Our Travel blog
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…
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