Saturday 19 August 2017

The Small Isles - Isle of Muck

Leaving for Muck

Monday morning.
Low, dark clouds hung over Mallaig accompanied by a light breeze and drizzle as I waited to board the ferry MV Loch Nevis at the pier. This time my destination was the Isle of Muck. I was to stay in this tiny island, the smallest of the small isles, for the next two nights. There wasn't an option of leaving Muck any earlier even if I wanted to. The next ferry to the island did not arrive before Wednesday.

Mallaig, Fisherman and Child
Sailing out from Mallaig - the Fisherman and Child
The sea was relatively calm despite the wet weather and I dared to indulge in a bacon roll stashed with a hash brown and a fried egg, all purchased on the ferry. Calmac serves a delectable range of hot food on board and the serving lady was equally charming. I kept bumping into her through the week during my island hopping on the ferry. She always greeted with a friendly smile, asking about my adventures in her adorable Scottish accent.

Ferry approaching a very misty Eigg
After a two hour ride which included a brief stopover in Eigg, the ferry reached Muck at half past noon. A few people were waiting at the pier. I was the only person disembarking, so possibly the only visitor to the island. I noticed a few warm goodbyes on the pier, but most of the people waiting were there to collect provisions arriving on the ferry. The island's weekly supply came in large packed boxes from the mainland which were quickly hauled into the waiting pickup vans. Island life is highly dependent on the ferry and bad weather can be difficult times for the residents. Ferries can remain cancelled for days. On one of my earlier trips to Rum was told by the residents about such a harsh winter they had faced a few years ago, when they discovered that soy milk didn't taste too bad but eventually running out of that too. (You can read about my visit on this post: On the Isle of Rum). There were no shops on Muck, and I was bringing my provisions for the stay.

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Port Mor

Isle of Muck
Boats at Port Mor
The ferry left soon, continuing on its journey to Rum. This was going to be its last stop before it returned to Mallaig for the day. I stared at the ferry for a while. There was no mobile network and my only connection to the main land had snapped. I was overcome by a sudden sense of isolation. This island was going to be my home for the next two days.

It didn't take long to be spotted as an outsider on an island of less than thirty people. As I stood amidst all the boxes, feeling somewhat lost, a young woman approached me and asked my name. She said she was the neighbour and was stepping in for the lady of the bunkhouse who had gone to the mainland. Being the close knit community the islands are known for, this was quite normal.

The bunkhouse was only a short distance from the pier, an elongated single storey house with whitewashed walls and a sloping roof. There were two entrances from the road. The first one led to rooms not part of the bunkhouse and were residential quarters to a man living on his own. The second entrance led into a small, yet very neat entrance hall. The door from the hall opened into a rectangular lounge area, with the kitchen at one end, the dining in the middle and the sitting area at the other end. The windows faced the sea. There were three rooms, one with a double bed and two with bunk beds. The bathroom was shared. Being the sole occupant, I was allowed the double room.

I cooked myself a lazy lunch, hoping for the weather to dry up. The drizzle did stop and I was out for my afternoon walk.

Vehicles are not allowed on any of the small isles and only the locals can have one by special permit. But a visitor to the island definitely does not need one. Muck is really small, only a mile by two miles in dimension. The only road on the island is a one and half miles stretch that connects the main settlement of Port Mor, where I was staying, to the farm at Gallanach to the north of the island. It is possible to walk along the coast, a nine miles circuit, which I was planning to do the next day.


Being mostly flat, Muck is suited for pleasant walking. The population is limited to two points on the island, Port Mor and Gallanach, with a couple of isolated houses in between. The remaining land is used for farming, the main livelihood of the island. I took the road to Gallanach, walking past green fields dotted with sheep. The spectacular cliffs of Eigg dominated the view on my right.

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Flat with some hills

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Sheep dotting the grassland

Eigg under clouds, with farmland and sheep

Isle of Muck, Scotland
A poser

Isle of Muck, Scotland
These are very ferocious hens
I had a moment of panic when a large flock of hens apparently took a keen interest in me. Running away from a bunch of clucking chickens is probably something I hadn't considered as a life saving feat before Approaching Gallanach, a herd of cows was blocking my way, with a prominent bull at the centre in a clear attempt to multiply his brood. Not wanting to distract his attention, I left the road and headed over to the cliffs by the coast. The clouds had started to clear by now and the isle of Rum stood straight ahead, across the sea. Though the distinct peaks of the Rum Cuillin were still remained out of sight.

I came off the cliffs onto a white sand beach. This was Gallanach. I could see Rum straight ahead, still mostly obscured by the clouds, Eigg to my right and then a little to the left were the flat tops of Horse Island (Eilean nan Each in Gaelic), an extension of Muck. Walking through the sand, I reached a grassy knob jutting out into the sea. I rested on the grass, surrounded by water, taking in the spectacular views. A white pony was galloping on the white sand. I was still watching the beauty when through the corner of my eye, noticed tiny heads blobbing from the water. Curious eyes were staring at me from all around.

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Locals blocking the road with Horse Island in the background

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Racing pony

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Gallanach beach

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Bobbing heads
Muck has a big population of grey seals and the cute animals were weighing up the intrusion into their territory. I did not want to distract them from their fishing.  Rested, I headed further north towards the Horse island. On the way I gained the company of a playful Border Collie. She wanted to play catch and kept picking up stones and pieces of wood and dropping them at my feet. Eventually when she dragged a stick twice my length, I decided to quit. A sad pair of eyes kept looking at me as I clambered up from the beach onto the cliffs through rocks and mud. It was a lot of mud and did not seem like a normal way to go through, but I could not find a better route.

The pleading eyes and the stone at her feet

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Eigg from Gallanach

Isle of Muck, Scotland
The beach from the cliffs
A bronze age cairn looked out to the Horse Island at the top. The sun was out now and the golden light washed the sweeping landscape in a beautiful glow. Muck suddenly looked different. I had read that at low tide it is possible to walk down to the Horse Island, but it wasn't a remote possibility at this time of the day. The rocks were busy with gulls and other sea birds. A flock of geese were flying around in perfect formation.  It was late afternoon and time to head back to the bunkhouse.

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Bronze age cairn  with Horse Island in the background

Isle of Muck, Scotland
The cairns

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Looking back at the beach

Isle of Muck, Scotland
The sun-kissed cliffs

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Muck rolling fields
Isle of Muck, Scotland
Golden light sweeps over Muck as Eigg is covered in cloud

Back to Port Mor and the bunkhouse

Isle of Muck, Scotland
A pheasant scurries through the grass

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Sing a song
Isle of Muck, Scotland
The last light of the day

The night was quiet and it was very dark.
Though I was staying in the island's main settlement, looking out of the window I realised not many people were on the island at the moment. None of the houses in my view had any lights on. The sky had a thick cloud cover, so my hope of catching the possible northern lights were washed away too. After food, I relaxed with a book on the couch, with just a reading light on. I could not see the other end of the lounge in the darkness. There was no mobile network and no wi-fi, some of the basic amenities we have got so used to in our day to day life. There was no television either. A lone radio stood on the table.

It was a calm night but could still occasionally hear the sea outside the window. Calls of night birds were interrupting the silence. I walked to the main entrance to lock the door, but opened it first for a look. It was pitch dark and I felt a shiver run down my spine. I shut the door and looked for a lock. There wasn't any, not even a latch. It's not that I haven't stayed in unlocked hostels before, but being on my own gave a wild twist to my imagination. I figured it was a good time to snuggle into bed. Of course there was no lock on the bedroom door either.

The second day

The morning was overcast. The clouds had returned after a brief respite.
After breakfast I started on my coastal walk, a nine miles circuit around the island. I started by heading towards An Maol, the most north easterly headland of Muck. Though the cloud was low, visibility wasn't bad for a cloudy day. Eigg and Rum dominated the sky across the sea and even a bit of Skye was peaking between the islands.

A couple of ponies were grazing against this grand background. It is said that the Rum ponies are bred on Muck, so probably these were a couple of them.

Cloudy morning at An Maol, Rum up ahead

Ponies grazing

Walking by the coast through the farmland meant crossing barbed wire fences multiple times. There are gates or steps built in the fence for this purpose, which unfortunately I failed to find. Eventually I ended up climbing through them instead. I tried my best to do so without damaging the posts or the wires and at the same time trying not to get tangled in them. Did not have much success in the latter though. I knew I was taking home a few souvenirs on my bare arms. I could imagine that the friendly residents would not be very happy about visitors romping through farmland and backyards, climbing fences and damaging their property. Add to that Muck has substantial wild land which are breeding ground for birds. I was approaching Gallanach when a terrified bird flapped out of the bushes ahead of me. I had not realised I had walked into breeding territory. Trying not to disturb any more wildlife, I managed to find a safe passage out. I was trying to be a responsible visitor, but was probably failing at it.

Back at Gallanach, I spotted some seals on the rocks at a distance and tried to get closer. Scrambling through rocks and seaweed, I took off my shoes and walked into ankle deep freezing water, still keeping a safe distance so as not to bother them. I waited for the seals to settle down. The patience eventually paid off and I got a few photographs.

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Basking seals

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Spotted a seal colony

From Gallanach I headed south this time on the opposite side of the island to complete the circuit, first through farmland bog until I reached the wild grassland. The highest point of Muck rises to about 450 ft at Beinn Airein. There is a sheep path winding through the gates which can be followed to the top. I never found the path and as always happens with me, I ended up walking the steepest possible incline up the hill. It was short scramble to the top and I was presented with grand views. Both Rum and Eigg were visible through the low cloud, but this time more as islands than a dominating shape up in the sky. In the south, the views opened towards the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the mainland. It was windy at the top, so decided to have my lunch in a sheltered area at the bottom. Only on the way down did I find the easier but long winding path to the top I should have taken.

The panoramic vies coming down from Beinn |Aerein

I had my packed lunch looking out south. The sea was beautiful and the black and white sheep spotted the lush green grassland.

My lunch stop views

I then continued following the coast back to Port Mor. The cliffs are home to sea birds and walking past I could hear their shrill cries. The treeless land of Muck rolls as far as the eyes can see, interrupted by fences and stone walls which need to be carefully manoeuvred. It is difficult to lose your way in this tiny island as following the coastline will always bring you back to where you started from. However, the cliffs can be treacherous as I found out a few times so have to be careful at the edges as there can be sharp drops. The absence of mobile network adds to the challenge and during my entire day out in the island, I never met anyone. Standing on the rugged cliffs, I realised I have never felt as isolated as I felt then. The cloudy day only enhanced the melancholy mood.  

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Muck coastal path

Isle of Muck, Scotland
The cliffs can be treacherous

Isle of Muck, Scotland
A shag on the cliffs

Isle of Muck, Scotland
Wild geese

Isle of Muck, Scotland
More sheep to end the day

End of the visit

The second night at the bunkhouse I felt more at ease than my first. I had completed my almost two days on the island and was now heading to Eigg.

On Wednesday the pier looked as busy as it was on the day I arrived. Since I landed on Monday and was shown into my bunkhouse, I had not met another human being. The local farm animals and the wildlife was all I had for company. Many a time I was left with the feeling that I was the only person on the island. This added to the feeling of isolation I already had from the knowledge of not having a ferry connection.

Probably it was the timing, the week before Easter which made this experience so unique. The visitors were yet to arrive and it didn't feel like a busy time for farming either. Only the arrival of the ferry woke up the community from their slumber. At the pier I was asked by the locals how my visit went. I did not have words to explain my feelings. But probably they already knew.

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