Highland Fling – by Joan Jaffe (Part One)

We were bound to have trouble in Customs with the muesli, Dick predicted, and maybe the half jar of jam and the 47 teabags; but I said they were souvenirs and I would relive our Scottish breakfasts each time I used them.
The eighteen day holiday was over and packed bags slung into the car, we slowly made our way up the rough farm track to the main road, a single thread of tarmac winding its way around the island. Looking back one last time, we saw the tiny white washed cottage, its sturdy wide hipped walls sitting hard on the sheep cropped grass.

We had come to Mull, an island off the coast of Scotland in the Hebrides, at my behest. A lifelong passion for Scotland, inexplicable since I have no antecedents here, has had me coming and going for over forty years. Ten years ago I discovered Mull and since then it has been a favorite destination.

We rented a cottage on an organic cattle farm; the owners had made over a number of ruined cottages into holiday lets. Four years ago I had spent a month in this place in the winter, equipped only with a bicycle for transportation. The farm is miles from the nearest town, a tiny village called Dervaig, and the bike ride was challenging.

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This time we had a car and that felt opulent. We landed in Glasgow on a misty morning, picked up the rental car, and Dick proceeded to adjust to driving on the wrong side of the road, to the roundabouts, and to the narrow width of the highway while attempting to manage the right-handed steering wheel and shift. I was in charge of maintaining an attitude of equanimity, a talent I’m not known for in the best of times. However, some hours later we arrived, car and temper intact, at our first destination, the Drovers Inn.

Opened in 1705 to accommodate drovers taking their sheep to Glasgow, it doesn’t seem, except for the updated sheep, to have changed much. The stuffed indigenous animals—from the standing bear who greets the visitor as he enters the reception area, to the barn owl and lynx displayed in cabinets—must be two hundred years old, dust included. An oak staircase winds its way up to the rooms, which range from quite luxurious (the bridal suite with a Jacuzzi) to simple: our top floor room down the hall from the bathroom. The walls are hung with old portraits of patrons who were the last word in 1700 and the entire proposition looks and feels like a place wonderfully suspended in time.

The pub downstairs, hung with scabbards, swords and old tartan wraps frayed with age and imbued with the fine scent of single malt whisky, is warmed by a wood fire and the young man who served us wore a kilt; a Celtic dirge played in the background. In a sleepy haze we sat and ate Scottish salmon and drank Guinness and if there is a heaven, I’m sure my heaven will be exactly like this.

The next day, we set off for Oban, the Gateway to the Isles, so called because ferries leave here for most of the Hebridean Islands. We had made it the previous day from Glasgow to the Drovers Inn but had managed not to fall into Loch Lomond by the merest chance. The narrow road, lined on one side by ancient stone walls and abutted on the other by the beautiful loch, supports the idea of two way traffic over optimistically: a large truck bearing down on us (from what we perceived, naturally, as the wrong side of the road) shuddered by just as we proved, yes, a car can climb a tree.

In Oban we stocked up on groceries, including large amounts of that delicious but awkwardly named confection, the chocolate digestive. For my money, a person could live quite happily for years on Scottish salmon, chocolate digestives and maybe a little single malt whiskey as a vegetable adjunct.

Then on to the ferry for a fifty minute crossing to Mull. Approaching Mull, we saw high on a promontory, the imposing 13th century Duart Castle, home of the chief of Clan Maclean, now restored and open to the public. Disembarking, we turned north towards Tobermory, the largest town on Mull. Built as a fishing village in 1788, its main street, with house fronts painted in primary colors, hugs the bay like a child’s beaded necklace. We were bound for the Western Isles Hotel, a grand old traditional establishment, perched on a cliff overlooking the town. I had been here before and the last time I had stayed—some ten years ago—it had the look of a place unchanged for at least a hundred years. Log fires burned in a sitting room dressed with Oriental rugs and deep cushioned couches; the lovely bay-windowed dining room looked out onto the sea.

We had dinner there that night—a wonderful meal, from the scallop appetizers to the chocolate torte—and the dining room, laid with white tablecloths and lit with candles, was as unchanged as ever. But the previous owner had stripped the hotel of its accumulated one hundred and fifty years of furnishings and although the place was still beautiful, it lacked the patina of age and history it had once had.

Next, on to our final destination, the cottage at Treshnish Farm. Let me say now, that if you plan to go to the Scottish Highlands and drive, equip yourself with several good roadmaps, a GPS system, and a man with nerves of steel. The maps and the GPS are optional. The roads on Mull are, for the most part, single track. In other words, there is room at any one time for only one vehicle, several sheep and/or a reasonably sized Highland cow. This, plus the hairpin turns, the elevations and drops of 14 to 20 percent (so marked), the distractions of stunning scenery, and the vagaries of aforesaid animals, make taking to the road life threatening. I, normally not a back seat driver, tried to confine myself to sharp intakes of breath, small whimpers, and only an occasional clutch at the driver’s arm.

The novel experience of being surrounded on the road by sheep, unwilling to shift, was only matched by the eccentric practice of the huge Highland cattle, sporting Maureen O’Hara hair, planted in the middle of the track, gazing at us benignly (we hoped!) through the windshield.

The cottage at Treshnish has a small sitting room, its deep window looking out onto the sea; There is a tiny wood stove in the old fireplace and a framed five foot square pastel of a Highland cow hangs over a Victorian couch; an armchair draws up to the fireplace. The bedroom, its window too overlooking the sea, is hung with paintings and a wonderful blanket with multiple Highland weaves lies at the foot of the bed. There is a red geranium in the kitchen and yellow primroses have just begun to bloom in the bucket beside the blue front door.

Treshnish Farm encompasses a huge area—well over one thousand acres. Mull, like much of Scotland, has vast tracts of land owned by relatively few people. (In fact, only 1,250 landowners own two thirds of all the land in Scotland.) But Treshnish is a working farm, not an estate, and it is owned by an environmentally minded couple. A wind turbine provides electricity, solar panels help to heat the water, everything is recycled and the farm is run organically. This lovely place sits out on a point of land at the northwest end of Mull and the walks out from the cottages go to the headlands, to sea caves and deserted villages and to the sites of ancient forts.

I had brought a little booklet with me called “Walking in North Mull” by an Olive Brown. Olive, as I had come to know from bitter experience, has mixed emotions about sharing information. Her instructions work quite well backwards: that is, after stumbling around the general vicinity of one of her guided walks for some hours, you may, by sheer accident, find the tracings of the walk. Only then will it be clear exactly what she meant when she says, “walk up the coll, turning left at the coppice where the bracken turns to heather and the rocky knoll meets a grassy crag.” This is all too much for me and the Clintonian distinction between a rocky knoll and a grassy crag eludes me entirely. Or: “Turn right at the gate where the sheep fence meets the deer fence.” In the first place, who knows a sheep fence from a deer fence anyway, and in the second place, as I say querulously to Dick, when he strikes out through a wet bog, “There is no gate here”. “Ah,” he says, mysteriously contemplating something I can’t see at all, “but there was”.

Hiking in the highlands requires special skills. It is not enough to have a compass, an ordnance survey map, Olive, and a hopeful attitude. You also need somebody like Dick, who is a cross between a homing pigeon and a Kalahari bushman. He never forgets an oddly shaped rock, a strange patch of bracken, or a bent twig. His internal sense of direction is unerring and while I’ve had ample evidence of this, I still doubt.

“This doesn’t look right to me”, I grumble as he heads out over a trackless moor. “Are you sure this is right?” I question with deep suspicion, as I leap over a small burn and try to follow him up a sheer cliff. “I think so”, he always says mildly. And sure enough, five minutes later, far off in the distance, I see a ribbon of road winding its way down towards our parked car.

And so, the next morning we set off with Olive in hand and a misguidedly optimistic attitude for the deserted villages and the whiskey cave. Deserted villages with the vestiges of stone cottages abound on Mull, most the results of the Clearances of the 19th century, when the wealthy bought huge tracts of land, built hunting lodges and estate houses, and turned out the cottars, crofters and farmer to replace them with the more profitable enterprise of sheep raising.

But these two villages are different: one was inhabited almost within living memory and the other was abandoned after a typhoid epidemic in the 19th century. It may be because they escaped the heartbreaking history of much of the highlands that these two places retain the feeling that the people are just temporarily out tending to their business. Ascending the villages from below, on an ancient steep winding track which Olive describes as “designed for the feet of highland garrons”, the adjoining colonies, built in a sheltered fold of the hills to resist the gales, sit in a Brigadoonish warp of time. A peace and tranquility prevail, a soft breeze touches the cheek and a transcendent sense of happiness hovers. We gaze out at the turquoise sea and the shimmering islands of Ulva and Gometra and we know that the people who lived here say exactly the same lovely view every day of their lives and they may have felt as content as we do now.

On to find the location of the whisky cave, an old illicit still whose solidly built foundations stand 15 feet across, says Olive. The mouth of the cave is partially hidden by a grass-grown mound deliberately constructed to conceal the entrance, but if they had had Olive around this would not have been necessary. Even with Dick’s Tonto-like skill at tracking down anything, following Olive’s directions we could not find it.

The next day we headed for Dun Aisgain, an Iron Age fort built high on a rocky bluff “above”, Olive says, “the ruins of a deserted village.” This insouciant phrase has us stumbling around in the heather for hours before, it turns out, we realize we are in the wrong deserted village. But when we finally find the 5,000 year old fort, we stand in awe within the huge circular stone walls. A wind whips wild off the sea and a deep sense of timelessness envelopes us. The layers of time rest lightly on each other in the Highlands, shifting easily to open vistas to the past. Now, thousands of years meld into the mist as we run our hands over stones assembled so many lifetimes ago.

Article contributed by Joan Jaffe

Continued in Part Two