Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Celebrating the Uncelebrated

At Mull Magic, we tend not to be too hasty about making New Year resolutions. Certainly, not as hasty as we tend to be about dishonouring those that we are foolish to make in the first instance! However, one resolution that we do uphold is the acknowledgement and appreciation of the interconnectedness of life that makes this wonderful island that we are proud to call our home so very, very special.

This ‘interconnectedness’ is known today by the buzzword, biodiversity, a catch-all that celebrates the bones, heart and lungs of the ecosystems in which we all live and breathe. It recognises the contributions played by land, sea and sky; soil, rock and cloud; phytoplankton, fish and whale; mosses, lichens and liverworts; beaches, birds and butterflies. Everything, including human beings, the destroyer and potential saviour of all that we celebrate!

On the Isle of Mull, much is made regarding the contribution that the island’s ‘celebrity’ wildlife brings to the island. For a decade or more, thousands of ‘eco-evangalists’ have made the crusade to Mull, in order to grab a slice of the wildlife action that has so vividly been portrayed by television programmes, such as ‘SpringWatch’ and ‘AutumnWatch’. For many, the Isle of Mull has become synonymous with White-tailed Eagles, Otters and Corncrakes, birds and beasts that are rarely, if ever, encountered in parts of the mainland.

It is only right that we celebrate our iconic wildlife, but, in doing so, we should always remember that they could not thrive on Mull if it wasn’t for the wonderful supporting cast of other wild things that exist on the island. The White-tailed Eagle is not an island and there is, indeed, more to the magic of the island of Mull than White-tailed Eagles!

In 2011, Mull Magic will continue to support the island’s eagles and otters, as we have always done, but we will redouble our efforts to bring more of the undiscovered and the unheralded wildlife to the attention of those with eyes to see and ears to hear. In 2011, let’s all make the wildlife resolution to CELEBRATE THE UNCELEBRATED and to marvel as much at the humble House Sparrow as the exhilarating (White-tailed) Eagle!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Tomorrow it will rain

Our fascination with the weather is said to be a very British peculiarity. It would appear that if we didn’t have things meteorological to discuss, some of us would have very little to talk about! On a serious note, the bright, sunny mornings of Spring on the Isle of Mull do, indeed, help to lift our mood, while the dark, gloomy days of Winter, quite literally, dampen our spirits.

Being an island and considering our geographical position, the Isle of Mull is particularly subjected to the vagaries of the weather. Our cool, maritime climate, influenced by the warming waters of the Gulf Stream, has meant that, until recently, our Winter weather has been dominated by wind and rain (and then some!) The darkest days of the year, on the run-up to the Winter Solstice, can be the gloomiest for some, when the need for succour from a bottle or anti-depressants is greatest. However, the past couple of Winters have seen our weather reverting to type, with the return of the snow and ice of childhood memory.

Global warming has played some funny tricks with our weather here on the island. Surrounded by sea, Mull has become used to frost-free Winters, when what snow that fell was largely confined to the high tops of the central massif surrounding Ben More. The past two Winters have brought with them some real Winter weather, with bitingly cold, frosty days and nights recalling times when the snow lay deeper and the sun shone brighter: the halcyon days of a seemingly lost age.

With the snow and ice come difficulties, but, here at Mull Magic we welcome the return of Winter as we remember it from bygone days. It did seem that we may never experience snow in Scotland like we used to ever again. We now realise that Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humour and was simply storing it up, in order to drop it on us in bulk! Having said all this, the Isle of Mull has missed out on much of the snowfall that has crippled the mainland, both now on the build-up to Christmas and during the early weeks of 2010.

As we fall on our backsides (for the umpteenth time!) on the treacherous black ice that masquerades as our doorstep, we realise just how fortunate we are. We will have fun today, for tomorrow it will rain!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

The festive period is a time of year destined to divide the nation. Some people revel in the Season of Goodwill’s unique atmosphere and simply adore everything that has a ‘Let’s Party’ tag on it. Others, quite frankly, would prefer to undergo temporary torpor and sleep until normal service is resumed around the 3rd of January. Christmas will always be a very special time of year for Mull Magic. With presents bought and placed under the tree and our respects paid to Santa Claus at Glengorm Castle, we like nothing better than to put on our boots and head out in to the Mull countryside. This time of year offers us a wonderful opportunity to get closer to much of the island's wildlife, while walking off the excesses associated with the season.

Talking of resuming something akin to normal service, after a hectic few months taken up with other commitments, Mull Magic is pleased to be up-and-running once more on our Blogspot and Facebook pages. Our many friends and followers, from all around the world, are hugely important to us and we know from your feedback just how much you’ve missed keeping up to date with all that we’ve been up to during our recent internet absence. Thank you all for your support during 2010 and we hope you will continue to enjoy sharing our love and passion for everything that is magical about the Isle of Mull in the forthcoming months.

The tail end of any year, inevitably, has many casting a retrospective glance over their shoulders to the year almost past, while contemplating what the 52 weeks of the New Year may have in store. To conclude what has been yet another thrilling 12 months for Mull Magic, we would like to re-live some of our favourite moments of the past year with you on our Blogspot and Facebook pages - check back for updated pages and albums soon.

At Mull Magic we love the friendly, fun feel of Christmas, here on the island, and would like to take this opportunity to wish all our friends and followers a fun-filled Christmas and the health and happiness to make all your dreams come true in 2011. Slàinte mhath!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

An Obliterated Odyssey

Save for the warm air and lack of wind, it was nigh impossible to fathom which season of the year it was, let alone the correct month. The sea mist had rolled in and reduced our visibility down to 50 metres, obliterating the scenic splendour of Mull’s North-West coast, as well as any hope we had of fulfilling our guests ‘Eighteen Island Odyssey'.

The remote headlands on the North-West of the island comprise some of Mull Magic’s favourite walks, offering our visitors (on a clear day!) the opportunity to ‘visit’ no fewer than eighteen different Inner Hebridean islands, by dint of a 180 degree turn of their heads. However, on our most recent visit, we could barely see beyond the nose on our faces and had to draw on all our powers of descriptive vocabulary and fecund imagination to paint a picture of the breathtaking scenery that had been draped in a damp veil of greyness.

In the absence of more favoured blues and purples, grey is alright, so we set about making the most of a day (and a 7 mile walk!) that threatened to close in on us, prompting the need for our compasses to be near at hand. Due to the conditions, we realised that wildlife could be at a premium, so we were absolutely thrilled when a Grayling butterfly rose from some coastal rocks we were scrambling over. It soon re-settled, allowing our guests the chance to discover the incredible cryptic camouflage this insect has, allowing it to blend in perfectly with the lichen-stained rocks it inhabits.

The Grayling is one of our favourite butterflies, largely on account of its ‘drab’ and ‘lacklustre’ colouring. Unobtrusive by nature, the black, brown, grey and white markings of its hind wings help it not draw attention to itself. Just sometimes, however, we can’t help but think that this unassuming insect must have a darker side, perhaps like the Dunnock has among garden birds. Has anyone out there any gossip about Graylings that they’d care to share with us at Mull Magic?

Like a mini-version of the famous Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the United States, many of Mull’s headlands have their very own ‘faces’ that have been sculpted in the basalt cliffs. History lessons at school (admittedly, quit some time ago!) suggested that the Romans never made it as far North as the Isle of Mull. That said, we don’t think that we are stretching a point by suggesting that the following photograph captures the image of a Roman legionary, complete with helmet (and nose), to perfection!

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Situated a short way inland and on the highest point of an otherwise sleepy hollow in North Mull lies An Sean Dun, one of the best preserved fortifications of its kind on the island and the focus of several of our recent walks. Dating back over 2,000 years, the fort would have been an integral part of a local community that lived in the area and practised farming and stock rearing.

Occupying a ridge overlooking the entrance to the Sound of Mull, with the Cuillins of Rum in the distance, this almost circular enclosure is easily overlooked, but provided us with wonderful views and immense satisfaction, once we had scrambled up its gentle, bracken-infested slopes. On account of its position, this is a structure that is best viewed from the air and, consequently, our photographs, including this one showing the eastern entrance to the dun, don’t do it justice.

Some superb aerial photographs of this site can be accessed by clicking on the following link

The nearby ruined settlement at Baliacrach was more recently occupied and remains to tell a very different story in relation to the area’s rich and, sometimes, chequered past. The entrance to one of the houses has some very attractive ‘graffiti’ etched on to one of the stones that make up the door frame. The outline of a sailing ship can be clearly seen on the yellow and grey lichen-stained rock and represents a fascinating and intricate piece of artistry from a forgotten time.

It's over 150 years since the first Mole appeared on Isle of Mull soil, being inadvertently introduced in soil ballast transported from nearby Lochaline on the Scottish mainland. Nowadays, evidence of their presence can be found throughout the island and, where mole hills are located near sites of historical importance, Mull Magic has got into the way of kicking over the disturbed top soil, in the hope of unearthing a rare antiquity.

Living in underground chambers, moles are very rarely seen above ground. They are industrious diggers or ‘dirt tossers’, as their name implies, being capable of excavating up to 20 metres in a day. They are little mammalian gymnasts that think nothing of travelling backwards or performing forward roles in their tunnels. The drought conditions earlier this year meant that local moles would have had to dig deep for their favourite meal of earthworms, which they paralyze with toxins excreted in their saliva. However, the recent wet weather has probably resulted in some very rich pickings for the island’s mole population!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Four Seasons in Three Days! (3)

The portents hadn’t been good, as the weather on Mull this July has been atrocious, so St Swithen’s Day (15th) was approached with some trepidation. However, we have had at least one 24-hour period in the past ten days when it hasn’t rained, so we are safe from the curse of the 40 days of downpours for another year! When the sun has come out to play, the views that our walking guests have enjoyed of the North Mull coastline have been exhilarating, to say the least.

The solitary flowers of the Grass of Parnassus are another stunningly beautiful sight to behold on the wet moors of the island in July. Our guests were intoxicated by the smell given off by these exotic-looking flowers. The nectar in the flat, open flowers is easily accessible to insect pollinators, attracted by the sweet aroma of honey that this plant releases. This scent is strongest during sunny days on Mull, coinciding with the time that most potential pollinators are on the wing.

The skerries, inlets and seaweed-strewn bays that punctuate Mull’s North-West coast are a haven for otters. Despite the island’s healthy population, these creatures remain elusive to many visitors. We thought ourselves fortunate to have the company of a rather nonchalant individual that actively fed on an incoming tide while our group were also tucking in to their lunch. The state of the tide and the fact that the wind was blowing our scent away from the ultra-sensitive nostrils of this animal was a big factor in allowing us such prolonged views.

Our resident Greylag Geese appear to have had a profitable breeding season in the North of the island, as depicted by the number of crèches that we have encountered during our walks. Part of the only truly indigenous breeding stock in Britain, these hefty-looking and clamorous birds are very much an avian success story on the island, although they do have their detractors!

Part of this success is based on their ability to grub out the more nutritious subterranean parts of plants and not to be solely reliant on grass for a meal. Nonetheless, Greylag Geese eat a lot of grass and have evolved a highly effective digestive system that fast tracks the food that enters their stomach into the two-inch long cylinders of poo that they freely dispense with!

Monday, 26 July 2010

Four Seasons in Three Days! (2)

Founded on the late Scottish Baronial style of the mid-19th Century, the castle at Glengorm, in North Mull, may not be a ‘real’ castle, yet it cuts a rather dramatic and imposing outline when viewed from the sea. Wonderfully appointed, with superb sunsets to the west over the Isle of Coll, the castle and its environs are steeped in natural and social history. Nowadays, the castle pays its way as an upmarket Bed and Breakfast establishment.

The pastures, meadows and track-sides of North Mull are currently densely populated with the sweet smelling, lilac flower clusters of Creeping Thistle. The male and female flowers of this invasive and persistent perennial are borne on separate plants, with the scent of female flowers being particularly attractive to a variety of insects, including several species of butterfly.

The dark, restless shape of the Scotch Argus is a familiar feature of damp grassland on the Isle of Mull at the height of Summer. They are normally on the wing to coincide with the traditional Glasgow Fair Trades’ holiday fortnight, which commences in mid July. However, we had seen very few on our walks until this week, as the recent poor weather appears to have curtailed their emergence this year.

It is well known that our 'celebrity' White-tailed Eagles at Loch Frisa like to hunt along the coastline of North-West Mull. Nonetheless, it was a very pleasant surprise when, as we sat to enjoy lunch, an adult bird, its white tail gleaming and glinting in the sunshine, idled past in search of a snack of its own.

The creamy-yellow caps and stems of the Dung Roundhead are viscid and slimy to the touch. These toadstools are not unattractive and a common feature of local pastures where sheep and cattle are present. Readers will, no doubt, be pleased to learn that they are inedible, given their association with the evacuated contents of animal bowels!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Four Seasons in Three Days! (1)

It’s rare for Mull Magic to tramp the same area on consecutive outings, let alone re-visit it three days on the trot. Yet, that was the situation we found ourselves in this past week and three very different days we experienced, largely thanks to the vagaries of the Isle of Mull’s Summer climate. The weather may not have quite been of the ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ variety, but the elements certainly combined to throw Spring, Summer and Autumn at us on our recent ventures into the countryside. It did not darken or sully our mood, however, and provided us with some memorable wildlife experiences, as well as being a test of the ability of our waterproofs to stand up to all that Mull’s weather could throw at us!

Built within a sheltered and fertile hollow, the ruined settlement at Baliacrach offered us an insight in to the area’s less auspicious past. The remains of the village command fantastic views across the Sound of Mull to Ardnamurchan and to the islands of Muck and Rum beyond. However, the peace and tranquillity of today’s landscape serves only to mask the anguish, fear and despair of the tenants who once lived there and were brutally evicted at the time of the infamous Highland Clearances.

Dotted throughout on our grassy walks, we encountered the nodding lilac-blue flowerheads of our ‘Scottish Bluebell’. The Harebell is a delicate plant, whose flowers hang on the flimsiest of stems, belying an inner strength that allows it to withstand the worst of Mull’s weather at the height of Summer. The Harebell is known to produce a seed bank, which it keeps topped up year upon year. This ensures that, in difficult times and given the appropriate signal, there are always seeds capable of germinating and replenishing the adult population.

With its fluttering flight and metallic sheen, it is not difficult to imagining the Beautiful Demoiselle being mistaken as a butterfly. This exotic-looking damselfly has a rather disjunct British population and exists in scattered locations on the Isle of Mull, thanks to the mild influence of the Gulf Stream. We were treated to quite marvellous views of this male, bejewelled in its tropical violet-blue-green finery on a day when the sun blessed us with an appearance.

As we climbed to the top of an ancient castle overlooking the Sound of Mull, we spotted an aptly named Antler Moth getting drunk on the nectar of a Hogweed. It allowed such a close approach that we were able to easily make out the white, antler-like branches that give this familiar Summertime moth its common name.

Wet weather and warm temperatures have prompted a spate of early toadstools to emerge. ‘The Blusher’ is one of twenty-four species in the genus Amanita that can be found in Britain, which includes the widely recognised Fly Agaric. ‘The Blusher’ is common in both deciduous and coniferous woodland on the island and is edible after cooking. It does, however, resemble other more poisonous species that could kill with one taste!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Lazy Hum of Summer

The dry weather of the past six months, that brought drought to the Isle of Mull, would appear to be a thing of the past. In time honoured tradition, the heavens opened over Tobermory at the beginning of the Scottish schools’ Summer holiday! Initially, the recent rain did little but darken the surface of the parched ground, but days of heavy, persistent wetting has penetrated deep in to the soil, ensuring the return of muddy footpaths across the island.

Warm sunshine, befitting of the season, has been at a premium, but when the sun has managed to shake off the grey rain clouds, the air has taken on the lazy hum of Summer. The ambient droning of honey bees, bumble-bees and hoverflies, along with the colourful sight of butterflies indulging themselves on sugar-rich flowers encapsulates the heady days of July on the Isle of Mull.

The long, arching branches of the bramble thickets that adorned the paths we followed during today’s walk in North Mull were festooned with flowers. Full of nectar, they are a honey trap for many species of insect, while the soft fruits that will develop later are beloved of Blackbirds. These fruits are delicious and have a high nutritional value, being rich in antioxidants, as well as Vitamin C and Folic Acid. You have to be quick to reap the true benefit of these luscious treats, however, as after the 29th September you should leave brambles well alone. Superstition has it that the devil takes possession of the fruit after this date and marks his property by urinating on the leaves!

Hoverflies are highly attractive insects that, despite their excellent mimicry of bees and wasps, are not harmful to humans. The bright warning colours and similar behaviour to unpalatable or poisonous insects offers this Striped Hoverfly protection, as it gets drunk on its nectar fix: ‘Look at me, I taste nasty, so keep away!’ Hoverflies, because of their resemblance to stinging insects, are greeted with a certain antipathy by the general public, which is a great shame, as they are among the most colourful and spectacular of flies.

Stopping off for a breather and a blether, we were amazed to find a Dark Green Fritillary feeding on a thistle head, only a few metres from where we were standing. This gorgeous orange and black butterfly was so engrossed in its nectaring duties that it appeared oblivious to our closer approach, when we were permitted as instructive a view of this species’ diagnostic underside markings as we could ever have wished. This was the best view that we have ever enjoyed of this fast flying insect and one that will live long in our memory.

The recent return to rain has provided the island’s population of Black Slugs with conditions more to their liking, much to the dismay of local gardeners. At Mull Magic, we are forever championing the role of the overlooked and hidden wildlife of the island and slugs fall in to that category. ‘Surely not!’, we can hear you cry, yet these slimy gastropods play a very important and undervalued role in gardens and woodlands on the Isle of Mull. Much of this mollusc’s time is spent recycling waste matter and helping improve garden and forest soils. They may eat some desirable garden plants, but they also have a taste for more unsavoury ‘treats’, helping get rid of unsightly cat and dog faeces, recycling it as more acceptable slug poo. A slug’s tongue has as many as 27,000 teeth on it. Ever wondered why you never see slugs kissing! Yeuch!

Mull Magic Back Home

We have returned home to the Isle of Mull with a severe dose of post-Cairngorm blues, feeling that we haven’t really been away! These feelings won’t last long, though, as we realise only too well how very privileged we are to breathe the life that we do, here on this marvellous island, surrounded by such fantastic scenery and wonderful wildlife. After all, it is always a pleasant journey that ends amongst old friends!

A week is a long time in wildlife terms at this time of the year, as different flowers fade and bloom and insects emerge to take advantage of the seasonally abundant nectar rush. The sweetly-scented flower clusters of Common Valerian that flanked our route through the damp, coastal woods of North Mull are proving a god-send to hoverflies and sawflies. The roots of this perennial have long been used in herbal medicine to reduce anxiety, to counteract insomnia and to relieve intestinal colic. As a sedative, it was used during the Second World War to help calm the nerves of civilians distressed by frequent air-raid activity and continues to be used in alternative stress-busting drugs today.

Among the various insects taking advantage of these honeyed flowers was a rather robust Club-horned Sawfly. Looking like it was wearing a coat of metallic green and gold armour plating, this insect is as distinctive as it is beautiful. Largely feeders of both nectar and pollen, it derives its common name from the club-shaped tips of its antennae, which can be clearly seen in this photograph.

The sawfly had better watch out, as sharing the same flight path through this woodland glade was a male Golden-ringed Dragonfly. A voracious predator of other insects, it cut an intimidating figure as it patrolled its highway in a rather automated fashion. This, our largest dragonfly to be commonly encountered on the island, is unmistakeable owing to its black and yellow banding and bulging green eyes. With those looks, it wouldn’t look out of place in a scary, sci-fi blockbuster or in an episode of Doctor Who!

Basking Sharks have been appearing close inshore around the North Mull coast earlier than usual this year, so it was with hopeful optimism that we scanned the open water of the bay. Our search didn’t take long and proved exceptionally fruitful when a huge, dark dorsal triangle broke the surface of the tranquil sea. These benign ‘monsters’ of the deep have become a huge draw for eco-tourists on local whale-watching trips, as they are easier to spot than similarly-sized Minke Whales and tend to hang around for a whole lot longer!

A pair of Wheatears had nested in the vicinity of the old settlement we visited, deserted at the time of the infamous Highland Clearances in the early half of the 19th Century. One of their fledged youngsters proved to be a bit of a poser and obligingly stayed still long enough for us to obtain some good photographs. It is a steep learning curve that this juvenile has started out on, one which will see it lay down sufficient stores of body fat over the next couple of months before it flies South to sub-Saharan Africa for the Winter. It’s great to be back home, again, on the Isle of Mull. As we said, its like we’ve never been away!