The road around Mull is paved with good intentions. Oh, and white sandy beaches, Munros, and stunning, stop-and-take-a-photo scenery. Not even torrential rain, a boat ride of Satan and an imaginary ghost called Hilda could stop Lucy Sweet from enjoying this most unsummery of isles…
‘We’ve got nae rolls,’ said the woman on the Cal Mac ferry. ‘We’ve stoapped doing tham, but you can fill in a feedback forum.’
When you live in Glasgow, with its Aperol Spritz branded pop ups and widespread availability of flat whites, it’s easy to forget that they do things differently elsewhere in Scotland. This is the gateway to the Inner Hebrides, and there are nae rolls, ken?
But so what? There are live crabs the size of dinner plates on the harbour at Oban, white clouds sailing by as we zip the 45 minutes to Craignure, and a ravishing view. And let’s face it, it was a less complicated sailing than Samuel Johnson and James Boswell endured back in 1773: the weather was so awful they were stuck for days. Eventually, they decided to spend the night on the boat, ‘in readiness’. ‘I ate some dry oatmeal, of which I found a barrel in the cabin,’ Boswell wrote scintillatingly. (Bet nobody gave him a feedback forum about that.)
Having headed out of Glasgow, a group of us are on Mull for a couple of days of camping and it’s not that bad – yet. It’s July, but as we’re in Scotland it feels more like March. I can’t stand camping, but I’m doing it for my 8 year old son, who wants to toast marshmallows on a stick. Still, it’s glorious. We can’t put the tent up for toffee, but the sky is blue and we’re all in the mood to explore. Mull is home to the rare sea eagle, as well as puffins, seals, otters, basking sharks – and of course, whisky, for when it all gets too much.
Mull brings out the camper in everyone – it’s a wild place with a population of only 3000
Turn right from the Craignure ferry and you’ll be on the A849 to Tobermory, tootling past rotting boat wrecks, which stick out of the mudflats like giant fish bones. Sit here for half an hour and you’ve got a good chance of seeing otters playing and bashing crab claws against the rocks. You’ll also have to squeeze into passing places as massive Winnebagos jostle for space on the narrow road. Mull brings out the camper in everyone – it’s a wild place with a population of only 3000, and a B&B full of nice cushions and inspirational signs seems like a cop out, somehow.
If you really want a hotel, the pretty village of Salen is halfway through the 20-odd mile journey, but Tobermory is where it’s at. Home of the now-defunct kid’s TV show Balamory, and also the name of a Womble, it charms everyone with its multicoloured rainbow houses nestling in a lovely harbour. Boswell described the harbour as being surrounded by a ‘hilly theatre’, and if you follow the footpath up the hill you can enjoy the show from the old WW2 wooden gun turrets.
Later on, it starts to rain. There’s a sense of foreboding – we’re lost without our weather apps. Apparently, tomorrow it’ll be bad, and there’s talk of a thunderstorm. Someone tells a ghost story about the imaginary Hilda, the housekeeper at the long-since demolished (and also imaginary) Craignure Guest House. Later on the tent is mysteriously unzipped – even though we swear it was fastened.
In the night, it buckets it down, and the tent leaks. My husband and child snooze away next to me, while every 15 minutes water plinks onto my forehead. At 3am, two sheep have a conversation. By 5am, one loudmouthed sheep in particular, who sounds like Beaker from the Muppets, is on his way to becoming a chop.
The next day, sleep deprived and damp, we turn left at Craignure and drive the 35 miles to FINNNNFRRRR. Even though it’s grey and the windows are blurred with rain, the heather glows supernaturally purple on the hills. As we pass Bunessan, a lobster fishing village, there’s a sign for the scarecrow festival. The villages on the way are bedecked with straw figures in different outfits. But the effect is jolly, rather than disturbing, and our mood is starting to lift. Anyway, you’d be hard pushed to light a Wicker Man in this weather.
We see a puffin! (And as we sway into the harbour, my son sees his breakfast.)
From Fionnphort, the boat to Staffa is waiting. On one side, there are Staffa Tours, fancy boats that cost £60. On the other – our boat – a handsome wooden vessel that’s half the price and is run by a hungover looking bloke wearing a sou’wester. Minutes later, we’re tumbled straight into a turbulent Turner painting, clinging for dear life to the sides. We see a puffin! (And as we sway into the harbour, my son sees his breakfast.) The basalt columns of Fingal’s Cave seem terrifying in the horizontal rain, a giant throat made from burnt, pinkish lava, constantly foaming at the mouth. It’s awesome in the proper sense of the word.
On the boat back, the weather has worsened, and we could have used some of Boswell’s dried oatmeal to cover up the puke. Then we drive back along the A849 through outrageous rain. We pass the misty shores of Loch Scridain, past the Pennyghael Community Hall whose planned Summer BBQ is a wash out. Waterfalls rush off the sides of the mountains into the road. It’s still amazing, though, and we’re giddy at surviving the high seas with nothing but a sick bag.
When we get back, though, our campsite is waterlogged, our tent has given up, and all our stuff is soaked. We can take seasickness, rain and ghosts, but damp knickers? No.
36 hours in and Mull has defeated us. God – or perhaps the wrath of Hilda- has spoken. In the absence of any available B&Bs with inspirational signs, we change our tickets and are back on the last ferry. There are definitely nae rolls tonight.
We’re soaked to the skin, but we heard Mull roar, before nature kicked us back to the mainland where we belong, with our Aperol Spritzes and our flat whites. And what a sound it was. Next time, we’ll take a better tent.
WORDS BY LUCY SWEET
PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 17th 2015