As the road winds around the thick basalt flows of Loch Na Keal on Mull's western side, there's an isle out in the throat of the loch that is small, yet captivating. It's bright green, and tilted slightly, but commanding in a way that is not related to size. This is Inch Kenneth. It is steeped in uncharacteristically peaceful history. Saint Cannoch made this patch of green his home, and it became a monastery. Clan Chieftains were said to be buried here when the crossing to Iona was too hazardous. We made the crossing in stunningly beautiful conditions- bright sunshine over azure blue water. We wandered through the 13th Century ruins, taking in the peace of the place.
These 500 year old engravings were once the gravestones of the mighty clan chiefs. Once again, landing in kayaks seemed to dislodge any sense of 21st Century time.
As it happens, one of Inch Kenneth's most infamous residents died almost exactly sixty years ago. The childlike, limping figure of Unity Mitford was a common sight along the shores of Inch Kenneth, and it is quite a blinding story. Always struggling to outdo her five sisters, she topped the lot of them by becoming a Nazi and entering Hitler's inner circle. At the outbreak of war, she took her pearl inlaid pistol and shot herself in the head. Having lost her faculties, she lived out ten years on Inch Kenneth before the bullet finally claimed her.
If you take one of the myriad paths leading to the river Eden at Armathwaite, then squeeze between a few trees splaying their roots in the tiny gap between water and rock, you might find these unexpectedly whimsical carvings.
William Mounsey travelled the length of the Eden from its source in Mallerstang to its end, carving beautiful memories into stone as he went. One of them, I'm told, is a sonorous poem in Bardic Welsh. This one is an extract from the Compleat Angler by Isaac Walton.
The moon-like faces with impassioned stares probably pre-date William's time, and along with a large salmon carved at rest on a sandstone slab, are perhaps the work of an angler. An intriguing place to climb.
There are some places on this frenetic isle that have been frozen in time. Changeless landscapes where time’s endless chasm opens out into a breathtaking vista. Curiously, it is often easier to see this dimension when travelling by kayak. Don’t ask me why.
I’m also not sure why I was reminded of Jon Swain’s book, ‘River of Time’, when kayaking through Scottish islands. A hauntingly beautiful book centred on the lodestone of the River Mekong, it poignantly captures the thin line between Cambodia’s haunting beauty and its collapse into war-torn destruction. It seemed about as far from a trip to Mull as you could get.
On the north side of Ulva we sank into the landscape. Just two people in an ocean of time. The flat spot we just happened to camp on was the site of an old, abandoned croft. Very few people would have known about this place unless travelling by sea. Slowly, the croft grew out of the ruins. Here, the stone walls of the compact, black house…there, the shed next to the tumbling burn, everywhere the meticulous rig and furrow lazy beds once full of potatoes. Even beautiful paths carved on the steep slopes to the track above. While a Force 5 wind blew itself out on the water, we explored inland. Time seemed endless as house after crumbling house rose defiantly out of the windswept bracken. On headlands, in bays, abandoned communities everywhere. The crofters had been here for a thousand years or more, and there was a strong sense of presence in this absence.
I later learned that the notorious F.W. Clark bought the island in the 1850s, and set about systematically ridding Ulva of its tenant crofters. Six hundred of them on this one island. Sixty people had lived and worked on the land that our feet were treading. I could touch a stone that they once grasped as they built these houses into the landscape. It was a world away, yet their presence was immediate.
The hearth inside a croft
Jon Swain’s story was immortalised in the film ‘The Killing Fields’, and in many ways, Ulva’s past played out much the same story. In fact, the parallel was eerily perfect. The same terror, destruction of a way of life, the same futility and the same timeless beauty.
Past lives, frozen into the landscape, and frozen in time.
"As I walk along these shores I am the history within." Runrig, Proterra