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The bay from the upper town — very few boats in early spring
The fleshpots of Tobermory! Undoubtedly the prettiest village — or town — on the West Coast. Not to be missed. It has almost everything, particularly after a stormy day off Ardnamurchan: pubs, hotels, restaurants, showers, laundry, distillery, shops, walks, water, diesel, just hanging around at anchor or on the front. Once upon a time not so long ago there was only an anchorage, but then came the Tobermory Harbour Association (a not-for-profit community enterprise), moorings, and finally the pontoons (at a very reasonable price but avoid in northerlies) complete in 2008 with a parading otter named Elvis, sadly now dead. In 2012 another one appeared for a few months before dying in 2013. However, thanks to Deby Gliori's children's book, you can these days look out for the Tobermory Cat instead. The whole development has certainly tidied up this end of the bay, good for the local community, and it has made it much easier to find an anchoring spot under the trees in the old anchoring area which used to be hellish crowded, provided private moorings don't go on encroaching — which they seem to be (Tobermory harbour master please note). Of course if you want peace and quiet in Tobermory Bay then do your shopping and push off to Aros Bay or Doirlinn. Wherever you go, don't get too near the trees on a still night — midges!
Tobermory was toiling with Balamory fever in the early 2000s, inundated during the summer school holidays with families whose young children wanted to see all the sights from the popular BBC Scotland TV programme. That was fine up to a point, but it was not the real Tobermory until they all went back to Oban on the ferry (I am told they didn't bring much to the economy because they just came for the day, looked at the sights, ate their picnic lunch, and went away). Even now there are still the remains of Balamory fever to be seen in the shops selling colouring-in books and such like. PC Plum still lives, just!
Right above the pontoons you will find a laundry (revamped in 2013) in — to my eyes if not to those of many others — a less than attractive modern building (Taigh Solais). It looks like a cross between a lighthouse and a church. However, inside you will discover excellent toilets and showers (20p unless you get the code from the harbour master or a passing boatie after hours), and the Mull Aquarium. After a revamp in 2015 this last contains lots of interesting stuff, including the skeleton of Elvis. The staff are charming, and for kids there is a touch pool where they can handle marine creepy-crawlies, crabs and the like. It now boasts Europe's first catch and release aquarium where local fish (36 varieties) and other sea creatures are caught and returned to the sea after four weeks. The jellyfish tank, the movie, and particularly the topographical display made of shifting sand and clever computing are musts. You will find the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust along the main street, to browse in and report your sightings, if any.
MacGochan's pub is just a bit further along and so right in the path of visiting yachtsmen. In the past I have had slow service and the real ales had run out (a supply problem they said, but it has happened more than once to me). Maybe I was just unlucky, so correct me if I am wrong. The pub was relaunched in 2012 and is more cosy than it was.
You can't miss the Tobermory Ledaig distillery just up from the pontoons. There are tours, of course, and a shop. It was founded in 1798, right at the beginning of Tobermory as a town, but the present buildings date from 1822. The rather magnificent bond warehouse across the road, now flats, is late 18th or early 19th century. The small building opposite the distillery on the shore was once a Baptist chapel, built in 1862.
For my own favourite pub, I head direct for the Mishnish where live music can be found some nights, provided you don't mind playing at being a sardine with yachties (in yellow wellies, no in Dubarries these days), scuba divers (small and round with their origin blazoned onto their bulging T-shirts), and the local youth. This place has real atmosphere with walls adorned with flags and photographs, a pool table and cosy cubicles (for kissing I am told) if you can get a seat in one. There are a couple of real ales, including the 'local' Mishnish Ale (which is good but actually brewed by Belhaven). And the pub grub is good too. The restaurant is a bit too metropolitan in its decor for my taste, the musac too loud too, and the one time I went the food was a tad disappointing for the price, but others take a different view (ph 01688 302 500). There is now an Italian restaurant on the first floor. In 2014 there were traumas over ownership, and now the Mishnish is in the hands of Meg and Les MacLeod who also run the Lunga House Hotel at Craobh Haven.
For afternoon tea, combined with a stunning view across the bay, the late 19th century Western Isles Hotel should be the place to go. But it went through a very bad patch when the conservatory was made over, the comfortable couches thrown out, and the staff were ignorant and seemed to be totally demoralised. What a shame, with such a position this hotel could be the best in the Highlands and Islands. But it was in new hands from 2009 and things may have looked up, although I was rather alarmed when I went for a light lunch in August 2010 and the place was more or less empty, at the height of the holiday season (ph 01688 302 012). Dear me, in 2014 it was up for sale — again. Haven't been back since.
The Tobermory chip van is well renowned with its Les Routiers designation. It is run by Jeanette Gallagher and Jane MacLean, both fishermen's wives. It is on the old (fishermen's) pier (completed in 1814 by Telford) by the 1905 town clock designed by Charles Whymper, brother of the famous mountaineer (with its charming chime on the hour).
In 2013 the Isle of Mull Ice Cream parlour opened in (whisper it) the converted public toilets on the main street. Try the whisky and marmalade flavour — proper ice cream. Delicious.
Café Fish on the first floor of the flash 1930s ferry terminal building on the new(er) mid 19th century ferry pier is brilliant for seafood (and desserts), really nice and I think the best place to eat (at reasonable expense) in Tobermory (ph 01688 301 253). However, it is small, has two sittings for dinner, can be extremely busy and difficult to get a table, so book really early and you will not regret it. And it is not just my say so. The Good Food Guide awarded them best fish restaurant in the UK in 2011. I believe they also do take-aways. I like their strapline: 'The only things frozen are our fishermen'. But, a big but, in 2018 it was up for sale for £500,000 which could be very bad news.
The Galleon Grill is as good for meat as Café Fish is for seafood, smallish and friendly (ph 01688 301 117). In 2019 it too was up for sale so things may change.
An Tobar, the arts venue and excellent café up the hill, is definitely worth a visit, but normally closes at 5pm. It is in a converted school above the main street on Argyll Terrace with great views and outside tables, one of which has been created to look like one half of a small wooden boat (ph 01688 302 211). There are all sorts of activities there — music, art classes, a gallery and so on. And they do a pre Mull Theatre dinner, and then get a taxi to the show.
The Mull museum on the main drag is small, charming and interesting. Show your children the tawse to remind them what it was like in the (good?) old days. The thongs of a whip in English, the tawse — if you don't know — is a strip of leather to beat naughty children over the palm of the hand, in front of the class, only outlawed as late as 1987 (I was merely beaten across the buttocks with a gymn shoe). And check out the story of the Neptune, the Canadian sailing ship which landed up off Ardnamurchan instead of Newfoundland, have a look at the bits of Dakota aeroplane, and so on. Brood on the map of shipwrecks round Mull. Check out the 'Terror of Tobermory'.
You can get more-or-less everything you might need in Tobermory. My own favourite shop is 'Tackle and Books'. What an eccentric and yet happy conjunction of small boys eyeing up the spinners on one side and the serious traveller browsing around the fine collection of Scottish and other books on the other. Then there is Tobermory Chocolates for a pricey indulgence (handmade apparently) and excellent ice cream. Brown's established in 1830 is a monument to another age — ironmongery and booze. The Co-op supermarket is good (apart from the crowded aisles and queues), and the Tobermory Bakery for rolls and patisseries (get your breakfast croissants here before setting sail). The Tobermory Fish Company wins awards and has a retail outlet up the hill out of town next to the Mull Pottery. There is a small chandlery (Seafare) (ph 01688 302 277) and once there was a butcher (which also sold fish) but they closed in 2009, very sad. Indeed, there is not much you can't get hereabouts which would otherwise require a visit to Oban.
You should certainly not miss a stroll around the upper village, particularly along Argyll Terrace with its neat terraced houses and garden plots separated by the road. The view down onto the bay with the bobbing boats on moorings is exquisite.
Another attraction, for those who like the game, is the 9-hole golf course up on the cliffs above the town, overlooking the entrance to the Sound of Mull — stunning views to take your eye off the ball. You can walk around the course to above the lighthouse, then down a steep path to the shore and back along a path just above the shore that can be extremely muddy, through the woods to Tobermory. Or just do the Rubha nan Gall lighthouse walk to and from Tobermory along the shore, past where there used to be bathing huts and even a sea-bathing pool (in the first bay past the pier). You can rent the Lighthouse keeper's cottages, sleeps six. And the walk to Aros park and around the lochan and back is an excellent one-and-a-half hour saunter through lovely woods, with scenery.
Finally, just why does the ensemble look so attractive (with the notable exception of the horizontal sign of the Co-op supermarket)? Probably because it was originally laid out from scratch in 1788 by the 'British Society for Extending the Fisheries and Improving the Sea Coast of the Kingdom'. Years before, a retreating Spanish galleon from the Armada had ended up here, before mysteriously sinking into the deep mud of the bay, where it lies still, awaiting salvage despite many efforts over the years. In fact the bay had been well known as a safe anchorage for centuries, even though there was more or less no town or even a village, just a few houses: "..a very fine place for large ships; for it is sheltered from all winds, the ground good, and the depth moderate" (Mackenzie 1776) and "One of the most celebrated, and most frequented bays in the Highlands" (Knox 1786). The original town was built over a few years and still retains a wonderful sense of character and history. In fact, ironically, fishing never really took off here, Tobermory became more a centre for trade between the mainland and the outer islands, helped along by tourism right from early in the 19th century. It was not until the 1960s that the owner of the Mishnish decided to splash colour on to his grey building, so setting the multicolour trend of what you see today. However, this story may not be quite true as Archibald Young, in Summer Sailings, described some of the houses as being painted 'bright yellow' in 1898.
And why the name Tobermory? Because Tobar Mhoire is Gaelic for Mary's Well which is somewhere hidden in the upper town near the remains of a medieval chapel.
“I've sailed the seven seas and travelled every way but there's nowhere near so beautiful as Tobermory Bay”. I have no idea who wrote that, but it just about sums it up.
As maybe did William Daniell in 1817: "The inhabitants of Tobermory, whether from the frequent intercourse with strangers which their situation occasions, or from other causes, are distinguished from other Hebrideans by a greater attention to personal neatness and cleanliness. ….Another agreeable prepossession which a traveller acquires in journeying thither arises from the frequent praise bestowed on the beauty of its females, and this characteristic is also well warranted. There are certainly many pretty women at Tobermory, and their appearance, as well as that of the children and the men, is much improved, by that glow of health which habitual cleanliness never fails to promote.”
So there you have it, wash regularly!
The Pier Café with Café Fish above
That famous fish and chip van
Dawn over Tobermory Bay
Above the pontoons
The Tobermory cherub
The Edward V111th pillar box — a rarity
"We came round a wooded hill to find one of the prettiest natural harbours I had ever seen, and one of the most secure"
LB Winter, 1956
Tobermory is "quite possibly the most popular watering hole for yacht crews anywhere in Scotland. Its pubs are legendary, its restaurants hard to beat, and its shops and mooring facilities are everything cruising men or women could ask for. On the downside, Tobermory can be crowded and noisy..." Bob Orrell, Halcyon in the Hebrides, 2012