Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A Handful Of Earth

The view from the summit of Ulva

Look out over the far west of Mull and you'll see a magical landscape of shimmering seas amongst gem-like islands of green baize. The pastel-pink and turquiose blues of Iona, towering ridges of basalt layers and the melancholic beauty of a hundred ruined villages. It is a landscape beyond description, beyond words and beyond time.

Every year, we visit this place. We are drawn back again and again on the pretext of one day circumnavigating the isle of Ulva, but the truth is, we don't try too hard to achieve it. The goal is really just to be there.

The Watermill, Ormaig

The south side of Ulva is a dream-like smatter of bright green and purple. The bracken is high, hiding a network of barrel-shaped tubes forced through by the stubby island goats. For humans, though, it's hard work. In amongst the bracken, the crofters' houses slowly sink back into the earth, leaving an ache of sadness as they go. Here on the south side is the village of Ormaig and the old corn mill. And below the high tide mark, near every house, pieces of broken china still wash back and forth with every tide. Striped, blue-pattern, earthenware, poignant reminders of how we are only separated by a thin selvedge of time.

This immense Atlantic Grey seal seemed to enjoy tailgating the kayaks. When we got to the shore, we watched as he spent a pleasant hour rolling around in the shallow water, playing.

We pulled the kayaks onto land at Starvation Point in a dank, dreichy drizzle. This austere row of houses clinging to each other against the ravages of their age, this was the place where the sick and the elderly were left to live out their days. Too frail to be thrown off the island, this place was the darkest on the isle.

Every year, there is something new, something special to see, and this year, it was a heart-breaking memorial to, I think, a paraglider.

The dizzying beauty of the seas

The ruined houses of Starvation Point

When the crofters were ordered to leave Ulva for the New World, there was not much that they could take with them. But many took with them something of Ulva: a handful of earth.

Kayaking out here on these isles is both a wonderful escape from real life and a true reminder of what real life actually is.