If there is one feature that dominates the centre of Mull, it is Ben More. This towering but accessible mountain arose more than 60 million years ago as a result of a huge volcano thus becoming part of the Loch Ba Caldera.
At 3,169 feet or 966m, Ben More is the highest peak in the Inner Hebrides, apart from Skye and the highest island mountain. A true “Munro” (a mountain over 3,000 feet ) Ben More is also a Marilyn, which designates an actual prominence of over 150m rather than just part of a larger range or ridge. As Ben More rises directly from sea level it is classed as the 7th most prominent mountain in the UK. Her (for all mountains are ladies) highest peak remains covered in snow long after the surrounding hills have returned to green. The ancient pipe tune “Mull of the Mountains” was inspired by the mountain and tells of it watching over Mull’s land and people.
The main route up the peak is from the road between Gruline and Gribun on the B8035 and is a tough but steady climb. The route follows the Abhainn Dsheig burn up to the scree slopes and although the guide books warn that it is not a mountain for beginners, one of the great Islands rites of passage happens at the end of primary school as part of the initiation to Tobermory High School.
Each new intake of children are led up to the summit of Ben More by their future teachers as a bonding experience and to meet their new classmates from all over the Island’s seven primary schools. Both my girls have completed the journey and seemed to take it very much in their stride!
Which puts into perspective the hundreds of climbing enthusiasts seen lugging arctic gear up and down the mountain, who find themselves overtaken by a gang of 11-year-olds. As they say on Mull, they breed them tough around here!
However Ben More, like all Scottish Mountains, is not to be underestimated. The weather can change in a heartbeat. In the words of the great Scottish comedian Billy Connolly to visitors to Scotland, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes!”. Any climbing guide to Ben More carries a warning that climbers should be careful when using compasses in misty conditions as the rocks near the summit are magnetic and can cause inaccurate readings. The summit is often covered in cloud, which can give rise to wet, cold conditions, so take care.
On clear days, however, the views from Ben more are simply astonishing. The three thousand plus feet vantage point lets you see across the whole island and to most of its neighbours. To the east you see ridge after ridge of mountains across Ben Tala to the Hills of Lorne and in the distance, Ben Nevis is simply breathtaking.
The wildlife on the mountain and its surrounding hills are first class. Being part of the Ben More estate means the Red Deer are healthy and well managed. The hill ponds hold beautiful Brown Trout, stained dark by the peat water. The rare Capercaillie and Black Grouse live among the heather and I have spent many a happy evening walking and unofficially fishing here in the endless twilight of May and June (sorry Tim).
While Mull is more recently famous for its White Tailed Sea Eagles, successfully introduced in 1985, Ben More is home to the original inhabitants and Scotland’s most iconic bird, the Golden Eagle. These magnificent birds with a wingspan of almost two meters have been interwoven into Scottish history and folklore since the dawn of time. They appear on clan symbols and heraldry all over the Highlands.
The Golden Eagle’s diet of Mountain Hares, rabbits, young deer and ground birds has seen them persecuted for decades, but happily, in this more enlightened time, things are much different. Golden Eagles are also carrion feeders and play an important role in keeping down disease from dead animals on the hill.
To see these huge birds flying on the up currents around the gullies of Ben More is something every walker should experience. Golden Eagles are as integral a part of the Scottish landscape as are the lochs and the mountains. It is an experience never to be forgotten to see them in their natural habitat where they are kings of all they survey, the ultimate apex hunter.
Most walkers on Ben More will spot their first Golden Eagle surrounded by mobbing Ravens or Crows. In May and June, when most birds are territorial, nest sites are defended vigorously. Although Golden Eagles nests are built on the highest and most precipitous crags available, it is good practice to keep clear of nest sites lest you disturb the birds and end up being prosecuted. Get a good pair of binoculars and enjoy the aerial acrobatics of these master hunters.
The times I have been on Ben More, whether walking or on a quad bike, have almost always made me realise how small humanity is. To see the creatures up here thriving in some of the harshest of conditions without high tech gear, boots and survival rations brings home what a privilege it is to be able to visit these wild places.
To come face to face with a deer fawn, newly born but capable of running faster on these hills than I ever could, or watching an eagle chick taking its first flight from the nest to soar above me, is a humbling glimpse into a world where man is simply a clumsy spectator. Sometimes it’s good to let go, lie back in the heather and just watch nature at work.
Join me soon for a closer look at the fascinating geology of Mull and Iona.