The Islands of the Inner Hebrides Offer Encounters with Orcas & Sea Eagles, as well as Puffin Therapy!
Iain Morrison is skipper of Turus Mara, a family business that runs wildlife boat trips from their base on Scotland’s Isle of Mull. The second largest island of the Inner Hebrides, Mull lies off the west coast of Scotland. It is the fourth largest Scottish island and has a year-round population of about 2,600.
Iain, a native of Mull, founded Turus Mara in 1973 after ten-years in the Merchant Navy. The company’s name is Gaelic for “a journey or excursion by the sea.” Mull has a coastline of 300 miles with numerous outlying islands and Iain has been exploring this terrain since he was a wee boy.
Iain has made a career out of doing something he loves while sharing his passion for Scotland’s spectacular scenery and wildlife with visitors. Let him introduce you to the wonders of Mull and its neighboring islands, as well as acquaint you with some of the area’s history. Last but not least, see if you might qualify for some Puffin Therapy!
Meg: How has your life on the Isle of Mull shaped you as a person?
Iain: Mull’s influence on me is a very difficult question to answer objectively. I am emotionally attached to every rock and rivulet, loch and forest, creature, on land, in the air and on the sea around. I am possibly able to be more laid back and relaxed as a result of having the privilege of being my own boss, having created a living in these natural surroundings and doing a job which I still enjoy after 40+ years. When I see people “trying” to holiday, but still showing symptoms and stress of the rat race from which they are trying to escape, I often explain to them how, here in these islands, there is more time than anywhere else in the world. I believe that the penny drops occasionally.
I enjoy people, particularly those who are clearly appreciative and in awe of the wildness and beauty, which we may sometimes take for granted. They remind us of why we are not commuting on the M25 every day. On perfect summer days I have often been asked: “What’s it like to have the best job in the world?” Such questions remind me how lucky I am and that I should not complain about my lot, but of course I do. The definition of a well-balanced Scotsman is said to be “a man with a chip on both shoulders!”
Meg: Mull and the other islands that make up the Inner Hebrides are spectacular. I imagine every day is a delight but can you share a few glimpses of nature here that really stand out for you?
Iain: Over the years, I have encountered orca on many occasions. There can be few more impressive sights than a pod of several killer whales “on their way.” They are purposeful and constant, the course line rarely wavers and having had difficulty keeping up with a group one evening in a 30 knot RIB, I know that their capacity for speed is quite phenomenal. Over the years, I have had many sightings of some amazing creatures of the deep, both inshore and on the oceans which I experienced as a deck officer for ten years in the Merchant Navy.
I have seen ocean whales and sharks, I’ve counted 250 turtles on a four-hour watch, all heading north somewhere off the Coast of Africa. There are many species of dolphins, we have whales, sunfish, porpoises, but perhaps the most unusual for us off the west of Mull, in 2004, was a massive leatherback turtle gorging on a jellyfish bloom. It’s good that something likes them – the jellyfish that is. Turtles are now being tagged and tracked by satellite. You can follow them on a website. They traverse thousands of miles and have been found as far north as the Arctic Circle.
Ten basking shark breaches gave us a memorable hour one sunny afternoon lying off Staffa– they jump clean out of the water and land sideways with an enormous splash.
On land, coming in off the hill at dusk, I was startled by the swish of a large air movement about 10 metres away. A couple of seconds later, I realised I had surprised a golden eagle digesting his evening rabbit. I’m not sure which of us got the bigger fright but the power off this huge bird in achieving take-off was impressive if not downright scary!
Meg: I understand that Mull has been repopulated with Sea Eagles, which had gone extinct here almost one hundred years ago.
Iain: While Sea Eagles are a wonderful attraction to these islands, I am concerned that we have now reached saturation point. Last season, in May, we witnessed two juvenile Sea Eagles plundering the bird life, amongst them, puffins, on Lunga, the main breeding island. I believe they may also eventually have a detrimental effect on other important species for which Mull is famous, particularly Golden Eagles, which gain in quality what they give away in size, to the “Barn Doors.”[Ed Note: the local nick-name for the huge Sea Eagles.]
I have no doubt that sea eagle proponents will disagree with me on this. Just ask them what the farmers think about their loss of lambs every spring.
Meg: What kind of effect does the change in season have on wild life here?
Iain: Turus Mara season begins at Easter and continues to the end of October. Seabirds such as auks (puffins, razorbills, guillemots) are established ashore by the end of April. Breeding continues to mid- July when chicks begin to leave the ledges. By the end of July, most will have left for sea, puffins a few days later, leaving just kittiwakes and a few shags. We know there are Storm Petrels in the boulder beach but as they are nocturnal we never see them ashore, only well offshore and that during rough or strong wind days.
We take a bunch of scientists out to The Treshnish Isles every year. During the last week of June, they count and ring as many feathered friends as the Atlantic weather systems allow. The results are passed to the British Trust for Ornithology. Anyone wishing access to this info can Google Treshnish Isles Auk Ringing Group or TRIARG for short (almost).
Common seal pups arrive in June, Atlantic Grey seals have theirs in September and October. Various “possibles” such as dolphins, whales, sharks, porpoise, sunfish, yachtsmen, can appear at any time throughout the season. We had more than 30 sightings of bottle nose dolphins last year.
Islands Have Distinct Personalities Ranging from Hot-Headed to Serene
Meg: Would you say the different islands in the area have distinct personalities?
Iain: Staffa is hot-headed one day, calm and placid the next. Staffa is mostly dramatic, theatrical, a bit of a diva, and the public throng to see this prima donna in all her moods. The Atlantic Ocean drives thunderous waves to ruffle her petticoats. On a few petulant days, she gets violent and refuses to let us visit. A couple of days go by and we are invited, with charm and innocence, to return, previous tantrums discarded on the tide.
From a distance, Lunga is serene, a royal ocean liner with attendant sycophantic small craft trying to keep up. Lunga is big enough to create her own protection and can be two-faced, all sweetness and light in her calm, crazy and violent on the weather side. Then go ashore and the mothering instinct shows when she is playing host to ten thousand breeding seabirds on her ledges and in her burrows.
Ulva is beautiful with an infinite variety of flora and fauna but also a dark and murky past which, for those of us who “feel” this history, the effect of detracting from its paradise potential is always lurking. The bare weathered stone walls of ruined villages have echoes of barefoot children, the laughter and strife of long forgotten families, the imprint of a rich but swamped culture. Ulva’s current “old school” landlords show little sign of wishing to bring it into the 21st Century. People are still unimportant for some.
Iona has an aura of peace, a wee jewel in the Western Ocean. The unvisited and untouched parts of Iona, the colourful beaches in the south and west, the relentless swells are all there to be enjoyed. Although a few hundred thousand visitors step ashore on Iona each year, hardly any venture into these wilder and more exposed areas. There is a spiritualism about the island which I sense despite not having a single religious cell in my entire body.
Meg: I felt that peacefulness on Iona. I think my blood pressure actually dropped a few degrees coming across to Mull on the ferry.
Iain: In recent research of ill-health and obesity, Nature Deficit Disorder became a medically recognised problem of the 21st Century. Addiction to gaming and that invisible glue emanating from the PC screen, can result in human bodies that rarely venture out among the infinite variety of natural wonders on their doorstep.
I coined the term “Puffin Therapy” having observed for many years how cheered up and stimulated lots of sedentary city folk became, while, and after communing with puffins. Here on the Isle of Mull in the West of Scotland, we see this phenomenon on a daily basis during the months of May to August, when Fratercula Arctica return to breed on The Treshnish Isles. Puffins are posers with a unique sense of the photogenic and strangely, very little fear of us lumbering homo sapiens. The result, we can leave huge zoom lenses at home when these wee comics do their “best profile” for you at less than a metre.
A Mini Tutorial on Crofting & Clearances
Meg: I must say I have found the Scots’ sense of humor to be a highlight of my travels here…but the country’s Highlands and islands have had their share of history that is less light-hearted. I know you live in the croft house you were born in. Can you explain what crofting is?
Iain: The formation of crofting from mediaeval times to its current situation is a very “heavy lift” subject. Essentially, it could be described as a small scale pastoral farming system, which evolved through socioeconomic necessity. Perhaps it was the sop which kept revolution at bay in the face of exploitation and “cannon fodder” use of the people by centuries of unscrupulous landlords. To hugely leap to our current family situation, the 1975 Crofting Act gave crofting tenants the right to buy at very reasonable rates and so we are no longer subjects of an anachronistic feudal system. It is not all bad. A friend of mine is convener of the new Crofting Commission which is doing great work in bringing the system screaming and kicking into the present day.
Meg: Traveling across Mull and other parts of Scotland I’ve seen abandoned croft houses, which I understand were left behind during the Clearances. Can you talk a little bit about that time period?
Iain: Clearances has to come under the same heading as a “heavy lift” subject. Clan Chiefs who had been father figures, benefactors, caretakers of their extended families, had their heads turned by the extravagances and luxurious living in the courts of the South of England and Europe. This was largely due to the influence of having the first communal monarch in 1603. James VI of Scotland and 1st of England transferred focus from the seat of power in Edinburgh to London.
Rents were raised to impossible levels. The kelp (seaweed) industry collapsed, and the potato famine and overpopulation for the resources available meant impoverishment for many. Evictions – in some cases, the people were burnt out of their homes by unscrupulous, uncaring landlords. Many were packed into ships headed for the North American Continent and Australia. Many did not make it.
We operate Turus Mara boats from the Ulva Ferry slip, from which a little ferry plies to the Island of Ulva. During the mid-nineteenth century, the owner of Ulva, his name was Clark- and despicably, Sheriff of Argyll for a time, was responsible for some of the worst of these atrocities. On the personal side, my grandfather, from Suisnish in Skye, was evicted with his family, as a boy of 9 years old. He passed on our disgust of that appalling inhumanity to his descendants.
Growing up on the Isle of Mull
Meg: What was life like for you as a wee boy on Mull?
Iain: My earliest memories are of battling through West Coast winter wind and rain on an exposed road called Cnoc Gobhar(Goat Hill) at the age of four, on the way to school each day. My mother was the teacher so she was there preventing me from being blown over the moors. Occasionally, there would be a lift from a crazy local on his motorbike. He would sit me on the tank in front, my mother sat on the pillion behind him and he conducted shouted conversations with her, generally swearing about the weather, but more worryingly, it seemed to me, never really looking ahead as he swung this noisy, smelly contraption around the hairpins.
The school, called Mornish Primary, was a mile from any other habitation, with heather covered hills for a back drop. In summer months during the lunch hour, the class, varying in number between four and a dozen, ages 5 to 12, would go off on adventures and play in these hills, occasionally finding ourselves a mile away when my mother rang her large bell for the end of the break. On warm days, the classes would be held outside on the grassy playground. One part was fenced off as a vegetable patch. We grew our own and learned about nature and survival long before it became “fashionable.”
Having parents who were both Gaelic-speaking and an old lady taking care of me during the day who spoke very little English, meant that school was confusing at first. The other children were mono and I was sort of bilingual. Within two years, peer group pressure had taken its toll and sadly, I was denying my knowledge of Gaelic. Much to my chagrin, a gentleman who was going round schools assessing the language would have handed me a 10 shilling note if I had answered him in my native tongue, a small fortune for a six year-old in 1953!
Meg: Do you remember how old you were when you first went out on the water by yourself?
Iain: I cannot recall when I would have gone out in a boat by myself. I would go fishing in our 13-foot wooden boat with my father from the age of four. He rowed while I sat on a tobhta–a plank set across the gunwales at the stern–with four bamboo rods which had fixed lines with white feather lures. The rods were tucked under the plank. When a fish took, I would swing the line back to my father who would remove it from the hook and I would return the line to trolling behind. On one occasion, when all rods were jigging at once, the excitement must have got the better of me, resulting in the rod being hauled away too quickly and my father having a hook firmly embedded in his hand. This type of accident must have been a common occurrence at the time. The local doctor had developed a special tool for the job of removing fish hooks from flesh and made short work of the gory operation.
The smell of tar still brings back memories of going out in that little boat. Bottoms were tarred to keep the water out – not always successfully! Fishing lines were also preserved with some similar substance. The excitement of glimpsing six mackerel flashing in all directions as you hauled them to the surface made a big impression on wee boys. Needless to say, I developed an addiction at an early age for one of the tastiest fish in the sea, and for pottering in boats.
Meg: You spent a decade in the Merchant Navy. What was that like?
Iain: Going to sea was a way of trying to broaden one's view and experience of the outside world before it became common and much less expensive to strap on a backpack and wander, as is the habit of many young people today. “Joined the Navy to see the world and what did we see, we saw the sea” is a very true statement particularly in relation to the Merchant Navy.
Ship owners require turnaround in port to be as quick as possible leaving little time to sample the delights. Despite this, I was lucky to work for a ship management company which supplied us as personnel for different types of operators, resulting in a good variety of trades and destinations. Memories of a tour of Rio De Janeiro in 90 degrees, a Chinese New Year celebration on the boat deck in the same port, followed by an icebreaker escort into Sydney, Nova Scotia 17 days later, added variety to the job. The adventures of three weeks in Madras discharging a cargo of charity grain from Canada would require many more pages. I recall Muroran in the North Island of Japan had buildings to fit the small people who lived there. Six footers had to duck under the lintels, shop counters seemed to be just above knee level and the assistants sniggered behind their tiny white hands when I asked for a kimono suitable for a 38” bust and a pair of size 10 flip flops. All-in, I enjoyed the years at sea. Once family came along, it was best to come ashore. I am now rarely more than three miles from land.
Meg: I know Turus Mara is a family operation. How did you meet your wife?
Iain: I met my wife at a Saturday night dance in Craignure which we used to attend by first going to Tobermory pubs, having too much to drink and then racing cars 20 miles on suicidal single track roads for the last half hour of what might euphemistically be termed “dancing”, to a traditional Scottish dance band. The dances were not permitted to penetrate the Sabbath so they ended at midnight when the youthful spirits were just getting to their zenith and so the partying tended to continue in vehicles, houses, barns, once I recall, in a graveyard–probably as a dare. Seems like the significance of the dances’ ending time was lost on my generation of heathens. Anyway, I proposed to this new lady three weeks later and we have survived together for 41 years, have three brilliant children and four grandchildren with some more hatching. Sadly for us, the majority are currently in the Antipodes.
Meg: What is it like running a family business?
Iain: Having a family business with the office in our home has its pressures while the plus side of tourism in our latitude is that it begins in April and ends in October! It is satisfying to have holiday-makers genuinely thanking us for their day, raving about the wildlife, scenery and perhaps most of all, the fact that their expectations have been outdone. Making hobby into livelihood is always a good way to go.
The business will hopefully continue to support the family after I’ve had my fill of puffin therapy and Mendelssohn. My son skippers on one boat.
Perhaps on the down side, these seven months are intense, we operate seven days a week, the phone can ring at any time of night or day, we need to be able to think on our feet and, partly because we’ve been operating boats since just after Noah, deal with some distinctly odd queries as well as the mundane. This comes from knowing too much about your environment and its history. On good days, with a pleasant bunch who laugh at the skipper's jokes – it may well be one of the best jobs….Not that we can just put our feet up for the rest of the year. Boats have to go through three Maritime Coastguard Agency surveys per year so there is a fairly demanding maintenance schedule.
Meg: How has tourism changed Mull?
Iain: Mull’s population has nearly doubled from its lowest ebb of just 1600 in the sixties. Efficient ferries and transport systems, the preponderance of motor vehicles allowing people to go as and when they please, have all made Mull a busier place than fifty years ago. Tourism has gradually increased. The summer population may be treble the resident number. There will be few living on Mull whose life is not touched in some way by that industry. Mull is accessible for urbans who, through the miracles of TV and various social media communications, gradually learn a little about the outdoors and our abundant wildlife, coming out in the tradition of the great pioneering explorers to view the natives and their quaint little animals. Healthy cynicism is a prerequisite for survival in our business!
Academic conservationists then try to impose this limited knowledge by creating “codes of practice” and regulation to preserve their newly-discovered nature. It is surprising that evolution took place over these last few million years without them.
We, as do many parts of this country (I talk of Scotland), find we live in a more disparate society than half a century ago. As a child, I grew up in a community which had shared background, work and culture, with relatively little outside interference or dilution for hundreds of years. There is now a concern for the loss of the social cohesion which existed naturally in these rural localities. This has resulted in rather futile attempts by authorities, both local and national to recreate communities in an artificial way – or as I see it, “from the outside.” While assistance with arts, cultural centres and improvements to village amenities are to be applauded, it is unlikely that the “oneness” of these old well-knit societies can be ever recreated. Change is, of course, inevitable but regrettable in some ways.
Mull’s tourism industry received its most important stimulus when a benefactor known as Cameron Sunderland, around 1964, contributed the sum of £30,000 specifically for the building of a new pier at Craignure, this being the nearest most convenient port to be served by Oban. Oban is a perfect natural harbor, well-served by road and rail and known as "he Gateway to The Islands." Improved accessibility began to increase visitor numbers, cars could drive on and off the ferries – eventually linkspans were built which speeded up the process and more visitors from the concrete jungle could arrive on these “remote shores” imagining themselves to be great pioneers of the 20th century.
Thankfully, unlike other areas of the world (Taiwan comes to mind), the evolution of tourism has been a gradual process. We do not have the infrastructure to cope with large numbers. Perhaps ferry costs and hence high prices keep the hordes at bay? There is a saying that these islands are saved by Cal Mac fares and the midges!
Meg: Would you say that you are a risk-taker?
Iain: If I was a risk taker I would not have an incident-free record of 41 years carrying the public, but it would be understandable if people thought that we must be slightly unbalanced when we take them alongside Staffa on days with a big swell. We do not perform this operation on our first visit!
I am probably not a natural businessman although categorized as one. In order to succeed in business, you have to be prepared to take some risks. We are lucky to have found and created a niche business which appeals to holiday-makers from all over the world.
Find out more about Turus Mara and Iain's wildlife cruise tours here: http://www.turusmara.com