Every fall, the switchback roads across one of Scotland’s more beautiful Western Isles reverberate to the sound of rally cars. Rally cars as wide-ranging as the world’s fastest Ford Anglia to a full-spec Rally2 motor. And everything in between.
The Mull Rally is a motorsport phenomenon. That’s why folk flock from around the world every October. Long-time Mull fan Derek Stewart tells us why.
It’s dark. Very dark. Daylight? Still two hours away. At least. I’ve just done that thing where you turn your pillow over in high dudgeon – a demonstration that sleep is still swerving this particular rally fan.
Why the wide awake? There’s somebody snoring. In the next field.
Even worse, thumping my head back into my pillow reveals the other side has been up against the side of the tent and is now soaking wet.
The rain is incessant. It hasn’t stopped since Sunday. And when daylight does finally do its thing, this will be Thursday.
Welcome to the Western Isles at summer’s very far side.
And, do you know what, I wouldn’t change a thing. Certainly, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world right now.
It’s Thursday, shakedown’s coming. Kettle on, tea’s made and the remainder of a half-eaten pork pie will do for breakfast. First breakfast, that is. Second breakfast is a tradition in the car park of Duart Castle: a bacon sandwich watching the last of the late brakers arriving into Craignure via Calmac.
Shakedown for this festival of island fever enjoyed, it’s back up to Tobermory for a lunchtime look around the Ledaig Car Park. Our trip is always a 10-dayer to the island and one of the best things about being over there early is watching the service vans, trailers and rally cars arrive. As the car park fills, so the excitement builds.
It’s like no other rally in the world. You’ve got drivers and co-drivers still out, running one last recce before they come back and potter for another day or two on their cars. Ahead of the event, it’s so fabulously laid back, everybody’s got a moment to catch up or share a brew.
But when Friday evening comes around, it’s time to pile back into the van and get across the lochs to Dervaig. Get in early, park up in the village and walk back up the road a wee while.
Buried in among the ferns, we all hunker down – four umbrellas all interlinked make for a decent shelter from the continued rain. Course cars through at an increasingly rapid rate, but still nothing prepares you for the urgency of car number one.
The revs run higher, the lights burn brighter and… boom. Into view. Paul MacKinnon, Calum Duffy or John MacCrone (most likely Daniel Harper this year), it doesn’t matter who it is, the sensory overload is just the same.
Standing watching, just down from the last hairpin right, the rain is running off my nose, my wellies are slowly filling with water and this, the official program, is something of a sodden mass in my hand. I’m transfixed. This is what brings me back to the Inner Hebrides year-on-year.
Like the thousands standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder, my year pivots around this place, this event and this very beautiful island.
Another big draw is the Bear Pit. Friday night in the Bellachroy Inn is fantastic. There’s a pint waiting with a wee dram from just down the road alongside it. All that with the sound of Pintos and BDAs passing right outside the front door.
Out of the Bell’, turn right and straight into the graveyard for our last stage of the first night. Down the Glenn and the cars turn left towards Calgary right beneath you. The rain’s stopped, and the wind has cleared the cloud out to leave the sort of sky that would have had Patrick Moore on the edge of his seat.
Forget the aurora, these most northern of lights are spearing the inky blackness in search of the next apex. The Friday night crowd is the best, the cheers go up for the leaders, but the volume is cranked up further for anybody who offers a midnight donut at the junction.
It’s pure magic.
Back to the tent, but nobody can sleep. Nobody wants to. Why would you after what we’ve just witnessed? There’s a fire going, we gather around and share blurry videos of blurry rally cars along with a bottle of single malt.
Sunshine for Saturday morning means the gas-ring can be fired up. The smell of bacon and eggs catches on the weekend breeze and brings the campsite to life. Today has to be relished. Every moment. Today’s the one full day of sport before we embark, once more, on the 363-day wait to do it all again.
Final service before the final stage is something special. If there’s a battle on, you can cut it like a knife
But before we get into the afternoon’s action, there’s another tradition – the queue for the chip van in the center of Tobermory. Those in the know, know. Best fish and chips in the world and not just because they can be eaten while watching the likes of Eddie O’Donnell or Tristan Pye fine-tuning their motors ahead of leg two – but mainly because the drivers and co-drivers are likely to be landing their lunch from the same place.
It’s amazing to think this same stretch of road through the heart of Tobermory will be used as a stage this year – the town center test returns to make the 50th running of the Mull Rally.
There’s no shortage of viewing on offer through the afternoon, evening and night – but the atmosphere in Craignure at the final service before the final stage is something special. If there’s a battle on, you can cut it like a knife. If there’s a battle on and the weather’s still making its mind up, the defense of tire choices is rivalled only by a typically knife-edge Monte Carlo WRC season-opener.
It’s also when you want to freeze the moment. In a matter of hours, the easy-ups will be down and the service barges turned to face the boat home.
In the blink of an eye, another Mull Rally’s done and the island reverts to being just the most beautiful place in the world.
Don’t worry, it’s only another 51 weeks before we’re back for the best rally in the most beautiful place in the world.
Just enough time to dry the tent out.
Same time next year? You bet.