Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Unnatural Side of Nature

The news that the Isle of Mull’s ‘celebrity’ White-tailed Eagles, ‘Skye’ and ‘Frisa’, have failed with their breeding attempt this year is very sad news for the island. The Loch Frisa birds’ first egg hatched during particularly cold and damp weather and the young eaglet wasn’t able to withstand the low temperatures it experienced during the first hours of it’s life. Mother Nature can be cruel, but nests, eggs and young are lost to the elements every year. So much time, effort and expertise are invested in our Sea Eagles, making it much more difficult for people to comprehend when things don’t turn out as planned. To many, ‘Skye’ and ‘Frisa’ have become ‘part of the family’ and their misfortune will be sorely felt, given that 2010 marks the 25th anniversary since these majestic raptors returned to breed on Mull.

A pair of Blackbirds chose to nest in the ‘Mull Magic’ garden this Spring. Throughout March and April, the mellifluous tones of ‘Bertie’(the male) has greeted the dawning of each new day and acted as our alarm clock. We watched with tremendous respect and no little admiration as his mate, ‘Bessie’, laid the foundations necessary for their first breeding attempt of the season. Just where did she get all that energy from? Whenever we looked, ‘Bessie’ could be seen rooting about in the garden, collecting a beakful of moss, mud, leaves and grasses that she would weave in to her unique feat of avian architecture. ‘Bessie’ put her all into making a house and home fit to cradle her eggs and chicks, while ‘Bertie’ serenaded the love of his life from a lofty perch in a cherry tree.

Within a day of putting the finishing touches to her nest, ‘Bessie’ had laid the first of her beautiful blue-green, speckled with warm brown, eggs. Every morning for the next two days, she would sit tight on her nest and add to her clutch. That ‘Bessie’ completed her egg-laying after the third egg was unusual, as Blackbirds usually lay four or five eggs in their first clutch of the season. The likelihood is that ‘Bertie’ and ‘Bessie’ were first-time buyers and inexperienced at the mating game.

We sat back in anticipation of young Blackbirds parading around the ‘Mull Magic’ garden in late May. For once, the thought of being ‘parents’ again (at our age) didn’t fill us with dread! However, as ‘Bessie’ settled down to brood her eggs disaster struck. ‘Bessie’ was off-the-nest and nowhere to be seen. On closer inspection, we found that the nest had been toppled and the eggs lay smashed on the ground. Peering guiltily up at us from the base of the ornamental conifer was the culprit…a marauding domestic cat!

Around 8 million cats live in Britain. Not every cat hunts wild birds or likes to bring home ‘gifts’ of mice or voles to its owner. However, pet cats account for a minimum of 100,000,000 bird deaths in Britain each year. ‘Mull Magic’ likes cats, but realise that they often represent the unnatural side of nature. ‘Bertie’ and ‘Bessie’, like ‘Skye’ and ‘Frisa’, will get another chance at success!

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Tobermory’s Link to St. Columba Unearthed

We always knew that our wonderful Isle of Mull was just that wee bit special. An island enveloped by the most breathtakingly stunning scenery to be found anywhere in the British Isles, we’ve always believed Mull to possess remarkable restorative powers that help heal the stresses of everyday life. Now, thanks to a remarkable archaeological discovery, highlighted during last weekend’s ‘Time Team’ programme on Channel Four, it appears that the whole world has awakened to the importance of the island as being part of a medieval template of Christianity in Scotland.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way to the Holy Isle of Iona each year to absorb the island’s unique cultural and spiritual ambience. The monastery at Iona was founded in the late 6th century by Irish missionary monks, whose leader, Saint Columba, is hailed as the founding father of Christianity in Scotland. With the discovery of an early monastic cell, what was previously a pile of grass and moss covered boulders, hidden away in a spruce plantation on the outskirts of Tobermory, has suddenly assumed huge significance.

Dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries, the stone chapel and piece of carved Celtic altar cross that were unearthed, suggest that the land which now houses the island’s ‘capital’ would have previously been occupied by an early Christian community. In pursuit of their faith, these hermits would have lived an ascetic existence in often harsh conditions. Closely allied to Iona and the teaching bequeathed by Saint Columba, this settlement would have had its own leading monk, the fragmented skull bones of whom were uncovered during the archaeological dig. These bones have survived the ravages of 1300 years of acid erosion in Mull’s waterlogged soil.

Present day Tobermory is barely 200 years old, but the surrounding area bears testimony to a Neolithic past. In a field, adjacent to where the monastery was discovered, rise the Baliscate Standing Stones, erected by early Muileachs during the Bronze Age. The Isle of Mull is alive with myth and magic, where legend, at times, blends seamlessly with reality. Sometimes, that reality can appear even stranger than fiction! Today, in 2010, Tobermory is celebrating the news that the town has its very own Saint, a character mentored in the fashion of the Irish monk who brought Christianity to this previously pagan island.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Tom Thumb and the Awesome Giant

You couldn’t think of two more contrasting birds on the Isle of Mull than the tiny Goldcrest and the enormous White-tailed Eagle. The former, measuring barely 9cm from tip of bill to base of tail, is the smallest bird on the island, whilst the Sea Eagle (as it is often called) sometimes appears to be larger than life itself, with it’s 2.5 metre wingspan and weighing in at a hefty 7 kilograms.

We had the unusual prospect of rain to contend with as we set out on today’s walk, which took us in to the heart of one of the ten territories of Mull’s White-tailed Eagle population. It has been a fractious last few days for everyone involved in ‘Eaglewatch’, the scheme set up to protect these magnificent raptors here on the island. Concern has been expressed that all may not be well with some of our ‘celebrity’ eagles and we fear the worst that this breeding season may not prove to be as successful as was hoped. We were pleased and just a little relieved that all appeared to be well with the local pair on today’s walk and our guests were thrilled to bits with their first ever encounter with this awesome giant of Mull’s birds.

Despite the low cloud and intermittent drizzle, the air was alive with the sound of birdsong, as we made our way through the Sitka Spruce plantation, near the head of Loch na Keal. The most severe Winter in living memory on Mull must surely have had an impact on the survival chances of the island’s smallest birds, yet all-around was heard the thin, high-pitched, spiralling song of the tiniest of them all, the Goldcrest. Specially adapted to glean an existence at the tips of conifer branches, the Goldcrest is our ‘Tom Thumb’ bird, yet what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in heart!

The hills and moors of Mull are inhospitable places to live and those plants and animals that choose to do so have to have something special about them. The Lousewort is one such plant. Despite its rather unattractive name, this is a plant that really does what it says on the tin! As a hemi-parasite, it obtains much of its nourishment from the roots of neighbouring moor grass. However, as it has green leaves, it is also able to manufacture its own food by harnessing the energy of the sun. The pink flowers are sugar-rich and used to be a common between-meals snack for children in days of old.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Blue Fades to Grey

It was a grey day yesterday in North Mull, although the already parched ground continued to be denied the April showers that usually fall from the clouds at this time of year. It’s not often that gardeners on the island cry out for rain, but a little moisture from the heavens would prevent watering cans from being over-worked this early in the growing season!

The estate at Glengorm provided the venue for our walk and the overcast sky did nothing to dampen our enjoyment or enthusiasm for this magnificent setting, with it’s marvellous outlook North across the Sound of Mull. It is an area rich in local history, with a suggested human occupancy dating back over 4,000 years.

The imposing baronial castle was built during the period of the infamous Highland Clearances in the mid-19th century. The landowner, James Forsyth, evicted the incumbent tenant farmers, in order to finalise plans to make the estate suitable for hunting, fishing and stalking. It is said that one elderly woman that suffered eviction placed a curse on the landowner saying that he would never live to see the castle finished. Forsyth died in a riding accident before the building of the castle was completed in 1863. The castle at Glengorm takes it’s present name from the Gaelic ‘gorm’, meaning ‘blue’ and commemorates the days of the clearances when smoke from the burning homesteads would have filled the glen.

The Standing Stones at Glengorm were erected in a commanding location, looking out to sea. Their position is believed to be aligned with Ben More, the highest mountain on the Isle of Mull. One of the stones fell over and has been re-erected, but not in what was thought to be its original position. The stones are surrounded by an enclosure of rocks that also appears to be more modern in its make-up.

The ancient castle of Dun Ara sits impressively atop a rocky promontory, offering stunning seascapes to the North and West, as far as the eye can see. Yesterday, however, the blue of the sea had merged as one with the grey sky, reducing visibility and all but removing the Small Isles from our view. Occupied by the Mackinnon clan in the Middle Ages, this fort dates back to Iron Age times. If only the rocks of these settlements could speak, what a story concerning man’s involvement on the island would be told. However, like those of the notorious Clearances, perhaps we had better cover our ears, for fear that we might not like what stories we may hear!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Where The Sun Shines On The Cloudiest Of Days

Our guests to the island in recent weeks have been amazed at how well the weather has behaved itself. The temperature may have taken a dip, but Mull has basked in wall-to-wall sunshine of late, helping to keep a smile on everyone’s faces and their early tans topped up.

Some people have the ill-informed notion that the West Highlands and Islands are among the wettest places in the British Isles. Many will be astonished to learn that Tobermory has barely seen a drop of rain since before Christmas. Should Mull enjoy the warm Spring and hot Summer that many hope for, it may not be too long before the island suffers a water shortage and calls for a hose-pipe ban. The Isle of Mull really is the one location where the sun shines even on the cloudiest of days!

Ben More (3,169 ft) is the only Munro on the Isle of Mull and the highest mountain in the Hebrides outside of the Isle of Skye. As a result of it’s island status, Mull’s ‘Matterhorn’ is often the last of Scotland’s 283 Munros to be bagged by hillwalkers. The views from the top, north to the peaks of Rum and Skye, southwards to the Paps of Jura, have been particularly clear and impressive recently, as very little cloud has flirted with the summit. However, anyone walking along the scree slopes of Mull’s magnetic mountain yesterday would have encountered the rare phenomenon of a passing shower, temporarily obliterating any view from the island’s loftiest perch.

A high percentage of the diet of Mull’s earliest settlers would have been plant based. Gorse is a rather prickly shrub that grows throughout the island. It is a profusion of vibrant, yellow flowers, which are deliciously coconut-scented. As well as providing woody stems that could be used as fuel, the sweet flowers may have been used to flavour the drinks of the island’s first inhabitants. Visitors, however, shouldn’t expect to see such a liquid being proffered from the optics of any of the island’s bars or hotels today!

Friday, 16 April 2010

A Haunting Reminder of a Shameful Past

Our walk yesterday took us to the West side of the Isle of Mull, where a five minute boat journey landed us on the Isle of Ulva, another of our fabulous ‘get away from it all’ locations. Described as an open air museum of social and natural history, this little island really is unique and well worthy of it’s claim to be ‘A World Apart’. Ulva is a step back in time, where early hunter gatherer-fishers would have lived in local caves and Bronze Age people raised megaliths that continue to defy explanation. Purged by the infamous and inhuman Highland Clearances, a time when sheep were preferred to people, the ruins of 16 former settlements dot the island, where a once thriving community of 600 crofting folk lived during the heyday of the kelp industry in the early 1800’s. Today, 200 years on, the island retains a population of only 11 residents, who live without many of the public services most of us take for granted.

Early settlers, who lived on the island around 3,500 years ago, erected Standing Stone monuments that remain a mysterious legacy to a pre-Christian era. We visited both of the settings of these fascinating structures on Ulva and pondered their archaeoastronomical significance. As strange as it may seem to us today, the island’s Bronze Age inhabitants were committed sky watchers, who used the position of the sun, moon and stars to align these stones, which may have acted as a calendar for their lives.

The deserted villages of Ormaig and Cragaig are a haunting reminder of an unhappy period of Ulva’s past. Today, the ruined remains of these settlements provide a shameful lesson in Mull and the Isle of Ulva’s social history. When the bottom that fell out of the kelp boom was exacerbated by the failure of the potato harvest in 1846-47, the island was forcibly depopulated of people. The memory of those relocated to other parts of Scotland, North America and Australia lives on in the spine-tingling beauty of the location of these townships, looking West to Staffa and the Treshnish Isles, and South to the holy Isle of Iona. It is hard to imagine such human cruelty and hardship of the past amid the sunshine and shimmering silver seas of the present.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Mull Magic Abroad - The Sequel

You could be forgiven for thinking that we were overlooking an idyllic, sun-kissed bay in Antigua or the Azores. However, the reality is that for Antigua, West Indies read Ardnamurchan, the most westerly location on mainland Great Britain! With an azure blue sky and a shimmering, aquamarine sea, there is no better place in the world to be, than here in the West Highlands when the sun is shining.

The Ardnamurchan countryside, which is founded on an ancient collapsed volcano, provided us with some wonderful wilderness walking, despite the fact that we were never more than a couple of miles from habitation at any time. Spring had yet to arrive in the Ardnamurchan hills, with the brown colours of Autumn in need of refreshing and in complete contrast to the canvas painted by a dazzling blue sky.

Little stirred as we climbed to our rocky viewpoint, high above the Sound of Mull, where we were treated to the most incredible vistas, West to Ardnamurchan lighthouse and East to a line in the distance depicting the Isle of Mull’s three highest mountains, Dun da Ghaoithe, Ben Talaidh and Ben More. As we settled down for lunch, our eyes were attracted to the natural art that adorned the rocks and, in particular, to the distinctive blood-red fruiting discs of Red-Eye Lichen.

As we walked among the fields and gardens of the local village, our ears were assaulted by a cacophony of birdsong. April is the month when the intensity and diversity of the West Highland ‘Dawn Chorus’ increases. Resident songsters, like Blackbird, Song Thrush, Dunnock and Robin, find their airspace invaded by returning Summer migrants, including Willow Warbler and Blackcap. The Chaffinch may be the most ubiquitous bird in this part of the Highlands, yet its cheery demeanour and rollicking, staccato warble never fails to put a smile on our faces. ‘Mull Magic’ may be used to seeing ‘celebrity’ birds and animals on our walks on the island, yet we have a truly egalitarian approach to our wildlife watching. The cheeky Chaffinch gives us just as much pleasure as a majestic Golden Eagle (and it has a far better singing voice, to boot)!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Mull Magic Abroad

Spring had barely arrived on the Isle of Mull when it was leapfrogged by Summer. At least that’s how it has seemed these past few days, as the mercury has soared towards an unseasonal 70 degrees Fahrenheit throughout Argyll and the Islands. Not for the first time, the weather here on the island has been the envy of many elsewhere in the British Isles. Who says it always rains in this part of the world?

Taking full advantage of the area’s newly acquired continental climate, ‘Mull Magic’ slapped on the Factor 30 and headed off-island on a ‘busman’s holiday’ to the nearby Scottish mainland. The rugged coastline of Morvern is, in many ways, even more remote than the Isle of Mull and offers us the ideal getaway from the hustle and bustle of the thriving metropolis that is Tobermory!

The short sea crossing of the Sound of Mull gave us the chance to relax and soak up the outstanding views back to the island’s picturesque ‘capital’. The broad shoulders of Ben Hiant loomed large over Ardnamurchan, while Mull’s third highest summit, Ben Talaidh, appeared suitably atmospheric in the hazy morning glow.

Despite being separated by only a few nautical miles, the wildlife communities of the Isle of Mull and its mainland neighbours show several differences. The island boasts a large population of Red Deer, as well as two small herds of introduced Fallow Deer, but no Roe Deer. Early in our walk yesterday, we startled a pair of Roe bucks in a sunny glade and they sprinted off to find suitable cover in a fashion that would have left Usain Bolt standing!

‘Mull Magic’ has been concerned about the effect the snow and ice of last Winter will have on the island’s population of butterflies and moths. During our visit to the adjacent mainland, we were delighted to be entertained by several Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies that have recently shaken off the torpor of hibernation. Our fingers are crossed that this coming Summer on the Isle of Mull will be to the liking of these beautiful creatures.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Winter With Leaves On

With the sun returning to the Northern hemisphere on Saturday 20th March, this officially marked the ‘First Day of Spring’ in 2010. If things were only that simple, here on the Isle of Mull! The six week period between the beginning of May and mid-June were previously regarded as being the best of the year, weather-wise, in the West Highlands. Consequently, these weeks became known as Springtime on Mull. However, with the advent of global warming, the seasons now appear to run into each other. So much so, ‘Mull Magic’ believes that only two seasons can be safely separated on the island - Winter and Winter with leaves on!

You don’t have to venture far from the island’s principal town, Tobermory, to enjoy an exhilarating walk, amid some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery in Scotland. The lighthouse at Rubha nan Gall (‘Strangers’ Point’) is a strategic landmark that marks the Western entrance to the Sound of Mull. Built in 1857, by the grandfather of the author, Robert Louis Stevenson, the location offers exceptional views across the Sound to the village of Kilchoan, on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. In the distance, the Troll mountains of the Isle of Rum raise their heads high above the village. These mountains have Norse names, which are a present day reminder of the influence Vikings held in these Isles of the West, 1,000 years ago.

The Wheatear is one of the first Summer migrants to reappear on the Isle of Mull each Spring. Often showing face before March is out, the males are resplendent in their smart, nuptial attire. Looking like miniature highwaymen, with their black face masks, the all-singing-and-dancing males bring fresh colour and vitality to sheep pasture that has been all-too-quiet since their departure last Autumn.

Aros Park is a glittering jewel in Tobermory’s crown, from where our guests today enjoyed the multi-coloured fa├žade of the town’s waterfront in the warm, afternoon sunshine. Formerly an active estate, the park fell into neglect, but was purchased by the Forestry Commission in 1959 and opened to the public in the late 1960’s. A programme of scrub clearing, re-planting and general maintenance has reclaimed some of the park’s glory from the past.

The extensive woodlands are home to a pleasing variety of local flora and fauna, including one of the island’s earliest Spring flowers, the Lesser Celandine. A profusion of these attractive yellow-flowered plants, with heart-shaped leaves, carpet woods throughout the island in April. Plants in times gone by were used to treat parts of the body which they resembled. One of the colloquial names for this member of the buttercup family is pilewort, but, try as we might, ‘Mull Magic’ has failed miserably to see the connection!

Monday, 5 April 2010

A Glowing Complexion, Mull Magic Style

Although Mull Magic walks all-year-round, the Easter holiday weekend traditionally heralds the start of the tourist season on the island. Typically, April on the Isle of Mull is a month when the weather has difficulty making its mind up. Being on the cusp of the seasons, April can often be more Winter than Spring, but the weather for our Easter Weekend walks threw a little bit of everything at us!

The landscapes and scenery of the Isle of Mull and its surrounding area are exhilarating and inspiring, as well as being breathtakingly beautiful. Mull Magic is, of course, naturally biased, but we believe that the seascapes around the island, are not only unsurpassed in Scotland, but among the finest in the Western World. Our island views are steeped in social and natural history, dating back some 60 million years. Cast your eyes over our pages on Facebook to see some of the stunning scenes we managed to capture this past weekend on our walks around the island.

The Isle of Mull is, ostensibly, an upland environment which, at times, can appear hostile and unforgiving. Whether human, plant, bird or animal, you have to be made of stern stuff to live out your days on the hills and moors of the island.

Sphagnum moss is a plant that ticks all the right boxes and a strong case could be argued for it being the most useful plant on the island. Its uses have been championed throughout the millennia for a wide range of medicinal and household purposes. The thatched heather or bracken roofs of early settlements may even have had an insulating layer of sphagnum, in order to mop up the, at times, excessive Mull rainfall. Soaked in antiseptic and antibiotic properties, sphagnum was, amongst other things, the Isle of Mull’s original toilet tissue and disposable nappy. A handy thing to know if you ever get caught short in the Mull countryside!

The island’s cool, maritime climate and clean, unpolluted air make for a wonderfully healthy environment in which to live. Add the special ingredient of marvellous Mull mud and it’s easy to see why local residents have the cleanest skin and most glowing complexions of anyone living in the British Isles. Mud is a commodity that the Isle of Mull possesses in abundance and plans are currently afoot to export some of our best squelchy stuff to the mainland, such is its new found popularity as a cosmetic!! Cleopatra used to bathe in black mud from the Dead Sea, so why not think about the benefits you could derive from a face pack of our magnificent Mingary mud?

Many health spa’s offer pricey treatments combining water, salt, wind, mud and weightlessness. Unfortunately, a walk with Mull Magic cannot offer you weightlessness – carrying your own backpack with our gourmet packed lunch is essential!