As an advocate for budget-friendly explorations close to home and wanting to inspire both my son and others with the adventures you can have “on your doorstep” we headed to the Isle of Mull this summer. Scotland in general has so much to offer families looking for escapades of all sorts and even in the summer season there is the feeling of being intrepid adventurer discovering somewhere new and unexplored (or at least unexploited by highly commercial tourism). I suspect that Scotland’s reputation for poor weather and biting insects deter a lot of people. Of course it depends what you and your family are seeking from your travels, but if you can put up with the rainy days I’ll let you in on a couple of secrets… 1. Providing you stay long enough, you WILL be rewarded with sunny weather (not to mention the incredible sunsets) and when the sun does shine, you will appreciate it so much more! 2. It really is possible to find some Scottish midge-free destinations.
I have been to the Isle of Mull on several occasions but despite it’s famed wildlife and varied landscapes, I had never considered it one of my favourite islands, remembering it mostly for those colourful harbour front houses in Tobermory and some ferocious summer midges. However, it’s one of the more accessible Hebridean Islands and seeking an affordable adventure relatively close to home for me and the wee one, opted for a week on the Ross of Mull. The coastal Fidden Farm campsite sounded like an ideal place to set up base camp; informal, no advance bookings (meaning we could just turn up and stay how long we felt like), right beside a white sand beach with sheltered waters and a westerly coastal location that I hoped breezy enough to deter the midges (it did, we weren’t bothered by a single one of the critters the entire week). We couldn’t have been happier with our choice. Most mornings we spent hanging out on the beach spread out below our tent and over the week we never strayed more than a few miles from the camp site (except by boat to Iona and Staffa!)
It’s a long, scenic drive along 40 miles of single track road to get to the campsite, with many travellers straying this way purely to reach the small village of Fionnphort in order to take the ferry across to Iona. Whilst Iona is certainly deserving of it’s popularity and well worth a visit (or several), the result is that the Ross of Mull area feels relatively quiet and unexplored, although those who stay long enough to experience it’s delights tend to return year after year. I met several extended families on the campsite who’s enthusiasm for the area had never waned and who have continued to visit every summer for 20-30 years first with their children and now grandchildren.
There are a great many stunning white shell beaches scattered across the Hebrides but I’d say the beaches on the Ross of Mull are among the best and there is an overwhelming choice within a relatively short stretch of coastline. They are beaches to be explored in all weathers. We spent hours searching the rock pools and digging channels on rainy days, and paddling and swimming on the sunny days. The pink-granite rock, the turquoise waters and the white sand beaches give the landscape a bright colourful appearance on even the dullest of days. And even on the sunny days and despite it being the Scottish school holidays we had most of the beaches we visited to ourselves, at least for a while, even on bustling Iona.
After some intermittent days of very wet weather during the week, our final day dawned sunny (although rather windy) and the Ross of Mull had saved the best for last as we visited the magical island of Erraid. Erraid is a small island accessible from Mull at low tide across it’s tidal sands. It was used as the location in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped and many of the small number of present day residents are part of the Findhorn Foundation community based in Moray. Making a careful study of the tide times, Finn and I began our walk across the sands and around the populated side of the island, passing the study former coastguard cottages and the white communication tower built to relay signals to offshore lighthouses. We picked our way along a rough, boggy path to the small cairn marking the top of the island. We surveyed the scene spread out before us; the numerous skerries of the Ross of Mull, the whole length of Iona and further afield to Staffa and the Treshnish isles, but my draw dropped when I spied the sandy cove some way below us.
I haven’t read Kidnapped but seeing that hidden cove with two small yachts at anchor in it’s turquoise waters and not a soul to be seen it was like being transported to a scene straight from a book. Feeling as though I was in a fictional adventure story myself with the opportunity of discovering a secret cove and perhaps pirates lying in wait on the boats I urged Finn to follow me as I looked for a sheep track that would take us through the thick heather down to the shore. At close range it did not disappoint and although absent of pirates, the only other inhabitants of the beach were a gaggle of kids straight out of another book, Swallows and Amazons. The five of them sailed and rowed ashore in their tiny wooden boat and busied themselves with adventures of their own while Finn got to work diverting and damming the small stream running through the sands and out to sea. Returning to the campsite and staying with the theme of tales of seafaring adventuring we read a few chapters of Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea while watching the sun set over Iona.
- Getting to the Ross of Mull requires a 45 minute ferry crossing from Oban to Craignure followed by 40 miles (about an hour and a quarter drive) along a single track road.
- Fidden Farm campsite is an informal site where you can just turn up and find your own pitch with modern clean facilities including toilets, showers and an indoor washing up area. It costs £8 per adult and £4 per child per night (rising to £10 per adult and £5 per child in 2018) and you just pay at the farm house on arrival. If you can nab a spot overlooking the beach it’s a perfect spot to let your kids roam free for hours with new found friends while keeping an incospicuous eye on them!
- The small village of Fionnphort is 1.5 miles from the campsite along a quiet single track road (perfect for young cyclists!) and has a small shop, seafood shack, pub/restaurant and is the departure point for the regular passenger ferry to Iona.
- The coastal landscape is mostly low-lying but with beautiful sandy coves that if you have children who can spend hours digging in sand could keep you occupied for weeks!
- The offshore island of Staffa is well worth a visit (£30 for adults, £15 for children for a 3 hour round trip including an hour onshore to explore), both for the scenic boat trip and for exploring Fingal’s cave and the puffin colonies. There are a couple of companies operating boats from both Fionnphort and Iona to choose from.