A rally around Mull

Today I had a simple plan – to explore the small coastal roads on the west of Mull,  before reaching the port of Fionnphort, from where I had booked a boat trip to Staffa Island, with its famous Fingal’s Cave.

I set off early, aiming to have about an hour free for a leisurely lunch before the boat trip started at 12.15.  The coast road was pretty, very narrow, and very wild. I stopped several times to take photos. 

Driving along the west coast of Mull
Calgary beach on Mull’s north west coast

There was very little traffic, but after an hour, I met a large 4×4 coming the other way and ducked into a passing place to let him past me.  The driver stopped alongside me and told me that the road ahead was closed for roadworks, and would remain closed for over an hour, and that he had decided it would be quicker to turn around and try another route.  He asked me where I was headed and raised his eyebrows when I told him Fionnphort – it was obviously no longer easy to get there.  After a bit of thinking he advised a route through somewhere called Dervaig and reconnecting with the main road that skirted around the east of the island. 

I considered my options quickly.  If I carried on, I would probably be late for my boat – but I might have a chance if the roadworks were quicker than the man had said.  On the other hand, I had no idea how long the new route would take – there was no phone connection and so no chance to judge the time on Google Maps.  My car’s Satnav was also useless – it refused to consider any option other than the way I had been going. All the same, I decided to take a chance with the huge detour that had been recommended.  After fifteen minutes I found the junction for Dervaig, and regained phone connection.  Google estimated my ETA at Fionnphort as 12.20 – five minutes late, and the satnav had now also recalculated the route with an arrival time of 12.15.   I might make it!   I put my paw to the floor and hurtled along the tiny road leading through Dervaig, grimacing as the car wheels hit potholes or the bottom of the car scraped on the surface of the road.  

Google and Satnav gave continuing feedback on my efforts by adjusting their arrival times; I was pleased that I was keeping up with their schedule and convinced that I could make up some time when the road got better. From the minor road through Dervaig I reached the main coastal road and then branched off into the mountains.  The road cut through spectacular mountain scenery, but I was too busy driving to appreciate it, never mind stop to take photos.  It started to rain hard, and I wondered if I really wanted to do the boat trip after all.  Finally, the road left the mountains and ran along the south coast of the island. The traffic got heavier, and more and more often I was stuck behind slower vehicles or having to stop in passing spaces to let oncoming cars go past.  Google’s ETA edged up – 12.21, 12.23, 12.24…. 

I stopped to call the tour operator and told them I would be about 10 minutes late.  They were very relaxed and said they would wait for me.  The very last stretch of road was even busier, with roadworks being the next hazard to be overcome.  I finally arrived at Fionnphort at 12.34 – 20 minutes late.  I grabbed the parking space closest to the jetty (normally reserved for buses), decided not to waste time buying a parking ticket, and ran to find the captain of our boat waiting patiently for me, and a large group of more agitated tourists.  I gasped some apologies and jumped aboard, hiding in the cabin to conceal my embarrassment whilst the other tourists enjoyed the fresh air on deck.

Fortunately, the weather had turned sunny and soon everyone was in a good mood again. First, the boat met with a group of seals sunning themselves on a rock………..

Seals near Fionnphort

……before reaching spectacular Staffa Island after 30 minutes’ sailing, with its dark basalt rocks rising vertically from the sea. There is a legend that hexagonal blocks that make up the island were laid by a giant, who built a bridge between Ireland and Scotland that also included Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. In reality the hexagonal blocks in both places are the result of molten lava cooling after the same huge volcanic eruption 60 million years ago.

Staffa Island

The boat positioned itself so that we could see the famous Fingal’s Cave, where the sea has eroded the blocks to form a spectacular cavern.

The entrance to Fingal’s Cave

Next, the boat moored on the island and the captain gave us an hour to look around.  I headed straight to the cave, beating the rush of the other passengers and taking more photos.

Inside Fingal’s Cave

After that, I headed off to visit the puffin breeding colony on the other side of the island.  When I arrived, the puffins were all bobbing up and down on the surface of the sea, far below the cliffs where expectant tourists were waiting.   I sat and waited, admiring the beautiful views and enjoying the warm sun.

Scenic Staffa Island

Eventually my patience was rewarded, as the birds started to fly back to their nesting grounds. They avoided people, but since I was small, they didn’t seem to be afraid of me, so I could get a really close look.

The puffins arrive and start to play

Finally, it was time to go. I took a few more photos of the beautiful patterns of the rock that makes up the island, and then boarded the boat.

Staffa Island’s strange hexagonal rocks

Whilst sailing back we got an unexpected treat when a school of dolphins decided to swim with us. 

Dolphins following our boat

The tour ended at Iona, a small island just opposite Fionnphort. At the harbour I was met by a fisherman whom I had called the day before to order fresh lobster and crab.  He showed me two live medium sized lobsters and two very large live crabs, which he then placed in a container for me to pick up when I was ready to leave the island.

Iona is famous as the place were St Columba landed in Scotland in AD 563. He set up a monastery that became the base from which Scotland was converted to Christianity. The abbey was destroyed by Vikings and rebuilt, only to fall into ruin after the Scottish Reformation in the 16th Century. It was rebuilt again in 1938.

Iona Abbey

Iona is supposed to have a special, spiritual feel and to be a great place for exploring on foot.  But I was tired after all the excitement of the boat excursion and hungry, having missed my lunch. I bought a couple scones and ate them admiring the restored abbey, before picking up my seafood and taking the short ferry ride back to Fionnphort.  I was relieved that my car had not received a parking ticket, and slowly drove back to Tobermory.

Fresh lobster for dinner, then I collapsed into bed, exhausted.

Dinner before…….
…and after

North, North and North again – the long trip to Scotland

The Bear is Back!

It has been six long months since my last blog (Madeira in November 2000). I was itching to get back on the road again, and as soon as the UK’s Covid restrictions were partially lifted I was off. This time I am visiting Scotland.  This is a place that has been on my “must visit” list for many years, but I always told myself I could leave it for later, when, as an older bear, I wouldn’t be so confident traveling around places like Iran or Kyrgyzstan.  

This year I had no excuse to postpone my Scotland trip any longer. As a British bear, it is one of the few places to which I am allowed to go, May is the best time visit (before the ferocious midges start biting in June) and – rarity of rarities – the weather forecast was good.  What’s more, I have some Scottish blood from distant ancestors who lived in the Scottish Highlands when bears roamed free there. My family has its own tartan and I even have my own kilt.

I plan to drive up from London and see the Scottish islands and the far North, avoiding the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow which can be more conveniently reached by train (for a next visit).  Remembering just how long the UK is, I decided to stop over in Penrith, just before the border in the far north of England, on the way up; probably I will also stop somewhere on the way back.

On my first day I drove up from London without incident, through industrial Birmingham and past Manchester until I reached the Lake District.  There I decided to do some sightseeing and avoid the monotony of the motorway.  My first stop was the pretty castle of Sizergh, which is more than 800 years old and has the home of the Strickland family for its entire existence.

Sizergh Castle

The castle itself was not open for visiting, but it has beautiful gardens set out in a range of styles including a Japanese-style garden…..

The Japanese Garden

……..and a beautiful orchard.

From Sizergh I drove to Kendal, a town well-known for being the gateway to the Lake District. Although Kendal must once have been a pretty market town and still had many nice old buildings, what struck me most was how poor the place looked – every third shop was a bargain discounter, and every fourth a charity shop.  The remainder were cheap restaurants, the now ubiquitous barber shops, or simply closed and boarded up – unable to survive Covid on top of Amazon’s onslaught. Though disappointed by Kendal, my route did allow me to take an extremely scenic backroad to Penrith.  It was well off the beaten path – maybe because there were no famous lakes in this part of the Lake District – but still a really beautiful drive.

On the road from Kendal to Penrith

I arrived in Penrith in the late afternoon and found the small hotel I had booked for a quick overnight stay.  After a short rest to get over my drive, I headed to explore the town.  It was a pretty place, with nice old buildings and a ruined castle.

Penrith Castle

I had dinner in a pub. It was the day that the Covid restrictions were lifted, and the time people could eat and drink inside pubs for six months, so there was a cheerful, busy atmosphere.

My first pint inside a pub since November 2020!

The next day I continued the long journey up to Scotland.  I crossed the border shortly after departure and reached Glasgow in a couple of hours. After another thirty minutes negotiating the ugly web of motorways surrounding Glasgow, I was in the picturesque Trossachs national park, driving along the side of Loch Lomond.  I made a quick stop in Luss, a pretty village on the side of the loch, to stretch my legs and have lunch.  

Loch Lomond
The Church at Luss

The road continued north through increasingly wild and beautiful scenery to Oban, where I had a place booked on the ferry to Mull. It was good weather for driving, with a mix of sun, cloud and light rain that brought out the different colours of the vegetation.

On the road to Oban

Arriving at Oban. I just had time to buy some fresh scallops and crab from the fish shop next to the terminal before boarding my ferry.

The ferry made its way slowly through the Sound of Mull, threading its way through dozens of small islands, some inhabited, some completely wild.  I stayed out on deck taking in the magnificent scenery, despite the occasional spot of rain – and was rewarded with the beautiful sight of a rainbow low down on the sea behind a lighthouse.

Oban from the boat
Lighthouse, rainbow and the world’s most traveled bear

I arrived on the island of Mull into brilliant sunshine and drove the remaining thirty miles to the cottage I had rented in Tobermory.  In places the road was single track – if you meet a car coming the other way, one of you needs to pull into a passing space to let the other driver past.  There are lots of such passing spaces, and the locals are very familiar with this style of driving and wave you through with a cheery smile. The short road gave stunning views of the sea and the Scottish mainland around the channel, with the bright sunshine bringing out the yellows, greens and reds of the countryside.  

On the road to Tobermory

The beautiful fishing town of Tobermory was also bathed in early evening sunlight when I arrived.


I checked into my cottage, which was perched on a steep hill above the harbour with an amazing view of the bay. 

The view from my living room

Even though it was getting late, the sun was still high in the sky – Tobermory is roughly the same latitude as Moscow and the days are very long in May.  I took the opportunity of the glorious evening sunshine to take a short walk to the lighthouse, taking lots more photos on the way. 

Yet more stunning Scottish scenery

Fresh scallops for dinner, then I fell into bed, a tired but happy bear.

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