Highland Games

The Isle of Mull, June 2009

The Isle of Mull is an island in the Inner Hebrides, a few miles from the coast of western Scotland. On its northernmost point lies Tobermory, an adorable port town which is the setting for the BBC children’s program ‘Balamory’; at the very south of the island, generations of Scottish kings are buried at Iona Abbey. Between its heralded tips are forty square miles of raw nature: tranquil lochs, moody glens and rugged marshland that are dashing even under grey skies.

My family has travelled to Mull since the 1960s. My grandparents made friends in Tobermory after a chance trip away from the mainland, and came back with their four children year after year. In the seventies my mum worked at a pony trekking centre in her school holidays; in the eighties she and her three brothers had children of their own, and began to bring us to the island every summer. The adults would enjoy birdwatching and the beautiful landscapes – we had a safe place to play. And so Mull has become part of my history, too: the smell of peat and heather, the calls of curlews by the shores of its lochs, games of cricket with my brother on its sandy beaches, tantrums at highland walks that went on for too long, tuna baps, vivid sunsets, bites from midges and soft-sounding Gaelic place names all remain close to my heart, even as other plans kept me away for years.

My uncles and cousins had plans this summer, but, true to a promise that I had made last winter out of hope rather than certainty, I found a week to drive to Scotland with my mum and gran for the first time in six years. My priorities had changed since the last time we had made the trip together: this year I had a camera under my arm instead of a cricket bat, and after a busy spring in a foreign city a long marshland walk sounded like heaven, not hell. But our holiday cottage, at Killiechronan on the shore of Loch na Keal, was just the same as it had been a decade ago, minus the sea shells in the chest of drawers and with new mugs in the kitchen. There are still ponies grazing the tall grass outside the cottages’ windows, the generation that mum had gone trekking with having been replaced by Balamory’s four-legged extras.

Across the loch, a pair of white-tailed sea eagles had built a nest in a tall tree, and each morning through a telescope we watched as they raised a chick. English tourists – harmless, beige-clad drips from the south and sociable, binoculared Northerners – have begun to arrive to observe the twenty or so pairs of the rare eagle that have settled on the island, and, along with the Balamory gig, the extra money that Mull is generating is helping to support its people, who live peacefully and contentedly with a lifestyle based on farming. I pitched up at Killiechronan eager to spend my vacation indulging my family’s hobby, and for a week swapped legal cases for eagle chases.

On our second day we took a boat trip with a group of birdwatchers along a calm stretch of water to two nearby islands, Lunga and Staffa, which are known for the impressive colonies of birds that congregate on their cliffs during the summer. There are dozens of types of birds on Lunga, which to the untrained eye look much the same – but there is a superstar among them.

With their multicoloured bill, sleek black and white plumage and orange legs, Atlantic puffins are one of nature’s characters. In the summer they build burrows in Lunga’s cliffs and raise chicks, taxiing out to the ocean several times an hour in search of food and bringing small fish and sand eels home to the burrows, taking off and landing on the cliffs with a frantic flap of their wings. They are extremely photogenic, and once the passengers had tumbled out of the boat and shinned up the steep path from the shore to the edge of the cliff, most of us were concerned only with taking photos of them, to rival the photographs that have found their way onto postcards in the grocery stores of Mull’s little villages. The puffins seemed unfussed by being stalked and having their homes blocked. Perhaps they even dress to suit their lifestyle: orange boots to go fishing in, a tuxedo to look their best for the cameras.

The following day was no less special. Knockvologan beach has been my family’s favourite place for thirty years. Clean and always deserted, we have gone to absurd lengths to make sure of a peaceful picnic twice a year. We mention its sand dunes and friendly seals on a need-to-know basis even among our friends. It is a family tradition to strip off on Knockvologan and swim in the Atlantic, even though the equivalent weather at home would invite jumpers and hot baths.

This year we don’t stay for as long as we used to, perhaps because the weather is even colder than usual, perhaps because of the presence of a couple and their dog half a mile away that, as far as my mum is concerned, made the beach as crowded as the Copacabana. On the way home we stop at the Kinloch Hotel, run – as many of Mull’s pubs and restaurants are – by a retired Englishman, and take in the scenery of Pennyghael with our lasagna and shandies.

On the day that we went to Tobermory, a steady Highland drizzle was falling out of the grey clouds that had settled overhead. In clear weather the view from the harbour of Tobermory’s shops – each painted a different, bright colour – is sumptuous, but on that occasion people seemed to be enjoying themselves more from inside them. Since I had last visited even more stores have converted to selling gifts and trinkets. I stroll from one end of Main Street to the other and back again, browsing the shelves of bookshops, glancing at postcards, eyeing up porcelain coffee mugs, and breathing in Tobermory’s warm atmosphere, chased by spray off the sea. As I walk into ‘Tackle and Books’, the shopkeeper says: “Hello-o, how are you?” I answer instantly: “Fantastic!”

The exhibition of Himalayan arts and crafts had moved from the town hall to a building at the end of the high street. Inside, a Nepali lady sits on a pile of carpets, savouring the incense that fills the dark room. Visitors paw through exotic necklaces and bracelets and tap their feet to Buddhist dance music. In the evening we meet up at Café Fish, a small restaurant above the lifeboat station. Our waitress is Spanish, and her accent drifts easily between Catalan and Caledonian as she glides between the tables. The view is lovely, the tables are wonky, and the food is phenomenal.

My final day on the island starts with more birdwatching. We spent an hour on Craignure golf course differentiating terns, waders and oystercatchers, before perching the telescope on a rock to watch two otters frolicking a few yards from the Scottish mainland. From Craignure we drove through the barren Glen More, back to Pennyghael, and then stopped by the shore on Loch na Keal to watch the waves lapping at the tiny island, Eorsa, in the middle of its water.

On Friday morning I said goodbye to my mum and gran and set off for England, to spend the second week of my holiday at home. I may not carry a cricket bat under my arm any more, but for as long as I am living in Eastern Europe two full days’ travelling will be no sacrifice to catch a game on TV.

On the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to the mainland I buy myself some breakfast from the onboard buffet and take a seat for the 50 minute journey to Oban. The boat is occupied by round-faced, frizzy-haired Scots, German and Dutch tour groups, as well as a few Muillachs travelling across the water for groceries. A Scottish couple in their thirties sit opposite me and speak Gaelic to each other. I sip my drink and bask in the acute pleasure of listening to a beautiful language without understanding a single word. I am interrupted by an American woman’s loud, nasal bray: as she pronounces ‘Edinburgh’, half of the boat’s passengers choke on their tea. The other half look at her with an expression on their faces that would stop a Highland bull in mid-charge.

At Oban train station I buy a ticket to Glasgow, and when the train comes I score a seat in the compartment that the Scots have scattered their bags and coats across to prevent any Americans getting in with them. ‘Flower of Scotland’ stirs in my chest all the way to Crianlarich: I sit backwards to appreciate the view for a final time, as the peaks of Tyndrum disappear in the mist.

I spend a melancholic night in Glasgow before my flight the next day. I shelter in the entrance to Queen’s Street train station, as the other side of the street shimmers behind a sheet of relentless rain. The charming side of urban Scotland reveals itself for a while, as a busker sings mightily impressive covers of Scottish classics by Texas and Travis to soaking wet and appreciative passers-by.

My guesthouse is half an hour’s uphill walk from the station. The place is empty and I feel lonely for the first time in years. The next morning I walk to the centre to explore the city a little before my bus to the airport. Glasgow is busy, dour, cosmopolitan and unpretentious – and, I realised, inaccessible to newcomers who haven’t made any plans first. I make do with an aimless walk along the pedestrian areas of town, which look the same as any British high street, but with shops selling whisky and kilts alongside Burton and Boots.

Desperate to avoid the clichés I step into the Starbucks on Buchanan Street and nurse a latte in the window. I scribble memories in my notepad and compulsively look at my photographs from Mull. A samba version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2 plays on the sound system, proof that you can find bliss even in the grittiest of cities. I sip my coffee and reflect on a perfect week.


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