As the Scots say, "West is best". So for our August holiday we put that to the test, heading slightly further west than usual. But not by much. A few days west of our usual summer spot on Mull, in a off-grid Bothy on Ulva. A couple of hours walk from the ferry under leaden skies. Past the many cleared settlements. To arrive at the most perfect spot. A little house by the sea with a white sand swimming beach. In the evening a cosy fireplace and just enough comforts. Not to mention an owl outside the kitchen window. Not luxury in the holiday brochure sense, but a place to make family memories, which is it's own kind of luxury.
It’s a surprisingly warm summers day. We’ve been coming to Mull for more than a decade, but we’ve never had weather like this. It’s a flat calm on Calgary beach and the sun is beating down. The beaches of the west coast of Scotland often look like the Caribbean, but for once they even feel like it!
It’s pretty busy, for the Inner Hebrides, which means not that busy at all. Once I push out from the beach the hubbub slips away and I’m floating over the seaweed below, looking out for fish beneath the gentle waves lazily rolling in. I stand up from my kneeling position. After a few minor wobbles I’m ready to scoot round the northern side of the bay, up towards the old pier. There’s a couple having a picnic who are slightly surprised by my “hello”!
The bottom drops away from this point, and I get a moment of vertigo as I suddenly feel like I’m a long way from shore. I spin the board round and head back in a little before pushing across the bay towards the far side, past a yacht anchored a little way off shore.
As I head back in, the effort starts to hit me, there’s more current here than you might think, and on another day it would be a much riskier enterprise, but with a few minutes of long pulls on the paddle I’m back in the shallows where the girls coming splashing in to meet me.
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.
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.
Saturday morning, doing the things you have to do (buying clothes for the children in Milton Keynes) and the dissonance with our recent trip to Coigach is rising up in my consciousness and beating me over the head. Robert Macfarlane, in his brilliant debut proposed the concept of ’Mountains of the Mind’. The Summer Isles are firmly embedded as one of my haunting mental islands.