The first rule of hiring a car is to familiarise yourself with the controls before driving off. The second rule of hiring a car is that if you ignore the first rule, at least make sure you familiarise yourself with the controls before you miss the turning for the ferry at Oban and end up on a slipway leading into the loch with no idea how to locate reverse gear. Only a frantic search for the manual saved us.
After that inauspicious start, we managed to board the ferry to Mull without further incident, and soon arrived at Craignure. To get to Tobermory was a simple matter of turning right and driving along the coast road, which narrowed into a single track with passing places.
Unusually for us, we had booked a B&B rather than a hotel. After a welcome cup of tea slice of home-made cake with our landlady, we set out to explore the harbour with its brightly-painted houses. The Wombles is of course not the only children’s TV programme associated with Tobermory. It is also the location of Balamory. We noticed that a branch of Spar was due to open inside an old church building (very Womble-like recycling there) the next day and decided to go along.
The next morning was wet. So wet that the opening of the Spar had to be held inside the shop, which presented logistical difficulties. Every time they stretched the ribbon across, another customer came in. The elderly lady who attempted to cut the ribbon (using a pair of special giant, but very blunt, scissors) was a distinguished long-time resident, later described to us by our landlady as ‘the most evil woman on Tobermory’. To be fair, our landlady was possibly ‘the most gossipy woman’ on Tobermory.
Whilst we were down by the harbour we visited Mull Museum, which crams a great deal into a very small space: geology; prehistory; fishing; farming and crafts. I was most interested in details of the visit of Dr Johnson and Boswell.
On the subject of history, we took the opportunity to visit three very different castles whilst we were on Mull. Torosay Castle is in fact a Victorian country house. There were no guides inside – you are just invited to walk in and look round the principal rooms, and the descriptions of the rooms are written in a chatty style. The entrance lobby was decorated with the heads of 12 stags, a fox and a tiger (‘shot by my grandmother’ according to the label) and had an overwhelming smell of potted hyacinths. Sadly Torosay was sold in 2012 and is no longer open to the public.
Aros castle, near Salen, is a genuine medieval ruin, dating from the thirteenth century. Aros was once the most importance place on the island and the administrative centre. The castle was probably built by the MacDougalls of Lorn. For 230 years from the defeat of King Haakon of Norway at the battle of Largs in 1263 the Western Isles and seaboard were to form a semi-autonomous state within the kingdom of Scotland, the Lordship of the Isles. By the fourteenth century the next century it had passed into Macdonald hands and during the Lordship it was a residence and seat of government of the dominant clan.
Duart Castle also dates from the thirteenth century but unlike Aros is no longer a ruin, having been restored by Sir Fitzroy Maclean, chief of the Clan Maclean in 1912. The Edwardian kitchen and pantry were among the rooms we saw, as well as the dungeons where officers from a galleon of the Spanish Armada, wrecked off Tobermory were imprisoned. The castle sits on a peninsula jutting out into the Sound of Mull, a picturesque view for passengers arriving or leaving the island by the Craignure ferry.
All in all, we had a very pleasant time on Mull but we were glad to return our hire car.
We visited Tobermory in April 2009.