After the winding road from Calgary, reaching the lush flat grasslands around Ulva Ferry is a welcome change, and although the road isn’t any wider, at least there are no drops!
The islands of Ulva and Gometra are located east of the Treshnish Isles, south of the most northern parts of Mull with Loch Tuath in between and north of the Isle of Staffa with its famous Fingal’s Cave. Just south of Ulva is the uninhabited island of Little Colonsay.
If one thing defines Ulva Ferry more than anything else, it is the little School. A picturesque little building with a playground attached, this has to be one of the remotest primary schools anywhere in Scotland and one of the friendliest. With rarely more than six pupils, the school also acts as a centre for the hardy little community. Having taught rugby and tennis to the kids here, I know from first- hand experience how important their school is to them.
If this school had not resisted various attempts to close it for economic reasons, pupils as young as four would have to make the trip to either Derviag or Salen, either of which would mean a 35Km round trip. This, on roads that are delightful but challenging in Summer and a nightmare in Winter. At one point Argyll and Bute council refused to grit this road in winter because it was too dangerous for its lorries to drive on!
By any measurement, Ulva Ferry is a remote place, but it also fizzes with community energy. New housing to bring in young families, the creation of jobs and a social enterprise trust have all been recent ongoing projects.
A rough track takes you down to the quayside, a busy little port, with local fishermen, sightseeing and wildlife tours departing regularly from here.
If you stand at Ulva Ferry on Mull, the island of Ulva seems only a stone’s throw away but at the same time, it looks as if the island is so remote. From the Isle of Mull all you see are the Boathouse Restaurant and Tearoom opposite the Sound of Ulva and a deserted slipway where the tiny Ulva ferry is docked, waiting for foot passengers( No cars on Ulva!).
A little to the right is a thatched cottage known as Sheila’s Cottage. It has been restored and contains a life-size model of Sheila. The Sheila in question was Sheila McFadyen, a crofter who along with her family wrung an existence out of this little Island, mainly on a diet of fish, potatoes, oats and game (if the landowner wasn’t looking). The house is tiny and has been faithfully restored and gives a great insight into how tough life was back in the 18th Century.
Life on Ulva certainly bred some amazing people. The explorer David Livingston and the founder of modern Australia, General Lachlan McQuarrie both hail from this little island, and for centuries the Clan McQuarrie school of piping was considered the finest in Scotland.
Looking across the Sound, it is almost as if the landmass on the other side of the Sound of Ulva seems one of the loneliest places in Scotland and the fact it is. Ulva and the even more remote island of Gometra have no roads, no cars, no hotels or restaurants, no hustle and bustle of modern life. What Ulva and Gometra do have is stunning nature and an extremely peaceful and almost forgotten way of life. The main sources of income are sheep and cattle farming, fish and oyster farming and tourism. They also have a unique way of doing things!. There is a saying that if anything mechanical stops working on Mull, it will end up on Ulva. Having once borrowed a quad bike to deliver pheasants, I can vouch for the state of the breaks…..I thought I was going to have to leap from the
bike to escape a head-on collision with a stone wall! On Mull or the mainland, the bike would have been condemned, on Ulva, it was just a useful machine that you had to get used too!
Many years ago I was invited to the Christmas Carol service at Ulva Church. On a snowy December afternoon, I waited with the others huddled behind the boatshed on the Mull side. My attention was drawn to a rectangular wooden box stuck on the wall. Half of it was covered with a red board. This was the Ulva version of a high-tech signal to the ferry. If you need the boat just slide the red board over, and someone at the Teashop will spot it and send the ferry over. Ingenious if you’ve got good eyesight!
Arriving on the other side, a rough cart track takes you the mile or so to a beautiful old church or Kirk. This one was built by the lighthouse Stevensons, who for around 150 years built and maintained Scotland’s fantastic lighthouses, like the famous Bells Rock. https://www.nlb.org.uk/historical/stevenson.htm. In their spare time, they made thanks to God by building beautiful houses of worship.
In true Ulva style, the fit and able bodied walked to the church in wellie boots and waterproofs and those less able were given a ride in a wooden box fixed to the back of a quadbike, another great innovation of the islanders, normally reserved for lambs, injured sheep and tired sheepdogs!
The Carol service was one of the most original and entertaining I have ever attended. The local children were playing the human parts, but the animals in the manger were real live creatures if only I had had a video camera.
Truly a lovely scene with the snow outside, and children singing, until the Rev Bill Pollock’s dog decided to try to eat one of the hens in the manger. It sounds almost too comical to be true, but it’s true, so much so it upset the sheep and goats who stampeded along with the donkey who made a break for the door with a very frightened Joseph hanging on to its halter for dear life!
This event pretty much summed up life in Ulva. This is a make do; low tech, don’t worry get on with it kind of a place, surrounded by some of the loveliest landscapes. Mature beechwoods and mixed deciduous forest give way to the two peaks on the western side of Ulva, the Bein Eolasaray and Beinn Chreagach, with 313 metres the highest point on the island. The eastern side of the island is more sheltered and has some beautiful woodland. Most of the island, however, is covered in bracken and heather.
As you would expect wildlife is plenty here and many species of birds can be found at any given time on the island. There are a good numbers of larger mammals with Red Deer, Seals and Hares in abundance and the fauna are quite exceptional with 500 recorded species. Ulva is one of the last refuges of the beautiful red and black Scotch burnet moth, which is extinct elsewhere and Ulva is also home to the exceptionally rare blue dragonfly. Once a year in July Ulva folks get together with Mull folks to count the local Burnet moth population. I’m told this is of great scientific importance, but it always looks like a great fun picnic to me!
Once a thriving community with over eight hundred people making a living on crofting and seaweed harvesting, the clearances and the potato famine of the 1800s reduced the population down to around 20, including a wonderful character Doc Jones, who simply sailed into Ulva from the states and never went home. Doc enjoyed a long and happy life as the local Doctor and boat builder.
The community is starting to thrive again and along with their neighbours in Ulva Ferry, the current owners are determined to rejuvenate the local population by creating jobs and building houses.
The little Island of Gometra has been owned by the Stanfords since 1991 and is accessible only by a drawbridge!. There are not too many places in the world that can boast that.
I heard a great story from around 20 years ago about one Gometra landowner shortly after he bought the island. As a landowner of such a remote island, there needs to be a level of give and take with the locals, many of whom have been on the island for generations. It is an unwritten agreement that the residents can take a deer or other game, on an occasional basis. It is referred to as “one for the pot.” However this time the new owner got upset by his deer being hunted and the shots frightening his horses, so he called the police. The locals were rounded up and warned. Thinking that was that, the owner then went off on holiday for a feww eeks. When he returned he found his horses alive, well fed and watered but locked inside his house. After three weeks you can barely imagine what the carpets looked like. I suspect a video of that would have made the top ten list on Youtube!
And in real island tradition, the owner made good a couple of months later when musicians failed to turn up for a local wedding reception. Accompanied by several male guests he transported his grand piano three miles up a dirt track from his house to the venue where he played for them all evening. Normal relations were resumed!
Visiting Ulva and Gometra is like stepping back in time and is the perfect antidote to todays fast paced world. Go there, enjoy the wee ferry, take a picnic or try the Ulva Boathouses’ astonishing seafood and most of all sit quietly and just breathe.