Driver Diary – Part 10 – Isle of Mull Day 1 & 2

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Loch Lomond
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Kilchurn Castle
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Duart Castle

Our Tour Leader Nick shares his experience on our Isle of Mull 4 Day tour in July 2020.

Day 1: Glasgow to Tobermory

First tour back after lockdown began over 4 months ago and in some ways I’m as nervous as my very first tour for Discover Scotland over 4 years ago!  How will the passengers react to the new COVID procedures onboard and places we visit?  Will I remember all my dates/facts? What will Mull be like post lockdown?

Luckily my passengers are lovely – A Mum and her three teenage sons with connections to Wales. That’s some good common ground since I’m Welsh (Cardiff). We hit it off straight away and they are fine with all the new safety procedures.

We head out of Buchanan Street and I take them through what we’ll be doing today. It’s just them on board so essentially it’s a private tour; which is great for them and a challenge for me to be adaptable around that.

Humour check – they seem fun so I throw in a couple of my infamously bad/dad jokes; I can see some pained smiles/grimaces in the mirror, perfect. I’m glad the new protective screens have not impacted the punch line.

They share what they know about Glasgow and we go through it’s history to present day; including population and the economy. It’s interesting to discuss how the city has changed, it’s very different to just 30 or 40 years ago. I love Glasgow, felt at home straight away, so could talk about it all day and need to remember to reign myself in talking about it.

First stop is Luss, they’ve visited on a previous trip with us to Skye and that’s lucky as the weather is BRUTAL.  Scotland can look beautiful even in the rain, but today is probably not that day. It’s teeming it down and agree that 45mins is plenty.

I always like to walk people down through quaint Luss Village to Loch Lomond. It’s such a great introduction to and taster of the Highlands and it’s a good chance to get to know the people on your tour.  I proudly go to point out Ben Lomond, the most southerly munro in the Highlands. However, there’s a problem we can’t see it.  Too much mist, which to be fair I should’ve anticipated given the rain.  Bit rusty.  Doh!

Next up is Clan Campbell’s spiritual home of Inveraray.  We drive north along Loch Lomond, this section for me has some of the Loch’s best views and naturally I’ve got Runrig’s version of the Loch Lomond song  on.  There are more gentle versions, but this one needs playing loud!

Most people on our tours have heard of the song, although not too many know this version, unless they’ve been to a wedding or sports event here of course and even fewer know about the lyrics. I explain the meaning behind the words, which is a great way to introduce who the Jacobites were as well.

It’s still raining so we just make a brief photo-stop at the rest and be thankful viewpoint on the A83 and they seem interested when I talk about General Wade’s old military road in the Glen below, the motor rallys that used to take place there until the 1970s and the connection with Sir Jackie Stewart & Jim Clark.

It’s only 20 mins to Inveraray and along the way I like to play a mix of traditional and modern bagpipe music which fits really well with the landscape of the Argyll Forest. Again, they’ve visited here before and don’t want to see Inveraray Castle or Jail again, which I can understand. We therefore spend 30mins around the town before heading towards Oban. We stop for a quick photo at the spectacular ruins of 15th century Kilchurn Castle.

Kilchurn is your archetypal medieval castle, the image you think of when you think of a Highland castle that was primarily built for defence and with the backdrop of the imposing Ben Cruachan and it’s surrounding mountains it’s not hard to imagine being transported back to those times.  Definitely a postcard moment.  Or Facebook post I suppose these days!

I thought about telling them the story of “The Cailleach’s Well”. In folklore nearby Loch Awe was formed when a Witch, exhausted from her witchy deeds I presume, fell asleep for days forgetting to put back a stone to plug the stream at the top of Ben Cruachan; but the kids have got their headphones in and Mum’s grabbing some shut-eye so I think better of it. A good reminder for me that It’s always important to read the mood and energy of the bus, after all it’s their trip, not yours.

We arrive in Oban with plenty of time for lunch and a look around town before the Ferry crossing to Mull.  I point out my recommended Fish restaurant.  Seafood is what Oban is famous for and ee-Usk is considered the best but there’s also plenty of good cafes and and a great little Fish & Chip shop too – Norries Fish and Chips is very hard to beat for me, despite what I’m sure other rivals may say to the contrary.  The food is so nice, staff very friendly and welcoming and reasonable prices.  What’s not to like?

Norries is also on the corner of the walk to “The Crown of Oban”; The Colosseum like MacCaigs Tower. As the name suggests, it dominates the hill above the town and gives spectacular views over Oban, Kerrera and on a clear day our ultimate destination – The Isle of Mull.

The golden rule is to always do the steep hill up to there BEFORE LUNCH.  The rain has eased off a bit for now and visibility a bit clearer, so it’s doable.  Any worse and I wouldn’t recommend it.

We regroup at the Ferry terminal. Oban was a new destination for them. They had some Fish and Chips and a good look around the town before a cheeky afternoon pint at a local pub.  They look like they enjoyed it even though they are still feeling the affects of the rain.

It’s a quick 50 min crossing on the Calmac Ferry from Oban to Craignure, Mull so I use the time to call ahead to Staffa Boat Trips and check the best day for sailing as the group are up for the optional trip to Staffa to see Fingal’s Cave, the Hexagonal Basalt columns and hopefully, puffins…

A quick call to the Skipper confirms Day 3 is looking the best forecast for sailing and…..we have Puffins! They should be here for another week or so before heading off somewhere into the Atlantic; no-one really knows where they go.  Show me someone who doesn’t like puffins, they’re great – like funny miniature penguins I reckon.

I have a chat with the passengers to discuss plans for tomorrow (Day 2). It could work a few ways depending on what they want to do and the weather.   I’ve drafted 3 possible itineraries and they decide they’d like to see Duart Castle in the morning and then do some shopping in Tobermory afterwards, with the optional extra of a Lochan walk on the way back, weather permitting of course.

The Ferry docks in Mull, we head north and 45mins later we’re in Tobermory, the instantly recognisable rows coloured houses on the front always have the wow factor. I didn’t talk a lot on the drive from the ferry as I can see the group are tired. I just let them enjoy the views.

We arrive to a warm greeting from Richard and Liz at The Harbour Guest House.

Day 2 – Duart Castle

First entry to the Castle is 11am. With no need to rush we’ve got a nice 9.45am departure. The group can enjoy a lie in and leisurely breakfast.

Our 4 day Mull & Iona tour was newly launched last year and one of the things I love about the this tour is the chance to tell new and different stories than I would do on say a 1 day trip or a Skye tour for example as many of them are unique to Mull.

A sunken Spanish Galleon, The Battle of Bloody Bay, Lady’s Rock, The Headless Horseman of Glenmore and The Mull Air Mystery are just some of the things I’ll be telling the group about today and tomorrow.  My bet is that the teenagers will be interested in the gruesome stories.  And maybe the Air Mystery too.

In less than an hour we’re at the Clan Maclean stronghold of Duart Castle.  I was right about the teenagers perking up at the gruesome stuff, but didn’t pick that it would be Mum who remembered the connection between Duart Castle and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8!

The Castle is in a commanding position ontop a cliff-face standing guard over the seaways of The Sound of Mull, Loch Linnhe and Loch Etive.  Duart translates from Scottish Gaelic as “The Black Point”. It’s easy to imagine how intimidating and foreboding this place would have been in the Middle Ages.

Duart isn’t a big castle but there’s just something about it that makes it one of my favourite castles to visit.  It’s just got a bit of everything that a castle should in my mind.

We’re there in good time and the group go for a walk down to the shore, it’s high tide so don’t think they will be able to see the wreck of the Cromwellian warship, believed to be The Swan, just off the point but you can just about still see Lady’s Rock where one of the less reputable Chiefs of the MacCleans of the 1500s marooned his wife in hope of the incoming tide disposing of her for him.  A fisherman was luckily passing and saved her. Some years later, in revenge, the Chief was “Dirked in bed” by one of her brothers.

The castle have their own COVID procedures in place and the self-guided tour also now ends in the Dungeons and Kitchen as opposed to starting there so a couple of minor changes. The gift shop is open with snacks and ice cream available and tea room should re-open again next week.

About an hour later and my group emerge a bit earlier than expected. They didn’t need all the time I’d allowed since they didn’t have a specific interest in Duart Castle itself or Clan Maclean. They enjoyed the experience and said the staff were very friendly. Ice cream was good too!  Better to allow too much than too little time.

With that in mind, the weather isn’t looking too bad. Nice and sunny would stretching it but they’re up for the little Lochan walk I proposed; although the youngest doesn’t look too impressed at the prospect to be fair!

We drive just outside of Tobermory and take a short walk to the foot of a very impressive waterfall.  After that they head off on a 30min walk round the Lochan. Then it’s a 5 min drive back to Tobermory centre. They can have a couple of hours shopping before the shops close for the day.

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