Island Life isle of luing, 11 july 2010

Musical interlude. Chapter two. (That’s how the audiobooks, which now accompany us on our travels, announce a new chapter.)

Before leaving Shetland, we made some important visits. With fifth cousin, Alma, we walked the farmland and rocky bays that great-grandfather William Williamson walked in Walls, imagining him shooing gulls away from fish drying on the beach. We dined with even more distant cousins, now closer friends, both Shetland and Canadian, at a table looking out on a bay dotted with islets. We communed with thousands of puffins and guillemots at Sumburgh as great skuas patrolled for pickings. When a nagging wife dragged Geoff and his nagging cough to visit the local GP, yet another cousin greeted us at the reception desk . (Antibiotics have since dealt with the bronchitis.)

Someone described puffins as clockwork clowns. They are a bit like that and a joy to photograph, being so tame. Apparently they prefer human company to marauding skuas

Summer never quite arrived in Shetland before we boarded the ferry to Aberdeen but the winds did quieten down enough to bless us with a smooth overnight crossing and a new bird (the black guillemot). Our friend, Eilidh, and her fiancé, Stephen, met us, piled us and our luggage into the car and then we were off to experience a day in the life of an MP. Elidh is a newly elected member of Westminster, representing Banff and Buchan, and Stephen is a local councillor. It was great fun keeping them company as Eilidh presented prizes at a charity event and crowned the princesses at a gala fair full of highland dancing. But the highlight for Geoff was the chance to sit in a Wolseley Hornet at a classic car show at Fyvie Castle while Eilidh and Stephen worked the crowd of car enthusiasts. All in all, it was a wonderful immersion into local Scottish community life. And, miracle of miracles, the sun shone.

The gala princesses and prince’s moment of glory at the Hatton village fair

Eilidh’s parents hosted us for a few days in Macduff. They fed us butteries for breakfast, drove us up into the Cairngorms and helped us spot dolphins out over the Moray Firth. Their prolific garden had elderflower in bloom. So that's what it looks like! Why hasn’t elderflower taken root in Australia?

We chased our suitcases down the steep slope to the local bus stop to board the bus to Aberdeen and on to Edinburgh. This was a high moment—Geoff’s free Scottish bus pass was pressed into service again after sitting idly in his wallet for a year or so. As we were wafted through the countryside, Chris’s audiobook came into its own, courtesy of her iPod, which also has crammed into it two bird books (yes, she left the heavy bird book at home), a dictionary (for editing on the run), Bible, lectionary, first aid manual (just in case), atlas, currency converter, photos of home, address book, diary and solitaire. It’s a gadget that works.

Geoff's delight at being at the wheel of a Wolseley Hornet, the first he’d met in the flesh (metal?)

Edinburgh was strangely familiar yet different. Every moment was full visiting old friends and glimpsing well-worn paths. But this was Edinburgh in full summer sun, not the winterscape we grew to know and love in 2007–08 and 2008–09. The sun was high in the sky long and loud, not peeping shyly above the horizon at midday. Our visits took us to the forests of Fife where we foraged for wild strawberries, to the rich fields of Glencarse, the promenade at Portobello, the cafés of Newington and the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. Our breakfast table, shared with our hosts June and Norman, looked straight out over the redcurrants in the garden to Arthur’s Seat, now green, not yellow with gorse.

Five days just didn't seem long enough and some friends remained unvisited. (Sorry!) But yes, it was just last Monday that we boarded the bus for Oban. There we connected with our friend Sue who had driven up from London. Her car swallowed our luggage along with a heap of groceries from Tesco and we set off for The Bothy, a little cottage on the Island of Luing. You probably haven't heard of Luing (pronounced ’ling’). It has a population of 170 and is perched off the west coast of Scotland. To get to it you cross the grandly named Bridge over the Atlantic (all of twenty metres long) to the island of Seil and then by a small car ferry to Luing.

‘Grey Dog’ to the rescue

The ferry is a hot political topic. One morning we arrived to find a veritable queue of cars and to the news that the ferry had broken down. We chatted with locals on both sides of the ‘Luing-needs-a-bridge’ debate while we waited for Grey Dog, the backup ferry that usually transports cattle for the farmer who owns most of the island. (Luing has its very own breed of cattle.) Sue’s audiobook kept us company once Grey Dog got us to the other side. We set off for Kilmartin, centre of a region littered with standing stones and other relics of life 5000 years ago.

Luing is one of the slate islands. Its shores are littered with piles of slate with the occasional ‘slatecastle’ propped up here and there. It once provided slate around the world. No slate is mined now but there are still a few fishermen and one of them delivered fresh prawns, still kicking, for us to cook and feast upon.

The slate beach near Cullipool, just down the road from our cottage on Liung, as the sun broke through the showers off the Atlantic. The old quarry is just around the corner

Our day trip to the islands of Mull, Staffa and Iona was a long-awaited highlight of our time here. Geoff realised his dream of listening to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (via his iPod, of course) at the mouth of Fingal’s Cave, the cave that inspired the piece and which was named by Joseph Banks. Chris and Sue realised their dreams of visiting Iona, where Columba brought Christianity to Scotland and which is now home of the ecumenical Iona Community. None of us were disappointed, though the rough seas to Fingal’s Cave concentrated the mind. As soon we got to Staffa, Chris needed to eat her lunch and take a deep breath or two before scaling the rocky path around to the cave, all while Geoff tried to contain his excitement.

The mouth of Fingal’s Cave. You can see the three distinct layers of rock that make this island so spectacular

Our taste of Scottish island life finishes in a day or two when we travel with Sue to a spot on the English southern coast. We had a hard job choosing just six photos for this epistle.

So we will now find the spot on the far right of the windowsill in the lounge room where the wifi reaches from our hosts’ equipment next door and press the buttons to send this to you. (There is a spot on the driveway up the hill where the mobile phone kicks in too. We had to negotiate both connections at once, in the rain, when it was time to do some internet banking. That’s another story.)

Before we go, here is our next travel tip, courtesy of Sue as well as us.

Travel tip #2. Travel with a power board. That way you can plug in all your electrical appliances with only one adaptor.

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