An autumn day on the west coast of Mull. It’s been wet all week and the desire to sit by the wood burner with a book and wine has been anchoring us all to the sofa.
But today it’s bright and clear, though the wind that’s bringing the change of weather is wiping down from the artic with an icy core.
Treshnish point is a rare corner of our nation of islands. Probably continuously inhabited for the last 6000 years, it wears the impact of human endeavour lightly. The landscape shaped by a mix of people, farming and the elements that sometimes pummel the exposed beaches and clifftops. There’s evidence of old sheep pens and landings as I walk beyond the last cottages at Haun.
In late autumn the wild flowers that I’ve seen here are in retreat but the grasslands that foot the rocky steps are punctuated by a variety of fungus and mushrooms that stand out with their red and yellow marks against the bright greens and moody greys of the landscape.
With the wind behind I’m blown down the winding track past the rocky coves and rock stacks that look out to towards the twin islands of Coll and Tiree, and the carved presence of the Treshnish Islands. The ground is a little boggy underfoot in places, the result of a wet end to autumn.
On along with the coast watching the huge waves crash into rocky stacks and across small pebbly beaches punctuated with small caves and dark black rock pools. As I round the corner, the vista opens up. The islands of Gometra and Ulva nestled into Loch Tuath. At first glance the two islands look like one, but on closer inspection the small gully between them is just visible in fading light. In the distance hidden amongst the clouds Mull’s own Monro, Ben More forms a brooding backdrop. Tomorrow the first snows of the winter will dust the tops, but today the mountain looks grey and austere.
A few minutes trying to soak it all in and then I turn, stoop into the wind and battle back along the headland to the comfort of the fire.
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.
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.