Isle of Mull, Scotland | September 10 & 11, 2011
Sunbeams cant off the roofs of tiny Dervaig and ripen the leaves of the surrounding forest. From where I stand, on a hill just south of town, it’s a painting of someone’s beloved home. The violent storms of Scotland’s west coast have drifted into the east, revealing ragged patches of blue sky and strips of scudding clouds. The sight of Mull in the sun elicits a whispered thanks. I press on into town and step into the Bellachroy Hotel’s pub just as men have done for 400 years. Rich woods and polished gold make a warm atmosphere in which patrons of all ages bat back and forth friendly words and raucous laughter. It’s Saturday afternoon; where else would the town be?
A comforting, beer-soaked wood scent swirls with every opening of the door. I wait patiently to order a drink when a barrel-bellied man with a thick gray moustache asks if I’m ready. His name is Okie, and he buys me a pint of bitter; his gap-toothed smile accompanies my first sip. I’d made it across seas and up twisting roads to this wilderland outpost. The lay of the Inner Hebrides has passed my eyes, but something about Mull is wilder, closer to the original, native landscape of centuries past. Trees, a relic generally of olden times, grow haphazardly across the landscape. Naturally, one might think. Tumble-down limestone blocks mature into blackened casts as the ground aches to swallow them whole. In some way I view the stretches of Mull’s wild northwest as a glimpse of the future, when nature has reclaimed our impermanent forays.
The roads are empty except for the continuous patter of rain, and many seem to carry on directly into lochs from their cliffside perches. My electric blue Nissan Micra skims the precipitous edges of Loch Tuath until sheep bar the road like a picket line. I crank the heater into the red to fight off the dampness as the Scottish folk playlist from my wedding fills the car. Even amidst the lazing clouds, the landscape is an astounding compilation of sheer cliffs, lashed lochs, and hillsides spattered with sheep. This is not an unfamiliar face of Scotland, but rather akin to a dark-haired and mysterious cousin. The wilderness, the lack of artifice is at once refreshing and breath-taking.
The next day, the parti-colored village of Tobermory withstands yet another gale from the west. I hunker down in the Mishnish Hotel’s welcoming pub and watch the rain drive into the bay while locals watch football on the television. An Englishman shakes off the rain and saunters up to the bar with his wife. I make an obvious comment about the weather that leads to an hour’s conversation, and he buys me a pint as we discuss religion and shinty. A bald Scotsman down the bar jumps in when he discerns talk of the uniquely Scottish game; people lose eyes, get mushy heads, he says.
We laugh and drink, and the miles between us recede into the dark corners of the cozy pub. Twice in two days Mull has saved me, reminded me of the treasures to be found along this journey’s wild and unpredictable course.