I wrestled the mini-bus across the Ardnamurchan peninsula. It was bleak outside. The windscreen wipers flapped wildly against the rain, and the sky lay fractured, struck by the occasional blue bruise that promised sun. Climbing uphill toward Achagaveal, strong winds battered the side of the vehicle forcing the steering wheel to lurch to one side as if taken by a moment of reckless indecision. Only on the descent from Larachbeg did the wind lift the wall of thick cloud to reveal a previously masked landscape. The glen floor spotted with metallic, lichen-flecked boulders. Rivers, a torrent of white water, cut slits deep into the sides of the mountain. And swirls of translucent cloud fluttered by ghostlike, adding to the mystic of the peninsula. Hugging onto the narrow band of a road I approached Lochaline. By this point, the sun had poked holes into the thinning cloud, and the Atlantic that separated us from the Isle of Mull shimmered and sparkled. As I pulled the bus up to the ferry terminus, I could see over the whole island. To the south, dark skies laced fingers over Ben More, while in the north, it looked only slightly more promising. The passengers spilt out from the vehicle and onto the jetty: thankful for the sea salt air, and happy to see where they would be staying for the next three nights.
I thought about this journey, and all journeys, as the boat slid off from the pier. I had worked as a tour guide for a couple of seasons, and by this point, I understood the strange nature of the job. Travelling across country with sixteen international passengers in a bid to replicate the tourist guidebooks is an odd responsibility. Guests, more often than not, appeared to be taken by the majesty of Scotland – even if they were not exactly sure where they were, or why they were there. However, who could blame them? Lochs, salt, and fresh water are smeared across the land like an oil stain on denim, and mountains, with fierce knuckles of rock, dominate so much of the high lands. I knew that it was as much a chance for me to reconnect and discover my own country as for the passengers. And with every journey that I made, I found space to reflect and ponder the various changes that bestowed Scotland, and myself. Clocking up the miles, on land and water, I had time to contemplate the strings of consciousness that run with me across Scotland’s roads.
Almost instantly after arriving on the Isle of Mull I swung the mini-bus into a small passing bay at the last second. The majority of the island’s roads are single-track, and it forces the driver to be switched on and mindful of the environment around you. Drawing in to let cars by, my attention was pulled over to the forestry at the side of the road. Sprawling hills of Sitka spruce, a versatile and fast-growing conifer, stood in neat compactable plots. Tall, stoic and static, the uniformity of their presence is a little unnerving. The monoculture of the forestry commission in Argyll and Bute is supposedly necessary for the poor and wet soil conditions (1). The land the Sitka stand upon is entirely barren – a dark, gloomy, pine needle desert. There is a certain eeriness about a place that supports such little opportunity for life. Once the trees have reached their maturity, they are then felled and transported to the nearest port, leaving the ground they once stood upon a tobacco brown smear on the horizon. In the sea of decaying branches, intermittent tree stumps kneel garish and awkward – a blemish on the land. Meanwhile, the forestry has become big business across Scotland. And as swaggering HGVs transport timbre, clinging to island road, the logging industry that produces such sterile conditions, have faced little opposition. Bid to reforest Scotland’s native trees, aside from a few small projects further north, have had far less traction than these plantations of Sitka and Douglas fir. As the last driver passed the mini-bus, waving their thanks, I continued north.
The last stretch of road opened up into a section of two-lane traffic. In the distance stood Tobermory, the largest community on the island. Initially formed in the mid-1700s as a fishing port, the town had expanded to home 1000 permanent residents (3). Smattered into the tree line that crowns the settlement are numerous white houses that stand out like seagull shit against a mossy rock. The main promenade is made up of several restaurants, hotels, a converted church, and a cooperative supermarket. So as I drove down onto Main Street, confronted with a familiar sight in unfamiliar territory: a friend from Edinburgh walking through Tobermory with her mother. In just an hour, I would join them both in a restaurant, along with her family – none of whom I’d officially met before.
I arrived late at Café Fish. Still wearing my kilt, a plain black t-shirt, and hiking boots, I suddenly felt like a cruel parody of a parochial highland man. Moreover, with long shoulder length blonde hair and tattooed arms, I had become unusually aware of my appearance. To make matters only slightly more uncomfortable, I stared at a menu, perhaps unsurprising given the restaurant’s name, almost exclusively offering seafood. And as an individual with vegan convictions, a vegetarian diet, and who only recently purchased his third ‘one-off’ fish and chips this summer, I felt ensnared in self-imposed contradiction. Although this wasn’t the time or place to begin unpacking my moral quagmire. So, instead, I pointed to the only vegan starter and ran a finger under its position in the menu. The waitress, clearly opposed to a laconic ordering method, then unhelpfully repeated, ‘Lemmon hummus?’ The room all of a sudden felt like that scene from the film Entrapment, which was shot here on Mull at Duart castle. Red string ran the length of the room, and it didn’t take a minute before I had tripped the first sensor setting off a siren of questions.
I routinely face challenges with my diet on trips to the highlands. It is that I find my expectations are made to feel unrealistic, and grating, against the tradition and habit of these rural places. Tobermory, after all, began life as a fishing port. The locals would have survived on what was caught from the rivers and oceans, surrounding the island every direction that you turn. The trouble for me is that the practices have since changed. No longer are fishing communities supporting one another in what Alastair McIntosh describes as a sharing economy (4). Today, substantial international fishing fleets patrol the waters, armed with specialist equipment and invasive technologies. Back then line fishing would have almost exclusively been used. It is labour intensive and therefore restrictive on the catch size.
Meanwhile, bottomless trawlers with machines that don’t sleep, and engines that don’t rest, sustain an industry that is in perpetual motion. In Scotland, it contributes to sector worth £557 million, providing almost 5000 jobs. So in my drowning ineptitude, I can’t entirely frame the countries economy without this contribution.
Outside of Café fish men unloaded a small fishing boat holding approximately 20 large white bags of fresh scallops. Her mother repeated, ‘so, are you veeeegin.’ I struggled not to smile. It seems that a chasm is forming between my moral underpinning of the world and the empirical reality of places like Tobermory. The space between the ravine is familiar as it is dark: a comfortable cognitive dissonance that underlines the duality of so many of my life’s quandaries. The steep brick and mortar walls of tradition appear infallible at times from down here, but every so often, I am sure something must give.
After dinner, and without her family, we took a walk through Aros Forestry Park. Within minutes she had kicked off her shoes and small white toes buried into the forestry floor. I too did the same, feeling grounded. Walking further into the park I noticed all of the various broadleaved trees, and occasional conifer, that was present. Alder, durable and water love, had pitched onto the sides of fresh water burns. Silver birch and rowan leaned into the tangle and thicket of the forestry walls. And further from the path stood mature Caledonian pine with their light canopy of leaves up top. The diversity of the forest reflected the complex web of nature’s beauty, illustrating the importance of a healthy interdependent ecosystem.
The wind would rush through Aros, and the trees would dance together like old lovers to the sound of rustling leaves. The proximity to beauty and nature gave rise to a warm, soothing sensation that encapsulated me as we walked side by side. Chasing river nymph to the tickle of the peat-brown waterfalls that slipped back into the ocean, to the cyclical nature of all things here, to the whorls of the broadleaves, had me caught in the circles of growth rings of the trees. In the stillness of the forestry, I felt the vibration and flutter of two hearts and countless life forms.
- Argyll and Bute Council and Woodland Forestry Strategy – p24 https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/sites/default/files/planning-and-environment/woodland%20and%20forestry%20strategy%20april%202011.pdf
- Forestry Commission. The History of the Forestry Commission https://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/cmon-4uum6r
- Population: Where We Live. Argyll and Bute Council. https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/info/population-where-we-live
- Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, Alistair McIntosh.
- Scottish Government. Scottish Sea Fisheries Statistics. https://news.gov.scot/news/scottish-sea-fisheries-statistics-2016