Mission to Mull | Part Six
Day 8 - Volver
I’ve woken up before my alarm. Icing on the tired, bite-ridden cake.
As is tradition with self-catered accommodation, we give the place a once-over once, then make our way out the door. Leaving the Rubha nan Gall is quite a sad moment. For only good reasons, this week has felt like a month; the concept of not spending a night in the cottage feels alien.
I take one or two more photos of Rubha nan Gall for the final time, before we start the long walk into Tobermory. We’re carrying two backpacks apiece, meaning the walk is noticeably slower. We trudge along in silence as the drizzle drifts across the Sound from the Mainland. Some might call it pathetic fallacy. I call it rain.
We grab breakfast from Tobermory Bakery, then load up the car and take the Main Road along to Craignure with the intention of catching a ferry two hours earlier than planned. We pass a graveyard on the outskirts of Salen, the same one that gave me food for thought on Day 4. This time, I notice the tall Gaelic crosses decorating several of the graves. Before visiting Iona, I didn’t realise their significance, or the intricacy of the designs on them. Their artistic complexity adds a real beauty to what is often considered a macabre and sombre setting. It shows a level of care and consideration usually reserved for those who are still with us, still walking and breathing. I am reminded of Harry Hill’s bittersweet eulogy to the late, great Sean Lock in the Guardian.
The next road sign is for Fishnish. Several settlements in the area end with ‘-nish’ - Fishnish and Treshnish are two examples. The internet reliably informs me that Treshnish comes from the Gaelic term Treisinis, which contains the Old Norse term ness, meaning ‘headland’. Mildly interesting.
We reach the ferry terminal. The next boat leaves in thirty minutes. We’re immediately informed that all ferries today are full, so jumping on an earlier ferry won’t be possible. Looks like we’ve got a two-hour wait then.
The atmosphere in the car is muted as we watch cars load onto the next ferry; the post-trip blues have already started to settle in, fuelled by the mild yet persistent rainfall. There are all manner of vehicles waiting to join the next service: mobile homes, goods trucks, Royal Mail vans. “Your postcards are probably in there,” says a voice behind me in the car. Probably right.
BBC Gael provides the soundtrack to our pause in Craignure. The dialect is incomprehensible, but it’s lovely to listen to. Scots Gaelic is a sing-song language with clear Nordic roots. Judging by the playlist, it seems that Saturday mid-morning is a Country-themed show. The news comes on. Fact of the day: Taliban in Scots Gaelic is Taliban. Such a complex language.
The village of Craignure has little to offer in terms of sightseeing other than two cafes, a tourist centre, and a Spar. I stroll along to the latter two, browsing for nothing in particular.
Village Spars always have such eclectic stocks. This one sells anything from ‘octopus salad’ (a sealed pot of octopus) to novelty tea towels. I peruse the selection of morning papers - only local prints and red tops available. I instead grab a bottle of water and a Toffee Crisp, then make my way back to the car via the loos. More pathetic hand-dryers, like an old man passing wind - I can only presume that some lucky handyman has a monopoly on the Mull hand-dryer business.
Radio Gael has been replaced by the Off Menu Podcast. I opt to go for another walk instead. There’s a small path to the north of the ferry terminal that leads down to a lone slipway. It’s quieter down here by the water, more serene. There’s a soothing ambient rumbling in the distance.
Hang on. Rumbling. I glance up. Is that a ferry? Is that my ferry? It’s early.
Quick walk quick walk quick walk. I cannot be the reason for us missing this ferry.
The captain brings the boat around such that the rear of the two on-board ramps is facing the front for offloading onto the slipway. The boatmanship (not really a word) on display is incredible - it’s not often you see a ferry doing donuts.
We’re the second car on, so are able to clamber up above the vehicle deck and find a table inside with relative ease. The hour-long crossing passes quickly; we reach Oban just before 14.00.
This is where my girlfriend and I bid her family farewell - we have a two-hour layover until our connecting train, whereas they have an eight-hour drive back to their home south of the border.
They drive off. We stay put.
Two hours to kill in a Scottish seaside town. What to do, what to do… We spot a Costa across from the station. That’ll suffice.
Scottish laws regarding Covid-19 are still moderately strict, meaning we are some of the last few patrons to take a seat in the coffee shop before baristas are forced to turn customers away unless they get their coffee in a takeaway cup. “We haven’t got enough staff to clean the used tables,” the staff explain.
Several parched individuals feign ignorance and perch at tables clearly in need of a wipe-down, only to be shooed out by the manager. “We’re just following the law,” they explain sheepishly, “so you need to leave.” I don’t envy them, and we make an effort to pass on a brief “thank you” as we exit.
Due to the station’s high footfall in comparison to its low service frequency, Oban operates a gate system that bars passengers from entering the platform area until ten or minutes before departure.
“Are you in the queue?” I ask a gentleman leaning against the station building. His partner scrolls on her phone opposite him.
I gesture ahead of him to the dozen or so people standing in what many would refer to as ‘a queue’.
“Oh. Is there a queue?”
I cast a laboured glance over his shoulder. ”... Looks like it?”
“Okay. I didn’t realise we were in a queue.”
Both he and I come away from the conversation baffled: I glance at my girlfriend as if to say Does he know what a queue is?, whilst his look of confusion presumably translates as What the fuck is a queue?
Ten minutes later, the queue-not-queue moves. We find a table in the front carriage adjacent to a hiker accompanied by a border collie. The best seat neighbour.
The route back to Glasgow is much the same as it was a week ago, though the weather is far less welcoming. The line runs parallel to the A85 through Tyndrum and into Crianlarich. I glance out the window and spot a police checkpoint. They’ve positioned a police scarecrow on the verge precariously close to the roadside, presumably in an attempt to warn (or spook) drivers.
My laptop shocks me as I turn around. As in, electricity, not Ah! A laptop! It keeps doing that, though I don't think it's meant to. Make laptop less shocking, I unhelpfully note down on my phone.
My girlfriend and I have already decided that we’re going to dump our bags once we get to the hotel, then seek out the nearest Pizza Hut. A modest dinner, for sure, but it’s been four days in the making. I really want a Pizza Hut. I spell it out to her using my hands from across the table. We then spontaneously break out into the dance moves from the Fast Food song, because sleep deprivation is a wonderful drug.
The clouds hang low and motionless outside the window like cotton wool, obscuring the munro peaks across the way. There are no signs of life, giving the Highlands the impression of existing in stasis, like someone’s glued a photo to the outside of the glass.
The poor weather persists as we descend down into Helensburgh. Our canine companion has taken to napping across the aisle, forming a cute bollard for passengers to cross as they make their way down the train.
We pass through Dalmuir before returning back at Queen Street. Déjà vu. Our hotel in the West End of the city welcomes us, revolving door opened, um, wide-ish. Ninth floor. Staircase can do one.
The view is nice. Car rental place to the left, building site to the right. Makes me feel right at home. We ditch our bags and go straight to dinner.
A hop, skip, and a piss-smelling train journey across the city centre and we reach our destination, our Margherita Mecca: Pizza Hut. It’s as good as I hope it’s going to be. Outside, Glasgow is a hive of activity. It’s 21.00, and Club Tropicana already has a queue forming outside. Next door, Project Pizza is blaring hard bass out of time to the strobe lights. They haven’t even cleared away the tables yet.
Along Renfield Street, then St Vincent Street. The party dies down past this point, as we drift outside of the main city hub. The buildings resemble what us Brits picture when we think of a regal US city, like New York or San Francisco. Probably far fewer Celtic fans in San Fran, though.
Back at the hotel. Ninth floor, again. Take the lift, again. We barely make it to the end of Gogglebox before we’re both fast asleep.
Day 9 - Epilogue
To make the most of the few hours we have in Glasgow, we decide to check out early and leave our bags with reception.
Ninth Floor. Into the lift. Doors close. Lift doesn’t move.
The lift still doesn’t move.
“Lift out of service.”
Fuck’s sake, not now. I press the alarm button. A siren rings out for a second, then stops. My girlfriend looks concerned. I try the 'Door Open' button. Nothing. I press 'Ground Floor', '2nd Floor', anything below us. Still nothing.
I jam my thumb against the alarm again for longer. The speakerphone in the panel starts to dial, then connects.
"Hotel Lift Entrapment Service?"
… The what now?
"Hello?" I reply tentatively.
Beep. It's a pre-record. Tinny holding music. Are we in a queue?
Queues. Swear to God, they'll be the death of me.
Minutes feel like hours. We stand, patiently, waiting for something to happen. I'm about to check my phone for signal when the doors creep open. We scurry out, warning the waiting guests not to use the lift.
The stairs welcome us with nine floors of cold, steep steps. We begin our descent.
"I was starting to worry we'd be stuck in the death lift."
I glance back at her. "Don't call it the death lift. That doesn't make me feel any better."
"At least I didn't call it a death lift when we were in the death lift."
I remain mute. She makes a good point.
We pass the concierge on the way down. He's breathing heavily. I'm glad we have gravity on our side. He splutters something about having to send the death lift to the Fourth Floor to reset it. Good to know.
We drop our bags with the other concierge, then make a beeline for the nearest Subway station.
Glasgow's underground network is the third oldest in the world behind Budapest and London. You can tell. The tunnels are small, meaning the carriages have little headroom. St Georges Cross has a solitary narrow island platform. Standing water sits on the concrete track bed. Hardly state-of-the-art.
There are two lines - Outer and Inner. Outer (orange) goes clockwise, Inner (not orange) goes not clockwise. It's surprisingly easy to forget this, meaning navigation around the loop can be tricky.
Three stops round to St Enoch. We opt for a local signature outlet for breakfast: Tim Hortons.
After eating, we return to the Subway and rejoin the Outer along to Cressnock. We end up strolling through Pacific Quay past the BBC Scotland and STV offices, across the Clyde, through Finniestone to Kelvingrove Park.
On the north side of the park sit the majority of the University of Glasgow's buildings - an obscure mix of Victorian antiquity, 20th century brutalism and modern pastel-clad structures.
Hillhead is where we hop on the Outer once again, returning to St Georges Cross. We nab our bags and cross to the bar adjacent: The Baby Grand. It's a relaxed jazz club that's seemingly popular with theatre-goers looking for a pre-theatre tipple. A jazz trio jam away in the corner of the garden, keeping half a dozen or so patrons entertained.
Down into Charing Cross station. The train is busy because of strike action, and gets busier going through Queen Street. The journey is long, with the train calling at every settlement along the line to Edinburgh.
There’s a brief changeover in Edinburgh - no time for a KFC or Fringe show. Our connection leaves on time. I sleep across the border into England, grab a tea over the the Tyne, and go through the week's photos once we're through York.
Daylight fades past Grantham, and we arrive into King's Cross in the early hours of nightfall. It’s weird being home.
"Remember Steve? From the train up?"
I look across at my girlfriend. "Yeah?"
"Feels like such a long time ago now."
It does feel like a long time ago now.