Mull’s famous fossil tree (Part 2): Walking to the site

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Rosalind Jones (France)

In Part 1 (Mull’s famous fossil tree (Part 1): Chrissie and the tree), I described the events surrounding the unique fossilisation of an Eocene redwood tree in Mull’s famous Staffa suite of volcanic rocks. In this part, I will take you on a walk to the fossil tree.

As enjoying Mull’s magnificent scenery is one of those ‘never to be forgotten’ experiences, choose a fine day to visit and come prepared with a camera and picnic.

Fig. 1. The view across Loch Scridain from Ardtun towards the fossil tree location at Rubha na h Uamha.

But, be advised, Mull’s weather is very changeable, as acknowledged in two Mull sayings:

If you don’t like Mull’s weather, just wait twenty minutes’ and ‘In Mull you can experience all four seasons in one day”.

Both sayings are true, so sturdy shoes or boots and wet-weather clothes are essential, unless you are blessed by a Mull heat wave and drought.

If staying on Mull, make your way to Tiroran but, if over just for the day, drive from Craignure or Fishnish ferry ports, via Glen More to Kinloch.

Fig. 2. An autumnal view of Ben More from Tiroran, taken at the start of the walk to Burg and the tree.

Turn right onto the B8035 for the pretty hamlet of Tiroran, then left at the converted Kilfinichen chapel. Cross the bridge over the River Abhainn Bail’ a Mhuilin to enter Ardmeanach – where it feels as though you’ve entered a time-warp. Drive round the bay and up into woodland. You will glimpse Tiroran House and then its old farm square before rattling across a cattle grid and onwards to a well sign-posted Scottish National Trust car park. Because of the state of the road, you must park here before commencing the 12-mile return trip.

Fig. 3. Most people will pass Kinloch on their way to Tiroran to commence their walk to the fossil tree.

It’s a wonderful walk in fine weather, but testing if wet and windy. First, a wooded avenue shades the track, which opens up past a left turn to Co-leathadon and Scobull cottages, before climbing a steep hill to the old Scobull schoolhouse. From here, a shorter, uphill stretch leads to four cairns, each representing a generation of Chrissie MacGillivray’s family.

Fig. 4. The four MacGillivray Cairns at Scobul. Burg lies in the far distance.

Formerly a resting place for coffins on their way to Kilfinichen graveyard, this was where the deceased had their last ‘view’ of home. You will see Burg House at the far end of the threadlike track, a small white speck, situated between glittering Loch Scridain and Ardmeanach’s stepped summit.

Beyond, on a conical promontory, sits the ancient fort of Dun Bhuirg. But you won’t see the tree yet. It lies hidden at Burg’s farthest tip. Continue westward. In winter and early spring, the ‘Namestone’ (a huge boulder beyond a wall on the left of the track) can be seen, etched with barely discernible names of generations of Scobull school-children.

Lovers met by this stone during long summer nights. In summer, you can see the ruined walls of black-houses just emerging above the rampant bracken (in winter, they stand out starkly from the ground) and, further on, just to the right of the track, is the ruined township of Culliemore. These ruins were once homes thatched with oat straw, for oats grew where bracken infests today. The potato famine and then the Clearances, when clan chiefs and landowners saw profit in sheep not people, resulted in this township’s demise. In 1841, 35 people lived at Culliemore but, by 1851, all had gone.

Eventually, the road zig-zags down, passing surging waterfalls, onto Tavool House, now a Hebridean Outdoor Pursuits Centre. Streams converge to form the torrent of Abhainn Beul-ath an Tairbh that ends in a stony delta. Go round Tavool’s garden, continue past a deep gully and on into mature woodland where you may feel an unexpected frisson, for there are stories of fairies and ghosts at Tavool and some today still believe in them – from personal experience.

Continue across the wooden bridge over the stream and walk out onto the open moor to reach Burg’s March gate at Allt na Criche ford. Just inside Burg’s March are the remains of a cottage that may one day be restored. In her youth, Chrissie knew Sarah McNeil, its landless cottar and, in old age, Chrissie had a recurring dream that one day Sarah’s cottage would be lived in again.

Cross the ford and enter Burg. The hillsides here once grew oats and hay – during World War II, the NTS ran Burg as an experimental farm, admired and coveted by scores of farmers from mainland Scotland who witnessed bracken clearing experiments that were Burg’s unique war effort. Around the shoulder of the hill, there is a full view of Burg House with the old farm beyond. Built in 1922, the house (a Grade II listed building) was continuously inhabited until 1989 when Chrissie died. The corrugated iron-clad, timber-frame house, with its front storm porch and later kitchen and ‘dairy’ extension, is small in size but has welcomed thousands of strangers, many of whom were warmed (and sometimes revived) beside its black-leaded range. Today, it is lived in again, just as Chrissie would have wanted, by her great nephew David Livingston and his wife Mary.

Fig. 5. Chrissie Burg with the Waterstone Goblet, a Caithness glass bowl engraved with scenes of Burg, awarded for being the longest serving custodian for the National Trust for Scotland.

Continue along the farm track that has been worn to knobbly basalt core stones by centuries of use. Ahead, the ‘Bothy’ was where Chrissie, six living brothers and one sister, were born and raised. Today, it is used as accommodation for Trust Youth Volunteer camps and for private hire. It consists of two modest rooms, including a tiny box bedroom, and also an outside ‘bathroom’ with a fierce chute of chill spring water. The disused fank (sheep pen) nearby once teemed with blackface sheep driven down from the heights to be clipped or dipped. Quiet today, it once rang with Gaelic voices. Look out for the hillock with its cairns in memory of Chrissie and her brother Duncan.

Fig. 6. Chrissie was the custodian of the fossil tree.

They stand above Burg’s jetty, where steamers bringing essential stores once anchored and Burg’s own boats were launched. The level area beyond once produced Burg’s best arable crops and wartime photos record fields of turnips, waist-high oats and neatly coiled hay. Today, nature has reclaimed them all. See also the Iron Age fort of Dun Bhuirg. Now, just remnants of thick lower walls, it once commanded the entrance of Loch Scridain. The MacGillivrays used it as a bonfire site to summon the doctor in Bunessan in emergencies. Submarines secretly surfaced around here in World War II.

From here onwards, the walk is one for the sure-footed, with cliffs towering above a narrow goat’s track. Many people retrace their steps here. Others, footsore and often wet, forge on. Scramble down to the cobble beach and grass flats of Ros-dail and pass another, older fank. Skirt cliffs and rubbly screes, but pause to admire the pool-studded shore where basalt columns form tiny islands. Continue on past coves with caragheen-covered rocks, and sea caves frequented by wild goats. You may see red deer silhouetted against the skyline and hear friendly choughs (a type of crow) calling from the heights. Eventually, after a memorable walk, you will reach a ladder secured to the cliff.

Fig. 7. National Trust for Scotland manager for Burg installing a safety rail for the ladder to the fossil tree.

Its descent requires sure feet and a firm grip – especially if wet. If you suffer from vertigo or have a dog with you, go back and scramble down the cliff at an accessible point if the tide is low but, at high tide, you have no choice, so hold on tight. Once down, it’s not far to the tree. Streams plummet from the heights but, at last, between the cascades at Rubha na h-Uamha, alone in its pebbly cove, you will find the tree.

Walk to the water’s edge to admire the forty-foot-high cast that is capped by cement, with just six feet of partially carbonised and silicified trunk remaining. Small columns radiate from the trunk where they cooled against its living tissues millions of years ago. Some people think they look like branches, but these are long gone. Rocks on the potholed shore are the remains of the volcanic deposit of ash, bombs and assorted ejectamenta from the same eruption that engulfed the giant redwood. If footsore, relax by a convenient rock pool and cool off in the refreshing seawater.

Many try to imagine that searing day when Mull was ablaze, which is quite a feat when cold Atlantic waves swash up the cobbles. However, before you turn back to retrace your steps (the only safe way to return), look out to sea. The view out over Mull’s fringing islands is worth all the effort of the walk and you will feel immeasurably enriched. See the wedge-shaped island of Staffa, a black spot marking Fingal’s Cave at its near end. Its famous hexagonal and polygonal columns are from the same voluminous outpouring and underlain by the same volcanic sediment as the tree. The olivine rich Staffa Suite of lavas covers 13 square miles, taking in Ardtun, Burg and Staffa. With Fingal’s Cave immortalised musically by Felix Mendelssohn, it’s another geological marvel that should be visited.

Fig. 8. If visitors stay a day longer or if they walk back across the top of Ardmeanach from the fossil tree, they could be rewarded with this view of Ben More from the top of Ardmeanach.

As you return past Burg House, remember Chrissie who gave so many strangers refreshing cups of tea. If you find Mary Livingston at home, she may be pleased to do the same. She might even sell you, in aid of The National Trust for Scotland, a copy of my book, Tea with Chrissie.

Would you like to visit Mull – a ‘Mecca’ for geologists?

The Isle of Mull has such varied geology that it provides endless interest for anyone fascinated by Earth science. But Mull’s wildlife is another good reason to visit. You could see golden and sea eagles, otters, red deer, minke whales, porpoises, dolphins, seals and basking sharks, as well as numerous species of seabirds, including puffins, guillemots and shearwaters.

Craigmore Cottages offer comfortable, self-catering accommodation for couples, at moderate prices. Privately situated in the most central position from which to tour Mull they offer geologists, naturalists and bird watchers the perfect location for an exciting, interest-based holiday.

See: for a slide show of Mull and virtual tour of Craigmore Cottages. See also: for books about Mull.

Further reading

Scottish Fossils, by Nigel H Trewin, Brocken Dunedin Academic Press Ltd, Edinburgh (2013), 118 pages (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-780460-019-2

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