The Isle of Mull is a haven of whisky and wilderness off Scotland’s western coast, and its neighbor Iona a hallowed and historical sanctuary. Situated in the Inner Hebrides, these isles offer a tranquil getaway with a vastly different landscape from the bustle of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Look out the window to see ruined castles and decaying shipwrecks. Sweeping bays are draped with white sand beaches. Herds of sheep or highland cattle cause the occasional traffic jam on the single-track roads that wind some three-hundred miles around the island, along rugged coastlines and through rolling hills.
When my family visited this past summer, we spent four days exploring the picturesque gems of Mull. Though we had hoped to spend a day spotting puffins on the nearby Isle of Staffa, inclement weather canceled our tour. We made the best of it and caught the short ferry across to Iona instead!
We stayed at Tigh Na Mara in the quaint town of Dervaig at the north-end of the island – a family-farm run bed and breakfast with panoramic views over the nearby Loch Cuin and its wildlife, such as otters!
Catching the Ferry from Oban
The ferry to Craignure on Mull departs from Oban and takes just forty-five minutes to cross. Ferries also cross from Kilchoan to colorful port village Tobermory, and Lochaline to Fishnish. Easily reachable from Scotland’s metropolitan hubs by car, bus, or train, Oban is a town worth a visit on its own. Board the ferry as a foot passenger or book vehicle passage in advance – having a car on Mull is well worth it as public transportation around the island is minimal (and you’ll likely want to pull off the side of the road to say hello to a coo or two on the way).
Isle of Mull
The first sight to greet you as the ferry approaches Mull is Duart Castle, a 13th century stronghold home to the Chief of Clan Maclean. If you head north from Craignure, one of the first landmarks you’ll pass are two old ships washed up on the side of the road. From there on the drive is never dull, whether you’re passing castle ruins or the occasional herd of sheep or highland cattle.
Visit the Beach at Calgary Bay
The Hebrides are known for their white sand beaches – on a clear blue day, one could mistake Mull for the Caribbean. But even on a typical Scottish overcast morning, the broad shoreline framed by rolling hills is dramatically serene – the perfect place to watch the sun set.
Explore Glengorm Castle Estate
Situated at the northern point of the island – just west of Tobermory – sits the expansive and ethereal Glengorm Castle Estate. The grounds of this impressive residence are like something plucked from the pages of a story book. The castle itself has been converted to a family-run hotel. Below a cozy cafe and general store greets guests and day visitors alike. Trailing from the car park, a path winds its way through woods blooming with flowers towards the coast. The castle overlooks rolling green fields that run into the sea beyond.
The day we visited, a fog had descended on the water, and the sails of the boats below looked like ghosts. We continued on the trail to find a circle of standing stones, and beyond that a herd of highland cattle. The whole of the estate was magic and otherworldly – a world away from Glasgow – and I could have stayed forever. There are a few other castles worth checking out on Mull, including Duart and Torosay.
Tour the Tobermory Whisky Distillery
Tobermory are the artisan distillers of the Ledaig – a robust and peaty blend – and Tobermory whiskies… and now even gin. The distillery offers daily tours of their grounds, offering insight to the distilling process and the island itself. It’s clear that the locals of Mull are proud of their vibrant port community, its idyllic charms and colorful history.
Lunch at the Isle of Mull Cheese Company
The Isle of Mull Cheese Company isn’t your average cheesemonger. This roadside farm has created a unique and picturesque cafe space inside a greenhouse. Enjoy a board of their finest cheddars as you admire the flora, then take a wheel (or two) to go.
Stroll through Tobermory
The isle’s capital, Tobermory is a colorful village on the north end of Mull. Originally a fishing port, Tobermory now boasts a collection of lively restaurants, pubs, shops and hotels. Pop into Isle of Mull Ice Cream, or wander into the local museum to learn more about the town’s history. There is plenty of local legend of infamous shipwrecks just off the coast.
Drive the Isle’s Rugged West Coast
We were assured by locals that no trip to Mull would be complete without a drive down the winding and wild expanse of island’s west coast, and they were not wrong. The B8073 follows along the contours of the rugged coastline. On one side sweeping cliffs, to the other the expanse of the sea. Past Ulva Ferry and the island’s highest peak Ben More, the road continues across the peninsula and loops around Loch Scridain. There’s also plenty of hiking to be found where the road can’t go on Mull. Be sure to look for hidden treasures like MacKinnon’s Cave and the fossilized MacCulloch’s Tree.
Isle of Iona
The ferry to Iona leaves from Mull at Fionnphort, situated at the island’s southwest point. It only takes five minutes to cross Caol Idhe, or the Sound of Iona. Only a fraction of the size of Mull and with a population of only 120, Iona is one of Scotland’s smaller isles. The island is only 1.5 miles wide by three miles long, so getting around by foot or bike is no matter. The small village of Baile Mor houses local craft and trade shops. From there plenty of hiking trails wrap around the rest of the island.
Visit the White Sand Beaches
One of the first things you’ll notice as your ferry docks on Iona is the beaches! White sand lines the shore in the village – head left when you disembark to take in the view. You’ll also notice quite a few tours leave from this port as well, including boat adventures to Staffa!
Explore the Old Monastery and Nunnery
The road from town leads down the coastline towards the restored medieval Iona Abbey. Iona is also known as a ‘cradle of Christianity’ – one of the most sacred spots in Scotland. St Columba and his followers arrived in Iona from Ireland in 563 AD. He founded a monastery, where later the sons of Somerled founded a Benedictine abbey on the same site. Iona has since seen an influx of those making pilgrimages to St Columba’s Shrine. It is said that 48 kings of Scotland are buried at St Oran’s, including Macbeth. It’s also thought that the Book of Kells was made here (which today sits in the Trinity College library in Dublin). Alongside the road before the abbey are the remains and gardens of an Augustinian convent, founded sometime after the monastery.
I look forward to returning to this part of the Inner Hebrides someday, if only to explore more castle grounds and visit the puffins on Staffa and the neighboring Treshnish Islands!
Heading to Scotland? Check out my post on visiting Stirling!