It was November and I needed to get out for some fresh air and country side. I wanted to visit the Hebrides but didn’t know which island to aim for. The ferry timetables decided it for me so I caught the train on Friday evening to Oban to catch the ferry to Coll first thing Saturday morning. I had to change trains in Glasgow so I stuck my head outside the station to get a quick impression of the place. It was cold and rapidly getting dark but the lights on the square gave the place a sparkle. On the next train a couple canoodled in the corner. The woman next to me ate her dinner. It was black outside but the alternating sounds and movement of the engine heaving us up and the whole train coasting down marked the shape of the hills. The wheels went clacketty clacketty. It felt like I and my fellow passengers could have been going anywhere in the universe and we had put our trust in the train operators to take us some new hospitable land.
Oban was not immediately as hospitable as I’d hoped. There was to be no walking along the foreshore to the hostel due to the cold and rain. Then the cabbie and the woman on reception made up for the weather. When the alarm went off at 7 in the morning, in the dark, it was very tempting to curl up under the doona and stay there for hours. As an aside, since arriving in Europe there seems to be no such thing as a top sheet, only doonas. Uncomfortable when the heating is too high or the weather not quite cold enough for a huge warm doona. Anyway, I got myself up and out the door. I walked to the ferry terminal because I just couldn’t get over it still being completely dark.
On the ferry I gave in and followed the lead of others curling up on the couches for a nap until the sun got around to lighting the day. I overheard one fellow ask another where he got his alpacas from. Later, a local fellow got chatting to me and wanted to know why on earth I was visiting in winter. It was only late autumn, but nit-picking aside, I stood out as a non-local at this time of year. When the ferry slowed down for the arrival at Coll, the captain announced that the stabilisers would be deployed to navigate the approach.
Coll was beautiful. A little village beside a loch that opened to the sea. The village is called Arinagour, or Airigh Nan Gobhar in Gaelic. The owners of the hotel let people camp on a spot of land they have behind the church. I pitched my brother’s tent and went back to the hotel to borrow a bicycle. I rode around the southern half of the island. Ponies that looked a little bit different and might have been a local type, rocks, a big old pig wandering in a field, a fellow riding his quad bike in a very strange way towards town, maybe he was trying the shake the last bit of fuel into the engine? In the order of growing concern about my presence: very cool and composed highland cows posing for the camera, sheep with tails spray painted every colour of the rainbow, perhaps the alpacas mentioned on the ferry, regular cows looking slightly on edge, and grey legged geese squawking off in alarm from a paddock away.
I stopped at a lonely beach for lunch and sat on the long grass that grows on the sandy soils of the machair. The wind was cold. The beach sand interacted with the light in a really interesting way, giving the sand depth. Riding up the hill from there I looked back over my shoulder to see shafts of sun bursting over the buildings and loch between hills. Soccer goal posts stood in a random field. The road back towards the village runs above a burn in a wide valley (strath!). The sky cleared and little still dams in the burn reflected its blue and greens and rusts of the hills as it wound to the sea.
Dinner at the hotel was in the lounge, one of three small rooms enveloping the bar. It was a quiet night on the island so the bar man had suggested I sit in there if I wanted some company. Conversation centred on the pantomime which had been called off because the committee couldn’t agree on what to do. Apparently inviting everyone to watch the committee meetings would have been as entertaining as any pantomime. Judging by the stories from the last pantomime with a speechless tree addressed in impromptu soliloquies from a drunk chicken that forgot its lines and managed to offend someone so much they walked out, the meetings must have been very interesting indeed. They asked me if I’d come back to Coll and I think I offended them by being too direct in pointing out that I probably wouldn’t have time. At the end of the evening, the hotel owner found a hot water bottle for me to take back to my tent. That made my day.
I rode back across the island in the morning to find a beach where the barman said there would be seals. A herd of young highland cows stood on the beach near the water. They ran up the beach when I stepped down from the dunes. Then I spotted the seals in the water, heads above the water and every one of them staring at me. I left them alone to get on with their fishing. I had to get on with pulling the tent down which I had left up to dry from the overnight rain. The sky had been cloudless when I set off, and the lack of rain the day before made me leave my waterproofs back at the camp site. Leaving the seals, a large woolly cloud came over from the west. The drizzle started when I was about halfway back, the teeny tiny hail within sight of the church I was camped behind. Wikipedia tells me that technically it wasn’t hail, but ice pellets. It bounced off my helmet and coat and bit at my hands.
Now the outside of both the tent and I were thoroughly wet. The hotel owner gave me a cup of tea on the house when I went to let her know I was leaving. I must have looked rather bedraggled. The rain held off while I walked along the water to the jetty. The ferry timetable sets the pulse of the island in summer, but less so in winter. A flat bed semi trailer loaded with tractor tyres, decorative stones, fencing wire and posts that had arrived when I did was still sitting beside the pier. I could see the ferry coming on its way back from the next island out. It ploughed through the water with a huge wave rising up the front. A few of us made our way out along the pier. The rain got very persistent and we snuck behind a no entry fence to shelter behind a building until we could go on the ferry.
There was a good view of the island and land either side of the channel from the highest enclosed deck. A rainbow came out and the weather must have been so good (relatively speaking) they did the trick of ‘testing’ the deployment of the life boat. They spend so much time out in it though that I think they were actually enjoying themselves.
Coming back to Oban, the town was magically bigger than it had been on my way out in the dark. A red fishing boat tucked away in a bay perfectly finished the picture. I had a few hours to wait for my train so I climbed up the hill and got a view of the sunset over the bay and islands. On the train back from Glasgow I was sat next to the same woman as on the way up. Another fellow came over to ask her help on the crossword, regulars with mutual friends on the train. The canoodling couple were a couple of seats back and exhausted from their weekend. The train took us and our stories back through the dark, chugging up and coasting down hills, and delivered us to Glasgow.