After five weeks of intensive touring throughout Britain, we’ve come to this craggy, windswept island off the west coast of Scotland to rest. We are tired in a deep way that’s difficult to gauge. After so many consecutive days and nights of being continually “on” we’ve learned that it’s best to just go somewhere, shut down, and allow our bodies and minds to unwind and recover, as they will.
From our final gig near Glasgow we drove three hours north to Oban to meet our dear friends from Yorkshire, Jim and Ros, at the ferry with whom we’d share the week. The crossing to Mull takes about 45 minutes. Then it’s a short hour north to Tobermory, partly on a single-track road. We arrived in the early evening dark to the quiet little harbor town, street lamps glowing, water lapping at the shore right outside, below our cottage window.
At this northern latitude this time of year, the line blurs between day and night. The light is fickle and emanates from somewhere unspecific low on the horizon. Depending on what the clouds are doing, dawn occurs somewhere around nine. Noon seems to strike around eleven. By two the light is already waning, and by three you would swear it’s after six. By four it’s pitch dark and time to pack it in. Then it’s either off to the pub, to the Co-op for groceries, or to start a bath.
Sue says that Scotland is more beautiful with the sun playing second fiddle to the clouds. It’s basically wet all the time – at least that’s the way it should be. The clouds here are ruthless, teasing, and dramatic. They are the most active and entertaining feature of the landscape (skyscape!), forever changing, always moving in multiple layers forever tearing apart and re-knitting together.
As I sit in a large window overlooking Tobermory Bay I can see barren hills of the mainland far across the water. Occasionally, a break in clouds near the horizon occurs to reveal the glowing colors of burnt bracken and deep green heather. I make a dash for my camera, but mere seconds later before I can frame and focus, the light has moved on. Light plays like a warbler in the bush with a snatch of a song and a fleeting flash of color before it flies away. Gets the senses fired up.
In all the time we’ve been here the sun appeared but once. During a walk on the hills above Tobermory, unexpectedly the sun sank below a bank of heavy slate-dark rainclouds and shot light out against the wet hills. It lit the gorse, the bracken and grass, assaulting our eyes, and startling our senses. Then it was gone, back to normal, the sun I've not seen again to this day that I write.
At night, rain on the roof is nice. It’s one of the best sounds in the world. I would never build a house or live in a home where you couldn’t hear the rain when it’s falling. It’s a gift from the gods, as it were. People pay good money for various forms of therapy and to learn relaxation techniques. I say sit or lie down where you can hear the rainfall. It’s perfect. There’s rain on metal roofing, rain on asphalt shingles, rain on window glass, but here in Britain, the sound of rain on slate is the perfect medium between hard and soft surface. I have not yet experienced the sound of rain on a thatched roof. That would be interesting….
And the wind – being an island in the middle of the sea, Mull is continually raked by ocean winds. Wind is the voice of the island. It rattles trees, shakes shingles, buffets wall and fence, snaps ropes, disturbs water, and tosses boats in the bay. Crack a window open ever so slightly and you create a valve for the wind to whistle through – and it will do!
Tobermory, a town of 900 year round residence, is unique in that it is located in a sheltered harbor on the leeward side of the island. Take a drive inland and over to the west coast and it’s apparent how little actually grows here besides the grasses, bracken, heather, and gorse that cling low to the hillsides. It’s only in valleys and ocean lochs where you’ll find shelter enough for small farms and cottages to assemble and take root.
We’ve been to the Isle of Mull before. On a couple of occasions we were hired to perform at An Tobar, the arts center and performance space in town. In the late 90’s An Tobar was built from the shell of an old school house and it sits in a beautiful location atop Tobermory overlooking the harbor and sea islands around the bay. Artistic director, Gordon Maclean, suggested years ago that we were welcome to use his recording studio if there ever was an opportunity. So, during a couple of afternoons while it was pelting rain out of doors, we took him up on it.
With thick stone walls, tall narrow windows reaching up to a high ceiling, wooden floors, soft theater lighting, and a nice selection of gear, Gordon’s recording studio was an ideal setting for a relaxed session. We considered these run-throughs of songs and tunes to be demos of demos – compost for works to come, if you will. Gordon’s mixing room was around the hall and up a narrow staircase. We loved hearing him come clomp, clomp, clomping down the stairs if there was something to adjust in the room. (He said it helped keep him thin.) A lovely man, and a delight to work with, I would recommend Gordon to anyone interested in doing a bit of studio work on a far flung Scottish Island.
On the morning of our final day I took a stroll around the harbor and found the Tobermory distillery in full production. The air smelled of barley mash and whisky. Steam rose from a pipe at the back of the building and, visible through a window from the road, a massive copper still shone golden bright. It was Sue who educated me about single malt whisky when we first met. And Tobermory is where Sue had her first definitive whisky tasting. She tells me about entering the Mishnish, the local music pub, and sitting down at the bar. Guided by the barkeep she then learned the single malts by way of the alphabet: Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain, Cardhu, Dalwhinnie, Edradour, Glenfiddich, Highland Park, Inchgower, Jura, Knockando, Lagavulin… you get the idea. Must have been a long night! (Sue says she doesn’t remember details!)
The day we were to depart the island, high winds were forecast with sustained gusts of 80 miles per hour. I don’t think I’d like to be on a boat in the sea with the wind blowing that hard. We left Tobermory with the threat of our ferry being cancelled. We had an eleven o’clock booking changed to nine o’clock with the thought that we’d miss the worst of it. We made our ferry fine and crossed back to Oban on choppy seas. We later learned that ferries later that day were cancelled. Happy we made it too, because our flight back to the States was leaving from Manchester, seven hours south, the day after next, and we probably wouldn’t have made it in time.
That’s the gift of the island, and what we came there for in the first place, I guess: To spend a few days subject to a different set of rules, to slow down and be a little closer to nature. It felt good to not have to go someplace different every single day. To sleep as late as possible. To sit in the Mishnish and play some tunes and talk to the locals. To be a tourist. To not have to look at the clock for a few days, and to allow my mind to drift on an island in the ocean somewhere in the sea.