Heading north again, as we do every summer. Mirroring the paths of the migrating birds who also head for the islands. They travel far more efficiently than we do, laden as we are with tents, stoves and a collection of coats and hats. They soar on the wing, using the motorway thermals and road kill for their own ends. As we trundle north, in a queue near Preston (always Preston), I envy the lightweight ease of the birds overhead.
But the roads do open up and we find ourselves by harbour in Oban, watching the ferry’s come and go. The familiar queue at the seafood shack snaking it’s way along the quayside. It’s become a familiar routine, the slow ferry queue and the dash for essentials that we might not be able to get on the island (food, drink and a haul of books) but the excitement is always the same.
Finally we are away. Despite already being on the road for a couple of days, it’s only now the holiday feels like it’s begun. The ferry slides up the Sound of Mull, past the Lismore lighthouse, which is always a marker for our trips this way. Then beyond Duart Castle and the brief glimpse of Tobermory as we head for open water. We swing away from Mull and a school of dolphin jump in the swell below the boat. The four of us (not to mention the dog) settle down to another few hours on the ferry, broken by expeditions round the deck and fetch provisions from the CalMac cafe.
The boat slows as we find the slightly smoother water and shelter of Castlebay. We shake the tiredness out of our legs and join the cluster of passengers in the afternoon sunshine to watch the castle come into view. Low clouds hang over the little town, and in the distance we get our first glance of the white sand beaches of the Island.
Over the next week those white sand beaches will be our daily destination for a swim or to launch a “sit on top” kayak. Afterwards in the photos the water will look fake, too blue to be real.
All that is yet to come as we dash down to the car deck. Our thoughts turn to the camping gear crammed into the car, and the drive past the beach runway of Barra airport up to the campsite at Scurrival which will be our temporary island home.
Back to the “inner isles” (Na h-Eileanan a-staigh) for our summer trip. Some new islands this year. But the same objectives: Immersing ourselves in landscape and history. Exploring beaches. Scanning the horizon for the wildlife (this time including Basking Sharks).
Each time we go back to these islands the connection gets stronger. Our collective Islomania intensifies.
3 weeks, 1500 miles driving, 5 Scottish Islands (Coll, Tiree, Mull, Ulva, Bute) and 11 ferries. Happiness.
Late summer and we headed northwards again. To Ulva, a place we’d visited but never spent more than a few hours at a time.
People first started living on the island more than 7000 years ago. At the height of the kelp boom in the 19th Century 600 people called Ulva home. It’s a much quieter place now with just a few residents. The passenger ferry runs 6 days a week at the height of summer and stops at 5pm. There are no paved roads. No street lights. Little phone signal.
The week at Fisherman’s Cottage will live long in the memory. Great food from The Boathouse. The amazing landscape and weather. Walking through abandoned villages. Stumbling across a family of red deer. Watching curlews and buzzards.
We’ve been coming to the Inner Hebrides for about 5 years. The relationship between the ecology, animals and people who live on and around the islands is complex. Each time we visit, I understand a little more.
Looking west from Haunn, Mull I can see the island of Coll across the water. The weather always looks slightly better over on Coll, the sunset brighter, the beaches a golden streak across the dark island.
And beyond Coll, the Uists, connected, almost to the conjoined isles of Harris and Lewis. There is always another island.
Which creates a slightly uneasy feeling, an unrest. A glance at the ferry times, thinking about the logistics. In the same way some people feel compelled to cycle up alpine passes, bag Munros or tick off indian provinces, the very existence of un-visited Hebridean islands creates some kind of implied experience vacuum.
Until perhaps you reach St. Kilda, the edge of the world, just Greenland to keep it a distant company.
But this is really a flat earth approach to island hopping, where the horizon represents the edge of the known world. A spherical planet surely means that there is always another island, near, far or unreachable.