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.
That moment when you let go of the saddle and instead of swerving off to the left or right they glide forwards, feet whirring almost in a blur.
When our eldest Vi learned to ride her bike, it was a slow and painful process. I’d bought a heavy old bike off eBay. At that the time we lived at the end of a cul-de-sac. On a Sunday morning we’d go out and try to get her riding on her own, but it usually ended up in both of us getting frustrated. Bike on the floor. Tears. Shouting. She can ride her bike now. We soon got rid of that clunky old bike for something more lightweight and easy to manoeuvre.
A few years on and it’s Hazel’s turn. Full of gung-ho enthusiasm to emulate her sister. We don’t live on the ‘banjo’ anymore, instead there’s a few quiet village roads which have served as good training. Hazel wobbling along with me running alongside. Grabbing the saddle as she veers towards the curb. Almost there, but not quite.
Easter time and we are away on holiday, staying on the old Stanegate. There’s some traffic during the day to the Roman fort of Vindolanda, but after closing time there’s no traffic at all. After a few test runs she’s racing up and down the Roman road.
Over the next few days we find a few different routes. A disused railway in Kielder Forest and a dedicated trail at Wallington. But it's the deserted Roman Road each evening that's the favourite.
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.
Back to Morzine. I remember a springtime visit 10 winters ago, when Richard and Fiona had bought the old barn on the edge of Morzine. I slept on a concrete floor and then Richard and I went up to the top of the Avoriaz and talked about the future. Then we boarded down in the spring sunshine and it didn’t seem real.
Fast forward to 2017 and we are back in the Alps. The sun shone again and this time I’m on chair lifts with my Violet and Hazel. Sitting at the top of the resort looking out over the mountains, still thinking about the future.
On a blazing hot August day we jumped aboard the Island Lass and headed off for a boat trip round the Treshnish Isles, past Fingal’s Cave and onto Staffa.
After spending a few days on Ulva the crowds on the boat and island felt a bit overwhelming to start with. Despite the good weather it was still pretty choppy on the way into the landing at Staffa. It’s hard to imaging the portly Dr. Johnson arriving in 1773.
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.
It’s becoming a bit of a family tradition. Piling the car high and driving northwards for our summer holidays. Usually to Mull, for a family holiday in and around the islands off the North West coast of Scotland. With a few detours on route, this year via the Northumbrian coast.
The holiday and the journey have become a bit of a ‘yardstick’, a marker against which we measure the year - a mid-point where it’s possible to glimpse just far enough forwards and back to take stock of another years temporal changes and what might lie ahead.
And perhaps the islands are a useful tool for this. Although they’re a permanent fixture for the people and animals who inhabit them, for us the islands are a temporary respite, a fleeting viewfinder that helps us see more clearly. There’s a liminal quality to our visits, not permanent but through repeated stays more than just temporary.
Earlier in the week someone asked me if I was enjoying my time in the mountains “in spite of the weather” - as if somehow the wind, rain, snow and (occasional) sunshine were somehow separate entities from the Alps themselves.
The sun hasn’t shone everyday, and the reality of bringing two small children on a snowboarding trip has meant that there hasn’t been a huge amount of actual boarding.
In the pockets of time in between (ski school, getting children back to sleep, sneaking off to grab a late lift) - it’s easy to see that it’s a great time to be in the Alps.
The season is turning, little streams opening back up, small birds flitting between the trees on the lower slopes. A feeling that another winter has been marked off and observed. And as a family the trips at this time of year are becoming our own way of marking the end of winter. The point where we start to move our horizon beyond the next few weeks and to start to think about the spring and summer that lie ahead.