Burg, the wild side of Mull

To visit Burg on the Ardmeanach Peninsula is to experience one of Scotland’s most wild and remote stretches of wilderness coastline.

With fossils of tree stumps on the beach, Iron Age farm ruins, a basalt column cave, deserted croft townships, waterfalls and shieling huts, Burg has much to reveal to those willing to stretch their legs on the 6 mile walk to get there.

Of course arriving by kayak is a lot easier. Octane expedition groups cross Loch Na Keal from Ulva to explore the area via island rock hopping stop offs at Little Colonsay and Inch Kenneth.

Horizon battleships

Views out to sea from the cliffs at Burg and from the top of Bearraich are phenomenal. The islands of Iona, Ulva, the Dutchman’s Cap, Staffa, the Treshnish Isles and Coll and Tiree can all be seen like a fleet of battleships gathering on the horizon.

The headland of the Ardmeanach Peninsula really is the edge of wilderness – the road stops 6 miles back at Tiroran and, traveling on foot, the route follows a long path running parallel to the shore. The route passes an Iron Age fort Dun Scobuill, the ruined townships of Salachry and Culliemore facing Loch Scridian and the pilgrim route to Iona a cross the Ross of Mull, Bronze Age burial cairns and abandoned shieling huts, used in summer months by crofters grazing their flocks on higher ground.

Fossilised tree

However, perhaps most remarkable, is the fossilised tree standing in its whole entirety vertical on the facade to a cliff face. Standing forty foot high, the conifer tree was engulfed in molten lava some 50 million years ago with its shape preserved to be first recorded by Scotland’s pioneering cartographer, John MacCulloch.

Cream tea vacuum

The path passes Dun Bhuirg, the remains of an Iron Age farming community, and after this point there are few signs of man, prehistoric or otherwise. The area, wonderfully free of ‘access’, ‘amenities’, ‘souvenirs’ and ‘visitor centres’, is reserved for those prepared to invest the time to get there. For those who do, the rewards are high.

Eagles high

The huge white tailed eagle or sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) lives here and soars from great heights over the grassy headland looking for small mammals, seabirds and carrion. Sometimes it keeps low over the water and takes fish from the surface whilst in flight.

In silhouette it is hard to distinguish from a golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) except for the shorter tail, longer neck and shallower wing beats. The golden eagle, also seen around Burg, seems more graceful and delicate in flight with deeper and slower wing beats but surprisingly the white tailed eagle has a wider wingspan (240cm) than the golden eagle (220cm).

If the bird is soaring and the wings are flat it is likely to be a white tailed eagle, if the wings are raised when soaring it is probably a goldie. Likewise if it’s screeching it is probably a white tail as golden eagles are quieter. In better light adults are easier to tell apart as the white tail of the sea eagle is apparent when close. However, a juvenile golden eagle has a tail of the same so it is all rather complicated.

The golden eagle can in turn be mistaken for the buzzard (Buteo buteo), although the latter is almost a metre shorter between wingtips, it is difficult to gauge scale without knowing distance.

Reintroduction

The white tailed eagle was recently re-introduced to the British Isles with stock from Scandinavia, previously being a visitor to the British coast from Iceland and Scandinavia with our naturalised population having been wiped out by gamekeepers and farmers. The process has been a success and there are now 36 breeding pairs (compared with 442 pairs of golden eagles).

Despite Mull being also known as eagle island, the white tail has some catching up to do.

How foraging became hoovering

The islands surrounding Staffa are as protected as can be. They are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and visitors require permission if they so much as consider breaking wind. Yet, under the water’s surface, around Scotland’s most protected land, the dredging continues.

The Mull coastal economy (fishing, diving, boat and wildlife tours, kayaking, rambling and camping) benefits from a bountiful and sustainable intertidal and shallow water ecology. Even the creel fishers, who account for 75% of the Scottish inshore fishing fleet, benefit from working in beds undamaged by trawlers. However, the dredgers don’t have such a good record.

The remote islands of Staffa (with its world famous basalt columns and Fingal’s Cave) Little Colonsay, and the Treshnish Isles (Lunga, Fladda, Cairn na Burgh More, Cairn na Burgh Beg), The Dutchman’s Cap and Iona may seem like protected pristine wilderness to the passing eye, but the waters surrounding them have little protection – under the water line it’s a wild-west dredging frontier.

Eco desert

One of the largest environmental disasters in modern British times happened in the Clyde in the 1970s. The sustainable fisheries at Carradale and Girvan first fitted steam-powered engines to their trawlers and diesel followed enabling them to go further, for longer and with bigger nets. Then fish finding sonar was discovered ‘and soon fishing became hoovering’ as trawlers netted herring in numbers never seen before.

When the herring ran out the fishermen switched to saithe and when this ran out they switched to cod, then plaice and then sole and when there were no fish in the water column they started dredging scallops from the mud. The more fish were caught the more needy were fishermen to pay for their new televisions, microwaves, cars and expensive technology reliant fishing boats. Now there is nothing left.

Not many people know of this disaster of desertification of the Clyde because it occurred under water and beyond the ken of environmental nimbys preoccupied with the demands of questioning windmill aesthetics. Also because the Scottish fishing fleet is an influential political force of national employers and no organised pressure groups were around to question their decades long inept handling of fish stocks. However, all that is changing.

Dredging ban

West coast scallop stocks have declined since 2011 yet scallop production and yield is increasing at a dramatic rate with new and additional boats entering the fleet. Mull Aquaculture & Fisheries Association say Nethrops (‘shrimp’), brown crab and velvet crab are all over exploited around Treshnish.

Nethrops are getting smaller and competition for them is increasing. According to official government figures published in the Scotland Marine Atlas: south and west areas of Mull are ‘heavily exploited’, Demerol stock ‘a concern’, Sandeel stock ‘in decline’, Whiting stock ‘in decline’, Treshnish burrowing Sea Anemone ‘at risk’, Fan Mussels are rare’, Ocean Quahog ‘in decline’, Seapens and Megafauna ‘at risk’ at Gometra and Ulva and Fireworks Anemone ‘scarce’. Tall Seapens of Inch Kenneth and The Wilderness are of ‘global importance’ and the Maeri beds at Treshnish represent 95% of the global volume of the species.

Signs the fleet learnt lessons from history are few so, when they cried for ministerial help to continue dredging MPAs, Environment Minister Richard Lochhead retorted with a ban. Such is the public consciousness of the marine ecological environment that pressure from campaigning groups such as COAST has brought results. Indeed, the 30 MPAs themselves are a result of Hugh Fernley–Whitingstall‘s own campaign Fish Fight which revealed 50% of every UK fish catch is thrown overboard, dead.

Trawlers have had to widen the mesh in their nets to reduce bye catch, reduce their number of fishing days and provide escape hatches for fish. Nevertheless, 77 million Nethrops are discarded annually (with a 75% mortality rate) and up to 50% of the overall catch is discarded (a large proportion of this being juvenile cod). For every kilo of Nethrops caught in the Clyde 9kg of bye catch is discarded. Dr S Campbell, Community of Arran Seabed Trust, says, “These parameters suggest that in time the Nethrops fishery will collapse”.

Day-trippers to Staffa, in fear of the eco Stasi, ensure they don’t use colourful language in front of the puffins whilst we watch dredgers tear up the Treshnish Isles’ surrounding seabed.