Mulling it over
by Hazel Davis
The first time I made this journey was in the mid-nineties. I was a troubled teenager, escaping the woes of life in a remote Kentish village, terrifyingly clueless about my career path and desperate to be anywhere but home.
I stepped off the ferry, cropped, dyed red hair, round glasses, ripped jeans, long Doc Marten boots, prompting the farmer to squint at me in disbelief and ask me if I was a punk.
This time around I have a partner, a career, laptop, Blackberry, latte to go. A lot has changed but what hasn’t changed is the thrill I always got when the hills started getting bigger and the water wider. My ipod (I didn’t have one of those when I came before) is playing carefully pre-planned Eddi Reader tracks (an accidental part of my gap year was that she was all I had with me so her music is forever entwined with the experience).
For many people of my “gap-year” generation, the period between school and university was spent volunteering in orphanages or sunning on an Aussie beach. Being pretentious but poor I decided instead that my fate lie in a Scottish island. I had been to Mull before and figured I would spend my days wandering the beach, reading epic novels and having flings with strapping farmers.
My mother, somewhat spitefully, said, “How on earth are you going to do that?”, which of course galvanized me into asking the tourist office if there were any friendly farmers. Fortune had it that I managed to speak to a girl called Claire who changed my life. Claire knew of just the man, a farmer in the south who periodically “took in”
young folk like me to help out on his 22,000 acres.
During our brief phone call he said (in his impossibly posh accent), “Have you ever worked on a farm?”:
Him: “Know anything about farming?”
Him: “Are you fit?”
Me: “Not particularly”.
Him: “I like your chutzpah. I’ll pay your coach fare. If we like you, you can stay.”
Reader, I went.
I hated it for the first few weeks. But the farmer and his wife persevered through my astonishing ignorance about the world and my townie’s appreciation of the food chain and I went from self-obsessed teenager who’d never done a day’s work in her life to a useful(ish) member of the community.
I emerged at the end of the experience fitter, fatter, better-read and able to sleep.
Fifteen years later, I'm back as a tourist. The sort of tourist "we” (the farmer's family and me) used to scoff at and force into backing three miles up a winding hill road for kicks.
I’m not the only one who has changed.
Mull is probably most famous for the West-coastal town of Tobermory, with its impossibly picturesque multicoloured buildings. When I lived here, nobody had heard of it and if they had it was as a character in the Wombles. The filming of the children’s TV show Balamory brought with it a whole new raft of enthusiastic tourists, keen to have their pictures taken outside their favourite characters’ houses. Much was made at the time (the show doesn’t run any more) of the “Balamory Effect” on local tourism. B&Bs saw a doubling of numbers and stops started stocking merchandise.
The ferry terminal in Oban was new too. Time was, it was a wee, unassuming building. It has grown into a huge, space-age construction with an airport-style tunnel to the ferry, a shiny desk area and –gasp – electronic announcements.
Lochbuie – where I lived – hadn’t altered too much. The 17-house village was still as beautiful and appealing to holidaying wildlife lovers, archaeologists and photographers. The uninhabited 15th-century Moy Castle (which appeared in the Powell and Pressberger film I Know Where I’m Going) has been beautifully renovated and the impressive (inhabited) 18th-century Lochbuie House is still a sight to behold, overlooking the loch.
Luckily for the island traffic volumes, the roads are still just too terrifying for most visitors to navigate (most of it is single-tracked with passing places) and you have to be prepared to properly travel (public transport is a bit of a dirty word) if you want to see anything.
I'm glad I went back. 15 years was just enough time to see the developments and also appreciate the unchanging facets of a destination that remains both unspoiled and, for more than just sentimental reasons, one of my favourite places in Britain.
Trains service to Glasgow Central (www.virgintrains.co.uk)
Scotrail train to Oban (www.scotrail.co.uk)
Ferry from Oban to Craignure (every two hours) (www.calmac.co.uk)