Tobermory is the capital of, and the only burgh on the Isle of Mull in the Scottish Inner Hebrides.
It is located in the northeastern part of the island, near the northern entrance of the Sound of Mull. With a current population of approximately 700, the town was founded as a fishing port in 1788, its layout based on the designs of Dumfriesshire engineer Thomas Telford.
The name Tobermory is derived from the Gaelic Tobar Mhoire, meaning “Mary’s well” which refers to a well located nearby which was dedicated in ancient times to the Virgin Mary.
Legend has it that the wreck of a Spanish galleon, laden with gold, lies somewhere in the mud at the bottom of Tobermory Bay – although the ship’s true identity, and cargo, are in dispute. By some accounts, the Florencia (or Florida, or San Francisco), a member of the defeated Spanish Armada fleeing the English fleet in 1588, anchored in Tobermory to take on provisions. Following a dispute over payment (or possibly, according to local folklore, a spell cast by the witch Dòideag), the ship caught fire and the gunpowder magazine exploded, sinking the vessel. In her hold, reputedly, was £300,000 in gold bullion. Other sources claim the vessel was the San Juan de Sicilia (or San Juan de Baptista), which, records indicate, carried troops, not treasure. Despite the stories, no significant treasure has ever been recovered in Tobermory Bay. The largest attempt made to locate the galleon was in 1950 when the then Duke of Argyll signed a contract with the British Admiralty to locate the galleon. Nothing came of the attempt, even though it led to the development of items used today to locate ancient sunk vessels.
Due to similarities in sailing conditions, in the mid-1800s emigrant sailors created the community of Tobermory, located in Ontario, Canada. This namesake town has twin harbours, known locally as “Big Tub” and “Little Tub”, which sheltered ships from the severe storms of Lake Huron.
During World War II, Tobermory was home to Royal Navy training base HMS Western Isles under the command of the legendary Vice-Admiral Sir Gilbert Stephenson. Nicknamed the ‘Terror of Tobermory’, his biography was written by broadcaster Richard Baker, who trained under him.Tobermory’s many famous sons and daughters include Duncan MacGilp and Janet MacDonald, both past Gold Medal winners at Scotland’s Royal National Mod. Three generations of the town’s MacIntyre family have achieved eminence. Colin MacIntyre is a singer songwriter, his brother is BBC Scotland Sport’s Kenny Macintyre, and his late father, also called Kenny, was BBC Scotland Political Correspondent while his grandfather was the so-called Bard of Mull, poet Angus MacIntyre. The late accordionist (and one time Mishnish Hotel owner) Bobby MacLeod lived in the town from his birth in 1925 until his death in 1991. Another Tobermory native was Donald McLean (1805-1864), who immigrated to Canada before he was twenty and became a fur trader and explorer for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the New Caledonia and Columbia Department fur districts. He was the last casualty of the Chilcotin War of 1864; his half-breed sons were known as the Wild McLean Boys and were tried and hanged for murder.
The fictional town of Torbay in Alistair MacLean’s novel When Eight Bells Toll was based on Tobermory, and much of the 1971 movie was filmed in the town and other parts of Mull. The writer Saki gave the name to a talking cat in one of his most famous short stories and two well-loved children’s TV series have made use of the town’s name. Elisabeth Beresford called one of the Wombles Tobermory and, more recently, the town played host to its almost-namesake Balamory for 3 years (2002-2005). Other films made in the area include the 1945 Powell and Pressburger classic I Know Where I’m Going!.
Tobermory’s Main Street & Local Attractions
Many of the buildings on Main Street, predominantly shops and restaurants, are painted in assorted bright colours, making it a popular location for television programs, such as children’s show Balamory.
The burgh boasts the Mull Museum, the Tobermory Scotch whisky distillery, the Isle of Mull Brewery and An Tobar (Arts Centre), while the Clock Tower on the harbour wall is a noted landmark. Just outside Tobermory (based in Drumfin) is the Mull Theatre, which boasts youth and adult dance and drama groups and hosts a wide variety of performances.