On islands which are internationally known for their beauty, wildlife, peace and quiet, a three day, two night International Rally car event seems like an unlikely fit; However on Mull and Iona, the Mull Rally has been a well-loved part of Island life for nearly 50 years. During the second weekend in October, peace and quiet is shattered by the roar of powerful engines and an influx of thousands of rally competitors and fans.
The sound of bird song, wind and the roaring of the stags is suddenly interspersed with the roar of high performance engines and the smell of high octane fuel. The single track roads which transport visitors around some of Scotland’s most remote and beautiful scenery are suddenly transformed into one of the most challenging and entertaining rally courses in the world.
Sheep and cattle which are usually found grazing by the roadside or often in the middle of the roads, are herded off to safer pastures. An army of volunteers with miles of red and white hazard tape set off to make the roads as safe as possible for the spectators and 150 rally cars, travelling at 130mph.
Rally fans, crews, mechanics, families’ tents, dogs and cars literally take over the island. The boost to tourism economy is astonishing and the internet is full of plaintive cries for accommodation.
There is something electric in the air as the crews arrive. It’s a frisson of excitement that grows from the start of October and becomes more powerful each day as the start of the first stage gets closer.
The very fact that the island’s roads are closed to the public from 6pm on the Friday night until early Sunday morning, meaning locals and visitors alike have to keep a close eye on opening and closing times to go about their daily business, is testament of the esteem and ownership that Islanders hold the event in. These days around a third of the competitors are indeed local Islanders and I am reliably informed that Mull and Iona have the highest number of rally drivers per head of population anywhere in the world.
The little village of Dervaig in north West Mull even boasts its own junior rally club, “The Bear Cubs” where kids as young as 10 years old are taught how to strip down a rally car and each year they are put through their rally qualifications until they turn 17. Some legendary names have come through the system; Calum and Del Duffy, John McCrone are regular top three finishers, while Louise Scarlett and Oni Boa make sure the girl drivers are well represented. The village hosts “Pig Day” on the Monday after the rally in the grounds of the Bellachroy hotel to mark the end of the rally weekend and to keep the party going!
So how on earth did it all get started?
Back in 1968, while on a family holiday at Glengorm Castle near Tobermory, the late Brian Molyneux had the brilliant idea of holding a road Rally on the Island. Organising a Rally has been described as holding a football match in someone else’s back garden, but it was an extremely ambitious idea when the large garden is Mull which is over three hundred miles north of Brian’s base in Lancashire, and this was long before the M6 and M74 existed to assist travel from England across the border.
During this time, Brian was Chairman of the Mullard Motor Cycle and Car Club in Blackburn, which became known as the 2300 Club as a more manageable title. The change of title came from taking the initial Club letters, M.M.C.C.C translating them into Roman numerals, which becomes 2300.
He successfully sold the idea of the Tour of Mull to his fellow committee members, partly because rallying in the North of England was beset with public relations issues at that time. It was a brave move as I can only think of one person on Mull at that time with any interest in the sport. Brian and his team put a huge effort into convincing the Islanders that this was a good idea and the first Tour of Mull was planned for 18th October 1969.
So in 1969, the one-night event started in Tobermory at 10.30pm with the cars flagged off by Tobermory’s Provost and rally supporter, Bobby MacLeod, of the Mishnish Hotel. There were 72 entries, of which 57 started. The Mull Rally was born! The communications centre was the telephone kiosk at Gruline cross roads, Aros 33X, where Brian spent many hours. The new road through Glen More had recently opened, but the old road was used as a selective, as was the Craignure to Tobermory A848.
In 1970 forestry stages were introduced on the Saturday afternoon, in Fishnish, Lettermore, and Dervaig. The use of a field was required as a link road in Lettermore. While the format was highly popular with spectators, some of the crews who were more used to tarmac surfaces were not so keen.
The first Mull entrants were John MacKay and Neil MacLean in John’s Mini Cooper, finishing 17th.
Over the next 20 years the rally grew and grew and became more a part of the seasonal life of the Island. The end of the rally was the signal for Calmac Ferries to adopt the winter timetable and the island took a well-earned breather after a frenetic culmination to the tourist season.
In 1989, the organisers applied to the government for a closed road rally and in March of ’90, closed roads were approved. After a hectic seven months, the first closed road rally in the UK was held on Mull. The forest stages were largely replaced by daylight stages over the roads of North Mull, which proved popular with both spectators and competitors. 170 miles of stages were on offer and a full entry of 150 started.
And so the isle of Mull and Iona became indelibly imprinted on motorsport history.
The generations of rally competitors, fans, engineers and sponsors who have come to Mull and Iona to support the rally have ended up falling in love with these islands, and many of them have ended up marrying locals and moving here. Lancashire accents are common place and nothing has integrated new blood more in to these islands than the Mull Rally.
October is a fantastic time to visit Mull and Iona, everything that makes these islands what they are is still going on. The colours of the landscape are turning, creatures are busy foraging and the hedgerows are busting with fruit and nuts. The nights are dark, clear and crisp, and the sea is starting to get stormy. The castles and the abbeys are quieter, and it’s easier to explore them.
But for one weekend only, the island throws off its autumn colours, pulls on a set of racing overalls and a full face helmet.
Ladies and Gentlemen… start your engines the Mull rally starts on Friday 14th October.