GIVEN the dismal downpour that had dominated day two of my first 2018 walking trip, I threw back the curtains on day three with some trepidation. The sky was grim and grey but the water appeared to be staying up there and not rushing to join me on the ground. I judged this a qualified success and hurried to the bus stop, keen to get started while that was still the case.
The bus returned me to Salen, which I immediately left. This was slightly more exciting than I make it sound because I had three possible routes onwards from Salen and, having left it to the last moment to see how I felt about the options, I was quite interested to discover which one I’d take.
One was to head directly up the north-east coast of the island, following the A848. Another was to take an unclassified road that veered inland to head up Glen Aros alongside Loch Frisa. That was certainly tempting. The third option, and my original plan, was to backtrack the last part of the previous day’s walk and join the B8073 for a circuitous route vie the island’s south-west coast. My money was on option two as being the most likely.
Ha! Shows what I know.
A Plethora of Potholes
I totally surprised myself by turning left at Salen’s church (built in 1899) and committing myself to option 3 after all.
The two miles of near-continuous potholes that separated Salen from Gruline looked even worse now that their treacherous depths weren’t hidden by puddles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was very little traffic on that road but of the vehicles that were there, one was Gruline’s only scheduled bus of the day (a return bus in the evening goes there only by arrangement). The bus rattled and wobbled past at some speed, the potholes showing it no mercy, and I felt positively lucky to be a mere pedestrian, slower though it was.
Loch na Keal
I may have been reliant on the plodding pace of Shanks’s pony, but that metaphorical equine got me where I wanted soon enough. Gruline, you may recall, is a scattered settlement strewn around a junction and, having reached it, I turned right for adventure! Woohoo! Nothing could stop me now!
The first mile or so of the B8073 was a little way inland with the River Bà flowing between it and the loch-side. This state of affairs ended near the mouth of that river, and I found myself next to the gravelly shore of Loch na Keal.
The day before, I had walked alongside this loch for several miles but hadn’t seen across it on account of poor visibility brought on by the rain. In fact, conditions had been so poor, I hadn’t even been able to see the top half of the hills I was walking right next to. It had been a world of cold, grey drizzle.
With my spirits soaring on account of having the exciting ability to actually see more than a few metres ahead, the next five miles or so became a joyous thing. I strolled briskly and happily along the B-road as it writhed its way along the loch’s northern shore. How could this possibly get any better?
Visible on the left in the photo above is the island of Eorsa, which I hadn’t even glimpsed they day before. The island is uninhabited and, perhaps not coincidentally, is said to be ‘heaving with adders’.
Eorsa’s lack of human habitation didn’t hinder — and may in fact have prompted — its use as the setting for Bridal Path, a 1952 comedic novel by Nigel Tranter (1909-2000), in which the widowed protagonist must leave the island in search of a new wife as he is too closely related to everyone else on Eorsa. It is thought that he chose an uninhabited isle so as not to offend any genuine communities with the allegation of inbreeding.
I imagine the adders were livid.
As I made my way merrily along the B8073 I passed the occasional isolated cottage with names like Kellan Mill and Killiemor (Cille Mhòr, ‘big church’, though none was in evidence). The resident of one of these cottages, nestling in a sharp bend in the road, had made her own road signs beseeching drivers to slow down:
Big Yellow Lorry
As the road approached the mouth of Loch na Keal, it began to slowly gain height, eventually cresting at 108 m. This section of road was also beset by potholes, though they differed from those on B8035 near Salen in two important respects. Firstly, they were nowhere near as plentiful and, secondly, they were being filled by two men in a big yellow lorry.
I edged around the lorry with due caution, not wanting to receive a shovelful of hot asphalt from an unexpecting workman. One of the two road-menders subsequently showed his appreciation and understanding with a menacing glare that suggested that the only reason I wasn’t shovelled to death there and then was that it would waste good asphalt.
I thought this apparent hostility a little unnecessary but said nothing and, tutting inwardly like the Englishman I am, I kept going.
An Impending Impasse
A little way ahead I encountered a car coming the other way and, as I stepped aside to let it pass, I realised that there was no way it could get around the road repair lorry on this single-track road. Curious, I back-tracked fifty metres to see what events would unfold.
The lorry had been making progress as follows: It would drive forward to just in front of a pothole, then one or both of the men would jump out, shovel asphalt into the pothole and tamp it down with the shovel. All of which sounds a lot quicker than it was; they were pretty much operating on geological time. Then, when done, they’d hop back into the lorry, inch it forwards to the next pothole and repeat.
The car pootled up to behind the lorry and stopped. It had no choice really. The road men glanced at it once and kept shovelling. Well, fair enough, they could hardly leave the blob of asphalt they’d just put down untamped. Then, when they were done, they reembarked the lorry and this was where I wanted to see what happened next.
Like many rural Scottish roads, the B8073 was single-track with passing places and there was a handy passing place perhaps 20 m in front of the lorry. Any reasonable road-worker would surely drive forward to that, let the car pass, and then reverse to the pothole. Wouldn’t they? I mean, otherwise they’d just be obstructing the highway.
So, the road-men had got back into their lorry. The car driver released his handbrake in anticipation. The lorry rolled forwards — maybe two metres — and out jumped one of the workmen and chucked asphalt onto the road.
Yup, I nodded to myself, thought so. It was going to be at least half an hour before they made it to the passing place.
Some days, being a pedestrian is amazing.
And so, at a steady pace of a little over 3 mph, which by my reckoning was well over 100 times faster than the lorry and car, I pressed on down the 14% hill that led to the farmstead and hamlet of Oskamull, the closest of Mull’s settlements to the neighbouring island of Ulva.
Sound of Ulva & Loch Tuath
Ulva (Ulbha) is quite small, totalling no more than eight square miles. For centuries, it was the property of Clan MacQuarrie and Gen Lachlan MacQuarrie — the Father of Australia — was born there in 1762; he is buried, not far away, in a mausoleum in Gruline.
The MacQuarries sold the island in 1835 and its new owner, Francis William Clark, cared little for the island’s community of kelpers. He initiated a brutal series of clearances, giving no warnings and setting fire to roofs to drive the tenants out. The island’s population quickly dwindled: in the 1841 census there had been 849 inhabitants on Ulva and neighbouring Gometra (Gòmastra), spread across sixteen settlements. By 1889, it was down to 83 and Clark’s own son, also Francis William, decried his father’s actions.
The Clark family sold Ulva to the Howards in 1945 and they still own it today although the current inhabitants (the population has now dwindled to 16) are in the midst of a community buyout, backed by the Scottish Land Fund.
The Temptation of Tea
Ulva was tempting, as I know it has a team room, the Boathouse, but I had purchased ample supplies before leaving Tobermory that morning and the ferry is surprisingly expensive for a crossing of a few hundred metres.
And so, sustained by my own hot… well, warmish… beverage (my flask is not the best), I strode through Oskamull oblivious to the plaintive entreaties of Ulva.
I quickly passed Ulva Primary School (Bun-sgoil Ulbha), which had also managed to resist the lure of the island, seeing as how it was firmly on Mull. Beyond that, the road turned sharply to the right and led me on past Laggan Bay (lagan, ‘little hollow’) to the tiny settlement of Lagganulva.
The field immediately beyond Lagganulva caused me a moment of confusion as my brain tried to decide if I’d entered a not quite parallel dimension. The cause of my consternation was an entire flock of black sheep. Now, it’s not unusual to see the odd black sheep here and there but when all the sheep have black wool, I think it’s a reasonable concern to have that I’m in some twisted mirror universe. They certainly confused my camera, which no matter how it tried, couldn’t resolve them into anything better than sheep-shaped shadows.
Eas Fors Waterfall
By this point, my stomach was objecting, in rumbly fashion, that not visiting Ulva was all very well but my packed lunch was doing me no good by remaining packed. I was minded to agree with it. Fortunately, an excellent picnic spot awaited a mile down the road…
Eas Fors Waterfall is said to be one of the most spectacular waterfalls on Mull and is actually a cascade of three. The one in the photo, just above the road, is the upper waterfall. The middle fall, below the road, is broader and shallower, while the final fall plunges 30 m onto a boulder beach.
This tripartite nature is beautifully reflected, though not deliberately, in its tautological name: eas is Gaelic for ‘waterfall’; fors is Norse for the same thing. So ‘Eas Fors Waterfall’ means ‘waterfall waterfall waterfall,’ which is exactly what’s there!
I ate my lunch at a leisurely pace and took the opportunity have a bit of a rest.
Eventually, fed and refreshed, I picked myself up and wended my way further westwards.
This took me through the hamlet of Ballygown (baile a’ ghobhainn, ‘smith’s town’), which had some beautifully tumbledown stone-walled banks along the roadside and properly qualified as a settlement rather than a farmstead, having several cottages strung along the road.
I ambled contentedly through this and beyond, enjoying views out over Loch Tuath, as the broad channel between Ulva and that part of Mull’s coast was called. Before long, I passed through another strung-out hamlet, labelled on my map as Fanmore (Fàn Mòr, ‘big slope’).
It was on the far side of Fanmore, past a place called Normann’s Ruh, that the B8073 veered away from the coast and began to head inland.
The road only headed inland for about half a mile, mostly so that it could avoid the rocky outcrop of Torr an Ogha (‘mound of the grandchild’). This carried the road to the tiny settlement of Achleck, where I had my second decision of the day.
A junction with an unclassified road permitted the option of cutting straight across Mull to Dervaig. Or, if I preferred, a little further on, a footpath — the Minister’s Path or Crois Mhàraidh Dhubh (‘Black Mary’s cross’) — led to Calgary on Mull’s west coast. Or, if I had absolutely no sense of what was realistically achievable, I could continue along the B8073.
I have to admit, I quite fancied the footpath and it had been high on my list of good weather choices but a glance at the sky suggested that I was running out of even the merely acceptable weather that I had enjoyed all day. Rain was definitely on the way. Okay, so probably not the footpath then. If I still planned to end at Tobermory, then staying on the B8073 would entail a walk of thirty-something miles that would end long after sunset. Also not a good plan. Right then, unclassified road it was…
C45 to Dervaig
Not Actually Narrower
Officially the C45 (although C-roads aren’t labelled as such on signs or maps), the road may have had a lesser designation but motor vehicles are only so narrow and thus it was basically the exact same width as the road I’d just left.
From Woodland to Moorland
To begin with, it was delightfully wooded, with a nearby gurgling stream and mossy walls. It began climbing almost immediately, gaining about 50 m in half a mile. At that point, the road emerged from the trees and, still climbing, headed out into the open moorland that characterises so much of the Highlands.
The road soon began to climb more steeply, gaining another 70 m in the next half mile or so. As it rose, it became more exposed and soon I had a brisk, damp breeze tearing at my clothes. Hang on, a damp breeze? Ah, that would be the rain…
Cresting the Summit
It wasn’t too bad — only lightly spitting — though the wind tried its best to force wind-blown mist through the weave of what I was wearing. Even so, I was still rather enjoying myself as I crested the road’s summit and a little damp weather seemed an okay price to pay.
I had been warm all day up to then but blimey, it was cold up there! The descent was either mercifully gentle or cruelly drawn-out depending on your tolerance for cold, wet wind. Either way, it took three full miles of moorland road to lose the height that it had gained in just over one. At the bottom of this slow descent the road met back up with the B8073, having basically circumvented a big loop. I then followed the B-road for half a mile as it led me into the centre of Dervaig.
A Planned Village
Dervaig (Dearbhaig) is pronounced ‘DER-vig’ and its name derives from Old Norse for ‘good inlet.’ The village is somewhat younger than that though, dating to 1799, when Alexander MacLean, Laird of Coll, established it as a planned village. He built 26 houses lining both sides of a street, each with its own garden.
Though it never became a large town, Dervaig did grow and, by the late 1800s, it had shops, a post office, a smithy and no less than two inns. Although, to be fair, one of those was an old drover’s inn that had pre-existed the village.
Still open today, the Bellachroy Inn proudly names itself the oldest inn on the island, having been established in 1608.
Coffee & Cake
The inn would have been tempting had I not been quite so cold and damp by then. I decided that a coffee was what I really needed. I was pretty sure that I’d read that the village has two tea rooms, and maybe it does, but where I actually found myself was in its combined shop and post office, which had a coffee dispenser and comfy seats in one corner.
A coffee and a cake can work restorative wonders.
Having had a nice sit down, a hot drink and some sugary snacks, I now felt ready for anything. Oh, how naïve. I stepped outside to discover to my boundless joy… sorry, my unending despair… that the drizzle had intensified into full on downpouring rain. Oh, hurrah!
Ah well, I had little choice but to simply get on with it. So I did.
B8073 to Tobermory
The B8073 climbed steeply out of Dervaig to what my map indicates is a viewpoint but the weather declined to show me it. The road then convulsed in a series of bends for about half a mile, which turned out to be a bit of a practice for when it zig-zagged its way down into the valley occupied by Achnadrish House (a former shooting lodge). On the far side, it zig-zagged back out again.
Achnadrish Old Bridge
I was thoroughly soaked through by this point, my waterproofs haven given up all pretence of answering to that description. I was also cold again and working on becoming miserable but the valley held a surprise at the bottom that wouldn’t have cheered up anyone else but certainly made me smile: an old road alignment, complete with disused bridge.
The climb back out of the valley had little to commend it, what with the effort and the weather. At the top though there was something of a consolation in the form of Loch Torr (Loch an Tòrr). The earliest Ordnance Survey maps don’t show this smallish loch at all for the simple reason that it didn’t exist, having been created by damming. Argyll & Bute Council’s Register of Large, Raised Reservoirs lists its creation as ‘pre-1872’.
I did try to take a picture of it but essentially failed, my camera having decided it would much rather focus on something irrelevant in the foreground. And, while it was too distracted by proximity to photograph Loch Torr, I was too distracted to notice that that had happened. I was feeling a need to determinedly press on (on the general basis that the quicker I went, the sooner I’d be somewhere warm and dry).
As I made my way along the seemingly endless stretch of rain-lashed B-road, I passed a track signed for Loch Frisa. Had I followed one of the possible routes through Glen Aros and Salen Forest (which had been option two that morning, though it felt like a lifetime ago) I’d have joined the B8073 there. In a perverse way, that kind of helped as it made the whole experience feel like it was inevitable.
At the far end of the road in the previous photo, the B8073 climbed steeply into a raised valley forming a pass in the hills. There I found a loch that my camera could focus on.
The loch in question is Loch Carnain an Amais (‘loch of the meeting cairns’), one of the three Mishnish Lochs. The other two are Loch Meadhoin (‘middle loch’) and Loch Peallach (’shaggy loch’), although really the three are just parts of one continuous loch. Prior to 1903, they were genuinely separate but that year a concrete gravity dam was constructed, raising the water level until they merged into each other. The water was used to supply Tobermory.
The Mishnish lochs have a length of about a mile and a half, though it felt like longer. As I walked beside them, the sky lightened and the rain eased off, becoming mere drizzle again. That alone made things a billion times better.
For all that the loch-side walk became something of a pleasant evening stroll, I still had two miles to go when I ran out of loch. The road roughly paralleled the Tobermory River as it wound downhill into Mull’s ‘capital’.
Tobermory (Tobar Mhoire, ‘Mary’s well’) was founded as a fishing port in 1788 and laid out to a design by Thomas Telford (1757-1834) as part of a plan by the British Fisheries Society to create new fishing communities. It was Mull’s only burgh, though in size it is more of a village than a town.
For many in Britain, Tobermory is perhaps most familiar through children’s TV programming.
For those of my generation, Tobermory was one of the Wombles, the secretive rubbish-recycling creatures of Wimbledon Common originally from the books by Elisabeth Beresford (1926-2010).
A later generation of children will know its buildings from the programme Balamory, set on a fictional small island. The BBC used the town as a setting in part because of its attractively colourful buildings, which are painted in a manner I have often seen in Wales but not, so far, elsewhere in Scotland.
Success by Sunset
The sun had set and the daylight was fading as I made my way into Tobermory and returned to my hotel. I was cold, wet, tired and footsore but a hot bath dealt with most of that.
In the morning I would be taking the ferry back to the mainland, in the meantime, food, drink and a good night’s sleep were in order…
This time: 26 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,220 miles