Botanist’s field day

The remote and tranquil island of Ulva is best known for The Boathouse – a tearoom with food so good, thankfully few visitors venture far from its creamy coffees and sticky buns.

The small island has beautiful white beaches, azure clear waters and remains one of my favourite of all Hebridean islands for fishing, diving and wild camping.

With shallow waters over white sands along its wilderness shore and a sheltered  archipelago bay of skerries, kelp foredt and playful seals on its south side the island offers much to explore.

What’s more, after a three or four hour kayak, nothing quite compares to the relief of sitting in The Boathouse and succumbing to its baked temptations.

Flora diversity

Today, we dive over the sands at Tràigh Bhàn in search of scallops between the shore and Eilean na Craoibhe, a small island skerry thirty metres off Ulva.

Sitting on a rock between descents I meet a scientist from Edinburgh University studying the effects of grazing on Ulva’s flora diversity. He is creating areas fenced off from both livestock and deer to obtain comparative counts of flora diversity in areas with and without grazing.

Keen from the off to stamp this conversation with a scientist with my bluster of amateur observations — wild thyme set back from the dunes and an early purple orchid near to an abandoned black house.

Nodding quietly he pauses and tells me the same lightly grazed seaward slopes also include eyebright, stonecrop, centaury, sea plantain, Iceland purslane, purple saxifrage, mountain avens, slender St John’s wort, scarlet pimpernel, thrift, cotton grass, yellow iris, foxgloves, wild hyacinth, primrose, dog rose and common spotted orchids.


Realising I’m being outgunned in talk of open grassland and machair flora I try to outflank him with knowledge of Ulva’s small broad leafed decidious copses.

I tell him, in the cool shade of the twisted dwarf oaks, there is wood vetch and ransoms in abundance. He listens patiently to my sparring, politely humouring my churl and again nods all the while as if buying time to refill the magazine of his rare flora knowledge gun.

Botanist field day

With my pause and his gentle tap of the trigger he tells me of sea campion bobbing in the wind from ocean facing granite cliffs, of birds foot-trefoil, otherwise known as bacon and eggs for its garish red and yellow colouring, of the carnivorous habits of butterwort in dissolving the insects it catches In its bog soil home so lacking in nutients and of the heath spotted orchid and its Gaelic name Mogairlean Mòintich deriving from its two rounded root tubors resembling testicles.

I tell him it’s a delicately chosen name for such a bonnie flower and he chuckles. This friendly botanist is having a field day so I bow out and ask him how long he is here. He tells me he is staying on Ulva for three months to collect data and he walks three miles to the Ulva Ferry each Saturday to get to Mull whereupon he walks five miles on to Salen’s food store for his much needed provisions. At the end of the day, and carrying 40 pounds of shopping, he does the leg in reverse.

He tells me last week he forgot loo roll.

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