Reluctantly about to end my time mulling things over on Mull, I’m lined up for theÂ ferry back to mainland Scotland andÂ staring in wonder at the hydraulics involved: this must be how Jonah felt – if Jonah had a car, that is.
This being the UKÂ traditionÂ generally dictates that breakfast at a B&B is equally important, if not more so, than the bed. To be considered proper it must be cooked, too: eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms and invariably some type of fried bread. But if you look at the small letters at the bottom of the breakfast menu at Harbour View B&B you can also opt for a Thai Breakfast, which turns out to be a mutable thing, dependent on the whims of the market and the chef for that matter. (This being an island off the coast of an island off the coast of continental Europe, creativeÂ substitutionsÂ for certain Thai ingredients must often be made) After expressing an interest in Thai food, however, my hostess, Swan Tomkinson, took a certain vested interest in me. “It’s spicy, you know,” she told me on the first morning, trying to warn me off a plate of scrambled eggs with rice and curried rashers. “I love Thai,” I countered. “The spicier the better.” And with that she recognized a kindred spirit:Â “I will cook you real Thai food.” Over the next five days a challenge ensued. Each day I would ask forÂ somethingÂ unattainable for breakfast theÂ followingÂ morning -Â green papaya salad one day, pad prik king another – and she would counter with a pretty good approximation,Â for exampleÂ substituting cucumbers in place of the green papaya and adding an extra dose of the Thai basil which grows prodigiously in her garden. OnÂ day four I was surprised with a plate of larb, the spicy ground pork salad popular in northeastern Thailand. “I’veÂ been craving larb but had nobody to share it with,” Swan confided, revealing aÂ pang ofÂ longingÂ every stranger in a strange land must eventually feel. “Cooking for people makes me happy,” she was quick to add. “Especially food that they like.” Like Thai, I gestured, pushing a plate of freshly picked herbs out of the way, inviting Swan to join me in the most unexpected – and tastiest – Â breakfast of my life. “One time, a Russian couple came into the kitchen as I was cooking dinner for me and Alan,” she began. “I was making Beef Stroganoff and they said the smell reminded them of home. ‘Could we have the leftovers for breakfast,’ they asked me.” She laughed at the memory. “Yes,Â I said, I will make you Beef Stroganoff for breakfast.”
For a hiking trip there’s been aÂ suspiciousÂ lack of physical activity noted on this site over the past two weeks, wouldn’t you say? Time to fix that today with a straight climbÂ upÂ highest hill on Mull. AllÂ mountainsÂ have a certain magnetic attraction for those who enjoying a good harrumph, but Ben More has more than you’d suspect. At 3,172 feet, the peak is a true beauty because every inch of it is climbedÂ fromÂ sea level and that’s a rarity. Plus, the views fromÂ theÂ top are spectacular. Beneath the summit are the glens and table-lands carved by retreating glaciers some 10,000 years ago. Eastwards across the sea are the serriedÂ mainlandÂ mountains; to the north, the sawtooth peaks of Rum and Skye; southwards, the Paps of Jura; and if you lookÂ westwardÂ on a clear day, you can almost seeÂ as far as Ireland. Bound by lochs on either side – and Iona and Staffa seemingly close enough to touch – theÂ panoramaÂ is superb. (Double click each image for a greater sense of scale.) Many hikers mistakenly assume Ben More is a volcano. It is not,Â despiteÂ the picturesque “smoking” that often appears near the summit. In fact, it is a much rarerÂ phenomenon: a highly magnetic mountain. Extruded 55 million years ago, the iron-rich basalt is so strongly magnetic thatÂ chippingsÂ will jump on to a proffered magnet. MoreÂ importantly, compass readings can’t be trusted, particularly at the summit, whichÂ has been struck by lightning and remagnetized so often that readings vary enormously even within a few feet. AnotherÂ surpriseÂ is the lack of a well-marked trail, which led to more than a few heated discussions on the extended hike up – all of which evaporated into thin air once we had summited and, more to the point, returned back to ground level unscathed.
Have you ever heard of squat lobster? I hadn’t until today. Tiny little buggers the size of langoustines, they’re not lobsters at all. In fact, they’re more closely related to hermit crabs. At a small cafe on the ferry pier in Tobermory, however, a waitress assured me they were good and indeed, she was more than right: Â poached then tossed in a light Marie Rose sauce and served on a warm baguette with a spritz of lemon, theÂ sweet and tender squats made for the most satisfying sandwich I’ve had in recent memory. Later that evening I ventured back to visit the Cafe Fish directly upstairsÂ and noticed razor clams featured on the specials board. Who could resist?
Staffa is another of the uninhabited Treshnish islands. Like Lunga it is home to hundreds of seabirds, yet it’s better known for the magnificent basalt columns which at first glance seem to rise out of the sea like pilings. The effect is almost overwhelming at An Uamh Binn, or Fingal’s Cave as it is more commonly known, which is formed completely out of hexagonallyÂ jointed basalt. In the 8,000 years humans have inhabited Mull it is safe to say that Staffa’s columns and caves have been viewed as something special, possibly sacred or mythical in origin. According to one legend, theÂ Gaelic giant,Â Fingal, got into a quarrel with the Ulster giant, Finn McCool. (Over a lady giant, no doubt.) In order to fight each other they built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. When the causeway was destroyed only the two ends remained – one at Staffa and the other at the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim. (Having visited the Giant’s Causeway several times, it is remarkable to see how both locations share an almostÂ identical geology.) The truth of the matter, however, is much less colorful:Â as Britain and North America were being pulled apart by continental drift, huge amounts of magma rose up through the Earth’sÂ crust, erupting as lava and volcanic ash on the surface. As the 1,200 degree molten rock cooled, it hardened, shrank, and fractured into a regular series of stone pillars. The caves came into existence as waves crashed against the soft layer of ash underneath the columns, slowly eroding into the formation we see today. Of the five sea caves on the island Fingal’s is by far the largest. It came to the attention of the wider world at the end of the 18th century as the Romantic Movement was spreading across Europe. With its emphasis on wilderness and naturalÂ splendor the island quickly became one of the must-see sights on the Highland Tour. Part of the cave’s appeal lies in the Â remarkable symmetry of the cavern – Â fractured columns form a crude walkway just above the high water mark, allowing easy exploration of the interior. Equally beguiling are the strange colors and sounds inside what is, in effect, a natural cathedral. If you’ve heard of Fingal’s Cave before reading this, it’sÂ likely due to Felix Mendelssohn, who composed his concert overture,Â The Hebrides, following a visit to the island in 1829. His inspiration came from standing in the cave and listening to the roar of the waves.
It seemed a propitious omen for the day that as soon as our boat sailed out of Tobermory harbor and past the lighthouse it was greeted by a pod of dolphins eager to swim along in our wake. Soon afterwards we saw seals, too, and the rare storm petrel which spends most of its life at sea. We were bound for the Treshnish, an archipelago of uninhabited volcanic islands and skerries west of Mull. The largest of the islands, Lunga, is known for the puffins that arrive each summer to breed en masse. In fact, shortly after making landfall on the rocky coast I was in the company of those adorable, torpedo-shaped seabirds, as well as eider ducks, cormorants, and crested shags. I had expected to see a few other nesting birds as well, yet nothing quite prepared me for the sight of thousands upon thousands of razorbills, guillemots, and gulls nesting up the coast in the crags of a guano-drenched pinnacle of rock. It was like a scene from a horror film: half of the birds nesting, the other half circling the sky, and all of them cawing at a collectivelyÂ deafeningÂ pitch. The puffins were docile by comparison. In pairs they burrow underground to lay a single egg, in groups they sit together quietly and preen. I sat and chatted with a rook of about twenty puffins while I ate my lunch. They watched me and I watched them. We got along famously. I was sad when the time came to leave – for the record, they didn’t seem to take any notice – Â but other islands and other adventures called.
TheÂ GaelicÂ name for Iona is simply “I” – hence DÃ¹n I, or the fort of Iona. What remains is little more than a low hill yet the steep climb to the cairn at the top is an invigorating harrumph. The summit isÂ an ideal spot to break for a bit of lunch, too: to the north can be seen the shoreline of short turf and inviting sandy beach, while out over the sound is Staffa and the Treshnish Isles. Click the photo below – then click it again – for a panoramic view from the top.
Now an ecumenical church, Iona Abbey, is of particular historical and religious interest to pilgrims and visitors. For one, itâ€™s the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages in Western Scotland. Though modest in scale compared to medieval abbeys elsewhere in Europe, it has a wealth of fine architectural detail, and monuments of many periods: in front of the Abbey stands the 9th century St Martin’s Cross, one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in Britain; the ancient burial ground, called the RÃ¨ilig Odhrain, contains the 12th century chapel of St. OdhrÃ¡n and a number of medieval grave monuments. The abbey graveyard holds the final resting place of kings from Ireland, Norway and France, as well as a number of early Scottish Kings, including Malcolm, Duncan, and Mac Bethad mac FindlaÃch, better known as MacBeth.
If you think of Mull as being shaped like a boot – or more appropriately, an Ugg – Fionnphort would be the big toe. It’s here that you catch a quick ferry to the small island of Iona, where almost 1500 years ago St. Columba was sent into exile following a dispute with St. Finnian over a book. (At least it didn’t involve a woman) Columba went on to become one of the leading figures in the renewal of monasticism and it’s not hard to see why: he was deported from Ireland with just a few mates and sent to an uninhabited spit of rock three miles long by one mile wide. What else was there for a holy man to do except look inward? It seems an especially appropriate place to explore today as I publish my 1,000th blog post.
Little did I know until today that the Canadian city of Calgary is actually named for a small village on the western coast of Mull. Originally called Fort Brisebois, the future home of the famous Stampede was later christened Fort Calgary in 1876 by Colonel James MacCleod, a local boy from nearby Dornoch who later emigrated and made good, rising to becomeÂ CommissionerÂ of the Royal Mounted Police. Aided by a transcontinental railroad and the discovery of oil, the Canadian city quickly grew beyond its namesake in terms of global importance, yet the little Scottish town nevertheless kept a few charms in store that continue to remain real gems. One of those is Calgary Art in Nature, a by-donation sculpture park within a coastal woodland. Set up to provoke an awareness of art in nature, the park has evolved into a product of both nature and man’s efforts, a working environment, a cultural landscape chockablock with site specific stimulation. And it makes for a really pleasant stroll, too – especially if you continue walking onwards to the pristine white sandÂ beach of Calgary’s sheltered bay.
A contrast to the al fresco charms of the chippie is Mishdish, the local gastropub insideÂ The Mishnish, a boutique Tobermory hotel. Situated as the far end of the harbor, Mishdish is fitted out in the contempo aesthetic ofÂ dark wood and crisp linens and is as inviting as it is mellifluous. It’s also as locavoreÂ a dining experience as one could hope for: locally caught, locally sourced,Â locally distilled, locally prepared,Â and locally served,Â the menu bursts with local pride. And rightfully so, I might add. (To save myself from excessive repetition, please assume the modifier “local” before all further nouns unless otherwise noted.) Fishcakes of salmon and haddock are lovely and light with mixed greens and a piquant splash of non-local chili. It’s about as far as you can get from the potato-laden belly bombers I remember as a child and I could easily takedownÂ a secondÂ portionÂ withoutÂ blinking. A bowl of sweet langoustines brings out the skull-sucking carnivore in me. Split-grilled and drizzled in chive butter they come with a crusty hunk of baguette to soak up every last drop of buttery brine. My only regret is that I ordered an appetizer portion and not an entrÃ©e. There’s no getting away from Sticky Toffee Pudding, gluten be damned. Interestingly enough it’s square, not a dome, yet geometry does nothing toÂ diminishÂ the criminal pleasure of what is essentially a steamed piece of cakeÂ soakedÂ through with buttery toffee and topped with vanilla ice cream. The coffee is good, too – if imported – and strong. It comes with a small chocolate bon-bon that’sÂ as you’d expect, handmade just down the road.
I’m starting to get a little obsessed by the views across Tobermory’s perfectÂ little harbour. Influenced by the tide, the light, and the shifting cloud cover, they are ever-changing. Tonight as the sun starts its slow eveningÂ descent the rippling surface of the water mottled into an impressionistic seascape.
After a day on the trail of white-tailed eagles there was nothing more inviting than the sight of a sign at the side of the roadÂ in PennyghaelÂ advertising home baking. Naturally we pulled over. Inside weÂ foundÂ strong coffeeÂ and the even stronger aroma of warm scones coming out of the oven. Three cheers for truth in advertising. And for seconds.
I enjoy the sight of a pretty bird in flight as much as the next person, but I’m not what you would call a twitcher, one of those sad people who spend their days in the back of a caravan checking names of birds off a list, ever on the lookout for a golden-winged Warbler or some such avian rarity. Though I’ve been known to get excited in Central Park at the sight of a heron or a hawk, when it comes to birdsÂ I am strictly a dilettante. Yet my friend suggested that while we were on Mull there was one bird in particular we needed to search out: Haliaeetus albicilla, the great sea eagle. Also called the White-tailed Eagle, it is the UK’s largest bird of prey and once a common sight all over Scotland in the 19th century before they were persecuted to extinction across the British isles. Thanks to the efforts of the RSPB, Europe’s largest wildlife conservation society, the eagle has successfully been reintroduced over the past ten yearsÂ via Norwegian birds transplanted to the western Scottish islands of Rum and Mull. In partnership with the Forestry Commission, Mull Sea Eagle Hide was created in Glen SeilisdeirÂ to allow the birds to be viewed from a safe distance without any human interference. As fate would have it a nesting pair of eagles hatched two chicks not six weeks before my arrival. Even stranger, prior to arriving at the hide we spotted an eagle from the road but had no idea what it was doing sitting in a tree. We were soon to discover how it was watching over a pair of jet black, fluffy-feathered eaglets. While fascinating to safely observe the birds through a telescope under cover in the hide, it was even more impressive to see the mother bird take flight in search of food: sea eagles are massive; twice the size of buzzards with a wingspan of 8ft. (You suddenly realize why 18th century farmers might have legitimately feared the eagles would make off with their livestock – or children.) Booking a visit to the hide is essential and well worth the time and effort spent in finding it. Â The 6 pound admission fee not only gets youÂ the guidance of a well-informed naturalist to tell you everything you never really needed to know about sea eagles, but also a singular view of these rare, majestic birds returned from the brick of extinction.