Saturday, 10 November 2012

Time Flies

Over a month has gone by and no time to sit down and write my blog. Time on this island just flies by or maybe it is just age! A famous personality whose name I forget once said that he new he was getting older as breakfast seemed every ten minutes! I know the feeling well. Whilst quoting what others have said I share with you what one of our local tourist operators said in response to an American visitor who asked “What is it like living on a remote island?”, the local pondered for a short time and replied, “Well last year no one died of stress and only two of boredom!”

Rescued bird

Since my last blog we have watched the seasons change and are now knee deep in broad leaves from Oak and Beech with an overlying snow of tiny yellow needles from the Larch tree leaving just the pine trees exhibiting green. So leaves and seaweed are now being composted and the lazy beds prepared for next years potatoes. Our new wild life pond is well and truly full and its overflow working as planned, (heaves a sigh of relief!). The new fencing is keeping the deer and rabbits at bay and the pheasants have learnt to fly in for feeding. The downside is that there are apparently no hedgehogs inside the fenced area and, of course the rabbit netting will keep them out, last year we had a couple of hedgehogs trapped in the cattle grid so now an escape ladder has been fitted. Our swallow family will by now be well on their way to South Africa, but their entertaining fly displays are replaced by finches, robins and other small birds, including a goldcrest who managed to stun himself by trying to fly through a closed window. Thankfully, he was found and after some TLC was none the worse for the accident.

Oh look at Me!

We can now see our local heron that returns each night after a day fishing in the bay to roost at the top of the large now bare branched oak tree. The Sea Eagles occasionally fly over and the otters are more in evidence though we only seem to see them when daughter Maggie is on the island (see preselimags recent blog)!
The recent display of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) was on a clear cold night, the first time that we had experienced them and worth getting cold to see. The display lasted over an hour and lit the sky to the north with a strange green light. Colour has been much in our vision as the green leaves changed to copper and many shades of yellow and brown as the trees dropped their leaves whilst the remaining flowers both wild and in our garden valiantly give some remaining cornflower blues and marigold yellows. The blue haze on the hills has been replaced by misty damp greys with the higher mountain capped with white snow.

Northern Lights

The Wildlife Pond almost finished

Autumn Leaves

Otter with fish

I know I should not be here...but...!

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Mull Fiddlers Rally

No we have not gone funny on the island and do not meet up to fiddle with things! The Mull Fiddlers Rally is a once a year meeting at Aros Hall, Tobermory, of amateur and professional fiddle and accordion players from the island supported by like minded people from all over Scotland with even one or two travelling up from England. The players form themselves into an orchestra complete with piano, double bass and a conductor who also plays an accordion and sings. A couple of folk singers and junior bagpipers and a chairman complete the set up. With the audience in place the evening begins with a stirring, swirling of the bagpipers, almost too much for the small hall! The pipers leave and then the fiddlers are let loose with a program of marches, hornpipes, waltzes, Irish Jigs and Scottish dances. These are interspersed with renditions from a female Irish folk singer now living on Mull and a male Gaelic folk singer. The chairman not only introduces each set but also fitted in some hilarious jokes. The evening finished very late after many encores with everyone standing to sing the Mull National Anthem, An t-Eilian Muileach and Auld Lang Syne both much appreciated by visitors from mainland and overseas who were attending. A good craich!

On an other evening this time in front of a sell out audience at our Mull Theatre we listened to the English comedian Mark Steel give his impression of life on Mull and in particular, Tobermory. The show, being recorded for BBC Radio 4, is one in Mark’s series of programmes, “Mark Steel’s in Town”. He visits small towns writing his script highlighting the quirkiness and interesting aspects of the area after talking to many local people. His superb presentation is delivered through his eyes as a London city dweller that acts surprised at things that locals take for granted. With the audience well involved in the repartee the show proceeds. Did you know for instance that you cannot buy underwear or towels on Mull? So where do you get them – the metropolis of Oban “quite near - only a 45 minute drive from the theatre and a 45 minute ferry crossing” (not quite like popping into Brent Cross shopping centre!). The regular refrain from the audience was, “get it in Oban!” So that is the flavour of the show, it is scheduled for BBC Radio Four at the end of November and will be well worth listening to.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


Ok I am coming!

Where is our breakfast?

Get that inside you!

Four happy chicks.

Do not leave me behind!

Made it down here - now what do I do?

During the last two months we have watched a pair of Swallows build their nest in a corner of our carport and raise their young. They made a start and then seemed to abandon the work and just enjoy zooming around the village. Finally, however, they settled down to completing the nest so that the female could lay her eggs. We were never quite sure if eggs had been successfully laid until one morning we noticed broken shells on the floor below. So, were they empty shells discarded after hatching, or the bad news that some predator had got into the nest for apparently no adult birds were around so maybe the “raided” nest had been deserted. Then we noticed activity with two adult birds now making regular visits to the nest so they were obviously feeding young. Potty training was also well in hand as the guano pile below the nest grew daily.

One morning all was revealed as four lusty chicks popped heads out looking for breakfast. And breakfast they certainly got as both parents did a food on the wing shuttle service feeding until the full chicks fell asleep. There were anxious moments when we thought that one chick was missing, and an even more traumatic time when the nest broke away from the wall and deposited three of the now well fledged chicks on the floor. They were all mobile enough to flutter away to safety and eventually regrouped on the ridge of the house. With the inclement weather we were experiencing not exactly the most comfortable place, but the parents carried on with feeding and training. Meanwhile, we were concerned about chick number four who seemed to be abandoned and sat for a day or so on the washing line by the nest pitifully cheeping as though calling for food. No food arrived and eventually the chick plucked up courage and tumbled with wings flapping first on to the bonnet of the Land Rover and then into the big outside world. He sat on the patio and in the garden forlornly all day cheeping and finally flew up onto the deer fence whereupon an adult swallow flew straight to him and proceeded to feed him. Eventually the chick joined the other three and as this is being written all four healthy chicks are alternately sitting on the roof or doing circuits and bumps as they improve flying techniques and learn to feed themselves on the wing. Nighttime and wild weather sees them back in the shelter of the nest and washing line “perch” alongside. Time here is running out for them, as they must shortly leave for their winter home 9,500 kilometres away in the warmth of South Africa. Be nice to know if the whole family make it but I doubt if we will get a postcard so will have to be content with seeing them back here next year.  Bon Voyage!!

All together finally - Now got to learn to fly and feed ourselves

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Singing Shepherd

A few weeks ago I wrote about a visit to a farm on the North side of the island to watch Iain Thomson, the singing shepherd at work. Since then he has completed our deer fence, fitted it with rabbit wire and hung our heavy metal entrance gates. So now it was time to go to one of his live performances. On the island we are fortunate to have some halls that hold about sixty people and thus have an intimate atmosphere for the benefit of both musicians and their audiences.

Iain, who writes his own songs, plays the guitar and keyboard was sharing the stage with a professional musician Marc Duff. Marc is one of those artists who play many instruments and can switch from one to another whilst drawing a breath. He supported Iain’s singing with bodram, low D whistle, Erin pipes and bouzouki, whilst not playing all at once easy and smooth transitions during pieces were a delight to watch and listen to.

The programme of Iain’s music celebrated his life with its up and downs and his travels from Mull to the Scottish mainland as a shepherd, then long distance trucking all over the UK before a stint as a shearer in New Zealand before returning to Mull and his croft with his flock of sheep. As with his fencing work his professionalism with his music is very apparent, his style is quiet and entertaining, the vocals thought provoking and they tell the story of land use change from the infamous highland clearances to the present day. People are important to Iain so there are songs to tell the tale of a man from Mull who fought as a Royal Marine Commando in the Falklands war and of the Welsh Pedlar, John Jones, who died on the island after nursing families sick with typhoid back in the late 1880s. For those not fortunate to know Iain and his music it can be enjoyed on his website

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Salen Show

Angus commentating
One of the highlights of the year on Mull is the annual Salen Show, or to be more precise The Mull and Morven Agricultural Society Annual Show. The show is held as you might guess in a field on the shore of the Sound of Mull just north of Salen. It has a tradition going back to 1832 and most years the weather is kind, not too hot with the rain staying away so animals and people are comfortable. The animals are Highland coos, Blackface, Hebridean and Cheviot sheep, and Dogs, yes Dogs! The whole island seems to bring their dogs for the dog show. No fancy breeds here just pets doing their bit for the days entertainment. The Mull and Iona pipe band and the Mull Fiddlers provide back ground music all played over the PA system when Angus Mackay, the show commentator, is not chivvying competitors, promoting stalls, asking for cars to be moved and generally giving information in his own inimitable style. Inner man (and woman) is not forgotten for burgers made from local meat and salmon rolls from local fish are readily available along with home baked cakes and home made sandwiches. As is usual at island functions all at very reasonable prices. The horticultural produce is auctioned off at the end of the day, this year the winning cabbage went for a fiver and was almost too heavy to lift. For the young and active there is a fell running event, terrier racing, show jumping and a tug of war, and for the rest of us a quiet amble round the stalls and a lean on the stock hurdles watching the antics of sheep and cattle and their stockmen. The stars of the show must, however, be the highland cattle with their beautifully prepared coats and coat hanger horns being paraded round the ring with mischievous dignity as they gently push their handlers

Monday, 6 August 2012

Ulva - Wolf Island

Ferry from Mull

The Boathouse

Sheila's Cottage  Lived in by Shiela Macfayden until 1900 and restore
recently to show the way of life as it was in Victorian times on the island.

Telfords Kirk

Leafy lanes and mossy walls

The weather was kind to us when we visited Ulva. The Viking raiders who settled there would have been very much at home as the setting in the skerries between Loch Tuath and Loch na Keal is very Scandinavian. They called it Wolf’s Island hence its modern day name. It is on the west side of Mull and just a five-minute ferry crossing from the main island of Mull on board a small open boat. Ulva and its small neighbour Gometra are privately owned so visiting I think is a privilege, though in addition to farming the twenty or so occupants are reliant on tourism. The Boathouse, a licenced cafĂ© that is a short walk from the jetty sets the scene. It is attractive and comfortable and most importantly has good food and refreshments served with a smile. There are almost no vehicles on the island, we saw a couple of old Land Rovers parked up. The transport on the island is quad bikes with trailers, and the farm tractors. Walking the rough lanes following the signposted walks is therefore a delight with no pollution and ever changing vistas. We walked through the lanes that wended their way through old deciduous woodland flanked with ancient moss covered walls to visit the Kirk that nestles in the woods overlooking Loch Tuath. It was built in Victorian times when the island had a population of about eight hundred people before the then proprietor savagely cleared the island to graze sheep. The Kirk’s architect was none other than the famous engineer, Thomas Telford who designed it to accommodate three hundred worshippers. The kirk was built with no frills and given a light airy hall with almost no adornment, as befitted the nonconformists of the time. Those were the days when the island economy was based on farming, fishing and kelp gathering, which gave the people a reasonably good life. Sadly, the kelp trade that supplied glassmakers with an important ingredient, Soda Ash, fell into decline after the invention of an industrial process to make it more cheaply than collecting and burning seaweed.

The island has connections with many famous people. Early tourists were David Livingston, Samuel Johnson and Sir Walter Scott. Lachlan Macquarrie born on the island in 1762 left to join the Army rose through the ranks to become a General but more importantly was sent to Australia as the Governor of the newly founded colony. His work earned him the accolade “Father of Australia”. He returned to Mull on his retirement and is buried almost overlooking Ulva at Gruline where his resting place uniquely is dedicated as Australian territory. It is an island that we will certainly visit

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Mull Highland Games

Whilst the rest of the country is suffering from Olympic fever, for the Highlands and Islands it is Highland Games time. Though the Games, like the Olympics, date from time immemorial and were a test for warriors, the Games, as we know them today is quite a recent event. In fact they were the idea of an English aristocrat who had a Highland estate in Victorian times. Queen Victoria’s purchase of Balmoral on Deeside is another story but suffice to say she started the trend for wealthy Southerners to own Highland estates.

So our island has its Highland Games. They are held every July on Tobermory Golf Course, high above the town with fantastic views of mainland Scotland, this year it was clear and we could see Ben Nevis. The Sound of Mull was glassy and blue beneath us. You may have guessed by now that the weather was kind though it started out dull and overcast so off we went with un-needed waterproofs. The games start right in the town as the Hereditary Chieftain, Sir Lachlan Maclean and the Games officials form up in front of the Pipe Band to march down Main Street wending the way up Back Brae to the Games field. Everyone going to the games follows the pipe band so by the time the Chieftain arrives at the fields he is followed by hundreds of people who join the march.

We were no different and arrived in the happy sea of humanity. The field is a perfect venue with Highland Dance competitions at one end, the Heavy sports at the other and all enclosed by the running track. Spectators sit on a natural grassy bank above the arena, not too far from the food tent and the bar and able to see all events from one viewpoint. There are Highland dancing and bagpipe playing competitions going on all day, field and track events also. The highlight for the majority of the spectators is the Heavy Events. These are the traditional Highland sports rarely seen outside Highland Games meetings. So 16lb hammers are thrown over 150 feet, a variety of other weights various distances all with much effort by very burly competitors. To ring the changes a 56lb hammer is also thrown over a bar, at the moment the record set in 2011 is 16 feet, a 16lb Ball is putt in the order of 50 feet.

The event known to all is Tossing the Caber. The Caber is a straight tree trunk about 19 feet long and weighing 175lbs. The thrower has to lift the Caber vertically run with it and toss it so that it falls away from him. Sometimes successfully, sometimes it bounces and drops back towards judge and caber tosser who need to get from under. As all this is going on pipe bands entertain, this year the champion Oban High School Band shared the honours with our own Mull and Iona Pipe Band. As the games drew to a close the “heavies” staged a knock out competition heaving a 42lb weight over a bar above their heads, the last competitor breaking the record at 18 feet without breaking his head!!!


Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Sheep Shearing and singer

Large Dutch Zwartble Ram patiently waiting
We were offered the opportunity to visit a farm in the north of the island to watch the “Singing Shepherd” Iain Thomson shearing sheep and to take photographs whilst he did so. By the time we arrived he had clipped over a hundred so was in no voice to sing! In a previous life I had a few sheep so shearing and the smell of sheep was not new to me. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to watch an expert set the sheep on its tail and get it in exactly the right position to cut the fleece away. The hallmark of a good shearer is to remove the fleece in one, remove it quickly and not cut the animals skin.
Upended and fleece coming off

The speed and flow of shearing was almost musical to watch!

When the shepherd is not shearing, tending sheep he is either fencing or singing. Fencing on this island means serious deer fencing and Iain has erected more than his fair share, including ours, over the years.

He is an accomplished singer songwriter with several professionally produced Cds. His voice has an easy listening style and his repertoire includes many well know folk songs, but for us his some of his best are the songs that he has written about the island and his life both on and off the island on a cd called Fields of Dreams. Iain also finds time to go on tour and sing at venues on the island and is much in demand. For details of the cds and song lyrics visit

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Visit to Staffa

It seems a while since I managed to find time to write a blog but at this time of year almost inevitable as outdoor activities and welcome visitors keep me away from the computer. Not to mention the fact that over the past weeks we have definitely had a computer gremlin that is still not fully sorted.

However, It was twenty-five years almost to the day since I last visited the island of Staffa. Then I was there when on a training cruise with the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service and was allowed to take one of our small craft right into Fingal’s Cave which is the main cave of a number that are formed in the basalt cliffs. The second trip was on the motor launch, Island Lass that runs out to the island from Ulva Ferry on Mull. This visit was with friends from The Netherlands who wanted to see the caves and photograph the puffins that burrow in the cliffs. Almost as soon as we sailed from Ulva Ferry out into Loch Na Keal we saw dolphins playing which set the tone for the day as the rain stayed away and the sun shone fitfully as we ploughed our way across a calm sea.

Staffa lies about six miles to the west of Mull and is probably the best know of all the small islands off our coast. Its Viking name Pillar Island describes it well, being of volcanic formation with towering forty-two metres high basalt columnar cliffs with six large caves. Fingal’s Cave, twenty metres high and cutting seventy-five metres into the rock was celebrated by Felix Mendelssohn in his Hebrides Overture. This made the island famous which attracted many distinguished visitors including Queen Victoria. The other caves are less well known though Mackinnon’s Cave (named after one of the abbots of Iona) ranks as one of the worlds largest sea caves. Getting on the island is not for the faint hearted. The boat slides into a small concrete jetty at the base of the cliffs and the stairway, part steel and part cut from stone zigzags to the top. Once there and our breath back, the surrounding views and the myriad of wild flowers make a spectacular back drop to the antics of the birds. Our friends trekked across the island to the puffin burrows whilst we enjoyed the warm sunshine and wild flowers before returning to the boat back down the stairway.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Our Lighthouses Part 1

Lismore Lighthouse

Lady Rock Beacon

Until I moved to the island, I worked as lighthouse attendant for the Trinity House Lighthouse Service looking after a lighthouse on the Welsh coast. So it is natural that I have taken more than a passing interest in our local lighthouses and beacons. The Sound of Mull is a well-lit waterway. The major light at the entrance is on Lismore or to be more precise on Eilean Musdile at the larger islands southerly point. Our ferry passes almost within touching distance on her way to and from Oban. The lighthouse was designed by Robert Stevenson and built by James Smith of Inverness. The Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouse Board purchased the small island that it was built on for £500 in 1830. The lighthouse which took about three years to build cost a further £4,250, a considerable investment in those days. For their money they got a 26-metre tower with its lantern on top. The first light was a fixed white light but this was soon changed to a flashing one, currently it flashes once every 10 seconds and has a range of seventeen nautical miles. The tower is painted white and stands out from the background so that by day and night it guides shipping exiting the Sound of Mull and transiting the Firth of Lorne.

William Black Memorial Lighthouse

When passing the lighthouse on the starboard side on the approach to the Isle of Mull if you quickly move to the port side you will see three other historic places. There is a beacon to keep ships off Lady’s Rock. The rock is so named because the wife of one of the first Lords of Duart was stranded on it after displeasing her husband. Luckily for her a passing fisherman heard her cries, rescued her before the rising tide engulfed her so as the saying goes…they lived happily ever after. This is just one of the many stories about the attempted murder of Lady Elizabeth another claims that her family rescued her. The imposing castle of the Clan Maclean is on Duart Point, though it has been the clans stronghold for hundreds of years, it was derelict for a very long time and has just celebrated the restoration 100 years ago by Sir Fitzroy Maclean. Just along the Mull coast from Duart castle there is a small castellated gothic tower. It is a working lighthouse, now fully automatic, but unusually also memorial to the Scottish novelist, William Black. It was placed in his favourite spot on the eastern most point of Mull in 1900 by a group of friends who commissioned the Edinburgh architect, Sir William Lieper to design it.

Duart Castle

Monday, 25 June 2012


Anyone who knows the West Coast of Scotland will be aware of midges. They are one of three irritants regularly discussed here. The other two being the tourists and the weather. There is even a Scottish Midge Forecast ( from who I quote” Midges are tiny insects with a wingspan of just 1-2mm. They suck blood from the skin, causing itching and swelling that can last several days. In summer, midges that bite people can reach vast numbers and become a real problem for both locals and tourists. Midges have been around for thousands of years but with climate change they are increasing their range and extending their season, meaning more bites. Biting midges are infamous in the Scottish Highlands, but they are now also found in other parts of the UK, including the Lake District and North Wales.
The Midge Magnet

Our answer under test
There are nearly 40 species of biting midge in Scotland but only five of these are thought to regularly feed on people. Of these the Highland midge, Culicoides impunctatus (or ‘Meanbh-chuileag’ in Gaelic, meaning ‘tiny fly’), is the most bloodthirsty, and the species responsible for most of the bites of people. Midges target their victims by sensing carbon dioxide in exhaled breath and other odours associated with their targets.So the answer must be do not breathe out and do not give off odours, easier said than done. But there are ways to combat them or at least keep them at bay. The soldiers in the British Army use and claim Avon’s Skin So Soft cream works very well, it is not a designed repellent but it was found by accident that midges do not like it. Other people swear by lavender and tea tree oil, other just swear and do an Australian salute. There are also machines known as midge magnets. They suck the midges out of the air and kill them. When you empty the machine of the blocks of now “dead” midges they need to be frozen before burning, strange but true. We, with a limited amount of success use citronella flares, as the name says burn citronella oil so that the smoke and hot vapour keep the midges at bay and these are work when kept topped up with oil and over the limited area of our patio. When all else fails and the midges win the only answer is to retreat indoors and pour a wee dram!

Friday, 22 June 2012

A voyage to the Treshnish Isles

Lunga is one of the Treshnish Islands, an uninhabited group off the west coast of Mull. They were not always uninhabited as they were once a stronghold of one of the clans who built a castle there and more recently a family farmed Lunga for many years as a summer sheiling. Now the population is seabirds and seals. We sailed from Fionnphort with a group of friends on Mark Jardine’s beautiful classic boat. Birthe Marie was built as a fishing boat in Denmark in 1933. Mark has done a great job restoring her as an eco-friendly charter boat. Though she has a powerful engine, the idea when wind allows, is to sail, using her ketch rig where the wind takes her and take in the scenery and wildlife. That is just what we did. I have to admit that the day we went out the sea was a flat calm and the wind about force one, so the engine had to be used until the wind picked up later in the day
Our first “port of call” was Lunga, landing on the rocks and climbing the cliff path to the Puffin burrows to photograph and enjoy the antics of these friendly members of the Auk family. They have little fear of humans so it is possible to get in close for photographs, in fact they are quite happy to pose and sometimes a second bird will sidle into the shot. It is said that they tolerate human presence because our being there stops the gulls from mobbing them and grabbing food as the puffins return to the cliffs from a fishing trip. Seemed to work whilst we were there! So we all lazed in the sun eating picnics and enjoying the fabulous scenery before returning to our boat to voyage on.

                                                       We skirted the west side of the island going quite close to Harp Rock, so called because of its shape, not its musical outpourings. These would have been drowned by the thousands of guillemots and shearwaters nesting on the sheer face of the rock. The wind picked and so we were able to sail the next leg to Staffa. Staffa needs no introduction as Felix Mendelssohn introduced the island to the world with his “Fingal’s Cave” Overture. For me it was an overdue return for I was last in the cave in 1987 when on a naval training exercise when I was allowed to take a small dinghy right into the cave. Little did I know then that I would live on Mull and return to Staffa! Time did not allow landing on the island so after looking at the spectacular rock formations we set sail for home with a fair wind on the quarter and the sun  warming our  backs. The end to a pleasant day at sea!