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.

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.

Moonlit dive soft silver light

In some of the sheltered bays, coves and beaches of Mull it is possible to dive at night by the light of a full moon.

The quality of light penetrating the sea depends on the height in the sky of the moon at the time. In a kind of celestial seesaw midwinter moons are high in the night sky as the sun is barely above the horizon and, in midsummer, moons remain low as the sun rises high.

So, it’s necessary to wait until a December midnight to have a moon at about 50º high in the sky for a good underwater show.

Moonlit seabed

A mid-winter night dive in Scotland may sound uncomfortable but, in December, the water has not yet lost all its heat stored from long days soaking up the summer sun.

As well as this, the moon is so high and full that, on a clear still night with a day of preceding calm seas, dive visibility is good. The moon is so high that light penetrates the water without diffraction and, in shallow depths, it swathes the sandy seabed in a cold soft silver light.

Diving a reef at night by torchlight is like walking into a rural pub wearing a lime mankini – everybody stares as the room gradually goes still and silent.

In diving terms the same brash intruder views the seascape through the harsh contrasts of a yellowed torched beam and the constraints and parameters of the projected light circular hotspot.

Projected light

Much of modern man’s viewing experience is via light projected directly to our retinas – smartphone displays, tablets, computers, TVs, digital billboards, LED text displays, neon and, of course, this blog. In these instances, we are looking at the light itself as opposed to the light reflected off an object.

The white of this page for example, it is not white – it is thousands of torch-like LEDs shining 100% red, 100% green and 100% blue light (RGB) directly and rather aggressively into your pupils. Where you see black Helvetica 9 point text you are indeed looking at the only part of the screen without pixels programmed to project light into your pupils. All the images we see through projected light are representational versions of the real thing – we are, in reality, simply staring into thousands of torch beams each of which is pre-programmed with differently percentaged combinations of RGB for a spectacular invasion of the senses.

Reflected light

By contrast, when reading text in a book, the light travels from its source and reflects off the page to the pupil. Only 70 years ago, and before the invention of the television, everything that the human brain perceived visually was seen via reflected light and, most importantly, it was all real.

I digress. Returning to torch toting troublesome tourists, incongruous divers and voyeurs of all that pass stark and startled through harsh narrow beams of projected yellow torchlight:

Torches might be useful when diving swamps, oil slicks, the Mariana Trench or night inspections of North Sea wellheads but, when and where possible, I like to do without for the Hebridean Sea has its own more subtle show of light.

Nature’s show

Plankton can appear in great numbers during a full moon dive, which in turn attracts larger grazers such as squid arriving in all their luminescent splendour.

Under the moonlight, beautiful phosphorescent sea pens, resembling delicate feather quills weighted to the bed, gently sway in the invisible current in a deadly game of catch with drifting plankton. Phosphorescent, and able to light up in self-defence, they look like sweet swaying Christmas trees.

Extremely rare fan mussels, Scotland’s largest seashell, are also found off Hebridean coasts. They use golden threads, finer than human hair, to attach to single grains of sand on the seabed and, in ages past, seamen believed they fed on drowned sailors.

Also, flame shells with bright orange feeding tentacles and sea loch anemones quite beautiful by any standard and far too exotic a find for Scottish waters – surely?

Night diving for lobster

There is a sheltered archipelago on the south of Ulva which regularly produces crab, scallops, mackerel and sea trout but I have never seen a lobster lurking. We decide to dive the area at night when lobsters feed, hopeful the area may have secrets to give up.

The kit list for a night dive remains the same as that for daylight with some minor additions: a powerful dive torch, spare batteries, a couple of hurricane lanterns, storm-proof matches, a thermos of hot tea and, because we are after lobster, a heavy pair of dive gloves and a crab hook.

Orientation

Once at the shore I light the two lanterns and place them on the rocks ten metres apart where they can be seen from the water – when I surface in the dark, I will be able to orientate myself for an easy exit.

I sit for a while between the lanterns to control my breath-up, slowly oxygenating my blood and relaxing my mind – it has only been a short walk to the cove but stumbles in the moonlight have increased my heart rate.

Treading water and gauging my distance from the lanterns as best I can, I position myself above the area I want to dive. I control my breathing, take my final breath and duck dive, both hands in front of me holding the torch ahead. I know it might be a few moments until I know exactly where I am but the narrow tunnelled beam of good visibility stretches reassuringly ahead in the darkness.

As I descend to within sight of the bed I follow a narrow gully of undisturbed white sand with rocks and weed to either side. It doesn’t look familiar but I hope it will lead somewhere I soon recognise. I stay vigilant for eyes peering from the kelp forest to my sides – crabs’ sparkling eyes and moving mouth parts reflecting in torchlight often catch a divers attention from within the gloom. Ironically it is often this very process of a crab seeing a diver at night that can give away his position.

I distract my mind from discomfort building in my lungs by exploring a thought that crabs have much to learn from the ostrich with regards to danger avoidance strategies but my lungs are burning and I surface.

Legal limits

Wherever a lobster is caught in British shores there is a Minimum Landing Size to adhere to and, if a crab is caught smaller than the stipulated size, it is law to return it. This is important in allowing smaller lobsters to reach adulthood and breed before they are removed from the area. I return lobsters with a carapace (the shell containing the head, ending where the segmented tail begins) shorter than 85cm and the same for females with eggs.

Lobster potting however is as complicated as it is regulated – some areas allow six pots per person whilst others allow pots to be used at certain times of the year all the while others require a licence. If the rules are not followed local livelihoods are likely being adversely affected and offending buoys may be cut by angry, territorial and protective fishermen.

Again I descend and the same gully gradually opens to a circle of sand with a tower of kelp attached from its centre reaching up through the water column to the surface – reassured that I now know where I am I come up for air.

Surfacing is no easier with one hand holding a torch so, deciding to reduce my dive weight – I turn on the surface and swim towards the lanterns. On shore I remove a single weight and return to the kelp tower confident that any ascent holding a lobster will be easier.

A rock and a hard place

Swimming around the base of the kelp tower secured to boulders with good hand holds for pulling my way around, I glimpse a guardsman like lobster standing proud on the brow of the yellow Scottish sand like a soldier of the Black Watch. We watch each other and, despite me wearing gloves, I know a face off can make for a tricky snatch.

I position the crab hook behind the lobster to make him turn and make a grab around the carapace as he does so. Lobster move surprisingly fast underwater and, without gloves, a nip from the claws could lose one a finger.

As I hold the lobster with one hand and manoeuvre him gently into my net bag I can’t help but think what wonderful bait a finger would make for a lobster pot.