Exploring the Isle of Mull by road

Scotland's Isle of Mull is blessed with natural rugged beauty and adorable continental creatures. Inspires by Avis contributor Ben Lerwill goes beyond to find both.

The best decisions are often impromptu. At the eastern end of Mull’s Loch Scridain, which on a fine day looks like the kind of serene apparition a deity might conjure up, I notice a sign pointing down a side road. It reads ‘Scenic Route to Salen’. On a whim, I turn my car in the direction indicated, not having any need to be in Salen but not in any rush to be anywhere else.

All images: Ben Lerwill

The scenic route

The sign is ludicrously understated. Over the next 20 miles, it becomes clear that this is a ‘scenic route’ in the same way that golden eagles are ‘pretty birds’. The road starts to climb. Wide green highlands crowd the windscreen, their slopes tumbling down to bays coloured an improbable shade of Mediterranean blue. There are towering headlands and clustered islands. At each bend, the view outdoes itself. I drive at the near-pedestrian speed of someone hoping the end never comes.

Coastal path in greenery leading to the sea

Mull is magnificent. As the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides, it draws fewer visitors than near-neighbour Skye but is no less ravishing when the Scottish sun is shining. “You’re in for a treat,” says my Scottish friend, before I set off. “I’d live there if I could.” The island is easy to reach, too, with the car ferry gateway at Oban sitting just two-and-a-half hours west of Glasgow (if you’re heading this way, I recommend overriding satnav suggestions and driving via Inveraray for the quickest and most spectacular route).

Coloured rocks on a coast

The roads on Mull are almost all single-track, which means countless ‘Passing Place’ laybys and a sense, for the most part, that you’re somewhere on the edge of things. It often gets visited as a day-trip, with many people seeing only the stretch of road between the port and the little island capital of Tobermory. The word ‘travesty’ comes to mind. Tobermory’s famous rainbow-painted harbourfront is an enjoyable place to while away the evenings – try the battered scallops and chips from the waterside fish and chip van – but Mull deserves as many days as you can give it.

Mountain trekking and animal spotting

The walking and the wildlife are two of the biggest reasons why. One day I scramble up the airy A’Chioch ridge to reach Ben More, the island’s highest point. From its 3,169ft apex, a rumpled universe of pale green peaks and valleys spreads out in every direction. The next morning I hike under the south coast cliffs of the Ross of Mull to reach the Carsaig Arches, a pair of hulking natural rock formations. I don’t pass another soul for six hours. Over my time on Mull, I see eagles and otters, seals and herons, wheatears and porpoises. My binoculars are well used.

Seals on an island surrounded by water

The rewards continue on Iona, the holy island sitting off Mull’s southwest corner. It’s small and essentially car-free, so I park up for three nights at the small port of Fionnphort before making the mile-long crossing. Iona is famed for being an early fulcrum for Christianity in Scotland – largely thanks to a hard-as-nails missionary named Columba, who turned up here in 563 AD – but you don’t need to be religious to recognise it as somewhere special.

Mound of rocks on top of a hill

Walking trails lace virtually the whole island, leading out to secluded beaches where Atlantic waves crash in over fist-sized pebbles, and threading up to look-out hills like Dun I. From here, you can stare across the seascape and feel yourself light years away from the UK of 24-hour cities and rolling news stories. It’s escapism of the quiet kind.

Boating to Staffa Island

Moored boat on a pier on water

A boat trip one afternoon takes me out to a further island, the unpopulated Staffa, where a colony of puffins fidgets and flaps on the clifftops, and where the basalt columns of Fingal’s Cave once inspired Mendelssohn to write a symphony. Fittingly, the ocean panorama from Staffa is pretty symphonic in itself.

Sheep by a coastline cliff

The week has been an instructive one. I’ve learned that the best way to spot otters is to be patient. I’ve learned that fresh Scottish seafood is addictive. And I’ve learned that while there may be some staggeringly beautiful corners of the British Isles, Mull and its neighbouring islands are up there with the best of them.

For more Scottish road trip ideas, why not read our 3-day Aberdeen road trip or explore our Edinburgh One Day road trip guide.