From the back door of the hotel where I was staying on the Isle of Mull, a narrow path leads down to the sea and follows the shoreline through a stretch of silver birch trees towards Craignure where the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Oban berths.
When I stopped on the path one bright morning, it was so quiet I could almost hear the new fern fronds unfurling. Pale yellow primroses, glistening with raindrops after an early morning shower, were slowly opening and turning to face the sun. This would be a good day, I thought, for meeting some of Mull’s wilder residents.
Minutes later, at the bus parking bay beside the ferry terminal, I was ushered aboard a minibus belonging to knowledgeable wildlife guide David Woodhouse. I was in good hands.
David knows Mull’s wildlife and has been taking people out to observe the island’s animals and birds in their natural habitats for more than 30 years.
Some of my fellow passengers were carrying impressively long telescopes or binoculars but you don’t need to have your own as our guide for the day brings spare sets on all his expeditions.
‘What would you particularly like to see?’ he asked, as we headed east in the direction of Tobermory.
At our first stop we got out of the bus to look for porpoises. The sea appeared to be flat calm, shining like well-polished silver. Then within seconds as we focused through binoculars, a number of black streaks split the surface. This was our first sighting. Porpoise were showing a slip of black fin before diving then reappearing yards away.
Back in the minibus, on a tree-lined road, we looked out for cross bills, small birds that feed on seeds picked from pine cones, while David commented on any other creature that came within view.
Our next sighting was possibly more impressive. Mull is home to at least 14 pairs of white- tailed eagles, sometimes known as sea eagles, or more poetically in Gaelic, iolaire suil na greine – eagle with the sunlit eye.
Each pair has a huge territory, perhaps 25 miles in any direction from their nest. They are very large birds and it seems that, just like us, they are quite happy to take it easy and laze when the sunshine is warming.
We had pulled off the road into a small car park where other wildlife watchers peered through telescopes on tripods. A sea eagle was spotted perched on a nest of untidy branches near the top of a tree in woodland high up a hillside. But it was only when the bird left the nest to soar, circling ever higher on up draughts of warm air, that we could really appreciate its size.
Throughout the rest of the day we were to see red deer, common seals, a sleeping otter that woke to stare at us, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, hen harriers, various types of ducks and numerous species of smaller birds both on land and on the water. Our guide was able to tell us about all of them.
As we travelled along the single track road bordering the seashore, sheep would move slowly out of our way. In some places, cliffs of ragged rock scraped the clouds. On the other side of the road, looking out to distant islands, I was reminded of the song written by D.MacPhail.
‘The Isle of Mull is of isles the fairest,
Of Ocean’s gems ‘tis the first and rarest;
Green grassy island of sparkling fountains,
Of waving woods and high tow’ring mountains.’
It was a relaxed day with time available for soup and sandwiches, tea and biscuits all supplied from the back of the minibus, though some of the group were so involved watching wildlife they could hardly put down their binoculars to stop for a bite.
My next day was equally captivating. The distance from Craignure to Fionnport in the far west of Mull is around 32 miles. Much of the way is through Glen More (big valley) on a single track road.
In the green valley, wooded areas offer shelter to red deer. Small lochs sparkle blue in the sunshine and, where the land begins to rise, lush grass meets heather and the hills lead ever upwards to much higher, rock-strewn mountains.
The service bus can’t go too fast through Glen More since any oncoming traffic can only be passed at designated places. At one point, our bus had to stop and wait to let a wide-horned hairy highland cow get off the road.
To the north, Ben More, the highest mountain on Mull at 3,169 feet attracts hill walkers who usually leave this peak until last to complete their round of climbs of all the Munros – mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet.
Further west, the road runs close by the south shore of fiord-like Loch Scridain. Lines of large black floats indicate where ropes of farmed mussels dangle in the clean waters. The land is flatter here, dotted with lonely farms with fields of sheep, an occasional pig, a few horses and small herds of cattle.
The bus trundles on, over a hump backed bridge, rounds bends at the village of Bunessan and eventually reaches the village of Fionnport.
It is from here that thousands of visitors each year board a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry for the short crossing to the Isle of Iona.
Visitors usually say that this low lying island with its beaches of white sand and rock seems especially peaceful. Most people stroll at least as far as the church, passing a stone Celtic cross on the roadside. It’s a kind of marker that has been blasted by west coast weather since the 1500s.
Pilgrims wander further. They come to learn and follow the ways of Columba who sailed here from Donegal, Ireland, with a band of 12 evangelists in 563AD. Columba was of the O’Neil clan, a descendent of kings and an elder of the Celtic Church. It was said he was ‘graceful in speech and holy in work and could not let a day pass without prayer.’
Columba founded a monastery on Iona which became a sacred centre, the heart of an ecclesiastical dominion. Scots, Pictish and Viking kings chose to visit and be buried here. Their graves were covered with elaborately carved stones. Some of these stones are on display, placed against the walls of the church and the cloisters.
The early monks would have worked in the gardens close to the monastery. Gardeners still work this land and wooden markers on a dry stone wall let us know the produce grown for use in the nearby hotel kitchen is fresh, local and organic. The primary school pupils also have a garden. Their plantings are guarded by a line of scarecrows that were crafted in school.
Someone once described the island as a ‘thin place’, suggesting there’s not much separating the material world here from the spiritual. But to cater for the diverse expectations of its many visitors, Iona has a craft shop and two art galleries, a heritage centre, book shop, café and post office as well as a shrine to Columba.
Back in the hotel on Mull, having enjoyed a splendid meal, we were sitting back, watching the sea and sky change colours as the sun set.
Exactly on cue, as if to complete a film set, a stag strolled along the seashore path….
First published in The People’s Friend
Further Information: David Woodhouseinfo@scotlandwildlife.com
Should you ever leave the warmth of a docked Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry and drive up the ramp onto Port Ellen pier when rain-filled wind is shrieking in from the Atlantic Ocean, I’m willing to bet you’ll think whoever named the Isle of Islay, ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, made a big mistake.
But in the minutes it takes to reach Bowmore, the island’s ‘capital’, you just might change your mind. A huge rainbow arcing over the church at the top of Main Street might be the decider, or the sight of the sea shimmering at the bottom of the brae, or fluffy white clouds racing across a vast blue sky.
On the other hand, you could have all four seasons within the same few minutes.
Bowmore, founded in 1768, sits on the east shore of Loch Indall. When the wind dies down, and it occasionally does, a distinct smell, some might call it a fragrance, is definitely noticeable. It’s a mixture of peat reek, brine and malted barley. There’s also a hint of the ‘angels portion,’ from the evaporation of whisky stored in barrels laid down over many years.
Bowmore distillery, near the centre of this large village, is a grouping of gleaming white buildings surmounted by a pagoda style roof. As well as producing whisky to delight drinkers of the amber nectar across the world, it has another rare distinction. Waste heat from its whisky making process is recycled to help reduce fuel bills at the leisure centre next door. This building was once Warehouse No. 3. It held barrels filled with more whisky than the swimming pool now holds water. In a nice touch, the pool’s crafted, curved ceiling looks like the inside of an enormous barrel.
I wonder if a swim there would improve a less than perfect breast stroke? For the island’s children, who previously had swimming lessons in the sea, the pool must seem like the lap of luxury.
The church at the top of Main Street was built in 1767 by Daniel Campbell, principal Laird of Islay. One story tells how the church was constructed in a round style so there would be no corners in which the devil could hide. Inside, the pews and plain, polished wood fittings show all the signs of loving care.
Let’s retrace our route back to Port Ellen. The road runs over Duich Moss, a vast peat moor looking dreich in a drizzle. From the flatness on one side, high hills rise, blue-hued with distance. On the other, the moorland ends in sand dunes hiding Islay’s longest beach that stretches some five miles round Laggan Bay. There’s a golf course on the links and an airport.
At Port Ellen we’ll take the road east through the distillery villages of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. No wonder this is called ‘whisky road!’
After a few miles through woodland, the road becomes a roughish, single track with passing places close to the shore at some points. Be ready with the binoculars. Here’s a chance to spot seals and sea birds and let other traffic, in more of a hurry, pass. We’re making for the ruin of Kildalton church.
It’s thought the spectacular cross in the churchyard was sculpted on Islay from a single slab of local stone. The style suggests the sculptor came from the workshops on Iona round about AD 800. On the front there are carvings of saints and angels surrounding a figure of Christ as well as Old Testament biblical scenes. On the back there’s an intricate Celtic pattern. It’s easy to imagine a priest using this cross as a kind of visual aid in explaining the message of the Bible to parishioners.
The church is roofless. It was probably built in the late 12th or early 13th century under the patronage of the Lords of the Isles. Inside, fixed on one wall, there’s a grave slab showing a warrior. Other carved slabs are sunk into the grass floor.
We’ll return to the Lords of the Isles later, but for now, let us consider a wee dram. We’ll go back again towards Port Ellen on ‘whisky road’. Of the three distilleries along here (there are five more on Islay) you’ll notice they are close to the shore. This was for practical reasons. All the distilleries had their own piers where produce was shipped out and materials brought in. Though each gives guided tours, with a complimentary tasting, Ardbeg Distillery is especially welcoming with a café /restaurant and a shop. If you’re not taken with whisky you might appreciate a bowl of soup before heading back round Loch Indall.
Looking across the loch, from one side or the other, lights of lone cottages and small villages are a romantic sight, twinkling in the darkness. By day, it’s a lovely drive following the shoreline to Port Charlotte, arguably the prettiest village on Islay, and home of the Museum of Islay Life.
Some items on display in the museum including gramophone needles, school slates, inkwells and fountain pens may well be remembered by an older generation. The apparatus used in the making of illicit whisky and tools for cutting peat to heat a home might be less familiar.
Islay is a surprisingly large island, with sandy bays between rocky headlands on the coast, a hilly interior studded with fresh water lochs and good farming land. On the north coast, Loch Gruinart is a sea loch running far inland. At Loch Gruinart Visitor Centre, I learnt how local farmers use agricultural practices for the benefit of people and wild life. In places, fields may seem neglected and waterlogged but this is deliberate. These ideal conditions have been created for wading birds. Bird song fills the air, and as you pass other acres of lush grass, hundreds of geese take wing, seem to hang in the wind for a few moments, before flying off to settle beside a new food source.
Travel north eastwards along the road towards Port Askaig and you’ll notice the narrow turn-off leading to Loch Finlaggan. Named after Findlugan, an Irish monk who was a contemporary of Columba, the loch is not especially beautiful or set in dramatic scenery. The surrounding slopes are not overly steep, or high. Yet it was here that the Lords of the Isles had their base, on two fairly small islands.
The MacDonald Lords of the Isles, (including the first MacDonald ever), were descended from Somerled, a 12th century prince. So if your name’s MacDonald, chances are you’ll have royal blood from somewhere down this line.
From Finlaggan Trust Visitor Centre you can stroll out to the larger island by way of a wooden walkway and wander through the ruins of the lords’ church and house.
For a time, these lords ruled over all of the Hebrides and a large part of the north - west mainland of Scotland. In their grand hall on Eilean Mor (Gaelic: large island), though it doesn’t seem so big nowadays, they entertained nobility from Scotland, England, Ireland and France. On the smaller island, a few yards away across the water, privy councillors would sit at a stone table to discuss the business of collecting rents and maintaining a vast territory.
At Port Askaig, as well as arriving from the mainland or leaving Islay on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, you can take a smaller ferry across the narrow strait to the Island of Jura. It only takes ten minutes but Jura’s wildness is another world away as George Orwell discovered when writing his famous novel 1984.
For me, that will have to be another trip, another time.
I left Islay agreeing with the sentiments expressed in the last verse of the song written by Iain Simpson.
And soon I shall return again, to Islay’s gentle shore
And see the tide waves wide, the bright lights of Bowmore
Or wander through Bruichladdich, as night begins to fall
And see the moonlit beam on lovely Lochindall.
First published in The People’s Friend
A pig carrying bagpipes seems most unlikely. Yet there is such a pig, though I should add, it is carved in stone. It juts out below the roof of the ruined remains of Melrose Abbey.
What inspired the sculptor, I wonder? Was it carved just for fun? Could it have been a practice piece before carving began on representations of St. Andrew and other saints?
The Abbey walls also hold fierce looking gargoyles. Along with other strange figures carved in stone they may have been thought to ward off evil. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure and can only make an educated guess as to their meaning.
Work began on an abbey church here in 1136 though the building that visitors wander through today is a mere skeleton of a 14th and 15th century creation. When it was complete, it must have been a wonder to behold. The best stone masons, glass makers, stained glass craftsmen and artists from Europe had been employed on a building that reached skywards to proclaim the glory of God and as time went on, would emphasise the wealth and power of the monastery, as well as the skills of the craftsmen.
From where I’m standing at the top of the bell tower, there are views over trees and fertile farmland. Other visitors can be seen far below wandering in the graveyard where ancient weathered stones mark a number of graves. One much newer stone set here on 25th June 1998 is said to mark the spot where the heart of Robert the Bruce is buried.
The four Border Abbeys housed different orders of monks. Their day to day lives may have been simple with much time spent in silence and prayer but over time, the Abbeys went on to acquire vast tracts of land and become hugely wealthy.
Melrose Abbey is very much part of Melrose, a charming town with interesting independent shops, the famous Harmony and Priorwood Gardens and a history stretching back to Roman times.
To visit the other Abbeys, pilgrims of old would walk with the hope of receiving hospitality along the way. We’re softer nowadays. It was only after enjoying a splendid lunch at a restaurant in the town and carefully placing wedges of Border Tart and Selkirk Bannock (specialities of the region) in my pack, that I got on my bike and headed up the High Street to find the sign for the 4 Abbeys Cycle Route. This is one of a number of way- marked routes in the Borders that offer cyclists a choice of mainly quiet back roads.
Pedalling easily along the side of the Eildon Hills which give Melrose its impressive backdrop, my first stop, after only a few minutes, was at a viewpoint made famous by Thomas Rhymer. This was where, so the legend goes, he fell asleep at the Eildon Tree and was carried off for seven years by the Queen of Fairyland. Now the spot is marked by a sculpted stone, its top and base covered with coins.
Thomas Rhymer was a real person who lived in the 12th century. He was a poet but was also sought after by the great and the good for his prophesies as it was believed he could foretell the future.
The roads here are lined by dense hedges of hawthorn smothered with white blossom. Along the roadside verges, profusions of bright yellow buttercups, red campion and white clouds of cow parsley compete for space and light. In bright sunshine, the gold coloured florets of gorse and broom bushes appear as if lit from within.
Behind the hedges there’s an occasional crop of potatoes but in the main, in large fields, grass is grown for grazing sheep, cows and horses. It’s a bit of a surprise to come upon a field of donkeys – but at Newton St. Boswell, a number of donkeys pass their days in the safety of a sanctuary.
Where the road bends sharply to run alongside the River Tweed, cyclists and walkers cross to the opposite bank on a suspension bridge. Then it’s no distance to Dryburgh Abbey.
Of the four abbeys, Dryburgh probably has the least remains still standing. But given its setting in parkland on a bend of the River Tweed and the surrounding display of mature trees, it is arguably the most picturesque. It’s easy to see why Sir Walter Scott, the internationally renowned writer of Scottish historical fiction, chose to be buried here.
Close by Scott’s grave is the grave of Field Marshall Earl Douglas Haig of Bemersyde, commander of the British Expeditionary Forces in France and Flanders during World War 1. He was buried here in 1928.
I’m reluctant to leave Dryburgh Abbey and all too soon I’m pedalling up an incline. The hills are not overly steep or long on this route and as I click through the bike’s gears I soon make the top. Of course, speeding down the other side, eyes watering in the wind is a joy.
Kelso, my next stop, is a fine little town where I’ve planned an overnight stay. Having reached a main road, busy with traffic heading towards town, I’m glad to spot the sign which directs me to an alternative back road leading past the golf course and the famous Kelso Race Course. Then from Kelso’s impressive main square it’s a two minute walk to the Abbey.
The west tower is all that survives from what was one of the richest medieval abbeys in Scotland. In 1545, the Earl of Hertford systematically destroyed this great building and that was only one of many occasions when Kelso Abbey was, unfortunately, in the frontline between invading armies from England and Scotland.
Leaving Kelso, I cross over the River Tweed once more and stop to look back to Floors Castle, seat of the Duke of Roxburghe then pedal on along narrow roads leading through farms and woods to Jedburgh.
There’s much more of the original building left here than at the other Border Abbeys and a garden has been laid out as it may have been when the canons cultivated plants for their medicinal or culinary properties.
Archaeological digs take place in the Abbey grounds from time to time and one of many fascinating finds is a comb dating from around 1100 that was probably used to tease the beard or moustache of its aristocratic owner.
As well as the Abbey, Jedburgh has other historical attractions within a few minutes walking distance including the house where Mary Queen of Scots stayed for a month in1566.
The Border Abbeys were built over hundreds of years and paid for by kings and nobles who sought the monk’s prayers in return for donations of money, property and land. Because of the wealth the abbeys accrued they were targeted by invading armies and bands of robbers from both sides of the border.
These reivers, as they were called, lived by stealing. Anything that wasn’t nailed down, to use modern parlance, but particularly cattle, would be stolen. Under Border Laws, retaliation was permitted thus allowing those who had been raided to pursue their attackers. Over hundreds of years, for ordinary people, especially for the women and children, life must have been very difficult at times.
Should your family name be Graham, Armstrong, Nixon, Elliot or one of a number of others common hereabouts you may find your Border ancestors were only eventually pacified by the might of King James 1 and V1 of Scotland.
Today though, in this beautiful countryside, there’s a great sense of peace.
The round of the whole 4 Abbey Cycle route is about 55 miles. A very fit cyclist could pedal this distance easily in one day. However, the scenery is so glorious and there is so much to see that it would be a pity to rush.
Published in The People’s Friend 14th May 2014
'There were a few porpoises here just days ago but a pod of seven or eight killer whales chased them away,” said Tom Jamieson, the ferryman. “However, you never know what might appear.”
Hearing this, a number of passengers aboard the Solan 1V readied their cameras and binoculars as the boat eased away from the pier and headed into the Sound of Mousa.
The ferry crossing to the Island of Mousa, an RSPB Nature Reserve off the east coast of the south mainland of Shetland, takes about 15 minutes from the township of Leebitton.
From Mousa pier, a roughly circular trail around an area in the middle of the island has been marked out with short posts. Using these as a guide and a brochure map we began an easy walk on springy turf.
It’s no distance across the narrow neck of land to the opposite rocky shore of an inlet that reaches far in from Mousa’s east coast. Here our first sighting of the abundant bird life was a chorus-line of shiny black shags (scarfs in Shetland dialect). Seemingly unperturbed, they stood on sun warmed rocks, wings spread akimbo, catching a drying breeze.
The path follows the shoreline of the inlet then turns southwards to wind through long grass covering the hillside. The
downward slope ends in a craggy coastline battered constantly by the North Sea.
Further along, the path reaches a flatter area of shore that is protected by a dry stane dyke. Peer over this wall to the inlet known as the East Pool and there’s a very good chance of spotting Grey seals and Harbour seals. Grey seals are more horse-like in profile with a flatter head and longer snout. Harbour seals have a shorter muzzle.
The nearby West pool is a much larger lagoon with a more open aspect. On the day our party were exploring Mousa, the West Pool had an impressive number of seals (selkies) visible in the water while more were hauled up on the surrounding sand. When a few of the beached seals did shuffle awkwardly back into the sea, they only retreated to the comparative safety of the pool yet were still within good viewing distance.
With so much wildlife present, this is obviously a sensitive area and the ground-nesting artic terns (tirricks) and great skuas (bonxies) soon let you know that you are getting too near their territory. In at least one instance, blood was drawn as a member of our party strayed too close and was pecked on the head for his trouble.
It’s strange to see people walking with their arms in the air, shaking their hands and fingers all the while, but this is the advised method of protection against these aerial attacks. It’s best, of course, if you can leave the wildlife in peace, undisturbed.
From the beach, the trail now leads back up the hill. Big, brown, great skuas still make their presence felt here, swooping low, squeaking then soaring skywards.
Dainty, white flags of bog cotton grow in the wettest areas while broken walls and the stones of an old water mill are smothered in tufts of silver grey algae known in Shetland as Old Man’s Beard. This growth is said to signal the absence of pollution and the purity of the air.
When the way ahead flattens out, Mousa Broch dominates the view. This is the best preserved broch in the world (there are none outside Scotland). Built around 2000 years ago of local sandstone, it still stands over 13 metres high. Possibly, there was at least 1 metre more of stone, now long gone, on the top of the building which was probably roofed with timber and turf, or thatch.
Brochs are thought to have been symbols of power as well as fortified farmhouses for the leading families of the area. Safe inside, the inhabitants could hold out against attacks by enemies who might be using the best weapon technology of the day.
There may have been three wooden floors inside giving living spaces that could be reached from a stone stairway winding clock wise between the inner and outer walls. It’s thought that symbolically and perhaps spiritually, there was some significance in this clockwise design of stair construction.
When you follow in the footsteps of the Iron Age broch dwellers and climb up the stairs, the views from the top are vast. From up here, the siting of Mousa Broch and another broch that once stood on a headland across Mousa Sound at Burraland would suggest these structures were also used as watchtowers.
The Broch has given refuge to at least two famous runaway couples. In 900 AD, a couple from Norway were on their way to Iceland when they were shipwrecked on Mousa. They married and spent a winter in the broch.
In the 12th century, Harald, Earl of Orkney laid siege to the broch where his mother and her lover were taking refuge, but eventually matters were settled amicably and they left the island.
In 1774, eleven families lived on the isle, but by 1861 all were gone.
From the Broch, the marked trail leads back to the ferry pier. It’s worth walking on a little way to see a part of the coastal geology where the rock appears to have been formed like a sandwich cake, from layers of a near-similar thickness. Slices of this sandstone were used to make flagstones for the streets of Lerwick, the capital of Shetland.
Having taken our seats aboard the Solan 1V for the return journey and now moving at a good rate of knots across the Sound of Mousa, we were surprised when the ferryman cut the engine. In the ensuing silence, 3 or 4 porpoises could be seen, dorsal fins arcing out of the water only a few metres from the boat - an added bonus to a splendid day.
Back on the pier at Sandsayre it’s worth taking time to explore the old boathouse which has been converted into a small waiting room/ heritage centre with wall panels giving information on the history and natural history of the area.
Further Information: The smallest British seabird, the storm petrel (aalamootie) breeds on Mousa and there are special evening trips to the island to watch these tiny birds returning to their breeding sites. Bat-like, they flutter in from the sea, disappearing into crevices in the walls of the Broch with cropfuls of food for their single chicks.
Daily trips between early April and September
Tel: 01950 431367
First published in Scottish Islands Explorer Magazine