This trip happened in late September, but I'm very lazy about writing
"Fagail Bharraigh, which is 'leaving Barra'."
"I've noticed quite a few tunes called Fagail this or that, even in English there are lots of 'Leaving...' tunes"
He explained what I should already have realised; these are tunes about the Clearances, and the years of subsequent emigration. Songs of the leaving of now near-empty lands. Perhaps some were written in the industrial cities of Scotland, but far more would be composed in Canada, the USA and Australia, looking back over the seas and oceans, perhaps to lands never known except in family memory.
I didn't check my phone until we reached Crianlarich. I get no signal at home so there was nothing to check when we left, and we'd been on the road non-stop since then. But now, pulled in at a roadside cafe, I held the phone still in my hand with a kind of disbelief. It said:
"Hi Andrew, the ferry company phoned work yesterday to say that your ferry is cancelled. Really sorry"
Was this some sort of Aby joke? No, that didn't seem likely. Then an e-mail popped up to confirm:
"Don't know if you got Aby's message yesterday - your ferry has been cancelled because of the weather."
I had barely a bar signal, not enough to look up anything on the internet, so I had to phone my parents and have them look up the internet for me. The ferry website confirmed what I already knew twice over, the ferry was cancelled. It helpfully adds "Passengers are advised to re-book". I get a phone number and call them. They try their hardest not to be drawn on the prospects of a sailing tomorrow, but concede that more will be known later. Somewhere in the middle of all this my phone rings, and it's the owner of the caravan on Vatersay that we've booked through Air B&B. She is herself stranded in Glasgow, having been trying to get home for a couple of days. Her talk is of refunds because there's no way there will be a sailing tomorrow either, and probably not the day after. Of course refunds are not so swift as payments and it will be days before I see my money back; with all our money tied up there's no possibility of going anywhere else. Then the phone rings again, it's my mum, insisting on putting money into my bank account to allow us to still go somewhere.
The path to the ferry terminal has a picture of a stick man walking. The concrete is cracked through his head and above is written 'Terminal', which is about how this holiday is feeling at this point. At the desk they tell me they have already cancelled tomorrow's sailing to Barra. She has a look at the ferry to Lochboisdale, "I might be able to get you in that way" she suggests, so that I feel like some exotic smuggled cargo. But it's not really possible, we're likely to be stuck at Eriskay. "It's fine, I think we've given up on Barra."
She processes the refund, which of course takes up to 5 working days to clear.
"Are you still sailing to Mull?", I ask.
She checks the computer and says that all sailings to Mull are proceeding as normal. She asks if we'd like to book.
"We'd have to find somewhere to stay first... we'll have a go and you may be seeing me again in a while".
In the Oban branch of Costa, both of our phones are running out of battery as we attempt to connect to the free wi-fi without much success. With the last gasp of her dying phone, Sharon manages to call the Craignure Inn, site of our first ever holiday away together. They have a room, but only for tonight, not tomorrow or the day after. It's enough, we're going. I have half a plan and I intend to carry it out. Now back to the ferry terminal.
"I'm afraid the booking for that sailing closed at 3 o'clock", the same woman at the desk informs us, the clock behind her showing 3.10. With my best zen breathing I swallow back down the rising "Why... didn't... you... tell us.. this... BEFORE?!?!!" and calmly ask what this means for us. We can go on standby, she says, but there is absolutely no guarantee that we will be able to sail. She tells me to explain in careful detail to the man at the barrier that we're not booked but have the desperate forlorn hope of somehow being able to sail anyway.
A few minutes later we roll up at the empty loading car park. I start to explain all the details, to which he responds simply "There's plenty room". So... we can go?
"Aye, no bother".
So we're sitting in the car, and I'm reading my new book discovery, which is Laurie Lee's 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning'. My wisdom tooth starts to hurt. I'm on the waiting list to have it removed, but the NHS being what it is, this waiting list is several months long. As a result I have become used to having to travel with a supply of ibuprofen close to hand in case pain strikes. This pain is different, it's pain like I've never felt from a tooth. It feels more like the entire left side of my face is trying to collapse in on itself. All I can do is sit perfectly still quietly mumbling "Aaaaaaaaahhhh...."
If heaven were to exist, it would probably be found aboard a Calmac ferry. I don't know why it feels like some sort of home there, perhaps the quiet sea along the Sound Of Mull rolling by, the excitement of coming adventure, the memory of happy times past. The painkillers start to do their work and the agony decreases and vanishes, and I feel like I've been given a new chance at life, so glad am I to have that experience behind me.
Even in the shelter of the Sound, the boat is rocking from side to side; you can see why they wouldn't be keen on facing the open water of the Atlantic Ocean on the crossing to Barra. Some people sit at cafe tables looking ill, some people are not bothered at all but are not about to attempt to walk anywhere. I appear to be attempting to cross the open floor with a tray of food and drinks, which goes a lot better when I stumble (literally) onto an irregular walking pattern that offsets the rolling of the boat. I look around grinning, but nobody wants to join my fun.
Check in at the Craignure Inn is done at the bar, with a cast of local characters eyeing you. Suddenly in the middle of the process the barman says "This might be a bit of a strange request.... but.... can I touch your jacket?".
"Knock yourself out", I say, and extend my arm. Sharon rolls her eyes.
"He gets asked this all the time", she says.
"Indeed," I confirm, "I no longer consider it a strange request."
My jacket is composed of a thin synthetic black fur, over which are overlaid patches of synthetic leather in a snakeskin pattern. It gains comments everywhere I go, and occasionally, like today, requests to touch it.
"I just had to know when I seen it... what's the texture like on that", he explains. Curiosity satisfied, we are placed upstairs in what may or may not be the very room we first stayed in. We can't quite decide, because although it looks exactly like it, the layout has been reversed and the furniture all lies on opposite walls. There is a fly in the corner of the window pane, and this is the exact type of fly in the exact position on the window that I remember and photographed those 8 years ago.
Lying stretched out on the bed I plug in my headphones and run through Ahab's 'The Boats Of The Glen Carrig' album, my head full of visions of the great rolling sea. The music runs from the stillness of the water in the Craignure bay, which often seems like a full-blown hurricane couldn't gather much more than a gently lapping wave to the violence of a far greater storm than that experienced out in the Sound, and it runs back and forth from one to the other, each piece masterfully stitched to the next. Each listen brings a different highlight, on this go through it's the loudest and most relentless track 'Like Red Foam (The Great Storm)'.
In the morning I awake gently to that familiar view of the bay that is etched into my mind. Sometimes when I close my eyes it's to imagine myself back there seeing this view from this window, only now it's the real thing. I'm well slept and rested, and recalling some words of Laurie Lee on waking up on his first morning in Valladolid;
"I was awakened next morning by the high clear voice of a boy singing in the street below. The sound lifted me gradually with a swaying motion as though I was being cradled on silken cords. It was cool crisp singing, full-throated and pure, and surely the most painless way to be wakened - and as I lay there listening, with the sun filtering across me, I thought this was how it should always be. To be charmed from sleep by a voice like this, eased softly back into life, rather than by the customary brutalities of shouts, knocking, and alarm-bells like blows on the head. The borders of consciousness are anxious enough, raw and desperate places; we shouldn't be dragged across them like struggling thieves as if sleep was a felony."
Indeed oh somnolent island in your grey misty shroud. Timings and routine here are altogether more approximate than in the heart of a city. There is nothing to rush for, and life is as calm and easy as the gentle lapping water in the bay. Every so often a ferry appears, draws into dock, its vast metal floodgates open and unleash a tide of cars and buses that flow north to Tobermory or west to Iona. They wash over Craignure and are gone, the rattling and thrumming of engines and exhausts slowly fading and dying out, leaving once more only the gentle lapping.
We're off on the tourist road to Iona ourselves, albeit out of season and out of time with the rush, which is fine by us. Mull in the mist has a gentle majesty. The road out to Fionnphort runs through valleys that beg to be walked, their waterfalls to be seen up close, their slopes to be traversed as David Balfour did in the opening of Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Kidnapped'. My second and final quoting of Laurie Lee;
"As for this pocket of England through which I found myself walking, it seemed to be immense. A motor car, of course, could have crossed it in a couple of hours, but it took me the best part of a week, treading it slowly, smelling its different soils, spending a whole morning working round a hill. I was lucky, I know, to have been setting out at that time, in a landscape not yet bulldozed for speed. Many of the country roads still followed their originals tracks, drawn by packhorse or lumbering cartwheel, hugging the curve of a valley or yielding to a promontory like the wandering line of a stream. It was not, after all, so very long ago, but no one could make that journey today. Most of the old roads have gone, and the motor car, since then, has begun to cut the landscape to pieces, through which the hunched-up traveller races at gutter height, seeing less then a dog in a ditch."
How I would love, how I yearn to walk through here and not drive. But it's not a practical possibility at the moment, and to be here by car is better than to not be here.
At Fionnphort, the ferry to Iona isn't cancelled. It's running. "We can take you over", the young girl at the desk is saying, "but there's no guarantee of getting back". I ask if she could put a figure on the chances of returning, but she declines to do so.
"It's a narrow channel", I say. "We can always swim back".
To this she makes absolutely no response of any kind whatsoever, no flicker of anything, just a blank robotic stare.
"OK... I guess we'll leave it then".
We have lunch in the nearby pub and then circle a windswept graveyard whose battered headstone fragments give it the appearance of a shipwreck. Back on the road, we stop next at Bunessan, where there exists that most wonderful of things, a 24 hour book shed. It has heating, and lighting, and consists of a couple of rooms and a porch. There are armchairs and blankets. A sign on the door says "SHEEP CAN'T READ... PLEASE CLOSE THE DOOR BEHIND YOU". Payment is made via honesty box beside the door. It's absolutely glorious except for the contents; try as I might, I can't find a single book to take my fancy and have to leave empty-handed. It consists mostly of bestseller fiction of yesteryear, film novelisations and Readers Digest hardbacks. Above the village looms the great peak of Ben Mhor, while an even quieter and more still inland loch laps away at the little sea wall. Magnificent Mull.
We have secured a bed and breakfast for a further two nights stay, and it's only a few doors down from the Craignure Inn. The woman running it seemed a curious sort right from the start, where she announced that although she was going out, we were welcome to await the 3pm check-in time in her porch. Given that we called her at 9am, a 6 hour porch odyssey was politely declined. When we arrived in the afternoon there was something strange about her alright. She was enquiring, but not so much out of interest or desire to share, it was a bit more probing, like you're being tested. She took us to the room and announced that there were no keys, rooms were left unlocked. This is the first time I've ever encountered this, and while I didn't feel our belongings were at risk of theft in such a setting, from her manner I felt sure that she would be in there snooping around when we were gone. She set out the rules, including the time for breakfast, which was not negotiable. We also had to say what we wanted right there and then. The room was pleasant enough, again with that sea view out over the bay to the faded hills of the mainland.
During the course of the night the tooth pain returned, more powerful than ever before. It was difficult even to locate its source, so overpoweringly did it attack. Sometimes it felt like it could be anywhere from my ear down to my neck, sometimes it even appeared to be in my eye socket. The painkillers were now powerless, and I spent a restless night trying to grasp whatever sleep the pain would allow me.
Next morning I didn't feel much like breakfast after my night, and Sharon went down alone. When she came back up she said the woman had been annoyed I hadn't gone down because she had already made my breakfast. She had given it to the other guest, a man visiting on his own who was something of a regular.
On the road to Tobermory we met this other guest. He had set out walking, so we stopped and picked him up. He was a bird watching enthusiast and wildlife photographer, headed for a hide just off a junction along our route. Pleasant sort, but deathly dull.
At Tobermory I had to suffer on Sharon's behalf, by quietly wandering around shops. I don't enjoy aimlessly wandering around shops, looking for things to consume. Never do I more keenly feel my very life ebbing away moment by moment. But Sharon enjoys it, as indeed do a great many people, a majority even. My shopping was done that morning in the Craignure charity shop. Besides a black showerproof rain coat to combat the weather conditions I picked up a couple of books and a couple of vinyl LPs, one of which was Harold Wightman performing the poems of Robert Burns with occasional musical accompaniment, one of which was 'Address To The Toothache'.
Off-season is the best season. At the height of summer this village crowds as though people were the foam of an overspilling sea, the urgent storm pressing them irresistably onward against the buildings. In the quiet of the autumn, a man stands on the receding tide spraying down his boat. A car stops in the middle of the street to let an old man get in, and no-one minds the delay.
If the morning belonged to Sharon, then the afternoon is mine. We're headed out toward Lochbuie, along the route we actually cycled on our first holiday together. This is still spoken of from time to time, the many miles of difficult terrain, the pain of the following day. Pain is soon forgotten however, and I retain only the happy memory.
At Kinlochspelve we get out to stop at the church that overlooks the loch, but find it converted to a private house. How wonderful to live here, to live here precisely, or just on Mull generally. Thoughts begin to rumble through my head. Perhaps...
The road ends at Lochbuie, though the land reaches out around and beyond like a crab's claw. Large areas of Mull have no road or habitation, but simply sit in their natural state. To look at its blankness on a map is to invited to colour it.
At the road's end is a shop in a shed, with the usual honesty box. They are stocked regularly with everything from chilled drinks to home baking to frozen fish. The rain patters on the tin roof, while outside the sea rolls in, finally able here to muster up a bit of enthusiasm. From here we will walk a little, to the 19th century St Kilda's Episcopal Church, and beyond that to the 15th century Moy Castle.
The Castle remains in private hands, and is very much closed, a rickety wooden door clinging to its frame sits just beyond various warning signs advising people to stay away. Sharon protests that other boards nearby advertise the fact that a variety of public money including grants from Historic Scotland have been put into the building, so the public should have the ability to access it. My pride in Sharon's sudden proletarian spirit aside, I don't fancy attempting the interior much. Whatever the grants were spent on, it couldn't have been on securing much of the masonry, which looks extremely precarious the higher up you go.
From here Sharon took the keys and headed back through the drizzle to the car, while I walked on having discovered a medieval chapel lay somewhere ahead.
Around the bay, walking on the edge of the surf, those vacant blanks of the land coming into focus. There was even a threat of sun.
There are no signposts to the chapel, but you have only to follow common sense to find it. The path digs into tight cliffs and then falls down to another beach. At the edge of the view I can see a square patch of trees, a sure sign of a graveyard. The chapel building is medieval, and basic as befits the time. It was refitted as a mausoleum in the 19th century. It was re-roofed then also, with tiny little stars cut into the timber and placed over with coloured glass. The interior is dark, impossibly dark, so that I have to use the camera flash just to look around.
The hills beyond the chapel just beg exploration, some Tolkienesque journey. The slopes are populated here and there with sheep, who seem to be encouraging "See? It's not so difficult to get up here".
Today there is only the return to the path from which I came. Walking here with sheep up ahead, and mist floating around the peaks in the distance I am reminded of a very large pair of antique prints we have at home, one depicting Skye, the other Arran. In both a road of this type leads ahead of a figure, and I feel almost as though I have been drawn into it. The scene is timeless, this could be 2016 or 1716.
Back at the B&B, my instincts are immediately shown to be correct as our host announces that she thought it was getting a bit cold, so she went into our room to put the heater on. Some of our stuff has been moved position, 'tidied'. I'm fairly sure that the books I put into the bedside drawer have been moved slightly. Certainly clothes are in different positions from those they were left in. A good old nose around.
That night the pain was worse still. It cannot be accurately described, it is beyond any thought or expression other than to repeatedly call out "Aaaaaaaaaggggggghhhhhh". During that evening our host made a useful contribution in suggesting that I should go to the Isle Of Mull Accident & Emergency, which was just around the corner from here. As the night wound on, this emerged as the only sensible option, and off we went in the darkness.
As we walked to the door we were greeted by a nurse, the only person in the premises. The situation was explained and I was taken into a tiny ward and sat beside a bed. She would have to call the doctor, but he lived very nearby and should only be 10 minutes. When the doctor arrived he had a slight accent, German perhaps.
"Me... doctor", he said by way of introduction, then shook his head. "No dentist."
For a second I wondered just what the fuck was going on now, before I realised that this was an example of the island humour. The humour here is very dry, and often plays on the preconceptions of outsiders.
"Have you been taking anything for it?"
"And I'm guessing that would be doing precisely nothing?"
He had a look at my teeth, and said it was almost certainly an abscess. There's not much a doctor who isn't a dentist can do about that except to offer short-term help in the form of antibiotics and stronger painkillers. Beyond that, I should see my dentist as soon as I get home, and see if there's any way to move myself up the NHS queue.
"You are quite unlucky, other than the wisdom tooth your teeth are in very good condition, aren't they?"
"Normally when we see people with tooth pain at almost midnight, their mouths do not look like yours."
"... Thank you?", I offered.
He gave me two tablets of Co-codamol to take along with a glass of water. Instead I started to read the packet. This seemed to amuse him a great deal, and he urged me to "just take them... trust me."
There were then antibiotics, and we sat and chatted for a while, while I apologised for getting him out of bed.
When pain like that leaves you, it leaves in its place a kind of euphoria. From a dark and limited world where your every decision was dominated by the overpowering sensation of all your nerves screaming at you, suddenly there is an abundance of choice and freedom. You can do anything now.
At 9.40 there was a knock on the door. It was our host.
"Check-out is by 10am", she informs me.
"Yes, I know."
She looks at me.
"Well I have to get the next ferry and I still have your room to do and I don't know how I'm going to have time."
"OK... well... we'll be down by 10."
She goes away in a mini huff. If checkout is 10, then it's 10. You can't be knocking on people's doors at 9.40 telling them to hurry up and get out. Or going through their stuff while they're out. Ridiculous woman.
Over breakfast the other guest regales us with his most entertaining tales, one of which is about his delivery of gravel coming much more quickly than he had expected when he bought it. A pleasant sort, but deathly dull.
I went to the ferry office to book onto the return trip.
"I'm sorry, but the booking for the next sailing closed at 12pm", explained the man, a clock behind him showing 12.10. "But you may be able to travel on standby... if you begin by explaining...."
A couple of minutes later I rolled up to the empty loading car park.
At the Spar shop we top up on supplies for the day's journey home.
"Great jacket!", exclaims one of the women working there.
"Can I touch it?"
"Go right ahead."
Her colleague gave out a gasp of laughter.
"What? Well, I wanted to feel what it was like."
"So did I", she said, "but I wasn't going to go and ask"
"Well I just had to know"
The colleague reached out her hand to it. "Well, since she's asked..."
When I reach Sharon, I need only to raise my eyebrows for her to sigh.
"How many people touched your jacket this time?"
It is always sad to leave Mull behind, to part from that calm shore and watch the mountains fade into the distance, out past the castles of Torosay and Duart, on past the shores of Lismore. Everybody snaps away at the castles and the lighthouses, and the seagulls who follow the ferry, but I prefer to stand and fix my eyes on those slowly receding mountain peaks. Fagail Muileach.
The journey home went through Doune, and in enough time to make the last entry we finally visited Doune Castle, most famous nowadays for its appearance in Monty Python & The Holy Grail, from where John Cleese's Frenchman threatened to taunt King Arthur a second time if he didn't go away. I accepted the audio guide, not something I generally do at Historic Scotland properties, but I happened to have read in the members magazine a while ago that these guides had now been re-recorded by Terry Jones.
"Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries!" Sharon informed me as she came bounding up. She has no knowledge of the film, but had picked this up from the audio guide.
At the stairs inside the courtyard was perhaps my favourite scene from the film, where Cleese's Sir Lancelot cannot restrain himself from killing anyone who comes near him. Michael Palin as the lord of the castle appeals to the recently bereaved "Let's not bicker and argue about who killed who..."