A Trip to Isle of Mull: The Island of Seasons
As I packed ruthlessly, shoving a few essentials into a stretching rucksack, I could hardly claim I had prepared for this holiday. Somehow the excitement of the grand graduation present to myself, a few days exploring the Isle of Mull, had been compressed by weeks of library trauma and the wounds still hadn’t quite healed.
Shamefully during my student years in Glasgow, I had seen less variety of Scottish landscape than strangers’ high-ceiling bedrooms. The closest I had come to the Hebrides was Ewan McGregor’s lullaby voice on BBC 2, as he appeared to soar with the birds of prey, caressing my laptop screen and speaking in unison with the aviary.
Finally ready to brace the birdsong myself, by train and ferry, I arrived on the island completely unprepared for the strong claw-hold this prehistoric scenery would impress on me.
Upon arrival, mountains dropped down into mysterious crevices lined by shrunken pines and the immediate wildness made me question the endurance of human activity here. The scarred fields we rode past on the way to the cottage were marked by petrified trees, bent over onto their sides, posing as hunchback old women with crooked fingers. These battle scars endured by the raging winter warfare screamed of harsh Januaries, now unimaginable under the June blue sky.
Our accommodation appeared as an oasis in the desert of dramatic conflict. A few friends and I had rented an artist’s cottage and were privileged enough to experience its image once splashed over the pages of the telegraph magazine, in the flesh and mortar. As we pondered over the laminated article we matched the glossy pictures to the real dark-wood floors and varnished four-poster beds. Outside, through the gap in a locked corrugated iron hut, we spied the beginnings of a driftwood sculpture and a few half-finished canvases.
The next morning, the window in our scenic bathroom tempted me to look out onto a rural idyll I savored all the more knowing it would too soon be snatched away by city fumes.
After a wash in the Victorian tin bath, I set out for the sea, reaching the end of the narrow road that already sizzled in the morning heat. The next path leading behind the nearby hotel became immediately apparent. The term “hotel” seems ambitious for what is actually a collection of small wooden cabins rounded off by a sparsely furnished trailer facilitating the running of the tiny airstrip that stood between the open water and me.
As I reached the kissing gate, a large blue sign stating “Airfield. No Admittance” was being clearly ignored by two men. One of them leaned his elbow over the metal door and recited his morning toilet routine to another man of equal hardy and brisk manner.
I was quickly learning that the island demands a certain posture of men who are willing to endure the elemental contradictions of its extreme seasonal weather. As I followed their lead into the airfield I reached the other side, still formally holding a towel clamped under my armpit, and jogged towards a viewpoint. As I stood in the long grass looking out onto the misty lagoon, unsuspecting orange beaks had perched themselves collectively on the sand.
From here I could see whole low-lying clouds, fully formed as if in my living room, frosting the surrounding mountains. To the north the clouds smoked as if signaling the initiation of an ancient Native American ritual, while others strode out to sea, suspended moments above the millpond. To the east, framed by a layer of pine trees, the meeting mountains were only visible by snapshot, reaching down inside the dark space between their edges, only fully known to itself. Out in the clear blue, the bay curved around into the distance promising to loop back continuously to sustain the borders of the island.
The strange inconsistency of the Hebrides became clearer to me as we walked in a line along the narrow roadside. In between the thick hedgerows breathing life into the man-made tarmac itself, I glimpsed a wild-eyed man standing in front of his white van, holding a meat-cleaver. Not fully registering the clear signpost for the local abattoir, I was at first alarmed by a sight made familiar by reels of slasher horror films. Shaking off the cliché of a lonely man in a bloodstained coat too long alone with red carcasses, I considered more carefully this image as a violent reminder of the harsh winter existence endured by the persistent islanders, glazed over for us by a shimmering veil of summer cobwebs.
Those delicate and fragile structures trap the temporality and unbounded nature of a holiday. But when this web is easily brushed away, beneath lies the piercing, jagged jaws of a rock-hard season-dependent life. With each hack, this strange and uncanny man cut deeper into the carcass of an island vulnerable to the extreme elements. As he loaded his van with the dripping meat, I saw thunder and lightening strike the exposed ribs as if to give me a glimpse of the Isle of Mull’s raw surface, which is torn and battered at the mercy of the unforgiving and unpredictable weather.
I blinked and waved through the immediate sunlight. On the return walk home the abattoir house had an iron shutter over its door. The man and the van were gone. I was left to enjoy the rest of my well-earned rest; a fleeting brush with natural springs formed by a dislodged boulder during a recent storm, a few naked midnight swims against the crashing tide.
For a city girl hidden in the dark halls of academia for the past four years this was exactly the light at the end of the tunnel. But still, I couldn’t tear myself away completely from the thought of those that chose to stay and play a part in the harsh theatrical, even mystical, cycles of Isle of Mull’s climactic stage set.