Rarely does a shared name suggest likeness. And yet, almost antipodal on planet Earth, there are two small islands both named Ulva, both separated from larger neighbours by a small stretch of water, both precious wildlife sanctuaries of a kind, important for rare and threatened species, and both providing a glimpse of how life used to be.
In the heart of the Hebrides is the original version called Ulbha in Scottish gaelic and known to the Vikings (rewilders should note) as ‘Ullfur’ or ‘Wolf Island’. Perhaps they had seen the arctic fox, remains of which have been found in Livingstone’s cave on the island’s south coast. There are more famous Hebridean islands within an hours sailing of here, but few where you can experience both calm and wildness simultaneously. It is no wonder that Beatrix Potter regularly visited the island, supposedly finding inspiration for many of her books.
Across the 100 metre Caolas Ulbha (the Sound of Ulva), you will find an island that encapsulates, in miniature, all that you could ever know about the story of the Hebrides. That is a landscape built from volcanic activity 60 million years ago, glaciated and then released by a melting icecap, making way for wave upon wave of human history as the ebb and flow of civilization attempted to tame this small corner of nature’s paradise.
The island could have easily been called “Kelp island” as for much of its recent history that was a mainstay of the local economy. Through the 19th century the seaweed was burned to obtain “soda ash” (primarily sodium carbonate, and also itself referred to as kelp) which was valued for use in manufacturing. The ancient Egyptians made glass ornaments with it and the Romans used it for baking bread, making glass and for medicinal purposes.
Remarkably, this Scottish Ulva is still rising out of the Hebridean Sea, as the ice melts and isostatic equilibrium is regained, leaving Britain’s highest raised sea cave stranded at A’ Chrannag. But in searching for notoriety, you cannot look past the birthplace of General Lachlan Macquarie here on Ulva (on the 31 January 1762). ‘The father of Australia’, as he was known, became Governor General of New South Wales (NSW) from 1809-21 and is credited with transforming Australia from a penal colony into a modern democracy.
There is biological notoriety also with the red and black, day-flying slender Scotch burnet moth found only at a handful of sites on Mull and Ulva. There are orchids also, marsh and greater butterfly, and woodlands filled with plant and birdlife and otters on the shore. This is a special place for wildlife and the care shown by the island’s owners towards these inhabitants is inspiring and brings hope for the ecological rejuvenation of the rest of the Hebrides.
In the deepest, southern part of New Zealand, off the coast of Rakiura (Stewart Island) there is our other Ulva, about seven times smaller than the first. The name was lent appropriately to this wildlife sanctuary that is now a jewel in the countries dying conservation crown, a rainforest filled with species of bird and plant not found anywhere else on planet Earth. As Jared Diamond said: “New Zealand is as close as we will get to study life on another planet”. Ulva Island is one place where that feels so true.
These two Ulva Islands, in reality, are not alike in any way…they are a world apart, geographically, geologically, biologically and ecologically. And you can’t buy a seafood platter, nor would you expect to see a wolf, when visiting the New Zealand version!
But I will always say yes to a trip to Ulva, wherever it may take me.