When Ronnie Browne and Roy Williamson wrote the emotive words to ‘Flower of Scotland’ I wonder if they had ever watched the changing of the seasons on the Isles of Mull and Iona. It seems strange to write about Autumn today as we are in an unseasonal hot spell, but three days ago it was a very different story.
The storm warnings had been hoisted, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries that are the islands lifeline with the mainland were on yellow alert, and towering clouds were tearing up the sound of Mull like an oncoming curtain of storms.
Mull and Iona collectively stiffen their resolve, the small fishing boats head to port, batten down the hatches and get on with life as they have done for millennia, and so does the wildlife of these wonderful islands.
I can’t remember when I first noticed this year’s Autumn was upon us. I think it was probably the huge bunches of orange red berries on the Rowan trees. My father told me years ago that the amount of Rowan berries was an indicator of how tough a winter we were going to get. If it is true it is a wonderful example of mother nature looking after her own. Long winter = more food.
Mind you my father also believed strongly that Rowan trees keep away witches! He was not alone, even to this day have a look around the boundary of any house in the islands and you will see a Rowan planted at four points of the compass.
Autumn on Mull and Iona comes with its own sounds and sights and smells. It is a season of plenty, nature’s bountiful harvest to keep her creatures alive through the long winter. The sight of the Rowan berries, Raspberries, Brambles, Rose Hips, Chestnuts, Acorns, and a dozen more luscious treats growing by the side of road is a giveaway that the seasons are a changing!
The turning of the leaves from a myriad of vibrant summer greens to a brilliant palette of browns, oranges, reds, ambers and yellows cannot be missed, but like many things in nature, it begins so gradually that it happens before you know.
“The Artist’s pallet was never so rich, more colours than imaginings inspire. The blandest soul or unerring eye to wander abroad in wonder.
To gorge and drink their fill of nature’s Autumnal fire.”
This is a time where the cursed bracken, the scourge of the Scottish Hills, finally dies back and allows us a glimpse of what has been going on underneath. This is also a time where the days become markedly shorter. It is also the season of glorious sunsets over the islands.
Alan Titchmarsh the TV presenter and broadcaster said it perfectly on Autumn Watch a few years ago “come to Mull and Iona now, right now. Don’t wait for summer, Autumn and Winter are the time to see wildlife on these wild islands”
For the birds and animals of Mull and Iona, shorter days mean less time to feed, so from dusk to dawn they are on the go. This means a much greater opportunity to see these wonderful creatures. The hedgerows are full of tiny birds feasting themselves for the forth coming winter. Field mice, Dormice, Voles, Shrews and Hedgehogs and every kind of bird are gathering food and bedding, building their nests for winter. Otters are fattening themselves up and their young putting down fat stores. Everywhere is busy, the shortening days acting as a call to action. Even Sea Mammals like the Common and Grey Seals are seen feeding on the mackerel shoals that arrive in August.
The sound not to miss in Autumn is the roaring of the Red Deer Stags. These huge beasts begin to roar to mark out their territories before mating. They are so loud you can hear them across the island. If you don’t know what you are hearing it can be pretty scary if you’re on your own on the hill after dark. The Stags are so full of testosterone you can’t eat the meat and they are worth avoiding especially if you are with a dog as they are can be very aggressive. To see a full grown stag bellowing on the horizon at dusk is truly a sight and sound to behold. To get an idea of what it sounds like, click here to see a video.
The spine of central Mull around the Ben more range and down through Loch Don to the Ross of Mull estates is deer country. The sparseness of humans on the vast majority of these islands lends itself to these mountains and glens being a place where deer can run free and almost undisturbed.
The Deer trade employs a lot of folk on the island and good Deer management is essential. Mull venison is held in great esteem and is a very healthy red meat. At the Deer census in 2008 the estimated population of red deer was over 12000. That’s four Deer to every human on the island!
While I can understand the view that shooting Deer is upsetting for some people, it is a great deal better than watching them starving to death in the winter. With no predators to speak of, Deer numbers can rocket in years of plenty. Then in a bad year they starve by the hundreds. I have seen Deer reduced to skin and bone and eating moss from barbed wire fences in the depths of January.
The relationship between man and Deer is as old as the islands and keeps a delicate balance.
The coming of the shorter days and longer nights heralds the latest edition of the Owl Chorus. If you stay near a wooded area, you will be either captivated by the competing range of calls from pairs of birds marking out the boundaries of their territory. Barn owls, Tawny Owls, Short Eared Owls and Little Owls all compete to outdo each other. The Barn owl has a scream which if you are not expecting it will send shivers down your spine, especially if you don’t know what it is, and the Tawny owl has a rough but more regular hooting call.
The wildlife rangers on Mull often take guided tours out after dark at this time of year to hear the roaring of the Stags and the screeching of the Owls. Make sure you book a place. Mull and Iona are very different islands after dark!
The one thing that I really need to mention is the dark sky. Mull and Iona are so far away from cities and sources of light pollution that they have perfect dark skies for astronomy. The lack of light means the clear skies of autumn are perfect for gazing at the heavens. I have seen the sky in both hemispheres and in over thirty countries and I have never encountered anything like the skies on Mull and Iona.
The stars seem so bright that they look like diamonds on a black curtain. So much can be seen that the sky seems to envelop you like an amphitheatre. A 360-degree view of the heavens. Take a tarpaulin with you and just lie back on the ground, switch your torch off, wait a few minutes for your eyes to adjust and look up, look all round. Dark on Mull and Iona is the real thing…bible black, so black that you can hold your hand up to your face a not see it!
On a clear night there isn’t a view like it anywhere in the world. Satellites cross the sky, shooting stars pass regularly, and distant galaxies of stars can be seen in the clear black night. Few people can fail to be moved by this, and when you return to your hotel or pub and cosy fire, just sit back and bask in the memories you have made on an Autumn night in Mull and Iona.
Next time: Start your engines, it’s the Mull Rally!