We leave Rathlin harbour at around 1200 the next day. It is grey and misty, but visibility is reasonable and we can see some distance around us. The game plan is to take as much advantage of the tidal currents around the island as possible. We plan to go around Bull Point at the western end of the island where there is slack water at 1300, before which time there is a small west-flowing eddy current in Church Bay that should take us from the harbour along the southern coast. Just after slack water at Bull Point, the main Northern Channel flood tide then begins to flow north-westwards again back into the Atlantic, which should help us on our way to our next destination, Port Ellen on the Isle of Islay.
That’s the theory at least, and this time it seems to work. The eddy current takes us along the cliffs that we had walked the day before, the dark basalt overlaying the white lay of chalk underneath. Charles Kingsley apparently described Rathlin Island as a drowning magpie because of this layering, but it reminds me more of a layered chocolate cake with a tasty cream layer in the middle.
We reach Bull Point just as the slack water period starts, perhaps slightly earlier if anything, as it is still very rough there. Ruby Tuesday pitches up and down violently for ten minutes or so before she reaches calmer water. Above on the cliffs through the mist, we can see the ‘upside-down’ lighthouse that we had been in the day before. Ahead of us, we see a small catamaran struggling in the opposite direction trying to furl its sails to come around the point.
A strong wind is coming from the west, and we set a course northwards through the mist. Gradually Rathlin disappears and we are alone again on the sea. As we are crossing a shipping lane, we keep an eye on the radar and AIS to make sure there aren’t any large ships about to run us down. The First Mate goes inside to keep warm.
I muse on the book I am reading – Homo Deus by Yuval Harari – in which he talks about the trade-off modern man has made between meaning and power. Before modern times, life’s meaning was clear to most people and was determined by how it fitted into the cosmic plan devised by omnipotent gods. These gods provided the script and humans acted it out. Human power was limited, however – if a person fell ill, it was because those omnipotent gods willed it. Now if we get ill, we know that it is a bacterial infection we were unlucky to contract, but we have the power to do something about it. Science and our economic systems have made us almost omnipotent ourselves; but to gain this power we have had to abandon any idea that there is an overall cosmic plan that we fit into – the universe is blind and purposeless, and has no meaning. Things just happen.
I think back to my previous musings on our way to Fishguard – it makes me wonder if it is a pointless quest we are on to try and find something beyond ourselves. Perhaps there is nothing. But Harari offers a way out – the old ways that provided certainty from external gods have been replaced by the new religion of humanism. In humanism, it is our own thoughts and desires that are paramount – we choose what morals we live by, who we marry and stay married to, what we buy, what is art, what we worship, who we vote to govern us. Knowledge comes from our experiences, which in turn are made up of our sensations, emotions and thoughts, and how we analyse these experiences and let them influence what we do. It is now human experience that gives meaning to the cosmos rather than the other way round. All we have to do is follow the yellow brick road and open ourselves to whatever experiences come our way. Meaningfulness is just a human construct.
The AIS suddenly shows a boat approaching off our starboard bow. I peer through the mist, but can’t see anything. No matter, it will be out there somewhere. I pull up its details and see that it is the Kintyre Express, the fast ferry service that runs between Islay, Ballycastle and Campbeltown. We are not on a collision course, so I relax again.
They are interesting ideas, and to some extent chime with my own. But there is something I feel uneasy about, not least the raising on a pedestal of humans providing meaning to the cosmos. Are we really that important? One species on one small planet in one solar system in one galaxy in one cluster – giving meaning to the entire universe? Can it be? What if there is life elsewhere – would that not also give meaning, and what if it were different? And if multiple meanings are permitted, isn’t the very concept of ‘meaning’ meaningless?
And yet, there are parallels in modern physics with the ‘observer problem’. Quantum theory tells us that things are in a superposition of multiple states until they are observed. But what counts as an observer – a human, or another conscious entity? If so, did the universe not really exist until humans came along to observe it? Does it only exist in our heads? Is there no ultimate reality?
My brain is starting to hurt, but we are arriving at the entrance to Port Ellen and I have other things to think about. We furl the sails and motor into the harbour. Through the mist we can see the low-lying buildings and tall chimneys of the Port Ellen distillery, looking for all the world like some kind of battleship. Ahead is the small pontoon where we find a berth and moor up. Richard and Maryanne, our neighbours from Ballycastle, are already there. Behind us is a large cargo ship loading logs. Later in the evening it moves forward to load logs into its stern, and our way out is blocked.
The gale arrives in the early morning. I am awoken by the howling of the wind and the loud slapping of waves against Ruby Tuesday’s stern. I lie there for some time, hoping to get back to sleep, but it is impossible, so I make myself a cup of tea. While the kettle boils, I look out of the companion-way and in the half-light see the angry waves driven by the wind from the west blowing right into the harbour. We couldn’t have chosen a worse berth, and I make a mental note to see if we can find another one on the other side of the pontoon in the morning so that at least we are facing into the wind.
The morning arrives and I feel grumpy. The cargo ship loading logs leaves and there is now space for us to move out, but its departure has made us even more exposed to the strong winds and waves from the west. Luckily several of our neighbours are on hand to help us, so we reverse out of our berth and motor around to the other side of the pontoon. It’s not as easy as it sounds as the wind is still very strong, and it takes a major effort to avoid being blown onto the edge of the pontoon and into the other boats. Eventually however, helping hands guide us in and we are tucked up safely and soundly in our new position. The slapping almost stops, and some of my grumpiness disappears.
The next day, we decide to take the bus to Bowmore, then to Portnahaven. We find the bus stop and wait. The bus is already ten minutes late. The First Mate asks a fellow-queuer if this is normal.
“It depends on the driver”, she says. “All the others are fine, but there is one who is a bit of a law unto himself. He seems to have his own timetable, and nothing will shift him from it. He wouldn’t even drop me off near a friend’s house once and I had to walk all the way back from the bus-stop, me with my bad leg. He’s a right one, that one.”
Ten minutes later the bus arrives and we climb in.
“Is this the driver you were talking about?”, the First Mate asks the woman as we sit down.
She suddenly looks embarrassed. “No, no, not this one”, she whispers, worried that he might overhear. The First Mate suspects it is.
We change buses in Bowmore. This one has a different driver and leaves exactly on time. We travel around the broad expanse of Loch Indaal, past Bruichladdich with its distillery, then past Port Charlotte with its Museum of Islay Life. Across on the other side of the Loch we can see the broad expanse of the Big Strand, its seven miles of sands glistening in the sunlight. The driver waves at everyone he passes, sticking his arm straight out like a salute, then rotating his hand back and forwards like the agitator in an old-fashioned washing machine.
Before long, we are the only passengers on the bus. We arrive at Portnahaven at the end of the road on the south-western tip of Islay. I had thought that its name might have derived somehow from ‘haven’, meaning harbour, but apparently it comes from the Gaelic Port na h-Abhainne, meaning ‘port of the river’.
The bus driver tells us that he is returning to Bowmore in an hour, so we can go back with him then, or catch the bus after that which will be three hours later. In the meantime, he says we can have a coffee at the art studio or the pub in the village.
“Great”, says the First Mate. “I could do with a coffee”, heading for the studio. The studio is closed for the season. We find this odd as it is surely near the peak of the season, when there is likely to be the most customers.
“Never mind”, I say. “I am sure that the coffee in the pub will be as good.”
The pub is closed too. At least it opens at noon, but unfortunately that is also the time that the bus leaves.
We explore the village. There is a picturesque little harbour with fishing boats bobbing up and down, and about three or four seals looking inquisitively at us. The harbour is protected from the outside sea by two islands with a narrow gap between them. On one of the islands stands a lighthouse. Today it is rough, with waves breaking over the bar between the two islands and bringing surges into the harbour. Whitewashed houses surround the harbour on both sides, with more spilling down from the slopes behind. A solitary post-box provides a splash of red. One or two people can be seen, but there is an overwhelming feeling of isolation, as though this is the end of the world. Just the deep blue ocean from here on.
We come across a small shop advertising ice-creams for sale. We enter, and immediately the conversation stops and six heads turn to focus on us. So this is why the streets are deserted.
“Is this the queue for ice-creams?”, says the First Mate.
“Papers”, says one of the heads tersely. It seems the arrival of the newspapers is quite a social occasion in Portnahaven.
There is only one type of ice-cream and only two of those left, so we take them and eat them on the small bench outside the shop overlooking the harbour. The seals seem to look at us longingly. Perhaps they like ice-creams.
Back in Bowmore, we have lunch and the long-awaited coffee in the Lochside Hotel overlooking the small harbour and Loch Indaal. A kite-surfer is just leaving from the harbour heading for Port Charlotte on the other side of the Loch and we watch him or her until they become too small to see. What some people will do to save on a bus ticket!
Replenished, we amble over to the other side of the road to the Bowmore Distillery and sample a dram, savouring the taste of the peat smoke as it slips down. Aaaaah, perfection! If you want distilleries, then Islay is certainly the place to come, but the Bowmore one is the oldest of them all, and the whisky that is produced there one of the most drinkable.
Then just to salve our consciences, we move from matters of the spirit of one kind to matters of the spirit of another kind and visit Bowmore’s unique Round Church. Sitting in a dominant position at the top of the main street, it seems to serve as a stern reminder to the town’s citizens not to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, at least not too much! It was supposedly built in a circular shape so that there are no corners in which the Devil could hide.