Our Travel blog
It is a strange feeling to be working full time again. On the one hand we are doing a 40 hour week as opposed to the 18.5 in our last job but on the other hand we have fixed hours, giving us plenty of time to enjoy all that Mull has to offer. On the third hand we get a clean break from work every night, a somewhat elusive luxury when we lived on site. The weather is spoiling us and we enjoy views of a loch and mountains from our window, or midges permitting, from the garden.
Mull has many attractions of which scenery and wildlife feature heavily. It’s a must visit if you favour diversions of the natural variety; good walking in the hills, historic buildings, ghostly deserted settlements, abundant wildlife and a fascinating history. If your idea of a holiday is whizzy neon, sticky confectionary, STD’s and chips with everything then the chances are that Mull won’t be high on your agenda.
I’ll get around to describing Duart Castle and our work there in a future entry (if I don’t then please remind me). For now though let us dwell briefly on the matter of eagles. Driving home from the castle one evening we paused alongside a campervan to admire a bird floating effortlessly on the breeze. It turned out we got to enjoy a 10 minute display of virtuoso hovering, swooping and general avian aerobatics by a rare Golden Eagle. Our new Dutch friends who owned the camper showed us close ups on their camera, which sported a lens only slightly shorter than the channel tunnel and we all agreed that it was a magical moment. Not just witnessing such a spectacle but being willing and able to pause and enjoy it, to take a break from the routine to experience something special. Later in the week a lone eagle flew over us, lazily beating its massive wings as it drifted across the loch until it was a faint silhouette against a silver sky. Then we spied one sitting on a fence post; then later on a telegraph pole, in flight and a pair soaring above us. Rare my arse!
As well as accommodating Dutch tourists the locals are friendly and welcoming. While I was away in London (see last entry) Alison was fostered out to neighbours who fed her and ensured wine flowed freely. We’ve taken tea with colleagues, supped beer in convivial company at the local (well, local by Mull standards) and been gifted fresh laid eggs. Island life in a remote settlement relies on a strong sense of community and mutual support. We’ve fallen into the local habit of offering a lift to anyone seen walking, which has made journeys infinitely more interesting and adds a frisson of excitement to a routine trip to or from work.
We are based in a hamlet called Lochdon which nestles on the shores of, not altogether unsurprisingly, Loch Don. The loch is a sea loch that all but drains at low tide. At high tide on days when there is no wind the whole estuary becomes a perfect mirror reflecting the surrounding hills. The settlement is quite large by Mull standards, 62 dwellings ranging from crofts and farms to cottages, some modern bungalows and a primary school. At the last count 82 souls made up the community, although only 36 of those are Scottish, closely followed by 33 English, 4 Welsh and a smattering of other nationalities to make up the rest. During the summer many properties become holiday lets, in some cases the owners move into alternative accommodation on the same site, spending the summer in static caravans in their own back gardens. Lochdon is divided into three parts; the main settlement spread along the single track main road to Fionnport and the ferry to Iona, with crofts set back against the hills, the ‘posh’ bit beyond the old hamlet where modern bungalows nestle between woods and the loch and ‘the crescent’ where we are, a broad pick and mix sweep of renovated crofts, bungalows and more modern houses bordering the waters on the track to the farmstead at Gorton.
It’s an ideal base for us, a 10 minute drive to work, 10 into Craignure where the delights of a charity shop, inn, a couple of bars and cafes and a Spar shop greet the ferry from the mainland and we have some great walks from our doorstep. One of these we tried last Wednesday when, taking advantage of the collision of sunshine with a day off we took to the hills behind us. With hindsight tackling a climb of 550 metres after a winter of comparative inactivity wasn’t the best idea but the views were worth it. The route followed a track to a cluster of masts perched near the summit. The gravel path wound unrelentingly upwards, zig zagging steeply. At one point I believe the brave souls who built it thought to themselves something along the lines of “bugger this backwards and forwards malarkey let’s just go up…” And so they did. Around an innocuous looking corner we hit a formidable straight stretch that rose steeply and unrelentingly upward without pause, sapping our resilience and breath in equal measure. We paused at the top of this section (in truth we paused many times on the way up) and stood admiring the view while our panting subsided and our breathing returned to something approaching normal. Rested we set forth up a further series of switchbacks that brought us to a small cairn hiding behind a compound containing masts and various important looking but completely unguarded satellite dishes, aerials and generators.
From our lofty vantage point we could see Oban on the mainland, the double span Conner Bridge and panning left, mountains too numerous and hard to spell to mention until the mighty snow-capped Ben Nevis over 35 miles away which marks the top of Loch Linnhe near Fort William and the start of the Great Glen that follows the fault line through Loch Ness and up to Inverness on the East Coast. Below us Lochdon twinkled, we could see where Mavis was parked and Craignure lay hidden below Scallastle forest. Out in The Sound of Mull ferries crossed on their constant duty to keep Mull and the more distant isles of Coll and Tiree connected to the mainland. Unperturbed by our aching limbs and developing blisters (or just too stupid to know better) we set off up a gentler track to a further mast sitting in a gap below the peak of Mainnir nam Fiadh. From this point we wandered out over the hill to look down on Loch Spelve, a banana shaped loch fed by a narrow channel to the sea, and out over the Firth of Lorn as far as the island of Jura.
Arresting as the views were the air was decidedly fresher up high and we faced the daunting prospect of slip-sliding our way down the gravel track we’d walked up on. The rest of the afternoon was spent carefully picking our way down, keeping to the grass where we could. We eventually rounded the final switchback and dropped into a small glen hosting a babbling brook and small farm. We climbed up out of the glen accompanied by much moaning and groaning and then faced a panorama every bit as stunning as the views from the top; Duart Castle in the distance perfectly framed by ancient sun lit oaks. It made us appreciate our good fortune at being here on this bewitching island; at least until we started walking again to the now familiar accompaniment of creaking, grunting and the occasional hearty swear.
That was over a week ago and we’ve finally stopped aching. Since then we’ve enjoyed a further two days off in sunshine, including a provisions run to the mainland, some magical walks and explorations of the sights around us. We’ve seen buzzards, eagles, mink, red deer, all manner of small birds and waders, rock pools full of tadpoles and a newt. So far the supposedly abundant dolphins, whales and basking sharks have eluded us. I did see a flying fish, but that was only because Alison threw a peppered mackerel at me. We’ve found a deserted sandy beach, explored ruined castles, a stone circle and visited a remote shop that relies solely on an honesty box. It is an enchanting place and we’ve only just scratched the surface.
However in all the excitement of new jobs and a new home on an island it’s occurred to us that the blog entries haven’t been flowing. After our carefree existence last year when we recorded our travels as we went along our time on Mull is a different affair. We are settling into a rhythm of working and the necessary domesticity that comes with it. When we have the opportunity after work we’re exploring the area local to us and further afield when we are off. All of which is a rather limp explanation for my lack of blogging. We’ve been experiencing an uncharacteristic dry sunny spell here and the weather will undoubtedly make up for this with a vengeance; and when it does I’m sure I’ll find more time to write. In the meantime we’ll leave you with some pictures that we hope go some way to illustrate just how enchanting Mull is.
18.15 on Saturday 29 April. We’re in Mavis parked up overlooking Loch Don on the island of Mull, 2nd largest of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Alison is busying herself sorting out the cupboards in Mavis while I pretend to be doing something important on the computer.
Outside our window is a lawn fringed with vibrant yellow gorse and beyond a verge peppered with reeds slopes into the grey waters of the loch. The tide is in, surrounding the gentle hump of a small island studded with gorse, looking like the head of a yellow haired swimmer emerging from a gentle sea. Across the loch rolling pastures cropped short by sheep rise gently, dotted with trees of washed out browns and greens and then capped by the darker hue of managed pine forests. Pale rocks jut through grassy hummocks on steep sided hills painted from the same faded palette as the trees. Further away murky cloud capped mountains loom ominously, teasing us with their scent of wonder and danger. They form a rugged backdrop to the gentle sweep of the bay with its boundary of whitewashed bungalows. In places shafts of sunlight beam through the clouds, highlighting features like a spotlight picking out individual players in a symphony orchestra. Here a shimmering silver inlet, there a vibrant rhododendron, now a glade of shrubs with sheep tending to bleating lambs, a narrow burn of peaty water tumbling down a steep hillside before the beam moves on and catches us, warming our little patch where we’ve parked Mavis for the summer.
As a view it sure beats a basement with a tiny square window looking out onto damp grey steps that we’ve just left behind. Working at Shallowford was a treat, a refuge in many ways, for the winter. We learned new skills, felt we contributed to the community there and made some great friends. There’s much that we could write about and doubtless little incidents that demonstrate my inability to cope with the modern world will creep out as this blog continues. We’ve left the cats there to mind the place. Mojo was just having too much fun adding small squeaky rodents to the endangered species list and Leo, well; Leo is Leo, a saggy bag of loveable attention seeking fur. His confidence has grown considerably and he patrols the grounds as if his presence is anything other than ornamental. He did once catch a mouse, probably an old and arthritic one, but none the less his pride was fierce and he strutted around as if his testicles had grown back, right up to the point where his head was held so high that he fell off the table. The only regret we have of our time in Shallowford was not being able to take advantage of our house in Leek, but that pleasure is awaiting us when we return in September.
So here we are on Mull for 4 months to work at Duart Castle. Our first day at work went well, Alison took to the shop and got to know almost every customer, which may explain her successful sales figures for day one, and I got to prowl about the castle desperately trying to memorise facts and figures or sit in a shed and sell tickets. Everyone was hospitable, good company and the weather excelled itself, basking the castle in a sunny glow all day. On the drive home we encountered a herd of red deer foraging on the peninsula, watching us pass before returning to their grazing. Beyond them Duart Bay sparkled and the trees stood still and silent, only the chomping of the deer and the bleating of a nearby lamb disturbed the silence. We fired up the Mazda, sending wildlife scurrying off in every direction and pootled back to Mavis, tired and contented.
Having completed day one I had to head back to London for a meeting so Tuesday morning we parted company, Alison took up position in the shop and I caught the ferry back to Oban. From Oban it is a dauntingly slow trundle of a train ride through a mountainous landscape. The scenery is amazing as the little train rolls through glens carved out between hazy mountains. Shimmering lochs and enchanting glens appeared from around corners to keep me company on the journey. Also keeping me company was the BO that occasionally wafted over from a party of hikers occupying the seats across the aisle from me. Outside altogether more fragrant bluebells basked in the warm sun and fresh translucent bracken shoots poked through the tangle of last year’s crop that lay in waves sweeping downhill where winter snow had pressed it.
Despite its remoteness signs of humanity were all around; high deer proof fences protect the railway line, telegraph poles stagger in uneven lines, scarred hills of lonely tree stumps brood where logging has cleared all but a few scrawny bare trees, a white cottage nestled snug beside a loch with no obvious means of access, a rusting pipe spanning a remote burn and our train line weaving around road and river as we meander with slow and steady purpose towards our destination.
For all of the beauty outside the window my mind was unsettled, fluttering from one insignificant topic to another until I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be lulled into a light sleep by the rhythm of the train, only to snap back into our rattling carriage by laughter from fellow passengers or the train pulling into one of the immaculate little stations that line this route. These neat little oasis’ are lovingly tended with crisp flowers, clean swept platforms and are frequently bordered by ornamental gravel. Loch Awe was my favourite, lined with half barrel planters full of fresh greenery and backed by bluebell woods falling away to the sunlit loch.
After passing Loch Lomond we took a left turn to follow the mighty River Clyde into the City of Glasgow. We swept passed market gardens and narrow fields of Shetland ponies sandwiched between road and rail. Gradually the landscape became more urbanised until with a grinding of brakes and one last lurch we arrived at Glasgow Queen Street Station. From here I joined the parade of hunched figures marching to the clicker clack percussion of a dozen wheeled suitcases through the city centre to the majestic Central Station and onwards to London.
Nothing could compete with the views I’d already enjoyed so I settled down for hours of reading and preparing for my meeting. Eventually, after nearly 12 hours of travelling I arrived at an anonymous hotel where they favour blue in the décor and took to my room on the 2nd floor. Being a couple of storeys up I didn’t bother drawing the curtain, which is why a train full of late night commuters got a cheeky glimpse of middle aged nipple as their train trundled slowly passed my window just as I peeled off my tee shirt.
Breakfast the following morning went true to form. A tomato exploded under my knife, squirting a trail of juice and pips over my trousers, I twice had to rescue scrambled egg from the table and my toast was stolen by a Frenchman. Le bâtard! Upon leaving my room the contents of my rucksack spilled out as I hoisted it onto my back, necessitating an increasingly grumpy re-packing, a scan of the room to check nothing had escaped and then hearing the door slam behind me while my rucksack sulked on the landing in the path of a departing commuter. Apologies exchanged I went on my way. Why do we British say sorry when it’s patently not our fault…the poor chap had done nothing except be inconvenienced by my luggage but he politely said sorry and graciously held the lift door for me when I appeared red faced round the corner while still in the process of giving my rucksack a firm talking too. On the subject of politeness, on the journey up to Mull we brought the car as well as Mavis. Left in sole charge of 1.4 litres of thundering Mazda I armed myself with Alison’s old Sat Nav, just in case we got separated. That was how I discovered that she owns the most polite Sat Nav in the world. Instead of assertive instructions its apologetic female voice suggests routes for you, rather like a timid passenger who knows you’re going wrong but is too frightened to challenge the driver directly. Hence every instruction was prefaced with a gentle “please,” as in “please take a left turn in 300 yards…please turn left now…when it is safe to do so please turn around and take the first right…now really there is no need for that kind of language Raymond…O dear you seemed to have missed it again…slow and steady wins the race…well really who is a grumpy pants today…” And so on. I’m sure if I ended up entangled in a steaming pile of twisted multi car motorway inferno I’d hear a soothing “Oops a daisy, I’ll call nanny to kiss it better.”
The meeting went well and I then spent a most convivial evening in the company of my younger son. Beer and pizza were consumed and I wound my merry way back to Euston station where I had an exciting date with The Caledonian Sleeper. Just the name suggests a classic thriller, a sense of glamour mixed with peril; a woman in a glittery cocktail dress slinking along a panelled carriage watched by a bounder in a tux. A retired Colonel will be discovered dead in his berth and the whole mystery will have to be solved before we pull into Glasgow.
Joy upon joy, as I hand my ticket over for my paltry airline style reclining seat the cabin attendant tells me I’m upgraded to a private cabin due to some technical difficulty. But…but…I haven’t packed my cocktail frock I pleaded, but Frasier, for that was the name pinned to his breast, assured me that wasn’t necessary and bade me bon voyage. Well, along the platform my backpack induced stoop transformed into the erect gait of the seasoned traveller whose trunk has been loaded straight from the steamer and awaits him on board.
I was shown to a narrow little cabin where I took the bottom bunk with its natty foldaway table, concealed reading light and plump pillows. There was a neat little parcel with soap, ear plugs and eye shade on the bed, which I stowed away as a souvenir like all first time passengers. I just resisted stuffing the Caledonian Sleeper monogrammed towel into my bag. A hidden washbasin dispensed water so hot you could make a passable cup of tea with it and directly above in the exact spot you'd grab when the train took an unexpected lurch while going about your ablutions was the emergency pull cord. With my propensities for vagueness and calamity I decided the safest activity I could indulge in in such a confined space was reading and so settled in with my book and after a short interval flicked off the light and prepared for a good night’s sleep.
This of course proved elusive. Firstly I’d been through more buttons and switches than in the cockpit of the space shuttle until I found the correct configuration to extinguish the reading light without summoning assistance, changing the temperature or putting on the main light. As I nestled down we departed and the train clunked, bounced and shunted out of Euston and all the way to Glasgow in a series of random manoeuvres with no rhythm to lull you into sleep. Plus of course I was waiting for the shrill cry of alarm as the maid found the Colonel slumped over The Times crossword with a knife between the shoulder blades, but I concluded this sort of excitement only happens in first class and with that thought gradually drifted off.
In the morning as we neared Glasgow I roused myself, let forth a good trump, and after the American election there really isn’t a better term for an explosion of foul gas than that, and took delivery of a cup of coffee and the news that the journey was disappointingly murder free.
The connecting train to Oban was busy, and soon I took to that dreamy state where your mind wanders into others conversations. The couple behind me, two mature yet sprightly women, kept up over-lapping monologues that seemed only faintly connected to the same conversation;
"Is that garage red?"
“Ooh. I like that, it’s better than blue…”
“Do you like smarties Doris?”
“What do you think of that tree all alone up there?”
“Ooh, so it is”
“Have you been watching that Crimewatch with him off the telly?”
“No. I like the green of, what is it now…Oh yes, BP”
“Ooh, did you hear that, Cranlarich next stop; I wonder where that is...”
It was at this point that I leapt over the seats and with a cry of "be gone from this carriage you foul hags of the banal” hauled them from the train into the loch below to the cheers of my fellow passengers. Well, obviously I didn't, that would have been impolite so I just tutted and took solace in recording their conversation in my notebook.
At around 1:30 pm I joined the back packers, day trippers and locals laden with Tesco’s produce and took the ferry back to Mull. Alison was working so after an afternoon recuperating we reunited back at Mavis for a scone and cuppa. It is now 18:50 on Thursday 4th May and we’re sitting outside with tea in hand and birdsong for company. The tide has crept silently in, the sun is still shining and though dinner beckons we’re just too settled to move. A perfect moment.
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