Expedition to the Front Door:
Living on an island, off an island, off an island….off an island!
Most people have never heard of the Island of Gometra, even those who live on Mull. The name itself sounds strange and not typically Scottish or Gaelic. Among the few people who do live on the remote northwest coast of Mull, and know Gometra, for them this island is definitely ‘off the beaten track’. We won’t give a history of the island and its name, because its current owner – and our future landlord – has written a precise history on his website Isle of Gometra – a Peopled Wildness. What we can describe is the challenging nature of the access to the island.
Among the Scottish Archipelago, there are obviously islands that are further away from mainland services and take longer by sea to reach. However there may be few islands where the access is so difficult., and according to Gometra’s historian, it has always been so, which is why it has always struggled to maintain a stable population through the centuries.
The first 400 miles of travel from Shropshire to Gometra, is fairly straightforward, with travelling to Oban to pick up a ferry to Craignure on Mull. Even by train it is easy as the station at Oban discharges passengers about as close to the Ferry port as its possible to get without getting wet. The crossing to Craignure is a 45 minute passage. From Craignure, you can drive the 20 miles up to Salen and then west across the middle of Mull and drive the length of Loch na Keal to Ulva Ferry – which can be surprisingly busy during the tourist season. Even by foot, its a bus to Salen and then Ulva Ferry area has a community electric car or minibus that can be booked to pick you up. Alternatively you can walk, as I did last May, from Salen to Ulva Ferry, sleeping amongst the bracken on the north shore of Loch na Keal.
Its from Ulva Ferry that the access begins to get more difficult. The sound between Mull and the Isle of Ulva is only 500 yards, which is crossed by a small ferry operated by Donald during the tourist season Monday to Friday and on Sundays as well during June, July and August. The rest of the year there is a school run for a child on Ulva twice a day that also doubles up as a post delivery service. The rest of the time, you will need your own boat, but just be careful as the crossing can turn rough should the weather turn ‘blue’. When Ulva Primary school – which is on the mainland of Mull at Ulva Ferry – was threatened with closure, parents pointed out that the children needed to be near the ferry so that they could be got back home quickly otherwise they risked being ‘stranded’ on Mull. There is a Youtube video that shows precisely how the short crossing can become impossible to cross in rough weather. (Ulva Sound in a Storm)
Once on Ulva and standing by the Boathouse, your options become far fewer. Firstly you have to find your way around the main settlement on Ulva and the unexpected mature beech woodland to find, what is called, the ‘main road’. This requires the steepest ascent in you entire trip passed the reservoir. Its then a short walk to the only route decision on the way to Gometra, which is do you turn south to the Livingstone Caves – which most visitors do – or do you turn right and carry on the north side of Ulva to Am Bru, the causewayed crossing between Ulva and Gometra. Our twelve year old daughter, Katy, who has walked this route a number of times in all weathers, claims that your journey to Gometra starts at this cross road.
Although its called the ‘main road’ its a misnomer as the track is rough, very rocky in places, rutted and usually very wet. Its not a very mountainous track however as it keeps to the north coast, its more short sharp ups and downs that are common on most coastal paths.
For first timers on the track to Am Bru, it seems to go on forever. Every headland that you spy in the distance that you fool yourself into believing is the headland above Am Bru, turns out to be untrue. If the weather turns foul, there are few places to find shelter, apart from a number of ruined and unroofed ‘black houses’ but at least the main mass of Ulva protects you from the worst of a southwesterly gale. However in any wet weather, track quickly turns into a flood as the water rushes down from the high ground of Ulva.
Once you become familiar to the track, it becomes a friend, and on a warm sunny day, its a pleasure to walk with views across Loch Tuath towards the Treshnish Wilderness on Mull. On reaching the causeway at Am Bru, it feels like a real change of scenery as you cross the metal bridge on to Gometra – checking first that its sitting on its supports, as it has been known to be dislodged in high winds and even completely blown away necessitating an expedition to collect it from the bottom of the sound at low tide.
One realisation that takes a couple of trips to realise, is that when you have crossed the causeway at Am Bru, you are not nearly there. Most of the houses on Gometra are at the western end and therefore its another 3 miles on perhaps the roughest tracks so far to the main habitation area. Also you switch to the south side of Gometra and therefore are now exposed to the winds and rain should it be one of those days. We have been known to take shelter at the glorious gallery and honesty shop at Baileclaidh because the weather has beaten us on our way to the house.
The track also becomes more spectacular as it winds its way between the cliffs of Gometra and the rock shore, in places the space in which it does this becomes measurable in feet in single figures. Last winter there was a landslide quite close to the causeway on Gometra that covered the track completely with large boulders and soil which meant that the farmers landrover had to be reserved for half a mile before it could be turned around and meant bringing a JCB all the way from Ulva to clear it However, apart from this event, the island has never been cut off from Ulva during storms….supposedly!
The final climb up from the beautiful beach from the ‘Bay of the Longships’ on to the flat area where the cottages are located, can be the straw that breaks the camels back, but there is not sight lovelier than finally seeing the cottages, particularly on a warm day when the row of four white and creamy cottages stand out like beacons against the dark cliffs behind them. Of course. However, if you are not staying, you also might need to turn around and head back towards Ulva Ferry, in which chase, take the chance to experience the wonder of the trip all over again.