Our Travel blog
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…”
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