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Bunessan in the largest village on the Ross of Mull and by far the largest place you pass through on the 38 mile journey along the single track roads from the terminal for the Oban ferry at Craignure, and the terminal for the Iona ferry at Fionnphort. The name comes from the Gaelic for "the place at the bottom of the small waterfall."
The village clusters around the head of Loch na Làthaich and receives additional shelter from the island of Eilean Bàn. It was originally established here as a fishing station by the 5th Duke of Argyll at the end of the 1700s. Today an active lobster fishery continues to be based here, with vessels using a pier half a mile north west of Bunessan: though piles of lobster pots at the east end of the village suggest that the mouth of the river here may also be used for mooring small fishing vessels.
Bunessan tends to get a pretty poor press. One book refers to it as "an untidy place, only redeemed by its location", while another comments "the village survives, tired and far from smart, a melancholy contrast to its picturesque setting".
It is true that some of the village's buildings are unattractive, but that can be said of just about anywhere: and others certainly are not (which can also be said of just about anywhere). Our own view is that Bunessan suffers primarily because most of its buildings look north or north west as they gather around the head of the loch. This means the main "face" of the village seldom if ever sees the sun, so even on a beautiful day the village appears mainly in shadow, especially when seen from the main road passing through it.
It can't be proved either way, but if the village was clustered around the head of a south-facing loch and could be seen with the sun shining on it rather than from behind it, we suspect that more people would feel it to be a more attractive place.
The centre of the village can be taken as the curve of shops houses and other buildings, including Bunessan Church, on the landward side of the main road as it curves around the tip of Loch na Làthaich. Additional building has taken place at either end of this line of development, though not really on the hillside behind it.
Some community facilities are more widely scattered. The village school (and war memorial) stand on a hillside half a mile to the east, while the Bunessan Community Centre lies between the main part of the village and the pier. One striking feature encountered in the surrounding area is the significant scatter of new housing that has been or is being built.
Visible from to the main road as it comes into Bunessan from the east are the remains of a watermill that seem to date back to the origins of Bunessan as a planned village at the end of the 1700s. Its stone construction echoes that of the original parts of the Argyll Arms, the village's only hotel, which lies at the west end of the village and dates back to the early 1700s. The Ross of Mull Historical Centre can be found close to the water mill.
In popular culture, Bunessan has left its mark as the name given to the music for the Christmas Carol that begins "Child in the manger, Infant of Mary". This was written in Gaelic to a traditional melody by Mary Macdonald who lived near Bunessan in the 1800s. When it was translated into English by Lachlan Macbean in the 1888 book "Songs and Hymns of the Gael", the translator gave the melody the name "Bunessan". Today the tune is better known for its association with the hymn "Morning has broken".
At Bunessan, the Ross of Mull narrows to less than two miles in width. The high cliffs that characterise the south coast of the Ross further east give way here to scenery that owes much more to Iona than to Mull. A minor road leads south from Bunessan, giving access to two excellent beaches, at Uisken and at Ardlanish Bay. Each is at least the equal of anything anywhere else on Mull, on the whole not an island known for its spectacular beaches.
Bunessan is probably fated to remain somewhere that most people simply pass through en route to Iona. But the village, and especially the area surrounding it, really are worth a second look.