Having been to the top of two of Ben More’s shoulder mountains recently, we thought to give our legs and lungs a bit of a rest by making an ascent of the Isle of Mull’s biggest little ‘mountain’. Situated barely 2 miles to the South-West of the island’s hub, Tobermory, the hill of S’Airde Beinn is regarded as being the largest and best example of a volcanic plug in Western Scotland. At a little under 300 metres above sea level, North Mull’s mini-mountain may not constitute much of a challenge to hardened hillwalkers, yet this is a wonderful walk, full of interest and with the bonus of some of the best views to be enjoyed anywhere on the island (given a fine day!) Scanning North-West from one of the many hilltop cairns that can be found on S’Airde Beinn, our eyes rounded the Ardnamurchan peninsula, with its lighthouse protecting shipping at the entrance to the Sound of Mull, before settling on the snow-clad summits of the Rum Cuillins.
Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), S’Airde Beinn is a hill that could be walked in less than an hour, but to do so would be self-defeating and totally pointless, given the unparalleled beauty of the surroundings. Locally referred to as the Crater Loch, this former volcanic vent was active around 60 million years ago, when lava spilled over North Mull, laying the foundations of the classic ‘Trappe’ or stepped landscape that is much in evidence today. We paused for a while to gaze at the ice-frozen loch (oddly enough named Lochan S’Airde Beinn!) and to configure in our minds the huge elemental forces of both fire and ice that forged and sculpted this impressive setting into being all those years ago. The loch is a glacial depression which formed during the last Ice Age, when the land was heavily eroded and scoured by ice action. It is difficult, as mere human beings, to begin to comprehend the violence that the Mull landscape has had to endure over the millennia!
The Isle of Mull is dominated by a landscape that is chiefly upland in character. Mountains and moorland are difficult terrain in which to try and fashion any sort of livelihood, whether you be a plant or animal. Consequently, you tend not to see much in the way of obvious wildlife on the hills in the Winter months. What you do see is made of sturdy stuff and will have become specially adapted to a harsh and hostile environment. Mull supports fantastic communities of mosses and lichens. Every tree and rock seems to be festooned with these quite amazing ‘plants’, an organism that is a fusion of a fungus and a photosynthetic partner, often an algae. As we made our way up to the Crater Loch, the boulders and boundary walls shone brightly with the tough, silver-grey cushions of Stereocaulon vesuvianum, a common lichen of upland areas. Like a glittering remnant from a Christmas tree or a metallic pot scrubber, this lichen thrives in mineral rich places, but, like so many lichens, it doesn’t appear to have a universally accepted English name. ‘Pot scrubber lichen’ doesn’t sound too complimentary, so we have decided to call it ‘Tinsel lichen’, until we can think of something better!
It is said that the views from S’Airde Beinn are the most breathtaking in North Mull and it is very difficult to argue against that opinion. After all, it’s not every day that you can stand on top of a 60 million year old volcanic plug, overlooking a glacial lochan, that apparently contains some weird and wonderful fish, with a view to the recent history of Tobermory and Loch Sunart beyond. And, that’s only the view in one direction!
As a footnote to our visit on a good day, we have been back when the views were obliterated with low cloud and the wind made taking photographs difficult. We enjoyed this occasion for different reasons: after 99 wet and windy days, the sunshine of the 100th day will always seem brighter and feel warmer, and you will appreciate it all the more for what has come before! The dead flower heads of a lonely Hogweed stood out among the heather, but it just wouldn’t stay still to be photographed. This slightly blurred image was the result. We probably like the end result more than we would have done a perfectly focused picture!