The Isle of Mull
The moon was high and bright and the midnight air cold and moist, the local Lancashire tawny owl population gathered to say goodbye as I warmed up the van that was going to be my mobile hide for the next three weeks.
After loading the van with supplies ready for the long trip to the isle of mull on the Scottish west coast, including food check, something to cook it on check, ah hip flask to keep me from the cold check, last and most important of all camera gear check then lets go.
After a quick hot mug of coffee to calm down the adventure butterflies (a condition that builds up through expectation and sheer excitement of the trip ahead ) as a photographer that has covered most of the uk I can honestly advise anyone driving any great distance to do it over night or in the early hours of the morning no traffic, no noise only the sound of radio one can only make for a more enjoyable and quicker journey.
After a few hundred miles of dreaded motorway tarmac i reached the unforgiving highland road (A82) that twisted and turned along the edge of loch lomond.
As i passed through unmanned road works that surrounded large potholes in the bumpy roads inconveniently placed on sharp blind bends thoughts of the morning traffic that I had beaten crossed my mind, finally I decided to have a break and pulled over on one of the many lay-bys along the side of one of the most beautiful lakes in Scotland, loch lomond.
The air was crisp and mist eerily lifted from the lake as the first rays of the morning sun hit the water everything was looking good for the day ahead and of course me being a camera guy I jumped out to take a few shots.
After a break of an hour to fill up on caffeine and chocolate biscuits I decided it would be best to carry on to oban so that we could catch the early morning ferry onto the isle of mull, thoughts of expectation crossed my mind as deer crossed in front of me and buzzard after buzzard flew along side me looking for there early morning meal, after a few more miles of bottom numbing driving along the A85 from tyndrum passing through glen lochy and the pass of brander, i finally reached the ferry port of oban and would you believe it the ferry was leaving the port honking its fog horn as though to say better luck next time even one of the crew members waved with a big smile on his face as I jumped out of the van and looked aimlessly at the waves churned up by the enormous boats engines.
After a quick look round the closed shops and a hearty breakfast in the shore side café that had only just opened at six am and after paying a reasonable ferry fee i started the engine and drove into lane ready to board the incoming ferry to craignure on the isle of mull.
The crossing was nice and smooth and i enjoyed looking at the scenery as i sipped a nice warm cup of coffee on the top deck. The sun shone as the ferry passed duart castle on the banks of the sound of mull all that can be said is that the crossing was breathtaking.
It seemed that all the research I had done previously for the trip had paid of as i had caught the second early morning ferry the settled may weather was looking favourable as predicted by the locals, and i still had plenty of time to reach my destination that was to be the first night parked on a reasonably quiet wild camp situated at killiechronan near salen.
As i reached my first destination on the isle of mull I immediately spotted one of the most majestic birds that uses the sky the golden eagle it soared in hunting mode over a field not 50 meters from where we I was parked as it hunted rabbits, that were enjoying the early morning sun in one of the close by fields I remember thinking that this was going to be a trip to remember.
As I started to set up camp after yet another cup of coffee, I heard the unmistakable sound of hooded crows warning of danger, on looking up into the sky over loch na keal, i could see they were mobbing a large bird of prey a sudden urge to find my binoculars began and on looking through them I could see the crows were mobbing a white tailed sea eagle that was making its way effortlessly over loch na keal towards Ben more.
|Loch na Keal|
Now call me daft but the fact that I had only been on the isle of mull for a couple of hours and thefact that I had already seen a golden eagle and a white tailed sea eagle not forgetting the thirty or so rabbits, sent me into overdrive all thoughts of pitching a tent were gone and after grabbing the essential camera gear I decided to go for a walk, nearly a run to see what else I could find.
As I calmed with the sound of the incoming tide my short walk along the banks of loch na keal started to produce sightings of the local wildlife fallow deer then red deer then the sound of a grasshopper warbler, hunting cries of birds of prey could be heard everywhere, I realised that my lifelong dream of visiting this beautiful island was going to be justified as wildlife was literally everywhere, but alas the dark ness began to creep in and the temperature started to drop so after heading back and finishing the last of my butties and flask it was sleep time.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of my mobile phone alarm that I had set for 0500am I quickly dressed myself and stepped out of the van and looked at one of the most spectacular views I had ever seen, the sun was just appearing over the horizon lighting up the emerald green sea, views of the treshnish isles could be seen in the distance and the only noise was from the local bird life announcing the arrival of a new day.
After a quick cup of coffee made over an open camp fire along with the compulsory bacon butty I made my way down to the shore just as the tide began to flood the bay.
I sat there with my camera looking through my binoculars hoping for a sighting of the infamous otter and I was not disappointed, after an hour a lonely dog otter crossed the bay in front of me about one hundred meters away, unfortunately it was moving into the middle of the bay out of range for my camera but all the same it was a magical first experience of a wild Scottish otter even though I had spent the whole time sat on a cluster of limpets that are just not meant to be used as a seat, I watched as it submerged then came up in the middle of a kelp bed then watched as it eventually slipped out of range of my binoculars.
After a leisurely breakfast and an hour or so in the sun just watching the world go by i decided tohead into salen on the A849 between craignure and tobemory one of three main villages on mull, the village is equipped with a small post office a spar that is always stocked with plenty of bbq meats and nearly everything else you could imagine including a necessary collection of local guide books of which I am now the proud owner, there is a garage, an Italian restaurant and of course a pub that serves a very nice pint of liquid nectar or whiskey depending on your tipple.
There are also public toilets that are a valuable commodity when you are touring around the island and it is always a good idea to mark them all on the map so that you always have a place to head to if the other half needs a tinkle, also try to remember that if you are going to shop in salen, park up on a car park and not on the narrow main road as I learnt that lorries do not muck about going round your car they tend to push others out of there way and the local police have a move you on policy.
After picking up supplies i decided to find a camp site to make camp, i settled for tobemory campsite about a mile just outside of tobemory on the B8073 towards dervaig and set up for the three weeks ahead, showers, toilets, phones hot water and good scenery are all in good supply here and also friendly conversation with the owner that told us not to worry about the horrible Scottish midge as he has midge catchers installed around the small campsite, it was here once set up that i planned out my mission to photograph the isle of mull otters and of course any other wildlife I could find.
After planning out the three weeks worth of activities i decided to head into tobemory (or as the kids call it ballamory which apparently the locals hate you calling it) for a proper meal and of course a pint or two and found eating places in good supply, there are a number of pubs serving large bar meals and an Indian that I tried once during the three weeks and although it was a cracking meal the price left a huge hole in my wallet no wonder the waiters were always smiling, it is always a good idea to pre book as all the eating places become very busy at night time (especially from may onwards) and you will be expected to wait about an hour or more for an un-booked table.
There is a also an absolutely brilliant cheap chippy on the harbour serving extra large fresh fish along with all the extras you can expect from a good chippy and in my view is deserving of an award.
Some of you whiskey drinkers out there might be interested to know that there is a whiskey distillery located in tobemory right on the harbour and is well worth a visit if only to pick up a bottle to keep the cold away during your stay on mull.
There are quite a few shops selling everything from binoculars to freshly baked bread and there isalso a spar that is open until about nine o’clock always handy if you run out of your favourite tipple.
Once refuelled with a good meal and after having a few pints of the good stuff I headed back to the campsite by taxi that was very reasonable at £5.00 and available at short notice, this was to become good news especially due to the torrential downpours this island can sometimes experience usually at night or early morning.
The third day started with the sun shining through the tent waking me up from my slightly intoxicated sleep and I was glad to see that the weather was looking good and the temperature was already rising as I sat out and had breakfast, the campsite was pretty queit apart from the local ducks playing in the small stream that runs through the little campsite, and as promised the midge catchers on the campsite did there job and I unexpectedly dined in peace without having to pluck black bits from my early morning brew and butty.
After having a red hot shower and a quick chat with some of the other campers it was time to set off on my travels that comprised of a complete drive around the whole of the island to see what wildlife encounters I could find.
my first stop was at salen to refuel as this I found was the cheapest garage on the island (it is always a good idea to fill up with fuel at every opportunity just in case you stray away from the open road remember its always better to have too much than too little as the AA takes hours to get to mull) it was also an opportunity to question the locals about recently sighted otters but unfortunately hardly any of the locals could tell me locations in fact a lot of the local chaps and lasses had never seen an otter, this played havoc with my expectations, even though I had already seen one on my first day on the island was this the only otter here I hope not.
Not the sort of lad to be put off i set off in my mobile hide (the van) with windows open camera on the reachable back seat and binoculars on my knee turning left at the old church in the centre of salen onto the B8035 towards grulin, keep your eyes out on this stretch as fields and conifer plantations surround the road and i often spotted birds of prey especially early in the morning sitting on top of the telegraph poles that run along side of the road, i also had frequent sightings of red and fallow deer and owls during late evening around this area.
Once at grulin i stayed on the B8035 and followed the road through Ben more estate this stretch has a large blue bell wood on your right hand side near some small cottages that is worthy of a quick stop and a few photo’s, the wood is straight across from the Macquarie mausoleum that is well marked on most maps.
After a quick stop and a few photos of the bluebell wood i carried on the B8035 and crossed over a
small hump backed bridge, it was here that
i often had sightings of herons and fallow deer to our right and keep a look
out for the albino fallow deer that i spotted on many occasions feeding in the
woodland right near the road.
|isle of mull otter|
From here follow the coastal road that runs alongside loch na keal on the same side as ben more this is a beautiful scenic road if not a bit ruff with the sea loch to your right and craggy ground to the left, this area is a good stretch for sightings of grey and common seals basking on the rocks and also a wide variety of sea birds and waders keep an eye out for stoats mink and hares as these are also often spotted, parking spots are plenty down this stretch and the views of the treshnish isles from further up this road at the highest points deserve a ten minute photography break, after speaking to a friendly farmer I was informed that a dog otter frequented this stretch of coastline but unfortunately during the couple of hours I waited I had no sightings, although northern divers, red mergansers, eider duck, shell duck and plenty of sightings of ringed and golden plover were added to my ever growing list and where constantly spotted around this area over the three week stay.
Further on, the road starts to rise up and run along side a large cliff face at gribun and this is where i had quite a few sightings of peregrine falcons,golden eagles and countless buzzards and hen harriers to name just a few, I was informed later that the hen harriers use the island during there travels around the Scottish highlands and islands as a break from the weather conditions and often visit mull from the mainland during the early parts of the year.
I found the local hooded crows or hoodies as the locals call them absolutely brilliant as all you have to do to spot a bird of prey is to listen for the alarm calls of the hoodies and head for there direction you can also bet that if there is a large group of hoodies in the air nine times out of ten they will be mobbing some sort of bird of prey.
There are only a few parking spots under these cliffs and we found that they are in great demand with the local twitchers, so if you have the opportunity of finding a parking space have a short break and see if you have any sightings.
|road along loch na keal|
Try looking in the crags for nesting birds of prey or look along the top edges of the cliffs for thesilhouettes of birds scouring the landscape for there next meal such as the infamous peregrine falcon that I had many sightings of along this stretch, but again remember not to park on the narrow roads as you will block them and I can guarantee your wing mirrors will be knocked off by passing tractors.
The drive along this stretch of road is a bit hair raising as the land on the right suddenly disappears and turns into cliff edge and the large dents in the road side barrier are a reminder that caution is the best policy whilst driving this stretch.
when you reach the highest point look out for the sharp bend to the left there is a small parking spot that is a fine place to park up and get out the binoculars as the vast views from here are amazing, to the right of you (providing you have reversed into the parking spot) you will see the treshnish isles including staffa and to the left there is another large cliff face that if you are lucky enough you might catch the resident golden eagles catching the thermals also look out for dolphins and whales hunting as they can often be seen in settled weather.
From this point the B8035 starts to head across land away from the coast, the road is surrounded on both sides by high graduated hills and this is one of the best places on the island to spot red deer and birds of prey such as the golden eagle and the famous white tailed sea eagle, every time i drove down this stretch of road I had amazing long lasting sightings of all three of these iconic Scottish members of the wildlife community.
The road here is quite wide so it is easy to park up if you spot something, so keep your eyes peeled and I can guarantee you a sighting, also try checking this area after showers as the eagles tend to use the thermals in this area to take flight just after a period of rain, if you see something try waiting in your car as the birds tend to land lower down the slopes if you don’t disturb them you never know you might get a close encounter.
The roads around this area are very quiet this makes it ideal for second gear as this is the best way to travel giving you plenty of time to see the local wildlife again look and listen and if you have enough time pull over and look for the local hooded crows giving away the position of birds of prey.
When you reach the end of this road the landscape becomes civilised once again and you come to a t junction between your road the B8035 and the A849 that runs back to tobemory to the left or fionphort to your right, I tried both during the three weeks and found both roads a pleasure to drive down and both hotspots for wildlife.
The A849 towards fionphort leads to the small ferry port where you can either, catch a small pleasure boat to the treshnish islands that include Iona, Staffa and lunga with views of the Dutchman’s cap in the distance or one of the specialised wildlife tour boats that run from this point to see seals and the local sea bird populations.
The journey to this part of the island takes you along loch scridain that is a must for any otter or white tailed sea eagle fan as you have one of the best chances of spotting an otter or eagle down this road, keep your eyes peeled to the right in the kelp beds for signs of splashing as by now you will be driving a matter of feet away from the loch or look left for signs of white tailed sea eagles that often fly over on there way to this sheltered loch to hunt, also keep in mind that you will often see the local wildlife guides parked up, if you happen to come across one pull over and have a look to see what they are looking at, as i did on one occasion and they were looking at an otter that was feeding right in front of them (this was at pennycross) the guides tend not to hang about for two long so we I was left with a private viewing of an otter and the chance to get a few photographs before it headed out to catch its second course.
I also had sightings of a pair of white tailed sea eagles further down at bunessan that were being
My Tick List driving down to fionphort grew as i added otter, herons, eider duck, northern divers, ringed plover, oyster catcher, and a golden eagle circling high in the sky oh and a long line of some fifty cows including Aberdeen Angus that would not move out of our the way keeping me hostage for at least an hour (this always seemed to happen at 15.00hrs each day).
Further down this stretch the habitat changes to estuary and marsh land and a day can be lost venturing around this area and you are pretty much on your own all the way up to bunessan as people tend only to use this stretch of road to get to there chartered wildlife trips (more on these later) usually early in the morning and around 5-6pm.
The A849 back towards tobemory was for me the most enjoyable drive as the scenery was spectacular and basically it was one big loop road home, this stretch of the A8049 took me through glen more that is supposed to be the best place to see golden eagles especially around the three lakes area of the glen, unfortunately for me i had no sightings at all during our three weeks driving through glen more in fact I found the best place to see the golden eagle was along the B8035 back towards loch na keal.
The scenery along glen more is breathtaking especially the view of Ben more that on a clear day looks worthy of the title highest Monroe (mountain) on the isle of mull. The habitat in glen more is baron and windswept with heath and moor land surrounded by steep high ground to both sides it then opens up into small plantations of conifer and yew, we had loads of sightings of buzzard along this route perching on the endless number of telegraph poles that run along the way, herds of red deer up on the highland to our left where constantly sighted around this area and also countless sightings of meadow pipits and various species of warbler are in great numbers along the road.
As you reach about half way through the glen you come to the three lakes area that is worth an hours break, there is a small lay-by directly across from the lakes and the scenery from this point overlooking the three lakes with Ben buie and Ben creach in the distance is spectacular on a clear day and even though I did not have any sightings of golden eagles on my trip through this area other twitching types swear by it.
When you reach strathcoil there is a small road that leads to either lochbuie or croggan both of these places are worth a visit and are guaranteed to produce good wildlife sightings of northern divers, otters, red meganzers and if you are lucky all manner of marine life such as dolphins and porpoises, both of the roads end up at quiet secluded loch’s loch buie and loch spelve if you have a couple of hours to spare why not just sit there and take time out and have a cuppa as this is a truly lovely place with fantastic views and if you are a camera mad bloke like me then you will surely find landscapes/flowers/and wildlife to photograph even if it is the local rabbit population that are quite tame and come to have a look at you.
Carrying on from strathcoil you will come to one of the best guaranteed places to see the white tailed sea eagle, head for lochdon and you will see a sign post for grass point (right turn off the A849) if you follow this road it takes you through a small valley where you will see the local Aberdeen Angus lying at the side of the road the road then climbs steeply over a hillside, by this time you should have realised that you are being watched as there are hundreds of eagle watch posters and signs everywhere and the fact that there are hundreds of twitchers walking about with large spotting scopes points to the fact that there is something worth watching here, if you follow the road for another two hundred meters then you will come to a small car park on your right, it is worth parking up and taking a walk down to the top of the hill you have just drove down, I can personally guarantee that if you sit at the top of the hill you will see the eagles perching in one of the trees directly to the front of you high up on the opposite hillside.
If you don’t fancy looking at the eagles then from the car park walk up the hill directly behind the car park, this will take you to a long high cliff face and some spectacular scenery overlooking the firth of lorne this area is also a cracking wild flower site with wild orchids and many other wild flowers growing on the craggy hillside, if you walk in a straight line from the car park you will come to a large long piece of rock that makes an ideal seat and picnic site and worthy of a couple of hours rest especially in the sunshine you never know you might even see the eagles fishing in the sea.
When you have had enough of the coastal air head back towards the main road and turn right to carry on your journey back onto the A849 this time i headed through lochdonhead and turned right again heading towards the signposted duart point the home of duart castle, although this is not really a wildlife site on this occasion i took time out to have a look around the castle and the views from this magnificent building were beautiful as the castle looks out over the sound of mull and on a clear day the highlands of Ben Nevis can be easily made out, well worth a visit by anyone young or old and take my word for it no matter what the weather go to the roof for some more spectacular views.
From duart point get back on the A849 again turn right and head towards craignure you will pass tourist signs for wings over mull (bird of prey centre well worth a visit) to your left, and torosay castle to your right (again worth a visit especially if you like stunning gardens but due to close so please check there website) eventually you will come to craignure the ferry terminal, now you might think that due to this being the busiest place on the island that wildlife would stay away but tell the local otter’s that as early morning and late evening sightings are frequent and almost guaranteed during our three week stay we often spotted otters hunting in the small harbour directly to the right of the main ferry terminal and they where not as shy as the other otters i had spotted during my three week stay.
In craignure you will find the craignure pub that serves great cheap meals that would fill even the hungriest of people, you will also find a garage/local spar shop an off licence/café/tourist information (full of free maps of the island) campsite/car park/ and of course the ferry terminal there is also a hotel (craignure hotel) within walking distance that really is not worth bothering with, as if you are not with a coach party, you will not be looked after as the staff are that busy with the coach loads of other travellers and you will not get a look in, the meals are cold after you have waited two hours for a table, you will be asked to move rooms if you have booked less than a 4 days stay and if you stop out later than 10.45pm then you will be locked out and have to resort in banging on the door like Fred Flintstone.
From craignure get back on the A849 and head towards salen this stretch is a long 12 mile stretch of coast line and is another hotspot for otters and sea birds of all types but parking is at a premium so keep a look out for places to park up as there are only a couple.
The coast line is packed with different areas such as little coves filled with kelp and shingle beaches stretching out at low tide to small raised outcrops of rock perfect for seals and otters to dry themselves off on so try at least once to leave the car and walk the whole stretch as you will almost certainly spot something.
When you get into salen and you have stopped for a tinkle go straight through towards tobemory and pull into the parking space either by the old ships to your right or in the ready made official car park on the right hand side just a bit further up, park up and get out and walk from this point.
The coast line around this stretch from the public toilets all the way round to aros castle is a hotspot for common seals, grey seals, otters and all manner of bird life don’t do what many have done and just stop for an hour as wildlife in this area appears and disappears with the tide so buy a tide guide book from the spar in salen as this will tell you when the tide is in or out, it even tells you where the tide will be in and what time i.e. when the tide is out in salen it may be in on the other side of the island.
Try looking for seals in salen on a low tide as this is when the rocks are exposed making ideal sunbathing spots for the seals to haul up on, in the summer common seals mix with grey seals on these rocks giving you a close encounter, if you are still and quiet they will come right up and have a look at you.
Check this area regularly during the morning, early afternoon and late evening as this is the time you will and I mean you “will” spot an otter, try stopping for an hour then if you see one, record the time and turn up each day at that time and wait, i did this during my stay and was rewarded with various encounters with the local otter family.
On the first occasion I spotted an otter fishing in the kelp just off shore and waited to see if it would come closer to the shore line, after about an hour I decided to get out of the car and find a place to watch the otter.
Sat on a small outcrop, I watched with camera at the ready as the otter came up with a large butter fish and carried it towards me, as the wind was blowing onto my face I knew that the otter would not be able to smell me, so I sat still and would you believe it the otter clambered up onto the outcrop of rock that I was sat on not a meter away, it was then that this otter was joined by two others I couldn’t believe my luck as the otter family squabbled over the fish paying no attention to the bloke sat right in front of them, this turned out to be a magical experience and was the highlight of the trip for me and the photographs taken during this experience are something I will treasure.
i found salen to be the best place on the island to see the otters and it also makes a good place to see the seals close up and the fact that the toilets are just a quick trot away makes it ideal for sitting and watching the world go by especially with some of the local made biscuits bought from the local spar.
After a good stop here I carried on with my trip back up to tobemory on the A848 from Salen on the way back you pass through all manner of habitats on this stretch and there are various places that you can stop off, with walks down to the coast line through conifer forest and the drive down this route produced great sightings of seals and bird life of all types including eider duck, heron, shell duck, merganser, and various birds of prey including goshawk, peregrine, little owl, short eared owl, kestrel, buzzard, merlin and more.
There are also some stunning walks along this route where you can get out and stretch the legs through heath and moor land these again produce sightings of birds of all types and with mull being a hotspot for wildlife your never short of something to look at and photograph, for me this was the best route to follow as it produced regular sightings of all the wildlife that can be found on the isle of mull, I hope it helps to make your visit more enjoyable and if you are an up and coming photographer like myself and you have the patience to wait and watch then you will also see and photograph some stunning wildlife.
Please check my blog regularly for more write-ups of where I have been and please feel free to share my tales.