2017 was all about the tennis grand slams: the following of the Murray clan around the world, whilst fitting in a parkrun down the road, and, more often than not, finding someone I knew who could be persuaded to join the jovialities. But there was another love that these epic themes of 2017 were missing: Scotland.
“Shall we go to another island?”, I asked Kirsten, one of my companions on the island-hopping adventure of 2016 and a die-hard island lover herself – so much so that she is permanently based on a Scottish island.
Cat: “I really want to go to Mull and sing the song ‘What’s the story in Balamory?’.
Kirsten: “Me too!!!”
And that’s essentially how catmacwalks500isles take 2! (with Kirsten) came to be. And might I add, we didn’t just visit one island, but three. Getting closer to that 500-isle target every year!
So logistically, how does one get to Mull? From London, I flew to Glasgow, stayed the night with Helen and Kao Hua (remember, my exotic uncle!), and then took a train up to Oban, one of the main ferry ports on the west coast of Scotland that has connections to the islands. There, I met up with Kirsten who had meandered her way across Scotland by car, and we took a 45-minute ferry over to Mull with our good friends Caledonian MacBrayne. Lucky for me, Kirsten brought her car to enable us to have the freedom to explore Mull as we wished, just as we had explored Skye, Harris and Lewis the previous year.
We travelled across to Mull on the Friday afternoon and returned to Oban on a Monday morning ferry. Though Mull is one of the bigger islands in the Hebrides (fourth largest island in Scotland FYI), having a car enabled us to explore most of the island on the Saturday and then dedicate Sunday to neighbouring islands Iona and Staffa. And if I’m honest, which I feel I should be (I can’t lie, even by blog), there isn’t really a whole lot to do on Mull. Especially when the weather is somewhat grey, as it was for us! (don’t be fooled by my sunglasses, they are just a hair accessory!) If you were lucky with the weather, you’d want to hang out for longer on the beaches, and go for walks, but for us, it was more ‘Quick, take a photo to prove we were here!’.
Still, for me, this was life contrasting with London; even moody, misty Scotland is romantic and novel. The sun is a bonus! And travelling with Kirsten was always going to be fun. I think it’s ’cause she’s from Inverness, like me. Right enough.
One of the highlights of Mull, rain or shine, and undoubtedly one of the most famous parts of the island, is the small seaside town of Tobermory. This is where the BBC children’s TV programme ‘What’s the Story in Balamory’ was filmed and if you’re a big fan (shout-out to Kirsten), it’s pretty fun to explore the town, searching for all the houses that featured in the show. Even as a non-fan (shout-out to myself; I mean the theme tune is pretty great), it’s a cute town to walk around. Essentially because the houses are super colourful!
So what else has Mull going for it? Well there seems to be a pretty amusing community spirit as evidenced by the fact that everyone seemed to have their own personalised scarecrow out front… We later found out that this wasn’t a random coincidence but rather a scarecrow trail which tourists and residents alike could track across Mull and Iona. We didn’t try to follow the trail but probably came across half of them without even trying. So skilled us Invernesians.
Other highlights included lunch at the Blackbird Bistro in Bunessan (shout-out to my mum whose first home was in Bunessan, Mull!) and the food and banter at the Keel Row in Fionnphort, both in the southern part of the island. In short, it’s all about the south of the island because that’s where our accommodation was, too. We stayed at Achaban House, an upmarket hostel/BnB, close to Fionnphort, complete with fresh, home baked bread every day. They even made a special dairy-free loaf for Kirsten when they found out she had dietary requirements – amazing!
Fionnphort is also where you need to go in order to take the ferry to Iona. We decided this was essentially why people go to Mull; to go to Iona. Too harsh? You’ll understand why we came to that conclusion – look how sunny it was in Iona!
Despite being only a 10-minute ferry journey from Mull, Iona felt like a different world. The sky was bright blue, the sea was turquoise and there was a wonderful sense of calm and tranquility on the island, due in part, I’m sure, to the fact it is inhabited by less than 150 permanent residents.
Iona is said to be the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland, where St Columba arrived on mission from Ireland in the year 563. Today, you can still visit the site of the first ancient monastery that he led – it was this inspiring view that became clearer as we made the short journey across from Mull. Now if you’re clever and plan ahead, you would visit Iona on a Sunday and take the ferry that enables you to make the morning church service as this then entitles you to free entry into the abbey grounds. We are clever to an extent, in that we took the correct ferry, but we had not thought ahead to the service! We did wonder why everyone else rushed away from the ferry port with such intent.. Never mind, I have no doubt our £7.50 entry fee to the abbey went to a good cause!
It was actually very cool to explore the grounds, with the sounds of the church service acting as an atmospheric backdrop, particularly as some of the music sung was monk-style chanting. It was like we had been transported back to the year 563.
Last year, carbon dating confirmed that the rocky hillock on which I sit in the photo above is likely to be where St Columba studied and prayed during his lifetime on Iona, as referenced in ‘The Life of St Columba’, written by Columba’s successor. I remember sitting there, looking over the monastery and thinking how incredible it was that I was sitting somewhere in 2017 that was of such relevance to the year 563. 563 doesn’t even feel like history; it feels like more than that, another world, so distant from my life. I’d happily spend my money ensuring we can preserve such significant sites in our country’s history.
We were only in Iona for the morning but we both fell in love with it. Can you actually beat Scotland on a sunny day? There is only one answer to that question.
Iona would have been enough to have made the day a success, but we had one more island to explore: the island of Staffa. Huge shout-out to Kirsten for getting on board with this second adventure as her body doesn’t exactly agree with ferry journeys – I think we’d both agree it was worth the slightly splash-filled journey, though!
Staffa is one of the most incredible islands I have ever seen. Think Giant’s Causeway but a whole island full of hexagonal pillars.
You may have heard of Fingal’s Cave, an overture composed by Felix Mendelssohn, which was inspired by his trip to Scotland in 1829. I’d vaguely heard of it myself but had no idea it had been inspired by a real location. Thank you to Helen for putting this recommendation on my radar! Fingal’s Cave is exactly what it sounds like: a cave within the island, which you can climb into, with the assistance and reassurance of some rope, and peer at in wonder. It truly is a magnificent sight.
And all this was before we’d even got to the puffins. Puffins, you say? Yes, Staffa is renowned for its puffin inhabitants, and we were so lucky with what we saw. Although we nearly didn’t see anything at all…
‘The key is patience’, the boatmaster said, as we docked into Staffa. Sure, sure, I thought, barely paying attention to what he’d said. It was sunny, and this island looked cool; I wanted to explore! After clambering around Fingal’s Cave and taking a million photos, we ventured across to the other end of Staffa where the puffins are known to be seen. “We saw loads!” exclaimed a mother and her child as they walked past us, on their tour in the opposite direction around the island.
We found some of our fellow passengers, sitting on the grass, peering out at the sea. We followed their gaze but couldn’t see anything. Where were the puffins at? “Oh! I think I can see one in the far away distance!”, someone said. We all squinted our eyes. It went on like this for the next ten minutes and we realised we were quickly running out of time before our boat would depart without us. “Was that woman lying to us?”, I asked Kirsten, trying not to sound too disappointed.
Just as we were about to head back to the boat, it happened. One puffin. Suddenly 50 puffins! Ahhh puffins!!!
It turns out the boat master knew what he was talking about after all: patience is a virtue, and I am an ignorant Londoner (with fully Scottish-islander blood). Needless to say, we were the last people back on the boat. Very grateful for the more elderly cliental walking very slowly! Do people ever actually get left behind on Staffa?!
The Caledonian Macbrayne ferry journey from Oban to Craignure, on the east coast of Mull, takes just under an hour and a return ticket for a foot passenger is £7.20. There is no need to book in advance for foot passengers; the ferries are also fairly regular. We stayed in a private twin room with en-suite at Achaban House. This was £69 for the room per night, including breakfast.
Caledonian Macbrayne also operate the ferries from Fionnphort, in the south-west of Mull, across to Iona. A return ticket cost £3.40, and the journey takes 10 minutes. There are ferries every hour.
There are a number of companies that operate ferries to Staffa; we went with Staffa Trips. The trip took 3 hours in total and you could either join the ferry at Fionnphort or at Iona. The total cost was £30 which may seem steep but it was worth every penny – it’s an incredible island.