Mission to Mull | Part Three
Updated: Sep 21
Day 4 - Iona and Staffa
Six o’clock alarm. Earlier than when I’m commuting to work. Blergh. Crumpets for breakfast. Out of the house by seven. The wind has picked up, meaning the once-calm strait now moves with the vigour of an agitated commuter across the concourse at Waterloo.
The natural palette around us has shifted from monochrome to a mix of blues and oranges as the sun tries to perforate the persistent grey clouds. A pair of trail runners race past us at a rapid pace, giving us a friendly ‘morning!’ as they pass.
The rain-clouds break as we reach the car in Tobermory. Considering today is meant to be fairly outdoor-focused, that might not play into our hands. And no, for the last time, this post is not sponsored by a well-known and much-revered Czech automobile brand. I wish it was.
It’s an hour and forty-five minute drive to Fionnphort, the southwesterly-most settlement on Mull, and the main landing point for ferries to Staffa and Iona. We pass a number of graveyards on our drive, more so than you would expect for an island of this size. It then occurs to me that there have been settlers on some parts of the Hebrides for more than a millenium; a small number of deaths over a long period of time will still tally up fairly quickly. I am suddenly reminded of my own mortality, and have a brief existential crisis. Just a little one, a cheeky snifter, un petit peu, to keep me feeling grounded yet insignificant.
Craignure acts as a (very approximate) halfway marker. Half a dozen sheep containers are lined up by the jetty, waiting to be loaded onto the Oban ferry. “Probably off to be turned into lamb chops,” one of the group muses. “Yum yum yum.” The concept of mortality returns. This is going to be a long drive.
South of Craignure, the A849 swings around to the west, following the rough curvature of the island. The bleak, unforgiving landscape on this side of the island looks terrifyingly beautiful. I turn to the rest of the car and speculate about the number of people have walked across these plains, through the forests that are barely accessible by road, and up the steep climbs that loom before us. The response consists of a Mexican wave of shrugs.
The occasional house pops up out of the landscape, coming into view as we crest yet another blind summit. The roadside telephone masts suggest that each of these properties is likely to be on-the-grid, with back-up power options available should the infrastructure fail. The fact that this is even a vaguely reliable system is a remarkable feat of engineering.
We reach Fionnphort, and leave the car by the ferry terminal. Or perhaps I should say ‘kiosk’ - the terminal is a poxy, poorly-insulated, tiled building, the sort of place that you can just tell has pathetic hand-dryers in the loos.
The village is nondescript, with few noteworthy features other than the ferry terminal-kiosk-hut. The village is currently having a ‘Scarecrow Competition’, with various houses displaying their finest creations. One such ‘participant’ - a traditional-looking thing wearing a ‘Yes sir, I can boogie’ jumper - sits on the wall on the approach to the ferry terminal. A fellow tourist passes behind me with her partner. “She’s lost a shoe, poor girl. Probably too much boogying.”
The boat rocks up at bang-on half-nine. At least thirty eager tourists load on-board, meaning space around the edge of the small vessel is at a premium. I busy myself for a few minutes prior to the boat’s departure by setting up my camera. I haven’t been on a boat of this size for a while, if ever, but I know that I have a history of experiencing motion sickness. This could be interesting.
The boat launches softly, and we chug into the Sound of Iona. I’m trying to focus on the passing wildlife - various seabirds, predominantly - but cannot seem to get that Black Lace song out of my head.
Once we clear the mouth of the inlet, the water becomes choppy. I remember why I don’t go on boats very often. It’s not the seasickness that’s the issue; my internal gyroscope is sensitive to sudden changes in direction. Every wave that we crest makes my stomach drop, and I am unable to convince my body that it’s safe, no matter how hard I try.
The concept of deep water also creeps me out. Perhaps it’s the vastness, or the unknown, or maybe the darkness. Maybe I should stop thinking about it.
Two of the six dogs on-board have already vacated their bowels. The sea spray is hindering their owner’s clean-up process, but they persevere out of politeness. I try to hum ‘Wellerman’, as it feels apt, but am thrown arse over tit before I finish the first verse.
Our first stop is Staffa, a small, remote island off the western coast of Mull. The main feature on the island is Fingal’s cave; as is the case with most of Staffa, the cave was formed many years ago by molten lava solidifying into hexagonal columns, a process caused by some magical property of lava, probably. Four years doing engineering, and that’s the best I can come up with. Sorry.
I spend more time outside of the cave, admiring the structure and layout of the surrounding rocks. I also have another go at long exposures, because apparently this photographical fad is as addictive as heroin-laced Pringles. I’ll get bored of it at some point soon, I’m sure. I already feel like this one isn’t as good as the last two.
The rest of the island is hilly, full of well-fed flora, and covered in rocks. Several other tour boats have landed whilst we’ve been walking, which is unexpected; the island is big, but not that big, meaning things get busy quite quickly along the main paths.
After an hour of exploring, we begin the journey back. Instantly, I know it’s going to be worse - the water is choppier, the boat is rocking quite violently, and the wind has picked up. I start to cramp up in my hand from where I’ve been holding on to the bench too tight. I try to focus on the metal floor of the boat and nothing else, though this is easier said than done.
The seasickness decides then to rear its ugly head. It’s induced mainly by my stomach dropping several seconds before my head processes the change in direction, which creates a discombobulating physiological dissonance. I realise I’ve been holding my breath for a while. I try to regulate my breathing.
Matthew, one of the boat’s crew, has the courtesy to check in on me via my girlfriend. “Is he okay?” You never want to be an ‘is he okay’ person. I nod and smile (grimace), and make a comment about being fine soon. A million thoughts are flying through my head, and I can’t pin any of them down.
We return to the relative shelter of the Sound of Iona, where the water flattens out. I breathe, adjust, and look around.
I make an effort to give Matthew an earnest thank you as we alight at Iona, before taking a moment to savour the inanimate nature of the ground beneath my feet. We drop down onto the beach by the jetty so that we can have lunch. The water is unfathomably blue here, making the place feel like the Caribbean’s temperate counterpart. A couple of birds - possibly finches - join us in the hopes of nabbing any leftovers.
After lunch, my girlfriend and I break off in search of more food and things to do. The other features in Baile Mòr are small but significant: a well-stocked Spar; a medical centre; an impressive new village hall; several hotels with adjoining restaurants; a primary school; and a few shops selling knick-knacks and trinkets.
We head for the western coast of Iona. The island's only 2 kilometres wide, so there’s not far to go. The main exit out of the west of the village involves going through a working farm, where we find…
HIGHLAND COWS. Such docile creatures, these little ginger punks. I throw caution to the wind and get up close and personal with the big beasties, much to my girlfriend’s annoyance. Several hundred photographs later, we proceed on through the farm with Port Ban beach set as our eventual target.
Iona Golf Course is the last hurdle between us and our destination. We scale the first two styles with ease, but come up against a rusted farm gate that won’t budge. A passing rambler hesitates, then offers to assist us.
“It’s often a case of lifting the gate up -”
She lifts, slides the handle, and it opens.
“- before trying the lever.”
“You can tell we’re city folk…” I reply.
“You can help me out when I’m next in a city!” she retorts as she walks away.
Finally, we reach Port Ban. This is in another league to the beach we were on for lunch earlier. The sea is a deep shade of teal; every wave creates a soft gradient as it crests onto the white beach. The sand isn’t sand - it’s ground-up shells that crunch underfoot. We take a breather, eat our Spar-bought snacks, then bid the beach adieu and head back towards the village.
We make it back to the village with time to spare before our booked slot to look around the infamous Iona Abbey, a stalwart of the island’s long and complex history. Inside the main chapel lie the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, whose resting place is marked by two marble sarcophagi in the southern transept.
Engraved on the Duke’s tomb is the sentence “I have fought a good fight.” Simple, yet resonant. I stay for a brief moment, acknowledging the intricate sculpting of the Duke and Duchess' features atop their tombs. I nod, then continue.
I look up the Duke's life story. The internet says he is buried nearly 100km south-east in Kilmun. Right. Scratch that bit about admiring the marble - the lad's not even bloody here.
The rest of the abbey tells a slightly more macabre story. The island was raided many times over the years by Vikings, which led to dozens of monks and islanders being brutally slaughtered on numerous occasions. There’s also some Irish history here, too - the island was settled on by Irish explorers over a thousand years ago, which led to the spread of Christianity across Northern Britain.
We finish monk-y-ing around (sorry) and make our way over to the jetty for the last ferry back to the ‘mainland’. Does it count as the mainland if Scotland is the main mainland? Is continental Europe the main main mainland?
The boat arrives. I push down a brief swell of panic about boats. I’ve had enough of boats for one holiday.
On the drive back to Tobermory, we pass a village called Pottie. One of the group pipes up. "It's a river, actually. And somewhere over there is the mouth of the Pottie. The pottie mouth, if you will." Collective sigh from the audience.
Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘The Hebrides’ is our soundtrack for part of the journey back. Not my usual choice of car music, but Mr. Mendelssohn was reportedly inspired to write the overture off the back of a trip to Staffa in the early 1800s. Seems fitting that we give it a crack, then.
Tobermory. Obligatory trip to Co-op. Walk back along the coastal path. Running on fumes at this point. Back at cottage. Battery low. Sustenance required. Dinner is the BIGGEST portion of macaroni cheese known to man. God, that hits the spot.
Bed time. Cleaning teeth. Look in bathroom mirror. Face is burned. Bollocks.
Day 5 - Whale Of A Time
Another alarm set. Does this normally happen on holiday?
Hop in the shower. My cheeks and nose burn. I look like I’m perpetually blushing - not quite the look I was going for today.
We leave at 8.30 to head into Tobermory for a whale-watching tour. I say 8.30 - I departed several minutes after the rest of the group, having been distracted by writing postcards about gang bangs.
Tobermory feels lively for a remote Scottish village on a Wednesday morning. Having caught up with my girlfriend’s family, we wander around the village over to the pontoon where our tour boat is waiting.
I briefly panic about the concept of being out on a boat again, but my mind is put at ease after I’m informed that tea and coffee is served on-board, which I see as being a medium-to-large vessel kind of thing. I see a familiar face in the queue waiting to board. The gentleman with the camo backpack from the Oban ferry on Day 1 has made an appearance. I smile as we pass each other. He does not return the favour. Ouch.
We peel away from the jetty and out into the Sound of Mull. Our guides introduce themselves, and run us through the usual spiel: nature is unpredictable, we might not see any wildlife, tickets are non-refundable, et cetera.
Within five minutes, the unpredictability of wildlife comes into question. A bob of harbour seals - and yes, that’s the correct term for a group, look it up - is relaxing on the rocks by Ardmore Point. “They’re often found near here,” remarks one of the guides. Surely you would take every sightseeing boat past here, then? Wait, hold on - they probably do.
I take a couple of photos, but it’s not easy - usually, you photograph moving things from a stationary point, not the other way around.
Once we leave the Sound, the sea becomes predictably choppy. I try to take my mind off the rough conditions by scrolling through Twitter. Lots of tweets about the sudden yet terrifying collapse of structure in Afghanistan. I close Twitter.
The crew go about offering ginger biscuits to those feeling seasick. I decline for now. Who, when stocking up the proverbial biscuit jar, willingly chooses ginger biscuits?
We pull up by the Cairns of Coll, where the captain kills the engines. The boat undergoes a slightly more violent kind of side-to-side rocking motion when the power is cut. It shakes a little burp out of me. Not a particularly proud moment.
Several flocks of Manx Shearwaters come and go looking for lunch in the water below, but no whales appear. We sit, watching, waiting.
It’s difficult to tell what is and isn’t water this far out at sea. The waves are a deep navy, similar in colour to a whale or other sea creature. Watching out for animals beneath the waves is like a moving Where’s Wally, but there’s a chance Wally has gone for lunch twenty miles away.
Nearly an hour of nothing. The search is over. There was a brief glimpse of a harbour porpoise, but they're notoriously shy, and it dipped beneath the waves before anyone could get excited. Most of my girlfriend’s family are cold, and several are feeling ill. The guides onboard peer desperately through their binoculars, keeping an eye out on the off-chance something surfaces.
We begin our hour-long journey back to port. The mood on-board is forlorn, if not a little tense. The tour takes four hours, and tickets aren’t cheap; punters are expecting to get their money’s worth.
There’s a cry from the bow.
Initially, nothing. Then, out of nowhere, several common dolphins launch themselves several metres into the air in front of us. I reach for my camera and dart around to the port side of the vessel.
Our guide informs us that dolphins are typically quite playful creatures. They find boats interesting, and like to swim in the wake of vessels. The pod looks to be about a dozen strong including a couple of calves. The dolphins put on a show in front of the boat, then move across the Sound towards mainland Scotland. The captain follows them, pursuing them over a short distance. They come back for a second helping and entertain us once more before submerging beneath the waves.
Sailing is physically exhausting. I notice that my legs and core hurt as I return to my seat. The skill required to maintain balance on a boat are akin to that needed when surfing on a London bus, which I took pride in being good at as a kid. We pass Rubha Nan Gall lighthouse on the way back, and part of me wants to ask to be dropped off here to save having to do the walk along the coast again.
Further along the coastal path, a handful of hikers wave at us from a bench. Many of the boat’s passengers wave back, including myself, briefly. Who are these people? Why were they waving? Why did we return the favour as instinctively as yawning when we’re tired? Humans are an odd bunch.
Over four hours after departing, we return to Tobermory. I actively note my appreciation for inanimate surfaces underfoot.
The next stop is the post office for stamps. No, it isn’t actually. In typical village-y fashion, the post office closes at lunch on Wednesdays. Not ideal. My postcards can wait another day then.
We queue for chips - the boat trip had made us all ravenous. In the queue, I clock a former colleague from a work experience placement at the BBC a couple of years ago. Again, he doesn’t recognise me. Today seems to be the day for crossing paths with people I vaguely recognise.
The chips hath been chomped. Sensing an opportunity for more exploring prior to our dinner reservation at the Tobermory Hotel in the evening, we make the short trip up to the Isle of Mull Cheese Farm atop the hill outside the village. In the car, I get a message from an old coursemate. “You don’t happen to be in Tobermory, do you? I think I just drove past you.” Familiar face number three. I might reach double figures before dinner.
The cheese shop, believe it or not, smells of cheese, as does the adjoining cafe. We have some tea and cakes, with only one member of our group sampling the cheese on offer. I say that I’ll take his word on the quality of the produce - I’ve never been one for sampling cheeses. Several adorable dogs make their way around the cafe, begging every other table for a small morsel of fromage from unsuspecting patrons. Their literal puppy-dog eyes prove to be ineffective in most cases.
We return to the village, relishing the fresh air as we depart the building. A brief drive down to the harbour, then a stroll along to the hotel. We arrive early, choosing to spend the time playing a mix of card games on a picnic table by the waterfront.
After a pleasant meal, we make the pilgrimage once again back up to the cottage. I consciously, passionately, vocally express how much I miss London buses. A black cat crosses my path, distracting me for a moment. The others carry on walking, making me wonder whether I was the only one to see the little feline.
What the bollocks am I on about? This island’s messing with my head. Here’s the cat. It’s definitely real.
The evening passes in a blur. I’ve completed the Strava August Walking Challenge a week early, and my legs are eager to remind me of this. Bed. Just… Just go to bed.
You can make satirical comments about people blindly waving at each other tomorrow.
Yes sir. Sorry sir.