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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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The Isle of Mull

Friday, 26 Feb 1999 08:10:22

[Pics from Glencoe and Western Scotland]

Another chapter in the adventures of our windswept and intrepid traveller.

I take back every nasty thing I said about the weather, the people, the squalor and the general dreariness of this country. They're all still true but now I understand why it happens - they're paying for having Scotland on the northern border.

I spent a couple of days on Mull (the island not the substance), clambering around in the hills. Mull is in the inner Hebrides about three hours North of Glasgow, or two if you have a Fiat Bravo and a ferry to catch.

My friend Andrew came over from Perth to stay with his parents who have a cottage on Mull and he invited me to come up for the weekend.

For a grand total of 61GBP return I flew up Friday night on an Easyjet plane and rented a car for a similar sum. I navigated out of the airport onto the M8 freeway West of Glasgow and North across the Erskine bridge. Going North I tuned into BBC1, got some thumping good music on the radio and followed the A82 up Loch Lomond towards Crianlarich.

At this time of the year the sun sets at about 11pm in these latitudes and so I had a gentle afternoon sun streaming in the windows as I drove up through what must be the most beautiful scenery in the world. Traffic was light and I had the loch mostly to myself, except of course for the odd wild deer, leaping salmon and the like.

About half way up the Loch at Tarbet you turn left into the gently rolling green hills and head towards Inverary. The road becomes a little more twisty and the loch's smaller but no less breathtaking.

At Inverary I stopped for a coffee and a quick pee and then went North towards Lochawe and the road to Oban. The country around Inverary is slightly less scenic until you come up over the pass into the Lochawe glen. The glen is a steep sided, verdant green pocket in the hills with a flawless, mirror bright image of the cloud studded sky in the loch below.

Eventually you reach the main road between Crianlarich and Oban which is more rural, slightly narrower and features a set of narrow stone bridges. The drive here was slower and less interesting because the traffic was thicker and the road more complicated. I reach Oban however without incident and in time for the last ferry to Mull.

Departing at 11.15 the ferry dropped me off at Craignure on Mull at midnight. From the ferry landing I turned left towards Fionphort on one of the only two roads on Mull. About halfway along the road to Fionphort I found the little town of Pennyghael and the house belonging to my host's parents.

We went through the usual rituals of greeting and reminiscence over cheese and wine and then retired to bed with a promise of hill climbing should the weather prove suitable in the morning.

In the morning the weather proved damn near perfect. The previous days, I was informed, had been rather too warm and a little unsuited to rigorous physical pursuits. Saturday however was beautifully warm with just enough cloud cover to give temporary relief from the sun.

Since the weather had chosen to smile on us we seized the opportunity to go for the grand tour of the island's highest peak, Ben More. Mull is a fairly lumpy island with a group of peaks over 1000ft scattered from end to end. The only true 'munro' however is Ben More at 3500ft.

To do it in proper style, we dropped off one car on the South side of the peak and caught a lift around the back to the North side. From there we ignored the obvious glen which local knowledge had informed us would be muddy and unpleasant. Instead we tackled the North flank of the nearest peak Ben Farra.

Ben Farra is steep but not particularly difficult and within an hour or so we were sitting atop the summit looking out over the islands and the mainland. We stopped for lunch in a saddle on the South side of the summit to be out of the wind.

Ben Fhadah is somewhat shorter than Ben More at about 2300ft and from it you can see North towards the other Herbridean islands but the view to the South is blocked by the bulk of A'Chioch and Ben More. From Ben Fhadah the distant island of Skye was clearly visible some 100 miles to the North.

From there we descended down a scree slope into the saddle between Ben Fhadah and A'Chioch before ascending that mountain. On the saddle we were joined by a number of serious walkers obviously out "munro bagging" who had come up the Ben Faddah glen to summit Ben More. "Munro bagging" is a rather extreme form of hill walking popular in Scotland. A Munro is a mountain over 3000 feet high which is easily accessible on foot, there are more than 270 of these in Scotland. Some poor fools feel compelled to climb all of these mountains with varying degrees of lunacy. If you are particularly addicted to pain there are records to be broken here : the most Munro's climbed in a day 28; the shortest time to climb all Munro's 51 days; the youngest ascendant, 7 years old. I was content with one modest one.

The view from A'Chioch was even better than that of Ben Fadhah since there was nothing blocking the view to the South. The air was exceptionally clear and now you could see not only Skye to the north but also the islands to the south, and a snow capped mountain in the far distance that my walking partner claimed was Ben Nevis.

From A'Chioch we descended again, this time West onto the ridge between A'Chioch and Ben More. The ridge between the two is a strenuous, uphill clamber with a fairly sheer face of scree on the right and an equally plunging face on the left. The wind now was more insistent and the first wisps of cloud were beginning to whip over the top of Ben More ahead of us.

We paused just shy of the top for a snack and waited for fifteen minutes hoping for the clouds to clear. They showed no such inclination and we ascended the last thirty feet into the clouds and onto the top of Ben More (for the particularly adventurous there is a large bivouac made from a ring stones atop Ben More where you can spend the night).

After a brief but chilly self congratulatory session we started to head down the South flank of the Ben back to our waiting car. Luckily my partner realised that he did not recognise any of the landscape we were traversing and we stopped to check the map. With the aid of a compass we discovered we had been about to descend the North ridge of the mountain. In the mist we had made a classic mistake and had managed to turn around 180 degrees and would have cheerfully descended several hundred feet in the wrong direction before discovering our error.

The descent was a long downhill slug on scree and grass and we were extremely weary by the time we crawled our way up the road and into the car.

Needless to say we spent the evening in the pub.

The next morning we did a gentle circuit of the island in the car (which involved almost know walking at all). One highlight of which was a visit to Governor Macquarie's mausoleum which is maintained on Mull by the Scottish Trust for the Australian Heritage Trust. Macquarie's family were connected to the ruling clans of Mull and Macquarie himself retired here in 1824 after his service in Australia. He died however of a bowel disorder in London in July of the same year.

In a strangely poignant and Australian tribute, Andrew who was beset by a full bladder, took cover behind the only large object available and urinated on Macquarie's tomb. I judged it best not to take a picture.

Further on we included a visit to the renowned and picturesque village of Tobermory for lunch in one of the brightly coloured houses. A walk around the forest path which skirts the Tobermory harbour was undertaken to settle lunch. Afterwards, while procuring ice creams in a local shop we discovered, in one of those bizarre travelling coincidences, a postcard of the Endeavour replica anchored in Tobermory bay. It apparently toured Britain after its re-creation of Cook's voyage and visited Tobermory in its tour.

This about concluded my visit to Mull and it was time to return Craignure where they squeezed my car aboard the ferry and headed back to the mainland. The drive back to Glasgow was a little slower due to traffic and I booked into a hotel in the airport so that I could return the car and board my flight home this morning.

I arrived back in London at about 7.30am and finally navigated my way into the office just in time for my Monday morning meetings. A bit better than the average weekend away I think. What did you get up to ?