25 October 2010--Hard frost this morning, and I leave the car to warm up while I check out downtown Acharacle. Couple of shops
and a chippy...what else do you need? The name "Acharacle" derives from "Torquil's ford". There is supposed to have been a battle near
here in about 1120, when Somerled defeated the Norse invader Torquil, although the timeline seems kind of iffy--Somerled would have been
a child at that date. As I grab a couple of postcards, I wonder about the remoteness of such places, and the fact that they seem even
more remote in an era of easy transportation than they did in times past. Some of it, I suppose, is down to our own perception of what
exactly "remote" means. Torquil likely spent weeks getting here; to us, two or three hours from Glasgow by car is a long way from
anywhere. Some of it, too, is a matter of the centralization of the economy. When agriculture and fishing were the mainstays, one
place was as "central" as any other.
Drive the short road down to the lakeshore. Loch Shiel is a narrow snakey freshwater lake, about sixteen miles long. Its outlet river has only a short distance to reach the sea, and in fact Shiel was a sea loch in the distant past, when sea level was a bit higher. Acharacle is near that outlet, at the loch's southwest end. The other end is a lot more than sixteen miles away by road, and indeed seems like a different part of the country. Tourists traveling up the Road to the Isles stop there to view the Glenfinnan Monument, dedicated to Bonnie Prince Charlie, who raised his standard there in 1745 after being rowed the length of the loch. No busy tourist route here, nor monument...perhaps one to the oarsman would be appropriate.
Why it happens that Glen Finnan drains into Loch Shiel, while 25 miles north, Glen Shiel drains into Loch Duich, I have not been able to figure.
There is a creaky wooden dock down on the water, a derelict building adjacent, speaking of better times seemingly long past. I've seen reference to boat trips on the loch in recent years, but on a frosty day in late October, it's hard to picture.
Away then. The landlady told me that it would be twenty minutes to the ferry slip at Mingary, near Kilchoan, but I don't believe her. Turns out to be more than double that, mostly along winding single-track road. The scenery opens up as I drive out along the south shore of the peninsula. Arrive early enough to browse the local tourist information office (surprised to find it open, actually), but there isn't time to go gallivanting further out the peninsula. I stayed a night out here in 2004, getting just a taste, and gazing at the darkest, starriest sky I've ever seen. Marked it for a future visit...short shrift then, less than that now.
The ferry crossing, under a pretty sky, takes half an hour, passing the Stevenson lighthouse at Rubha nan Gall on the way into Tobermory's sheltered harbor. I hang around town just long enough to get a first impression--I'll be back in a couple of days. Call my B&B in Iona and say I expect to take the 4:00 ferry. Set out across island under an increasingly cloudy sky, passing through the village of Dervaig, where I'd considered staying at one point. It looks interesting, but maybe not that interesting. Stop for photos on the beach at Calgary Bay. The city in Canada was named for this location, by a Colonel MacLeod of the North-West Mounted Police.
Mull is big, and the roads follow the contours of a mountainous land, making distances between points farther than one might think. Along the road, I call the B&B to say I'll probably be on the 5:00 ferry. The landlady sounds alarmed when she informs me that there is no 5:00 in the offseason, only the 6:00 after the 4:00, and it has to be booked. Now I'm alarmed, impressed with the need to stop dawdling. I make the booking--it's not really an issue for a foot passenger, but someone has to book, or it won't go--and drive off in earnest. The road loops around lochs and mountains in a surprisingly empty land. There's a lonely house maybe every four or five miles. I'm reminded of the comedic interview with a bagpiper who speaks of practicing at 5:00 in the morning, and is asked what the neighbors think. "I have no neighbors!" he bellows. He might have lived here.
There's more settlement on the Ross of Mull, with fair-sized villages Pennyghael and Bunessan. I arrive at Fionnphort at 5:00, in plenty of time to do what I need to. Only residents can bring cars across, so I park the car in the free lot outside the village, and get a bag together. I'm staying two nights, so the bag shouldn't be much; but I add a few extras, throw in the bottle of whisky, and decide that there are some things I shouldn't leave unattended in the car. Suddenly it's kind of large and heavy. I haul it down to the Keel Row, Fionnphort's one pub, and relax a while with a pint, watching the blue dusk deepen.
The crossing is short, a mile, maybe, done in fifteen minutes. My landlady is on the other side, waiting to give me a lift up to the B&B, which is half a mile outside the village, and a long, long way from anywhere.