WHILE my first walking day of 2018 was blessed by blue skies and sunshine, the second saw neither of those things. The forecast had become one for unrelenting rain but, to be honest, that was okay because it was better than the sleet that it had previously predicted. Armed with a seemingly bottomless packed lunch courtesy of my B&B (Seaview in Fionnphort), I caught the bus back to rain-sodden Pennyghael and prepared to splish-splash the 23 miles to Salen.
Once dominated by the MacGillivray family, Pennhyghael (Peighinn nan Gàidheal) is a small settlement spread thinly along the A849 in the part of Mull called Brolass — essentially the island-facing end of the peninsula called the Ross of Mull.
With profuse good luck wishes, the amazingly cheery bus driver dropped me off beside its community hall, which was built in 1872 and designed by prominent architect Robert Rowand Anderson (1834-1921). I had seen Anderson’s work before, as he also designed the hotel at Glasgow Central Station, in which I stayed on reaching that city in late 2016. Pennyghael Community Hall is not his most impressive work, it’s the grey-brown stone building on the right below:
The white building beside the community hall used to be Pennyghael’s smithy but is now a B&B. The bridge, built around 1835, spans the Leidle River and I crossed over this, my hood firmly up, and set off for Salen (pronounced SAL-en).
On the far side of the Leidle, I soon passed the 17th-century farmhouse building of the Pennyghael Hotel, which might have saved me an early start and a bus ride had they not insisted on a minimum two-night booking. But they had, so I barely spared them a glance as I splashed on.
I tried to give the scenery the lion’s share of my attention, for Pennyghael commands excellent views across Loch Scridain towards Mull’s peninsula of Ardmeanach (‘middle head’). I had noted this delightful vista the previous evening as I hopped onto the last bus of the day but had failed to take a photo on account of urgent bus embarkation. It seemed I had rather missed my chance:
Kinloch Hotel & Pennyghael Stores
I soon left behind the cluster of buildings at Pennyghael Bridge and stomped and splashed onwards, dodging only the occasional car or Royal Mail van. Just how spread out Pennyghael was was brought home to me a couple of miles later, when I passed the 19th century Kinloch Hotel, and its neighbour, Pennyghael Stores. The shop was not yet open but that didn’t matter as I had enough packed lunch to feed an army.
The shop marked the northern extent of Pennyghael and faced onto Loch Beg, essentially a narrow arm of Loch Scridain.
Old Road Alignment
The road curved its way around Loch Beg, heading for the junction of the A849 and B8035. As I followed it, I spotted a parallel track that could only be an earlier road alignment. This was in far worse condition than the modern road and even flooded in places but I took to it anyway, just because.
I’m not entirely certain when the road realignment occurred but I’m willing to bet it was the mid-to-late 1960s. Certainly, Ordnance Survey maps showed the old alignments until at least 1961 and the ’60s also saw some road renumbering thanks to the opening of Craignure ferry terminal in 1964.
Prior to then, today’s B8035 — the scenic route to Salen — was the main route with the A849 designation, while the road through Glen More (today part of the A849) bore the B8035 number; they basically swapped. The Glen More road, the far end of which was the A849 section I’d walked the previous day, has visibly had its alignment altered, with segments of old road running nearby at several points.
Both the old and new alignments of the stretch that I was on needed to cross the Coladoir River, which flows out into Loch Beg.
Once across the Coladoir, the old road rejoined the modern road network at a crossroads. To my left, the modern B8035 snaked off to Salen. To my right, it led to the junction with today’s A849. And straight ahead led another track following a disused road alignment, this being where the old Glen More road used to branch away from the old bridge.
I love discovering old road alignments. I enjoy figuring out where they used to run and why that changed; to me, it makes a road more interesting. And on a day so grey and wet and visibility-poor, that’s no bad thing.
As if I had had any doubt that the B8035 had once been the main route from Iona and Fionnphort to Salen, it was soon confirmed to me when I started to see old iron mileposts. These were erected in 1897 (they had the year written on them) and that year suggests that they may have been part of an effort to mark Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
The first such milepost told me that I still had 21 miles to go, so I quickened my pace and pressed on.
The Scenic Route
Though today’s B8035 had been the principal route to Salen when the Glen More road was little better than a track, today it is proclaimed the scenic route (by the road signs at the A849 junction, anyway). I followed it as it curved around Loch Beg and then progressed along the northern shore of Loch Scridain, making its way through all that scenery I hadn’t been able to see from Pennyghael.
I passed beneath a small forestry plantation (dead ahead in the photo above) that, when afforested in the mid-1960s, had obliterated the remains of an abandoned settlement.
The road curved south then swung back north, heading inland to cut off the bulk of Ardmeanach. Intially, this inland road was flanked on both sides by trees but after a while it broke free of them and emerged onto open moorland, where the wind and the rain had their full opportunity to make me as cold and damp as they could. They seized that opportunity with both hands.
Allt Chreaga Dubha
Walking briskly kept me warm and I soon reached the point where I really couldn’t get much wetter, so I just accepted that that’s how it was and resolved to enjoy myself anyway. I was rewarded for this weirdly fatalistic optimism by the sight of a cascade of low but fast-flowing waterfalls, formed by the waters of the Allt Chreaga Dubha (‘black crag burn’).
With surprising abruptness, the road soon reached the end of a valley as one side fell away in a sweep of steep cliffs. A low plain lay to my left beneath the road, while ahead I saw the open Atlantic, or would have if it wasn’t for the rain.
Close to the shore, misty but visible, was the islet of Inch Kenneth (Innis Choinnich), named for St Kenneth, a follower of St Columba (who spread Christianity to Scotland). Early missionaries loved their islands and Kenneth is said to have built a monastery on the one that now bears his name.
Samuel Johnson’s Visit
Small and grassy, with a large house upon it, the island has had various owners, venerable and notorious. In 1773, it was owned by Sir Allan Maclean, head of the Clan MacLean, who hosted lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) and his biographer James Boswell (1740-1795) as part of their 83-day tour of the Hebrides.
Two years later, Johnson would publish his travel account as A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland. They hadn’t exactly had great weather, either. In Johnson’s own words:
‘The weather was now almost one continued storm, and we were to snatch some happy intermission to be conveyed to Mull, the third Island of the Hebrides, lying about a degree south of Sky, whence we might easily find our way to Inch Kenneth, where Sir Allan Maclean resided, and afterward to Jona.’
Skye Boat Song
A little over a century and a half later Inch Kenneth had fallen into English hands, though its owner, Sir Harold Boulton Bt (1859-1935), was sufficiently a scotophile to write the now well-known lyrics to the Skye Boat Song.
The tune itself was older, having been collected in the 1870s by Anne Campbell MacLeod (1855–1921). She had been visiting the area and was being rowed in a boat to Skye when the rowers broke into a Gaelic rowing song — Cuachag nan Craobh (‘The cuckoo in the grove’). Afterwards, she wrote down what she could recall of the tune and this became the Skye Boat Song.
In 1938 the island was bought by David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, the father of the notorious Mitford Sisters.
Deeply depressed by (in no particular order) his son’s death in WW2, the break-up of his marriage and his own financial incompetence, he lived there as a recluse until his death in 1958. One of his daughters, Unity Mitford (1914-1948) — an infamous Fascist who had been a member of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle and who had attempted suicide when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 — died there while visiting him, the brain damage from her failed suicide (she shot herself in the head) having finally given rise to fatal meningitis.
Across the narrow channel from this surprisingly significant islet and just around the corner from the photo above was Balnahard, a tiny hamlet into which the road descended. I made my way down there with pleasure, scoffing my packed lunch on the way.
The hamlet stood at the foot of a steep coastal slope beneath rocky crags that were hidden in the rain and mist. Numerous boulders, some rather large, were strewn about the lower slopes, having fallen from the crags. But I had been forewarned of this by the road sign in the last photo.
An Unexpected Welcome
I received the warmest of welcomes in Balnahard, in the most unexpected manner. As I entered the hamlet, dozens of eyes keenly followed my progress, quickly converging on my position with cries of joy and excitement. I was soon surrounded by the welcoming crowd.
Sheep are normally cautious by nature, as befits a herbivorous herd animal that lives in constant fear of being eaten. And it’s a reasonable fear — they are, after all, quite delicious.
These sheep, instead of fleeing from my presence with their usual brisk trot that serves to not only evade me but to remind me that I’m not worth the effort of running from, had rushed towards me, their body language radiating excitement that was almost off the scale. I suspected I knew why.
Not the Nummy Snacks Man
Almost certainly, these eager ovines were expecting someone to feed them some sort of supplementary treat to help them through the lean months and, for all that sheep have an excellent memory for faces — it’s how they recognise each other and also their farmers and shepherds — their little sheep brains had concluded that this mysterious stranger must be the new Nummy Snacks Man.
Except, of course, I wasn’t. All I had left in my bag was one apple and that wasn’t going to go far between however many dozens of sheep were now my bestest friends ever. As they milled around me, staring at me with expectant eyes, and I continued to not feed them, I felt monstrously mean. They seemed so wildly happy and all I could do was disappoint. It was awful.
Moving Quickly On…
I quickly figured the only thing I could really do was stride quickly away and hope that their farmer would be along shortly, which he probably would (I suspected their excitement and erroneous assumption was because I’d walked amongst them at dinner time).
I figured wrong.
I could certainly stride quickly away. The trouble was, they could trot equally quickly, and sheep, it turns out, have more tenacity than I’d have given them credit for. And so for the next quarter of a mile, I was surrounded by my very own personal ambulatory cloud, bleating plaintively all the way. Feeling mean gave way to feeling wretched.
Local Landy Man
After a while, a Land Rover pulled up and I expected and hoped that this would be the farmer, about to give me an earful for tormenting his flock. It was not. It was, however, a local man who grinned amusedly at me and my gang of ovine admirers.
‘You’ll not shake them,’ he said, a veritable twinkle in his eye. ‘Their farmer feeds them at this time of day; he’ll be along in a bit.’
He drove off, forcing the sheep to scatter. I accelerated away in the other direction, hoping the sheep might be distracted by the Landy. But, as I’d been told, I couldn’t shake them. At least, not for ages.
I’m not sure exactly how far the sheep followed me, since turning around to see if they were still there only encouraged them to continue. As the road approached the headland of Creag Mhòr (‘great crag’), it became windier and I think I lost them when I managed to get two bends ahead so that when they rounded a corner, I was already out of sight. I rushed on just in case.
A little further on, I encountered another group of sheep with the same dye markings and my heart sank as they all turned to look at me. But then — to my great joy as much as theirs — another Landy pulled up and its driver beeped his horn, the ovine equivalent to an ice cream van jingle. As he got out and started distributing the goodies, the sheep converged upon him like an ungulate implosion.
I, ridiculously grateful to be taunting no more livestock, slipped past as quickly as I could.
Loch na Keal
Having rounded Creag Mhòr, the environment soon began to change. Instead of the open Atlantic, I now had another sea loch on my left, in this case Loch na Keal (Loch na Caol, ‘loch of the narrows’) not that I could see much through the rain.
On my right, the steep cliffs and crags gave way to gentler slopes and open moorland and eventually a patch of scraggly trees that looked as if they’d all been tortured to death. This was Scarisdale Wood, my OS map told me and it meant that the reason it felt as though Loch na Keal had gone on for miles, was because it absolutely had. I’d walked five miles of it, in fact, and had less than one to go before I reached the head of the loch, where the road would turn inland to the farmstead and hamlet of Knock.
At Knock (from an cnoc meaning ‘the hill’), the road did an abrupt left-hand turn to cross the River Bà on an old stone bridge. Thereafter, it became flanked by trees as it headed north the half mile or so it took to reach the village of Gruline.
Gruline is a sparse and scattered village whose greatest day-to-day significance for many will be that it is where the B8073 meets the B8035. It does have slightly more to offer than that though. There are some cairns and a couple of standing stones and, about quarter of a mile from the B-road, down a pedestrian-only track, there is the mausoleum of Maj Gen Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1824) and his family.
Lachlan Macquarie (Lachann MacGuaire) was born on the island of Ulva, which lies off the northern edge of the mouth of Loch na Keal. A career army officer, he joined the 84th Regiment of Foot in 1777 and fought against the rebels in the American War of Independence. He rose in rank, serving in India and Egypt with various regiments, culminating in his holding command of the 73rd Regiment of Foot.
In 1809, following a rebellion against Governor William Bligh (1754-1817) of HMS Bounty fame, Macquarie was dispatched to New South Wales with the 73rd to assume the gubernatorial position and restore order in the colony. He remained in that capacity until 1821, during which time pretty much every second thing in Australia got named after him. He died in London in 1824, not long after his return, and was buried in Gruline in a mausoleum that names him as ‘the Father of Australia’.
St Columba’s Church
Having not gone to see the mausoleum, I continued through Gruline, passing St Columba’s Church.
Just past the church was the junction with the B8073. I had considered stating that as the official end of the day’s walk, though I still had to get to Salen in order to catch a bus. However, my plans for the following day involved walking to Tobermory (Tobar Mhoire) and I had yet to decide on which route I’d take. Salen offered the most options, so I decided that the last couple of miles would count.
Crossing the Isthmus
Salen (An t-Sàilean) sits on Mull’s north coast, on the other side of a 2½ mile isthmus to Gruline, which is about half a mile inland. I thus had two miles of isthmus to traverse. This was achieved by following the B8035 to its end, a journey which tried very hard to answer the question ‘how big do potholes have to get before a road’s impassable to traffic?’
Some forty minutes later, I reached the small village of Salen.
19th Century Ferryport
Salen dates back only to the early 1800s, when Lachlan Macquarie realised that not only was it a key junction of what laughably passed for roads back then but that it was also an ideal site to establish a harbour, being the point on the Sound of Mull that was nearest to his estates. A pier was built to service a ferry and a village grew up around the junction. The Oban-Tobermory steamers, when they were later invented, would call into Salen en route.
In time, Salen gained a hotel and other amenities but lost much of its importance when RO-RO ferries became a thing and Craignure Pier was built to take that traffic instead.
A Wearisome Wait
I arrived at Salen about an hour earlier than planned, which meant I had a bit of a wait for the bus to Tobermory (where I’d booked a hotel room). Having done some research, I knew that Salen had a café, the hotel and a shop, so the wait needn’t be too arduous, I thought. Guess again, mammal.
The café had turned into a ‘Mediterranean restaurant’ and so wasn’t open so early. The hotel’s public bar also showed no sign of being open. That left only the shop. I stocked up on snacks and paced up and down by the bus stop for an hour, concerned that if I stopped moving in the cold and wet, hypothermia might follow.
The bus, when it arrived, was a very welcome sight and I happily relaxed as it whisked me away to a warm bath, hot meal and an evening of trying to dry out my rain-damaged phone enough that it would start working again.
The following morning, I’d be back…
This time: 23 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,194 miles