Where the wild things are

Arriving as they did on a fairly dark and stormy night, Dr Johnson and Boswell were not mightily impressed when they arrived on Ulva from its larger neighbour, Mull.

Boswell did note in his diary of October 1773 that he was "agreeably surprised" that the master of the "mean" house which they called at on that night was "found to be intelligent, polite and much a man of the world".

But "being informed that there was nothing worthy of observation in Ulva, we took the boat and proceeded to Inch Kenneth ..."

There is actually a great deal "worthy of observation" on these islands, although possibly not to Boswell’s taste. The MacQuarie’s "mean" house was later rebuilt by the new owner to an Adam design and it was visited and praised by Sir Walter Scott.

The present Ulva House stands in pleasant woodland on the site of the Adam masterpiece which was destroyed by fire. Virtually all the dwellings on Ulva are grouped at the east end of the island, in the neighbourhood of the ferry and there is also a small chapel designed by Thomas Telford which was built in 1827.

A rough farm road leads up through the trees by A ’Chrannag (the pulpit), a hill lying west of Ulva House. On the south side of the hill is a "sea-cave" - now well above sea-level - called Livingstone’s Cave, which was occupied by prehistoric man more than 7,000 years ago. The name of the cave is a reminder that the father and grandfather of David Livingstone, the famous explorer, lived in the cave while building their croft house nearby. This road leads along the north side overlooking Loch Tuath (north loch) all the way to the causeway crossing Am Bru (the gut), a narrow tidal channel, between Ulva and Gometra. Beinn Chreagach (rocky mountain), the summit of Ulva and almost in the middle of the central ridge, is 1,027ft high.

After the farm road has left the wooded area by Ulva House there is a track which leads down to and along the south coast of Ulva. This passes a beautiful little ruined water mill with its lade connected to the burn tumbling down Glen Glass and the many sad ruins of the cleared village of Cragaig. Some of the cottage doors still have their lintels in place.

Beyond this point are standing stones beside the charming anchorage of Cragaig Bay, sheltered by tidal Eilean Reilean amid a peppering of skerries. A maze of sea-passages twist between the islets, Eilean an Righ (royal island) and Eilean na h-Uamha (cave island), and the many off-shore rocks.The track deteriorates further at this point but on the headland to the west are the remnants of Cille Mhic Eoghainn. A string of tidal islands, Eilean na Creiche, Garbh Eilean and Eilean Bn form a natural breakwater for Cragaig Bay.

General Lachlan MacQuarie (1761-1824), the "father of Australia", was born on Ulva. He instituted liberal penal reforms in Australia while serving as governor of New South Wales. This made him so unpopular with the settlers that he was recalled. His mausoleum is at Gruline on Mull, by Loch na Keal.

Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), in his famous poem Lord Ullin’s Daughter, told the sad story of an eloping Chief of Ulva and his bride, who drowned while fleeing from her parents.They are reputed to be buried on the Mull shore in a grave between Oskamull Farm and Ulva Ferry.

A first impression of Ulva is of bracken galore and lots of rabbits but the island is in fact a feast of flora and fauna. There are plenty of mountain hares, red deer, seals and the occasional otter, stoat and hedgehog. The island has a great variety of habitats for plant life and more than 500 recorded species. Gometra has goats, a deer farm and a small hardwood plantation on the east side. Birdlife on both islands is varied, including buzzards, ravens, woodcock, snipe, occasional grouse and pheasant, common and Arctic tern, gannets, eider, oystercatcher, curlew, redshank and red-breasted merganser. Ulva and Mull are the last refuges of the beautiful red and black Scotch burnet moth, which is now extinct elsewhere, and Ulva also is home to the exceptionally rare blue dragonfly, Orthetrum coesilesceus.

There is a small tearoom on Ulva - the Boathouse - (01688 500241) which sells delicious fresh oysters from the home farm, and visitors are encouraged by an interpretive display to enjoy the island’s many attractions, including its beautiful walks and nature trails.

• Edited extract from The Scottish Islands by Hamish Haswell-Smith, published by Canongate at 35.

Reader Offer

Scotsman readers can get a copy of the book for 30 (including p&p). Call 01903 828503, quoting Scotsman Offer and pay by Switch/Maestro or credit card. Or send a cheque for 30 to Scotsman Offer, LBS Mail order, PO Box 4264, Worthing, West Sussex, BN13 3TG. Please write Scotsman Offer as well as your name and address on the back of the cheque.


Getting there

Take a bus to Salen, which you can catch at ferry terminals at Craignure, Fishnish and Tobermory. From Salen either hire a private taxi or hop on the Post Bus (Aros Post Office, 01680 300321) to Ulva ferry terminal. Ulva Ferry is run on request during office hours. Contact 01688-500226 or signal at the pier. The crossing takes about five minutes. Ferries operate from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday and Sundays from 1 June until end of August. There is no sailing on Saturdays. The ferryman offers passage to Ulva outside usual hours but only by prior arrangement. See www.ulva.mull.com for further information.