Our Travel blog
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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