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.
Much of north Mull is scrubby, indigenous woodland. It has all the strategies devised for rain: burns and rivers, mosses, alders, bogs, lochs and lochans. I’m riding between ditches tangled with bramble and bracken, yellow hawkbit and purple knap-weed. The road to Dervaig climbs high out of Tobermory, then levels beside a chain of reedy lochs. A flock of gulls has settled on the first, on the third a lone fisherman’s standing in a turquoise rowing-boat. By a cottage with no roof I stop to pull on all my waterproofs. I’d hoped to get onto the cycle trails shown on the OS map and then, sheltered by the trees, to make my way to the headlands of the north. There I would sit and watch gannets for a while. But to hell with it. I turn and head back to Tobermory. There will be a café, surely. A red Vauxhall passes and in the back are two bronze sculptures, like rolled-up armadillos or tangerines with a segment missing.
Every Hebridean island has its arts centre now: An Lanntair in Stornoway, An Tuireann in Portree, An Tobar on Mull. An Tobar used to be a school, and is where I now sit, damply, on a stool at the window. High on a steep hill, the Centre overlooks the bay, where many yachts and small vessels are moored. You can watch squalls of rain drifting up the loch. With a caffe latte in a tall glass, and a slice of lemon cake, I’m leafing through a book about the way the Gaels and the Gaeltacht have been portrayed in images ranging from Victorian paintings to modern TV. There’s an essay by Sorley MacLean and reproductions of paintings like The Last of the Clan and The Monarch of the Glen. There are cruel cartoons of troglodyte Highlanders, and endless hilarity concerning sporrans. One early photograph shows a handsome woman at the door of a black house; another, a family on eviction day, huddled on the ruins of their burned-out croft. ‘Mull,’ it says, ‘was especially harshly cleared.’ Had I cycled on through the rain I’d have reached the village of Calgary, which was to give its name, through a series of colonial adventures, to the gleaming prairie city in Alberta. Here in Tobermory, a poster in the ironmonger’s window announces a social event: ‘Mull and Montana – an evening of slides and reminiscences of farms a continent apart, by Lachlan and Davie McKinnon.’
The rain’s easing. Outside a man in a suit is talking into a mobile. I order another latte, as my hair dries. Then, tipping downhill into the town, I pass a cottage with nasturtiums in a pot to the right of the door – the exact same colours, the exact same oranges and reds as the piles of fishermen’s floats to the left.
Tobar: ‘well, fountain, source, origin’. Mhor: ‘big’.
Victorian buildings encircle the bay, painted pink and yellow and blue. There are restaurants and galleries. Shop windows display plaster dolphins, silver jellyfish. In the one good supermarket, the man in front of me, an Asian, buys a bag of frozen peas and six cans of coconut milk. At lunchtime, gangs of mild-mannered schoolgirls roam, chattering in soft Scottish accents. From the hostel dorm I hear a posh English voice rising from the street: ‘Stand well cle-ah, vehicle reversing. Stand well cle-ah . . .’ and shrieks of schoolgirl laughter. Five sea-kayakers have arrived. They are holding a jolly discussion about the possibility of bringing the kayaks through the building, how they’d negotiate the fire doors. One of them is wearing a little rubber tutu. Sea-kayaking means you can go anywhere, to those tiny islands where the only inhabitants are birds, or to islands in private ownership, where the absentee landlord is forever absent.
Evening. At one end of the bay, the Loch Linnhe is tied up next to the lifeboat. The pierhead clock tower chimes nine. Late August, it’s already dark. In the Spar, which carries an alarming proportion of booze to food, the radio’s playing. A sonsy voice calls, ‘Welcome to Teuchter Nicht here at . . .’, but the proprietor spins and hits the off-switch even before the first great accordion chord of ‘Scotland the Brave’. The air smells of fish and diesel.
The reflected yellows and blues of the town lights waver in the harbour water. Behind drawn curtains, in the Mishnish Hotel, someone is singing, ‘Hey, if you happen to meet the most beautiful girl in the world . . .’
Wednesday. None of the crew is out of his twenties. Three Scots lads: James, Brennan and Hamish. Hamish leads us, a silent group of eight, down pontoons to the boat. It’s a glorious day. The sea sparkles, the sky is blue, the hills of Ardnamurchan and Sunart, across the water, seem slightly amazed by the light.
As we nose out of the bay, James climbs barefoot up onto the viewing deck, and sits on the floor. He’s apologising for his visual aids: a file of pictures still soggy from yesterday’s rain. He’s telling us what we might look for, what we might see. Minke whales. Porpoises for sure. Male orcas have long straight dorsal fins. Minkes are 40 feet long, about the length of this boat. He’s telling us the highlights: the time they encountered a school of 150 common dolphins, or last year’s sudden influx of orcas. Minkes don’t show their tail flukes when they dive. If you see tail flukes, he grins, shout! And look for rafts of feeding birds. If they suddenly lift away, it could be because a whale’s about to breach beneath them. But you just never know. You never know what might turn up.
Might turn up, but probably won’t. Whale-watching, cetacean-watching, proceeds like a kind of theology – by glimpses, sightings, a dorsal fin, a rolling-back. A pursuit for the regretful; all might-have-beens and what-did-we-miss? You can buy a little guide to fins.
As we round the point of the lighthouse, raft after raft of Manx shearwaters lift from the water before us. A couple of gannets pass overhead. Then we’re out at sea and heading straight towards a vast, rust-coloured container vessel, the Ambassador, as it steers into the Sound of Mull. Clinging on to the chrome rails, we thump and bounce over its wake. The lads are sitting on the roof of the wheelhouse, eyes shaded against the glare. A century ago, they would have been putting out with the whalers, out of Stromness and Stornoway, getting themselves locked up in the Arctic ice. The boat pitches and rocks. The low islands of Coll and Tiree lie slumped across the south-western horizon. North is Eigg, and the abrupt hills of Rhum, where storm petrels live. But all around us is water, and above, clear sky. Cloud is piled up over every heave of land. Here, over the water, however, the sky is utterly clear. In the salt wind and sunlight, I can feel my skin tighten. There is nothing but the sparkling sea, the islands, the too-bright sky. We’re all quiet, watchful, until the Yorkshire woman beside me pokes my shoulder. ‘There!’
Two dorsal fins, travelling north, side by side. ‘Those are Risso’s dolphins!’ Hamish calls. ‘Good start!’
You get your eye in, quartering the sea, moving your gaze from the middle distance to middle-far, out of the dazzling band of sunlight spilling from the south-west. At first, every wave seems a rolling-back, every cormorant a fin, but – ‘Minke whale! Two o’clock!’ – what you see is a dense, black curve. Neither a wave nor an island. The whales rise and tip slowly, almost with a laziness or languor. Everything else glitters but among the glitter rises a thick black crescent. Usually the eye works the other way, ready to pick out a gleam in the dark. Today we’re watching for a heave of blackness among all that light.
‘Six o’clock! Did you see it?’
‘Another, four o’clock!’
James has made tea, and brings it up the ladder in insulated plastic cups with slightly sentimental paintings of British wildlife. I get badgers; the Yorkshire woman, jays.
Then the dolphins arrive, as we say, out of the blue. We are moving in wide zig-zags, seeing what we could see, and then suddenly, they were all about us, port and starboard, bow and stern, aligned with the boat and travelling at pace with us, leaping and diving. The lads are cock-a-hoop, James is swaying with one hand pressed to his forehead: ‘I don’t know what they are, arenae common, arenae bottlenose. This is amazing!’ He’s rummaging through the cetacean ID book, grinning. ‘What do you think? That one or that one? We’ve never seen these before!’
‘I think that one. That yellow bit on the flank . . .’
‘I agree. Hamish?’
But Hamish, in the wheelhouse, is already on his mobile. ‘Hey, we’ve got 40 white-sided dolphins out here! No, really!’
The propulsion of the boat pushes the water ahead of it into a clear, thick band, and that’s where dolphins like to be. We’re lying down, side by side, leaning out over the low deck, so we can look straight down and see them coming alongside, powerful dark streaks. They vanish for a moment beneath the boat, then loom up directly in front of us, their outlines sharpening as they rise. When they breach, they’re almost close enough to touch. With one fluid movement, they arch clear of the water, then the blowhole closes, the fin follows, and down they go.
‘Babies! Oh, for god’s sake, will you look at the babies!’
I don’t know whether they always travel like this, the mothers-with-young at the centre, flanked by wingers and outriders, but in the bow-wave are two, three such pairs – muscular adults with young striving alongside like small earnest shadows. We clap and shout, cheer when they leap clear.
Then: ‘Whale! Lunging! Behind the dolphins! God almighty! Cetacean disco!’
When we cut the engines, a great silence falls. There are bird-calls, and a gentle splashy sound of dolphins re-entering the water. Brennan, as skipper, clears his throat, puts on his professional voice. ‘As you may have realised, this is a first,’ but now he’s laughing again. ‘Thirteen years – we’ve never seen white-sided dolphins. I mean, they exist but usually way out west in the Atlantic. Not around here.’
Someone says: ‘All we need now is killer whales.’
James says: ‘Damn. Brennan, did you mind and book the killer whales?’
The mobile rings and Hamish answers. ‘That’s them now,’ he says. ‘They’re gigging in Stornoway. Gonna be ten minutes late.’
We’re all travelling north together. In the binoculars, I can see two small energetic wind turbines on the foreshore of Eigg. Behind, a little to the west, rises the hilly hulk of Rhum. Behind again, the hills of southern Skye. Then the dolphins peel off north-west, and we watch them go, before turning south again. The sun’s setting now, behind Tiree, flushing the cliffs of Ardnamurchan with calm light. The water’s sheeny in the gloaming. We sit quietly side by side at the front of the boat. A gleam reflected on the bow rail dazzles us all the way home.
We see another minke, just off the coast of Mull, and a couple of porpoises as we round into Tobermory Bay. Then, nudging among the moored yachts toward the lights of the town, we’re met by the smell of whisky, as it drifts from the distillery towards the open sea.
Standing outside in the dark, looking over the harbour rail at the water below, I can hear the night’s entertainment from the Mishnish. It’s a full Gaelic choir. A few yards along are two waiters from the Balti restaurant, taking a breather. As the Gaelic voices lilt and swell, one flicks his cig-end into the water. The two men linger a moment more, and then head back to work, murmuring to each other in Urdu.