Turus Mara means “excursion by sea” in the Gaelic language. It’s an apt name for the tour company that trolls the waters west of Mull, the Loch Na Keal National Scenic Area, taking in some of Scotland’s most geologically-interesting and wildlife-rich areas. A cadre of small islands including Staffa, Lunga, Gometra, and Iona pierce the waters between Mull and larger Tiree and Coll, many of them born of ancient lava flows. Gaelic-speakers of the past once inhabited these austere isles, but these days they’re left to the wiles of Atlantic Grey Seals, Puffins, Razorbills, and Guillemots. It’s the presence of this wildlife that’s made cruise tours around Mull big business.
I was nervous about my impending sea voyage; rain had lashed down for four straight days, and I couldn’t take anymore time lost to the waters, especially while at sea for six hours. The day dawned clear and bright, and I made the scenic drive from Tobermory to Ulva Ferry thanking the gods of sea and sky.
I arrived with plenty of time to spare and leaned against the stoney pier as Turus Mara’s Hoy Lass arrived. Turus Mara is a family business that Iain Morrison began in 1973 after years in the Merchant Navy. Having grown up on Mull in minuscule Penmore Mill, he sought a return to the crofting life. Livelihoods on the island had shifted from crofting to tourism, however, so Iain put his training to use by ferrying passengers around Mull’s spectacular small isles. Today, Iain’s training the next generation of Morrisons to continue Turus Mara’s excursions. The Hoy Lass is not a large boat, but it easily held the 20 or so passengers. Everyone of us filed up to the top deck for the best views, and, perhaps, to blunt possible seasickness.
Iain barked a few guidelines with playful sarcasm, said some things in Gaelic that bounced off my head, and then we were off on the hour-long journey to Staffa. With only high clouds, the views stretched across the waters and the small isles were immediately noticeable. Everybody on the top deck craned their heads this way and that way on the lookout for whales, seals, dolphins, and porpoises, and we actually saw a porpoise tailing the boat for a moment.
The arrival to Staffa was special. The island angles out of the water like a half-sunk freighter, and its hexagonal basalt columns crowd together like a handful of straws around the island’s middle layer. Staffa’s most famous feature is Fingal’s Cave, named after the warrior in an ancient Scottish epic, and we bobbed in the water in front of the cave as Iain played a few bars from Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture over the boat’s PA. The Hoy Lass proceeded to perform a tricking docking maneuver and offloaded all of us on Staffa.
I sat in the grass and ate an apple and then tromped around the turfy upper reaches. Rocky vistas punctuated the seascape, and I could hear the annals of history echoing in the surf. Later, I descended a precarious iron stair and picked my way across the surf-strewn rocks to the cave. I imagined I heard some semblance of the music that inspired Mendelssohn inside.
Ninety minutes later, the Hoy Lass returned and we boarded the ship with a seal and dolphin escort swimming in the bay. Next stop: the Treshnish Isles. The Treshnish Isles are an archipelago of small islands and skerries important to breeding seabirds and seals and devoid of human artifice. In fact, the only way to disembark on the islands is to use a floating pier that attaches to the boat. Iain’s crew hooked up the pier and we churned toward Lunga, a haven for breeding Atlantic Grey Seals. Stepping off the pier felt like finding an unexplored island.
Huge grey seals and small white pups lay among the seaweed-strewn rocks – I counted around 27 in all. I clambered over black boulders and up grassy hillsides to snap some photos. Iain had warned us not to get any closer than 10 yards to the pups, who are largely immobile and defenseless, because the adult seals might attack us. After seeing the impossibly cute pups, I felt guilty even being on the island. The Hoy Lass once again left us to our own devices. I found a spot on the grassy sward covering the cliffs on the southern part of the island and entered a rejuvenating meditative state.
We sailed back toward Ulva Ferry aboard the Hoy Lass as the sun started to set. The journey led us through more small isles, some with incredible concentrations of seals and others with the ruins of man’s previous ventures. Iain and the Turus Mara crew provided one of the most memorable experiences of my trip. It was an honor and privilege to visit such pristine and preserved places. And I know they’ll remain so under the respectful stewardship of businesses like Turus Mara.
Disclosure: Turus Mara provided me with a complimentary tour of Staffa and the Tresnish Isles. Special thanks to Neil of Holiday Mull & Iona for setting up the voyage. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.