Sea Kayaking Round The Isle of Mull | Seeking Peace and Quiet on a Tour of Scotland's Inner Hebrides
"In this kind of place, time slows. Breathing slows. The brain stops churning over irrelevancies…"
Words & photography by Judy Armstrong
I love my sister. I do. Generally, I love her from a distance: she's in New Zealand, I'm in sunny Yorkshire. I 'go home' every three years and visit. All good. But when she quit her job and sold her house, I heard myself, for reasons I can't remember, inviting her to stay in my village for a month...
The day she left, my husband Duncan and I loaded our sea kayaks onto our campervan and headed north. We needed silence. Solitude. A secret place where nobody would knock on my office door at 6pm and suggest another drinking session. We needed Scotland. Specifically, the island of Mull.
Reason one: it's easy to reach: hotfoot to Oban, short ferry ride, perusal of porpoise slicing through the water beside the boat and – bam. You're at Craignure. Reason two: silence and solitude. Reason three: white sand beaches with absolutely no people on them. Reason four: life is slow. Really slow. Like backward time travel. Slowly.
"We needed silence. Solitude. A secret place where nobody would knock on my office door at 6pm and suggest another drinking session…"
Reason five: beside the Oban ferry terminal is a seafood kiosk where greedy travellers tuck into mussels cooked in wine, oysters on ice and razor clams in garlic. It's not pretty: we squash onto wooden benches by a long trestle table and wrestle shellfish into our mouths as though we haven't eaten in years. After we've drawn breath, we also buy eight fat, fresh scallops weighed down with a crescent of pink coral roe, to take away...
Now, Mull is an awesome island. One of Scotland's largest, it's shaped like an inverted E and it has everything, from sea eagles and otters, to mountains and lakes, and the telegenic village of Tobermory. It has its own single-malt whisky distillery, boat trips to the incredible caves on Staffa and puffin therapy on the Treshnish Isles. All lovely stuff. But the best bit is the Ross.
The Ross is the long finger forming the southern arm of the backwards E. At its tip is the island speck of Iona, considered the seat of Christianity in Scotland. This is a glorious granite and grass lump fringed with sand, anchored by the abbey founded by St Columba in AD563 and home to around 120 people.
But – back to Craignure. Within 100 metres of leaving the ferry terminal and heading left to the Ross, we're on a single-track road with passing places. It squeezes around the coast, past a couple of castles, strains up and over a mountain and back down to sea level, to the glacial gouge of Loch Scridain. After waiting for a woolly Highland cow to shuffle off the road, we ease along the Ross itself, following the wind and white-caps, always westward.
Before reaching the end of the world, we scrape the van between high stone walls to reach the southern side. Uisken Beach is a half-moon of sand with black-rock islands studding a cobalt sea. Campers each give Ronnie and Sheila Campbell £2 (which they give to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution) for the privilege of making the beach their home. And what a privilege. In the whole sweep of bay, we are only four, and our view is of sand, ocean and a seal on a rocky islet.
In this kind of place, time slows. Breathing slows. The brain stops churning over irrelevancies, heart patter is increased only by coffee, not stress. It takes less than a day on Mull for the world to look calmer, quieter.
Time, then, to launch the kayaks. The seal watches as we slide slim boats into a choppy sea and head east. It's windy and cool, but as we synchronise breathing and paddle strokes, all we notice are the colours. Pink granite rocks, iridescent blue water, brown-green foliage of heather and bracken, silver grey of the Atlantic seals following our progress.
"The seal watches as we slide slim boats into a choppy sea and head east. It's windy and cool, but as we synchronise breathing and paddle strokes, all we notice are the colours."
There are so many beaches. We choose a perfect smile of white sand, land the kayaks and unpack the contents. First: scallops. Second: a small frying pan and spatula. Third: our secret weapon, a stainless steel firebox that packs flat, but builds into three solid sides and a base, with a slatted top for cooking on, and an open front to feed the fire. We gather driftwood and dried heather, carefully build a pyre and strike a match. Soon there is enough heat to melt butter in the pan; soon the scallops are sizzling; soon we are sitting on white sand with the silliest smiles on our salt-streaked faces, scoffing seafood as it was meant to be. Fresh, simple, with just the slosh of wavelets as a soundtrack.
The exploration by kayak continues. We stay at Uisken for a few days, finding rock castles and caves, and the unimaginable expanse of Ardanalish beach topped by an Iron Age hill fort. We have sunshine. We have gales. We have no more scallops – that, sadly, was a one-off. When the wind direction dictates a move, we mosey over to Fidden, to camp among the sand dunes. From here, it's destination Iona: not on the Fionnphort ferry with the tourist hordes (it's pronounced Finafort. Go figure) but by paddle-power.
This is nearly a mistake. The tail wind picks up to Big Strength while we're in the middle of the Sound of Iona and we land on the sacred isle with gritted teeth, clenched knuckles and wide eyes. But it’s instantly worth it? We have more white sand and just the crash of surf for company. It's not a day to circumnavigate so we stay on the inner sound, planning to visit the abbey. But as we approach the slipway, a ferry docks and disgorges 16 busloads of people... so we turn and paddle very, very slowly, against the wind back to the mainland.
"We head for this, hoping for shelter and find the most extraordinary place. An embrace of bay with a mirror-flat sea and a swathe of pearlescent sand"
Our focus is a small chain of islands split from the Ross by a channel called the Bull Hole. We head for this, hoping for shelter and find the most extraordinary place. An embrace of bay with a mirror-flat sea and a swathe of pearlescent sand, leading to another bay. It is an isthmus of dreams. And on it is a man with his toddler son, who is playing, naked, as kids always used to be on beaches at that age, with a shell. The boy is sent off to his mum at a low, stone cottage perched on the edge of the beach and the man – Ben, an archaeologist from Glasgow – shows us a secret. We walk up a steep heather slope and into a cave, just large enough to stand in and long enough to lay a wrapped body. A hole in the wall gives a view of St Columba's Abbey.
"This is the King's Cave, where the body of kings were kept for a night, before being transported by boat to Iona for burial," he tells us. I sit in the cave and stare at the abbey. It is the most poignant view of Iona, with the musty breath of the dark cavern and the misty memories of what once lay here.
Back in the kayaks, we explore the Bull Hole. It is home to pink granite rock formations, deep gorges between cliffs where green-eyed shags lurk and screech, and surprising islands with sandy skirts.
As we work back along the coast to Fidden, our attention is grabbed by the coastal rock. Mull is built like a multi-layered wedding cake, with basalt lava on the top. But in certain places, like this end of the Ross, it's a unique pink granite which was used to build Blackfriars Bridge, Holburn Viaduct and the Albert Memorial in London. It almost looks edible, like candy.
From Fidden we head off to explore the rest of Mull but it can't cut the mustard like the Ross, so we return to Uisken. As you do. And for a few more idyllic days we kayak west, and east, and out and back. We have silence, solitude and slow. Then, on our last day, all the good stuff that can possibly happen, does.
It is sunny. There is no wind. The sea is smooth as glass, reflecting the blue sky and the neighbouring islands of Jura, Colonsay and Islay. We paddle our kayaks west to the Sound of Iona. Sometimes we land – on a pristine beach for coffee from our portable cafetiere; on another, backed by a waterfall, for a picnic lunch; on an isthmus for a leg-stretch. Near the end of the Ross we round a headland and are surrounded by Atlantic Grey seals, like blubbery silver torpedoes, rolling around our boats, inquisitive and close. Very close. One looks me in the eyes and I realise how large and powerful they are, and how much I do not want to fall in.
Our final landing is the island of Erraid. Joined to the Ross at low tide, it is said to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped. Wet-golden sand links dunes pocked with wind-blown tussock grass; the shape changes constantly with the tide. It is a magical place, through its beauty and its transience.
Later, reluctantly, we begin the return journey. The kayaks are sliding through clear water in that smooth way only sleek fibreglass can. The rock gardens have been explored, beaches admired, narrow slots ridden on kindly waves. There is nothing left now except a final landing at Uisken and the long road south to the border. But – wait! As we approach the cliffs of Ardanalish Point, my eye is caught by distant splashing. We turn the kayaks to see a large pod of dolphin hunting mackerel – leaping, crashing, spinning. Making tight, coordinated circles, they force the fish into a food-wheel. The energy and aggression is palpable, and we watch in awe. Seeing something like this from sea level adds power to the performance; it is literally breathtaking, as if we’re immersed in an episode of Blue Planet II. No silence now, or solitude: this is the noise and hustle of nature at its best. It's the perfect foil: our souls are refreshed, and it's time to go home.
Do It Yourself:
Caledonian Macbryne runs regular ferries to Mull from various points on the mainland. Visit calmac.co.uk for timetables, pricing and further info.
Kayak rental & guides:
Judy and Duncan had their own kayaks, but visitors can rent sea kayaks and book guided expeditions from Arisaid Sea Kayak Centre (arisaigseakayakcentre.co.uk)
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