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