Mission to Mull | Part Two
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
Day 2 - Let's Go To The Beach, Beach
Waking up in different beds on three consecutive mornings is surprisingly disconcerting, especially when you’re woken by a high-pitched whistling. The cottage has an old-timey kettle, meaning every round of tea comes with the added excitement of potentially scalding yourself on the hob’s naked flame.
The weather has taken a turn for the mediocre. Clouds saddle the munros across the bay like damp laundry on a clothes horse. The plan is to venture back into Tobermory, then head over to Calgary Bay, before heading back via the Co-op to stock up on supplies.
I’m last out the door, as I can’t seem to find some of my camera peripherals. In the small hours, I realised that I had brought with me the wrong charger for my camera, and had to therefore return to Amazon, God of Express Delivery, tail between my weary legs, and ask for one to be sent over.
We begin the trek along the coast towards Tobermory. A few members of the group stop at a viewpoint to look across at mainland Scotland. Sròn Mhòr and Ben Hiant gaze back at them.
The walk passes without incident, as does the stroll along Tobermory high street; it's a Sunday, so the majority of the shops are shut. Luckily, the deli at the end of the village is able to provide us with supplies for lunch: a handful of homemade vegan sausage rolls; a macaroni cheese pie; and a can of the nation’s best drain cleaner - Irn Bru. A hearty meal fit for any warrior. We load up into the car. To the beach!
The road to Calgary Bay is winding, and we’re almost caught out numerous times by oncoming traffic, bikepackers, or rogue cattle crossing the road. The route passes several lochs, each with its own collection of canoes moored along the edges by local fishermen. The persistent drizzle makes such pastimes seem unappealing today.
A mile or two from the beach, we pass a collection of hand-painted road signs along the verge.
Not massively coherent, but intriguing nonetheless. A hundred or so metres pass until we see a turning into a driveway and… There’s a ‘bus stop’. With some ‘bakes’ inside. The signs, it would appear, were telling the truth.
I say bus stop - it’s necessary for me to squat in order to enter the shelter and browse the selection of baked goods on offer. Carrot cake, oaty date slices, or cheese scones, all for a reasonable price. Payment is via an amnesty box on the miniscule counter. I grab a quick photo, drop a couple of quid into the cash tin, then return to the car, carrot cake in hand. Not what I’d have gone for, but we live in a democracy. I’ve since been informed that the cake was very nice.
Onwards to the beach. We arrive. It’s cold.
It’s August, why is it cold?
Ah. Yes. Scotland. Never mind.
Some of my girlfriend’s family brought along wetsuits so that they could go for a refreshing dip. I have to make do with a pair of trunks, a gym top, and a bucketful of stupidity.
For several reasons, including Covid, it’s been a while since I’ve had to do the ‘shimmy behind a towel’ dance on a beach whilst changing outfits. I successfully manage to negotiate that minefield without flashing a nearby family.
The sea does not look inviting. It’s calm, but the stillness looks menacing. It’s almost mocking me; the ambient conditions mean I’ve been shivering slightly since donning my swimming gear.
No, I’m not going to be emasculated by a semi-animate body of water. I leg it straight across the sand, yelling weakly, GoPro in hand. This better be worth it.
Cold. COLD. VERY COLD.
The water is cold. The air is now cold. My body is contracting every muscle it can in an attempt to protect itself from the freezing conditions. Facing the prospect of being perpetually stuck between two mediums that hate me, I take the plunge and put my shoulders under the surface. This, unsurprisingly, is extremely cold. And then it isn’t. It’s almost serene, relaxing. It’s like a cold, mildly perilous version of the Blue Lagoon. Take that, stupid ocean.
Ten minutes pass like it’s nothing. I’ve been joined by my girlfriend and two of her family members. We’re all superbly cold, but the farcical nature of the situation makes it rather joyful and carefree.
The approaching storm clouds bring an end to proceedings, however, and we return to shore to dry off and wrap up in layers. Several of the group opt for a post-aquatic reading session, whilst I take a stroll along the beach looking for phone signal.
My girlfriend checks in on me after twenty minutes. My furrowed brow and furious phone-tapping (as in keyboard, not à la News of the World) was apparently cause for concern. We both return to where the rest of her family are situated by the edge of the dunes.
Book club ends, and we trudge through the sand back to the car park. One member of the group has found a tick on their arm, causing mild yet widespread panic amongst the party. Miraculously, a passing stranger is able to lend us her tweezers and nail scissors, allowing two of us to perform a delicate procedure to remove the tick. The operation is a success! Ice creams all round to celebrate, then back in the car.
Fewer bikes along the road back to Tobermory than there were at lunchtime. The meandering nature of the route leaves several of us feeling worse for wear upon our return to Tobermory. I take a breather on a bench whilst two others scavenge for supplies in Co-op.
Potatoes and baked beans in hand, we return to Stranger’s Point. The rain holds off for the majority of the walk, choosing only to make an appearance in the final minutes of the journey along the coastal path to the cottage.
I pause on the porch for a moment. The light on the rocks by the lighthouse catches my eye, and I decide to return to the water’s edge with my camera.
Before this trip, I had discussed with some work colleagues the merits of using various filters on your lenses, and chose to invest in some variable neutral density and polarising filters. Among other things, the former allows you to take long exposures of moving water, creating an almost ‘smoky’ effect.
It took several painstaking attempts, but I managed to capture a couple of photographs that I was content with.
Back inside for dinner. We discuss the day’s events as we eat, pausing only to admire a freighter cruising past outside within spitting distance of the lighthouse. The tanker in question had come from continental Europe carrying an unknown array of goods. It seems lost, or a bit isolated.
The table is cleared, dishes are washed, and games are brought out. We start with Shithead, a card game popularised by backpackers in the 20th century, before moving onto a slightly more complex game of Pope Joan.
We call it a night just after nine. I stay up later than I should to edit some photos, and receive a telling-off as a result. Fair enough.
Day 3 - The Rope Swing
We got lucky with the weather on our first day in Tobermory. The sky has been persistently grey since yesterday morning, and the forecast suggests this is to be expected for the remainder of the week.
The morning routine has developed to include a game of ‘Who’s In The Shower?’, a classic among those of you who have ever stayed somewhere with a small boiler or iffy water supply.
The rules are simple: no more than one player may use a shower at any given time; use of any taps ends the round prematurely for said shower-user; showers must be as short as possible due to limited resources, yet the process of only one player showering at any given time means that an entire round can take upwards of half an hour if you’re not careful.
With the game complete, we embark on the now-familiar walk to Tobermory. Except we don’t - it has been suggested that we take an alternative route into town this morning. Why not? It could be fun.
It could also be not fun, and it turns out to be just that. As in, ‘not fun’, not ‘fun’. It isn’t fun.
The path ascends steeply via a set of crooked stairs crudely embedded into the earth. Atop the stairs, the view covers a 180° span of the Sound. It’s nice, but not ‘climb up some dodgy stairs’ nice. To add insult to injury, the remainder of the walk across this higher clifftop involves a substantial jaunt along the perimeter of an active golf course. And yes, I stand by the use of ‘active’ - golf courses are as dangerous and unwelcoming as a Ministry of Defence site, if not more so.
We march on in search of Back Brae, one of the roads linking the higher tiers of Tobermory to the harbour below. This route has taken a fair bit longer than our usual coastal path.
We eventually descend into Tobermory proper, seeking out the weekly market outside the aquarium. My girlfriend picks up a pair of handmade earrings, whilst I opt for a card of a painting depicting a highland cow to send to my family. My girlfriend’s family chuckle collectively; another card shows a sheep grazing next to a ‘passing place’ road sign, which has become a recurring motif on this holiday.
I dip out of the market to pick up lunch in the nearby Co-op. Irn Bru fills the bottom row of the drinks fridge. I pick up a can with the enthusiasm of a fussy Brit trying escargot in a continental restaurant.
The post office is on my route back to the market. I try my luck inside, enquiring about my Amazon packages.
“What’s the name?” the attendant asks. I answer.
A man sticks his head around the door behind me. “There’s two for him there,” he says, pointing to the windowsill behind the counter where, lo and behold, two solitary Amazon parcels are sitting. It appears not many Tobermorians (not the official demonym) utilise the post office’s pick-up point.
The significance of postal services in an area like this must be huge. Ferry crossings from Craignure - a half-hour south of Tobermory - run around half a dozen times a day each way, and substantially less often from Tobermory itself. Outside the post office, three red Royal Mail vans are parked, full of noticeably large parcels. The islanders undoubtedly utilise the mail service in a way not seen on the mainland; it is used out of necessity, not convenience.
Parcels in hand, I rejoin the group just outside the market. I crack open my Irn Bru, and take a swig. It’s… fine. Not for me. I take another swig. Tastes like medicine. Farts. Bubblegum?
As has been a running (walking) theme on this holiday, the afternoon itinerary involves an amble to a small pier several kilometres south of the harbour. The walk itself is not particularly noteworthy, save for a couple of cool natural water features and a rope swing on a tree by the old sawmill in Aros. Sensing an opportunity to play around with my lens filters once more, I turn on my heels and return to the waterfalls back along the path.
A middle-aged couple have discovered the rope swing; she’s seated, he’s watching.
“Go on, push her higher!” I jest. They laugh.
“Push me higher!” she cries. He laughs.
“Seriously Damian, push me higher.” He stops laughing. Hesitation. He pushes her higher.
I saunter off as she gives a half-hearted “wee!” behind me.
The waterfalls give me another chance to experiment with long exposures. The stream flows from the waterfall to the sea around a hundred metres away, passing over a cluster of rocks as it does so. Four years of civil engineering and I am completely unable to identify the rocks in question. This explains why I was - nay, am - so bad at engineering.
I am joined by two four-legged friends, who scamper down from the main path to inspect my progress. Their owners chase after the dogs as they launch themselves into the water to my left. Polite smiles are exchanged as I pack my tripod away and move on.
A kilometre or so from Tobermory, a small flock of bird-watchers stand just off the path, peering at a creature in the trees with their binoculars. I notice a tree branch below them that has been covered by a bright blue sock, like some form of grotesque, inanimate puppet. Creepy.
A pair of sirens ring out from across the bay. I imagine that the Co-op has presumably run out of Irn Bru, causing widespread hysteria. I then realise that I have seen approximately zero people drink Irn Bru (save for myself) since arriving in Scotland several days ago.
We return to the car, and head straight for Glengorm Castle, five miles northwest of the town. The drive up to the castle reminds me of the opening scene of The Shining, except more desolate - the Scottish Forestry Commision have made light work of several dozen hectares of woodland on the north side of Mull, leaving nothing but a field of stumps.
We pull in near the tearooms at the bottom of the hill upon which the castle sits. Tea, cake, then a quick walk up the slope.
Half a dozen small birds come to inspect some of the picnic tables, looking for leftover morsels. I kneel down to take a couple of photos of one bird in particular. It looks tired. Do birds get tired? Same, little bird. Same.
We pay, then head for the hill. The castle is fairly underwhelming - it’s more of an overstated stately home. It looks like the sort of place you’d host a wedding, if you can get the guests to travel here. I spot a herd of highland cows grazing in the distance. It’s on my list to get a photo of some whilst I’m here.
Back past the cafe to the car. I clock a poster in the window advertising the venue for weddings. Huh. Called it.
In the car, someone suggests we play the Balamory theme song. It’s been in my head for days, as you can’t help but hum it when you walk past the colourful shop fronts in Tobermory. We all nod along, as the song works its way through the cast: Pocket and Sweet, Archie (my favourite), Spencer, Josie Jump…
The song ends. Spotify’s algorithm spits out a related song. Or, at least, it’s meant to.
‘Gang Bang’ by Black Lace blares out of the car speakers. For those of you unfamiliar with the song, it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be.
Laughter erupts in the car. We manage to turn it off just as the song reaches the pre-chorus once again: It's better when you're crowded / and when you're packed in tight… Admittedly, it was a pretty catchy song, just not very family-friendly.
A bird of prey soaring over the car snaps us out of our temporary delirium. I ask that we pull over so that I can take a photo. The bird looks like a peregrine falcon, a species native to the Hebrides. I quickly change lenses, hop out the car, and close in on the bird.
I naively thought that I could sneak up on the fastest-known animal in the world. This naivety meant it was a matter of milliseconds before the deadly killer identified its pursuer - an adult male human wearing a deep red jumper, rampaging through the long grass - and flew off. I took photos whilst yelling expletives, if only to be able to say I tried.
Balls. Never mind. I’m sure there’ll be other birds of prey to take blurry photos of. I return to the car, but not before capturing the landscape around me.
I cannot emphasise enough how much I wish that, for the sake of my bank account, this photo is some form of product placement. It's not.
We drive back to Tobermory, hoping that the dark clouds moving in hold off for just another hour. The walk along the coast back to the cottage is a long one; though we’ve done nothing but walk, my body aches. There’s a general sustained fatigue that comes with staying in such a remote, inaccessible location.
It’s my turn to make dinner with my girlfriend. We do our best to make vegetarian fajitas with the ingredients that were picked up from the Co-op earlier. It goes down well with her family, though they are renowned for being a consistently polite bunch.
Post-dinner games are kept to a minimum, as we’ve an early start in the morning. I stay up regardless - blog posts don’t write themselves.