Today it’s still and gentle, where yesterday a huge northwesterly beat the sea’s surface into a mess of foam out in the sound between here and the many islets that freckle the water before you get to Mull. One of them, ‘Holy Isle’ (another!), is reputedly where the Irish adventurer Brandon, or Brendan, landed, bringing Christianity to mainland Britain a while before Columba.
Wherever you go on this island geese voices follow you from the Canada, barnacle and greylags in the fields, in the bays.
Last night in the dusk a bellowing kerfuffle in the water turned out to be a big bull seal, blowing and grunting, flipping and waving in either fishing activities or sealy ablutions just yards from where we were standing.
From here I can see the ruins of the Kilchattan chapel (‘Kil’ means ‘saint’ in Gaelic), which boasts some fine graffiti from the early mediaeval period. One is a clear and distinct carving of a birlinn, an early slender Highlands galley built to resemble a Viking ship but altogether finer, smaller and more elegant, designed for these tricky waters.
The word ‘birlinn’ shivers me timbers, as they say in pirate stories. I first came across the word ‘birlinn’ in Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room. Nicolson inherited the little Shiant Islands from his father when he was only 21, and the book is a kind of natural history of the islands. I was so captivated by his description of the building of the birlinn he’d commissioned to navigate the fierce waters of the Minch* that it took me weeks to get beyond that passage. Such a longing was set up in me to go and make one myself that I read the description over and over (yes, I know; I’m not normally that compulsive, honest).
Somerled, legendary mediaeval Lord of the Isles whose seat was at Castle Duart on Mull, and who is reputedly buried in the little St Oran’s Chapel graveyard on Iona, used one of these.
My campervan is wonderful, but heavy and slow, so on the first day we only (only!) covered 400 miles, and pulled off along the Solway Firth near Gretna, just over the border and into Galloway – an area completely unfamiliar to us. The strange littoral landscape was made hugely atmospheric by the rising full moon, and we looked out across the mudflats towards the Cumbrian fells one way, and an offshore wind farm the other.
I learned a new word, probably familiar to any of you who are northerners: ‘merse’, meaning marshy hinterland on the littorals. I imagine the ‘Mersey’ of ‘Merseyside’ comes from this; and I think it must also be ‘moss’, as in ‘Moss-side’, or, up here, The Moss, on the (stunning) Campbeltown peninsula.
Daughter takes me to a couple of her favourite places here: Crinan, like a Scottish version of a small wooded Cornish harbour, and the stunning Ardfern peninsula where we look out on this sunny day on a string of islands from another ruined little church, Kilmarie, host to some ‘sculpture stones’ from the C16th>C17th, with one or two much older fragments.
Then there’s the famous series of megalithic sites at Kilmartin; but that’s another story.
My friend Francis, one of the friends with whom we’re staying, has just been awarded his fourteenth prize for poetry translation. He presents me with his latest book, a very beautiful bilingual edition of the work of Serbian poet Ivan Lalic, Walking Towards the Sea. Here, to sign off, is a little excerpt from ‘There should be gardens here’:
‘There should be wind here, stripped to the leaves
Like a swimmer, and plenty of unfrightened birds
On the shoulders of silence, in the eyes of light,
So everyone can vanish sleepwards on the grass...’
© Ivan Lalic/Francis R Jones