of Brent geese passing through on migration. In the trees around where we were standing were newly arrived winter thrushes, with the redwings ‘seeping’ and fieldfares cackling. I have to admit, I do keep a record of the wildlife I see, not just birds but mammals, butterflies and amphibians too. I do so, not simply to have a ever-growing list of ticks, but to note just how rich, or otherwise, an area’s wildlife is. At that particular spot, I could see from all the species, just how rich in wildlife a place Mull really is. All the scene really needed was an eagle or two to fly across above us, and it would have been complete; if we’d stayed a bit longer, maybe we’d have see one!

The other memorable mammalian moment was on the second full day on the island when we went on a three hour boat trip from Tobermory Harbour out into the Sound of Mull and and beyond towards and past Coll. We spent quite some time looking for groups of feeding seabirds and finding many, with large groups of gulls and auks feeding on fish at and below the surface. Suddenly there appeared a minke whale amongst them and we watched for quite a few minutes while it surfaced and dived. The scene of the whale and the feeding birds was made even more wild by the sense of being surrounded by so many of the Scottish islands; Jura, Tiree, Coll, Barra, South Uist, Eigg, Muck, Rum and Skye as well as the Ardnamuchan Peninsula.

Our trip was slightly hampered by me being ill throughout the stay and we didn’t do much walking at all because of that but it was lovely just to drive around the island stopping at familiar spots to look at the scenery and watch the wildlife. Eventually, our time on the island had to come to an end and it was with heavy hearts that on a dark morning we closed the door to the Little Old Theatre behind us. I usually avoid talking about the journey home from holidays but this one was particularly memorable. The sun rose just as we got to the ferry terminal and the light revealed glassy still waters and snowy mountain tops. As we pulled out of Craignure, Mull looked fabulous in its autumn finery. Once on the mainland, the scenery was just as spectacular with deep valleys swathed in rusty yellows and oranges with snow scattered over the peaks. It was hard not to want to stop every mile or so to get out and stare at the views but it was a long journey home and we had to press on.

I don’t like to pick favourites amongst the Scottish islands, they are all beautiful in their different ways. However, Mull was an easy choice to return to and it turned out just about a perfect decision.