The Island of Ulva

“I think we should go for it”, I say.

“Are you sure?”, says the First Mate nervously.

“No not really.”, I say, pretending to be more confident than I feel. “But if we take it very slowly, and you stand at the bow and shout out if you see any rocks, then we should be OK. It’s an hour before high tide and that should add another two or three metres to the depths on the chart. We should just scrape through.”

We are at the eastern end of Loch Tuardh and have anchored temporarily to have a cup of tea and debate whether we try and enter Ulva Sound, the short stretch of water between Mull and the island of Ulva. It is marked by a number of tiny islands, skerries and drying mudflats, with only a narrow channel of slightly deeper water which itself is only 0.9 m in depth in places. With a draft of 2 metres, this is not an activity compatible with a stress-free retirement, but the prize is a small pontoon at Ulva Ferry with drinking water, fuel and power where we can stay in relative comfort for a couple of days, rather than anchoring in the loch. Such luxuries are precious.

The narrow channel through Ulva Sound, littered with dangerous rocks and skerries.

“Well, OK”, says the First Mate. “But remember, we are not locals and don’t know these waters as they do.”

I put the engine into gear at idling speed, and we inch forward. The first part is OK, with 4 m under the keel, but gradually it decreases. We wend our way between the small islands, hoping that we are not too close and that there are no wayward rocks waiting for the keel to smash into. We are using the Antares charts produced by Bob Bradfield, who has charted all the major harbours and anchorages on the west coast of Scotland with high resolution as a retirement project, more-or-less as a labour of love.

The stick marking the position of Potato Rock.

The channel narrows to a few metres, just wider than the boat. This is the moment of truth, where we either make it or not. To the left is a shallow shoal, while to the right a stick pokes out of the water marking the so-called Potato Rock, a pinnacle rising straight from the bottom to just below the surface. I select a line a metre or so to the left of the stick and hope that that is enough. We inch forward. The depth sounder shows 1.9 m below the keel. So far so good. The First Mate on the bow shouts out something, but I can’t make out what she is saying. I watch the Potato Rock stick glide past with no more than a metre to spare, and we are through. We both breathe out.

Our route through Ulva Sound.

At the pontoons we are met by the pontoon manager, Mark.

“You did pretty well through there”, he says as he helps us tie up. “A lot of people get grounded by going too close to the shoal. There is only a narrow channel about two metres wide past Potato Rock and you have to get it just right. Even the local fishermen mess up from time to time. You found it exactly.”

The bottom of our keel is about a metre in width, so there wasn’t much to spare. I pretend that it is something I have been doing all my life, and that it was nothing really. But I know that it is Bob Bradfield and his Antares charts that really take the credit.

Tied up safely at Ulva Ferry. Not a lot here!

That evening, our friend Mark comes down to the pontoon and picks us up to go back to have dinner at his place on Mull. Although they live in London, he and his wife Jane and daughter Sarah are having a week’s holiday in their cottage, which by a stroke of luck coincides with when we are in the area. Mark is an old friend from university days, when we used to go diving together in many of the sites in Loch Tuadh and beyond. He works now for an organisation involved in sustainable development in developing countries. We spend an enjoyable evening catching up and recounting old adventures, including a few I have completely forgotten about. We also take the opportunity do do our washing!

Drying the washing in the boat.

The next day, we decide to go over to Ulva Island and explore. The island apparently derives its name from the Old Norse for Wolf Island, was recently the subject of a community buyout by the North West Mull Community Woodland Company (NWMCWC) from the previous owner, Jamie Howard. We are amused that acronyms are supposed to make it easier to remember names, but in this case, an acronym for the acronym is needed. NWNCWC want to attract new residents to increase the population and rejuvenate the economy.

Across the water: the Boathouse Restaurant on Ulva. Great seafood, but closed on Saturdays.

It is Saturday and the ferry is not running, so we unload the dinghy and row across. As we tie up on the slipway, we discover that the Boathouse restaurant, at which we planned to have lunch, is also not open on a Saturday. We are puzzled by this as we would have thought that Saturday is a good day to be open to take advantage of people visiting the island over the weekend, but we find out later that Saturday is the change-over day for most accommodation and people are either leaving or arriving.

The Ulva Ferry.

To the right of the Boathouse is Sheila’s Cottage, a small thatched cottage which is in the process of being restored and is being used as a museum of the history of the island. Sheila was born and bred on Ulva, and worked as the dairymaid for Ulva House for most of her life. When a new owner, Lady Congleton, came, Sheila was turfed out of her small cottage in her old age, and had to find accommodation with relatives on Mull, still within sight of her old home over the water. Later when Ulva House burnt down, the story goes that she watched the flames and saw it as justice for Lady Congleton’s cruelty to an old lady.

Sheila MacFadyen in her cottage.

A little further on, we take a branch track off to the left, which leads us to Ulva House itself. Obviously not the original one, but one that was rebuilt in the early 1950s after the fire. It was sold along with the rest of the island in the community buyout, and is now being rented out by the community as holiday lets. No-one is around, but the garden in front of the House is in the process of being tidied up. It must have been quite a garden in its day.

Ulva House.
The garden at Ulva House.

“Oooh, come and have a look at this”, calls the First Mate.

It turns out to be a Slender Scotch Burnet moth, vey rare, and found now only on Ulva, Gometra and a few places on Mull.

The very rare Slender Scotch Burnet moth. We think the other one was just sleeping.

We continue along the track, which takes us in a loop around the House past some farm buildings, another smaller house where we found out later is where the community bus driver lives. Eventually we come to the church. The door is unlocked, so we push it open and enter. There are chairs laid out as if for a service, and on the side there is a vase of faded flowers. Although dusty and looking a bit worse for wear, it does look as if it has been used in the not too distant past. We learn later that it is used both as a community centre and for worship.

The church on Ulva.

A little bit further on, we come to Ardalum House, again with no sign of life, but looking as if there were people in it not too long ago. Peering through the windows, we can see furniture in the lounge and bedrooms, and washed dishes are still drying in the rack on the draining board near the sink. We hear later that someone had tried to establish the house as a hostel for backpackers to stay in while visiting the island, but had done it without the permission of the island’s owner at the time, and had had to discontinue that idea.

Ardalum House, Ulva.

As we walk back towards the ferry, we realise that we have not seen a single person the whole time we have been on the island. Admittedly, it is a Saturday with no visitors there, but that just serves to intensify the melancholy we feel. It has been like exploring an island of ghosts – so many people have lived their lives there in the past, with the population reaching a peak of 600 in the mid-1800s, but now only a handful are left. Hopefully, the recent community buyout may help to restore its former vitality.

That evening, a toe on my left foot hurts. I dismiss it a friction sore from the walk. At least the sunset makes it feel better.

Sunset over Ulva Ferry.

In the morning the First Mate decides to go shopping in Tobermory on the other side of the island. I decide not to go as my toe is still hurting. She takes the community electric car to the village of Salen, then catches the bus up to Tobermory. The car is available by arrangement for £12 return and is driven by members of the community. The driver today tells her that he and is his wife are artists and originally lived in Norfolk, but got fed up when all the houses around them were sold for holiday lets, and decided to move to Mull. They love it here. Who can blame them?

The Ulva Ferry Community electric car.

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