Mulling it over

Posted on July 19, 2012 by admin

In Isle of Mull, Tobermorey, Calgary on 17 – 19 July, 2012

On arrival at the B&B in Kilmartin, the owner asked me what I’d like for breakfast. In an offhand machismo way, I said “give me what you’ve got”. The following morning, sitting in a house bizarrely covered in Beatles memorabilia, I chowed down on black pudding, a tranch of haggis, and a sausage meat patty, in addition to the usual cooked breakfast eggy and fried adornments. She said no one had ever stomached it two days in a row. It was enough to fuel me for a quick 9am(!) meeting at Kilmartin House Museum[1] to discuss their curatorial role with the Giants, and for the sprint north to Oban, where missing my ferry by 2 minutes gave me the time to sit in a weird dockside corrugated seafood shed and tuck into the mussels and oysters I’d sadly missed on Loch Fyne.

So there I waited, to board the faerie and enter the realm of the last Giants that remained undiscovered by my Grand Tour. The act of boarding a ferry to cross water to reach these obscure far flung giants was in itself an exciting prospect, leaving the Giant cousins in Devon a far flung and distant memory. From a boat it feels like the Hebrides can be seen as what they are, the point where the blur between the Highlands and the Islands becomes distinct. The mystique of what lies beneath the sounds and North Atlantic Scottish shallows is the very same mystique as that of what lies beneath the lochs. I guess essentially it’s all the same thing: Slartibartfast used the same construction template for both the Highlands and the Islands, but drew the waterline at a different level along the side of them.

Being the sort of ‘seat-of-the-pants’ guy that I am poorly prepared, I hadn’t really checked out Mull, I’d sort of assumed it was pretty damn small (being an island and all), and that it would be a half hour cycle max from the ferry port to wherever I was staying. I’d been in touch with some people[2] at an arts centre called An Tobar in Tobermory, the Mulloch capital, and thought it a good idea to stop in there on the way. It looked to be a bit of a detour, but not significant. ‘Popping in’ turned a 1h30 hour cycle into a 3 hour gruelling battle between me and some unexpectedly enormous hills[3], where the hills nearly won (I’d clearly forgotten my previous observation that the islands were effectively just the super hilly tops of hills). Apparently if I hadn’t taken the diversion to An Tobar, this pain would have been avoided. I can tell myself it was worth it, as I got to see one of the key cultural hotbeds of the island. An Tobar is a gallery/café/venue in the vein of so many others that I’d visited on the trip, yet perhaps more crucial to its community considering its island isolation. A beautiful converted schoolhouse, they were half of the Giants in the Forest partnership and had been filming short films and writing plays (about giants eating people and things).

Back to my enthralling cycling drama. As you may recall I did indeed take the diversion, and had to deal with a series of hors category climbs, which finally got the better of my knackered body, particularly my gammy knee. I collapsed on the doorframe of my B&B (the Mornish Schoolhouse) in a fairly dead state, and attempted shoddy exhausted small talk with two Bavarian bikers while Katja, the owner, fed me some spare carbonara and salad that her family had had. Eternally grateful for delicious food on arrival I was then whisked off in an Austin Healey Sprite frogeye to the Mull theatre, where I watched a haunting production about a shell-shocked WWI vet who weaved beautiful objects from grass. A final zip around the steep and windy roads of Mull[4] in the frogeye had my tired and addled mind ready to collapse. Aside from the excitement of flying around roads with your bum essentially on the tarmac, it was an opportunity to talk with Matthew, the man behind Calgary Art in Nature, the island home of the Giants. Having moved to Mull at the age of 16, he sort of explained a bit about the island: the community managed forest, the reinstallation of crofting, and how the island functions socially/politically. As I’d previously discovered, it wasn’t a small place, but its size, complicated single-track road, and sparse population means that people move in fairly small circles. The island as a whole can broadly be divided into two halves, North of the Oban ferry at Craignure, and South of it. The ferry only takes 45 minutes to cross over, so if you live in the North of Mull it’s easier to go to the mainland then to get to the South of Mull, and vice versa. An interesting tale of two islands.

Since March, Mull has been basking in glorious sunshine. Obviously my arrival heralded the first serious day-long rain they’d had in months and consequently I spent the morning cowering in the dining room staring out the window at sheets and sheets of drizzle. The Bavarian bikers had swapped with two Lyonnais lovers[5], and with Katja still around the Mornish Schoolhouse had taken on a decidedly cosmopolitan feel. It had become apparent that this B&B wasn’t like the others, with their hands off owners and stale feeling. Instead here Katja and David ran an organic place, with salads and veg growing in the back, no keys on any doors, a roaring wood burning stove, and chickens roaming free (but usually roaming back and forth on the dining room windowsill, staring in at the caged humans) – an inviting warm environment. My rain ‘enforced’ loitering in doors gave me an opportunity to talk to owners and hear some of their stories and thoughts. Part of what’s been so interesting about this trip has been the people I’ve met along the way. The Giants’ homes are by definition in areas of natural beauty with strong community spirit, and it’s really opened up my eyes and thoughts to a way of life, and attitude to life, that is so easily ignored when you’re leading a student’s existence in London or Cambridge. It’s been a real privilege to have the opportunity, and time, to talk to people who haven’t just formed/read opinions and repeated verbatim to anyone who’ll listen[6], but have acted upon them. They walk the walk. It’s genuinely inspiring to meet people who didn’t hang around umming and aahing, but went for it.

When I realised I couldn’t possibly stall my rainy excursion to go pay tribute to the final Giants any longer, I begrudgingly went outside. Even a mile long cycle into Calgary Bay took it out of me, and it became apparent that when I fell on the door of the Mornish Schoolhouse last night, my cycling was done. I was completely useless, a shadow of my previously energetic cycling self – physically and psychologically I’d shut down on arrival at my final destination (a convenient place for it to happen, you might say!). In this state, I was greeted at Calgary Art in Nature by a 6 ft water seeker fish, with some monkfish and scientists flapping around as well. Today the centre was home to ‘Fish out of water’, a street-theatre company who had installed an aquatic themed interactive folly in and around the forest. Calgary Art in Nature is a fantastically Giant-esque project: a forest area full of 10 years of installation art and sculpture, stretching across and up a river valley onto a hill overlooking the white sands of Calgary Bay. I ploughed on into the woodland, in search of the Giants. They were hanging suspended between trees overlooking a rising staircase inset into the valley wall. Unlike all the other Giants, who were worn by the trees like a mask, these floated ethereally between them, guarding the ascent from the river bed to the peak. This suspension, and the staircase beneath them, gave great changes of viewing angle, and the opportunity to look through the eyes of the last Giants.

And there you have it. I’m writing on the beautiful train journey from Oban to Glasgow, disappointed to have narrowly[7] missed witnessing a real life Highland Games on Mull, and having superbly managed to rip the crotch of my trousers open to an indecent extent when climbing on my bike one last time. It’s been an enthralling couple of weeks, swinging between physical torture and the artistic beauty of my honed thighs the Giants and their homes. Making absolutely no effort to avoid clichés, the trip has shown me the power of art in binding communities, educating children and adults, and inspiring people to explore their immediate environments. It’s shown me people living out their ideologies (livologies?), and given me reason to re-evaluate my consensus on how things should be done. The journey itself has acted as a welcome reminder of many a previous trip around the UK, where the canals and lochs, forests, islands and ports of Scotland bring back time happily spent sailing and hiking and holidaying. My bicycle was critically injured but bounced back like a fearsome lion with a hip replacement, and will live for future adventures.

The Giants have been successful in their mission. The onus is now on the people in their vicinity to benefit from them while they can.

By bicycle: 447 miles and 5 furlongs

By boat: 10 nautical miles

By train: 198 leagues

Giant cycling blogger over and out.

[1] Fairly new archaeological museum and education centre, acting as a hub for work in the Kilmartin Glen and beyond.
[2] The person I’d been in touch with fled the island on my arrival as her dog had taken a swipe at her new kitten, and it needed treatment in Stirling!
[3] Enlivened by a Latvian cycling companion who would overtake me on the downhills, and who I’d overtake on the uphills. We had 5 second overtaking windows to have brief chats.
[4] Home of the invention of the hairpin.
[5] Perhaps an alliteration too far, they were a lovely couple who had been visiting their daughter at Aberdeen university, and touring around Scotland whilst they were here.
[6] I don’t make any pretence that this isn’t what I often do.

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