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The island of Ulva lies just off Mull's deeply indented west coast and is bounded by Loch Tuath on its north side and Loch na Keil on its south side. Ulva measures, at its greatest extent, some 5 miles from east to west, and a maximum of 2½ miles from north to south. Immediately to the west of Ulva is the island of Gometra, separated from it by a narrow inlet that can be crossed at high tide by a bridge and at low tide by the tidal beach. Ulva rises to its highest point at Beinn Chreagach at 313m or 1,027ft.
Ulva's name comes from the Old Norse "Ulffur", revealing a history of settlement by the Vikings, who first arrived in about 800. Which particular expression in the Old Norse language gave rise to the name is the subject of debate: was it originally called Wolf Island or Ulfr's Island? Take your pick. The Vikings were not the island's first residents: standing stones on Ulva date back to around 1500BC, and a cave on the south side of the island has revealed traces of human occupation dating back 7,000 years.
Ulva was traditionally a property of the MacQuarrie or Macquarie family, the clan name coming from the Gaelic Guaire meaning "noble". Iain MacQuarrie became the first Clan Chief in 1463. Ulva's most famous son was Major General Lachlan Macquarie, born here in 1762. He went on to become Governor of New South Wales and his mausoleum at Gruline on Mull describes itself as the last resting place of "The Father of Australia." David Livingstone's paternal grandparents also lived on Ulva.
On Saturday 16 October 1773, Lachlan Macquarie's father, another Lachlan, entertained those early tourists Samuel Johnson and James Boswell on Ulva. Boswell's account noted: "M'Quarrie's house was mean; but we were agreeably surprised with the appearance of the master, whom we found to be intelligent, polite, and much a man of the world. Though his clan is not numerous, he is a very ancient chief, and has a burial place at Icolmkill. He told us, his family had possessed Ulva for nine hundred years; but I was distressed to hear that it was soon to be sold for the payment of his debts."
Ulva was sold by the MacQuarries in 1777. In 1845 it was again sold, along with neighbouring Gometra, which had originally been part of the estates of Iona Abbey. The new laird was the infamous Francis William Clark. He undertook large scale and rapid clearance of the resident population to allow grazing of the land by sheep. In 1841 Ulva had a population of 570 and Gometra was home to 78 people. By 1851, three quarters of the population of the two islands had been cleared and by 1881 Ulva had 53 residents and Gometra 30. In 2001 the populations stood, respectively, at 16 and 5. Signs of the rapid change during the second half of the 1840s can still be found in the form of the ruins of 16 abandoned townships.
There was a time when Ulva had a reputation for positively deterring casual visitors, but this is now long gone. Today you reach the island by leaving your car at Ulva Ferry on Mull and (except on a Saturday, when the ferry does not run) catching the small passenger ferry for the one minute crossing to Ulva itself. Another way of reaching Ulva is aboard the superb small cruise ship the Hebridean Princess, which often features the island on its itineraries.
Apart from the obvious attractions of visiting a rugged and remote island most of your friends will never have heard of, Ulva also offers the chance to visit the Boathouse, a tearoom and restaurant specialising in locally-caught seafood.
Also near the ferry landing is Sheila's Cottage, a restored thatched cottage housing Ulva's Heritage Centre. A little further away from the ferry landing is Ulva House (a private residence), built in the 1950s on the site of an earlier house damaged by fire; while a walk north west from the ferry landing brings you to Ulva Church, a "Parliamentary" parish church and manse, built to Thomas Telford's standard T-plan design in 1828.