It’s 29°C in our kitchen today, and while I usually love the warmer weather of southern England, I’ve found myself longing for the raw Scottish air that I enjoyed last week. On Saturday I flew to Glasgow, before travelling by train and ferry to the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. I was booked onto a trip with UK Wildlife Safaris, a tour company run by expert ecologists who would lead me to the wildest corners of the island in search of northern Britain’s most delightful species.
The living quarters stole our attention before any wildlife had a chance. We were sleeping in Torloisk House, an 18th century hunting lodge (with turret!) on a 22,000 acre estate. We half attempted to navigate each of the floors but with every twist and hidden door we surrendered to simple marvelling at the myriad of books, paintings, cut glass cocktail shakers, wooden boxes, stuffed animals and old photographs adorning the rooms. And while the ancient nature of the house meant there were no showers, instead we were treated to deep Edwardian baths heated by the aga, before gathering in the kitchen each evening for iced gin and crisps.
Mull is the second largest island of the Inner Hebrides, with a resident population of only 2,800. Archaeologists believe the island has been inhabited since the end of the last Ice Age 8,000 years ago, and Bronze Age people later built menhirs, brochs and a stone circle. There are strange rumours that a Spanish galleon was shipwrecked off the coast of Tobermory, lying abandoned on the seabed laden with gold, but alas! this is yet to be found… Aside from its human residents, the island is also home to a large population of highland cattle and sheep of varying breeds, who enjoy lounging around in the centre of single-track roads.
One morning we embarked on a boat trip from Ulva ferry port and travelled across the nearby lochs in search of white-tailed eagles. Our skipper had a rather macabre cool box filled with dead fish, which were thrown into the salty waters to attract a pair of eagles nesting on the cliffs nearby. After much squabbling with the local gulls (we tried to distract them with chunks of bread) our eagles plummeted repeatedly to catch the floating fish and head back to their nest. White-tailed eagles are Britain’s largest bird of prey, and can only be found here due to a successful reintroduction programme after they went extinct in the 20th century. We watched them with great joy, and afterwards hopped over to the Boathouse on Ulva where we warmed up with thick potted crab and cider.
The next day we travelled by boat to the uninhabited islands of Staffa and Lunga. Staffa is home to Fingal’s Cave, a magnificent sea cave I’d seen in faded watercolours on the walls of Torloisk. On Lunga, I encountered puffins for the first time and MY GOD I knew they’d be cute but I just wasn’t prepared. Chubby, tubby and curious. We were watching them intently when all of a sudden, I heard the deliciously grating sound of a corncrake in the bracken nearby. We’d visited another island Iona to try and see a corncrake, one of Britain’s rarest birds that looks like a partridge or quail; despite our best efforts, we heard their calls but couldn’t find where they were hiding.
Now, on Lunga, I was determined to try again. We followed the path round the bracken patch and listened intently until it was about one metre in front of us… and then KABOOM! Up she flew and headed off to another patch of bracken beyond the hill. I had seen a real corncrake! Not the most exciting view, but a view nonetheless. Full of glee, we vaguely followed her round the corner to an old crofter’s house and, being a self-confessed National Truster, I thought I’d check out the ruin for a taste of the local heritage. The islands are brimming with history, particularly the dark days of the Highland Clearances when poor people were burnt out of their own homes to make way for wealthy landowners. As I stepped out of the croft and back towards the path, I looked down and found three black ducklings in front of me. ‘Ah,’ I thought. ‘Cuties.’ I watched them for a while until they shuffled off into the thicket, and returned to the path. On the way home I told the others what I’d seen and, after much checking of guide books, discovered that they were, of course, a huddle of corncrake chicks. Magical.
A huge highlight of our trip was searching for otters roaming the banks of the lochs. Mull is one of the best places to watch otters in the wild, and our car journeys around the island were frequently halted to jump out (fully-binoculared) to see them playing, eating, fishing or generally looking squidgy. On the last day we found a large dog otter in the midst of an extensive cleaning session, having consumed something heavily fish-based. He rolled and preened and licked his claws until, after twenty minutes or so, he crept to the edge of the rock and slipped back into the water.
The rest of the week was a thistle-strewn cocktail of seals, buzzards, meadow pipit, linnet, lapwing, common sandpiper, black guillemot, curlew, bats, drizzle, sunshine, fried fish, seaweed and prosecco. It was an absolutely fantastic trip, and one I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in wildlife, landscape and Scottish culture. UK Wildlife Safaris run a number of wildlife tours throughout the year – head to their website and get involved!
– Tiffany Francis