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.
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.
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.
Two years on and we went back to one of my favourite wild places. Achiltibuie, Coigach. The effect of the weather on the landscape, and the landscape and weather on the history of the people of these small string like villages is clear.
But when the sun shines and you have time to sit, relax and observe it is a landscape with power and beauty that slowly reveals itself; the abundance of bird life and wild flowers, the way the light changes and plays on the hills of the nearby Torridon mountains, the persistent call of the cuckoo and the sudden appearance of a young deer.