By Robin McKelvie
When I think of Scotland and stories Robert Louis Stevenson is never far from my mind. The protagonist of the novel Kidnapped, David Balfour, is shipwrecked and dramatically washed up on Erraid, a wee tidal island just off the Ross of Mull. He arrived into a world alive with stories that you can take a deep dive into today when you head over to Mull.
Mull is an island that makes for a perfect setting for stories. It is a rich and spectacular template to work with, all vaulting hills, rugged glens and sandy beaches. Its skies are alive not just with golden eagles, but sea eagles too. Its waters host not only porpoises and dolphins, but whales too. Inland red deer massively outnumber people on a wild and wildly beautiful island. Mull also swirls in rich history with Castle Duart welcoming your arrival from Oban with more drama than any Hollywood blockbuster.
I bashed ashore on Erraid myself on an old wooden brig a few years ago, reading lines from Kidnapped as I arrived. I was tackling the Mull section of the Stevenson Way, a wilderness walk that cuts a rough swathe across Mull without the aid of paths, trails or waymarking. Close to its start we come to our first story of The Granny and the Whale, which was originally told in Gaelic by Donald MacFarlane. In the 18th century a boat was harassed by a very persistent female whale. The terrified crew tried everything they could to shake it off – throwing a chair at it and yelling. Finally they took the rather extreme step of throwing an old lady to the whale. She was swallowed and disappeared. That is not the end of the tale though –the next day the whale was found stranded on the sand at Uisken in the Ross of Mull. You’ll have to read on to see what happened to her https://coast.scot/stories/the-granny-and-the-whale.
Pushing east along the Ross of Mull we follow the craggy shore that I forged across on the trail of Stevenson to find the story of The Hidden Hen-Houses of Rudha Liath. The series of caves with blocked entrances on the shore between Laggan and Rudha Liath has long puzzled local people, until one day it’s said a lady whose family had lived here for over a hundred years revealed the secret. In the 1880s new owners took over the estate and forbade the local women from keeping hens, which they needed for food and feathers. So they partially blocked the coastal caves to make a suitable home for their lifeblood hens. Whether the local gentry knew of this we’ll never know – the full account is here https://coast.scot/stories/the-hidden-hen-houses-of-rudha-liath.
J.P MacLean’s ‘History of the Clan MacLean’ brings us to Mull’s east coast for The Legendary Ailean Nan Sop. Ailean nan Sop (Allan of the Straw) was the nickname given to the second son of the great MacLean Chief Lachlan Mòr because of his penchant for setting fire to buildings he had plundered using straw. Tall tales swirl around this notorious figure – it is said he was born at 24-months-old with all his teeth, another that he become a pirate. What is certain is that he was a warring man involved in numerous fights and quarrels in the area, a man so colourful Sir Walter Scott featured him in his ‘Tales of a Grandfather’. You can read more here https://coast.scot/stories/the-legendary-ailean-nan-sop.
Olive Brown and Jean Whittaker’s ‘A Treasure Lost’ accompanies us now as we head up the Sound of Mull to the island capital of Tobermory. It tells the remarkable tale of The Tobermory Galleon. In 1588 local legend says the galleon Florencia was waylaid from the Spanish Armada and ended up in Tobermory Bay, where it sank. With a cargo of silver and gold of course. What appears to be the truth is actually far more intriguing. The captain of a vessel called the Santa Maria de Gracia y San Juan Bautista did a very dirty deal with Maclean chief Lachlann Mòr that resulted in a plan to attack the islands of Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna. The end result is the same as the ship sank, never to be seen again. Still rumours of treasure linger amongst porpoise-kissed Tobermory Bay. Read more here https://coast.scot/stories/the-tobermory-galleon.
I love thinking of this treasure as I make my way along on my favourite local walk out to Tobermory Lighthouse. I did that again on my most recent visit when we hired out a whole hostel as part of Hostelling Scotland’s ‘Rentahostel’ scheme. Our party of 15 had the run of the place, and with eight kids there was plenty of opportunity for storytelling. This is when the Coast website really comes into its own. I showed the kids the map online and let them choose the stories to read. I said we could go out in search of them as we toured the island, an idea they loved. These Coast stories really are for everyone – the kids were especially fascinated by the old lady being swallowed whole by the whale!
The Stevenson Way on Mull finishes on the wildlife-rich Sound of Mull. I spent my last few days there on this trip after everyone else had left. I stayed at the Isle of Mull Hotel and Spa, peering over the waters as I bubbled in their outdoor hot tub. Morvern lay across there, the land of my ancestors, where I knew more stories would be waiting. I also knew that I could head west to the isles of Ulva, Gometra and Iona, where another flurry of rich tales await. I thoroughly recommend you work your own trip to Mull around the rich web of Coast stories too.