[First published 30/09/2003]
I've briefly mentioned my summer working on the Isle of Mull before. What I haven't really told you about is how I came to love the place. I went there just after graduation to work for a charity running whale-watching tours and doing research on the local whale population. I had no idea what to expect, as my last visit to Scotland had been when I was in a pushchair as a child1, and I was woefully prepared in practical terms. I think that I was also unprepared for how profound the experience would be.
I arrived in a rainstorm, so I couldn't see much of my surroundings beyond blurry outlines swept away by the windscreen wipers as we bumped along in the Land Rover. At that point, I wondered quite what I had let myself in for. This feeling was reinforced when I found out that because of a slight shortage of space in the caravans, I would be living on the boat on my own. This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me.
The boat (a retired gin palace) was moored on a sea loch, and could only be accessed by dinghy when it was moored. In fact, because the loch was tidal, I could only reach the dinghy when the tide was high. Rather than the inconvenience this might have been, it was actually a rather lovely thing; it forced me to slow down and live at the pace of my surroundings. I came to enjoy sitting on a rock by the shore, just watching the water and waiting for the tide to creep up and cover the rocks.
I have a lot of wonderful memories of my time on Mull, which are often a great mental escape when I'm feeling a bit stressed and oppressed. In fact, I often find that I have very vivid dreams about the landscape, which are always a sure sign that work pressures are getting to me. Here are a few of the things that surface in my dreams at such times.
The best time of day was just after dawn. We started the tours early, so I had to get up at the crack of dawn and get ready for the hordes to descend. I would make myself a coffee and a slice of toast, and go out on the deck to eat my breakfast and look around at the world. The water was often exceptionally calm at that time of day — at times so flat that there were no ripples, just a smooth surface flexing the image of the sky. The clarity of the air was such that every rock and frond of seaweed seemed to snap into sharp focus. I'll never forget the smell of coffee combining with salt and seaweed and bracken on the shore. It was even wonderful when it rained. If you've never experienced the silver sound of soft rain falling on a calm sea — believe me, you haven't lived. At night, the loch and the woods were painted blue and silver by the moonlight — so bright that it cast shadows. I'll never forget the first time I looked up on a clear night and had a Dave Bowman moment: "My god, it's full of stars!"
Now and again, a curlew or a flock of oyster catchers would fly over, making their utterly eerie and heart-breaking calls. Aside from the smell, nothing conjures up that view for me like an oyster catcher call. Sometimes a small herd of red deer would venture out of the forest and graze on the shore, seemingly unworried by me watching them. One morning I watched, puzzled, as one of the mooring buoys repeatedly sank beneath the water then rocketed back out again. It took several minutes for me to see that a harbour seal was playing with it — forcing it under the water, then letting it pop back out.
It would take me weeks to tell you about all of these magical moments, but after only a few weeks, I was completely smitten with the place. I fell in love with Mull. I don't use that phrase lightly; it was exactly the feeling you get when you fall for a lover, and the parting was every bit as heart-rending. I still feel that part of me lives there and calls to me from time to time. There were times when a particular view was so achingly beautiful that it literally moved me to tears, and I was gripped by the feeling that if only everyone could see this, things would somehow be different. Don't ask me how, it just would.
1 Actually, I was walking by this time, but according to my parents I suddenly went on strike in the ambulatory department, forcing them to bump my pushchair over heather covered hills.