A legend of a lost galleon and a burial place of kings
Roofless crofts are the monuments to the people who, in the 19th century, were driven from their homes to take their names and brave spirits to the New World. Yet the Island of Mull is a smiling and happy place, whose mood is that of its upland meadows, bright with wild flowers and waterfalls and the gaily painted houses of Tobermory. There are reminders of ancient cataclysms in the gigantic lava terraces and basalt columns of Staffa.
The voyage from Oban to Craignure on Mull takes 45 minutes and presents an ever-changing vista of mountains, sea and islands. Craignure itself is an attractive collection of houses, shops, a tea-room and an inn jammed between a wooded cliff and the pier. On the quayside, a few vehicles and passengers are generally waiting.
About a mile south of Craignure, by road or woodland path, is Torosay Castle, a handsome Victorian mansion in the Scots baronial style. It contains good furniture and pictures, and photographic displays of life at the turn of the century. The terraced gardens and the statue walk are glorious, with views of the Appin coast from Ben Cruachan to Ben Nevis. The house is open during the summer, and the gardens all year round.
A collection of snug stone cottages, a ruinous pier, a general store and a post office make Salen the first place of any size encountered by the visitor to Mull. It was the creation in about 1800 of Major-General Lachlan MacQuarie, a native of Ulva – a smaller island off Mull’s west coast – who later became Governor of New South Wales. On a headland above a sandy bay to the north of Salen are the picturesque, but extremely battered, remains of Aros Castle, one of the chain of great fortifications built by the Lords of the Isles through the Inner Hebrides and western mainland, and last occupied in 1608.
The capital of Mull takes its name from the ancient, and long-vanished, Tobar Mhoire (the chapel of the Well of Mary). The present town, however, dates from no later than the 1780s, when the British Society for Encouraging Fisheries decided to found a port upon its wonderful natural harbour.
It is a pretty place of bright, colour-washed houses and hotels; and of shops that sell chandlery and diving gear, or fishing tackle, guns and paperbacks, or sweet-scented new bread. Also among Tobermory’s temptations are a good anchorage, ferries to Coll and Tiree, golf and pony-trekking, Highland games and crafts, and woodland walks by rhododendrons and waterfalls in Aros Park. Tobermory’s best-known feature is its galleon, a straggler from the Spanish Armada, that lies about 300 yds off the pier. Legend has always said that it is the Florencia or San Francisco, the vessel carrying the fleet’s pay chests, blown up by accident or design while anchored in the bay. Recent research, however, suggests that the San Francisco and Florencia were two ships, and that there is no seabed treasure. The San Francisco returned to Spain; and the Florencia (also called the San Juan Bautista), which went down at Tobermory in 1588, was a warship and troop-carrier. Without doubt it was powerful enough to lend Maclean of Duart an officer, 100 men and two guns -probably in exchange for supplies – for his successful attack on Mingary Castle in Ardnamurchan.
The road from Tobermory is steep and single-tracked, and seems to go through a hundred hairpin bends as it skirts drops into slaty lochans or leaps over tiny stone bridges with ridges to catch the wheels of the unwary. Stop beside one of the little trout-filled lochs and drink in the peace of the wide straths and old-gold hills scattered with ruined shielings, and something comes to mind of the pain of the Clearances victims who were forced to leave so enchanting a place.
Dervaig village was built by Maclean of Coll in 1799, and consists mostly of single-storey stone houses, though some have squeezed a first floor with dormer windows out of the roof. Their design could not be simpler, but they are given individuality and prettiness by whitewash and brightly painted windows and doors.
Half a mile along the Salen road is the Mull Little Theatre which, with its seating capacity of 40, is probably the smallest professional theatre in Britain. The Old Byre is a crofting museum that presents an audiovisual account of the Clearances, with recordings of local people telling stories and singing songs handed down from their forbears.
The village is small indeed, but it stands on the loveliest bay in Mull. The peace of its white sands and grassy plain behind becomes a little less than infinite in summer, as the holiday crowds flock in, but it is beautiful nonetheless.
WORKHORSE OF THE ISLES
Scotland’s ‘puffers’, the tough little work-boats that ply along the west coast and among the islands, grounding on the seaweed-strewn beaches to unload, are as much a part of Scottish tradition as white heather and haggis. They were immortalised in Neil Munroe’s ‘Para Handy’ stories, which were made into a television series. A few ‘ of the traditional steam-powered puffers still survive, many privately owned, but the modern vessels are diesel-powered, with sleeker lines.
A traditional puffer
The views from the roads leading to and from the bay are as grand as any in the Hebrides, embracing Coll and the Treshnish Isles to the west, and Skye and Ardnamurchan to the north.
This extraordinary island is named from the Norse for stave, a fairly good description of the symmetrical basalt columns of which the place is largely composed. Despite its ancient name, it did not come to the world’s attention until the 1770s, when it was glimpsed by Sir Joseph Banks on an expedition to Iceland. Its lonely grandeur precisely suited the mood of the Romantic movement, and in the first half of the 19th century it was visited by Tennyson, Wordsworth, Queen Victoria and many other famous people including, of course, Mendelssohn, who gained inspiration to write his Hebrides Overture from his visit to Fingal’s Cave. This enormous cavern, 66 ft high and 76 yds deep, is named after the Irish-Scots hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, who is also credited with building the Giant’s Causeway in Ulster. Getting to Staffa is not easy. There are motor-boat trips from Iona that will land passengers for a brief visit if the weather is good, but the most comfortable way to see the island is to take the ‘Sacred Isle’ steamer cruise from Oban to Iona. Passengers on this cruise are not landed at Staffa, however.
St Columba called it ‘Iona of my heart’, but long before he chose it as the site for his monastery, it must have been regarded as a place set apart, for the Druids built a temple there. This feeling of separateness, of enchantment, has persisted to this day.
Some of this is no doubt due to the fact that it takes a deliberate and conscious effort to get there. Iona is not on the way to anywhere else, and to reach the island it is necessary to travel right across Mull to Fionnphort for the passenger ferry, or to make the long sea journey from Oban. But almost any effort is worth while, since quite apart from its associations it is of a loveliness that lifts the spirits just to behold.
Of Columba’s monastery, built probably of wattle and daub in 563, nothing remains; after the saint’s death it was sacked several times by the Vikings, and its community massacred; some of them on the beach still known as Traigh Ban nam Monach, ‘the White Stand of the Monks’. But throughout the Dark Ages, somehow the community persisted, devoted to the memory of its founder; and because it was such a holy place, 60 kings were buried there. They came from Ireland, Norway and Scotland, and included Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his victim, Duncan.
The oldest building still standing is St Oran’s Chapel, built by Queen Margaret in 1080, while near by is the 15th-century cathedral, restored in the early 1900s; facing it is the beautifully carved St Martin’s Cross, 17 ft high and more than 1,000 years old.
It requires weeks to explore Iona properly, but to sum up the island’s character climb the 328 ft hill of Dun I and look over the island, with its fringe of machair – dazzling white shell-sand backed by grass – to all of the Hebrides.
A number of standing stones and stone circles around the village on the fertile plain at the head of Loch Buie attest that people have lived thereabouts for a very long time. But the most famous relic in the area, Moy Castle, is rather younger. Dating from the 14th century, it is the former stronghold of the MacLaines of Lochbuie, an offshoot of the Macleans of Duart. It is a grim fortress containing a well of crystal-clear water that never runs dry, and a dungeon in which the prisoner was forced to sit in darkness on a boulder with 9 ft of water around him. Because of its crumbling condition the building is not open to the public, and since it stands in private property permission should be sought at the lodge before visiting it. Should a headless horseman be glimpsed in the estate, this is Ewen a’Chinn Bhig (Ewen of the Little Head), a chief of the Lochbuie MacLaines who was beheaded in a clan battle some centuries ago, and now is said to ride furiously round the castle whenever the death of a descendant is imminent.
There are some fine coastal walks around the loch, which is leaned over by the massive 2,354 ft Ben Buie, and there are many caves to explore. Particularly impressive is Lord Lovat’s Cave on the southern tip of the Laggan peninsula -150 ft high, and running 300 ft back into the cliffs.
THE TREASURED CHARM OF A TREASURE-HUNT TOWN
Stories that doubloons by the thousand, priceless gems and gold and silver plate tie in a sunken galleon at the bottom of Tobermory’s bay have made Mull’s principal town famous. But though a vessel is there, little of note has been recovered and it is unlikely that any treasure exists within her rotting timbers. Tobermory’s real treasure is her smart waterfront set below wooded hills.
Of all the fortresses in the islands, none is more expressive of the power and majesty of the medieval chieftains than Duart. Its massive walls rose from the dubh aird (’dark headland’), in the 13th century, when the Macleans ousted the MacDonalds from their supremacy as Lords of the Isles. During the next 300 years, the Macleans of Duart added to the castle until it encompassed more than 100 rooms; then, through their adherence to the Jacobite cause, they lost their ascendancy to the Campbells, and were dispossessed.
For a time, Duart was occupied by government troops, but it gradually fell into ruin and it was not until 1912 that Sir Donald
Fitzroy Maclean, the chief of that time, was able to restore the castle to its former grandeur, and to its position as Duthus, or rallying place, of the Clan Maclean. The present chief, 27th of the line, is Lord Maclean of Duart, who was for many years leader of the Scouting Movement in the Commonwealth.
The castle, open in the summer, contains collections of family and Scottish relics and a Scouting exhibition. A tableau in the dungeon shows the figures of two Spanish officers said to have been imprisoned in the castle when the galleon Florencia sought shelter in the bay. The views from the building, and especially from the Sea Room, are breathtaking.