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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Scotland Trip: The Isle of Mull

A day on road and sea, as we cross west from the central Highlands to the Isle of Mull. On the way, threading the stunning A-roads, we realise how baffling Scotland can be, with its scattered geological jigsaw. Is that a Loch, or the sea? Is that an island apparently lying off the coast, or a peninsula? If one wants to head east or west, why must one first travel north or south in order to skirt a body of water or looming Munro? Elsewhere in the British isles, much of the natural environment has been tamed or destroyed to correct a nature which seems to be inconveniently in the way: thus the Anglian fens were drained, Brunel cut tunnels, swathes of earth excavated for straight motorways. But Scotland's fault is its greatest asset, its 400 million year old Great Glen faultline keeps its settlements and infrastructure dispersed; it is this which attracts so many tourists who seek the less touched parts of Britain.

The Isle of Mull is a case in point. Accessible only by the Calmac ferry (which we take from Oban), the number of tourists seems to drop off even further on the island, although admittedly every other brightly-painted house in the main town of Tobermory seems to be a bed and breakfast or to offer holiday lets. This aside, the town is comparatively unspoilt. A couple of shops sell tourist tat (including souvenirs from the children's television show, Balamory, which made the town famous most recently), but since it is an island and since tourism occupies only a proportion of its year, most of Tobermory has to remain largely geared to the demands of the local economy. Locals could not afford to pop to the mainland for essentials. Here, then, we find a chandlery, a snug but tightly packed book shop and stationers, a butchers, bakers, and a general merchant where one can pick up anything from a bottle of whisky to an electric guitar.

Even one of the four pubs, the Mishnish, refuses to reduce itself to the clean, brushed pine and scented toilets one finds in corporatized tourist hotspots. Instead, cobwebs hang from the ceiling, a boat lantern sits precariously above a sooted hearth, and we sit on ripped bench cushions whilst reading piles of well thumbed magazines: Salmon and Trout Fisherman, Shipping World, the RNLI Catalogue. As we pretend to learn about tonnage and tippets, we are secretly listening in to the local amateur dramatic society who are discussing their plans for their next play at the next table. "It's impossible to do anything serious," one grey lady mutters, solemnly, "Every time I walk on stage, people just bloody laugh." I guess that is the problem, and pleasure, of living on a small island. When everybody knows each other so intimately, it is hard to convince in a costume that you are really Lear's Cordelia, and not the one renowned for sleeping with the vicar (that is proverbial, not a slight on the unknown lady). And this is why, in our own costumes of Berghaus fleeces and bearing large camera bags, I cannot help but feel consciously the outsider, tourist, mainlander that I am.

Photograph of Tobermory
Tobermory, Isle of Mull

One of the remarks often made about Great Britain is that, by a fluke of geological drift and the temperate Gulf Stream, every global climate and landscape is to be found somewhere within this narrow outcrop of Europe, from the Highlands that resemble the Himalayas, to the Kentish garden of England that could equally be somewhere in the south of France. Such coincidences may offer the stuff of British Tourist Board clichés. Then again, who does need the Caribbean when one has Calgary Bay, one of many glorious beaches on the Western Isles? With shallow sloping white sands, and turquoise clear waters, Calgary Bay seems tropical - were one able to discount the 15 degree weather and the 20 mile an hour wind.

Photograph of Calgary Bay
Old Pier, Calgary Bay

After walking the bay and cliff tops, with the photographer in me struggling to find a way to capture the light blue of the sea without burning out the highlights of the white sand, we meander our way through "Art in Nature." This is a sculpture trail that runs through wind-blasted woodland at the back of the bay, and which leads - where else - to a café. It is an enterprising concept, but it leaves me somewhat depressed as we provide the café's only two customers. With two staff wiping down already spotless surfaces, occasionally stopping to carry out the task of chasing away the nosy farm cat, it is hard to see how this business, admirable though it is, can possibly be viable. But then this is April during the school term, and I wonder again about the restorative power of that mythical Season, the height of Summer, when slow days like this will, hopefully, be forgotten in a flurry of footsteps and chatter of tills.

Photograph of waterfall
Waterfall, Isle of Mull

Our next stop is a set of waterfalls which, viewed from the top looking over the Loch, play an illusion, as they appear to spill straight into the Loch ahead, rather than plunging down before the river continues for a mile at sea level, before meeting it. Anywhere else, this tranquil series of falls would be announced by brown road-signs miles in advance, with a National Trust Land Rover at the top and a café at the bottom. Here, though, where waterfalls tumbling from black, basalt cliffs are numerous, the only thing to mark their existence for the curious is a wider piece of gravel road on which to park the car.

Completing our trio of walks, on the back of some fish and chips, in the evening we follow the cliff-top path from Tobermory, reaching a squat, white lighthouse. As we return in the near dark, we regret the fact that it is now cloudy, and that during those clear nights previously at Loch Lomond, we had forgotten to look at the stars.

Photograph of boats
Old Boats, Isle of Mull

Whilst it is usually preferable to play passenger on a scenic drive, in many ways the best seat when on Mull belongs to the driver. With single track roads sweeping and chicaning around contours, or cresting blind summits with 1-in-4 drops the other side, driving is a dramatic and exhilarating affair. It also involves games of psychological pressure. When two cars are heading for each other on the narrow roads, who is going to pull in first? And, if both pull in simultaneously, who is going to make the first, discourteous move? It is a mechanised version of those awkward encounters in a shopping street, when two pedestrians dance left, then right, then left again, in an attempt to bypass the other. The second psychological game on Mull, which does not have a counterpart elsewhere, is played when one passes a parked car, and sees a range of blinking eyes and binoculars pressed against the windows. What have they spotted, we wonder? We soon learn the art of driving forwards whilst craning upwards to catch the diminishing speck of whatever flighty bird they may have been watching.

We play these games on the long drive to the south of the island, to Carsaig. Although we pause regularly to admire the remarkably numerous heron and proud red deer, there are two principal animals on our minds: sea eagles, and otters. Having been disappointed in chasing up rumours of otters playing in Tobermory harbour the previous night just outside our bedroom window, we are hoping Carsaig will live up to its reputation as a wildlife hotspot.

We park at the bottom of the hill, beside a crushed and buckled stone pier, and set out on foot to walk along the shoreline to Carsaig arches, a few miles away. The scramble along the rocky goat track is dramatic. Walls of basalt cliffs loom to our right, with the now ossified flows from this larval outcrop fingering into the sea to our left. However, it is slow going as we try simultaneously to pick our steps, whilst scanning the sky above the cliff tops for the telltale darkening shadow of a bird of prey, and the shoreline for the vanishing hump of an otter.

Neither appear, however, though we see a pair of buzzards, watch oystercatchers chip at barnacles, and stalk grizzled feral goats (left behind here after the Highland Clearances). All the wildlife watching takes its toll on our time, and we have to turn back before reaching the arches. Back at the harbour, though, a final glance through the binoculars reveals some grey seals basking on distant rocks, whilst we find the fishy spraint of an otter's last supper on its rocky table at the shore.

At this point, I am supposed to acknowledge that, in spite of our defeated wildlife voyeurism, Mull remains remarkably wild, and that it seems almost unfair that a place of such natural beauty should be permitted to remain part of an industrial nation which has played no small role in wreaking environmental havoc elsewhere. This is the sort of summary I had been composing on our walks around Mull. But my editing of the preceding narrative has placed Mull in a false parenthesis, aside from the rest of the world and the rest of industrial Britain, when in reality even Mull finds itself caught in the sentence of global failure.

For, parallel with the beauty of today's walk along the goat track, another story was being told on the coastline. As we followed the bay on a path trodden comparatively rarely by humans, litter had been coughed up by the sea: an old bike tyre, a shoe, a supermarket milk carton, a bottle of Minute Maid. The Atlantic gales of winter had bullied the evidence into the eyeline of we walkers on a fine April day. How does this stuff get into the sea? I would like to imagine that some unsteady grandmother has been washed, unnoticed, from the promenade of some southern seaside town, her bags of shopping unfortunately spilling open and floating northwards to Mull. But my comical imagination cannot hold against the reality that this debris is the deliberate waste thrown by numerous hands, or ripped from Chinese container ships chugging to satisfy Western appetites, or flowing from mainland cities down streams and rivers to end their journey here, a full stop in the cycle of consumption that grotesquely patterns that of nature's ocean currents, the turn of the seasons, the wheel of an eagle.

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This page was published on July 2011 | Keywords: Isle of Mill, Scotland, Tobermory, wildlife

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