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Finding the Fossil Tree on the Isle of Mull
Finding the Fossil Tree on the Isle of Mull

The place

Mull is the second-largest island in the Inner Hebrides, after Skye. Like so many islands it’s a wonderful place to escape with a character completely different from the mainland. It is also surprisingly varied, perfectly-sized for exploring, with a mountainous interior topped by Ben More at 966 metres, many beautiful lochs and beaches and the colourful town of Tobermory, home to the island’s only single malt distillery, at its northern tip. Rich in wildlife, Mull boasts 2,388 different species of plant and 261 species of bird. Around its 300 miles of coastline you might spot seals, otters, porpoises, minke whales and basking sharks.

Ardmeanach (Middle Promontory) lies on Mull’s west coast: isolated, inaccessible by car and with a high, craggy headland at the peninsula’s westernmost point. Viewed across the water from Bunessan, on the Ross of Mull to the south, the cliffs, formed by volcanic activity some 60 million years ago and sculpted by waves and weather, drop in a series of giant steps to the sea below. This is a place that feels wild, ancient and untouched with few settlements and some fascinating geology to discover.

The adventure

MacCulloch’s Fossil Tree lies in a hidden cove right at the end of the precipitous headland. This vast tree, thought to be a conifer engulfed by flowing lava 55 million years ago and since exposed by erosion, was first discovered by geologist John MacCulloch in 1811 and described in his 1819 book, ‘A description of the Western Isles of Scotland’. Although it has been pillaged over the years by those wishing to own a part of this incredible piece of the earth’s history, the remaining fossilised parts of the tree and its impression in the towering coastal wall is vast and awe-inspiring.

It’s approaching 6 miles each way from the car park at Tiroran. We started out on mountain bikes, soaking up the glorious views as we rode on pleasant, and mostly downhill, coastal trails as far as Burg, managed by the National Trust for Scotland. Leaving the bikes here we continued at a run, first on grassy tracks and then on a narrow, vague path winding between the sea to our left and the towering crags to our right. At this point it felt like a real adventure, requiring a good level of fitness and a cool head, particularly when faced with some decent-sized landslides and rockfall, none of which looked recent but still served as a reminder of the unstable and unpredictable nature of those huge cliffs.

Eventually we arrived at a ladder, corroded and slightly concerning, leading to the beach below. A careful descent brought us to a beach of amazing hexagonal basalt columns, shaped by the cooling of ancient magma. A couple of hundred metres of boulder hopping followed before we reached the first of two vast waterfalls that thundered down the cliffs onto the beach, filling the air with fine spray. Past these, rounding a cliff, we finally discovered the tree itself, towering above us: strange, beautiful, truly awe-inspiring. We spent a long time simply standing there in silence, gazing up at the tree and taking in a place unlike anything we had ever experienced before.

If you’re heading for Mull, MacCulloch’s Fossil Tree is incredible, and well worth a visit, but the experience of getting there is an adventure in its own right. There’s a wealth of information and lots of stunning photos of this part of Mull on the excellent My Life Outside blog.

The weather

Cool, calm and dry. This would be an epic undertaking in bad weather and, due to its remote, coastal nature, we would highly recommend picking good conditions.

Eat, drink, sleep

This adventure lends itself perfectly to self-sufficiency. Take plenty of supplies. Bivvy or wild camp under the stars (but well away from potential rock fall). Drink in all of its wild beauty and return changed by the experience. Otherwise, the Whitetail Gin distillery and cafe and the Tiroran hotel and self-catering cottages are perfectly-placed at the start.

Kit

This would also make a good run from the car park, but our hardtail mountain bikes made the first few miles quicker and easier. Shoes with good grip are essential.

Don’t miss

South of Ardmeanach, the Ross of Mull is an equally stunning, yet completely different, place to explore. Watch the sun set over the white, sandy beaches at Fionnphort with views across to Iona.


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