Narrow single track A-roads, the occasional sheep causing a traffic jam, delicious seafood and beautiful walks - The Isle of Mull has many reasons to visit it. But the main reason for our visit to this Scottish island was none of the above. The real reason was a children's TV program from early this century called Balamory.
For those unfamiliar, Balamory was a CBeebies TV show that ran from 2002 to 2005. The show was primarily shot in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, featuring the town’s vibrant, colourful houses. My daughter was overjoyed by the opportunity to locate and pose for pictures outside all of these iconic buildings. Among them, Josie Jump’s yellow house (now a hotel bar and lounge) was the highlight. Josie Jump was the sporty character known for her catchy “Josie Jump is my name; dancing and sport are my games” song.
After chatting with a friendly local outside PC Plum’s house, we spotted him a few days later dropping off a bunch of postcards at the Island Crafts store in Tobermory. These postcards featured photos he had taken during the filming of Balamory. Excitedly, we (or rather my daughter) purchased 20 of them. It transpired the gentleman was Angus Stewart, a local artist known for introducing the Tobermory Cat to the online world. Incidentally while exploring Tobermory, we purchased a copy of the Tobermory Cat book from the Tackle and Books shop after catching a glimpse of the famous cat (or perhaps one of its imitators) on Main St.
Even if you're not fulfilling a Balamory fans ambition, Tobormory is a great place to stay. We stayed in a self-catering cottage (Ulva House) which is well equipped and has a beautiful view over Tobermory bay from the living room. It was less than a 10 minute walk to the heart of Tobermory.
We hired a car at Glasgow airport and drove to Oban, where you catch the CalMac ferry across to Craignure. One of the shops in Tobermory was selling toy ferries, which they claimed were more reliable than the real thing. Undoubtedly there are lots of problems with Scottish island ferry services, but we had none apart from no catering facilities on the return ferry. Important to note is you must book the ferry in advance, as there is a low chance during the summer that you can just turn up on the day with a vehicle.
We were surprised that the main road (an A-road) between Craignure and Tobermory has a long stretch of single track road. Indeed driving on the Isle of Mull can be a nerve wracking experience, especially as some of the roads are not exactly well maintained. Luckily we only needed to reverse back a few times. We also incurred the wrath of some local drivers when going too slow - you should use the passing places to let faster cars behind you pass. The Isle of Mull does have a limited bus service courtesy of West Coast Motors. We did not use it, but the queue for the bus from Tobermory to Craignure was long so it seems popular. They also have a smaller bus which goes from Tobermory to Calgary.
The Isle of Mull is a big island, so we didn't explore the south part . That's a shame as the postcards we saw of Fionnphort and Iona looked beautiful.
Sometimes it’s the simpler things that provide the most pleasure. In the local Co-op we saw a poster advertising the annual Mull Music Maker's Concert and Ceilidh. After paying £5 to enter the Aros Hall we enjoyed an hour long concert from the Mull fiddle week tutors and their students, before they played a Ceilidh. For the uninitiated a Ceilidh involves group dancing, with classics such as "The Dashing White Sergeant" and "The St. Bernard's Waltz". I tried my best to participate in the latter. Sandwiched between was a generous raffle where we won a bottle of prosecco and some cappucino pods for a coffee machine we didn't own.
And following the simple things theme we supported the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) with their "shop window quiz". Eventually, thanks to a little help from the volunteer in Tobermory's RNLI shop, we found all of the stolen (knitted) wellies hidden in shop windows. Great fun!
The Isle of Mull is a good place to take a kite - you will always have wind. The first outing for our kite was by the Tobermory lighthouse. This is accessed via a lovely walk from Tobermory that passes through a wood. You can forage for raspberries on the way and try to spot animals in the sea. We returned the same route we had came, but I believe it's possible to gain some altitude and come back via the golf course.
No trip to Mull would be complete without a boat trip. We deemed the multi-hour excursion to to see the puffins on Staffa too far, so we settled on the Seals and Creels tour around Tobermory bay. Our tour guide was great - as well as seeing seals on the rocks, one of the creels had captured a huge lobster thanks to the smelly hotdog left inside it.
There is a regular ferry which leaves Tobermory for Ardamurchan which is the peninsula home to the UK's most westerly point. We enjoyed the ferry trip over, but didn't spot any whales or porpoises. And we regretted not taking the car when we realised there were some beaches to explore beyond Kilchoan. Still it was nice to have a walk (even though the coastal area was fenced off because, I think, it was a salmon farm). Puffin Coffee provided a good cup of tea and cake, while my daughter enjoyed the adjacent play park. We also learned that the nearest supermarket for people living in Kilchoan is Tobermory; meaning there is the unusual situation where people living on the mainland visit an island to do their shopping! This fact was seemingly confirmed by the queue of people laden with shopping bags, waiting to catch the ferry back to Kilchoan from Tobermory.
Also no trip to the Isle of Mull would be complete without visiting a beach. We opted for Calgary, whose sand is vast and white. A perfect spot for flying a kite, paddling in the sea and, for some, taking a swim in the very cold water. The sandcastle building was also going well until the weight of the wet sand caused the plastic spade to break. Oh well. A short drive away was Calgary Art In Nature. As well as having a lovely cafe (see below) the art walk through the wood was enjoyable - they even had a small play area with a rope swing.
We had wanted to continue to The Black Beach, as we had seen photos of highland cows enjoying the shoreline. However looking at the single track road with some pretty steep drops provided enough discouragement. So we headed to Glengorm castle instead. Mission accomplished - you can roam through the fields infront of the castle and enjoy the field full of highland cows. This was a beautiful open spot for walking and looking out towards the Atlantic ocean, via the sea of the Hebrides.
The Mull Acquarium only keeps creatures for a maximum of four weeks before they’re released back into the sea. It isn’t big, but kudos to the employee who entertained all the children by allowing them to hold hermit crabs, sea urchins and the like. I also acquired some first-hand knowledge of how far a scallop can fire a jet of water…
We briefly popped into the Tobermory distillery, but didn't enquire further about a tour; I like whisky, but once you're toured a few distilleries the inner workings of others can't, I believe, be significantly different.
We had been looking forward to a meal at The Galleon Bistro the most. It was good cooking with a great menu selection, but the fish at Cafe Fish was better. And after reading their website I expected more professionalism in the service.
Cafe Fish was excellent in every way. Friendly staff and halibut cooked to absolute perfection. Even the pizza which my daughter ate tasted good. It’s no wonder Cafe Fish was so busy that they were constantly turning people away. An essential place to visit.
Isle of Mull Ice Cream in Tobermory is a small pink building by the harbour with changing flavours made just behind the counter. The whisky marmalade cream flavour was different, but the strawberry and white chocolate was simply superb.
The Mishnish has two sides: the restaurant and the pub. We ate at both. Personally I prefer the British pub side where you order at the bar and can enjoy the real pub experience. But there’s decent grub wherever you are. The fish and chips here were the best I had on the island. That’s not to say they were great though.
Macgochans is another traditional pub between the acquarium and Tobermory distillery. If you just want a drink you can visit the pub next door. I find it impossible to complain about the pub classic of scampi and chips. Also a good place for draft beer.
Surprisingly we didn’t find an amazing takeaway fish and chips in Tobermory. The portable silver van that is the Fisherman’s Pier serve a good battered haddock, but the chips were nothing to get excited about. HOOK’D is a more traditional takeaway nearby on the Main St. There’s nothing bad about it either. But my expectations were high and met with only good fish and chips, not great.
The Glengorm Coffee Shop was the unexpected find of our trip to the Isle of Mull. It was a pot of gold at the end of a very twisty and nerve wracking single track road. The pork sandwich oozed perfectly cooked meat and coleslaw. And the steak pie was full of tender meat and a deliciously thick sauce. The home-made bread served with the soups was also incredible. It’s impossible to describe how perfect all of the cakes were. What a great place.
The Calgary Bay teahouse / Café@Calgary Arts was for sale when we visted, so I am not sure if it will continue as a cafe when under new ownership. The menu was inventive with a roasted slice of butternut squash served atop garlic mash and a very pleasant chilli con carne served with guacamole. The impressive cakes were selling very quickly, so we were grateful when the waitress agreed to put the carrot cake aside.
The Isle of Mull Cheese cafe and farm shop is set in a stunning space called The Glass Barn. I am sure their cakes would have been excellent, but despite arriving 1.5 hours before closing everything was sold out. We had better luck enjoying a good moist brownie from An Tobar on the way back.
In summary: we love going on holiday to Scottish islands. And our trip to Mull was another very good trip. We couldn't even complain about the weather. There was one very wet day, but apart from that it was very pleasant. So that's three Scottish islands we have ticked off: