Our Travel blog
21 October - Leek
Here we are. Ruddy faced after walking back from the football (more about that anon) and settling in to an evening that could feature hot running water, a lavatory that flushes, central heating and a cat. Apart from that last one, which is a mixed blessing, it’s all quite cosy and a step up from a summer spent living in our motorhome, Mavis. Not that adapting to life in a house has been tension free. The first evening we tried cooking together, a luxury that we simply didn’t have room for in Mavis. Yet somehow in a kitchen with plenty of work surfaces, umpteen cupboards, a full sized oven and hob and enough floor space to stage a production of Waiting for Godot, so long as the audience don’t mind sitting on the stairs, we managed to get in each-others way. At one point I had a hot roasting tin melting my oven glove and couldn’t find a suitable resting place, despite a selection of trivets being available when I took it out of the oven 3 seconds earlier. There followed a tense exchange of guarded bewilderment, exactly the type of exchange we had when we first moved into Mavis and realised that the kitchen wasn’t suitable for more than 1 person at a time, and that was stretching it. It was soon remedied and we enjoyed the novelty of a meal cooked in an oven.
So we’ve adapted, spent some time getting to know the house and community and Mull seems a long time ago. I’ve written about the impression that Scotland and its people made on us before and about Mull as we went along so I don’t want to repeat myself here; suffice to say it was a wonderful experience that we have every intention of repeating next year. The people of Mull are a hardy bunch, disparate characters from around the UK and further afield. I’ve read somewhere that about 1/3 of the resident population are from outside Scotland and even among the Scots many were not born and bred on Mull. There’s a sense that the settlers have been drawn to a place of sanctuary, of community and isolation in equal measure; outsiders by choice and design like the travellers and people living on the fringes of mainstream society we met on the festival circuit last year. People who see a way of life that appeals and have the courage and fortitude to pursue it. I’m sure that is a gross generalisation but whatever folks’ motivations we found everyone, friends, colleagues, neighbours and strangers, welcoming and accommodating.
Mull has a rich history, steeped in legend. Tales of warfare, clearances and ship wrecks; pilgrims, clans and castles; elegant houses and lairds are in the souls of locals and seep into the bones of settlers and visitors alike. Anecdotes of bygone times are seldom far from lips at the bar or at the till of the shop. Usually when I’m in a rush but there you go, that’s Mull. It is an unhurried world, where traffic is mostly restricted to single file and island time generally means ‘sometime soon…ish…maybe… if the ferry’s running…unless Morag calls in for a cuppa of course.’ People stop to give lifts to hitch hikers, they offer to pick up provisions for friends and strangers alike on visits to the mainland and lend anything and everything in the knowledge that it’ll be them needing help next time. Although it is only a hairs breadth from mainland Scotland it’s still very much an island. The main ferry takes 50 minutes from Oban, services and provisions are limited at times, especially in the depths of winter when the ferries might not run for a few days at a time. Petrol, Calor gas and medications can run short and you can still tell the season by the vegetables you are served. Walking around you see the signs of make do and mend. Gates propped up, old doors made into chicken coops, half-finished improvements and homemade deer fences and in amongst it all, at the root of every love affair with Mull, is the scenery.
We’ve seen spectacular sunsets, views that left us breathless, mountains reflected in mirror-like lochs, waterfalls tumbling from cliffs, waves breaking against hidden rocks. We’ve picnicked on deserted sandy beaches under cloudless skies and seen more rainbows than a Pride parade. We’ve seen deer, mink, otter, hare, dolphins, golden and sea eagles, adders, a pole cat carrying its prey, buzzards ad infinitum and have wandered through herds of highland cows and flocks of sheep with new-born lambs. We’ve heard the stags roar, eagles call, owls twit-twoo and cuckoos – well, cuckoo.
We got to work in a castle too, a real life 13th century castle. Like most tourist attractions it has a guide book to accompany your visit (only £3:00, excellent value) so to replicate that with lots of facts and figures here would be 1) unnecessary and 2) boring. So instead I’ve prepared a few unusual snaps from my phone that I took during the season in quieter moments. (Blog continues after pics)
We spent out last evening on Mull parked next to the castle. It was a wild night, the rain lashed down upon us in the fashion favoured on Mull, horizontally. It helped that we were fortified by a few drinks with friends and a sobering walk back to Mavis in wet and windy darkness. The next morning we left with mixed emotions…well, mostly sadness but a tingle of excitement for the journey ahead and a prickle of expectation at seeing family, friends and of course our house. On the ferry we held ourselves together until we passed the castle and friends and colleagues were out flying flags for us on our departure.
Back in Leek we’ve been ingratiating ourselves gently into the community; the people are very friendly once you get past the part of the introduction where they express surprise that we’ve chosen to live in their town. It appears to have more barbers, hairdressers and pubs per capita than anywhere else we’ve ever been. I’m long past needing a barber shop but Alison’s hairdresser reads this blog so I’d like to take this opportunity to assure her that Alison hasn’t so much as glanced in the direction of any salons and although many of the pubs look tempting we have found one that we are quite fond of. In an effort to familiarise ourselves with the area one of the first things we did once we’d moved in was go to the football.
We have always liked lower or non-league football. Real football as we call it. Real not so much as in the action on the pitch, although that does have a more robust and direct approach to the game than the preened athleticism of the Premier League, but more on the stands and terraces. It’s there from the moment you approach the ground; the fading sponsorship adds and peeling paintwork, the Day-Glo stewards who greet regulars and offer a polite nod to newcomers, the narrow turn-styles with their caged attendant with his or her stack of £1 coins to make change, carefully ticking off each entrant type on their clipboard. The banter in the queue, talk of ‘our Darren’ being selected for Thursday night training’, swapping stories of the last match – 9-0 away, ‘bloody marvellous it was, like the old days…’ ‘Aye, but they’ll need to be switched on today…can’t get complacent…’
Inside both sets of fans mingled, red and black scarves and discreet pin badges for the visiting team supporters, all the way from Kettering for a cup match. They wandered around looking for a suitable place to stand without upsetting any locals, heaven forbid that you should accidentally stand where Old Bob always stands with his pie and lukewarm tea. Hardened home fans stood behind their goalkeeper, the same at the other end with the away fans; quite a few travelled up, high spirits and friendly banter, a few nods and polite hellos to the home fans as they passed. Rivals on the pitch maybe but kindred spirits on the terraces, hardened by long drives, 0-0 draws on damp Tuesday nights, a hundred cups of instant coffee in a hundred different grounds, talk on the bus home of not bothering next season, but knowing that they will.
The coaching team shouted and cajoled from their dugouts, animated managers who kick every ball and feel every collision while they issue orders from the touchline. Holding their breath as a free kick is floated over; head in hands as a chance is missed, screaming instructions into the wind, just a red faced bellow away from a coronary. But the real experts are behind the hurriedly painted fencing of dried gloss and rust. These are the vocal supporters, squeezed into replica shirts and chomping on pies while they berate everyone on the pitch for not being fit enough. Every move that breaks down, each mistimed challenge or error attracts a flurry of derision. Every well timed interception, attempt on goal or good save draws encouragement and praise. These are of course reversed when yelling at the visiting team when every move is roundly derided. It’s nothing though compared to the abuse the referee gets. It truly is a thankless task because neither team nor their supporters are on their side. They can do no right even when they are demonstrably correct in their decision. The torrent of invective some fans directed at the match officials was just plain nasty, lacking any of the wit and imagination that often springs from the terraces.
At half time we queued for refreshments. The menu offered ‘pie’, no fillings specified, with a variety of accompaniments chosen it seems for their stomach lining properties, chips, gravy, peas (mushy of course), curry sauce or hot dogs for the culinary daring; fodder for cold winter nights under the icy glare of floodlights. A young lad stood with his father as they warmed their hands around cups of hot Bovril, their breath steaming together in the chilly air. Precious moments spent discussing tactics, remembering past encounters and debating the referee’s decisions. When it’s all over they’ll hunch up their shoulders, thrust hands deep into pockets and walk home together, darting across roads while analysing the game. It might be their only day of the week spent with each other. Maybe the father did this with his dad too, back when the home crowd was comfortably in four figures every Saturday. Side by side, their shadows split into four under the floodlights. For a moment all is still and quiet except for the echo of old chants and cheers, the lingering smells of tobacco and beer, the stains of drinks spilt when the team scores, tears when the last game of the season confirms relegation, or perhaps promotion; memories that haunt the ground as each generation adds another layer. Like the peeling barrier they are leaning upon, nostalgia and melancholy get tangled in a fleeting glimpse of a past etched into the soul of these crumbling grounds where the rituals get passed on from parent to child up and down the country.
The game itself was fun, passionate and occasionally enlivened by endearing incompetence; slips, headers going in the wrong direction, missed opportunities and occasionally outbreaks of the beautiful game. Somehow Leek won 3-2, a fact that was hotly contested by some of the away fans who let the match officials know their feelings in no uncertain terms. There was a post-match scuffle in the players’ tunnel, pulses quickened and testosterone sloshed about briefly before the teams were ushered off and the Kettering supporters resumed their roll call of injustices to closed doors and grinning stewards.
Overall though we were rather buoyed up by the experience, it felt good to be on the terraces. One of the official match day photos even has us in the background, a slightly glum couple watching the game from somewhere under 17 layers of warm clothing, who weren’t even certain which were the home team until 10 minutes into the game, but look closely and you’ll see a sly grin on our faces.
In fact we were so enamoured with it that we went back the following week to watch a cumbersome 2-2 draw. Route 1 football, that is kick it high and long and hope it lands near one of your team, is alive and well in the Northern Premier League Division One South. This week my attention was drawn to the sponsors. Povey’s oatcakes, a vaping shop with an instantly forgettable name, a local electrical store and best/worst of all, ground and kit sponsors Esterchem, whose logo must have taken whole seconds to dream up; ester and chem split by solid rectangles of green and black. It looks like someone has redacted the first and last part of their name for reasons I didn’t dwell on because my attention was drawn to their hoardings above both goal-end terraces. Here they have helpfully list some of their products to tempt you into the exciting adventures you could enjoy with Triacetin, Diacetin, Egda and other chemicals that I’m guessing aren’t on every supporters shopping list.
On the other hand without these sponsors who are unlikely to ever recoup what they spend, teams like Leek wouldn’t survive. So with that sobering thought I’m off to grab some Esterchem 1,3 BGDA before the shops close. In the meantime if you’d like a little ‘extra’ blog there’s a link here to a review I did of singer songwriter Adrian Nations new album, Anarchy and Love.
7 October - 20 October - part 1
The combined effects of a heavy cold, packing up and a longer than usual stint at work have meant we've been a bit lax on the writing front of late. We leave Mull on Sunday 22nd for an overnight stop in Glasgow before heading to Leek where we need to indulge in some serious job hunting for the winter.
We are sad to be leaving, sad to be leaving friends, great jobs and the wonderful Autumn colours of Mull. Our sadness is tempered with the anticipation of seeing family and friends 'down south' and the realisation that we could be returning for next years season in just over 4 months time.
I'm planning at least one more full blog entry once we're back in our house and have a little time on our hands, but right now its midday, the sun is shining, Adrian Nation is on the stereo and we can hear the hills of Mull calling so we're heading out.
In the meantime here are some pictures from the last few days.
P.S. If you happen to have work for 2 nomads in the Staffordshire Moorlands area, happy to work from home, then do please get in touch.
21 September - 6 October
At the beginning of our season here on Mull the land was dry, the air warm and hazy and the hazards while out walking were minimal. Now, after a summer of rain rambling has become an adventure fraught with risks and perils, mostly of the wet and squelchy kind. Such was our recent experience hiking through Glenforsa to Beinn Talaidh, a prominent mountain at the heart of the island. The route took us along 2 miles of track that was pleasant enough for a walk but with every step our destination became more menacing. True to form the local guide book suggested that its assent would be suitable for an afternoon stroll with granny and a couple of toddlers. In fact the ‘nose’ of Beinn Talaidh appeared almost vertical to our eyes and the carpet of cloud so confidently predicted to depart by early afternoon sat on top like a sulking child sent to sit on the stairs to think about what they said about Aunt Doris’s wig.
We ploughed on towards the bothy at the foot of the climb up but after a tussle with a raging torrent of white water rapids, or gentle burn if you were reading the same guide book as us, we decided to strike out instead for the lower hills. We chose some that marked one side of the glen we’d walked along, the intention being to cut down a handy slope to meet the track about half way back. We soon found ourselves struggling up a hill of springy reeds and crossing swamps on ‘stepping stone’ tufts of grasses and woody plants that may be a wild herb or some endangered species of local flora. If it is then it may be considerably more endangered since our trek – sorry.
We made heavy work of the lower climb but as the slope grew steeper so the ground became firmer and we reached the peak, took in the view and plunged on. To afford some shelter from the breeze we followed an animal track below the ridge that slowly but surely descended towards the glen. Faced with a boggy patch with me leading the way across I heard a shriek accompanied by a watery squelch and muffled swearing from Alison. I took a moment to compose myself before turning around and sploshing to her aid, some 6th sense telling me that a huge grin wouldn’t brighten her day at that precise moment.
Restored to the vertical and with only a few muddy patches to show for her intimate acquaintance with the hill we trampled on, splish-splashing through quagmires and springy grasses for maybe 400 yards or so, when a high decibel verbal assault on the frailties of the Scottish landscape from behind me was brought to an abrupt burbling halt by some wet sucking noises, followed by hearty swearing. By the time I reached her Alison was upright again but distinctly slimier than she’d been last time I saw her. To add to the drama she stood in a position only normally possible after years of ballet training or using some kind of medieval torture device. “Hello precious”, I ventured “you know, brown suits you…” I won’t trouble you here with her response but it cleared the hillside of sheep. A good heave-ho and a muddy hug later and we were on our way again.
Progress was slow but downhill, resting on the bracken covered bumps marking safer ground before plunging on over the unforgiving terrain. Eventually we were within yards of the track but found our route tantalisingly out of reach across not 1 but 2 streams of filthy gurgling viciousness. I leapt over the first and turned to help my mud encrusted beloved but instead found her striding through with a look that defied any act of God or nature to do its damnedest to stop her. It wasn’t exactly the Red Sea but nature knew when to concede and so with nothing more than mucky boots she hopped over the second ditch, up onto the trail, scattered a herd of Highland cows and strode off up the track. I caught up and gently turned her around to face the correct way and by the time we reached the car we were laughing about it.
It’s usually me who suffers mishaps of this nature. I’ve walked in arid conditions where the only trace of moisture was in the water bottle in my backpack. I’d ford rivers whose beds were just cracked earth and dead vegetation and still come home muddy. I’d slide down embankments on my posterior and unwittingly amuse the locals as I wandered through villages with skid marks from the nape of my neck to my ankles. I once walked into a hedge while reading the map, only to have half of it fall into my baked potato in a café later on. I assume it was waiting in my hat for a suitable time to ambush me for maximum embarrassment and the amusement of my fellow diners. So I sympathise with Alison wholeheartedly.
Our experiences haven’t put us off walking; indeed we have explored quite a bit recently, from a beach bonfire with friends while an eerie sea mist ebbed and flowed around the bay to Aros Castle, and several points in-between. I’ve uploaded some pictures that follow this entry that you, dear sweet reader, are welcome to view at your leisure.
At the moment the soundtrack to our days is the bellowing of the red deer stags. The stags roar to display dominance and gather together a harem of hinds. They’ll rut with their antlers to see off interlopers while they ‘service’ between 30 and 40 hinds, to borrow a phrase from a rather polite source I found online. It all sounds jolly musky and masculine, two prize specimens battling for mating rights in a cloud of testosterone. An illusion that was rather dispelled by the roaring stag we interrupted on our way to work who gave us a camp shrug and trotted, pranced really, off in the manner of a My Little Pony dressage competitor at a Pride gymkhana. Being light on their feet is an impressive attribute of deer, who can wander through woodlands with barely a sound, whereas in my efforts to take pictures of them I trample through as if the entire undergrowth is made of crumpled bubble wrap.
As I write this I realise that we have just 2 weeks left on Mull, but happily we’ll be here for the Mull Rally, Dark Duart and quite possibly some other shenanigans so expect at least one further instalment. Now, if you’ll excuse me it’s been nearly 2 weeks since Alison’s encounter with Scotland’s muddy hills and I think she’s nearly finished in the shower.
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.
At the time of writing we are in Leek, taking time to relax, explore and plan ahead, although frankly that last one is just vague ideas more than anything remotely like a strategy. In our original plans 31st August was going to be our last day on Mull. However we’ve made the decision to return there after we have taken care of business and pleasure here and we will work at the castle until the end of the season in mid-October. When we were considering staying on we had one of those passive conversations where both parties skirt around the issue while hoping the other declares their hand first. Eventually one of us, I don’t recall who, came out and said they’d like to stay on if the opportunity arose. Ice broken we made arrangements and sorted everything out, right up to the point when we remembered that we hadn’t actually confirmed with work that there would indeed be positions to stay on for. Fortunately there were and thus we’re enjoying a bit of a break before going back to finish the season.
We left Mull on a damp Wednesday morning, arriving by ferry into Oban under a magnificent rainbow, an omen of things to come as we headed into torrential rain for the otherwise scenic journey towards Glasgow. We lost the rain along with the rugged and untamed peaks of Scotland somewhere around Loch Lomond, met what passes for civilisation at Dumbarton, crossed the Erskine Bridge into the urban sprawl of Glasgow and drifted down the motorway network as the hills became rounder, the land rolling and tamed into a neat patchwork of fields. Towards Leek we could see the green hills of The Peak District, autumnal colours beginning to sneak into the trees and the tang of a chill in the air. We stayed a couple of nights in our house before heading to Cambridge and then on to a fun-filled camping weekend with a group of friends and family in the wild backwaters of Suffolk. Afterwards and in need of several showers we managed a day of visiting and a drive back to Staffordshire via Cambridge. We almost didn’t make it to Cambridge though…
It was my fault. I realise that now. It was me who had his hat and coat on 30 minutes before we were due to leave. It was me who loaded the car as Alison was still packing bags. It was me who double checked every door was locked, curtains shut, security light on, TV off and who sat tapping his feet while the breakfast crockery was dried and put away. Finally it was me who confidently declared “hey, it looks like we’ll be early…” as we stepped out of the house. And that is why we were in fact nearly 2 hours late arriving at Alison’s parents’ house because our ever reliable car wouldn’t start. I won’t bore you with the details but we have learned that moving a car with an automatic choke only four yards floods the engine.
The whole being late/early thing is one of those couples' tension points. I’m habitually an early person: I will sit in car parks for 30 minutes before a meeting rather than risk being late. I used to build so many scenarios into journey planning that if I followed them to the letter I’d have to leave a day early just to get to a meeting 45 minutes away. I have reined this in but I still feel a mounting sense of unease if we aren’t sitting in the car at least an hour before a sensible person would be thinking of maybe finishing their coffee and popping to the loo before setting off.
By contrast Alison tends to leave at the exact moment that will afford her the prescribed journey time to reach her destination with maybe 30 seconds to spare for contingencies. Since leaving office work I’m much more relaxed but occasionally Alison will wander down in her dressing gown, rubbing sleep from her eyes and discover me showered and dressed sitting on the sofa like a restless puppy and surrounded by packed bags. “Morning sweetness,” I’ll say while looking pointedly at my watch. “It’s 5 am and we need to be there at 11:00. Shall I run you a shower?” I add, in the pointed tones of one who knows that they are skirting with marital discord but can’t help themselves. Generally Alison will point out that we’re only going to the opticians 15 minutes away and that nothing short of a direct nuclear missile strike would prevent us from being on time. Left to my own devices I’d be sitting on the uncomfortable chair outside the examination room at least 30 minutes early, giving me ample time to read those framed certificates they display to try and impress you.
This is in fact what I did at my last opticians’ appointment, which happened to be in a supermarket. They looked very official, neat calligraphy, impressive seal and fancy crest. Only on closer inspection did I discover that Wayne had apparently earned a level 2 certificate in eyeology from Asda University and Lynne had gained a merit in level 1 punctuality. They appeared to be the equivalent of parents sticking young Wayne’s 5 metre swimming certificate on the fridge next to the macaroni dinosaur and the sticky fridge magnet proclaiming Worlds Best Mum. I wonder if people (normal people I mean, not me) read these things. I assume they are designed to impress at first glance so that you think the spotty teenager entrusted with the future of your eyesight has completed a 4 year post graduate degree and is now a registered Master of Optometry.
I suppose that’s the price one pays for getting health care from the same place you buy broccoli and crisps. But then I went to a proper optician once and the eventual bill for a single pair of spectacles was more than I’d normally spend buying a car…and that was without all the add-on’s, tinting, anti-glare, scratch resistant coating, frames etc. Since then I’ve trusted my vision to whatever wisdom Wayne and Lynne managed to accumulate on their lunch time seminar. I may go blind but at least I’ll be able to afford a white cane.
 I do really but I’m not telling.
 For the record I do know that the people who work in supermarket opticians are properly qualified and have studied hard.
In last year’s blog I wrote extensively about music. We were working at a lot of festivals so it was natural the subject would come up. This year we’ve been rather quiet on the music front but we’re listening to a rather splendid CD that’s really bewitched us. It’s rare these days to discover an album that could take its rightful place on the shelf reserved for classic albums to be played when nothing else will do, sandwiched somewhere between Blood on the Tracks, Nixon and Raindogs. Songdog have just delivered such an album with Joy Street . If I was a modest man I’d now be saying things like ‘in my humble opinion …’ but I’m not, not where good music is concerned anyway. Joy Street is a triumph and I’ll cheerfully challenge anyone who thinks otherwise because, and I hate to labour the point, but because they’d be wrong. The group sound much more cohesive on Joy Street, more confident than on previous releases, but it’s the music that is a real revelation to me. For example ‘It’s Not a Love Thing’ sparkles with wit and energy, the music invigorating Lyndon Morgan’s words but never overwhelming them. Later on ‘Raise Your Glass in Praise’ is positively jaunty, a word not usually associated with Songdog. It’s an album full of catchy tunes and thoughtful evocative words that perfectly capture a mood or a place better than any picture. You can almost taste the odour of stale bodies, damp bedsits and the lingering fumes of cheap brandy and cigarettes in the track ‘Amen, Baby Amen.’ Above all else, on this album Songdog seem to be enjoying themselves. Make no mistake it’s not frivolous throwaway pop, but self-assured intelligent folk for people who still take time to listen properly and engage with music.
One of the plus points of being in Leek is that I have access to a record player, meaning that we've finally been able to listen to my beautiful bronze vinyl copy of Cherry Blossom Life by The Domestics. They deliver hard and fast hardcore punk with aplomb. The attention to detail on Cherry Blossom Life is striking; from the opening bars of the first track ‘Dead in the Dirt’ where the bass and drums tease before it explodes into life, to the righteous anger of ‘Homegrown Violence’, not just an empty protest song but one with lyrics that convey knowledge and empathy and music that captures the turmoil of an abusive relationship; and just when you expect something brutal, loud and predictable we are given the spoken word track ‘Human Ikizukuri’.
In many ways I couldn’t have chosen 2 more contrasting records to recommend to you, but what Joy Street and Cherry Blossom Life have in common is that they are both meticulous in their execution. They’ve been crafted, thought has been put into the production, into the sequencing of tracks, the cover art and the presentation. They both have intelligent thought provoking lyrics and both are led by singer-songwriters who are secure and confident enough to surround themselves with equally talented musicians to bring their vision to life. Should you want to investigate further you can follow the links to purchase them Joy Street, Cherry Blossom Life or have a bit of a Google.
One note of caution, The Domestics do like a bit of a swear. Which is an obvious and rather lame segue into a brief note about bad language. Regular readers of the blog will know I occasionally use naughty words for emphasis or comic effect. I’m not proud. But then again I’m not embarrassed either. A piece on the local news about enforcing train by-laws and how ‘bad language’ was one that could incur a fine got me wondering about how we see the world and our priorities. For example you can open your daily paper on the 7:15 into Kings Cross and read about famine, genocide, rape, torture, domestic violence, nuclear missile tests, all manner of political shenanigans and if, in response to such horrors, you mutter a horrified swearword you are liable to a penalty because you may upset someone. If you choose to be more offended by a four letter word than you are about famine, genocide, rape, torture, domestic violence, nuclear missile tests and political shenanigans then I cannot help but think you may have your priorities wrong. Sure it is easier to stop someone uttering a profanity than to end domestic violence but I know which one offends me more.
And then fate played a winning hand. On our way back from a trip to London on Friday we travelled First Class thanks to Virgin Rail only charging £2:00 extra per ticket. Just as we were deliberating the complimentary drinks a couple of complete tossers sat down immediately behind us. Well dressed, well-spoken tossers who were drunk to point of being loud and obnoxious but sadly not comatose, and even more sadly not dead. They made the whole carriage a miserable playground for their childish banter. A couple of women walking passed were treated to howling and called dogs, when a guard asked them to refrain from swearing they were almost polite until he was out of earshot when one declared “you don’t get that in cattle class”. On and on it went in a haze of alcohol laced swearing, homophobic and sexist mockery and general boorish boasting. While one went to the toilet the other watched hardcore porn on his phone at full volume. We complained to the attendant and were given a bottle of white wine in recompense but on close inspection it turned out to be made of plastic and thus useless as a bludgeon. We left them arguing loudly about an employee called Peter who is ‘on the make’ and taking backhanders from contractors and who wasn’t fired after his disciplinary hearing, which was the subject of their disagreement. So well played fate, I feel contrite and now believe that the occasional swear is fine if it’s in a good cause so long as it’s not accompanied by a prolonged bout of boorish, sexist drivel spouting from a spoilt, indiscreet fuckwit.
 Bob Dylan, Lambchop and Tom Waits respectively.
 Ikizukuri is the Japanese culinary technique of serving seafood alive.
Now that’s off my chest…we have been able to take advantage of our time in Leek to explore a bit. We’ve walked to the nearby village of Rudyard, which boasts an impressive reservoir built to feed the local canal and was where Rudyard Kipling’s parents met, hence his unusual first name. I guess he was lucky that they didn’t meet at nearby Tittesworth Reservoir. It’s all very nice as a touristy destination. There is a miniature railway that runs along one bank which I later found out had come from Mull where it once ran visitors from the ferry terminal to Tororsay Castle across the bay from Duart. At the reservoir itself there are myriad splashy pursuits involving boats and other buoyant contraptions and a circular walk of, and here I am quoting the official information board “about 4 or 5 miles,” which seems curiously vague for such a short path. We can measure the distance to the moon and be out by fractions of a millimetre so being so imprecise about a walk is either charmingly endearing or bloody irresponsible. I’m drawn towards the latter.
Alison treated me to tea and a scone in a vain effort to stop me grumbling about the sign, following which we watched a squirrel eating a sandwich, which turned out to be remarkably entertaining and put a spring in our step as we wandered back through Rudyard. The village is most comely, set on a wooded hillside overlooking the reservoir and Churnet valley. There is a smattering of newish bungalows and plenty of older cottages, all strung out along quiet streets. It’s all very tidy and quintessentially English and smelled faintly of sewage. We returned to Leek via the old railway line that has become a public footpath sometime since my map was published. It appears to have been the subject of some deliberation when it was opened, judging by the sign emphatically declaring that the council accepts absolutely no responsibility whatsoever for anyone foolish enough to venture onto it through the gates that they had erected for that very purpose.
We managed a scramble up Hen Cloud too, an outcrop of The Roaches that I wrote about at some length last year. It was a delightful climb, just difficult enough to tax us while requiring nothing more technical than grabbing at heather to pull ourselves up. The views from the top were amazing, waves of heather away to the north, green hills to the south divided into uneven fields by hedges and stone walls and beyond the shimmering Tittesworth Reservoir nestled the red bricks of Leek. The walk down was more gentle and led us passed tall fingers of rock into dank woodland and out onto a track leading back to the starting point. Despite the aches and pains, being grubby from the climb and sweating despite the breeze it felt good to be home.
Finally some book news. It’s been a while and literary agents haven’t exactly been beating a path to our door in an effort to publish our exploits from last year. Rather than keep persevering and risk losing the impetus we have come to a decision to self-publish. This means a bit more time in preparation and we’ll be appealing to a couple of people to read the manuscript. Not for proof reading, we will be paying someone to do that, but to ‘give it the once over’ and let us know what works and, more importantly what doesn’t. To make it all seem worthwhile we have decided upon a cause to support but more about that at a later date. If you’d like to volunteer or share any opinions (remember it is all based on last years blog) then do please get in touch.
At the beginning of the last blog entry I described, in a somewhat flamboyant way, a sunny day at the castle. True to form it has since rained almost continuously. Mull enjoys, and I realise that’s a debatable term, around 4500 mm (177 inches) of rain a year. In an average year it rains somewhere on Mull for 283 days. That’s…well it’s a lot of rain. It is windy too, which combines to create horizontal precipitation of a curiously penetrative nature. Mull does though have one trick up its geographical sleeve though. Due to the mountainous nature of its centre the weather can be very local. It’s not unknown for us to leave home in fine weather and arrive 10 minutes later at work in driving rain. While we’ve battened down the hatches our neighbours back in Lochdon are slathering on the sun-cream and wondering if 10 am is too early for a G&T.
We don’t let the weather spoil it though. Thanks to the Gulf Stream the climate is mild and on a day off we can usually head for a part of the island that isn’t half submerged. On one such jaunt we took ourselves to the north of Mull to walk up to Crater Loch; which, as you’ve probably guessed is a loch in the crater of a long extinct volcano. It’s about 60 million years since its last eruption so we felt reasonably safe. We were able to walk around the rim and enjoy spectacular views across the northern end of the island while speculating on the possibilities of the cone being hollowed out as the lair of a supervillain. My instinct is to now write a background about the conditions that created it but geology has its own language in which words like denudation and diagenesis feature heavily. I’m working my way through the book Mull in the Making by Rosalind Jones at the moment. According to Rosalind’s introduction it’s intended for ‘the layman and interested amateur geologist’. I think that was the last sentence that I fully understood. In contrast many of the walking guides to Mull are delightfully vague, written by enthusiastic amateurs where precision and detail take a back seat to flowery descriptions and the assumption that you instinctively understand, for example, how far to walk uphill before the gate on the left that you have to pass through to avoid becoming sport for the bull or a red splash on the beach after a lively tussle with gravity. The route to and from the Loch was simple enough though even if our guide book suggested we start from a place that doesn’t exist.
On our return journey we passed a family group cycling their merry way along the narrow undulating road. We see a lot of cyclists here on Mull enjoying the fresh air and healthy exercise. Actually I very much suspect none of them are enjoying themselves if only they’d admit it. They are inevitably led by a father who last mounted a bicycle when he was 15 years and 5 stone younger. The kids just wanted to go to Centre-Parcs and think cycling is boring, Mull is boring, mum and dad are boring and if dad points out one more fucking eagle they’ll insert it where its beak will make that saddle he keeps moaning about a lot less comfortable and mum is wondering why she’s ended up carrying three rucksacks and how she let herself be talked into this when Portugal was cheaper, hotter, flatter and had inexpensive wine on tap.
Older children and family holidays don’t always mix but we were fortunate though to have my two adult children visit for a couple of days. We picked them up in Glasgow after we’d been ‘south’ for a wedding and to see Alison’s parents. Her son turned up to surprise her which just made a perfect reunion even better. The wedding went well, we had glorious sunshine which meant we were the only couple to turn up carrying rucksacks full of coats, waterproof trousers and sweaters, and the reception was a fabulous affair in stunning surroundings.
After falling for the local trick of sitting on the portion of the train that doesn’t leave the station we met my two half an hour after the designated time and proceeded to fling them around every tight bend on the road to Oban. The ferry headed into a glorious golden sunset as we sailed over to Mull, with plumes of cotton-wool cloud rising like smoke from the peaks. Back on the island we introduced them to some of the delights that Mull has to offer, including the castle, Tobermory, a drive around stunning Loch na Keal, Whitetail Gin and 17 different types of rain. We took them on a walk to the abandoned settlement of Shiaba in the sunshine and had an encounter with a hissing adder which we narrowly avoided stepping on. Their visit culminated with a home cooked veggie chilli in Mavis and, possibly her personal highlight, Alison winning at cards.
It was a brief interlude, just 5 days and 1000 miles before we were back at work and my two boarded the ferry to make their way home by boat, train and plane. However old they are, however grown up, children are our most precious gift; brief lives in the cycle of the universe that we nurture and give to the world where we hope they’ll make a difference, live contented lives and leave the earth a tiny bit better off than when they arrived. All in a world where we face political uncertainty and the spectre of terrorism and war hovers. Whatever the cost in life in 2017, where a pop concert can be considered a legitimate target, where the bongs of a big clock are more newsworthy than ongoing atrocities in Syria and Palestine (to name just 2 examples) nothing these days can compare to the slaughter of WW2. Compared to the 1940’s we must remember that our children here in the West are still comparatively safe.
In the Spring of 1944 port cities in the South of France came under heavy bombardment from Allied Forces in preparation for the planned invasion of Southern France. Marseilles, Lyon, Grenoble and Lyon were all hit hard and on 11th March 1944 B-52 Liberator bombers and B-17 Flying Fortresses of the US 15th Airforce attacked Toulon. A bomb passed through the top deck of U-410, a German V11C submarine under repair in Missiessy dry dock. The ensuing fire led to the entire dock being flooded and the submarine put out of action. It was eventually captured by Free French forces. No personnel were aboard at the time and all 53 crew members survived.
Before putting into dock for repairs U-410 had been in action in the Mediterranean where, on the 18th February she fired 2 torpedoes 16 minutes apart, hitting and sinking HMS Penelope. Only 206 of the 415 crew survived. Capt. G.D. Belben, DSO, DSC, AM, RN went down with The Penelope, as did Able Seaman Walter Henry Canham. At just 20 years old Walter was my father’s elder brother, one of 3 boys and 2 girls that Walter (Snr) and Florence Canham raised in Tottenham amongst streets with names familiar to me from tales passed down by family.
HMS Penelope was in many ways a remarkable ship, or at least it was remarkable that she survived as long as she did. An Arethusa class light cruiser she took part in many successful operations during WW2, although judging by the amount of damage she sustained one is tempted to conclude that her main function was to draw enemy fire. Of course in war one expects to come under attack but the Penelope seemed unusually attractive to enemy ordinance. For example during sustained air attacks by The Luftwaffe in March 1942 she was holed both forward and aft by near-misses. Once in dock in Malta the attacks didn’t cease, to the point where there was so much shrapnel damage she gained the nickname HMS Pepperpot. The crew gallantly plugged these with long wooden pegs so that she could sail to safer harbour in Gibraltar earning her the temporary nickname ‘HMS Porcupine’ for a while. HMS Penelope had been involved in, and inevitably damaged at, the second battle of Sirte, an engagement with the Italian Navy off The Gulf of Sirte in NW Libya.
The author of the Horatio Hornblower series of books, C. S. Forester dedicated his 1943 book The Ship, "with the deepest respect to the officers and crew of HMS Penelope". Although it is a work of fiction set on a light cruiser the plot roughly follows events of the Second Battle of Sirte. Forester was aboard The Penelope at the time of the engagement at the invitation of the Royal Navy command; The Ship may have been written expressly for the Navy as propaganda but it is also a superb evocation of the community of men that made up a WW2 Warship.
Walter was completely unknown to me; a name mentioned with reverence on occasions at family functions and as a name on The Kings Scroll that hung on the wall of my Grandmothers flat, declaring deepest regrets at his passing and signed on behalf of the King. Its peculiar to reflect now that so many lives were sacrificed, so many lost fighting against the axis powers, the fascist states that would willingly commit genocide for no other reason than their own economic success, where to be ‘different’, to think for yourself, to belong to a religion or race that the state disapproved of, to have a disability or to be bold enough to defend those who did meant death. Walter was just one person out of 60 million who were victims of WW2 in one way or another. One precious life, nurtured, worried over, the cause of laughter and tears, playing with his younger brothers and sisters, going off to school full of hopes and dreams, only to be lost at sea, barely an adult, sacrificed in his prime. As were most of the young men he faced in battle, many of whom were recruits and not necessarily sympathetic to the Nazi cause. The captain of U-410 was just 25 years old. That’s war; indiscriminate culling of a generation on behalf of politicians, warped ideologies and rampant nationalism…And yes, sometimes we have to fight back to resist those who would do us or their own people harm.
That’s why I believe we must resist fascists wherever we see them. Better a scuffle over a statue in Charlottesville now than bullets and bombs later. Better to call out and resist the extreme right wing trying to stand for Parliament, the very hub of our democracy, than risk them gaining a stronghold. Far preferable to stand up for women’s rights, Pride and religious tolerance than let repressive cultures gain a stronghold. Hitler didn’t rise to power on a manifesto of torture and inhumanity. The conditions were created for later atrocities by gradually eroding liberties, by dehumanising and scapegoating people, by blaming sections of society for all the ills of the state and controlling popular opinion through the press. Resisting totalitarian power may just prevent more of those scrolls on the wall of widows, mothers and siblings that cast a shadow that no amount of sunlight can remove.
 So I’m told; I’ve yet to read it but its next on my list.
Monday 19 July - Monday 31 July
I’m writing my notes for this blog entry on a sunny day at work. The rush for entry to the castle has died down to be replaced by the ambient noise of people enjoying the rare sunshine. The air is still, hazy with the sweet smell of freshly mown grass and the slight tang of the sea. Somewhere over the hill the mower is purring, the shouts and cries of children pierce the background hum of voices and bird song. Families bicker and laugh, a lad playing football with his friends provides a running commentary on his own prowess, a toddler crunches on the gravel and picks up a handful to fling just for the delight of the texture; bored teenagers trail along behind their parents, like moping tails embarrassed to be seen in the company of the comet they can’t quite escape. Walkers stomp around in expensive boots and trousers, discarded layers of clothing flapping off backpacks like ragged flags. Parents approach the castle and cajole reluctant children with improbable bribes. “Let’s look in the castle and find the knights in shining armour….” A young couple lean into each other awkwardly, clinging on with grim determination they sit together on the grass and tear at a shrink-wrapped picnic. They both duck as a swallow swops over them, laughing together as they re-assemble their al-fresco lunch, perhaps their first as a couple. Away in the carpark a dog bounds free of the car, excited children tumble out as their parents unfold from the front. Hands on hips he arcs his back, stretching out then straightens with an approving nod as he takes in the views. The isle of Lismore a green hump in the vivid blue sea, behind it distant mountains, blue and hazy topped with fluffy white clouds like piped meringue. Two pensioners ignore the view, pass the young couple and smile, maybe remembering when they were two young lovers having their first picnic. A rare interlude in busy lives, rations saved for a couple of precious eggs served hard boiled and wrapped in tissue, a corn beef sandwich each, and a flask of tea, hot, sweet and invigorating. Distant memories fading in the sun as they wind a weary path up to the castle.
From my vantage point a heat haze shimmers above the bay. The tide is out exposing sands strewn with boulders wearing kelp crowns. A lone buzzard hovers above the shoreline, riding the gentle breeze. A party of German cyclists amble up, walking gracelessly across the gravel. We exchange pleasantries in formal broken English. “Thank you sir. Have a very nice day sir.” says their leader as I hand him the ticket. The day flows on with its own rhythm, the early rush, families awake since first light trying to occupy restless children, then waves of visitors as the ferry’s come and go, waiting to spot the bus carrying a tour party, the lunch time lull, the afternoon walkers and the post Iona trip hustle as people try and squeeze one last attraction in before they dash off to catch the ferry.
As the families settle into lethargy brought on by lunch and sunshine it is time for my afternoon stint inside the castle talking to visitors, acting as a guide and point of contact. As my replacement comes down the castle steps I rise from my raised seat, freeze in mid crouch and slowly topple sideways towards the till, steadying myself by flinging my arm out to brace against the wall of the hut. Ninety minutes of sitting on a high stool and my right leg has taken the unilateral decision to go to sleep without any prior notice or permission from the rest of me. This is a problem I usually only experience at night.
Climbing up our ladder to bed is a wonderful feeling. I know that within minutes I’ll be startling myself back into consciousness by dropping my book, at which point I’ll exchange a goodnight kiss with Alison, turn onto my side, snuggle down, close my eyes, get up to have a wee, bump into the table, repeat the whole exercise and then discover that in spite of 54 years of close acquaintance with my arms they suddenly get in the way. Whichever way I lay I seem to have a spare limb and can find no way to lay without it causing me grief. Surely after a few million years of evolution we’d have developed a way to fall asleep without ones left arm turning into a nocturnal speed bump?
Worse still is the experience of waking to find a completely useless appendage beside you because it’s numb from pins and needles. I’ve had to lift one arm with the other just to move it out of the way. Occasionally I’ll turn over and a whole arm that is only notionally attached to my body will thrash across Alison without any conscious effort on my part. By careful honing of my husbandry instincts I usually manage to convey the impression of a loving hug, although she’s less enamoured when my supposed tender embrace bounces off of her nose.
But it’s not all work or night time paraesthesia. On a recent day off we took the car on a rare jaunt into mainland Scotland to meet up with friends. We rendezvoused at Callander, a small homely looking town on the river Teith that is used as the fictional Tannochbrae in the Dr Finlay’s Casebook TV series. The town sits beneath steep cliffs with trees clinging on to seemingly impossible slopes. The cliffs mark the Highland Boundary Fault, through which Bracklin Falls tumble and where we would soon alight for a pleasant stroll with our friends.
 Of which the castle has precisely none. Anything heavier than an armoured mouse would sink up here.
 Alison says she’s used to waking next to a useless appendage; she had a curious grin on her face at the time.
 The medical term for abnormal sensations such as pins and needles – if you’ve learned nothing else from this blog at least you have that. You can thank me later.
First though was a stop at one of the friendliest cafes we’ve visited. Access was through a clothing store and upstairs to a light and airy seating area. Walking up the stairs I was slightly tense from holding back my natural inclination to bolt up steps 2 at a time. I don’t know where this stems from but faced with any stairway I will habitually zip up them. I’m conscious of it because I’ve often turned to talk to Alison at the top of a flight of stairs and found myself alone and slightly out of breath. Alison meanwhile will be walking up like any other sane person with that look of quiet bewilderment she reserves for my eccentricities. Back when I had a proper job where words like collaborative and synergy featured without irony I was suited and booted at a meeting in swanky offices overlooking the British Library in London. After making awkward small talk with the people I was there to meet we headed for the stairs where I leap off with my usual gay abandon like a puppy off the leash, only to find myself alone on the 3rd floor. 10 minutes later I found them again looking baffled and slightly worried by my sudden departure. Evidently they had all used the elevator next to the stairs then spent the rest of the time wondering if I was okay. I had the distinct feeling that their reception was lukewarm when I eventually found them, especially from the chap dispatched to find me, who I recall took the lift back down. Anyway the reason for climbing the stairs in Callander was that the café was dog friendly, ideal since our friends had their dog Dougal with them. Not only was he made welcome with a dog bed and choice of water bowls (he tried all three) but a waiter directed us towards a tin of dog treats. Which, upon reflection I now feel slightly cheated by; why, I now wonder, was I not directed towards a tin of cakes and a comfy chaise longue rather than a menu and one of those chairs that is just about comfortable for 20 minutes until your bottom starts going numb?
Which is a trivial observation as the food was very good, the service attentive but not over the top and the company delightful. With all their charm and character our friends are also readers of this blog (hello J) and deserve special praise as they have, perhaps unwittingly, influenced it more than they probably realise, all stemming from a fireside conversation in Edinburgh a few years ago. Today we picked up the easy flow of conversation from that meeting and spent a leisurely lunch exchanging news and gossip.
After a nice ramble to Bracklin Falls we popped in to see Doune Castle. The castle features in one of the most notable moments in world history, the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I found the Monty Python TV series rather hit and miss but MPATHG was in an entirely different league. It was of course silly but for all its irreverence it presented medieval history in a more realistic way than sanitised Hollywood nonsense where the actors are surprisingly well groomed and the damsel in distress has still found time for a hair-do and managed to slap half the Avon catalogue onto her perfectly lit face. I’ll save further analysis because after all it was just a daft film, but I loved it and took great delight looking at the places around Doune Castle where various scenes were filmed. We didn’t go inside so I missed where sir Galahad was rescued from administering spankings to the bathing maidens, a scene that I paid particular attention to as a teenager. We did however see where the French guard utter the immortal “I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!” lines so I went away happy.
After Doune we called into an antique centre where a café awaited our patronage, but not until we’d wandered around the stalls. I tend to stay clear of these places nowadays since I’ve noticed an increasing amount of the items for sale I not only remember but in some cases still use. I have underwear older than some of the ‘antiques’ on sale. Today though melancholy thoughts were impossible as our little party sat down to tea and cake outside in the sunshine and drizzle in true stoic Scots fashion, following which we went our separate ways. It was all too brief, and lovely though they were Callander, Bracklin and Doune were just pleasant backdrops for a day spent in first-rate company.
Our day out also served to remind us of one of the drawbacks to our lifestyle. Making new friends and acquaintances is one thing, Alison is very good at it and I’m quite adept at trailing along in her wake, like a little rubber boat bouncing and bobbing behind an elegant schooner. But however many new relationships we make nothing can replace the depth that comes with long standing friendships; bonds that have weathered the years, ridden the storms and withstood the buffeting of life’s twists and turns; friends who will be there beside us when we need them, just because we need them. It’s those people we parted from who we now have occasion to miss. Of course technology makes the world smaller nowadays. Chats nowadays can happen on a phone instantly when once they required a trudge to a distant phonebox, a stack of coins and a willingness to shut yourself in a booth smelling of stale tobacco and urine. Well, at least that was my experience of trying to keep in touch with friends while I drifted aimlessly around north London in an attempt to escape the damp room that I shared. I don’t have any friends from school whereas Alison seems to be friends with most of her class mates from her mother’s pre-natal maternity classes onwards. But that’s fine, we are wired differently and have different needs; that’s one of the reasons we are together. On Mull, we’ve found a network of people, colleagues, friends of colleagues, neighbours etc. who are warm, supportive and have welcomed us to this island and its community.
One of the lovely aspects of living here is people’s eagerness to help. On a Facebook page dedicated to all things Mull locals regularly post requests for help, often answered within minutes. Requests for picking up parcels from Oban are a regular; people popping over on the ferry will cheerfully collect packages, even prescriptions, for strangers. I’ve seen requests for the ‘loan’ of some medication until the recipients supply comes in, odd jobs needed, lifts and rooms for the night and the charmingly obscure. “Does anyone happen to have a spare ¾” gear cog for a Tohatsu 50HP outboard motor knocking about, I can pay you in duck eggs or I’ve a wicker hamper and a tub of Vaseline I no longer need?” It’s all refreshingly old fashioned and trusting in a really positive way. Unlike some places that revel in their ‘Merry Olde England’ ways it isn’t quaint or populated by people who think the world should have stopped around 1956 in some mythical golden age. Mull’s character is stolid and realistic. People rely on each other and share a mutual trust that comes from all being in the same position. One day it could well be you needing a prescription picked up by another islander so it pays to invest in a little neighbourliness.
 Isle of White, I’m looking at you…
There are a lot of spoof Ladybird books around. I thought I would attempt to convey the experience of providing customer service in a similar vein. I’ve tried to break them into paragraphs as per the original Ladybird books, a technique that I can’t help but notice has influenced my writing style to this day.
Please note that for legal reasons these are generic experiences and not necessarily associated with any castles of our recent acquaintance.
Here is Peter. Peter is your first customer. He would like to buy a single ticket.
Peter has 7 Euros, 76 pence in loose change, a Polo mint wrapped in tissue and a £50 note in his wallet.
Peter buys a ticket and now has 7 Euros, £44.26 and a Polo mint wrapped in tissue in his wallet.
Here is Peter again. Peter now wants to swap his ticket for a concession as he has just remembered he is 67 years old.
Peter now has 7 Euros, £44.96 and a Polo mint wrapped in tissue, and a large bruise.
Here is Jane.
Jane was behind Peter in the queue.
For a very long time.
Jane is cross. Jane buys a ticket with a £20 note.
Jane now has lots of little coins in her purse.
Jane jingles like an angry fairy as she stomps up the steps.
Here are Bob and Marjorie.
Bob and Marjorie are on holiday with their son Tom.
Tom is 22 and works in Asda. Tom has a beard you could hide an otter in.
Bob asks for 2 adult tickets and I child’s ticket. Bob chuckles at his little joke.
Bob is the only one laughing.
Here are Joan and Barry.
Joan and Barry are members of National Trust, English Heritage, Historic Scotland, The Caravan Club and UKIP.
Barry says a very naughty word when you tell him that none of these will grant them free entry.
Poor Joan and Barry
Here comes Doris.
Doris is 81 years old.
You know this because she has told you three times already.
Doris is eating a Polo mint she found wrapped in tissue.
Doris is 81 years old.
Here is Hans.
You offer Hans a German translation.
Hans is from Switzerland, not Germany.
He has just informed you of this in a most efficient manner. Han’s moustache is bristling.
Someone won’t be getting a cuckoo clock for Christmas.
Here is Gary and his wife ‘the wife’.
Gary is from Newcastle. Gary is wondering why you asked him if he required a leaflet in a different language.
Gary and ‘the wife’ spend 12 ½ minutes in the castle then ask for directions to the tearoom.
Here is Doris again.
She is still 81.
Cliff and Tammy are here.
Cliff and Tammy are from America. America is a big country far away.
Cliff and Tammy love Scotland. They show this by wearing tartan hats that no Scotsman would ever wear.
Tammy thinks Outlander is a documentary.
Cliff is drooling over the guns on display.
Cliff and Tammy are very happy.
The Frasier family have brought Spot the dog on holiday with them. Lucky Spot.
Spot was sick in the car. Daddy is very cross. See his red face.
Mummy is washing sick out of Daisy’s hair.
Here is Eric.
Eric tells you he has taken a picture of a white tailed eagle.
Eric is very pleased with himself as he shows you a picture of a crow.
Today it is raining.
Toms face appears at the ticket booth window.
Tom says “Och aye the noo…It’s a bonny day, nice weather for the wee ducks eh pal?”
Tom is from Romford.
Tom has stepped in something sticky.
Oops, naughty Spot.
Michael and Jenny get off a big coach with 41 of their friends. They are all from Australia.
Except Michael and Jenny who are from New Zealand. They are very clear about this.
They are all on holiday together. Lucky people.
They have been to 14 castles, 23 tea shops, 17 museums, 6 distilleries and Iona.
Michael and Jenny couldn’t give a Four X about yet another castle.
Michael and Jenny’s bus driver is called Donald. Donald thinks he is Jackie Stewart.
See the sheep bounce.
Look out for that deer Donald!
Jenny has never seen the insides of a deer before.
See Jenny turn green.
Listen, here come Nigel and Susan.
Nigel is driving an Audi. See him park.
How lucky that no one else wanted to use those disabled parking bays.
Can you tell the time? The time here is 5pm. Everyone is getting ready to go home for supper.
Nigel and Susan didn’t see the sign saying you close at 5pm.
Nigel and Susan didn’t see the rope they climbed over and they also missed the closed doors and empty ticket hut. Silly Nigel and Susan.
Nigel and Susan want to know where the nearest Waitrose is and where they can get a decent organic eggs benedict before the 8.30am ferry.
Silly Nigel and Susan have forgotten that they aren’t in Brighton anymore.
Sylvie and Jean-Pierre are from France.
Sylvie and Jean-Pierre are camping. They are carrying all their possessions on their backs.
Jean-Pierre packed 5 socks and a spare pair of underpants for their 2 week holiday. Lucky Sylvie.
The ferry leaves in 5 minutes.
Have you tried running with all your possessions on your back?
Sylvie and Jean-Pierre have.
Run Sylvie and Jean-Pierre, run!
I’m given to understand that there may be one or two new readers of our blog. Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read about our adventures, it means a lot to us. Just a word of warning before we plough on though, I don’t hold this blog to be a work of historic importance; it isn’t a reference book to be whipped out in court to settle disputes or to be put on a university reading list. I hope that among the digressions and split infinitives there is a little pizzazz; a soupçon of the entertaining as well as the informative. I mention this because in the interests of background knowledge for my job I’ve been trying to read A.F. Murson’s book ‘King Robert the Bruce’. My goodness it is a turgid read. First published in 1899 my edition was issued recently as one of a series of Scottish histories. Of course A.F. championed accuracy, cross referencing of sources and diligent research whereas I tend to favour frivolity, believing the first thing I read and churning out an interesting diversion and nothing more. All of which is by way of warning you not to take the information I present as gospel. Think of the blog as somewhere in between 'a man in a pub told me' and Wikipedia. With that proviso out of the way let us get on with the blog. It’s a relatively light entry this time, not because we haven’t been busy but to save you, dear reader, from one too many descriptions of pleasant walks, work or our domestic life.
The Scots Gaelic for tyre is taidheir. I know this because our car was sporting a dinky little space saving tyre (dinky mòran rùm sàbhaladh taidheir) after a persistent steering wobble revealed that a tyre was about to wear through on the inside. The rest of it looked good with plenty of tread but the local garage diagnosed the problem, saving us from a loud rubbery halt mid journey. At first I thought that the mechanic had mixed our Mazda up with a wheel barrow but apparently the space saving tyre was safe and legal so off we scooted at a pace unlikely to trouble the speedometer. The mechanic found a replacement and had it shipped over in a few days. I’m guessing from the cost it had its own private cabin on the ferry from Oban and made ample use of the mini bar, but at least we feel more confident now that we’re driving on four matching wheels.
There is a resurgence of Gaelic speaking in Scotland, no more so than in the Hebrides where an estimated 52% of the population speak some Scots Gaelic. There’s a Gaelic TV channel, a Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, announcements on the ferries are in both English and Gaelic and road signs are increasingly bi-lingual. Road signs in particular are a handy barometer; when local authorities invest in the infrastructure you know something more than a passing fad is happening. Scots Gaelic, a Celtic language brought over from Ireland in the 5 and 6th centuries, has since developed into a separate language of its own. Its influence doesn’t stop at Scotland’s border though, for example the words whisky, brogue and trousers are all from Scots Gaelic. And where would we be without trousers?
Well, Scotland probably as they often favoured the Plaid, a basic blanket of about 18ft or 3mtrs in length, usually in a local tartan pattern. ('Pladjer' is Gaelic for blanket). This was wrapped around the waist and over the shoulder. From this emerged the kilt, a more recent invention that is essentially a pleated skirt sometimes worn with an ornamental sash representing the over the shoulder element of the Plaid. According to some sources the flashes that wearers of kilts use to hold their socks up are a hangover from the cords that were once tied below the knee to keep one’s skin tight leg coverings, or triubhas, in place. Truis or trews are the Anglicised spellings, hence we arrive at trousers. Contrary to popular myth Highlanders probably wore both a plaid and trews, especially in inclement weather, of which Scotland is abundantly blessed.
 According to an online translation.
 Sources vary on its origin; some say it was from the Roman pleated skirt, that it came from Ireland or that there is in fact scant evidence of its widespread use before the 16th century.
One of the things I like about Gaelic is its ability to make the mundane sound mysterious and romantic. For example the highest peak on Mull is Ben More, which comes from the Gaelic A' Bheinn Mhòr, or big hill. On a recent day off we took a walk to an abandoned settlement called Gualachaolish. My attempts at pronouncing it required Alison to shield herself with a sturdy umbrella so we settled on calling it ‘The ruins’. Its Gaelic meaning is ‘hill shoulder at the strait’ which is far more manageable.
The route took us a short drive out of Lochdon then a long walk up a track that is slowly losing its battle with nature, across open grassland and up and around hills. It was in regular use until the 1930’s when the last crofter living at Gualachaolish left. Our guidebook warned us the way was boggy and indeed the path regularly sank into fetid pools or became a stream bed. Even as we gained higher ground we were forced to seek alternative routes to avoid bubbling springs and muddy puddles. After a half hour ascent we reached a gate and the end of the two wheeled track. From here on it was footpath only and the way became more interesting, with bracken and fern fighting with wild foxgloves for supremacy, lonely trees bent with the wind and strips of dark shrubs tracing the route of dark peaty burns running off the hills. As we climbed the view behind us opened up to reveal the plain of the river Allt a’ Ghleannain that feeds into Lochdon and the Duart peninsula with the castle silhouetted against the light blue of the sea, beyond which lay the hills of Morvern on the mainland. Heading onwards we traced Loch Spelve as it narrowed towards its entrance sandwiched between the hills we were on and those overlooking Croggan, the settlement that sits on the opposite bank where we walked back in May. (Croggan)
As we rounded the edge of the highest point on the peninsular, Carn Ban, we started dropping into a lush valley with a burn running through the remains of a stone animal enclosure. As we walked on more and more stone ruins became apparent amongst the bracken and grass and the hills were criss-crossed by gently tumbling stone walls. From the map this appears to be Killean, although whether that’s the name of the settlement or just the nearby ruins of a secluded church I couldn’t say. The church was once an important stop on the pilgrimage route to Iona when pilgrims alighted at nearby Grasspoint and made their way West through Mull.
Fording the burn we made our way on to the croft at Gualachaolish. In the mid-18th Century, the house was lived in by a Mr W. Middleton, Factor to Colonel Campbell of Possil, who once owned all this land up to and including what is now Duart Castle. The position is magnificent, overlooking Croggan, Loch Spelve and the sun drenched waters of the Firth of Lorne with mainland Scotland beyond. It’s doubtful that the Factor would have had much time to enjoy the views but I like to think he’d have been joined by his family at the end of a long summers day, all sitting on the wall looking out over the sea and sharing a moment of stillness in the warm summer air as we did now.
Mr. Middleton appears to have been a well read and erudite gentleman if his testimony to the Poor Law Enquiry of Scotland in 1844 is anything to go by. (Yes, I did some real research.) It’s worth noting though that his witness statement was in a ‘Memorandum of Conversation’ and there is no way to evaluate the accuracy of his testimony, nor to assume that his willingness to advocate emigration as the only recourse for poor crofters in his charge was his own opinion. While it might have been true, as I noted in a previous entry, sheep were much more profitable than people to a landowner and emigration was sometimes engineered so that it was the only realistic option left. When Middleton states that some of the crofters were behind with their rent one has to remember that some Factors, acting on the landowners’ orders, set unreasonably high rents deliberately to drive crofters out. He does talk about the help they were given to emigrate and his testimony suggests that Colonel Campbell of Possil was more benevolent than many.
Whatever his opinions the remains of his croft sit in a stunning location and enjoy an air of peace and solitude. There were signs that people visit the area, paths trodden down and suchlike but we saw no one and credit to the occasional visitors there was no rubbish or other outward signs of their presence. We climbed up the hill behind the croft and looked down on the small overgrown graveyard at Killean but elected not to venture down. Instead we started back, around the ruins, back across the burn and up around Carn Ban. Far below the occasional car shimmered in the afternoon heat along the tiny road towards the ferry at Craignure and a small sailing boat drifted into Loch Spelve and navigated around the floats of the fish farms that bobbed on the clear waters. We walked gradually downhill to the plain and back to the car reflecting on the lives of the crofters here in times gone by, when subsistence was hand to mouth and generations of loyalty brought scant reward beyond the opportunity to sail from your ancestral home to foreign soil, never again to tread these hills, to listen to the burn tumble over the stones, to smell the heather and bracken and never to look out over the loch and sea to familiar mountains.
 Often translated as Great Mountain – but the locals had more important things on their minds, like where the next meal was coming from, than spending time surveying geographical features and then organising them by height so hill and mountain were much the same thing, and it follows that big and great in the context of size were the same. (Sgoinneil is ‘great’ as in ‘have a great day’).
 It was as a result of the 1844 enquiry that the Poor Law (Scotland) Act 1845 was created and with it the ability to raise local taxes to cover poor relief costs by a central Board of Supervision. Previously the ‘able-bodied poor’ had no automatic right to assistance in Scotland as they did in England.
I’m writing this on my way back from another London trip. I wasn’t planning to regale you with more tales of misadventure but of the three return trips I’ve made between Mull and London this one was the hardest. A 40 minute delay on the only spot on the Oban line with no view, an unscheduled change of trains, a scamper through Glasgow to make my connection and crowded and noisy passage between Glasgow and London. Thankfully the hotel was fine and the meeting mostly went well, although there was a moment when discussing potential bias in multimodal community intervention studies I accidentally started showing a Scooby Doo DVD on my computer. An evening meet up with my sons went well too and after food and drink we went our separate ways; South London, Brighton and for me the sleeper train to Glasgow.
It started badly with a drunken passenger swearing at the man opposite him for changing seats. To his enormous credit the other chap just huffed off to a new place while the drunk muttered away darkly to himself. He had one eye swollen closed, sun reddened skin stretched taut over a gaunt frame and his whole demeanour said fight or flight, and the latter didn’t seem like an option he’d ever seriously considered. I put my ear plugs in, pulled my sleeping mask on, grabbed the Kindle, sat in puzzled darkness for a few seconds, raised the mask again and set to minding my own business absorbed in my book. I eventually fell into a fitful sleep, to be woken at 2:30am by Mr Drunk chatting on the phone. After the earlier altercation no one dared to challenge him.
To crown my day, the ferry departure lounge had been colonised by the England Formation Shuffling and Shouting Team (senior division). They queued quite unnecessarily for 45 minutes despite ample seating being provided, the whole time carrying on conversations that would drown out a jet fighter taking off. They all appeared to have been sponsored by Edinburgh Woollen Mill, with the exception of one ruddy chap who sported a Red Sox baseball cap, Craighopper walking trousers, Adidas shirt and Niké colostomy bag. Of course once we were called to board everyone had to queue again as the narrow gangway was mysteriously blocked by loud septuagenarians in pastel leisurewear desperately trying to shuffle in front of each other. Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the fact I’d just been asked to work the afternoon but I seriously considered hijacking the ferry and setting course for Switzerland. I was wondering if I could get a good group rate at Digitas until I remembered that Switzerland is completely landlocked, and anyway I’d be trapped on the ferry with them for far too long. They took to circling the ferry in little flocks pointing out the obvious to each other “ooh look, there’s the town…” “See that Jimmy? That’s the fish farm…no wait no it isn’t, it’s a lighthouse…” “Do you remember when we were here last Doris?” “No…” “Nor do I….” And so on until I dug out my ear plugs and rammed them home. I watched in blissful silence as one of them peeled away from their display of close-formation wandering to report some lost property; I suspect it might have been marbles.
I’m turning into a little grumpypants here so let me leave you with something more positive. When the sleeper train was drawing into Glasgow Mr. Was-Drunk gently woke a stranger sleeping across the aisle from him, helped a couple with their luggage, tidied up his mess, collected more from dozy passengers as he made his way to the bin and was charm itself. My last sight of him was as he helped an elderly lady down from the train. With the sound of him bidding her a good day I headed into a rain lashed Glasgow.
 “Yer seem p…d off pal…tough f…ing luck I’m trying to get oot of this f…ing country and I’m f…ing sitting here so wind yer f…ing neck in yer c…”
Gosh, so much to write about…first though apropos of absolutely nothing at all, today I learnt that Sagfart is Gaelic for a scolding woman. Now you know that, let’s get on with the rest of the blog. In our last entry I casually let slip that parking in passing spaces on Mull’s single track roads is a faux-pas. What I didn’t mention was the correct etiquette when navigating the island by way of its narrow roads. With the exception of a short lively section of two lane road between the ferry at Craignure and the settlement of Salen it is all single lane, often with grass growing along the middle. We’ve decided that Island drivers can be divided into one of five categories:
Two local drivers approaching one another will judge the passing space to perfection, requiring the person with the space to swerve lightly around the oncoming vehicle which may, in extreme circumstances require one or both parties to momentarily reduce speed to fewer than 3 digits. Both parties will exchange a comradely slight nod of the head.
Commercial vehicles and buses:
Even locals find it best to tuck in and wait for the breeze and swaying to subside before venturing on. The driver will give you a halfhearted thanks by raising his hand while staring straight ahead. We’ve yet to witness two buses approach each other, I imagine it’s like two knights in full armour jousting.
They think of themselves as locals because they visit once a year in the family Mondeo to see an eagle and chat to that nice man in the ferry office. Many of them drive about as if they own the place, randomly pull into passing spaces to look for otters and are impossible to predict. One moment they pull over in good time, the next they are distracted by a waterfall and merrily plough on forcing you to screech to a halt and reverse round a corner and half way up a mountain. When they pass they’ll give you a cheery wave that resonates with smug do-goodiness and too much Daily Mail.
You can always tell someone new to island driving. They’re the ones sitting in passing spaces weeping. They spend their first day hopping from space to space, sometimes sending their children on ahead to scout out the road. They pull over as soon as they see another vehicle, even if it’s on a different island. Occasionally they pull over into spaces on the opposite side of the road rather than risk the oncoming car not doing so. When you pass they sit like a nervous puppy waiting to find out if they’ve been a good boy or a naughty doggie. When you raise a hand in thanks they beam with pathetic gratitude.
These are people of indeterminate pedigree but are generally characterised as ‘late for the ferry’. They just keep driving at you, irrespective of where the passing spaces are. They seem oblivious, stupid or too arrogant to realise the system works perfectly well if all parties play by the same rules. We’ve been forced into narrow roadside gullies, soggy verges and hedges by them rushing towards us like they are on the M25. They studiously avoid eye contact and the only acknowledgement they get from us involves one or maybe two fingers.
And finally…Audi drivers:
Anyone familiar with our blog last year will know how loathsome we found the behaviour of many Audi drivers. Well, we’re here to testify that on Mull they have been universally courteous and polite. There, you didn’t expect that did you?
The history of the Clan Maclean is complicated and the subject of much research by others and I’ve mentioned some of their background as it relates to Duart Castle in our last entry. Suffice to say that Macleans/MacLaines and several variants thereof are now scattered around the world. In 1912 they held a reunion to celebrate the restoration of the clan seat at Duart Castle into a family home by Sir Fitzroy, the 26th Chief of the Clan.
Nowadays it’s all rather quaint and pleasantly old fashioned, like a vintage car kept on the road by hard work, love and huge sums of money. The 28th Chief still resides at Duart but his role is mostly ceremonial and his Clan powers restricted to cajoling Macleans who have disposable income to dispose as much of it as they can in the direction of the castle. Maintaining it is not cheap, the repointing and roof repairs alone are costing over £1.2M, of which less than half is supported by grants.
The Clan has an association to help keep in touch with each other and raise funds. Various associations meet around the world but every 5 years they descend upon Duart for an international gathering. Happily for us the latest one coincided with our stay so for one giddy week we were rushed off of our feet meeting Macleans from every continent, with the possible exception of Antarctica. Saturday 24th June was the main event at Duart, when they all paraded up to the castle, accompanied by pipes and drums and plenty of flags flapping in the wind. Alison got to witness the parade and speeches which she reported as very moving. When they weren’t marching up and down they generally cavorted about the place enjoying the distractions, including traditional storytelling, a Gaelic choir, re-enactors camped on site living as C17th soldiers, and buying as much Maclean tartan as possible. That’s where Alison and I fitted in as part of a four person team in the tiny shop. The only breathing space was during the parade, the rest of the day the queue was out of the shop and the amount of money we took was astounding.
Everyone was cheerful, polite and calm despite the inclement weather, crowds and queues. At the end of the day the tearoom and shop crews collapsed in a heap around some cheese and crackers which we were too exhausted to enjoy. Tiredness not withstanding we witnessed a special day, met people from around the world and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
 Except for the toilets that is, where they wisely resorted to C21st facilities.
When our days off finally came around we decided to recover a little from the gathering on the tranquil island of Iona. Sitting off the west coast of Mull Iona is a 10 minute ferry trip away. It’s surprising to find an island only three miles long by 1 mile wide so busy, with streets, shops, a pub and post office. But then there has been a settlement on Iona for centuries owing to its place as the root of Christianity in Scotland and quite probably (sources vary) into England and throughout mainland Europe.
It all started in 563AD when an Irish monk called Columba (later to become St. Columba) left home under a bit of a cloud. After upsetting the owner of a gospel he’d copied in his native Ireland he then went against King Diarmait mac Cerbaill’s ruling against him and refused to hand the duplicate over. It all sounds a bit like playground pettiness but somehow this squabble descended into a bloody mess that became known as ‘The Battle of the Book’ and claimed 3000 casualties. St. Columba scarpered, supposedly full of remorse and chose Iona as it was the first place he set foot on where he couldn’t see his native Ireland. He established a monastic community and set about converting most of pagan Scotland and northern England to the Christian faith. Iona abbey became a missionary centre and place of learning known throughout the world and turned this dot of sand and rock into a place of pilgrimage.
St Columba is the focus of much adulation and pilgrims still visit to venerate him and soak up the atmosphere. However he wasn’t without strange ideas. For example he banished women and cows from the island, claiming that “where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there is a woman there is mischief”. Apparently he also buried his friend Oran alive in the foundations of the Abbey, although accounts suggest Oran volunteered for the job. Now that’s friendship. The Abbey became a centre of learning and was particularly known for the illuminated manuscripts they produced. This was where ‘The book of Kells’ was produced in around 800 AD, perhaps the finest medieval illuminated manuscript ever produced. It’s something of a miracle that it survived; many manuscripts were destroyed in successive Viking raids. Despite murders and looting the raiders failed to destroy the spirit of the island and the Christian community continued. Kings and Saints are buried on the island, as is John Smith the late Labour Party leader, whose simple headstone we didn’t find.
Iona is also home to the original Celtic Cross. The arms fell off of the first stone cross so some bright spark added the iconic circle around the intersection of the horizontal and vertical beams as a device for supporting the arms. It’s also the site of The Maclean Cross, a stubby-armed stone edifice decorated with a Celtic motif on one side and the crucifixion on the other.
Iona is known, by those who believe such things, as a ‘thin place’. By which they mean a place where the earthly world and spirit world is close and some of the mysterious and spiritual seeps through. I think it could actually mean porous if the amount of rain we encountered is anything to go by. I was just about to clamber up a small hillock where it’s said St. Columba had his writing shed (presumably a good vantage point to look out for any pesky women and cows trying to sneak in too) when a clap of thunder persuaded me that a cynic standing out in the open on high ground in a holy site in a storm was bound to attract lightening. “Ooh, we never have storms on Iona” said a passer-by, contrary to the evidence before her. I nodded and squelched off to seek refuge in the Abbey.
The original Abbey is long gone, replaced in 1203 by a nunnery for the splendidly titled Order of the Black Nuns. After the reformation the abbey lay in ruins until 1899 when its restoration started. Today it’s a simple building of stone and damp, there are even ferns growing high up on the inside walls. But its simplicity is also its charm; a large but somehow gentle nave, hushed cloisters and a tiny chapel on the site where it’s believed St. Columba is buried. I confess to a perverse pleasure in knowing that around 50% of the visitors paying their respects are women; I hope the odd bovine pops by too to say hi and no hard feelings about the banishment.
The occupants of the Abbey nowadays are a Christian community who believe in action as much as prayer and reflection. Consequently there was information about the plight of refugees, Palestinians and people with HIV and support for the LGBT community. We had a peek into the gift shop, tiny museum and then scurried through the rain to catch the evening Eucharist service at the nearby Bishops House, a Christian retreat house that isn’t affiliated to the Abbey. It was a short good humoured service which we followed by a discrete nose around and wander back to catch the last ferry home. On-board we agreed that we’d barely touched the surface of Iona and vowed to return when we had more time and Iona had less rain.
An Tobar & Yola Carter
The principle town on Mull, Tobermory, benefits from the rather wonderful An Tobar arts centre. Based in a former primary school it hosts exhibitions, a vegetarian café with stunning views over Tobermory Bay, recording studio and performance area. We were lucky enough to snag a couple of tickets to see Yola Carter perform there. The price included a two course meal, drink and of course entrance to the gig.
The food was excellent, a mild spinach and lentil curry with all the trimmings followed by a toffee apple pudding with cream. At the crack of 23½ minutes past 8 we all trooped through to the auditorium in a cloud of garlicy breath and suspiciously lentil infused wind. Bristolian Yola has performed with such notables as Massive Attack, James Brown and fronted her own highly acclaimed band Phantom Limb. Her solo work brings Stax, Soul, country and gospel influences to roots Americana.
A singer songwriter of rare power and presence, together with two guitarists she immediately commanded the stage with a voice that’s warm and powerful. Her voice soared over the audience, particularly in the songs that built to a crescendo when she let rip with a passion. She’s a born entertainer too – her routine about her vocal chord exercises had us all laughing. Here is a link to her singing in her kitchen: It Ain't Easier - Yola Carter
The following week we ignored all our experience and took ourselves on a walk of nearly 12 miles over rough terrain, in hot weather and for which we were ill prepared. Still, it was worth it even if the final destination was a bit of an anti-climax.
Carsaig is little more than the remnants of a large estate, once owned by The Macleans of Pennycross. It sits in a pleasant cove with a small stone pier and little else. The journey there was spectacular, through a wooded area then down the side of a steep sided valley and into the small car park. We were cheered to pass a lonely red telephone box half way down the descent. Goodness knows if these are still used but every settlement of any significance, by which I mean over four houses, seems to have one.
Anyhow buoyed up by the drive and the sunshine we set off along the beach and into the odd terrain that sits beneath the cliffs and above the beach, a narrow strip of vegetation and boulders. The walk wound along goat tracks (literally, the area is famous for its feral goats), under cliffs crowned with basalt columns of the type that caused Felix Mendelssohn to compose the overture The Hebrides or as it is more popularly known Fingal's Cave, after visiting the eponymous cave surrounded by such columns on the island of Staffa. The track was steep in places, we had to divert over landslips and across the beach at times, and we paused for lunch on a shingle spit in sight of a tumbling waterfall, one of several en-route. For 2 hours we saw no one until we neared our destination and two couples passed us on their return journey.
We finally scrambled up around ‘Malcom’s Point’, site of the bleakest and most remote ruined cottage I’ve ever seen and up to the point from which the first arch is visible. A sea arch, as I’m sure you are aware, is essentially a hole in the cliff caused by wave action. The one at Durdle Dor in Dorset is magnificent. This one was magnificently underwhelming. Maybe it was the long trek, and the fact that experienced walkers though we are we are also human and therefore prone to what one may charitably call stupidity. We were under supplied with water and let ourselves be deceived into thinking the sun wasn’t strong because of the breeze. We sat and pondered the return journey, ate some peanuts until I helpfully dropped them and then set out for home.
It was a long, trying trudge back. Occasionally a seal would bob up a few yards out to sea and we passed many goats munching seaweed on the beach to distract us and of course the scenery was every bit as glorious as it had been when we set out in the morning, but by now we weren’t in the mood to appreciate it. The final part of the walk along the beach and up a short path was a relief but the greatest joy was to discover our stash of chocolate ginger biscuits hadn’t melted in the car. We sat in crumbly silence savouring every bite before finally rousing ourselves for the drive home, which was enlivened by sight of an impressively antlered Stag crossing the road ahead of us.
 Insert your own interpretation of the spirit world here.
Mull benefits from a monthly listings newsletter called Round and About. It’s a cheerfully amateur affair packed with information from small ads, what’s on listings, local news and reports from various local organisations including the local council and WI. It was how we found out about Yola Carter playing on the island. They publish letters to the editor too and one in this month’s edition caught my eye. A chappie by the name of Adrian Bury from North Yorkshire wrote in to complain about insensitive developments and intrusive signs spoiling the island, which on the face of it may not sound unreasonable but then Mr Bury rather undermines his argument by the examples he chooses to illustrate his dispatch to the editor with.
For a start he objects to the signs warning that otters may be crossing the road. I quote “The Otter is my favourite mammal but, as with all of Britain, you get road kill.” Firstly, it had never occurred to me to have a favourite mammal, although thinking about it I suppose I do rate humans somewhat higher than, say antelopes or Nigel Farage. Secondly if it is your favourite Mr Bury why then would you object to a discreet warning sign? They are just standard red bordered triangles with a silhouette of your favourite mammal on after all.
Then Moy castle comes in for his ire for allowing banners promoting the Heritage Lottery Fund. If the option is to receive valuable funding to save an historic monument at the cost of a little advertising or to let the castle fall down then personally I’d choose the banner. I’ve been to Moy Castle twice and didn’t object to the signs. I do object to the Mr. Bury’s of this world expecting the planet to be as he wants it irrespective of real life considerations and compromises though.
Now he is into his stride he starts on self-catering lodges near Dervaig and a brand new restaurant building. Frankly a few log cabins are hardly offensive in the grand scheme of things and the new building may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is well designed, provides jobs and brings in money to the community. Mull relies on tourism, there is only so much forestry, fish farming and sheep the island can sustain, and the otter community just won’t pay their fair share of taxes, probably because they keep getting squished by their fans! Mull is a working community, with all the detritus that may entail. If Mr Bury wants a pristine holiday destination without having to encounter real life then I suggest Disneyland is a better option for him; Disneyland on Jupiter for preference.
Our Adrian finishes with what I suspect he thought was a clever flourish “ As I’ve said, the powers that be no doubt mean well, but I think they should look up the meaning of the word ‘aesthetics’ as soon as possible and put it into practice?” (the question mark was all his work). He neglects to instruct them on whether he means the noun or adjective but be that as it may I assume he means ‘Concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty.’ as the online Oxford Dictionary defines it. Like the beauty to be found in the rays of the early morning sun reflecting on an otters guts smeared across the road or the appreciation of the empty homes and boarded up shops as people leave to find employment on the mainland. Or maybe the appreciation of an Island that isn’t some Disneyfied plastic facsimile but a real living, breathing community that has jobs, welcomes tourists, protects its wildlife and could benefit from the addition of a sign or two warning of narrow minded idiots from North Yorkshire.
Even Duart Castle has scaffolding up for the aforementioned repairs and most visitors appreciate the need and comment that it is good to see a historic building being maintained and repaired. Many contribute their small change towards the cost. Although I’m not sure what I think of the remnants of the Clan system, it’s a bit of an anachronism after all, it’s still clearly important to a lot of people, particularly folk whose ancestors were dispossessed and have gone on to build lives from the scraps of land they were able to cobble together in Australia, Canada and America. And many of them contribute to keep Duart open and in good repair without losing possession of it to some faceless tourist business like Scottish Heritage who would no doubt ramp up the admission prices and impose some multi-media extravaganza to ‘enhance the visitor experience’. The only positive outcome of such a move would be to piss off Adrian Bury of North Yorkshire…and even that’s too high a price to pay.
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