Starting mileage: 21613 km
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 21:00
A scenic route runs along the eastern shore of Mull, along the ancient, desolate, wind-swept coast, with views West towards the small islets of the Loch na Keal bay – Ulva, Eorsa and Staffa, all rising from the sea like a fleet of aircraft carriers – sharp-edged cliffs and flat “decks”; Staffa is the most famous one of them, with the mighty Fingal’s Cave basalt steps, formed in the same process, and similar in form, as the Giant’s Causeway. To reach Staffa it’s a steep £30 per person, and it takes three hours to get there and back; with our tightening budget and schedule, we regrettably decided to skip it.
A few miles past the settlement of Salen the road widens back to dual carriageway, though not for long; it’s enough to ensure we reach Tobermory in time for the last ferry back to the mainland. Not having grown up in Britain in the early 2000s, we don’t share in the common memory of the Balamory show; we’re faintly aware that this little colourful town was the basis for it. All the English tourists, however, come here to see the three famous houses, painted red, yellow and blue, and photograph themselves in front of them.
But there’s plenty else to see and do in Tobermory; it’s the perfect little harbour town, with a single, long row of buildings housing such shops as House of Hand-Made Chocolate, Wines, Spirits and Ironmongers (all one shop), several cafes and crafts workshops. In the local masonic hall there’s a Tibetan fair trade store; and of course, there’s a wee, old distillery, overlooking the marina (Tobermory whisky: light, citrusy, faintly peaty).
The ferry to Kilchoan is a tiny one, but there’s only two of us waiting for it, plus few pederastians; this is surprising, as we thought any connection between Mull and mainland would be busy. But as it soon turns out, Kilchoan – and the entire Ardnamurchan peninsula it’s situated on – is not your average Scottish mainland.
We knew nothing of Ardnamurchan before arriving here for the night; it was just a place on the map that a road goes through. But a number of leaflets and books at the campsite painted a curious picture of this place, one that made us stay a few hours longer than we had originally planned.
We start off in the morning, heading for the first natural destination, the Ardnamurchan Point: mainland Britain’s most westerly point. You might at this point wonder – as we did – what about Land’s End? Well, I have no idea. It’s neither the southernmost, nor, as it turns out, westernmost point of anything; as far as I’m concerned it’s simply the most hyped point on mainland Britain.
The road to the Point – and the lighthouse at its end – is simply astonishing, and reflects precisely how Ardnamurchan came to be; the entire peninsula is formed of fields of frozen magma, spewed from the once-mighty volcanoes of the area. One such volcano was on the tip of Mull, the other forms the head of Ardnamurchan, visible in the geological surveys and aerial photos.
The landscape is a bleak expanse of grey rock, spotted with some fern and heather; I’ve only seen similar landscapes in Iceland and Japan, where the volcanoes are still active. Here the calderas are millions of years old and long extinct, but the vegetation and erosion barely took hold of the harsh stone.
There is a mighty lighthouse at the end of the single-track, narrow road, built by one of the Lighthouse Stevensons in the style of an Egyptian temple; the fog-horn is still in place, though unused, and there are sweeping views from the promontory, all the way to the Western Isles; apparently, here is one of the best spots to search for sea life from the mainland, but all we see is a single otter and a few guillemots.
Ardnamurchan is regarded as one of the most remote, wild and unspoilt regions of Britain. I say “unspoiled” – but that scourge of British countryside, the static caravan, had made a foothold even here. There are several new houses being built along the coast, the road is being widened, and at the foot of the peninsula a grand new white building is constructed: Ardnamurchan distillery.
Luckily, the vast expanses of lava is neither fertile, nor a good building ground: the castle of Mingary, near Kilchoan, is in danger of collapsing into the sea. This means any new settlement must be confined to the narrow strip between the mountain forest and the sea shore, leaving the wilderness in peace. The nature of Ardrochan is its pride and glory, with the Great Five of animals uniquely present in this region on the mainland: the Golden Eagle, the White-tailed Eagle, the wildcat, the pine marten and the otter. We’ve only seen the first and the last one on our short tour – it takes a lot of watching and waiting to spot a wildcat among the pine trees.
The road north from Ardnamurchan is still a single-track for many miles, slowing our pace significantly – not that we might, as the views are constantly amazing: a flock of wild geese rests on the grass in front of another extinct volcano; a ruined castle crumbles slowly into the loch; the Small Isles loom in the distance, triangles of rock jutting out of the sea of mist.
This coast had once been famous for its herring fleet, but the herring is gone now to different fishing grounds, and the beaches of Mull and Lochaber are scattered with wrecked boats. Of the many smokeries of the region, only two remain: one in Glenuig, the other in Mallaig. We stop at both – there’s never enough locally smoked fish. But before we reach Mallaig, there’s still one stop to make, a special one: Morar Beach.
The golden-white beaches of Morar and Arisaig – the White Sands of Morar – are worth visiting just for their unique beauty; but the reason we stop here is because here was one of the two main locations for our favourite movie about Scotland: the Local Hero. It’s an old and beautiful movie, starring Burt Lancaster and a very young Peter Capaldi (now of the 12th Doctor fame); the other location for Local Hero is a small village north of Aberdeen which we also hope to visit along the way.
As I said, there’s only one smokery left in Mallaig, and it’s closing early – at 3:30pm – but luckily, its precious kippers are sold until late at the local chippie, next to the railway station. The station – and the railway line that runs through it – may seem familiar to some keen-eyed cinema-goers. This is another film location, slightly more famous than the beach from Local Hero: here runs the route of the Hogwart Express in the Potter movies.
The ferry to Skye is an altogether more substantial affair than the Mull one, even though the crossing only took half an hour. We ended the day driving through the desert of heather that forms the southern flank of Skye, towards the campsite; the wind was picking up.
Local Hero is at the moment available on YouTube, so if you feel like it, you can watch it here:
The Ardnamurchan Campsite is – of course – the westernmost campsite in mainland Britain; it is also one of the most beautifully located, on a high terrace overlooking the Sound of Mull and the islands. The facilities are a standard fare – the showers are properly hot, and the washing-up area is comfortably large; but the real gem is the restored croft cottage, which houses a self-catering bothy in one part, and a wildlife study centre in the other. The price is a mere £15 for two, and everything on site is free, including WiFi in the study centre.