Five days on the Mull of Kintyre

Sunday

My suspicion is that few people in Britain, let alone the rest of the world, would be able to point to the Mull of Kintyre on a map and even fewer would know how to get there. I knew that you drove North from Glasgow, headed west at some point, and drove back South again, but I didn’t know the detail or that it’s more than 120 miles from Glasgow. The whole drive is beautiful, most of it beside cold, deep, sometimes sombre lochs, sometimes on the right and sometimes on the left. The interweaving of the lochs is profoundly confusing.

We made it beside Loch Lomond, through Arrochar, and beside Loch Long then Loch Fyne to Inveraray in an hour, but we still had some 80 miles to go. (My only memory of Inveraray is being there some 40 years ago with Lin’s parents and seeing a naked water skier.) We passed through Lochgilphead and Tarbet before starting a 25 mile drive down a single track road along the East side of the Mull. The main road to Campbelltown runs down the West Side, facing Jura, the Isle of Gigha, and Islay. (All of these names are intensely romantic to me, which is why I’m dwelling on them.) South of Tarbet you can cross the Mull by road in only two places; the centre is proudly empty.

It was nearly dark as we drove the last 25 miles, meaning we could see little of the open waters of Kilbannan Sound and Arran across the water. Eventually we drove through the village of Carradale to the harbour, turned left, and drive along the shore to the very end. There was the holiday home of Katherine and Simon Ward, which they’ve kindly let us use. It’s built from a wooden kit, is as ecologically sound as it’s possible to be, and with huge windows that look across the Sound to Arran, some five miles away. Arran has a dramatic profile with Goat Fell, the highest mountain at the centre. Every minute of every day we were there Arran and the mist and clouds put on a show with the island appearing, disappearing, being topped by cloud, grey and impenetrable, and then green and welcoming. It was like the dance of the Seven Veils. The sea too constantly changed, from rough and wild to oily smooth, with tide coming and going.

Arran2

Monday

I’m up in the dark, light the wood burning stove, make Russian tea, and begin to read. Slowly Arran appears. The cloud is thick, covering Goat Fell. The remnants of Hurricane Ophelia are expected by the middle of the day. She’s already wreaked havoc in Ireland, blowing the roof off Cork Football Club, and leaving tens of thousands without power. We’re more excited than afraid.

Arran1

 

We walk along the Shore to the Harbour. The five or so fishing boats are tied tightly together, awaiting the storm. A plaque on the harbour wall commemorates a father, two sons, and a nephew drowned in 1911. Perhaps, I reflect coldly, the First World War would have got the sons and nephew if the sea hadn’t; better perhaps to be drowned in the sea they may have loved than be lost in the mud and carnage of Flanders, 500 miles from home. Another mostly illegible plaque commemorates men drowned more recently. There are no doubt other drowned fishermen uncommemorated.

Boats

Carradale was a remote settlement of crafters until a steamer service from Glasgow opened in 1830. From then until the Second World War, when the steamer service ended, Carradale boomed as a holiday village with villas and hotels where families would return year after year. Now, in October 2017, it has a dead feel. Many of the houses are second homes and empty. In the summer, we are assured by the young man in the shop, it’s livelier. The young man in the shop and his wife Heather are friendly and happy to talk and answer any question. Such shops have closed in most villages, and this one has a sparse stock with Fray Bentos steak and kidney puddings in a tin, no salad, and carrots covered in black spots. The young couple are cheerful and there is almost a sense of them “playing at shops.” Next door to the shop is the Carradale Hotel, which looks moribund.  It provides the pub for the village, but opens “only when they can be bothered,” says the young man in the shop. Every time we pass it has a sign saying “Closed.”

We walk back down to the harbour and pass a house that offers both bed and breakfast and a tea room. We make to go in, but before we can open the door it’s opened by an irrepressibly cheerful Latvian woman who speaks with only the trace of an accent. Her tearoom is dark wood and feels very Scottish. Her menu is vast. We order tea and one piece of walnut cake between us. She disappears and returns with the walnut cake on two plates together with cream, strawberries, and blueberries. We chat and soon know most of her life story. She and her husband, in their mid-forties, moved here two years ago from Dartford in Kent and love it. Although both grew up in Latvia they speak to each other in English. They are keen gardeners, and the Gulf Stream and the heavy rainfall make the Mull a wonderful place to garden. She is open all year, had all four tables full at one point yesterday, and plans to do Christmas dinner. You can bring your own wine without being charged corkage.

As we walk back we pause at the harbour to watch a boat, which has a bow that comes down and looks as if it could take one or possibly two cars, fight its way into the harbour. There’s no danger, but the boat is tossed to and fro. It arrives safely in the harbour, where the water is calm.

Back at the cottage we watch the sea grow rougher and wait for the storm to arrive. I have time for a walk on the golf course south of the village. It’s waterlogged, and I scurry home as the rain begins.

During the night the wind howls and the sea comes over the Shore, which is unusual. We are undisturbed.

Tuesday

In the morning we talk briefly to the elderly man who every day brings a newspaper for Margaret, the woman in her 90s, who has left the village hardly at all. She’s wise and fascinating, Katherine has told me. She said I should call and speak to her, but it felt too intrusive to knock on her door. The elderly man has a beautiful sing song voice. I have to concentrate to follow him. He seems pleased to talk to us and wishes us better weather. I think “There is no bad weather, only unsuitable clothing,” but I don’t say it. We say that we didn’t expect good weather and that we enjoyed the storm.

We need to go somewhere to buy fresh fish and vegetables, enough to last us the week. The only place to buy such food is Campbelltown, which is 15 miles south of Carradale. It’s the biggest town on the Mull of Kintyre and once, with its deep-water port, was a booming town. In the 19th century it had 34 whisky distilleries, built in Campbelltown so they could export directly to the US, the biggest market for whisky. Now the town has three distilleries and is down-at-heel. There is a ferry to Ardrossan but no steamer to Glasgow.

I tour the Springbank distillery while Chicken explores the town. (See separate blog.) The distillery makes three whiskies, and I buy a bottle of Longrow, the peatiest.

I’m getting so used to the emptiness and remoteness of Carradale that Campbelltown seems almost claustrophobic. We skim back along the coast, becoming casually used to the beautiful views.

Back in Carradale I walk along the Shore and round the harbour to its very tip. Night is coming, and the red light at the harbour’s end comes on.

A glass of the Longrow Whisky runs all through my body and gives me complex dreams.

Wednesday

Today we do the Deer Walk and climb to the top of Cnoc nan Gabhar. We walk through the village to the Cricket Club where the walk starts. (I find it hard to imagine it ever being dry enough for cricket.) Lin is uncertain about doing the whole walk, but the path is not too muddy and the climb not to steep so she keeps going. We walk very slowly. Lin imagines that I’m frustrated by having to walk so slowly, but I’m not at all; indeed, I’m pleased that I can walk so slowly with pleasure and pay more attention to the forest, both natural and planted, and the views to Arran, Ailsa Craig, and the distant Ayrshire Coast. I wonder if we might be able to see the West side of the Mull and Islay from the top–but of course we can’t: I’ve grossly underestimated the width of the peninsula.

We descend more quickly and make our way home for reading, writing, Scrabble, wine, and eventually cooking. I’m trying to make the initial sketch of the argument and territory of our Lancet Commission on the Value of Death. I’m not finding it easy, and it’s getting far too long.

 

Another glass of Longrow ends the day.

Thursday

We walk to the beach, which is South of Carradale and faces South, meaning that, at least today, it has much larger waves than the calmer East facing coast. The sea clearly came up very high here recently, presumably on Ophelia’s evening. The beach is about a mile long, and we walk above the beach until the gorse becomes too thick. After that we walk along the beach to the end, where an inlet that becomes a river forces us inland. We walk through high trees to the road and so to the Glen, the pub in West Carradale.

We return along the road, passing Carradale House, where Naomi Mitchison, Carradale’s most famous inhabitant lived from the 1930s until her death in 1999. Wikipedia describes her as “the doyenne of Scottish literature” in the 20th century, but I confess that I knew nothing about her apart from her name. She wrote some 90 books, including a sexually explicit autobiography that her usual publishers refused to publish and many organisations banned. She and her husband opted for an “open marriage,” and her sexual adventures extended, Carradale believes, to the local fishermen.

A little way down the road we passed “The Big Wheel,” a water wheel that was used to mill oats for porridge and excited the local children in the days that it worked.

We thought that we could cut through to the Shore using a footpath, and so we could have done if we hadn’t missed the footpath thanks to a misplaced sign and got list in a large muddy field. We returned more tired than we intended after perhaps a seven-mile walk.

Friday

After tidying the house and adjusting its complex systems, we set off for lunch with Lin’s sister in Helensburgh. We had somehow failed to appreciate just how long it would take us to drive there. The first 25 miles were back along the single-track road, and in the sunlight I could appreciate its long, open views across the sea with frequent rainbows. Lin, who was driving, had to concentrate hard. Again we passed only two cars coming the other way.

I took over the driving in Inveraray, drove along Loch Fyne, over the Rest and Be Thankful, and then South from Arrochar along another windy, empty road besides Loch Long before crossing to the Gareloch. We arrived in Helensburgh at 2pm not 1pm as we’d intended, and had to leave in an hour after an excellent lunch of Haggis with pepper sauce.

After our flight to City Airport in London we took the Docklands Light Railway and the Northern Line before having to desert the tube at London Bridge because of severe delays. We walked through the extremely crowded streets trying to get a taxi.

Carradale seemed a long, long way away. Perhaps we’d imagined it all.

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6 thoughts on “Five days on the Mull of Kintyre

  1. Richard I particularly loved reading this piece as I’m a great fan of PD James and really miss her books. Thanks for a great start to a Thursday morning (EST, that is).

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  2. Enjoyed the account, Richard. Tarbert, not Tarbet. Latter is just before Arrochar. David and Diane (d. 2014) Gaskell lived at Inverneil, 2 miles south of Ardrishaig. We had a chilly Easter week south of Campbeltown three years ago and walked above Carradale – great views. Gigha has a halibut farm. Golfers seem to rate the old and new links courses at Machrihanish.

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  3. Thanks for the good publicity.
    Even more important than Naomi Mitchison, in Carradale, albeit for a short time, was her guest James D Watson, her guest who stayed with her to clear out his mind before returning to Cambridge, Crick, exposition of the Double Helix and a Nobel prize. His views of winter in Carradale were slightly more realistic than yours . See ‘The Double Helix’ by JDWatson
    You sadly did not seem to have spent any time on the Mull of Kintyre. You were on the Peninsula. The Mull is only the foreland at the tip.
    As far as identification you may be interested in the British Film Institutes Mull of Kintyre definition for risqué films.

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    • Thank you for this most interesting response. I read The Double Helix many years ago (and have a copy somewhere), but I had no memory of him having visited Carradale. Thank you too for pointing out that we never made it to the Mull, a good reason to return.

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