Ah, Mull. I wasn’t prepared for how wonderful it is.
Off the ferry in fading early-July light after a long day of journeying, and only a few minutes along the single-track road the sprinkle of houses ended and then we were driving through a high green pass, the land on both sides rising steeply into mist and darkness.
The main impression on our travel-befuddled minds was mystery, on that first journey: miles of shadows in dark forests and cloud-obscured peaks, until the houses reappeared by the dark shimmer of water in the loch and we found our temporary home, with still a glimmer in the sky even in the final hour of the day. Where on earth had we come to?
We’d come somewhere entirely different. The field in front of the byre – in fact a wildflower meadow – sloped gently down to the shoreline. The Burg rose on the other side of the loch, its distinctive stepped outline coming and going according to the weather. A buzzard visited daily, using the skein of poles and wires bringing electricity to the house as lookout posts for small prey moving about in the rippling grasses and flowers below. I miss Billy still.
And on one heartstopping occasion a hen harrier dropped down from the crag and flew over the meadow. A battleship-grey Presence, gone in seconds. I never thought I’d really see one, and certainly not that close.
On grey days the clouds moved down almost to the lochside. The vast space and the shrouded quiet, pierced by an eagle crying out high above. We saw eagles almost daily once we’d grown accustomed to their scale; a golden eagle over Tobermory, a white tailed eagle above a densely forested hillside; another being mobbed by gulls.
On sunny days the sea glittered in jewel tones; seals investigated us from a few yards out and the birds’ late spring continued.
At the byre we saw Coll and Tiree across the water, Dutchman’s Cap nearer in. But looking west from Iona the Atlantic just went on and on as far as the imagination dared.
After a sunny day came a spectacular sunset. The Burg shrank to a silhouette and the glow grew for almost two hours before the final blaze.
We’d arrived at fledging time, like long-haul flyers who experience two sunsets in a day; back south juvenile birds of all types were already foraging for themselves but here it was the last days of feeding young and encouraging them out into the world. Broods of swallows were still sitting high up inside chapels and under eaves on Iona, sparking into a split-second of gaping and calling as a parent dashed in with food for the thousandth time that morning. And on Mull itself the white tailed eagles were still bringing food to their single chick, glimpsed on its huge pile of a nest at a distance through the warden’s scopes.
Moy Castle, of I Know Where I’m Going fame, is just as stark and commanding as you’d hope if you love this film too. Entirely appropriate for a powerful curse and a highland romance. And proving that towering and fortified can also come in small packages.
The 15th century tower still sits at the edge of a broad bay; the MacLaine family moved out into the nearby house in the middle of the 18th century. There is a freshwater well inside and it is said no-one knows the source of the water supply. Sheep nibbled at the grass around the castle and on the waterside; out to sea we could see distant Kiloran (Colonsay).
The sheep were everywhere; roads, hills, beaches. On Erraid – where the sea cuts off the island at high tide, and where RL Stevenson set Kidnapped – we saw them rounded up by the farmer with his four dogs, deftly bringing them in from the shore in groups.
Herons took up position in the shallows awaiting the tide’s turn and the rich pickings when the sea refilled the narrow channel to Mull. A lapwing hurled itself into the air as we neared its hidden nest and made hurried circles and strange swannee-whistle calls, distracting and alarming. We turned away and watched cows ambling across the sands.
I was unprepared for the grandeur of Mull; its scale and its beauty. Delighted by the differences.