If you visit the Isle of Mull don’t overlook the smaller, but as important island of Iona, just off Mull’s south west coast. Only a short hop by ferry from Fionnphort, anyone holidaying ought to make time to check out what Iona has to offer. Here are four reasons we make regular trips.
I have a soft spot for any TV or radio programmes covering geology or natural history. That’s how I found myself sitting in the audience at this year’s Edinburgh Science Festival listening to TV geologist Dr Iain Stewart expound on how Scotsman (James Hutton) was a big influence on our understanding of how the entire world’s ecosystem works. But Iain also flagged up his plans for a new TV programme focusing specifically on the evolution of the Scottish landscape.
I managed to catch up on the programme, ‘Making Scotland’s Landscape‘ last night (thanks once again to the BBC’s iPlayer) and learnt some rather interesting facts about the distinct lack of trees we see, not just on Mull, but all over many parts of Scotland.
According to Iain there was a cooling event some 4,000 years ago which added more rain. This caused many parts of Scotland’s forests to die back, leaving us with about 25% forest coverage at the start of man’s change from hunter-gatherer to farmer. Pre-farming there may have been as few as 10,000 people covering the whole of what we consider modern Scotland, but some speculate that by the start of the modern age that could have risen as high as 500,000…certainly enough people to put huge pressure on the land and resources, including the indigenous trees and the firewood they provided.
By the 1500s, stocks of indigenous forest were so depleted that wood was being imported from mainland Europe. It all paints a fairly grim picture of how our forebears didn’t so much care for and maintain the land, as exhaust it totally.
By the start of the 20th century and the onset of the first great war, it became clear to many that the country had to be proactive in protecting wood stocks. But it got off to an inauspicious start with most of the land being populated with fast-growing Sitka Spruce, so closely planted that virtually nothing lives beneath its canopy.
Fortunately, by the 1980s there were more enlightened souls in the Forestry Commission who recognised that creating a forest mono-culture of foreign trees is hardly a long-term solution, and they began to introduce a wider variety of indigenous varieties into tree plantations across the country.
In terms of the Isle of Mull, as you holliday there you can’t fail to notice the large tree covered estates. There’s still a lot of monoculture going on that won’t be superceded for many years to come. But the hope must be that for future generations of holiday visitors, the landscape that will meet people visiting the island will be one which more accurately represents the type of forest that would have once been abundant all over the country just a few thousand years ago…. minus the wild boar, bears, wolves and beavers, not to mention dragons, unicorns and centaurs of course!
You might also like to listen to Dr Iain Stewart’s radio programme for BBC Scotland. Called ‘Walking Through Landscape‘ the 39 minute show is also being podcast, which, usefully, means that you can save the audio and, should the opportunity arise, use his programme as a sort of walking guide.
In the first show Iain visits Ariundle oakwoods, in Sunart, which is fairly easy to get to from Mull using the CalMac Lochaline to Fishnish ferry crossing. Ariundle is a lush green space, full of plant and animal life. But they’re also incredibly rich in archaeology. Iain seeks out the stories of human and natural history the old oak trees have lived through, and, perhaps ironically, learns that if it wasn’t for 18th century industry, the woods wouldn’t be around today.
You can download the audio here but, as of posting you’ve only got three more days to do so.
Beach House Self Catering, Isle of Mull
I’m not a prolific reader these days. Having two small kids tends to drain away the time I once devoted to piling through novels. When I did read though, it tended to be factual tomes rather than fiction. I’ve always had a preference for books on history or science.
Fortunately we’re on holiday at the moment, and it’s on these rare occasions that I make the effort to catch up on some reading. That brought me to one of my favourite authors, Bill Bryson, and his new book “At Home – a short history of private life“. In his usual style, he starts off focusing on a very specific topic, in this case the history of the home, but somehow manages to range all over the place, incorporating lots of interesting snippets of historical information.
In the introduction he mentions how his Norfolk home is next to a church that appears to have sunk some three feet into the ground. In reality the ground has risen due to the thousands of people buried there over the last 1,000 years. It’s the sort of historical tidbit that catches your imagination and also brought me to consider some of the many hidden archaeological treasures dotted around the Isle of Mull’s countryside.
To the casual observer on a holiday to Mull, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious that the island is covered in archaeological sites from pre-history right up to the modern age and the tragedy of the highland clearances. You can read a quick synopsis on Mull’s history here.
But even if you’re not trained in the field, there are some excellent resources that can make a visit to Mull a much more illuminating experience… if it’s your kind thing of course.
One website I recently happened upon is The Megalithic Portal and Megalith Map. Now this website isn’t about to win any awards for being pretty on the eye, but what it does do is deliver a wealth of geographical information about ancient sites all over the UK, Europe and the wider world. I came across it when someone tweeted about visiting a megalith not far from Salen at the centre of Mull.
It was on this website that I discovered a detailed interactive map which pinpoints a wealth of interesting historical sites all over the Isle of Mull. The map embedded in the website uses Yahoo Maps, but I prefer the Google Maps version.
Usefully, you can also extract the latitude and longitude information, thus making it a whole lot easier to pinpoint sites which would otherwise be masked by time and plant growth.
So, whether you want to holiday on Mull for the wildlife, beaches, or scenery, you can now add a little bit more to the history of the island and the peoples who once lived there, thanks to this handy website.
Beach House Self-Catering, Isle of Mull
I learnt something new after watching Paul Murton’s Grand Tours of Scotland on the BBC’s iPlayer. Seems that the whole Thomas Cook travel empire started life thanks to the said Mr Cook, a baptist and worker for the temperance movement, sending the working classes to bonnie Scotland. He apparently thought that taking people on tours of Scotland would keep them sober and away from the gin palaces.
Another little gem was that Cook was so shocked at the poverty which he found Iona locals living under that he set up a fund to which his tourists could contribute. This raised enough funds to buy 24 fishing boats for islanders. So Thomas Cook must rank as one of the very first eco-tourists, wanting to help the community he was visiting.
Anyway, these interesting historical snippets were recounted as Paul spoke to transport historian Nikki Macleod from the University of Greenwich, whilst they sat on the last ocean-going paddle steamer the Waverley, on its way to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull after leaving from Oban. This all starts about 15 minutes into the half hour programme, so it’s a good place to start if your main interest in this episode is his travels to the inner hebrides of Mull, Iona and Staffa.
A few other interesting pieces of information on the presenter include Paul’s connections with Mull. Seems he also has family on the island which he mentions as the Waverley steams into Tobermory harbour … in his opinion the most beautiful in Scotland. And, much like myself, he also chose to get married on Mull. Good call. Worked for us!
I should mention that, unless the programme gets re-broadcast at a later date, you’ll only be able to view this online if you’re somewhere in the UK up until the 17th of November.