My arrival on Mull coincides with the first truly sunny day of the year, and the snow-capped peaks of the island’s hills are shimmering brilliantly. The port of Craignure is halfway down the east coast, and I am keen to start by exploring the south of the island before heading north to Tobermory and its distillery.
The road to Fionnphort traverses some stunning scenery, and I am full of anticipation by the time I reach Ardalanish Farm – breeders of rare Highland sheep and weavers of high quality tweeds and other fabrics. Above the clatter of the mill’s three 19th century hand-operated looms, head weaver Katrina Crosby explains a little of its history and how someone from Vancouver came to be living and working here.
“About 18 years ago, the farm changed hands and became organic. They started breeding native Hebridean sheep and Kyloe Highland cattle,” says Katrina. “Because they’re small and hardy, Hebridean flocks don’t need to be kept indoors during winter, so the owners converted these buildings into a weaving room and shop. They bought these three beautiful old looms from a mill that was closing down and started weaving their own fabric.
“I’ve been living in the islands for 15 years now. After we married, my husband and I travelled around all the places he’d lived growing up, including Iona. It was supposed to be an eight-week volunteer post, but we’re still here!
“My plan is to return to Canada and open my own woollen mill, but for now I have a great job here, and this incredible view,” she says, gesturing out of the window. “This place is a bit crazy, here at the end of the road, but the people are wonderful and it’s where I feel at home.”
Katrina’s story is far from unique. Mull has a surprising number of incomers, who testify to the island’s generosity of spirit. Among those are the Reade family, who moved here from Somerset in England in 1979 to open a dairy farm. When I arrive at Sgriob–ruadh Farm today, with its café, shop and thriving Isle of Mull Cheese business, it’s hard to believe the venture began with little more than a tumbledown farmhouse – minus roof – and 10 cows.
Like the Reade family themselves, Sgriob–ruadh is now thoroughly integrated into the island’s ecosystem. The cattle feed on nutritious draff (waste grain) from Tobermory distillery – which Chris Reade says gives her cheese its distinctive character. Even the metal steps leading to the cheese cellar are reclaimed from one of the distillery’s old bonded warehouses.
Chris tells me how the entire farm is powered by a complex system of wind power, hydro, biomass and heat exchange from the cheesemaking process. Despite being a power-intensive business, Sgriob–ruadh manages to produce more electricity than it consumes, and donates the excess to son Joe’s biscuit factory on the neighbouring hill.
I am beginning to suspect that nothing and nobody on Mull has a single purpose. This is confirmed by one resident, who advises me that you shouldn’t ask an islander what they do for a living – the question is how many jobs they have. That is certainly true for another of Chris Reade’s sons, Matthew, who I track down to the village next to the white sand bay of Calgary.
Matthew is painting his boat in the courtyard of his home/studio/café/gallery/apartment complex. The diverse mish-mash of interests has developed over the course of 28 years, guided by the interests of Matthew and his wife Julia.
“I’ve always been a sculptor at heart, so when our family business was established I began creating an outdoor gallery in the land around the old farmhouse. That became Calgary Art in Nature, and we now have our own studio and gallery building, where we also display work by other Mull artists. I wouldn’t even think about living anywhere else now,” he says with a laugh.
BACK IN BUSINESS
Tobermory consists of a spray of colourful buildings huddled around a picturesque harbour, complete with a fleet of fishing boats. The distillery sits at the south end of the bay, set into a steep hill leading up to sheltering cliff tops. Compact and whitewashed, its wrought iron gates face onto the sea and a salty spray hangs in the air.
Although Tobermory has a long history, its fortunes have risen and fallen, along with so many small island distilleries. It was founded as Ledaig in 1798 (which now lends its name to Tobermory’s heavier, slightly peated expression), but fell silent in 1930, following a decade of prohibition in the US.
It reopened in 1972, but by 1978 had gone into receivership and was purchased by a property company, before returning to production between 1979 and 1982. During the 1980s, the distillery’s bonded warehouses were sold off for the development of flats, along with the majority of its maturing stock.
Current owners, Burn Stewart Distillers, purchased Tobermory in 1991 and – barring a couple of dry summers when the distillery’s private loch ran too low to produce a consistent spirit – it has been in production ever since. With no bonded warehouses, its spirit is sent to another Burn Stewart distillery, Bunnahabhain on Islay, for maturation.
Penned in by the geology of the bay, Tobermory is small-scale out of necessity, as well as choice. With three wooden washbacks and two stills in a cramped stillroom, when I visit the entire manual process is being overseen by stillman Ian Brown.
“There’s no computers here – everything is done by eye and by hand,” he says, modestly dismissing the idea that this is anything special. “You just do what you do. If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re doing it right. It’s as simple as that.
“That said, it’s always a little bit different depending on the conditions. Summer will be different, winter will be different, depending on how low we are with the water. Even if we’re making an unpeated malt, if it’s been raining a lot the peat gets churned up and makes it into the water supply. That also makes a difference.”
Ian has been at Tobermory for 10 years – meaning his first single malts will be bottled next year – but his family connection to the distillery goes back much further, with several relatives having worked here during the 1920s.
“I’ve seen a lot changes since I was growing up. When I was young there was very little tourism. You knew everyone, the whole street; you knew who their mother was, who their great gran was. Now you can walk past a person in the street and never see them again.
“But that’s just a change – it’s not bad, and it hasn’t really changed the experience of living here. If you need help, you won’t find friendlier people than on Mull. You’ll never be stuck here – even if you’ve broken down on some remote part of the island in the middle of the night – because we know we all depend on each other. It’s part of the culture. That’s still alive and I don’t see it changing at all.”
It is arguably this deep sense of interconnectedness that makes Mull unique. Whether you arrived five years ago or five generations ago, if you are prepared to find a place for yourself you will be embraced and cared for. The line from Tobermory’s draff to Sgriob–ruadh’s electricity to the 40 locals employed at Joe’s biscuit factory is clear, and forms part of a web of support that spans this welcoming, resourceful and special island.
This feature is from the July 2016 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership