Our Travel blog
Sat 10 June – Sunday 18 June
Our working days have settled into a routine; porridge, work, a walk if the weather is suitable followed by dinner. Thus our days pass in quiet happiness. The weather really is the big variable; we’ve had sunshine while floods occupy England and rain while everywhere else sizzles. Rainy days are good for business at the castle and sunny ones make for happy visitors. The weather is a big talking point on Mull because there is so much of it. The saying here is four seasons in one day, but that’s maybe 2 or 3 seasons fewer than we often experience in a 24 hour period. We are used to getting wet from pounding rain, leaning at 45 degrees into the wind while getting a sun tan. Sometimes when the wind suddenly ceases people fall flat onto their faces.
At work we are gearing up for the Clan MacLean Gathering, a five yearly affair where all those who carry the MacLean surname, or a variation thereof, and who have chosen to join the Clan Association descend from far and wide to cavort, renew old acquaintances, squeeze into ill-advised highland dress and buy anything that can be swathed in tartan. During the clearances and famine times (see last entry) many MacLean’s landed in Australia, Canada and North America where nowadays their descendants find some solace in tracing their lineage back to their Scottish roots. Since the Clan MacLean once ruled the isle and several nearby, these roots are often local to Mull. We’re expecting MacLean representatives from the UK, South America, New Zealand, Europe and Scandinavia along with the aforementioned USA, Canada and Australia. In practice this means Alison is busy ordering extra MacLean tartan stuff for the shop and in the castle we are impatiently waiting for the scaffolding from on-going restoration work to be removed so that the castle will look its absolute best.
Before the Gathering our days off suddenly came round and I had another London trip planned. Now playing the part of a seasoned traveller I commandeered a salty seadog type chappy to load my trunk aboard the ferry as we set sail for Oban to the strains of a sea shanty and much clinking of champagne glasses. Although I’m journeying alone from Oban Alison joined me for the ferry crossing armed with her shopping trolley/old ladies wheelie bag  to stock up on provisions. She scampered off to play a swift game of quoits on the poop deck and I checked to make sure I’d packed my smoking jacket.
Maybe it was the thought of being apart for a couple of days but things were tense. On reflection it wasn’t us, we were as soppy as ever, but it did seem like a day where the irritating and dim witted were out in force. To start with it took 15 minutes to exchange an 8 digit code for my rail ticket. There is no machine at Oban station so I waited patiently while a 19 year old representative of Scot Rail with acne and the ghost of a mustache sorted out a railcard and explained every nuance of the tickets, seat reservations, direction of travel, stops and nap of the thread on the seats to someone of equal fastidiousness. Once his customer had wandered off shuffling his tickets, to the obvious distress of Mr. Acne, I took my turn and was proudly flouncing away from his window within 2 minutes of arriving. My display of efficiency was only slightly spoiled by leaving my card in the machine, which I sheepishly retrieved and joined Alison in the nearby pub for breakfast.
Having wolfed down a full veggie Scottish breakfast we waddled to the train in good time, said our goodbyes and I went to board the little train until I was blocked by a party of Americans who were genuinely baffled by the luggage rack. How can a country that has put people on the moon and invented liquid cheese create people who are unable to stack rectangular suitcases onto horizontal shelves? Once boarded they seemed equally ill at ease with the seat reservations, bickering politely over who would take the window seats and then, half an hour into a 3 hour journey two of their number got up to rearrange the luggage. I was privately overjoyed when we jolted into a little station and one of their cases bounced to the floor.
Lulled by the rhythm of the train I drifted off, waking up around Loch Lomond, a not unpleasant place to open one’s eyes. Wiping the dribble from my chin I smiled warmly at the lady sitting opposite, a fraternal greeting that was intended to convey apologies for any snoring, belching or farting that my body had enjoyed while my mind was snoozing. We got chatting and I learned about her daughter in Aberdeen, the tortuous journey from Oban and her job as a school secretary. It occurs to me now that that is about all I know. If it had been Alison seated where I was she’d have names, birthdays, all manner of personal information and a lifelong friend made. I think it all happens on some other level of consciousness, one that as a mere bloke I am not privy too. It’s like being at a concert where I only hear the strings but Alison hears the whole orchestra.
Having swapped trains at Glasgow I sped south on the comfortable Virgin train. The journey is almost 5 hours and it’s as dull as…well as 5 hours on a train. Alighting onto the grim confines of a remote platform at Euston I dived into the tube and popped up into the sparkly refurbished Tottenham Court Road Station to find that my hotel was spread over two sites so I had to check into one place then walk back up the road to the other wing. Easy for me but a significant challenge to the poor overseas visitors wandering along looking for a mysterious portal to their room, until I pointed them to the entrance and then had to stand behind them for 10 minutes while they checked in again. When my turn came the staff clearly recognised a veteran globetrotter and waved me through. The façade slipped slightly when I got lost in the maze of doors and signs behind reception and had to retrace my steps to the check in area. Effecting a nonchalant swagger I pretended to read the breakfast menu while gathering my wits and set forth for a second attempt. After a short interval I burst through a door, bid the receptionist a cheery hello, pivoted on my heels and, pausing only to wish her an equally merry adieu went off for a third go. I managed to make it to the fourth floor via the steps before noticing a small sign directing me to the lift. I pressed the button and waited. Every so often the lighted UP arrow would go out and I’d have to start again until I gradually became aware that these instances were accompanied by a ding from somewhere over my shoulder. It slowly dawned on me in a Pavlovian kind of way that the two things were somehow associated; and lo, it came to pass that two further lifts were cleverly concealed behind me. I dived into an open one, waved to the receptionist when it opened on the ground floor opposite her, pressed the 9th floor button and waited for what seemed like an eternity before the doors closed on my shame.
My room, when I found it, was comfortable, clean and had a bath. So rare is a proper bath nowadays that I immediately ran one and climbed into what might have looked like a bath but unless you are less than 4 ft. tall was essentially a deep bidet. I had imagined wallowing in mountains of bubbles while eating a crumbly bar of chocolate by candlelight. Instead I sat folded in half in lukewarm water up to my waist under a humming fluorescent bulb and enjoyed 10 minutes of crumpled soapy bliss and 5 more scrabbling for the towel I’d left tantalizingly out of reach.
The following morning I found the breakfast room on the second attempt, the first being thwarted when I got out on the wrong floor. Now, I don’t want you think I am ungrateful for what is essentially a free cooked breakfast but it was awful. Time was when a stale croissant followed by a mountain of carbohydrates sliding around on a greasy plate would set me up for the day. Nowadays I demand slightly more, like recognisable food cooked all the way through, scrambled egg you don’t have to slice like rare beef and mushrooms that haven’t been left to wilt under the glare of the warming plate. The hash browns looked and tasted like little sponges used to mop up an oil spill. The coffee was good though and my unfinished plate was whisked away by someone without asking if I’d finished while I got a 2nd cup. I watched other diners load their plates high and chomp through it all without comment so I concluded that maybe it was just me. I returned to collect my bag and check out and like all seasoned travellers searched under the bed, behind the shower curtain and in drawers I knew I hadn’t opened just to see if any precious belongings had escaped overnight. Satisfied that they hadn’t I bounded down to reception, handed my card in and punched the air with delight at having travelled from my room to the hotel exit in one seamless manoeuver. Maybe I will wear the smoking jacket tonight for the return journey after all.
Following my all day meeting and an evening meal with my youngest I boarded the Caledonian Sleeper. Tonight there would be no upgrade and I took my place in an airplane style reclining seat for the journey. And surprisingly comfortable it was too. There isn’t much to report about a carriage of 25 or so slumbering bodies drooling and snorting their way north overnight. As far as I could tell everyone slept from when we lurched out of Euston at 11:50pm. I woke a few times but drifted back off quickly until around 7 am when we all staggered off into Glasgow, bedraggled, with erratic hair and pallid yawning faces looking for refreshment and the station restrooms like a Zombie invasion that had the foresight to charter a train in good time for the apocalypse.
 Delete as appropriate
That same day we had the rare opportunity to see singer songwriter Adrian Nation perform on Mull. He was on a brief Highlands and Islands tour and was playing at a small community centre near Fionnphort, which sits on the tip of The Ross of Mull, about as far as you can get from us but a lovely journey that we shared with two colleagues and an eccentric German hitchhiker. After first being introduced to him at a festival we found out Adrian lived down the road from us in Essex, so it was natural to invite him to play one of our house concerts that we used to run in Colchester. Since then he has played at our wedding and we’ve seen him perform several times. His ability to make the audience laugh and cry in equal measure is always astonishing. Friday night in the Creich Hall on Mull he played a magnificent set with his trademark virtuoso guitar playing, a rousing audience sing-along and a fiddle accompaniment from a local lass who recorded with him on his forthcoming new album. We even got tea and cake during the interval.
After fond goodbyes we set off for the return journey which turned into an unscheduled nocturnal wildlife tour. The first obstacle was a herd of Highland cattle that had wandered onto the road, then sheep in several places, deer bolting across the road, an impressive stag lazily grazing on a narrow strip between the road and sea and a ferret like animal carrying a baby rabbit that ran along the road in front of us. It could have been a weasel, stoat or possibly a pine marten. Alison’s research suggests it was most likely a Polecat; anyway it was most exciting to see it scamper along carrying its furry midnight snack.
Later in the week after a tiring day at work we decided to get out in the sun that had finally made an appearance. Thus around 8pm we pointed the car south and drove on a scenic road that loops around Ben More, which at 966 metres (3,169 feet) is the highest mountain and only Munro on the Isle of Mull. After turning right at a lonely bus shelter at the head of Loch Scriedain we followed the right bank through lonely settlements that hung between the misty sea loch and lush greenery of the lower slopes of the mountains. The air smelled sweet, of fresh bracken and sea salt. Wild Foxgloves grow on the island and no more so than here where they frame the sea views and colonise the steep slopes that are studded with the deep pink of innumerable plants all standing straight up like an untidy parade. The Foxglove is of course a close relative of the Badgersock and the Otterscarf.
We swung right and through a mountain pass heavily scarred by recent logging. Ahead the sky was taking on an amber glow as we drove towards the west coast and the open sea. As the road crested the last hill it revealed the sea bathed in amber under a hazy sun. The islands before us were black against a glow that stretched to the horizon and the air was still and warm. It took our breath away. Now, before I continue I must confess that to appreciate this natural splendor we had pulled into a passing space. This is one of the cardinal sins of island life. It’s considered slightly more serious than high treason here and only just below genocide. If the locals have their way it’ll become a capital offence. That’s certainly the impression from reading posts on local forums and listening to the pub chatter. To be fair it is intensely irritating to reverse for half a mile because some fuckwit in camouflage gear has parked in a passing space because he has heard a rumour that a lesser spotted marsh tit warbler is nesting nearby. In our defense we hadn’t seen another car in the last half hour and anyway there was ample room to accommodate all but a logging truck in the unlikely event that the Mull rush hour wasn’t over.
From our illicit parking space the road plunged down in a series of gentle bends to the remote Balmeanach farm and then hugged the shore beneath formidable cliffs along Loch na Keal. Here we found a remote spot to picnic. It was nearly 9pm and we ate under the rays of a low sun while we reflected on our engagement on this day three years before, and the journey we’ve been on since. The waters of the loch rippled gently, sparkling gold and silver and opposite us the shores of the Isle of Ulva turned dark as the sun dropped behind the cliffs, occasionally its rays pierced through and caught us in its beam where glens carved a path through the rocky island. Nothing disturbed the tranquility of this remote spot, the only sound was the gurgling of a waterfall hidden in the greenery behind us and the occasional contented crunch of a Pringle dunked in Taramasalata.
Driving on in the strange luminescence of the northern twilight we cruised around the loch, through the dappled forests and estate of Knock and up to Salen on the East coast. Here we paused again as the sun melted into the sea in spectacular fashion. We stood looking over ebony shores and a sea shimmering like molten steel. It was a magical display; one of those moments that you have to soak in and let the memory burn into your mind; until we were driven away by the midges that is. We drove home in contented silence drinking in the magical landscape, the orange sun, golden waters, sun bleached mountains with dark shadows rising steadily upwards and to the lapping shoreline of Lochdon, silent save for the lowing of distant cattle and birdsong. We’re growing quite fond of Mull.
Sunday 28 May - Friday 9 June
We are over 6 weeks into our summer on Mull. Apart from the echo chamber of social media we’ve largely been spared the election hullaballoo. We voted in our constituency in Leek by post. I do like the postal vote system; it ensures that fewer people are disenfranchised. Unless you are under 18 and about to inherit the mess we leave behind. Quite why at 16 years old you can sleep or more excitingly stay awake with whoever you want so long as they are not younger or of a different species but be forbidden from exercising an opinion on the kind of government you want to represent you is beyond me. I know not all 16 and 17 year olds make rational, informed decisions but then again consider that:
Out walking Megan accidentally wandered onto a live firing range involving a fake town simulation. Seeing state troopers walking slowly down the stree,t instead of, say, hiding or shouting out a warning she chose instead to jump out in front of them and yelled "Boo!"
"She just looked like a very real looking target," one of the troopers stated in his report following her untimely demise.
Meanwhile back on Mull I thought it was time to let you know what we do at the castle. Duart Castle is a typical Highland and Islands stone tower defensive building plonked on a prominent spot to control sea trading routes. On these hilly, boggy lands most trade, indeed most movement of people was by sea and a commanding position backed up by a local force of keen fighting men afforded the owner plenty of power and influence.
The Castle stands on a bulge of dark rock at the tip of a peninsula overlooking The Sound of Mull. (The name Duart derives from the Gaelic for Black Rock). It is a beguiling place, dark and brooding in the rain, bright and welcoming in the sun. It is the ancestral seat of the Chief of the Clan MacLean. The fifth Chief gained the land and castle as a kind of dowry in 1356 by marrying Mary MacDonald, daughter of the Lord of the Isles. I say kind of because according to some stories he’d already kidnapped her so the Lord’s options were limited. Anyway the MacLean’s came to dominate Mull as well as a lump of adjacent mainland called Morvern, the Isles of Jura, Coll and Tiree and a few smaller islands that I cannot be arsed to remember. Their power base was always Duart, although it was controlled by their rivals the Campbell’s for a while and occupied by the English after the unpleasantness of Culloden and the Civil War. As their parting gift the English garrison pulled most of it down, leaving just a few walls. In 1900 Sir Fitzroy MacLean, 26th Chief and a professional soldier who managed to miss The Charge of the Light Brigade by remaining in bed with dysentery, purchased the ruins and surrounding land. He was wise enough to employ an architect who used the drawings produced by the occupying English troops to not only restore the castle but carry out modifications to turn it into a family home.
Like any building that’s stood since the 12th Century it has been changed, adapted to different times and uses and had its fair share of battering from the Scottish weather, enemy guns and the whims of successive Chiefs. Today it’s still lived in by the 28th Chief and his wife who have invested a not inconsiderable sum into making it water-tight after years of decaying mortar and water penetration had taken their toll.
Duart is one of only 2 or 3 Clan Chief ancestral seats still owned and lived in by the family. The present castle comprises three buildings, with a curtain wall making up the fourth side. Two buildings are residential and storage used by the family and the third is the Tower or Keep. From its dungeons to battlements it is open to the public and contains various exhibitions and information. I spend 4 days in the castle, either selling tickets or as a guide, conducting guided tours for groups and generally answering questions.
A former cattle byre has been converted into a tea room and shop and that is usually where the visitor will encounter Alison. So far she has done 4 days in the shop and 1 in the tearoom (I cover the shop on her tearoom day, steadily undoing all her good work). Shortly she will be swapping a shop day to join me in the castle on Sundays.
It is all jolly good fun; we get to meet lots of interesting people, answer questions from the thought-provoking to the strange, bizarre and plain awkward, like this encounter I had with an American couple…
“So, why is this pool table so big?” “Actually it’s a billiard table…” “Blank looks” “It’s like snooker…” “Blank looks” “It’s like a very big game of pool…” “Ah, so, it’s the English version of pool…why do you make the tables so big…” “Err…It pre-dates pool, which I imagine was derived from snooker, at least in the form of using cues to strike balls into pockets on a table…” “Really? It seems so big; it must be difficult to play pool on it…” At which point I repeatedly introduced their craniums to Mr. Snooker Cue. Well not really, that’s considered bad for business and makes a mess on the carpet.
In truth it’s the odd and unexpected questions that keep us on our toes. Alison is adept at explaining the different MacLean tartan to MacLean’s who visit from around the world, especially Canada, America and Australia. She is equally adept at selling them various examples in a myriad of forms from keyrings to kilt material. I’m getting to know the history of the castle, the Clan and some of the tales that bring the history alive. The more shocking or gory the better as far as most tourists are concerned, especially the children.
As I mentioned earlier I work in the shop on Fridays. Unfortunately my brain doesn’t retain information if it isn’t hammered in repeatedly for days on end, so one day a week leaves ample time between shifts for anything I might have learned to leak away. This Friday, the morning after the general election and a late and restless night contributed to my incompetence behind the counter.
I made an error on the till with my very first customer, 3 postcards at 50p each and I rang through 3 X £1:50. For a moment I stood transfixed just staring at the till, partly at my accidentally accurate if in-opportune mental arithmetic and partly letting the rusting cogs in my cranium clunk and whir towards a solution. Reasserting self-control and shaking myself from the stupor I smiled warmly at the poor chap waiting for his change, or so I thought; the way he recoiled suggested I might have looked more hysterical than I imagined. Apologising to him I went through a series of adjustments to the till in a vain and increasingly noisy attempt to get the drawer to ping open. I resorted to hitting mysterious buttons marked [SCN], [X] and [DO NOT PRESS] but nothing worked. In the end I rang it through as if 3 postcards of hairy ginger cows cost the princely sum of £4:50, accepted the £2:00 coin that the poor man had held aloft for the last 5 minutes and worked out he needed 50p change. So quite why I gave him three 20pence pieces is beyond me but anyhow he went away rubbing circulation back into an arm that was numb from holding out his £2 coin for so long.
And so the long day continued. Alison was working in the tea room nearby and came to my rescue on more than one occasion. Not that other members of staff wouldn’t but after 18 months of marriage she’s learned to recognise my struggles by the subtle warning signs I display; agitation, weeping, mashing the till keys, throwing things and telling the customer to just F off and take your tartan crap with you….Okay, not the last one and in fairness the customers are nearly always polite and jovial. The last customers of the day cheered me with their Texas drawl and dry, sardonic wit. They were visiting their daughter in Aberdeen who’d just delivered them a brand new baby granddaughter. What was so engaging was the way a portly Texan chap, with a belt buckle the size of a toilet seat on his Levi’s and wearing a moustache that you could hide an otter in just swelled up with pride telling me about the new baby. He stood like a denim lighthouse beaming paternal pride while handing me expensive goods almost at random to ring through the till. Silence descended as my right index finger moved in slow motion towards the till and hovered above like a Hawk scanning for prey. My brain played the Bonanza theme tune as my hand skipped over the keys and rang up a healthy total without apparent error. I smiled and exchanged pleasantries, only marginally spoiling my success when the till drawer sprung open with unnatural force into my groin. I wished them a hearty soprano farewell and slammed the till drawer shut, whereupon it bounced open again with uncanny accuracy.
Alison isn't without her own tussles on a Friday as it is her day in the tearoom. The biggest challenge, apart from responding to my pathetic pleading, is learning the different combinations of water, coffee and milk that combine in exciting steamy ways to create umpteen varieties of what is essentially a very large or very small coffee.
I'd be hopelessly lost of course, especially since every so often some spoilt snowflake raised on organic WiFi and vegan scatter cushions asks for a soy latte slow press Nicaraguan fair trade decaf in a warmed mug and expects a sodding swan drawn on the top too. Alison takes this in her stride, or at least appears to although I was cheered to hear her confess one evening to making a hot chocolate for a customer using a scoop of powder from the jar with the green lid. It was only later that she discovered it was one of two green lidded jars and the other one contained...well actually it contained the hot chocolate, whereas the one she used contained the decaf coffee. As no complaints were forthcoming we assume she's invented some new concoction and soon barista’s up and down the land will be puzzled by requests for a decaf-hot-chocolate al-la- Duart.
On our days off we’ve been exploring and last Wednesday we found ourselves in a narrow glen skirting a series of lochs until, upon a whim we elected to climb up to a distant waterfall. Well, it was worth the climb through boggy grasses, exposed patches of rock and fresh ferns. Alighting on the steep sided gorge cut by centuries of pouring water we peered into a valley of rough stone, bright bracken and tumbling peaty waters. It was all the more spectacular for the effort we’d put in, with no paths and the climb few people had ventured up there. We took our time exploring and just admiring the views. We went down by a gentler route following what appeared, from the size of the regular deposits, to be deer tracks. I’m not sure what we’d have done if we’d stumbled into a nest of the blighters and accidentally trodden on their eggs. Of course I’m assuming deer nest on the ground as we’ve never seen them in the trees but who knows, Mull is a mysterious place.
On a recent day off we took ourselves to the remote settlement of Croggan. It sits at the tip of a peninsula of corrugated land between the sea and Loch Spelve. Its remote feel is partly due to the effort needed to get there. Historically it would have been by boat but nowadays a single track road winds its way sluggishly between hill and sea, passed jutting rocks and over tumbling burns. In places where it hasn’t been patched up rough island grass grows down the centre and passing places are few and far between. This absence of passing places gives rise to occasional passive games of chicken when you come nose to nose with an oncoming car. On most roads here there are plenty of passing points and after a while you learn to time your approach to such a degree that neither party has to slow down significantly. On our journey to Croggan, having already negotiated sheep, cyclists and geese we had to reverse back over a hillock and then further on we had to force some ridiculous tank/4X4 hybrid to reverse for a ¼ of a mile. On this last occasion we took the high ground, literally and figuratively as we rounded a bend to come face to face with them parked up in the middle of the road taking pictures.
After parking overlooking the narrow entrance to the loch we walked on a rough track around the peninsula, carefully avoiding a young Adder slithering across the track in front of us, and onto the secluded sandy beach of Port nan Crullach. It was a hot day and we shared the expanse of warm sand with one other family and some sheep. After a picnic lunch we paddled in warm waters and lazed on the rocks to dry off. Suitably refreshed we set off for our next destination scrambling up a steep incline through thick undergrowth. The remains of the settlements of Barnashoag and Balgamrie sit in a slight hollow alongside a spring fed burn that tumbles off the cliff in a series of waterfalls and onto the beach below. Or usually does; the unusual dry spell meant it was almost dry today, making our assent easier. This must have been a tough place to live; isolated, even by Mull standards, the rudimentary stone crofts comprised around 23 buildings and enclosures that were exposed to vicious winter winds and humid midge infested summers.
These particular settlements were deserted towards the end of the 19th Century, along with many such places in Mull. From the mid-18th Century to the end of the 19th the population on Mull shrunk from around 10,000 people to under 3,000. Indeed the Highlands of Scotland and Western Isles were reduced to one quarter of its population in the same period. Popularly dubbed The Highland Clearances the reasons were more complex than sometimes reported but essentially were the result of greedy out of touch and mostly absentee owners of the land. And I use the word owners in the loosest possible sense. Mostly they were the traditional Clan Chiefs who were keen to move into polite Edinburgh and London society and ‘improve’ themselves. They may have believed that they owned vast areas of Scotland, but they were cash poor, relying on their tenants paying a paltry rent via middlemen, or Tackmen, who collected the rents and essentially ran the settlements and oversaw their Chief’s land.
Then came the sheep. Scrawny local sheep had been a staple of the small holdings but now a hardy Cheviot cross breed that could withstand the harsh winters was introduced and slowly spread in a bleating tide of mutton and lamb. To facilitate maximum return from their herds the landowners drove the tenants out. Initially through the Tackmen, who imposed impossibly high rents, and then by militia, friends and neighbours of the gentry and finally the army. There were revolts but they were largely unorganised. The church ministers, translating for their lords and masters from English into Gaelic, encouraged the populace to move on with threats of eternal damnation, claiming the abundant grasslands of the glens and hills were needed to fulfil God’s plans to graze sheep. The locals were viewed as vulgar, superstitious, idle and incapable of ‘improvement’. The landowners, or their representatives at least, resorted to the burning of crofts and other harsh treatments. According to contemporary accounts it was the women who put up most resistance. For example in one incident at Strathcarron in March 1854 the police force clashed with such ferocity with women blocking their path that their batons were broken on the bonnets of the protesters. There were just 2 men and a couple of children present to support the women. No injuries to their ranks were reported by the police but fatalities and life-changing injuries were widely reported among protesters.
Gradually shooting estates replaced sheep in some regions, vast areas given over to grouse, deer, hare and other game rented out to syndicates of noble gentlemen for their leisure, leading to more clearing of the settlements that still lingered in the glens. Then famine struck. Potatoes were a staple crop in the highlands and islands, a cheap crop that could grow in the poor soil and could survive being buried in pits ready to be dug up in the spring. Potato blight swept through Europe in the 1840’s and decimated Ireland from 1845. In 1846 it crept into the Western Highlands and hit its zenith in 1847.
Grain was still harvested but was sent south to keep English stomachs full, causing riots and the intervention of the army. Highlanders, already driven to the margins, starved. Eventually relief came, some from the mostly absentee landlords but generally through charity relief from the lowlands and England. A lot of this was dependent upon the people being ‘deserving poor’ and local ministers had to vouch for the family’s standing and good character for them to get any help. Work schemes were introduced to provide labour in return for meagre supplies by the more ‘enlightened’ landlords. The biggest form of relief though came in the form of emigration. Highlanders had been emigrating for some time in response to the clearances but now it gathered momentum. People were encouraged, lied to, forced and all but herded onto any old creaking ship that would transport them to Canada, America or Australia. Promises of a utopian better life were made and people crowded into ships with no privacy. Many didn’t survive the voyage as cholera swept through the over-crowed hulls and food and water ran out or was contaminated. Struggling ashore they encountered bleak, harsh conditions and little to sustain them on unfamiliar foreign soil. Many ended up destitute again.
Free were the fields of fern
Free was the fishing in the coves of care
Empty are the homes of old
Empty for the sake of summer's cause
Yes, you're taking it all away
The music, the tongue and the old refrains
You're coming here to play
And you're pulling the roots from a dying age.
Incidentally, a lot of what we think of as highland culture doesn’t come from the Gaelic speaking natives. They might well have worn a practical kilt, coloured according to the supply of local materials to make dye and patterned by local weavers but tartan as we know it today, along with all the impractical adornments like bejewelled dirks (daggers worn on the kilt belt), sashes and ridiculous hats were an invention peddled in no small part by well-heeled gentlemen of dubious Scottish legacy. They formed groups like The Society of True Highlanders and The Celtic Society of Edinburgh in the early 1800’s to peddle a fashionable faux nostalgia for all things Scottish, to celebrate the very heritage that they were eradicating by their greed. President of the Celtic Society was Sir Walter Scott (author of Rob Roy & Ivanho) who managed to get King George IV north of the border, the first foray into Scottish territory by an English monarch for 200 years. It was Scott and his assistant David Stewart who prescribed official tartans for each ‘clan’. This may not have been as cynical as it sounds. Following the Battle of Culloden in 1746 an Act of Parliament was passed which made the wearing of tartan a penal offence. Over time the details of the old patterns were lost and old tartans perished leaving limited evidence for Scott and Stewart to work with, at least for some of the smaller Clans. The fashion for all things ‘Scottish’ was an invention of the ruling landowners and high society who romanticised the Highland life. People carrying the clan surname were mostly not related by blood anyway, their ancestors probably took the name of their Clan Chief because they lived on his land.
Anyway, in spite of its severe and unforgiving history we found Barnashoag and Balgmrie enchanting on a sunny day. It is to the credit of the Scottish that little settlements like these stand as remote testament to the dispossessed. There are no signs, information boards or even paths, just remote ruins on a lonely windswept hilltop looking out to views that few of the villagers would have appreciated in their harsh hand to mouth existence. 
Following animal tracks down the hills we came upon a more complete cottage whose walls were almost intact. It sat next to a burn that tumbled over the rocks in a series of small noisy waterfalls, into a thicket of gorse where a young deer had taken refuge as we approached. Across the stream was a walled animal enclosure and the remnants of old stone walls, one of which we traced downhill to the track and back to our car.
The Cheviot sheep certainly took to life on Mull and are still present in huge numbers just about everywhere you look. On the way into work the other day we were driving along at a sedate pace and rounded a corner to be confronted by a small flock of them in the road, a not uncommon occurrence here. However this bunch proceeded to sprint ahead of us on the road, ignoring the lush grass verges and open fields to either side. Clearly seeing their chums having such fun more joined them from the undergrowth until we were surrounded by galloping woolly ruminants. Alison, glancing in the rear-view mirror squealed “Oh my…I’m about to be overtaken by a sheep…” and sure enough we were. A first for us and it has replaced the Robin Reliant that was Alison’s previous personal best in the ‘being overtaken by…’ competition. In fact I think it might beat my horse and cart entry. We’ll let you be the judge.
Alison is of course a rock of sweet midge bating loveliness as always and has discovered a passion for wandering off-piste over hill and glen in true Scottish fashion. So liberal are the local laws regarding access to land that in most circumstances you can just wander wherever takes your fancy, so much so that even the Ordinance Survey maps don’t show footpaths. In itself that’s rather fabulous but it does mean that on occasion one will scramble up a promising ridge to be confronted by an impenetrable deer proof fence with smug looking sheep on the other side and no option but to retrace your steps or wander further. We can walk for miles without seeing another soul; it’s all quite splendid and makes for exciting escapades.
When not off roaming the hills or at work, we’re very comfortable here in Mavis in our quiet little corner of Mull. We’ve been very lucky so far with the weather. What we particularly appreciate though is the breeze; it keeps the midges away. If Scotland is known for anything that cannot be dressed in tartan and sold to American tourists its midges. We’ve only had a couple of days when the little buggers were around in significant numbers so I guess we should count ourselves lucky. One of those days happened to be when I was alone in a little shed selling entrance tickets to the castle. It was warm, raining lightly and mild so I had the window shut until a family approached who were performing what I think of as ‘the swatting dance’. This involves walking along at a brisk pace waving your arms about your face and every few paces slapping the back of your neck or cheek then back to the arm waving. I think it may be a distant ancestor of Morris dancing. I had no option but to open the window to serve them and thus my afternoon was spent in the company of approximately seven billion insects. I’m fortunate in that they don’t seem to bite me, unlike poor Alison to whom they are understandably attracted. If you keep moving they are fine, but stand still and they go up your nose, in your ears and settle on any exposed skin. In my little hut that afternoon I experienced all this plus the added misery of them sticking to the midge repellent I’d sprayed on. By the time I swapped over with the other guide my face looked like I’d spent the afternoon tattooing it. Mind you my replacement was sporting a kilt so I felt I couldn’t complain, I just gave him a sympathetic look and wandered out looking like a Māori version of Pigpen from the Charlie Brown cartoons.
Finally I’m aware this year’s blog isn’t taking the same shape as last years, and that the posts are far less frequent. Apologies for that but work and recreation in the form of discovering this glorious island is our priority while the weather lasts. If I’m honest I’m not feeling the passion for writing that I had last year either. It may be this working full time nonsense (honestly, whose idea was that?) or just that I find myself lacking sufficient vocabulary to do this wonderful place justice. Hopefully the photos accompanying the blog will do the job for me. As the saying goes a picture paints a thousand words....
 In my clumsy attempt to summarise a complex and nuanced situation I’ve glossed over an awful lot of detail and simplified events to a ludicrous degree. I’m indebted to the following books for information:
White People, Indians, and Highlanders: Tribal Peoples and Colonial Encounters in Scotland and America – Colin Galloway and Highland Clearances – John Prebble.
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