Kathleen Jamie

Monday. A pre-recorded announcement, a few words of welcome in Gaelic then the safety stuff in English, hangs in the air behind the departing ferry. Little else is moving but the clouds, and water slapping on the concrete slipway, and bottle-brown fronds of bladderwrack. There will be another sailing to Mull in an hour or so.

A car arrives, with Monaco numberplates. It stops and the occupants look a while at the glittering water and the hills of Mull. Then it turns and disappears back up the single-track road. I get on the bike and follow. In the ditch are a pair of men’s trousers and a handkerchief. Flattened on the tarmac is a creature which might have been an adder. Cycling brings you close to this casual carnage. Toads, rabbits, hares, the odd fox or deer. Your heart sinks every time you approach a dollop on the road. If it turns out merely to be a pair of discarded trousers, you feel absurdly cheered.

Kilchoan’s new-for-the-Millennium community centre’s haunted by clarsach music, and a video screen shows fluffy ducklings. A sign promises soup. In a back room people are playing ping-pong. The village is straggled in the Highland manner. There are white cottages, and some new bungalows with picture-windows looking out over the shore where a few sheep graze. One house is called The Saltings. Another down the road, Zennor. Yet another flies a Union flag. In the community centre car-park a man with a Home Counties accent and a beat-up Volvo is shouting ‘Nathan! Joshua! Time to come home!’

A vessel as small as a bath is spluttering round towards the slipway. Its sole occupant wears a yellow fluorescent jacket. She ties up, climbs a ladder onto the road, then stands four-square facing the ferry as it clangs in. Then, it’s like that scene in Close Encounters when a ramp comes down to reveal the gangly silhouettes of the aliens. The teenagers are home from school, ready to disembark. I straddle the bike, fancying the short descent, the bump, and peculiar metallic rumble onto the car deck, but the stout woman in the Cal-Mac jacket forbids it. I have to push. It’s a small ferry, the Loch Linnhe, taking at most eight or ten vehicles. There are only two for this sailing, and me and my bike. Recently, I gave a poetry reading for Radio 3’s Poetry Proms series. It was recorded at the Serpentine Gallery, inside a sculpture, a metal pavilion by Daniel Libeskind. Described as ‘a figure that weaves and stretches obliquely across space’, I know now what it so reminded me of – the car deck of a Cal-Mac ferry.

Tuesday. Rain, West Coast rain, sorry trailing waifs of rain. Rainwater clings to the rough black surface of the road, and spouts up as the bike’s wheels turn. To be in the Western Highlands is to be in one of those neurotic love affairs that alternate rows and making up, misery with sudden, basking beauty. It’s glorious for a while, but eventually you realise what you really need is a partner you can chug along with. A Morris Traveller passes, with a half-inflated dinghy in the back. A Land Rover, containing a yellow flowering shrub. Then the road is empty.

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