Our Travel blog
We are over 6 weeks into our summer on Mull. Apart from the echo chamber of social media we’ve largely been spared the election hullaballoo. We voted in our constituency in Leek by post. I do like the postal vote system; it ensures that fewer people are disenfranchised. Unless you are under 18 and about to inherit the mess we leave behind. Quite why at 16 years old you can sleep or more excitingly stay awake with whoever you want so long as they are not younger or of a different species but be forbidden from exercising an opinion on the kind of government you want to represent you is beyond me. I know not all 16 and 17 year olds make rational, informed decisions but then again consider that:
Out walking Megan accidentally wandered onto a live firing range involving a fake town simulation. Seeing state troopers walking slowly down the stree,t instead of, say, hiding or shouting out a warning she chose instead to jump out in front of them and yelled "Boo!"
"She just looked like a very real looking target," one of the troopers stated in his report following her untimely demise.
Meanwhile back on Mull I thought it was time to let you know what we do at the castle. Duart Castle is a typical Highland and Islands stone tower defensive building plonked on a prominent spot to control sea trading routes. On these hilly, boggy lands most trade, indeed most movement of people was by sea and a commanding position backed up by a local force of keen fighting men afforded the owner plenty of power and influence.
The Castle stands on a bulge of dark rock at the tip of a peninsula overlooking The Sound of Mull. (The name Duart derives from the Gaelic for Black Rock). It is a beguiling place, dark and brooding in the rain, bright and welcoming in the sun. It is the ancestral seat of the Chief of the Clan MacLean. The fifth Chief gained the land and castle as a kind of dowry in 1356 by marrying Mary MacDonald, daughter of the Lord of the Isles. I say kind of because according to some stories he’d already kidnapped her so the Lord’s options were limited. Anyway the MacLean’s came to dominate Mull as well as a lump of adjacent mainland called Morvern, the Isles of Jura, Coll and Tiree and a few smaller islands that I cannot be arsed to remember. Their power base was always Duart, although it was controlled by their rivals the Campbell’s for a while and occupied by the English after the unpleasantness of Culloden and the Civil War. As their parting gift the English garrison pulled most of it down, leaving just a few walls. In 1900 Sir Fitzroy MacLean, 26th Chief and a professional soldier who managed to miss The Charge of the Light Brigade by remaining in bed with dysentery, purchased the ruins and surrounding land. He was wise enough to employ an architect who used the drawings produced by the occupying English troops to not only restore the castle but carry out modifications to turn it into a family home.
Like any building that’s stood since the 12th Century it has been changed, adapted to different times and uses and had its fair share of battering from the Scottish weather, enemy guns and the whims of successive Chiefs. Today it’s still lived in by the 28th Chief and his wife who have invested a not inconsiderable sum into making it water-tight after years of decaying mortar and water penetration had taken their toll.
Duart is one of only 2 or 3 Clan Chief ancestral seats still owned and lived in by the family. The present castle comprises three buildings, with a curtain wall making up the fourth side. Two buildings are residential and storage used by the family and the third is the Tower or Keep. From its dungeons to battlements it is open to the public and contains various exhibitions and information. I spend 4 days in the castle, either selling tickets or as a guide, conducting guided tours for groups and generally answering questions.
A former cattle byre has been converted into a tea room and shop and that is usually where the visitor will encounter Alison. So far she has done 4 days in the shop and 1 in the tearoom (I cover the shop on her tearoom day, steadily undoing all her good work). Shortly she will be swapping a shop day to join me in the castle on Sundays.
It is all jolly good fun; we get to meet lots of interesting people, answer questions from the thought-provoking to the strange, bizarre and plain awkward, like this encounter I had with an American couple…
“So, why is this pool table so big?” “Actually it’s a billiard table…” “Blank looks” “It’s like snooker…” “Blank looks” “It’s like a very big game of pool…” “Ah, so, it’s the English version of pool…why do you make the tables so big…” “Err…It pre-dates pool, which I imagine was derived from snooker, at least in the form of using cues to strike balls into pockets on a table…” “Really? It seems so big; it must be difficult to play pool on it…” At which point I repeatedly introduced their craniums to Mr. Snooker Cue. Well not really, that’s considered bad for business and makes a mess on the carpet.
In truth it’s the odd and unexpected questions that keep us on our toes. Alison is adept at explaining the different MacLean tartan to MacLean’s who visit from around the world, especially Canada, America and Australia. She is equally adept at selling them various examples in a myriad of forms from keyrings to kilt material. I’m getting to know the history of the castle, the Clan and some of the tales that bring the history alive. The more shocking or gory the better as far as most tourists are concerned, especially the children.
As I mentioned earlier I work in the shop on Fridays. Unfortunately my brain doesn’t retain information if it isn’t hammered in repeatedly for days on end, so one day a week leaves ample time between shifts for anything I might have learned to leak away. This Friday, the morning after the general election and a late and restless night contributed to my incompetence behind the counter.
I made an error on the till with my very first customer, 3 postcards at 50p each and I rang through 3 X £1:50. For a moment I stood transfixed just staring at the till, partly at my accidentally accurate if in-opportune mental arithmetic and partly letting the rusting cogs in my cranium clunk and whir towards a solution. Reasserting self-control and shaking myself from the stupor I smiled warmly at the poor chap waiting for his change, or so I thought; the way he recoiled suggested I might have looked more hysterical than I imagined. Apologising to him I went through a series of adjustments to the till in a vain and increasingly noisy attempt to get the drawer to ping open. I resorted to hitting mysterious buttons marked [SCN], [X] and [DO NOT PRESS] but nothing worked. In the end I rang it through as if 3 postcards of hairy ginger cows cost the princely sum of £4:50, accepted the £2:00 coin that the poor man had held aloft for the last 5 minutes and worked out he needed 50p change. So quite why I gave him three 20pence pieces is beyond me but anyhow he went away rubbing circulation back into an arm that was numb from holding out his £2 coin for so long.
And so the long day continued. Alison was working in the tea room nearby and came to my rescue on more than one occasion. Not that other members of staff wouldn’t but after 18 months of marriage she’s learned to recognise my struggles by the subtle warning signs I display; agitation, weeping, mashing the till keys, throwing things and telling the customer to just F off and take your tartan crap with you….Okay, not the last one and in fairness the customers are nearly always polite and jovial. The last customers of the day cheered me with their Texas drawl and dry, sardonic wit. They were visiting their daughter in Aberdeen who’d just delivered them a brand new baby granddaughter. What was so engaging was the way a portly Texan chap, with a belt buckle the size of a toilet seat on his Levi’s and wearing a moustache that you could hide an otter in just swelled up with pride telling me about the new baby. He stood like a denim lighthouse beaming paternal pride while handing me expensive goods almost at random to ring through the till. Silence descended as my right index finger moved in slow motion towards the till and hovered above like a Hawk scanning for prey. My brain played the Bonanza theme tune as my hand skipped over the keys and rang up a healthy total without apparent error. I smiled and exchanged pleasantries, only marginally spoiling my success when the till drawer sprung open with unnatural force into my groin. I wished them a hearty soprano farewell and slammed the till drawer shut, whereupon it bounced open again with uncanny accuracy.
Alison isn't without her own tussles on a Friday as it is her day in the tearoom. The biggest challenge, apart from responding to my pathetic pleading, is learning the different combinations of water, coffee and milk that combine in exciting steamy ways to create umpteen varieties of what is essentially a very large or very small coffee.
I'd be hopelessly lost of course, especially since every so often some spoilt snowflake raised on organic WiFi and vegan scatter cushions asks for a soy latte slow press Nicaraguan fair trade decaf in a warmed mug and expects a sodding swan drawn on the top too. Alison takes this in her stride, or at least appears to although I was cheered to hear her confess one evening to making a hot chocolate for a customer using a scoop of powder from the jar with the green lid. It was only later that she discovered it was one of two green lidded jars and the other one contained...well actually it contained the hot chocolate, whereas the one she used contained the decaf coffee. As no complaints were forthcoming we assume she's invented some new concoction and soon barista’s up and down the land will be puzzled by requests for a decaf-hot-chocolate al-la- Duart.
On our days off we’ve been exploring and last Wednesday we found ourselves in a narrow glen skirting a series of lochs until, upon a whim we elected to climb up to a distant waterfall. Well, it was worth the climb through boggy grasses, exposed patches of rock and fresh ferns. Alighting on the steep sided gorge cut by centuries of pouring water we peered into a valley of rough stone, bright bracken and tumbling peaty waters. It was all the more spectacular for the effort we’d put in, with no paths and the climb few people had ventured up there. We took our time exploring and just admiring the views. We went down by a gentler route following what appeared, from the size of the regular deposits, to be deer tracks. I’m not sure what we’d have done if we’d stumbled into a nest of the blighters and accidentally trodden on their eggs. Of course I’m assuming deer nest on the ground as we’ve never seen them in the trees but who knows, Mull is a mysterious place.
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