Our Travel blog
Our working days have settled into a routine; porridge, work, a walk if the weather is suitable followed by dinner. Thus our days pass in quiet happiness. The weather really is the big variable; we’ve had sunshine while floods occupy England and rain while everywhere else sizzles. Rainy days are good for business at the castle and sunny ones make for happy visitors. The weather is a big talking point on Mull because there is so much of it. The saying here is four seasons in one day, but that’s maybe 2 or 3 seasons fewer than we often experience in a 24 hour period. We are used to getting wet from pounding rain, leaning at 45 degrees into the wind while getting a sun tan. Sometimes when the wind suddenly ceases people fall flat onto their faces.
At work we are gearing up for the Clan MacLean Gathering, a five yearly affair where all those who carry the MacLean surname, or a variation thereof, and who have chosen to join the Clan Association descend from far and wide to cavort, renew old acquaintances, squeeze into ill-advised highland dress and buy anything that can be swathed in tartan. During the clearances and famine times (see last entry) many MacLean’s landed in Australia, Canada and North America where nowadays their descendants find some solace in tracing their lineage back to their Scottish roots. Since the Clan MacLean once ruled the isle and several nearby, these roots are often local to Mull. We’re expecting MacLean representatives from the UK, South America, New Zealand, Europe and Scandinavia along with the aforementioned USA, Canada and Australia. In practice this means Alison is busy ordering extra MacLean tartan stuff for the shop and in the castle we are impatiently waiting for the scaffolding from on-going restoration work to be removed so that the castle will look its absolute best.
Before the Gathering our days off suddenly came round and I had another London trip planned. Now playing the part of a seasoned traveller I commandeered a salty seadog type chappy to load my trunk aboard the ferry as we set sail for Oban to the strains of a sea shanty and much clinking of champagne glasses. Although I’m journeying alone from Oban Alison joined me for the ferry crossing armed with her shopping trolley/old ladies wheelie bag  to stock up on provisions. She scampered off to play a swift game of quoits on the poop deck and I checked to make sure I’d packed my smoking jacket.
Maybe it was the thought of being apart for a couple of days but things were tense. On reflection it wasn’t us, we were as soppy as ever, but it did seem like a day where the irritating and dim witted were out in force. To start with it took 15 minutes to exchange an 8 digit code for my rail ticket. There is no machine at Oban station so I waited patiently while a 19 year old representative of Scot Rail with acne and the ghost of a mustache sorted out a railcard and explained every nuance of the tickets, seat reservations, direction of travel, stops and nap of the thread on the seats to someone of equal fastidiousness. Once his customer had wandered off shuffling his tickets, to the obvious distress of Mr. Acne, I took my turn and was proudly flouncing away from his window within 2 minutes of arriving. My display of efficiency was only slightly spoiled by leaving my card in the machine, which I sheepishly retrieved and joined Alison in the nearby pub for breakfast.
Having wolfed down a full veggie Scottish breakfast we waddled to the train in good time, said our goodbyes and I went to board the little train until I was blocked by a party of Americans who were genuinely baffled by the luggage rack. How can a country that has put people on the moon and invented liquid cheese create people who are unable to stack rectangular suitcases onto horizontal shelves? Once boarded they seemed equally ill at ease with the seat reservations, bickering politely over who would take the window seats and then, half an hour into a 3 hour journey two of their number got up to rearrange the luggage. I was privately overjoyed when we jolted into a little station and one of their cases bounced to the floor.
Lulled by the rhythm of the train I drifted off, waking up around Loch Lomond, a not unpleasant place to open one’s eyes. Wiping the dribble from my chin I smiled warmly at the lady sitting opposite, a fraternal greeting that was intended to convey apologies for any snoring, belching or farting that my body had enjoyed while my mind was snoozing. We got chatting and I learned about her daughter in Aberdeen, the tortuous journey from Oban and her job as a school secretary. It occurs to me now that that is about all I know. If it had been Alison seated where I was she’d have names, birthdays, all manner of personal information and a lifelong friend made. I think it all happens on some other level of consciousness, one that as a mere bloke I am not privy too. It’s like being at a concert where I only hear the strings but Alison hears the whole orchestra.
Having swapped trains at Glasgow I sped south on the comfortable Virgin train. The journey is almost 5 hours and it’s as dull as…well as 5 hours on a train. Alighting onto the grim confines of a remote platform at Euston I dived into the tube and popped up into the sparkly refurbished Tottenham Court Road Station to find that my hotel was spread over two sites so I had to check into one place then walk back up the road to the other wing. Easy for me but a significant challenge to the poor overseas visitors wandering along looking for a mysterious portal to their room, until I pointed them to the entrance and then had to stand behind them for 10 minutes while they checked in again. When my turn came the staff clearly recognised a veteran globetrotter and waved me through. The façade slipped slightly when I got lost in the maze of doors and signs behind reception and had to retrace my steps to the check in area. Effecting a nonchalant swagger I pretended to read the breakfast menu while gathering my wits and set forth for a second attempt. After a short interval I burst through a door, bid the receptionist a cheery hello, pivoted on my heels and, pausing only to wish her an equally merry adieu went off for a third go. I managed to make it to the fourth floor via the steps before noticing a small sign directing me to the lift. I pressed the button and waited. Every so often the lighted UP arrow would go out and I’d have to start again until I gradually became aware that these instances were accompanied by a ding from somewhere over my shoulder. It slowly dawned on me in a Pavlovian kind of way that the two things were somehow associated; and lo, it came to pass that two further lifts were cleverly concealed behind me. I dived into an open one, waved to the receptionist when it opened on the ground floor opposite her, pressed the 9th floor button and waited for what seemed like an eternity before the doors closed on my shame.
My room, when I found it, was comfortable, clean and had a bath. So rare is a proper bath nowadays that I immediately ran one and climbed into what might have looked like a bath but unless you are less than 4 ft. tall was essentially a deep bidet. I had imagined wallowing in mountains of bubbles while eating a crumbly bar of chocolate by candlelight. Instead I sat folded in half in lukewarm water up to my waist under a humming fluorescent bulb and enjoyed 10 minutes of crumpled soapy bliss and 5 more scrabbling for the towel I’d left tantalizingly out of reach.
The following morning I found the breakfast room on the second attempt, the first being thwarted when I got out on the wrong floor. Now, I don’t want you think I am ungrateful for what is essentially a free cooked breakfast but it was awful. Time was when a stale croissant followed by a mountain of carbohydrates sliding around on a greasy plate would set me up for the day. Nowadays I demand slightly more, like recognisable food cooked all the way through, scrambled egg you don’t have to slice like rare beef and mushrooms that haven’t been left to wilt under the glare of the warming plate. The hash browns looked and tasted like little sponges used to mop up an oil spill. The coffee was good though and my unfinished plate was whisked away by someone without asking if I’d finished while I got a 2nd cup. I watched other diners load their plates high and chomp through it all without comment so I concluded that maybe it was just me. I returned to collect my bag and check out and like all seasoned travellers searched under the bed, behind the shower curtain and in drawers I knew I hadn’t opened just to see if any precious belongings had escaped overnight. Satisfied that they hadn’t I bounded down to reception, handed my card in and punched the air with delight at having travelled from my room to the hotel exit in one seamless manoeuver. Maybe I will wear the smoking jacket tonight for the return journey after all.
Following my all day meeting and an evening meal with my youngest I boarded the Caledonian Sleeper. Tonight there would be no upgrade and I took my place in an airplane style reclining seat for the journey. And surprisingly comfortable it was too. There isn’t much to report about a carriage of 25 or so slumbering bodies drooling and snorting their way north overnight. As far as I could tell everyone slept from when we lurched out of Euston at 11:50pm. I woke a few times but drifted back off quickly until around 7 am when we all staggered off into Glasgow, bedraggled, with erratic hair and pallid yawning faces looking for refreshment and the station restrooms like a Zombie invasion that had the foresight to charter a train in good time for the apocalypse.
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That same day we had the rare opportunity to see singer songwriter Adrian Nation perform on Mull. He was on a brief Highlands and Islands tour and was playing at a small community centre near Fionnphort, which sits on the tip of The Ross of Mull, about as far as you can get from us but a lovely journey that we shared with two colleagues and an eccentric German hitchhiker. After first being introduced to him at a festival we found out Adrian lived down the road from us in Essex, so it was natural to invite him to play one of our house concerts that we used to run in Colchester. Since then he has played at our wedding and we’ve seen him perform several times. His ability to make the audience laugh and cry in equal measure is always astonishing. Friday night in the Creich Hall on Mull he played a magnificent set with his trademark virtuoso guitar playing, a rousing audience sing-along and a fiddle accompaniment from a local lass who recorded with him on his forthcoming new album. We even got tea and cake during the interval.
After fond goodbyes we set off for the return journey which turned into an unscheduled nocturnal wildlife tour. The first obstacle was a herd of Highland cattle that had wandered onto the road, then sheep in several places, deer bolting across the road, an impressive stag lazily grazing on a narrow strip between the road and sea and a ferret like animal carrying a baby rabbit that ran along the road in front of us. It could have been a weasel, stoat or possibly a pine marten. Alison’s research suggests it was most likely a Polecat; anyway it was most exciting to see it scamper along carrying its furry midnight snack.
Later in the week after a tiring day at work we decided to get out in the sun that had finally made an appearance. Thus around 8pm we pointed the car south and drove on a scenic road that loops around Ben More, which at 966 metres (3,169 feet) is the highest mountain and only Munro on the Isle of Mull. After turning right at a lonely bus shelter at the head of Loch Scriedain we followed the right bank through lonely settlements that hung between the misty sea loch and lush greenery of the lower slopes of the mountains. The air smelled sweet, of fresh bracken and sea salt. Wild Foxgloves grow on the island and no more so than here where they frame the sea views and colonise the steep slopes that are studded with the deep pink of innumerable plants all standing straight up like an untidy parade. The Foxglove is of course a close relative of the Badgersock and the Otterscarf.
We swung right and through a mountain pass heavily scarred by recent logging. Ahead the sky was taking on an amber glow as we drove towards the west coast and the open sea. As the road crested the last hill it revealed the sea bathed in amber under a hazy sun. The islands before us were black against a glow that stretched to the horizon and the air was still and warm. It took our breath away. Now, before I continue I must confess that to appreciate this natural splendor we had pulled into a passing space. This is one of the cardinal sins of island life. It’s considered slightly more serious than high treason here and only just below genocide. If the locals have their way it’ll become a capital offence. That’s certainly the impression from reading posts on local forums and listening to the pub chatter. To be fair it is intensely irritating to reverse for half a mile because some fuckwit in camouflage gear has parked in a passing space because he has heard a rumour that a lesser spotted marsh tit warbler is nesting nearby. In our defense we hadn’t seen another car in the last half hour and anyway there was ample room to accommodate all but a logging truck in the unlikely event that the Mull rush hour wasn’t over.
From our illicit parking space the road plunged down in a series of gentle bends to the remote Balmeanach farm and then hugged the shore beneath formidable cliffs along Loch na Keal. Here we found a remote spot to picnic. It was nearly 9pm and we ate under the rays of a low sun while we reflected on our engagement on this day three years before, and the journey we’ve been on since. The waters of the loch rippled gently, sparkling gold and silver and opposite us the shores of the Isle of Ulva turned dark as the sun dropped behind the cliffs, occasionally its rays pierced through and caught us in its beam where glens carved a path through the rocky island. Nothing disturbed the tranquility of this remote spot, the only sound was the gurgling of a waterfall hidden in the greenery behind us and the occasional contented crunch of a Pringle dunked in Taramasalata.
Driving on in the strange luminescence of the northern twilight we cruised around the loch, through the dappled forests and estate of Knock and up to Salen on the East coast. Here we paused again as the sun melted into the sea in spectacular fashion. We stood looking over ebony shores and a sea shimmering like molten steel. It was a magical display; one of those moments that you have to soak in and let the memory burn into your mind; until we were driven away by the midges that is. We drove home in contented silence drinking in the magical landscape, the orange sun, golden waters, sun bleached mountains with dark shadows rising steadily upwards and to the lapping shoreline of Lochdon, silent save for the lowing of distant cattle and birdsong. We’re growing quite fond of Mull.
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