Articles - Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry
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 22.09.2012
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 15.04.2006
To reach Holy Isle off the Isle of Arran, I had travelled by train from Central Station Glasgow to Ardrossan on Scotland’s west coast. The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, Caledonia Isles, was already berthed, allowing time for passengers walking the short distance from the station platform to come aboard.
The crossing to Arran takes around fifty minutes. It’s generally so comfortable that some passengers take the opportunity to sit back, close their eyes and nap. But should you go up on deck, keep those binoculars at the ready. There’s a chance of spotting porpoise and even a passing whale.
As the ferry is docking at Brodick, Arran’s main village, local buses draw into the parking bays behind the ferry terminal. From there, it takes only a few minutes to reach Lamlash, where you can then board the small ferry, weather permitting, for the ten minute trip to Holy Isle. With each stage of the journey it will seem as if your usual cares are being left further behind.
Saint Molaise, a Celtic Christian who made his way to Holy Isle from Ireland in the 6th century possibly also noticed this effect. Molaise was the son of Cairell, an Irish king of what is now called Ulster. It’s believed he was much loved by his own people and was offered the throne of Ulster when he came of age. Instead, he chose to live for a time, in a cave on the west coast of Holy Isle. Perhaps he was aware of the island’s reputation, that it had long been considered a ‘holy place’.
The island is only about two miles long and half a mile wide. From Lamlash, it looks vaguely like two weathered extinct volcanoes floating on the sea. The unseen east side is rocky with steep cliffs. The west side is flatter in places with some productive land.
When visitors step from the small ferry onto Holy Isle’s pier, they may be surprised to be welcomed by a Buddhist nun or monk wearing traditional dress (and sometimes, incongruously, a matching warm fleece jacket, waterproof anorak and woollen hat). This will be one of the volunteers from the island’s Centre for World Peace and Health. Visitors are then given a little guidance on where they can wander to enjoy the best of Holy Isle.
The next unusual sight is a line of brightly coloured Tibetan prayer flags, each a few yards apart, fluttering in the breeze. Sited between each pair of flags is a stupa, a white ornamental structure that for some people holds great symbolic meaning. Past the flags and behind a dry stone wall stands the Centre for World Peace and Health which until a few years ago was a very run- down farmhouse.
On the day I visited, I was invited in to meet Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche the driving force behind Holy Isle’s Centre for World Peace and Health. As we sat in the Centre’s cosy library I asked how he had found Holy Isle. He explained that he had not been looking but that the last owners of Holy Isle found him and had offered him the island at a much discounted price as they ‘felt its future would be best taken care of by the Buddhists from Samye Ling monastery in Dumfriesshire’.
Though people travel there from all over the world, Lama Rinpoche the Abbot of Samye Ling monastery told me his vision for Holy Isle was quite different. He explained that the Holy Isle Centre is not a Buddhist monastery but is open to everyone whether they are believers, non-believers, or are completely non-religious.
‘When I was offered Holy Isle,’ he said ‘it was fresh and unpolluted.’ In the past, local shepherds from Arran had ferried their sheep over for the grazing and previous owners had kept a small herd of highland cattle which have since been taken away. But for many years, no one lived there, so the island has remained ‘unspoiled’.
Lama Rinpoche envisaged an ecologically sustainable environment where individuals could develop and experience inner peace, regardless of their background or spiritual tradition.
The emphasis now is very much on people’s wellbeing and health. The once run down farmhouse is now very comfortable and a new building has been added where people live while participating in various courses including yoga and meditation.
The Centre is run completely by volunteers. Some stay for a short time, others for longer periods while they work at various jobs for which they receive board and lodgings.
In one of the polythene tunnels, I met a professional gardener from Germany who was planning the layout of new, sheltered vegetable plots. Eventually it is hoped enough vegetables can be grown under polythene and in outside plots to meet most of the Centre’s needs. With seaweed constantly being washed up on the stony beach there’s a readily available free source of fertilizer.
Sid, one of the other gardeners, is happiest when he is working in the flower beds. He left his wheelbarrow long enough to suggest I make time for a sensual meditative walk through the garden. His instructions involved me stopping, taking time to touch leaves, stalks and petals and smell the flowers. He said I should look carefully at the different textures and colours around me and notice the way leaves on the trees moved in the wind. While sitting on a bench with my eyes closed, trying to concentrate only on the birdsong, I really was in another world.
The peace garden is delightful with painted rocks placed amongst the plants. Notice boards carrying poems add to the interest. In one separate area named the Children’s Garden, a number of little fairy dolls and toy animals have been hidden, awaiting discovery amongst the flowers and branches of bushes.
When you leave the Peace Garden, you may opt to hike up the rough rocky path leading to the top of Mullach Beag (beag meaning small in Gaelic) then carry on to the top of Mullach Mor (mor meaning big ) the highest point of Holy Isle at 1026 feet above sea level.
Most visitors choose the coastal path which starts fairly close to the sea. The small flock of dark brown Soay sheep wandering around are used to visitors. Unperturbed, they hardly bother to look. A few white Saanen goats can be spotted further up the hillside seeking out whatever is edible. Hardy Eriskay ponies hidden by shoulder high ferns occasionally make an appearance as if to watch the passing strangers who are watching them.
Every few hundred yards there are representations of Buddhist deities painted on large rocks on the hillside.
The cave where Molaise lived is easily spotted just off the path. Step inside. Mind your head. Look for the Viking graffiti and a cross scratched into the rock. Unless Holy Isle’s weather was very different in his day he must have experienced great physical hardship here.
Near the cave a spring of water known as the Healing Well flows into a pool. Pilgrims once journeyed here to drink the water believing it had curative properties. Now a small information board lets us know that the water, for drinking at least, doesn’t meet European Union standards.
Further along, higher up the hillside, there are a few glass fronted buildings, known as pods, fronted by another piece of ground being developed as a vegetable garden. This part of the island is closed to the public and is kept for those on long retreats.
Volunteers may be working further along, scything overgrown vegetation, or planting a few more of the 30,000 native trees that will soon attract wildlife.
The path ends at an unusual square lighthouse known as Pillar Rock- a lovely spot to enjoy a picnic.
From parts of the path there are expansive views across the water to Lamlash and from some points, to Goatfell, the highest peak on Arran.
On the short sail back to Lamlash the rain was pouring down from the blackness above. When the clouds passed, blown further east, a brilliantly coloured rainbow arced across the sky. One end seemed to be touching Holy Isle.
First published in The People’s Friend 02.11.2013