Walking on Mull: the rocks and white sands of Ardalanish

We’re back from a short break of four nights on the island of Mull.  After a poor summer in England, it felt good to be leaving the city for a landscape of open sky and sweeping shoreline.  I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, in which he describes the feeling perfectly:

Anyone who lives in a city will know the feeling of having been there too long.  The gorge-vision that streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac.

The sun shone all the way from Liverpool to the Scottish borders, but then rain set in, getting heavier as we pushed north, skirting the Trossachs and Stirling before swinging west to Oban and the ferry.  By the time we landed at Craignure, the rain was incessant and, though we had a vague sense of passing through wild landscape as we drove across the island to our accommodation on the shore of Loch Scridain in the village of Pennyghael, low cloud and driving rain meant we could only guess at what was out there.

It was dry and the clouds were lifting when we set off the following morning, following the road from Bunessan to the tiny settlement of Ardalanish where we parked the car to follow the trail down to Ardalanish beach, a deserted sweep of white sand extending across a large bay.  Before it reaches the beach, the track crosses machair – one of the rarest coastal grassland habitats in Europe, found only in north and west Scotland and western Ireland.  It occurs where shell sand has been blown inland from beaches and dunes and has mixed with the soil to form rich grasslands, creating spectacular displays of spring flowers and providing an environment that supports populations of breeding birds.

on a clear day
unfasten the gate
and take the path
over the machair
through the orchids
down to the sea

- Thomas A Clark, The Path to the Sea

The beach has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, both for the machair and for the interesting rock formations that make this beach popular with geologists. The rocks around Ardalanish are Precambrian, formed  800-1000 million years ago. A rocky knoll above the beach is full of unusual minerals like kyanite, tourmaline and andalusite. As the sun broke through, the mica in the sand glittered.

There’s an awful lot of geology left lying around in Scotland, and this place is no exception.  Ardalanish bay is the where the Ross of Mull granites meet an area of schist to the east.  The Ross of Mull granites have been quarried extensively in the past, the stone used for bridges, docks, lighthouses and other buildings throughout the world, such as, I was intrigued to discover, Liverpool docks and Manchester Town Hall.

The rock outcrops on the beach feature some intense folding and juxtapositions, making apparent why geologists love Mull.   The rocks here have a long and interesting history (the oldest rocks are about 2000 million years old), and there are unique structures and rocks found nowhere else in the world.  Mull is constructed rather like a multi-tiered wedding cake. Thick layers of basalt lava sit on top of a complicated layers of much older rocks which outcrop around the coastline of Mull.

Mull has not always been in its present position and form. Over geological time it has undergone enormous changes. Mull’s oldest rocks were formed in the southern hemisphere before Mull, like the British Isles as a whole, gradually drifted northwards. The rocks preserve details of the climatic zones passed through on that northward journey.

Most of Mull is made of lava poured out of volcanos when the North Atlantic was forming and Mull was torn apart from  Greenland. The molten lava which erupted from about 60 to 50 million years ago forms Mull’s stepped tablelands. Into these, at a later stage, intrusions of other igneous rocks took place, forming the central mountains of the island. Finally, huge glaciers which only melted away from Mull 10,000 years ago left deep ‘U’ shaped valleys between the mountains and long glaciated lochs.

There’s a human presence here, too.  Around the bay are several Bronze Age burial cists and the remains of an Iron Age dun or fort overlook the west shore. By the track down to the beach there are the ruins of old crofts, a reminder that this area once supported a much larger population than today.  There are many isolated ruins and evidence of demolished houses along this stretch of the coast, the remains of a community devastated by the potato famine of the 1840s and the policy of the landowner, the Duke of Argyll, to clear the land for sheep.

Down on the beach we saw Gannets and Oystercatchers. In spring, Ringed Plovers breed here, and if walking on the beach in spring, you need to be careful not to step on a nest – the adults will sit quite still and well camouflaged.  Walking back from the beach we heard the mewling of a Curlew and stood and watched a flock of Wheatears, their name  nothing to do with wheat or ears, but an old linguistic corruption of  ‘white’ and ‘arse’, referring to their prominent white rears.

to the north the land hardens
it meets and challenges the eye
sandstone, gneiss, quartzite
windswept and empty

a desert of wide skies
rock and water, a sparse cover
of purple moor grass, deer sedge
the light-loving dwarf juniper

rock cascades or stands
eroded by light
in a motionless pouring
insistent and remote

birch, pine and rowan
huddle in ravines
a stonechat drops
its note among stones

the distances are lonely
silence is immediate
immediately lonely
the rough bounds are desolate

you flinch away from it
yet each drop of rain
on your face or your arm
is a point of return

wind combs the heather
it puts an edge on stone
you splash through melt water
shaking the bog cotton

that you may not only
see but feel
the wind pushes against you
abrupt silences fill

settlement is on the edge
of this emptiness
survival is accepting
the wind’s caress

the harled dwellings
sit facing the shore
a gentleness of sheep-bitten turf
comes to the door

rusting cars and machinery
rhyme with crottle on the rocks
strewn about in the moment
in a reek of peat smoke

bright talk after winter darkness
is not more welcome
than a lull in the wind
coming home to your own form

time no longer matters
buttercup and ox-eye daisy
iris, foxglove, clover
sweeten the tang of the sea

the seal in the cold water
rises to a clarity
or curiosity, a lapping
of silver, a lapping of grey

mountain line and shoreline
carry the melody
butterwort and milkwort
invite you to delay

a lochan in a dark corrie
a sandpiper’s lonely piping
they give their distances
into your keeping

- Thomas A Clark, ‘Forest Without Trees’

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8 thoughts on “Walking on Mull: the rocks and white sands of Ardalanish

  1. Wonderful photographs, great poetry and a lovely description. Might give my notice in this afternoon…………

      • On the other hand, Thomas A Clark says (in ‘In Praise of Walking’):
        ‘Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.
        It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence, property, triviality, to simply walk away.’

        I only had the courage to do that when a generous offer of voluntary redundancy was made. But I haven’t regretted it.

  2. Hi Gerry

    Thanks again for all your posts, I never have enough time to read them all!!! Please see the invitation to my my show next week, would be good to meet you, regards Steve

  3. This is such a beautiful post. I love your photos, you’ve captured the spirit of Mull and I love the poem and your words….you’ve made me want to book a trip to Mull, very soon :-)

    • Yes, indeed…we were very lucky to get two or three hours dry walking in between the repeated drenchings of those few days on Mull! In my memory there’s rain and low cloud obscuring the landscape, but these photos remind me of the brighter intervals. If you like Mull, take a look at my Arran posts (just enter arran into the search box).

      • Oh I will….I love all of the West Coast Islands…and we go and stay in Plockton ( opposite Skye) several times a year, as my Mums from there. So many photo opportunities :-)

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