Our Travel blog
9 September – 21 September
As you are reading this you can at least be thankful that there is a you to do the reading and that you’re still a 3D bag of fleshy sentience and are not, for example, a shadow etched onto a wall after a brief dalliance with a radioactive bang. Or perhaps worse, left scrabbling around in the post-apocalyptic dirt waiting for your skin to fall off, with the cheery bonus that you now glow in the dark. I don’t mean to alarm you but humanity as we know it may well soon become extinct due to Trump and his squabble with the increasingly bizarre Kim Jong. These are the two you kept away from in the school playground, the attention seeking bully surrounded by sycophants and the weird fat kid with no friends who has no understanding of normal relationships. It’s so sad that our children have to live under the same threats we did. When I was around their age it was Reagan, Thatcher and Brezhnev squabbling in the schoolyard and worrying us all with their posturing and territorial pissing. So, with the slightly disturbing realisation that history has taught us, or at least those who lead us, nothing, let’s enjoy the ride while we are still here.
There is a distinctly autumnal feel around Mull. When the wind blows it carries the crisp tang of chilly nights and days warmed by the shortening sun. Shadows are lengthening noticeably earlier every evening and just lately we’ve had clear nights under a canopy of stars, the smudge of The Milky Way arching across the loch from the surrounding hills. The trees are turning too. Some still green, others shading to russet, rich copper or gold. Autumn is definitely in my top 4 of seasons. It also marks the slightly weird time when holiday makers cannot reach a consensus on what constitutes correct holiday attire for the season. We are treated to the spectacle of robust couples of a certain age rustling up the road in more layers than needed for an attempt on Everest while behind them are families wearing shorts and tee shirts. I witnessed someone smear sun-cream on their arms and face then throw on a waterproof coat and hat, all for a 2 minute walk back to her car. I suspect some of the shorts and tee shirt brigade are determined to wear them because they are on their holidays and no amount of wind or rain will deter them.
This was generally my father’s approach, a simple formula: Holiday = Shorts. Thus on our first morning at some out of season shack on the Norfolk coast he’d appear in baggy shorts with two unnaturally white legs dangling out, like pieces of knotted string that disappeared into sturdy walking boots. Mother would pause from scrubbing the chalk outline that marked the last resting place of the cabins previous inhabitant and say something soothing and supportive like “for goodness sake Donald, put those away, you’ll scare the children”. Her application of the second syllable to his name should have served as a warning, and in normal circumstances would have, but he was on holiday and therefore ignored her and led us out to whatever diversions one could find on a deserted beach in November. Generally this meant putting the windbreak up, an activity that should have earned him a fortune as the inventor of beach hang gliding. Sometimes he would glide gently along the sand behind it, other times a gust would catch him and he’d take off, to be deposited a few yards further up the beach wrapped in poles and cloth. Once he’d located his glasses he’d shout back to us, “this seems like a nice spot” and we’d trudge up to find it was indeed a fine position for watching the sewage overflow pipe, which may just be better than the bloated corpse of a seal I was busy poking with driftwood or the other family we passed who, I was reliably informed must be a bit weird because who in their right minds would come to Norfolk in November for a beach holiday?
The last time we saw my mother she let it be known that they had once visited Scotland for a holiday. I’m assuming on purpose although if she was in charge of navigation one can’t be too sure. I know I wasn’t involved so it was either before I came along or after I left home. If it was the latter then I have no recollection and received no postcard, and if it was the former then the only car my father had until I was at school was a Reliant, which seems a remarkable undertaking, from Hertfordshire to Scotland on 3 wheels.
On a recent day off we thought we’d make the most of some sunshine and visit the nearby island of Lismore; thus at 6am on a precious day off a rather startled Alison responded to my perky “good morning” with a brisk and somewhat indelicate reply. Still she rallied, and by 7am we were safely aboard our first ferry and heading to Oban. The 2nd leg, from Oban to Achnacroish on Lismore took another 50 minutes but aboard a ferry of compact charm. A single roll on-roll off car deck, full of trade vans, with small cabins either side where we took up residence, along with a young couple from Belgium and a charming and slightly eccentric Scots/Canadian couple, now residents of Toronto. We were clad in walking gear with waterproofs in reserve, as were our continental friends. The Canadians wore designer shoes, obviously expensive clothes, and he was in shirt, tie and jacket. We’d arranged a return by the same ferry while our Canadian chums were heading up the island to a small foot ferry in the hope of securing a lift. Further investigation revealed that they had to be in Glasgow for a late afternoon meeting and would therefore need to find swift transport to and from the other ferry when they were back on the mainland…on an island of 190 people and few cars!
Having done our homework we knew the scenic route to the island’s heritage centre so when we disembarked Alison and I immediately struck right along a track that soon became a boggy path. As we were skipping from rock to rock over a particularly gruelling section of field where the locals appeared to be cultivating mud I glanced back and saw our friends from the boat following us. “I hope you know where you’re going!” he called in a cheery way as he balanced one exquisite cowboy boot on a tuft of grass while he dislodged the other from a patch of bog.
I reassured him that we did and after a brief consultation with Alison, whose wise council I’ve come to rely upon in matters of social interaction, neglected to add that in fact the road from the ferry would have led them directly to the heritage centre with nothing more challenging underfoot than the occasional pot hole. As Alison put it, this was a much more interesting route and they’d get to see some of the lovely countryside, even if they didn’t want to.
We eventually emerged at a remote cottage serviced by a lane that would lead us to the heritage centre. We arrived there 30 minutes before it was due to open, so we sat in the sunshine to enjoy the view…or at least looked at the view. Somehow on an Island barely 1 mile wide and surrounded by mountains and stunning views whichever way you look they’d built their museum and café on the one spot with nothing more interesting to see than a road and a couple of rough fields. I’ve since discovered that the land was in fact donated to the centre which of course makes my jibe about the views seem rather mean spirited, especially as once inside the museum was incredibly interesting for such a small place, thoughtfully laid out and easily accessible to all, from the casual visitor to the ardent historian. It also housed a small but perky gift shop selling local books and crafts and a Gaelic library. Even more cheerily it had an excellent café that we took advantage of. Our chums managed to purchase a few souvenirs including a book about the island and a £200 painting, and then ended up getting a lift to their next ferry with the author of the book they’d just bought; such is life on a small island.
One of the interesting nuggets of information we picked up in the museum was the story of St. Moluag. It seems that at one time he rivalled St. Columba of Iona for ecclesiastical supremacy in the winning converts league table (West Highland Division 1). He founded a cathedral on Lismore before sailing around the western isles and on to Iceland, presumably called up for an international fixture. The cathedral’s chancel is now Lismore parish church. According to legend Moluag even won a coracle boat race to Lismore, defeating Columba by the unusual but apparently effective method of cutting off a finger and throwing it over Columba and onto the island, thus being the first to touch it and claim victory. Columba rowed away in a bit of a huff, but not before uttering distinctly un-Christian curses at the victor including “May you have the jagged ridges for your pathway", which seems a trifle mean spirited and surely earned him at least a holy yellow card. In spite of Columba’s jinx, for a while Lismore rivalled Iona as the seat of Christian learning and evangelism in Scotland but Columba had the one thing Moluag didn’t; a biographer to secure his place in history at the top of the table, leaving poor Moluag fighting to stay out of the relegation zone.
Anyhow, I’m sure there was a lot more to it than that but we’d got to that point where we needed to strike out for pastures new or risk missing the ferry. Thus we walked up the road, zigzagged down an unsigned steep side track and emerged at the remains of Castle Coeffin. Well, what a splendid spot. The ivy covered remains sit on a stump of twisted rock rising from an outcrop of rich green rocky pasture. Next to it is a small inlet with a shallow beach where at low tide a medieval fish trap is exposed. It was a remote and bewitching place, so rather than wear out our thesaurus I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
After capering around the castle for a while we wandered back along the road, popped into the heritage centre to avail ourselves of their lavatories and have a peer into the reconstructed cottage showing how life was back at the turn of the 19thcentury. Pretty sparse by all appearances but at least it seemed your cottage came with a handy Perspex leaflet holder.
Wandering along a road isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun day out, and indeed it isn’t usually ours but the combination of sunshine, wild flowers (the name Lismore comes from the Gaelic for great garden), mountain views on all sides and bird song was intoxicating. We strolled passed the shop/post office/public noticeboard cottage, listened to someone checking volume levels in the public hall that also doubles as the Doctors Surgery, though hopefully not at the same time. Mind you maybe inviting an audience in to witness Flora Bloggs getting her ulcers dressed or young Thomas having his vaccinations passes for entertainment on a remote island. Anyway, on we went, took a left turn and descended along the road that took us back to Achnacroish, with its neat little primary school and a chip van doing a roaring trade serving the tradespeople waiting for the ferry. We met up with the Belgium couple and a host of others gathering to catch the ferry. There was no sign of the Canadians so we assume they either made it to the other ferry or were detained by the locals and made to work in the fields until they’ve learned how to dress properly.
The last adventure of the day was to discover that CalMac, the company operating the ferry’s, had, in a masterpiece of timetable planning, managed to arrange our ferry’s arrival at Oban at exactly the same time as the Mull ferry left from just 20 yards away. Although there may well be complicated scheduling reasons for arranging it that way it was very annoying. At least we only had an hours wait for the next one and the apocalypse hadn’t happened while we were away. We easily wasted an hour in Oban and then as we headed back towards Mull we reflected on our stay there and the fact that we only have just over a month left on the island, in this beautiful corner of the world that we’ve fallen in love with.
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