The Isle of Mull is 45 minutes - and a whole universe - away from life on the Scottish mainland. Take a trip back in time to an island paradise
Two crows circled overhead, above an expanse of pasture and bog that had been blasted golden by the rigours of a Hebridean winter. Three ewes overcame their shyness to reveal lambs butting hungrily from beneath. From all points, the birdsong, sporadic at first, now rose to a piped crescendo. On the island of Mull, dawn choruses last all day.
Behind me, hills soared to more than 800 feet above the two-mile Sound of Mull that divided us from the mainland of Scotland. Suddenly, a hare bounded exuberantly across the lawn. I went inside for more coffee - and another hare promenaded past the kitchen window.
Home to the Morris family since 2004, Arle Lodge, near Tobermory, on Mull`s northeastern coast, is run by daughter Hannah and her partner Alan. Here is a place wholly in tune with its surroundings. As an `eco-lodge`, the business is built on a culture of care and concern for the environment - from the low energy bulbs in most rooms to the use of septic tanks to purify the wastewater and the recycling of linen, curtains and other fabrics into furniture covers. A grazing flock conserves the grassland and hedgerows, which, in the absence of pesticides, creates the kind of habitat that fizzes with life.
"The difference in people after a week here is just amazing," says Hannah, who also runs her own photography business and weekend wildlife photography courses at the Lodge. "As well as sheep and hares, we`ve black grouse, sea eagles, hen harriers, red deer and seals on the rocks. Children love it. It`s how life used to be."
Although Mull measures only 26 miles at its widest, Ice Age glaciers sculpted the original mound of volcanic rock into enough cliffs, inlets, and sea lochs to create 300 miles of some of the most dramatic coastline in Europe - with much of it reachable by a road system of 140 miles. A Saturday afternoon drive across the north of the island had me climbing in second gear, through dark pine forests, threading upwards past black crags for an ear-popping descent into the sparkling white-and-blueness of Calgary Bay.
Rising to nearly 3,200 feet, Mull is big on colours, both natural and man-made. The island `capital` of Tobermory is defined by its 18th-century harbourfront houses, each of which is painted in its own vibrant shade. Casting deep rainbow reflections into the harbour, Tobermory`s multicoloured houses and shops have even inspired a television soap for children. Since Balamory made its debut on the BBC digital channel CBeebies, the port has probably attracted more under-fives than at any time in a history spanning more than 200 years.
The real Tobermory is a fully functioning mini-metropolis, with craft shops, pubs and a Co-op supermarket where self-caterers can stock up their fridges. Eating out here is a joy – from a local fish and chip van that boasts a Routiers award to the vividly yellow-painted Schmooze Restaurant on the main street that specialises in Scottish and island produce.
Driving back to Arle Lodge, eight miles along the coast, I saw yet more lambs dozing from the sheer exertion of being alive. Now, even the curlews were quiet. High above, a non-polluted Hebridean sky displayed a full set of constellations. At Arle Lodge, the stars twinkle as part of the deal, from just £25 per person, per night.
Road & ferry: drive to Oban from the A82 Glasgow-Fort William Road, or the A9 from Edinburgh. The crossings by car ferry from Oban to Craignure take approximately 45 minutes.
Rail: regular service to Oban with ScotRail from Glasgow Queen Street