Locking Horns on Mull

28Nov11

I feared more for the excess on my hire car, than any personal injury. The rain had stopped on this part of the Isle of Mull just in time for my ferry back to the Scottish mainland.

The Longhorn came round the bend of the single-track road and carried on towards me expecting food, as had others. A day earlier my presence started a stampede from two open fields as a dozen cows ambushed me but parted lazily as I let out the clutch with eyes half-closed.

Anedul had asked me to come up with a master plan to photograph a region, a land within a land for a feature on rural architecture. Off the boat from Oban days earlier, the weather was horizontal and it lashed my lenses for the first 24 hours. Trying to think of positives that first night, my thought was that winter is a more authentic time to come up this far, no blue skies and endless horizons. And no tourists.

Scotland was still in my mind after a trip to Glencoe when I was asked for a favourite destination to photograph. I looked at Arran and at Skye. But this was November and Google Earth gave me valuable insight from the glow of my office screen. Instead of burning pointless fuel at £1.49 a litre, I first mouse-dragged the virtual A849 route around the Ross of Mull and B8035 towards Calgary – possibly the most expensive carbon-emission in Britain.

What grabbed me most were the near-empty highways around the Gribun headland and Loch Na Keal where cliff top panoramas – between low cloud and the next approaching squall – were spectacular. I was told these roads are purgatory for locals when the tourers arrive en mass in high season. But then, the economy relies on their crisp English Pounds and even their fading Euros.

Even in this bleak month, the grandiose guesthouse in Craignure was asking £55 a night though on average much asked for less – and with enormous porridge and fresh organic egg breakfasts. One visitor accused a landlady of adding food colouring, so alarmed was she at her yolk’s unnatural orange pallor.

But more astonishing for this London townie used to locking every door were the open invitations into kitchens of cottages and bothies, lodges and boats for coffee and cake. After 5 minutes of parlour chatter I had on one occasion a quick, ‘Oh, I have to be off in a minute – make yourself at home and let yourself out when you’re done with your photographs’ which seemed impossibly trusting. Of perhaps the 20+ locals I spoke with, I can count on one hand those who spoke with a genuine Scots accent, rather than the dominant English.

Sheila from Northampton; Tilly from Lewes; Karen from Washington, Tye & Wear. Niall from Ulva, Isle of Mull.

Towards Carsaig on the southern limb of the Ross, I drove down the slimmest and muddiest of mapped roads in pursuit of the thumbnail reality I had brought along on paper. Google had more confidence than me but I carried on regardless over cattle grids and narrow stone bridges towards the imagined prize that lay at an abandoned pier head, a dead end cove.  There in the remote, damp woods was an apparently abandoned cottage with fishing nets hanging from nearby branches.

Around another corner too, I saw the skulls with antlers resting against the estate farm wall dripping in the rain as the cocks and hens pecked the eye sockets for rotting flesh. The cull was just over and a rather harassed estate wife begged me not to identify the prize kills with their Italian or Spanish owners’ tags. That would be bad for business.

It seemed like a week of the long horns and nothing Google could have predicted.

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