AS THE winter nights shortened and the calendar crept towards the spring of 2018, I looked forward to resuming my perambulatory pastime. The warmer weather would also be more welcome except that it never arrived. Instead, a cold front — nicknamed the ‘Beast from the East’ — swept across Britain, burying rural areas under drifts of snow and even dusting London with the stuff.
Beast from the East
Not the West, Just the Rest
Because the snow had swept in from the northeast and western Scotland was shielded by mountains, it was actually one of the least-affected parts of the UK but, frustratingly, I couldn’t get up there because trains couldn’t get through the Midlands. Impatiently, I waited for the weather to thaw and then, just as I was finalising my plans, a second mini cold wave swept in with more snow.
Seizing the Chance
Crucially, however, this time trains kept running on the west coast mainline and so, with London once again dusted with snow and ice, I headed northwards into sunshine…
Isle of Mull Hotel
It took pretty much all day to travel from London to Glasgow, then Glasgow to Oban and then catch the ferry back to Craignure. But by the end of it I was ensconced in the Isle of Mull Hotel with food and drink and a nice warm bed, from the latter of which I would be rising at some ungodly early hour the following morning.
Logic & Logistics
My plans for an early start had, to a large extent, been forced upon me by simple logistics, which were in turn prompted by the whims of Mull’s hoteliers. There aren’t that many places to stay on Mull and far too many of those that do exist want you to book two or more nights in a row. All fine and good but if you’re walking from A to B and neither is accessible from the other by bus, then two nights in A is essentially useless.
I had, by dint of determined problem-solving, planned my way around it but the solution I’d arrived at demanded that I ended my walk at Pennyghael in time to make the last bus to Fionnphort. And the last bus was at about half past five. If I missed it, I’d be miles from my bed for the night and that would make me very grumpy indeed.
Best get up with the sun then, I thought.
A light veil of cloud cleared rapidly as the sun rose, revealing a sky of brilliant blue that had no capacity whatsoever for retaining any solar heat. Blimey, it was cold!
Moving briskly, lest I freeze solid, I headed east along the A849. I had originally entered Craignure (Creag an Iubhair) on this A-road and, west of the village, it had been broad and busy and not a lot of fun to walk on. East of Craignure, it was a very different story. No sooner had I passed the ferry pier than the road dwindled to a single track with passing places, flanked on both sides by trees.
A gated turning to my left led off towards Torosay Castle but, sadly, the castle closed to the public in 2012, having been sold to a new owner.
The ‘castle’ is actually a mansion built in the Scottish baronial style for John Campbell during the 1850s on the site of an 1829 Georgian house, which had been built for his father.
The latter had been Col Alexander Campbell of Possil, a veteran of the American War of Independence, who had bought the land from the Duke of Argyll. The Argylls — who were also Campbells — had held the estates of Torosay and Duart since 1689, when their previous owners, the MacLeans of Duart, backed the losing side in the Jacobite uprising.
Old Road Alignment
Since the castle and its grounds were closed, I only glimpsed it at a distance through the trees. Much closer to hand was an isolated cottage and its muddy drive, which ran parallel to the A-road for a while. This I did divert onto, not so much to avoid the traffic (which was negligible) but because I know an old road alignment when I see one.
Sure enough, a comparison of modern and 1st edition Ordnance Survey maps shows that the route of what is now the A-road has been ‘smoothed out’ and the muddy drive was once the route it took.
The drive ended pretty quickly, returning me to what is now the road proper. This in turn soon conveyed me to another potential turnoff, this time leading to Duart Castle (Caisteal Dhubhairt). Like Torosay Castle, Duart was also closed though in this case purely because it was out of season.
Duart Castle was built in the 13th century by Clan MacDougall but later passed as a dowry to Clan MacLean, who made it their seat. Seized by Archibald Campbell, 1st Duke of Argyll in 1691, the castle was deliberately dismantled and remained a ruin for over three hundred years, during which it passed through the hands of several owners.
In 1911, it was bought by Sir Fitzroy Donald Maclean, 26th chief of the Clan MacLean, who set about restoring his clan’s historic seat.
I gave some considerable thought to side-tracking off the A849 to see Duart Castle but I knew it lay at the end of a two-mile dead-end road. There was no way I could do it and still catch the bus. And so, with some regret, I continued on my way, following the road as it curved first south then southwest, bringing me to the shores of Loch Don.
Loch Don is a sea loch with the tiny village of Lochdon at its head. The road passes right through the village, though these days it is on a slightly different alignment than it once was, meaning that the village essentially has a bypass which is itself a single lane with passing places.
Lochdon Old Bridge
The old road continues to run past the doors of the houses and crosses the Allt a’ Chonnaidh upon a stone bridge.
In Lochdon, I followed the old road alignment as it crossed over the modern one and passed close to the loch shore. There, I availed myself of a handy bench while I stuffed my face with the breakfast I’d had the foresight to pack.
From my position on the bench, overlooking Loch Don, I could see the village’s other old bridge, known as the Witches’ Bridge. I can find no specific tale to give the bridge its name, so I presume it’s derives from the traditional ‘diabolical powers can’t cross running water’ theme as played out on the Auld Brig o’ Doon in Robert Burn’s poem Tam o’ Shanter.
The Witches’ Bridge is the start of another two-mile dead-end road, though this one terminates not with a castle but with the headland of Grass Point and a cottage called the Old Ferry House. The name of the latter rather gives the game away, for Grass Point was once a principal point of ingress and egress for Mull and the road that led to it was a cattle drovers’ road.
Today, that road is an unremarkable-looking single track rural lane which I soon passed by, but did not take, for exactly the same reason that I didn’t go to Duart Castle.
Torosay Free Church
Torosay Free Church was built in 1852 to cater for Lochdon’s Free Church congregation.
The Free Church of Scotland was a religious denomination that had split off from the Church of Scotland in a schism known as the Disruption of 1843. The cause of the schism was essentially a dispute over who had the right to appoint ministers: the congregation or the local laird.
The Free Church, which wanted no patronage appointments, found much support amongst the parishioners of Lochdon and absolutely none at all with their landowner, the aforementioned Col Alexander Campbell of Possil, who did not want his rights messed with.
Campbell absolutely, positively refused to allow any of his land to be used for Free Church services and when a local blacksmith, John McKane, lent the worshippers a shed to use as a church, he was promptly evicted in retaliation. The congregation next acquired a tent, which they erected at low tide beneath the tide mark in a gravel pit near the Witches’ Bridge. Eventually a road contractor, Donald Fletcher, lent them some land on which to worship and Campbell found that Fletcher could not be evicted as he held a watertight lease. Furious beyond measure, the colonel is said to have died of apoplexy.
His son John, who inherited the estate, seems not to have cared for his father’s legacy for not only did he demolish and rebuild Torosay Castle as previously mentioned, but he finally gave the parishioners some land and Mrs Campbell and her sisters raised the money to build the church that stands today.
Beyond the Free Church, the old and new road alignments merged and I headed southwest along what was, you’ll recall, classified as an A-road:
It was still eyeball-freezingly cold as I started down that road but the sun, which was climbing quickly up the sky, soon warmed things enough that my coat and gloves came off. It never quite made it to t-shirt weather but it was pleasantly clement for much of the rest of the day. Indeed, pretty soon the only reminder that just hours earlier frostbite had felt like an imminent risk was a light dusting of snow on the tallest nearby peaks.
I now found myself strolling cheerfully down a rural road in bright sunshine, watching more wild deer than I’d seen in my life skilfully and consistently evade my camera.
As I was busily trying to photograph the abundant but frustratingly elusive deer (I failed), I passed a gate beyond which a green track snaked off across the hills. Though now a faded track, this had once been the road to the now-abandoned settlement of Gualachaolish. A croft was built there in the early 19th century for Col Campbell’s factor and it remained occupied for only about a century, becoming abandoned in the 1930s.
Sighing to myself, I added the croft’s ruins to my list of things I had insufficient time to go and see.
Dugald McPhail Memorial
While almost as frustrating as the camera-shy deer, not diverting off to gawp at stuff did a power of good for my progress. The A849 soon carried me to the northern end of Loch Spelve and a turn-off onto an unclassified road that was frankly no more minor in reality than the one I was leaving.
Overlooking the junction from a small hillock was a memorial cairn:
A Gaelic songwriter, poet and author, Dugald MacPhail was born at Strathcoil — a tiny settlement beside that road junction — and is best known for a song called An t-Eilean Muileach (The Isle of Mull), often considered the ‘national anthem’ of Mull.
An architect, he lived at various times in Edinburgh, Newcastle, London and Glasgow, eventually dying in the latter. MacPhail was keenly Presbyterian and joined the Free Church after its formation during the Disruption; he was one of the parishioners of Torosay Free Church in Lochdon.
I picked my way through the surprisingly unconcerned peafowl that were straying all over the road and climbed steeply out of Strathcoil.
The 217 m hill of Cruach Ardura forms a headland jutting out into Loch Spelve and the road rounded its western flank. It did so fairly low down — I doubt it made it higher than 50 m — but it tried to do that ascent in a pretty short horizontal distance. I thus plodded and gasped my way onto Cruach Ardura and found that the road was now largely lined by trees. At the summit of the road (though not the hill) I found a handy seat and gratefully sat down. A nice cool drink was also on offer, provided I’d brought my own well pail.
The plaque on the stone bench read:
‘In memory of our dear friend Margaret Elliot died 5th July 1924. As the refreshment of water is to the weary traveller, so were her kindness and courage to the wayfarers of life.’
I have no idea who Margaret Elliott was but I thoroughly appreciated the sit down.
A Flock of Bird-Watchers
Descending from the flank of Cruach Ardura was rather gentler, as the road slowly lost height through the woods. It crossed a stream on an arched stone bridge and soon spat me out into the sunshine where, blinking, I saw a gathering of people peering into what I initially assumed must be cameras on tripods but, as I got closer, I realised what they had were telescopes.
Twitchers! They had to be twitchers. Or possibly birders. And they were.
It was not the high-end telescope equipment that gave them away as avid bird-watchers, nor was it anything particular about their attire. Rather it was because they were pointing their telescopes at a dull-looking copse of trees and not, for instance, looking at the view.
The bird-watchers were clearly concerned that I was looking at entirely the wrong thing, namely Loch Spelve, which didn’t have feathers at all. One of them excitedly waved me over and bade me peer into his telescope. Given that this required me to readjust the focus on a device whose focus knob had insane sensitivity, this was by no means an ungenerous offer. I looked. I saw. I buggered up his focus for him.
What they were looking at was indeed impressive: it was a white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), the largest bird of prey found naturally in Britain.
Native to Eurasia, it is closely related to the American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and is of similar size, with a slightly larger wingspan but a shorter tail. The eagle was generally chilling on a branch and practising the art of being much larger than any flying murder-monster has any right to be. It didn’t need the practice; it was good at that.
An Absence of Otters
Though duly impressed, I tore myself away from the spectacle — time was pressing — and continued on my way beside the shore of Loch Spelve. As I went, I kept a keen eye out for otters, whose population on Mull is significant, but if there were any about, they must have seen me first. Or, possibly, they’d seen the eagle and didn’t fancy their chances.
Before long, I came across an iron milepost, as typically erected by 19th century turnpike trusts. It informed me that there were three more miles to Lochbuie (where the road would end) and eleven the other way to Craignure.
This news that I had already walked eleven miles was unexpected and welcome and I strode along with renewed vigour and high spirits. I was making excellent progress and should make the bus with time to spare. Indeed, the only downside was that my walk would be over more quickly.
Kinlochspelve War Memorial
My good mood was sufficiently unassailable that even the reproving phantoms of Kinlochspelve’s glorious dead could not dent it.
Kinlochspelve is, as its name suggests (Ceann Loch Spéilbhidh, ‘head of Loch Spelve’), where the loch came to an end. The settlement itself was tiny, with just a few houses, one of which had previously been a church built in 1828 to Thomas Telford’s standard ‘Parliamentary’ design. It was now a holiday let. As was Craig Ben Lodge, a baronial-style house overlooking Loch Uisg.
On Frozen Shores
Loch Uisg is a small freshwater loch, aligned east-west between the ends of Loch Spelve and Loch Buie. The road passed along its northern shore and was suitably scenic.
As I paused on its shore, Loch Uisg pointed out exactly how cold it had been lately.
Having been given the cold shoulder by Loch Uisg, I pressed on down the road. This soon became wooded and, nestling in the trees, I came upon a small stone pyramid.
Okay, I lied. The actual purpose of the obelisk is rather given away by the portrait and inscription on its face. It is a celebratory monument in honour of Queen Victoria’s 1897 diamond jubilee. God save the Queen!
A little further on, I reached the end of Loch Uisg. A side track led down to the remains of Moy Castle — built in the 15th century by Hector Maclean, brother of Lachlan Maclean of Duart — but I stayed on the ‘main’ road, heading into Lochbuie.
Lochbuie is another tiny settlement, in this case nestling at the foot of Ben Buie, a 717 m mountain.
Lochbuie has a stone circle, which I made a half-hearted effort to seek out but found that the footpath across the fields to it was less of a footpath and more of a quagmire with occasional waymarks. Returning muddy-footed to the road, I followed it down to the beach, where it came to an end.
There, I found something that filled me with joy.
No, not the obelisk but a wooden hut that purported to be the old post office. What it was now was an honesty shop with an array of drinks and snacks and a jar to pay cash into. I duly purchased a number of things and relaxed my slightly tired legs by sitting on a bench and watching the waves.
Brave, Brave Sir Robin
The waves were perhaps better described as tiny ripples, Lochbuie being at the head of Loch Buie, yet another sheltered sea inlet. I sat and watched them anyway, while I was watched in turn by a couple of sparrows, who were clearly waiting for me to leave so they could see if I’d dropped anything tasty. The sparrows were pretty much out of luck.
Firstly, I wasn’t about to drop tasty food if I could help it and secondly a robin, far braver than they were, had taken up a position more-or-less between my feet so as to be there first when the nummy windfall came. I was so impressed with his typical robin fearlessness that I gave him a piece of pistachio.
I rested at Lochbuie for as long as I dared, given my ‘last bus’ deadline. I had now run out of public road but I had read several accounts of a footpath of sorts between Lochbuie and Carsaig, some 5½ miles along the coast. I duly set off to find it.
It started promisingly enough, with a hardened track leading out towards the farmstead of Glenbyre, the best part of two miles to the west.
A Well-Constructed Way
As I walked along the track, I saw occasional remnants of walls and places where the track was built up to be level, all of which suggested that someone had put a lot of effort into building what had once been considered an actual road.
It turns out that a now-vanished abandoned township, Gortenasroine, once sat beside it but, looking through old OS maps, I find that this section of road seems to have been built around the 1920s, with access to Glenbyre having originally followed a more inland route that today persists as a footpath.
Glenbyre itself, when I reached it, was forlorn and abandoned and I paused there to talk a couple sat on the beach. They confirmed that a footpath continued onto Carsaig but cautioned me that they’d never got more than halfway. ‘It’s all boulders,’ they told me ‘all the way’.
Oh goody; my favourite.
When I say ‘my favourite’, I am, of course, blatantly lying. I was expecting some there to be some rocks but their description of the route filled me with alarm. Perhaps, I hoped, they were just unused to anything more rugged than flat tarmac? The old OS maps had showed me that the footpath to Carsaig had once been a full track, comprising an actual coastal road route between the two villages. Surely it couldn’t have entirely vanished?
The footpath began with hopping across a stream, rock-to-rock (though a footbridge apparently existed, further upstream where the original road to Glenbyre came to its end). Thereafter, it picked its way across a terrain that I think I am pleased to report was not entirely boulders. Rather, there were plentiful boulders separated by squelchy bog. So much better.
I hopped, jumped, squelched and slid my way along the footpath, seeing only the occasional hint that there had once been a more substantial path. The first quarter mile I covered with growing trepidation on account of one feature that all accounts I had read agreed on. In the words of the website Heritage Paths:
‘At one point […] it is necessary to descend a near vertical small cliff (about 2.5 m high), but there is a (very frayed) rope to help.’
That part was worrying me, I’ll admit. I haven’t tried to climb a rope since I was in primary school and back then I was absolutely useless at it. Still, I had no choice if I wanted to continue and so, when I got there, I did my best. My best, as it turned out, was fine and I descended from the low ledge without much difficulty at all.
Carsaig Bay & Glen Leidle
Of course, I still had another three miles or so of boulders and bog to conquer and it was not long before this exciting challenge began to seem more of a tedious ordeal. I was tired, muddy and not a little thankful when the path left the shore and climbed through some woods before spitting me out at the end of the road in Carsaig.
In dire need of a rest now, I all but collapsed on Carsaig Pier.
There would not be a next boat, of course. For, though Carsaig Pier once saw sailings to Easdale and Tarbert, today it receives no commercial traffic. For one thing, it’s hardly in a good state to do so — those rocks on the left in the photo above aren’t just beach boulders but rubble where the far half of the pier used to be.
Built in 1850 by Joseph Mitchell for the British Fisheries Commission, the damage that it has already suffered has also harmed the prospects of what’s left being preserved — in 2006 the pier was rejected for listing by Historic Scotland on the grounds that insufficient structure remains thanks to accumulated storm damage.
Carsaig Pier appeared in the 1945 romantic film I Know Where I’m Going! as did the hamlet’s red telephone kiosk, which stands at the roadside next to a waterfall.
When I felt sufficiently rested, I passed the phone box and waterfall and climbed out of Carsaig on a delightfully wooded single-track road. The road soon emerged from the trees onto moorland before once again plunging into forest. I knew that there were about two and a half miles between Carsaig and Pennyghael and, as I drew closer to the latter, I checked the time, confident I’d make it with plenty to spare.
I looked at my phone in disbelief. I looked at my route notes. I looked at my map. Ah. Ahhh. Oops. Three and a half miles…
The extra mile had thrown out my timings and I’d been strolling along at a leisurely pace when I should have been striding at a brisk one. I was now in serious danger of missing the bus by a matter of minutes. Much as I didn’t feel like doing so, I had no choice but to finish the last mile at something of a jog, hoping like hell that that didn’t bust my knee again.
Fortunately, my knee remained functional and I jogged into Pennyghael (Peighinn nan Gàidheal) with just minutes to spare. I plonked myself heavily onto a bench and got my breath back just as the bus came into view. I had made it!
Soon, I was on the bus, heading at speed towards Fionnphort, the village from which the ferry crossing to Iona can be made. In the mornin,g I’d be catching the bus back to Pennyghael but that was tomorrow. For now, I could take a well-earned rest…
This time: 22½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,171 miles