I’d been an hour on the island when Britain’s largest bird of prey flew over my head. Despite the gravity of my situation, I just had to share with the only person I could.
Excuse me! I’ve just seen a golden eagle!!
“I know”, said Green Flag Lady from the other end of the line. “I heard it.”
I was wrong. This wasn’t a golden eagle, which in any case isn’t Britain’s biggest raptor. It was a sea eagle, which is, and it sported the white tail from which its alternative name derives. Though GFL and I were on the phone a further half hour, it was still in the sky when we ended our call. It never came as close again, so I was asking more of my lens – Canon L series 100:400, full out with 1.4 extender to give a focal length of 560 mm but a maximum aperture of f/8 – than I was entitled to. But I got shots good enough for ID purposes..
Ornithological error was not my most serious of the day though. After driving off the ferry from Oban at Craignure, on Mull’s east coast, I’d tootled with no fixed plan to the west coast. 1 The scenery drew one long wow-just-fucking-wow! after another from my lips – though there was no one to hear – and did lift up mine eyes to the hills.
And back down to those shimmering sea lochs.
A single track road ran by a deserted shore. The tide was out and, seeing tyre tracks on a beach of sand and gravel, leaving the road to make an artistic statement seemed a splendid idea.
In some ways I’m quite clever you know. In others? Barely fit to walk the streets, far less take a fully laden motorised vehicle, unsupervised, to Hebridean isles of any stripe. 2
Seconds after snapping the above I executed a debonaire loop to get back to the road. Just shy of the tufts of grass at top of the beach, my front wheels began to spin uselessly. The extent of my folly sank in synch with the sinking of those wheels; deep into the softness of a sandy bed a scant eighteen tantalising inches from firm ground.
My bare hands scooped sand from below the tyres. I packed the space created with driftwood to front wheels and back. All to no avail. Hence my call to Green Flag Lady, she of the Edinburgh accent and tones of calm reassurance.
With hindsight I realise I was lucky to get a signal. But did I mention the incoming tide?
My woes were compounded by zero internet and little sense of where I was. Close to the north west corner of (sea) Loch Na Keal, I guessed: a mile or two along the B8073 from its T-junction with the B8035.
x marks the spot
As I communicated these things, with some difficulty, the eagle flew thirty metres over my head.
I was on the phone forty-seven minutes, mostly trying for a better fix on my whereabouts. In my hour of need, this benefactress was as thorough as she was patient. Only when satisfied she could wring no more precise location from me did she assure me that a local garage would be in touch within the hour.
And so it proved. At 14:03 Alex called, from MacDougal’s Garage in Tobermory. He’d be with me by 16:37. Ninety minutes later, with the tide advancing but still a comfortable way off, a passing local in an impressively mud spattered 4WD pick-up stopped to offer a tow.
“That’s very kind of you but I have someone coming out. He’ll be with me in an hour.”
“What, Alex? He always says that! He has to get from the far end of the island. It’ll take me three minutes to pull you out.”
And so it proved – after I’d figured out where to find towing hook and how to screw it into the front of the van. Seeing that light green nylon rope tighten, and sensing sweet motion as the van wheels rolled up onto terra firma, I was overcome with gratitude.
How can I repay you?
The fit forty-something smiled his handsome smile, bade me help the next person who needed it, and reminded me to let Alex know his services were no longer required. There we left it.
A few days later I had the chance to do as advised. Under a blistering sun at the tiny harbour of Ulva Ferry, I heard the piercing wails of a damsel in distress:
“Help me! Help me!”
No kidding, that’s what she cried, over and over. And my god, she meant it. On a floating pontoon she clutched an extendable lead – lethal in the wrong hands, but that’s another story – at whose business end a labradoodle trod the limpid deep. The mutt had leapt in, to cool off I guess, leaving its owner in a right royal panic. Manfully I raced across the harbour and down onto the pontoon. Kneeling on those swaying boards, I was able to grab the collar and haul K9 from the briny. Though my plight on the beach had been serious, hers on the pontoon wildly overstated – the dog looked bemused by all the fuss – her gratitude to me seemed no less heartfelt than mine had been to 4WD man. I left with head high and a gratifying sense of karmic debt paid off.
Meanwhile, on that first and most eventful day on Mull – now at ten-thirty pm and still broad daylight – I returned to the scene of my colossal stupidity. Where wheels had churned sand, my gaze took in nothing but sea loch.
The rest of my stay, six days and nights, was one long and uninterrupted idyll. Here are some of the pictures. I’ll start with the golden eagles I saw the next day. Yes, this time they really were golden. The pattern of their undercarriage, absence of white tail, and mountain habitat all said as much, though here too I was pushing beyond the limits of my kit.
The Hebrides, inner and outer both, are generous to rubber tramps. In my bijou Berlingo I had no problem. Take Tobermory, Mull’s largest town:
Where those cars are parked, on a sea front studded with pretty shops and hotels, I slept two peaceful nights FoC. Followed by hot showers in the morning, after dropping two pound coins into a slot at the nearby marina for a more than adequate seven minutes a pop..
Try that in Torquay.
On the second of those mornings I parted with £18 for a tour of the local distillery. Also value for money, especially when I was given two wee bottles with stoppers and labels. Their purpose? Not to wee in but because as a driver – with drink-driving laws strictly enforced in this neck of the woods, and rightly so – I’d had to pass on the tastings.
For this shot I switched to a wide angle lens. At close quarters they do few favours to perspective.
My second visit to Ulva Ferry was to take a boat trip to the island of Staffa. With a scheduled hour each way – but the return trip generously extended when bottle nosed dolphins cruised alongside to put on a show – and seventy-five minutes on the puffin packed island, I deemed it £40 well spent.
Just before the boat docked on Staffa, we slipped into Fingal’s Cave. Skipper hit a button to play those first stirring strains of the Hebrides Overture, inspired by Mendelsohn’s 1829 visit. Corny, and the single speaker decidedly tinny, but endearing …
… though on that front nothing could compete with the puffins.
Bet you didn’t know cormorants were such romantics. Or are we talking quick shags?
One morning I bathed and laundered at the series of waterfalls, impressive even in a drought, at Eas Fors.
Mull is one of the best places in Britain to see otters but I put in hour after silently vigilant hour – the discipline of meditation served me well here – to no avail. A rocky shoreline just after low tide is best, say some; others that otters can be seen at any time or tide, usually by chance. All agree you have to be quiet, downwind and visually unobtrusive.
(Should a dear one’s birthday loom, might I recommend Andy Howard’s, The Secret Life of the Otter? Its sumptuous photos make it a hardback snip at £19.99.)
On one road I met a gently spoken Irishman. There seemed a lot of these, due I guess to the Stranraer crossing. He assured me:
“you will see otters”
Was I trying too hard then? On another road I met a bonnie lassie, all of eighteen and walking a pony. I refused to be deterred when she told me:
“I’ve lived here all my life and never seen one.”
Her mum’s a vet to the farming community and she hates sea/white-tailed eagles.
“They’re shite – they kill lambs.”
That sounded unlikely. Aren’t they dedicated fish eaters? But I checked. She’s right. And for that matter otters – also fish specialists – will take frogs, small birds, rabbits, the fingers of humans off-guarded by their cuteness, 3 and eggs. Probably not lambs though.
While photographing a pair of white-tailed eagles on a rocky outcrop, I spotted the V-shape wake of an otter bringing its catch to shore. It was heading towards the eagles, who watched intently as it clambered nonchalantly onto their rock and began its meal
The insult was too great for the eagles, who took to the air with nefarious intent. Of course, a giant wingspan [up to 2.5 metres] doesn’t lend itself to sudden changes in direction. They had to fly out into the wind and make a wide loop to achieve their angle of approach.
The otter had their measure, and on each swoop would make a quick turn and evade them with ease. The eagles repeated their attacks until the otter decided that discretion is the better part of valour and took shelter under a rock to finish its meal undisturbed.
Andy Howard, The Secret Life of Otters
On my last full day I encountered this …
… and hours later, while I drove slowly on a single track road not far from a sea loch, a living specimen ran out of the bushes into my path. As I applied the brakes it gave me the once over then slipped back into the roadside foliage. No time to take a picture but, at last, the Irishman’s assurance had been borne out.
I’ll finish with my eight hour idyll on Iona, a stone’s throw due west of the south west tip of Mull. The ferry takes 10 minutes, return fare £3.70. That’s one hell of a bargain for a day in paradise.
There were a few dozen foot passengers – only disabled visitors may bring motors – but I guess most came with ecclesiastical intent. (Jackie’s Quaker mum did retreats on Iona, her favourite place on earth.) These gob-smackingly gorgeous beaches were either deserted else had half a dozen souls, tops, in the sea or soaking up the sun.
Me, I took another skinny dip but I’ll spare you the selfie.
A pint of something gold and hoppy, with smoked trout and organic dill sandwich, rounded things off nicely at the St Columba Hotel.
Then it was time for the penultimate ferry of the day. (The very last ferry has to hang around on the Mull side for a Craignure bus connection that can take forever, the barman had confided.)
Talked out. I’ll be saying goodnight then.
* * *
- Details of my improvised ‘campervan’ are given in my early February post, A rubber tramp in Redcar.
- It’s an oversimplification to speak of ‘intelligence’ as a single entity. Not only are there different kinds; in some cases these may be mutually incompatible. Ever noticed how those able to reason in original ways often show singular naivety in everyday life?
- The Andy Howard book tells of one such chap, now two fingers short of the count most anatomical experts deem ideal. Maybe he’ll take a cue from Django Reinhardt, and take up the guitar.