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.

Staffa, 9 kt geological treasure

Barely half a mile long between its furthest corners, the global fame of this remote outcrop’s basalt column caves ensure this tiny island boxes well above its weight.

Staffa escaped the world’s attention for some time. Small and low lying, the remote island is unremarkable from a distance and sits quietly on the horizon three miles in the distance from Ulva off the Isle of Mull. Sometimes, on approaching Staffa and if the sea is coming from the right direction, Fingal’s Cave can be heard before it is seen. A distant booming from the hazy horizon sounding like naval guns in the distance.

Stafr Ey

Staffa has been named so since the Viking occupations of the west coast of Scotland starting in about 890AD and the name is derived from the Old Norse words Stafr meaning pillar or post and Ey meaning island. It is commonly understood Fingal’s Cave is named after the Irish mythical hero Finn (or Fingal in its Scottish form) but this is a Victorian romanticism historically accurate as the Arthurian Legends.

Melodious

According to Barthélemy Faujas de Saint Fond, a French geologist developing his theory for the origins of volcanoes at the time of his visit to Staffa, the true name of the cave is An Uaimh Bhinn, which translates as the ‘Musical (or melodious) Cave’.

Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist and explorer, visited Staffa in 1772 and wrote ‘we asked the name of it. Said our guide The Cave of FiuhnWhat is Fiuhn? Said we. Fiuhn MacCoul, who the translator of Ossian’s works has called Fingal’.

Chinese whispers

Now, the pronunciation of Uamh Bhin sounds very much like Uamh Finn so, unfortunately, the guide, without conferring with his informant, may have assumed the wrong meaning which was possibly more familiar to his ears. So Sir Joseph assumed that its name was Fingal’s Cave. 

The booming noise is caused by powerful sea surges creating shock waves of compressed air escaping from the confines of the cave’s naturally arched vault roof. As sea conditions calm the cave’s size creates softer eerie echoing sounds produced by lapping waves, with many comparing the acoustics to that of a cathedral.

This ‘musical’ resonance inspired Mendelssohn to write Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) Opus 26 in 1830 although some believe it was already written before Mendelssohn saw the cave. Indeed Mendelssohn’s more visible reaction during his trip to the cave was that of being violently seasick in the swell. However, on his return to dry land on Mull Mendelssohn is said to have immediately requested the use of a piano where he worked to create some of the melodies conceived in his mind on sight of the cave. On the Sabbath and in the heart of Puritan Scotland he was reprimanded for such sinful behaviour.

Extraordinary

Neighbouring inhabitants of Staffa, not knowing of the more mundane landscapes beyond their everyday, had not thought basalt columns particularly remarkable as similar columns are found on neighbouring Mull and Ulva, indeed also on neighbouring Irish coastlines around The Giant’s Causeway. This is simply how they thought rock was and it took the eyes of outsiders to note their extraordinary form.

Sir Walter Scott declared it to be ‘one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld’ and Queen Victoria noted in her diary ‘when we turned the corner to go into the renowned Fingal’s Cave the effect was splendid, like a great entrance to a vaulted hall’.

Graffiti

Banks described the cave as ‘one of the greatest natural curiosities in the world’ and went on, ‘compared with this what are cathedrals and palaces built by man?’ Whilst it could be said Sir Joseph Banks might not carve his name in the knave of St Paul’s or any other of the great cathedrals and palaces built by man he did not hesitate to do so in the depths of the cave – leaving his initials “J.B.1772”.

Fingal’s Cave has since been visited by Dr Johnson, Walter Scott, Keats, Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Turner, Jules Verne, Queen Victoria and Robert Louis Stevenson. It has also been a site of academic and artistic study by volcanologists, geologists, cartographers, artists, writers and poets.

Piccadilly Circus

The impressive structural grandeur of Staffa was in tune with the romantic movement of the early nineteenth century and, in the 1820s, a Glasgow based shipping company made weekly voyages in a paddle steamer putting 300 passengers at a time on shore to marvel at the cave’s splendour where a lone piper played, adding theatre to such occasions. In 1835 a turbine steamer started landing 800 people, such was the popularity of the cave as part of The Grand Tour. Now a multitude of smaller and more mobile boats take visitors there from more local departure points such as the Ulva Ferry.

Thankfully a planning application for a hotel, pier and chalets was refused just a few years preceding the island’s transfer of ownership to The National Trust in 1986 and the island’s position as a wilderness nature reserve now looks secure. Apart from a couple of black house ruins slowly returning to nature there are no permanent human footprints visible on the exterior of Staffa.

There is however, in the heart of the World Heritage ancient site that is Fingal’s Cave, an orange plastic life ring screwed to the ancient basalt column wall reminding us all that, even in a deserted and uninhabited wilderness sanctuary far on the horizon, there’s no escape from central government’s jobs worth health and safety executive.

 

The search for Staffa sea bass

Keen to prove resurgence in Hebridean sea bass is no myth we set off with folding kayaks. 

Our destination is a sandy bed off a small beach on Staffa’s east coast close to a nearby skerry.

It is extremely remote, impossible for commercial fishermen to access, unlikely to have been fished regularly and probably not at all this year. Only a kayak can pass between the narrow gap between the skerry and Staffa.

Virgin water

Sea kayaks give access to waters that might otherwise be difficult with a larger boat and they are also more fun to fight a fish from.

It’s extremely peaceful travelling without the urgent sound of outboard motors and individual kayaks give paddlers in a gtoup the chance to choose which waters they might prefer to fish.

Fishing restrictions

The Minimum Landing Size (a measurement regularly set for all fish types to ensure none are taken that have not yet spawned) was set at 36cm for sea bass 10 years ago.

Brussels blunder

Unfortunately the clipboard toting beaurocrats at HQ EU got it horribly wrong as many sea bass that size have yet to spawn.

Bass numbers crashed partly due to this oversight and partly due to a recent increase in popularity of the fish in restaurants.

There is talk of increasing the Minimum Landing Size to 42cm and, in March 2015, the EU limited recreational fishers to catching three sea bass per day around most of the UK. This is controversial as commercial drift netters continue to take industrial catches measured in tones.

No shrimp

The ban does not extend to western Scotland for a good reason – sea bass do not often venture this far north.

However, Scottish waters are warming and there have recently been reports of sea bass catches within the Hebrides at Wigtown, Luce Bay.

St Kilda tuna

Indeed, in September 2013 the boat Orca III caught Scotland’s first recorded tuna – it had been spotted in a shoal chasing mackerel off St Kilda and, weighing in at 515 lb. and measuring over seven foot long, the fish was no shrimp.

Before we head out for Staffa I notice a westerly breeze. Our destination will be in the lee of Staffa but nevertheless, I am reminded of my checks: there is a 15 knott westerly wind, the sea is choppy. The outlook for 48 hrs is calm. I call Tobermory RNLI, informing them of our route, departure time, ETA, craft type and name, passenger numbers, passenger names and edtimated return time.

Wrong clothes

Our journey into wind and through cresting waves is uneventful if a little choppy but, if a kayaker waited for millpond-sea in the Hebrides, he’d be a patient man or a disappointed one.

I subscribe to an attitude commonly misattributed to the fell walker Alfred Wainwright – there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. It rhymes in both Swedish and Norwegian so it is likely to originate in Scandinavia but they can fight amongst themselves for credit for the author is lost to posterity.

Wilderness island

We arrive to an island deserted of people – just us, diving gannets, comical puffins and inquisitive grey seals.

I already know where my sea bass is lurking: the sand eels are on the sandy bed, the pouting and mackerel are over the eels and my bass is in the kelp patiently eying up all three.

Fussy eater

I congratulate myself for my succinct understanding of the intricate dynamics of the food chain below me. And then I remember how bass also like shore crabs, hermit crabs, green peeler crabs, baby brown crabs, squid, prawn, ragworm, lugworm, sand eel, sprat, baby flatfish, baby lobster, mussels, clam, scallop, pouting, mackerel and whelk.

Indeed bass like to eat anything that can’t eat them. He could be anywhere.

The water is clear so I am fishing the mid depths with a sparkling spinner in pursuit of a set of pristine white mackerel feathered hooks. If he’s lurking in the kelp either side of the sandy channel, he’ll go for my offering – the shiniest of glittering mouthfuls in and around Staffa. The spinner chases my feathers and, he’ll soon chase the spinner.

Caught

I stick at it in expectation of an orgy of leaping silver fish but there is no bite from the bass and the mackerel I slowly accumulate have answered the call for supper.

I string the accumulating number of mackerel through the gills and keep them fresh in the cool seawater strung to the kayak’s side. My bass remains ever elusive.

Deftly dangle

I decide to fish the deeper water and drop a mackerel and lugworm cocktail baited hook to a within a few feet from the seabed, irresistible to any self-respecting bass. The hook is raised off the bed to stop crabs and other unwanted crawling critters from stealing my bait.

Deeper

I enjoy fishing the lower depths as it leaves plenty of time to do almost anything else. I think of a story told by, Rosemary Nicholson, the housekeeper at nearby Ulva House:

”My father was ploughing at the time, it was a sunny day, when these two Lancasters came over very low, and the horses went haywire, jumping and bucking all over the place, so he had to unhitch them from the plough, and by the time we got them in the stable you could cream the foam off their backs in great scoops, they were so scared. Anyway, we heard a double thudding, and very quickly, the Lancasters came back. You see, they had found a submarine on the surface off Staffa. The [Royal Navy] fleet was in Loch Na Keal. It’s deep all the way up. And someone told me this, I don’t know if it’s true: that at Fingal’s Cave shortly after, there, carved at the very back, were the initials of submariners, dated that very day. You see they had surfaced to see Fingal’s Cave, and carved their names, and been drowned. Where’s the wreck? No one knows. They may have got a little way before they sunk”.

Soon

Fishing the lower depths leaves plenty of time for wandering minds. At this rate I’ll have time to break the German submarine’s Enigma code so, reluctantly, and despite fishing with the patience of a monk from neighbouring Iona, I accept there may well be no bass north of Jura. Yet.

Hebridean seas are warming and the bass will come.

Wild garlic – foraging remote beaches and wilderness coastlines

Staffa and the Treshnish Isles are beautiful wilderness islands most notable for having no roads, no cars, a lack of traffic wardens and no trees. And wild garlic, a woodland specialist – surely not?

Wild garlic or ramsons (Allium urisinum) is a native bulb common throughout the British Isles most happy in the damp semi-shade of broadleaf woodland and hedgerows. The fresh young leaves have a strong flavour that can be used raw in salads or added as a garnish to soups, pastas or risottos and used as a flavouring herb in cooking and, apart from being a great seasoning to your food, it’s one of the most powerful sources of vitamin C found in the woods.

Gardeners will say, once rooted, the plant spreads like a plague but, if its wind-blown seeds and aggressively dividing bulbs venture too far out into an open field its lush juicy leaves will be exposed to the sun, dry out, wither and die a lonely death. It is most happy sticking together in swathes of delicate carpet-like green spearheads in the damp of shade.

How can it be, on islands with only grassland exposed to the sun and wind, infertile soil so acidic there are no protective farmers’ ditches and hedgerows and not a tree in sight?

Smelling a rat

Surprisingly wild garlic can often be found in profusion in shady areas between rocks the size of cars fallen from the cliffs above where, seemingly not much else will grow.

The garlic flower is edible and makes for a good-looking garnish addition to many dishes and the leaves can be used raw in salads or as a pungent herb in pastas. I am not aware of any other coastline-foraged food containing as much flavour as ramsons – the juicy verdant leaf packing the powerful punch.

So there is no rat to be smelled. There are no rats on Staffa or Treshnish as they would eat the puffin eggs but that’s a topic for another blog.

Where the weary whelk?

Have whelks disappeared from Mull? Or, if they haven’t disappeared, they are playing a very good game of hide-and-seek – and for this they have good reason.

Whelks, not to be confused with winkles, live in the sublittoral zone and littoral fringe and cannot therefore survive the lower salinity of the intertidal zone – the best chance of seeing them is at the lowest tides. However, even when diving local wilderness shores I rarely spot one.

One theory is that Tributyltin (TBT), a chemical compound used around the world in ship hull paint, is killing them. For 40 years TBT was used as a biocide in marine anti-fouling paint (commonly known as bottom paint), which was applied to the hulls of ocean going vessels to reduce the growth of barnacles and other organic matter. It should be of no surprise therefore that it does what it says on the tin and the use of TBT negatively affects bio-diversity for that is its very purpose.

Bottom paint is a cheap way to stop barnacles, weeds and algae from growing on a ships hull as all of these can adversely affect a ships structure, hydro-dynamics and performance. The invention of the copper-bottom was introduced to British warships of the line with similar effect – indeed the phrase ‘copper-bottomed’, when used nowadays with reference to the reliability of a venture or investment, stands testament to the effectiveness of the process. Sir Humphrey Davy of the Royal Navy pioneered the lining of its wooden ship’s hulls, prone to fouling by barnacle growth, with copper plating during the 1880s. Britain was fighting the French, the Spanish and the Dutch navies at once and all three were heavily defeated – British ships were faster, more manoeuvrable and could stay out at sea for longer.

However, lining a ship with copper is expensive, never more so than today and so is painting a ship’s hull each year. So TBT was cheap and effective but the chemical leaches into the marine environment where it is highly toxic to a wide range of organisms and its pollution led to the collapse of whole populations of organisms.

The International Maritime Organisation now bans TBT compounds. These bans first started in the 1980s on boats less than 25 metres long and the use of biocide compounds in anti-fouling paint was completely banned in 2008 by the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems on Ships. It states that ships cannot bear organotin compounds on their hulls or external parts or surfaces unless there is a coating that forms a barrier so that organotin compounds cannot leach out. TBT will most likely be present in the water column and sediment for up to twenty years because of its long half-life.

TBT anti-fouling paints are still being used in countries with poor regulation enforcement, such as in the Caribbean so I don’t expect Whelks are very happy over there. Over here the search for whelks continues.

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.