16 May And then we went to Lunga…
Ardnamurchan. Barely populated except for the trees. Oak, birch, hazel, beech, larch. Rimmed by empty beaches of the palest sand looking west to islands sitting on a blue ocean. Rum, Eigg, Muck. Beyond them Skye, the Cuillin ridge unmistakeable against a far horizon. At Sanna Bay, with its sweeping golden strand, we sheltered below a small, cairn-topped hill where the grass falls away towards the sea and ate our lunch chased down with tea from the thermos. The islands spread themselves in front of us, smoothly sculpted by distance and light. Eyes right to the peaks of Moidart and Knoydart, Morvern and Morar, mainland gems with mythical-sounding names. Eyes left to the long, low island of Coll, 16 miles away in the cold, shimmering sea-space. We tramped and trailed the corners of this quiet western peninsula sensing we had come to another world.
On Friday, a tiny ferry took us to Tobermory where painted houses circle the harbour and lunchtime scallops taste sublime. Overnight in the hotel they call the Old Lady of Tobermory, high on the hill, its faded Victorian grandeur, vases and lamps, fishing prints and deerstalkers, scones and tea, gradually being replaced by wood and glass, smashed avocado and poached egg, countless flavours of gin with a twist – the Old Lady will hardly recognise herself.
Saturday morning we boarded a little boat called Angus. An hour of sea, spray and curving coastline to land at the rocky outcrop where Fingal’s Cave opens dark and wide like the mouth of a roaring, ravenous beast. Straight basalt columns reach up to rock that’s crinkled like paper squashed in a giant’s hand. The bottom and the top seem not to belong in the same place and yet here they are – joined.
We oohed and aahed, gasped at such a display of nature’s weird handiwork. Staffa, iconic island set adrift in the huge ocean, marking geological time. Nobody lives here. We are alone apart from our fellow-passengers from Angus and the birds. Alone on a basalt mound in a vast, deep sea. Remote grandeur like this makes me speechless. All there for us to take in with our eyes, our ears and our souls.
And then we went to Lunga where the world suddenly turned small and immediate. A gasp was not enough. We sighed. And sighed again. An uninhabited island a few miles west of Mull, Lunga is one of the Treshnish Islands. There are views, of course, but the magic of Lunga is in close-up. Wild flowers cover the grassy slopes. Unhindered by grazing sheep, they have a field day. Thousands of bluebells, deeply hued, more purple than blue, their heads bowing coyly as they nod to yellow, star-shaped celandine and pretty pale primroses. Tiny violets snuggle in the grass. Thrift nestles between the rocks. Cloaks of lichen cling. Drink in the colour.
But I should mention the birds.
Three thousand puffins nest here each spring and lay a single egg in a little burrow on the grassy verge above the cliffs. Blameless, feverish creatures. They share this space with razorbills, shags, cormorants, gulls and guillemots, terns and skuas. At Hart’s Rock, a 15-minute walk from the landing stage along a narrow, cliff-edge path, the sound is deafening. Think hundreds of people chattering excitedly in a foreign language. You can almost hear the laughter. Or are they screaming? Definitely there are arguments going on. Do they ever fall silent? Is there a night-time curfew?
We are transfixed by them all but especially the puffins with their little orange feet splayed out as they take off and land. They dive into their burrows then emerge and fly off. Or they stand side by side on a rock looking out to sea. What can they be thinking? Or they turn and tap beaks with their neighbour in some secret conversation or stretch their wings to clean the feathers underneath. Busy little birds, less intrigued by us than we are by them.
Time to leave but we could barely tear ourselves away. Two hours in the company of these creatures and we are bewitched. Somehow, we know this was a special day. Yes, we can come back here, return next May and see it all again. But it will never be the same. We will know what to expect. We may even be disappointed. Like reading a book and feeling bereft at the end, you can never have the first time again. Lunga was unforgettable. And maybe unrepeatable.