Mission to Mull | Part One
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
Day 0 - Prologue
Five fifty. Half of London shuffles towards the 18.00 service to Edinburgh on Platform 5. My girlfriend and I begin our pilgrimage up to the Inner Hebrides via Edinburgh, with an overnight stop in Glasgow.
Since its renovation in 2012, Kings Cross has been a delightful London terminus to use when travelling to and from ‘the North’. In a matter of hours, you can make the several-hundred-mile trek up to Scotland, stopping at a number of key cultural and commercial hubs along the way.
As a result, trains from Kings Cross contain a plethora of characters, something that I had forgotten until my girlfriend and I had found our seats aboard the Edinburgh-bound train. We thought we’d be lucky enough to have a table to ourselves on a peak-hour train out of London.
Wrong. Enter Steve, stage right.
20 minutes into the journey, Steve plonks himself down alongside me, facing forward, like any normal person would. He begins to have a phone conversation with a colleague - Dave - about the lack of ‘on-boarding’ within his unnamed firm. Nothing wrong with that, other than engaging in work discussions at 18.30 on a Friday.
Dave hangs up after receiving a moderate yet exceedingly polite bollocking. Steve proceeds to scroll through a spreadsheet mindlessly on his Thinkpad. He keeps brushing his arms excessively, skin flakes decorating the table like parmesan on a table.
My girlfriend texts me. “His flies are undone.” Classic Steve.
Steve then decides to do what any normal family-loving male adult would do on a long journey home - call his family. How sweet!
Steve unlocks his phone and starts watching a video. A… live video? Who is he watching? Where is this video from? Why hasn’t Steve got the sound on?
Lightbulb moment. It’s his doorbell. The bastard is watching someone - possibly someone he knows - at his front door.
But wait, there’s more! Sci-Fi Steve plugs his headphones in and initiates a conversation with said door-dweller.
The year is 2021. The planet has been crippled by a deadly virus. We are mere years from sending humans to Mars. Parcels are now delivered by drones. And Steve is making small-talk with his wife through his doorbell. Charlie Brooker called, he wants his script back.
Note the use of the phrase ‘small-talk’ - the dialogue is stilted to say the least. “I can’t really hear you, I’m on a train.” says the business mogul. Stellar work, Steve.
We soldier on. Towns dissolve into fields outside the window as the sun sets. Steve alights at an intermediate town along the route, much to my disappointment. I was rather enjoying watching him trying to scare the hell out of his kid by making his doorbell say “boo” over and over.
The train rolls through York, then Darlington. We zip past the Angel of the North, T-posing proudly on the outskirts of Gateshead. Across the River Tyne as the sun sets on Newcastle. We reach Berwick-upon-Tweed in darkness. Shame, really - the stretch of line north of here is home to stunning views of the Northumberland coast.
We pull into Edinburgh Waverley on time at around half-ten. Twenty minutes until the Glasgow connection. I’ve not had dinner.
“Any shops open?”
“... What about Maccies?”
I check Google Maps. Four minute walk, two minute half-arsed jog. I leave my two dense rucksacks with my girlfriend, and scamper up Waverley Steps.
Edinburgh Fringe is in full swing; gaggles of friends, families, and performers alike gather under canopies at bars and venues along Princes Street. I take a right onto South St Andrews Street (bit of a mouthful) and see the dim glow of a yellow ‘M’ in the near distance.
A lengthy queue lines the street outside McDonald’s. I dip into the adjacent KFC to grab some chips, then scuttle back the way I came, down into Waverley. Seven minutes. Nice.
The Glasgow train pulls in. A spectrum of Scottish lilts spills out of the carriages as partygoers head out for Friday night drinks. We find a table as soon as we board, though there’s not much competition for seats at that time of night.
The trip to Glasgow goes as planned until Falkirk. The emergency brakes are applied, bringing the train to an uncomfortable halt. The driver appears moments later, storming through the carriages towards the rear of the train with the guard in tow.
Silence. No updates. Five minutes pass, the train still motionless. The two staff appear again, returning to their respective posts. The journey continues.
Just before midnight, Glasgow Queen Street. A handful of weary passengers make their way out of the station across the concourse. We exit onto George Square and march along to our hotel. Check in. Bed time.
Day 1 - Trains, Rains, and Watermobiles
Early start. Brain not in gear. Shower. Pack. Check out. Tesco. Food and morning paper. More walking. Back at Queen Street. Déjà vu.
We find our train, making sure to board the correct half - the rear section breaks off at Crianlarich and follows the West Highland Line along to Fort William and Mallaig. We, however, are bound for Oban.
For those unfamiliar with it, the West Highland Line is a haven for hikers, bikepackers, and outdoorsy types. It provides access to some of the remotest sections of the Scottish Moors, places that would otherwise be inaccessible other than on foot. It serves another purpose too: ferry connections. Oban and Mallaig both provide connections to the Hebrides and the other Scottish archipelagos by boat.
The line meanders west out of Glasgow through Dumbarton, Helensburgh, and into the Trossachs National Park. The single-track route hugs the western shores of Loch Lomond from Tarbet through to Inverarnan. Even when the weather is poor, the view is stunning; trains shuffle along the edge of munros, being careful not to loiter along sections where there's a sudden drop.
I skim through the paper, reading the musings of various columnists: discussions about camping, GB News, the next series of that Netflix show. Ardlui, a nondescript island platform in the woods, comes and goes. A bank of rain swarms in the distance over the loch. Did I pack a waterproof?
The train divides at Crianlarich. Pandemonium ensues as the number of bikes exceeds the number of spaces available on the train. Two passengers are left behind with money for a taxi fare. They’ll be fine, probably.
Onwards we travel with a thirty-minute delay. We pull into Oban and are greeted by my girlfriend’s family. A few hours until the ferry, but we pass the time by eating chips and admiring the surplus of excellent dogs in the town. I spend an unjustifiably long time trying to find a shop that sells a charging cable for my smartwatch, but to no avail.
We join the ferry queue (a row of cars behind the railway station). Vessels drift into and out of the harbour, shuffling people and parcels to the outermost extremities of the UK.
A fellow ferry-goer thinks they spot a seal in the water. A couple of heads turn, but the creature in the water submerges almost immediately. I check Amazon for the aforementioned charger: £5, free delivery to the Hebrides in 48 hours. Almost as unbelievable as someone trying to start a conversation through a doorbell.
One by one, the cars make their way onto our seafaring steed, the MV Coruisk. Seating above the vehicle deck is limited, but we make do. More good dogs make themselves known. I make conversation with a gentleman carrying a camo backpack as we observe a pod of dolphins in the water.
“They’re harbour porpoises.”
We discuss the wildlife on Mull as he tells me about his former employment onboard a whale-watching cruise. I look up harbour porpoises. They have a fun Latin name. I ask him where he’s staying.
“I haven’t decided yet. I’ll probably just be camping somewhere.”
A surprising answer, but something tells me that Bear Grylls’ adopted brother is the type that could make a three course meal in the Scottish wilderness out of a few branches, a cup of piss and an old sock.
We roll off the ferry and onto the A849, the main thoroughfare on the island. As apparently is tradition among my fellow travellers, Cliff Richards’ Summer Holiday is queued on the speakers, and a joyful rendition follows. I sit quietly, observing this ritual.
The road tapers north of Salen. Passing points are frequent, though the undulating terrain restricts vision to maybe a hundred metres at the best of times. We lead an oscillating convoy of strangers northbound up to the island’s capital.
Over the final crest, and the iconic seafront of Tobermory appears in front of us. We find a space to park, and briefly explore the village. There’s a post office, aquarium, various eateries, and a ginger tabby cat basking in the sun underneath a parked car.
The road ends at the northern extent of the high street; we empty the car, strap ourselves into our oversized rucksacks, and continue our journey along the eastern coast on foot.
Between us and the mainland peninsula of Morven lies the Sound of Mull, a stunning inlet from the North Atlantic Ocean. We pass a handful of tourists heading into town, dogs and children in tow. The foliage thins, and a tall structure comes into view.
Rubha nan Gall lighthouse, built in the 1850s, guides nautical traffic around the northeastern tip of Mull. The name means ‘Stranger’s Point’ in Scottish Gaelic; in a place like this, it’s rare to meet anyone but strangers.
You notice the sound after you notice the Sound: the latter is an absence of land, the former an absence of noise. The wind is calm, as is the sea. A CalMac ferry trundles into existence on occasion, it's monotonous hum only amplifying the quiet as it fades away.
At the foot of the lighthouse stand two cottages. The southernmost is our home for the next seven nights, whilst the other is the permanent residence of our hosts.
The cottages are entirely off-grid. A private spring provides water, whilst power comes from solar panels. Not that you’d notice - the taps provide hot water, the lights turn on, and the WiFi is usable.
Unpacking, followed by dinner and games. Night descends as we try our hands at Boggle and Stop the Bus. I tap out once my girlfriend flourishes a deck of cards for Irish Snap.
I step outside. Fireworks on the mainland sparkle in the darkness. Beacons along the coast across the strait blink in unison, their unspoken message guiding the occasional boat through the channel safely. I attempt to photograph the night sky, though all efforts at this are cut short by the sheer number of flying bastards that collide with the camera during each long exposure. Probably time for bed.