Iona Abbey from the Sound of Iona Ardoran House bed and breakfast, Iona Iona Ardoran House bed and breakfast, Iona Port Ban beach on the Isle of Iona Ardoran House B&B on the Isle of Iona

Round Loch Na Keal and Swimming with Cows!

After the pleasure of the wee boat from Ulva back to Mull and catching up with some of the Mull folks who make their living either fishing or guiding bird watching from Ulva Ferry, I get back on the wee road and head to Gruline, making my way to Gribun Rocks.

As I leave Ulva ferry and start to climb again, the body of water I am looking across changes from Loch Tuath To Loch Na Keal (The Loch of the Narrows). Opposite me for as far as the eye can see is the mountain of Ben More and the massive volcanic sea cliffs of Gribun Rocks. These formations are simply breath-taking and the road past them is often subject to rock falls which makes life even more interesting!

Loch Na Keal also known as the Loch of the cliffs is the principal sea loch on Mull and just about cuts the island in half. At Gruline it comes within 3 miles of meeting the Sound of Mull on the eastern side.  The loch is nearly 14 miles long and can be as calm as a mirror or when the force ten gales come in the winter, as rough as the North Atlantic.

The little fishing boats plough up and down the loch to catch prawns, crabs and lobsters from crystal clear waters. Today in the calm conditions, fishing is hard work, but in winter when demand and prices are high for top quality seafood, this is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and I have lost more friends and fellow islanders to the seas than I have fingers to count them with.loch na keal, isle of mull, scotland, isle of iona,

Today however, the sea is calm and only a light breeze gives uplift to the soaring seabirds above me.

I am travelling in what is effectively a horse shoe route today. Unlike Loch Tuath where I look over the water to Ulva and Gometra, today I am actually seeing the Isle of Mull on both sides of the Loch.

This is an area with few settlements and no villages. There are a few outcroppings of houses and crofts, but here nature is king! This is the place to come if you want to see otters. These amazing creatures move in a way that looks like liquid silk and have made their home here to the delight of thousands of visitors who love watching their antics.

Loch Na Keal contains two main Islands, Eorsa and Inch Kenneth. Like a lot of things in and around Mull, they both have their stories to tell.

Inch Kenneth is named after Sir Kenneth a follower of St Columba and was owned by the Iona Abbey for many centuries. Kenneth of Iona was rumoured to have built an abbey on the island, but no real architectural evidence has been found to back this up.

The book of Kells also makes mention of inch Kenneth being the final resting place of several ancient Kings, who were bound for Iona for burial and due to weather and navigation didn’t quite make it all the way!

The most famous and notorious residents of Inch Kenneth were no doubt the Mitford sisters. The Mitford sisters Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah and brother Thomas were the children of an English Aristocrat David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale. Very capable and outgoing, they became famous in their own right. Nancy and Jessica became well-known writers: Nancy, the author of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate and Jessica’s 1963 The American Way of Death. Deborah managed one of the most successful stately homes in England, Chatsworth.

Jessica and Deborah married nephews of prime ministers Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan, respectively. Unity and Diana were well-known during the 1930s for being the girlfriends of Adolf Hitler, indeed Jessica went on to marry the leader of the British Fascist party Oswald Mosley and was the mother of Max Mosely the head of Formula One Racing!Ben More, Eorsa, Isle of Mull, Iona,

It is hard to imagine the amount of intrigue that this tiny island contained, and even up to the height of the Soviet cold war, the Mitfords were in the thick of things, with Jessica now a communist offering Inch Kenneth as a submarine base to the Soviet Navy!

The neighbouring Island of Eorsa has a much quieter history! Like Inch Kenneth, it was for centuries the property of Iona Abbey and was used as a retreat and place of solitary contemplation. These days there is not a lot on Eorsa, no deer, although they could swim the one-mile stretch to the nearest point of Mull and as an old farmer once said to me, ”You know why they call this place Alba?” (the ancient name for Scotland) “it stands for A lot of bugger all”.

However, what Eorsa does have is grass. Good thick sweet summer grass, perfect pasture for cattle fattening and it is this that brings me to one of the most incredulous incidents in my time on Mull.

Two friends of mine, Jim and Roz were having a drink with me in the Bellachroy pub in Dervaig. Jim piped up with “How do you fancy giving us a hand to move some sheep and cattle to Eorsa tomorrow?” I knew enough about Eorsa to know there was nowhere for a boat big enough to carry cattle to land, so I enquired how were they planning to get the herd to Eorsa? “Ach we are going to swim them over, you’ve got a wetsuit haven’t you?”  Like many things in the Bellachroy, the whisky made this seem like a perfectly sensible idea, so I happily agreed.

I turned up on the beach near Gribun next morning at low tide with a slightly sore head and a wetsuit more suitable for the tropics than Loch Na Keal. The boat was already full of hog tied sheep, tucked in the foetal position under the cross straps of the boat and happily munching on grass were a dozen black cattle. While Jim readied the boat, his dogs were already driving the cows to the beach. Roz ran to one of them and got a good grip on its halter simply walked into the sea and before we knew it Roz and the cows were swimming.

In about 30 mins we had crossed the straight and were on to Eorsa. The sheep were untied and the cattle looked like nothing had happened as they started moving down the lush grass. Just a typical day on Mull!

Check back soon for the next leg of my adventure along the West coast of Mull.