From the summit of Ben More, above the landslides and cliffs of Loch na Keal, the complex coastal geography of the Isle of Mull becomes clearer.
To the southwest, across a sheltered sound of the Atlantic, is the holy island of Iona, where Irish missionary St Columba sailed in AD 563 to bring the Christian faith to the Scottish pagans. To the immediate northwest are a multitude of islets, including Little Colonsay, an inspiration for the children’s book and the How to Train Your Dragon film series; and Gometra, a nibbled mass of coves owned by a millionaire environmentalist. Next to that, crumpled between land and sea, lies a forgotten corner that has an even more extraordinary story to tell.
Almost lost in the fold of the map, Ulva is the most enigmatic of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Usually travelers to this part of the Argyll region would seek to hike, bird watch, or go on a whale watching safari, scanning the murky Atlantic for some 19 species. cetaceans patrolling the waters. But Ulva offers something very different.
Here, no cars, no shops, no circuits, no postcards or happy guides. Instead, the rewards are closeness to nature and the much desired notions of freedom and space. The rugged moors are teeming with floral heather; forests filled with deer cluster on the eastern shore; and what once housed 604 people is now a time capsule of forgotten island life. It’s almost empty, inhabited by ghosts and creaking with history.
And yet, in the last few years, Ulva has started to evolve.
In 2018, rather than facing extinction, the six-person Ulva community, in partnership with the North West Mull Community Woodland Company, took matters into their own hands, shaping a successful community buyout. This followed a late offer, backed by the Scottish Land Fund (which helps communities become more sustainable through land ownership) to pay £ 4.4million for the purchase from a private landowner.
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Now ambitious plans are underway to revitalize the island from scratch. Abandoned properties will be renovated, new communities will be relocated to affordable housing and a sort of enduring Scottish utopia will be created. The opening of a cultural heritage center with far-reaching global appeal is also on the horizon. No wonder we are talking about a rebirth.
When I visited last year, the island ferry was largely at anchor, only operating at the Mull Pier to do groceries or to transport Ulva’s two children to school in the small hamlet of Ulva Ferry. In a euphemism typical of self-sustaining island communities, the only sign there is a ferry is a small unadorned honesty box and a sign that says ‘passenger ferry on request’. Head up on a whim and you could be standing at the end of the pontoon for the rest of the day.
“I have a kayak to take me to Mull when I need it,” Island resident and Ulva development manager Wendy Reid said when she agreed to be on the dock. for an autumn morning walk. “But trips like this help me feel more connected with the seasons. There is an earthy side to living here. I go looking for berries and mushrooms – things I would never do living in a city.”
Joining us on our exploration tour – a loop of dilapidated, unoccupied houses to the eerily vacant church designed by Thomas Telford – was Colin Morrison, a resident of Mull. Operator of the Turus Mara whale watching company, Morrison works as a skipper, community activist and president of the North West Mull Community Woodland Company, his ideal is to repopulate the island and eventually encourage greener tourism.
“It’s kind of like stepping back in time, but you can see the modern potential,” said Morrison, as we began our walk under a small rain cloud. “Ulva has supported 600 people in 16 small villages, so everywhere you go there is evidence of human habitation. There is variety and opportunity and it is intact. guide.”
For residents, it’s also about integrating Ulva further into the community of northwest Mull, a scenario that taps into the broader narrative of the Scottish Government’s National Islands Plan. Implemented in December 2019, the strategy aims to boost population growth and throw a lifeline for the most vulnerable and at-risk island communities – and already green shoots of renewal are visible on Ulva.
“In order to continue in life, it was traditionally necessary to leave an island like this, and Ulva’s history mirrors that of the Scottish islands in general,” Morrison said. “Fifty years ago, communities were supported by agriculture and that way of life is no longer here – so we now envision a different future driven by tourism and the digital economy.” Tellingly, Ulva has 4G, broadband, Netflix, and Amazon.
For now, the reason visitors come is to appreciate the simple life. Winding paths line groves of native hazel trees and vacant farms with their doors unlocked. There are coves for swimming or kayaking around every corner and the days are simple for the island’s lonely family and two single residents. To spend the night, visitors must walk inland to one of the two (basic shelters), both a two-hour walk west over terrain where no roads cross. adventure.
From The Boathouse, a closed seafood cafe previously run by the island family, we walked to the oldest black house on the island (an old-fashioned Scottish cottage), built with drystone walls and a thatched roof, and once shared by farmers and animals. The dilapidated hut, named Sheila’s Cottage after its last resident in the 1950s, stood almost as it had remained, with grisly whale bones flanking the doorway and straw-covered floors, a coffer bed and a dirty sideboard beyond. Inside, the smell was of damp earth and peat smoke, but renovations were underway to bring the historic watch to life in a visitor center.
To the south and at the center of Ulva’s past life is Storas Ulbha, or Ulva House, whose roof is capped with ornamental urn florets. For those who once lived here, the post-war mansion was the seat of Clan Macquarrie, one of the four oldest clans in the Highlands, and the home of Jamie Howard, who owned the island before the takeover.
Now it is redesigned to be at the heart of the new community project. Instead of the dusty shelves of the library and the still furnished Regency-era rooms, left in stasis, an interpretation and education center will spotlight some of the island’s forgotten figures and show their impact on Scotland and the world. Indeed, among the stories are those of Scottish explorer David Livingstone’s grandfather as well as Lachlan Macquarie, who left Ulva in the 18th century to become governor of New South Wales in Australia.
Almost lost in the fold of the map, Ulva is the most enigmatic of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides
“There’s a lot of romance in all of this,” Reid said. “Macquarie’s story has really put us on the map in Australia, as we have had a lot of requests from the Scottish Diaspora around the world to trace their lineage. One, surprisingly, recently arrived from Reunion.”
Ulva has been here for centuries, of course, with a human history stretching back around 7,500 years. It was once part of the Nordic Kingdom after being captured by the Vikings in 800 AD; while Mesolithic hunter-gatherers once collected limpets and periwinkles from the foreshore in front of Livingstone Cave – recognized as a national treasure due to the wealth of archaeological material found at the site. And yet, despite this historically rich history, no one has ever really stood up for Ulva, and he’s only starting to fight for his rightful place on the map now.
By the time we had walked through the manor house’s overgrown garden, through a vein of empty cottages, and stopped at an abandoned farmhouse populated by Hebridean sheep, I had learned a lot more about this brave new world.
Cattle arrived as the first step in the land management process. The boathouse will reopen to help meet global interest, which saw the annual number of visitors drop from 4,000 in 2017 to 7,000 before the pandemic as Ulva’s profile rose after the takeover. The church will be restored as a community building. Ardallan House, a former shooting lodge, will be transformed into a dormitory and campsite. An oyster farm has been touted. The island is looking for around fifty new residents, who should be able to live sustainably on the island, perhaps by starting their own business. An initial survey, undertaken before the pandemic, shows 500 people are ready to move here from 26 countries, and every week new requests continue to arrive in Reid’s inbox.
It was a lot to take.
“People have a romantic idea of coming to live on a remote Scottish island,” said Reid, as we made our way to the ferry. “And with everything going on in the world right now, it’s an attractive lifestyle for a lot of people. But we’re still an island community off an island, so life isn’t easy. for socio-economic reasons. We’re further behind the times here, but that’s mainly because Ulva has been ignored for so long. Now he’s just waiting to be rediscovered. “
Islands of the imagination is a BBC travel series that travels to some of the most unique, extreme and beautiful places in the world that have been inimitably shaped by their geographic isolation.
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