On route to Fionnphort I start to see the different light that occurs in Scotland – the combination of changeable weather, mountains and so much water creates a luminescent, otherworldly reflective quality to the light here. It feels as if I am no longer on Earth but somewhere in the veil crossing.
Mull is known as the isle of sorrows – probably due to it being one of the locations of the clearances, when the highlanders were forced off the land and emigrated elsewhere. Strangely, I have always felt a kind of melancholy, a heaviness when traveling across Mull. Today is different. The light so brilliant and soothing, her air filled with the scent of unfurled bracken, her mountains and glens dressed in the deep green of June.
The road to Fionnphort is a long winding single track road with frequent turn-outs for passing. This leads to a lot of flashing of lights and waving between passing cars – the friendly way here of saying hello and thanks for pulling over. The road edges are narrow and in spots, quite jagged – there are many punctured tires on this route, with stranded motorists distracted by the views, having temporarily abandoned their damaged vehicles in favor of a hill walk. It was just last year when I was on the side of this road in a deluge trying to change a flat – no signal. A truck had sped around a blind curve, nearly hitting me head on. I dashed for the closest turn out – too small, too late, slitting the inside of my tire clear across. The truck sped off, leaving me to deal with it. Fortunately, the Scotts generally are very friendly and helpful people. The first car to pass by pulled over. This probably had something to do with leaping and waving my arms around furiously. A young couple jumped out, leaving their child and dog in the backseat of their car while they braved the elements to help me. Billy immediately opened the trunk of my Fiat 500 to get the necessary gear and tire out, then started to unmount the flat tire. Then, Anne took over, instructing me how to fix it myself. “This happens to me all the time,” she said, “No cell signal round here and the road is rubbish, it’s good to learn how to do it yourself, to be independent. “
I explained that, though I was quite independent, traveling alone as I was, in the states, tires are put on with machines, so are nearly impossible to unbolt by hand. Roadside assistance is the way of the U.S. Anne had devised a method, using her feet and legs to get the wrench around. Using her entire bodyweight, she demonstrated how to position the wrench just so, squatted with one leg then with the other kicked down with all her might. The lug moved forward. Billy then added, “Right you are, but it’s pissing rain, do you mind if I finish?”
Today, when I pass the same sharp edged turn, the sun is moving between clouds, illuminating the top of the nearest mountain with a gold and green crown. I continue on to where the road opens on the right to an inlet. I had once stopped here to watch an otter and seals bank up on the beach. I think back on my prior visits, what was the sorrow there? Just then on cue, an otter pokes his head out of the water. I park and walk across to the rocks. As if to say lighten up, he starts bobbing and playing in the shallows just in front of me. There is a saying here that you have to travel through sorrow to reach joy. Here is the moment.
I drive on. In all the names of those who have moved through this island, let mine be one. Curve after curve, the way forward keeps turning, passing through places like Craignure and Lochbuie. Mull isn’t sad, she is lonely. Vast reaches of machair (coastal grasslands filled with carpets of wildflowers) climb up mountain after mountain. This stretch is mostly wild open spaces, breathtaking, empty.
The track is a beautiful kind of purgatory, winding through roadside waist high bracken on and on until I think the track will never end. It creates a kind of mesmer. With each passing mile and turn out comes a shedding of another layer of resistance, until stripped clean and bare, thin skinned, I finally run out of road. At the Fionnphort edge of Mull the land changes to a boulder strewn sort of moonscape, falling off into the water, opening up views to the rock capped gem of Iona, a ferry pushing towards shore.