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If you stand on the pier, the row of radiant houses in your back, you look out across Tobermory Bay. It faces the sun from the south and if you’re lucky you may spot otters, seals, porpoises and dolphins. There are persistent rumours that a Spanish galleon is at the bottom of the bay, but no treasure was ever found. However, the way the water shimmers white gold, you can very well imagine there is something precious beckoning from the seabed.
With the vibrancy and colourfulness of today, it’s a long way from Tobermory’s start as a tiny settlement on a flat piece of rocky shore. And then in 1788, when it was just minding its own business, the Duke of Argyll – chief of the Campbell clan, arguably the most powerful family in Western Scotland – decided to create a proper fishing village. As his word was law, he had it constructed, according to a set layout, just like Ullapool and Lochbay. The alluring main street you see now was nothing more than a slab of rock. The first things built were a customs place (taxes!), a store for salt and a pier for fishing boats. It was to be a location for commercial herring fishing. But what the duke forgot, was that on Mull there was no fishing tradition, the people didn’t know how to do it and weren’t keen. Even though they were islanders, the kind of fishing the duke had in mind was not natural to here. So he decided to bring in people from the Scottish east coast, because that’s where they knew how to fish for herring and they were supposed to teach the Mull people how to do it. But the herring here weren’t very reliable and it never prospered as a fishing village. But because of its good pier and good anchorage it became an excellent shipping place. It was often the last stop before people crossed the Atlantic. They filled up on fresh water, food, other supplies. The local bakeries made special ship’s bread and ship’s biscuits, that kept for a long time. Tobermory is a small cove, but the water is deep, so it offers good sheltered anchorage.
Some 15 years before the development of Tobermory, in 1773, the famous biographer James Boswell visited Mull with the much older influential writer Samuel Johnson. He wrote a book about their journey which received much media attention and is still fascinating to read (The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson), but what really put Tobermory (and Mull) on the tourist map was Queen Victoria. She came here in the royal yacht in 1847. She didn’t actually come on shore, she just looked at it from afar and called it ‘pretty’ in her diary, but that was enough; it became part of the ‘royal route’: the ultimate kick-off for tourism.
Tobermory today hinges on tourism, but it’s not swamped by it. Despite being served in shops and cafes by people who are obviously not native islanders, it has retained its selfhood and I can speak from experience when I say it’s a very pleasant place to be a tourist and to daydream about doing your weekly shop here followed by a drive back to your croft for an uncluttered but happy life with magnificent sea views.