Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Island Life

A long weekend on the islands takes on a whole new meaning when the islands in question are off the west coast of Scotland and the season is winter, but Mags and Alien Wally are nothing if not adventurous. No, not that adventurous that they took along their beach togs. The kind of adventurous that packs beanies, scarves and gloves. And some extra socks. Just in case.

The island of Mull is a big island, in small island terms. It is reached via a 45 minute ferry ride from Oban, kinda sorta just north of Glasgow. Let’s spend a few minutes in awe of the ferry, a boat so big that you can, wait for it… Drive. Your car. Onto the boat. Okay, okay, so there are bigger boats. And so people do this every day and it’s nothing spectacular. That’s the kind of blasé attitude Alien Wally and Mags tried to project to all the other passengers and crew, all the while gawking at how many cars could fit onto the boat and how novel this whole car-driving-onto-boat-thing was to them. Turns out the ferry to Mull was actually quite empty compared to the trip back, when there were not only more cars involved, but Really Big Trucks too, as you can see in the pictures on the two journeys below.

Some are Lord of the Flies. Others get to be Lord of the Rings. This ship… it is Lord of the Isles! Alien Wally and Mags spent the first few minutes of the trip getting lost on the multiple viewing decks, the shop, the cafeteria, the bar. It just went on and on… finally the two settled themselves in the coffee shop area and had some, well, coffee while watching the coastline go by. Since Mull is not that far off the mainland, one always has the comforting sight of land close by, and the views are certainly worth watching.

Upon arrival in Craignure, Alien Wally and Mags drove straight to Fionnphort (pronounced Finnafort/Finnyfort/Fennyfort, depending on how broad one’s accent is). Driving on Mull is an interesting experience – the road is a single track and the sheep have right of way.

Ah, the sheep, fixing all strangers with their beady eyes, following their leader and rolling down hills. Yip, you heard right… look closely at the sheep on the left hand side of the picture below – it tried to get up, failed miserably, and instead tumbled over backwards, executing a wonderful three-roll somersault, down the hill into the ditch. Dinnae worry, though, nerves of steel and a strong constitution ensured that it was back on its feet in no time, pretending like nothing had happened. It crossed the road and resolutely turned its back on the camera (see second picture).

Fionnphort is a tiny wee village on the west side of Mull, from which one can take a ferry to Iona, a small island, in smaller island terms. This is a popular trip in the summer time – evidenced by the fact that the tourist bus parking bays far outnumber the houses in the village itself. Fionnphort may be a bit quiet in winter, but Alien Wally and Mags are very happy that they didn’t have to fight for space with hordes of tourists – the Iona ferry carries 200 people across to the island in each of its many summer crossings! Since Alien Wally and Mags arrived in the late afternoon, they left Iona for the following day and decided to explore Fionnphort instead. Five minutes later they were done, and left twiddling their thumbs for an hour before the excellent village pub, The Keel Row, opened for supper.

The next morning, Alien Wally and Mags were on the first ferry across to Iona, a mystical island, referred to as a “thin place” in Celtic Christianity. This is a place where Heaven and Earth touch, a place of Saints and angels, druids and fairies… absolutely none of whom came out of their warm hiding places to greet Alien Wally and Mags. How disappointing.

Alien Wally and Mags started out by walking to the south of the island, to St Columba’s Bay. Columba was responsible for bringing Christianity to Scotland, sailing across from Ireland in AD 563. The walk to the bay takes about an hour, and in winter is a very wet and muddy walk.

The pebble beach is full of some of the most remarkable coloured stones. If ever you head out that way on your travels, watch out for the small green stones of serpentine, referred to as St Columba’s tears, which protect their bearers from drowning.

After the beach, Alien Wally and Mags headed back to the Abbey. This is a later addition to the island, built on the site of Columba’s original monastery.

Next to the Abbey is Reilig Odhran, the burial ground named after Oran, one of Columba’s companions who volunteered to be buried alive here in order for the building of the church to be completed successfully. Legend has it that at the start of the construction, each day’s work would be knocked over during the night by a supernatural force, which eventually demanded a human sacrifice to appease it. Brave man that Oran was, he volunteered for the task. Well, either that, or perhaps he just wanted to get out of the hard manual labour involved.

The burial ground is home to many illustrious names, amongst them many Scottish and Norwegian Kings. MacBeth, for example, is buried here, although one cannot actually pay homage to anyone in particular – all the old gravestones were removed to protect them from weathering further than they already had, but it seems no-one thought to make a note of which stone came from which grave…. The stones themselves are inside the Abbey museum, and are in various states of disrepair. Those that are still in quite good nick are quite spectacularly carved.

Back on Mull for their second day, Alien Wally and Mags decided to explore the south side of the island. From the car. It was a Very Rainy Day. A curiosity encountered during the day was the strange placement of telephone booths and post boxes… in the middle of nowhere! Later on in the day, another telephone box was found next to a waterfall. Just in case one feels inspired to phone home to tell people about the pretty water feature, perhaps?

The following day, a good one weather-wise, Alien Wally and Mags drove to Tobermory via the scenic route. Here they came across some more Mull wildlife – the (in)famous Heilan Coo. Unlike the sheep, the coos cannae exactly give you the beady eye from behind their wild hairdos, but they certainly try. Here are some trying to work out whether Alien Wally and Mags are food or are bringing food, followed by your daily dose of cuteness.

Further on down the road, Alien Wally and Mags met he whom some call… Tim.

Tobermory itself is a picturesque harbour. With a distillery! It being Sunday when Alien Wally and Mags were there, the distillery shop was closed, but the pub next door did have some samples of Tobermory and Ledaig (pronounced "Led-chig") whisky, and liberal tastings of the product were made.

It being winter, many places in Tobermory were closed until March, a common practice in them thar islands it seems. Aah, island life… where you only work in the summer, where the mobile cinema comes to you every few months, the mobile library a little more often, and where “bank hold-up” takes on a whole new meaning when one finds oneself stuck behind the RBS van as it heads off for its weekly half an hour in each village along the single-track road….

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