Islands, whisky….and weather

You have to expect the unexpected when travelling. So my eyes widen only slightly on discovering that our six carriage train has been inexplicably reduced to four. Despite all six being fully booked. My fellow tourists are still frothing at the mouth halfway through our journey from Glasgow to Oban. Welcome to Scotrail. The ticket inspector has not dared to appear, but the Hospitality Assistant, Amber, is understanding and and good-humoured in the face of chaos. The extra baggage piled up with displaced passengers perched on top makes it impossible for the refreshments trolley to be wheeled along. Amber assures us she will be stationed at the far end, where we can purchase…..ah yes….anything but tea and coffee. She is now not permitted to dispense hot beverages in case we injure ourselves walking back to our seats. Hollow laughs all round. Those who have been cheated out of a seat are referred eventually to Scotrail for possible refunds. Right. Best of British with that one….

It is a rainy day and the scenery around us is at its moody best. I keep expecting to catch sight of an extra from Outlander emerging from the trees. Mist has let her skirts fall in folds, leaving occasional hints of mountain peaks. Enticing tracks and trails, where surely midges lie in wait for the unwary. Man has mercifully left less imprint up here. The landscape reveals strange age-old shapes, humps and hillocks…..dark, secretive forests. It slips effortlessly into the “brooding and dramatic” as proclaimed in tourist literature. Our four carriages having further reduced to two at Crianlarich (the rest of the train heads up to Fort William), we rattle up the track, rain fatly splattering the windows. Newly-shorn sheep graze on, undisturbed. They’ve seen it all before. Dalmally station is a profusion of delightful eccentricity…..figures of sheep, sheepdogs and pheasants peer through a burst of tubs and bright flowers. We pass Loch Awe, white-frothed and dark. The open train windows bring welcome freshness to the crowded carriage. They also bring in wet leaves. Summer growth has encroached on the line as the train squeezes through at speed.

I spend the night in Oban. The weather remains blustery and not unlike home in Norway, so I reason that some whisky tasting will revive me. My accommodation happens to come with a frankly impressive wee bar downstairs. The proprietor, John, informs me that it includes his own personal whisky collection. I decide that a day in the doubtful embrace of Scotrail has entitled me to a decent single malt in recompense. My carefully considered choice prompts John to remark that it is his particular favourite, the last dram of that bottle, and that he may be about to weep. He says this with a twinkle in the eye so I commiserate with a grin. Whisky is properly savoured in the mouth before swallowing…..that way you avoid the burn. They say. I feel the inner fire…..

The crossing to Mull is smooth, luckily for this poor sailor. I even manage a cup of tea and shortbread. The sun has decided to end the rain nonsense and heats us up on deck. Vicious gusts of wind try to remove the hair from my head. Good job I’m not into high-maintenance coiffure. Wash’n’go. Trump’s hair spray would be no match for this wind….

I see the scenery as a succession of watercolour washes, distant hills blue-grey, fading in and out of the picture. Sudden brilliant shafts of sunlight striking the white of boats and isolated houses. The locals sit quietly with their shopping wheelies and dogs, fresh from a mainland trip. Some talk about their dental appointments or visits to the main stores. There’s only a mobile dentist on Mull, I’ve heard….

Arriving at Craignure, I board the bus for the forty minute trip up to Tobermory. I’ve struck gold with the driver who proves to be a hoot. We meet a works vehicle on the narrow road. It looks tight. “BREATHE IN!” cries the driver. General hysterics and visions of the night bus in Harry Potter. There’s a sign by the road “Beware …. otters crossing”. I long to see one of these enchanting creatures but they are notoriously elusive. Next time I visit, I will go on an “otter potter” with a guide. Even getting up at five am to see them would be worth it. The bus driver keeps up an informative banter the whole way up, pointing out seals, birds and sheep…..”look! One sheep!”….whilst negotiating the winding road. The foreigners are bewildered by his broad accent. Some have brought the equivalent of the kitchen sink … others look woefully under-prepared for the unpredictable weather.

My B and B is some distance out of Tobermory itself, so I’m lucky that I’ve hit two of the driest days, although I’m prepared with waterproof gear in my pack. The walk in takes about 25 minutes, fiercely uphill on the return journey. Island peace is something else, something that slows the heartbeat and the racing thoughts. A calmness where the loudest noises are the bubbling stream and constant hum of bees. The richness of vegetation triggers my hayfever, long dormant in Norway, but I don’t care. That warm grass smell of childhood is strong and soothing. I pass a field of over a hundred cows, working hard on their contributions to the famed cheese and ice-cream. They consider me carefully. And get back to grazing. Sheep dazzle with their shorn summer coats, evidently feeling lighter and frisky.

I meet very few people and even fewer cars, but a passing cyclist calls a cheery hello which I catch in his wake. Signposts are also in Gaelic. I’ve been learning a few words and phrases, fascinated as ever by links between languages, origins of words. I listen to it on the dedicated tv channel. The stream has become roaring falls which supply some hydro power, although most power still comes from the mainland via deep sea cables. Down Eas Brae, which is nearly vertical….a workout for later….and I’m in Tobermory. Every bit as colourful as advertised.

What you don’t get from the tourist pictures is the simply mouth-watering smell of fresh fish and chips. That rich promise from childhood days at the seaside and a time when no rules interfered with the proper wrapping of newspaper. It never fails, that evocative bank of sensory memory. Add to this the wildflower and honey scents of the highland soaps on sale. And that rich tang of seaweed that grips you by the nose and stays deep in the lungs. Something both primal and life-affirming. As a child, I was vaguely repulsed by the black bobbles and slimy green strands, fastidiously trying not to step on them. I feel as though I also smell the peace here……it’s like leaning back and floating on warm water, as if we are in a different, kinder time zone. It relaxes the shoulders and cushions my steps.

Seagulls as large as small dogs stalk the pier, crying harshly to the skies and jealously defending their looting rights. A man yelps as a gull makes a mid-flight raid on his open fish supper box. The bird crackles in triumph from the roof of a parked car. A local woman mutters at the sight of a tourist feeding the gulls, which unfortunately encourages them further. “Yon daft wummin is gie-in it breid an’ all!” I sympathise. The birds are as bold as any I’ve encountered. They try intimidation tactics but I stand firm. They are not getting even a crumb from my ice-cream cone. They glare at me and retreat to find an easier victim.

Tobermory is a delight to the senses, even with a constant flow of visitors. I willingly give myself over to exploration of the rich local seafood. Crab, langoustine, salmon, mussels, all are superb. And of course that cheese. I talk to a few locals, some of them incomers, part Sassenach like myself. They are immensely content with the move here. I naturally sample a stave of whiskies at Tobermory distillery, instructed by a knowledgeable university student. She’s lived here for five years. It is, she maintains, rather dead here once the tourist season is over. I sense that has something to do with her youth and need to still experience city life. I myself can see the vast appeal of peace in such nature … although for me that means mainland coastal living and not being at the mercy of rough sea crossings. Crafts and artwork flourish on the island and I can certainly see the inspiration. It makes me itch to write and draw. I’m still thinking about watercolour washes….

I walk out to the lighthouse, two kilometres of paths with steep drops down one side along the coast.

Rubha nan Gall lighthouse was built in 1857 by the Stevenson brothers, the same family as the author, Robert Louis. They also built the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, which has been beautifully restored and is now an enticing holiday let. I sit with my sandwich from the bakery, perched on a grassy tussock beside a rockpool. I listen to the waves, lazily slapping to and fro near my feet. There’s only a gentle breeze to cool the sun’s heat. Birds call and wheel above me. A ferry passes on its way north west…..maybe to the Outer Hebrides. And then the silence. I write in my notebook for a while, the perfect spot for getting my thoughts onto the page. I could stay here, perfectly happy, all day. The arrival of other visitors….and the realisation that the nearest toilet is back in Tobermory…..sets me back upon the trail. A cool, green corridor that opens up onto spectacular viewpoints. It could be a bit treacherous when wet, but for now, the path is stable. I leave a grateful contribution towards the upkeep of the path at the gate…..there’s a collection box shaped like a lighthouse.

Towards evening and my dinner reservation, I opt for a bit of local gin research. The bar fills up with a few holidaymakers and some locals. Snippets of conversation wash over me as I consider the contents of my glass: “Aye, he was deid but he wisnae RIGHT deid, ye ken ….” Or “Och they modernised it and made it worse.”

After a triumph for the tastebuds, I start the hike back to base in a delicious evening sunlight casting low across the fields. Farm dogs are barking and children playing, free and safe here as childhood once felt. The sheep sound like someone pretending to be a sheep, which makes me laugh out loud. I baaa at one nearest the fence and it replies. We have a conversation. The same thing happens with an inquisitive horse in the next field. I quite often prefer animals to some humans, so it seems natural that I communicate with them. Finally I pass a wind turbine and turn into the garden. My hosts have chickens who oblige with breakfast eggs and stalk the garden area. They also have Willow, the dog, who collapses gratefully against my legs as I greet her. Morar is a potter and artist…..examples of her work decorate the house and garden. It’s a peaceful place, unassuming and simple. I lie with the window open, listening to owls.

I decide to take a trip to visit Iona. The weather has disintegrated into persistent rain and wind, but the locals are unfazed. “Aye, ye’ll no’ melt,” says one. True enough. “‘Tis just a wee bit o’ Scotch mist.” Right. Our coach driver for the lengthy drive across the southern part of Mull is Anndra, a form of Andrew in Gaelic. He keeps up a fascinating commentary about the history of the islands and current state of living there. He also promises to sing us a Gaelic song. Much of the road is single track with passing places. Anndra remarks darkly that there ought to be a mandatory driving test for all visitors to the islands with cars, as many of them haven’t a clue how to use the roads. Too many of them use passing places as photo opportunities, which is dangerous.

The crossing to Iona is only ten minutes by small ferry, but as we lurch from side to side, I concentrate on not feeling dizzy. Rubbish at sea then. Which is a shame. I’d like to live on an island. In an ideal world. If I made my living from writing. Ha ha. Iona is quietly stunning beneath the mist and rain. Even in this weather, her turquoise waters are visible. There is one main street and a sprinkling of gift shops plus a fish restaurant. Further from the shore, I wander past the lush community garden where produce is grown that supplies the hotel. And I spot a few items for sale at the gate, with an honesty box. This is common in rural areas and a pleasure to see. I’m here as a tourist myself, but I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable about the disruption caused by a constant flow of visitors. Not all of them are respectful. As evidenced by plaintive notices in back gardens, asking people not to use their cameras on the occupants. They do have a right to privacy. And yet I spot a woman wandering into a private garden and snapping away near the back door. Tourism is a lifeblood for the island, and yet it cannot be easy to live alongside what it unleashes upon the inhabitants. I usually manage to evade the groups and do my own thing. Much preferred.

I pass the Abbey without entering. It looks far from peaceful today and I take more pleasure from being outside in the bracing air, taking in the atmosphere. Certainly each island seems to have its own “feel”. Entering a craft shop for a quick peek at the gorgeous tweeds, I stoop to greet the cat on duty next to the Open sign. She’s having none of it. Thoroughly fed up with people today. Can’t say I blame her. I settle for the boost of a Gaelic coffee as I wait for the ferry to return. Yes….that’s coffee with a wee drop in it.

We settle damply back onto the bus for the return journey across Mull. I’ve chosen the opposite side of the bus so I get a fresh view. The wild, undisturbed scenery of southern Mull is addictive. From seaweed-strewn shores and sleepy villages to imposing glens and roaring waterfalls. Here and there are revealed the ruins of old crofts and blackhouses. In Mull museum I stared at a chilling map, revealing the huge number of settlements and villages which once covered the land. And then the brutal list of clearances. Landlords decided that sheep were more profitable on the land than people, and so families were evicted, many forced to emigrate. The irony is that now the land is largely empty, with few sheep or cattle. The Forestry Commission is a major employer. Timber, I’m told, even gets exported from here to Scandinavia, and to Ikea. Incredible.

The driver pipes up again: “Ye know whit they say? Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky!” Can’t argue with that. They’re fond of sayings here. I came across another strange one: “Ye’ll no’ sell yer hen on a rainy day!” Hm. We manoeuvre past the local post van, a wee white dog keeping a watchful eye from the passenger seat. “And on yer left….that’s Cory, the Highland Coo posing nicely for ye….”

Back in Oban at the ferry terminal, I nip into the café. They specialise in local produce and a very warm welcome. “Aye, how are ye the day? Whit yer fer? Coffee is it?” And delicious scones….. Everywhere I go on this trip, the response is always “nae bother” … it’s no trouble. Kind of sums up the welcome I feel here. I have but scratched the surface on two of the islands. There is far more to be discovered. The less easily accessible. The remote. The place for imagination. And a wee dram. I will most definitely be back.

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