We float on a languid sea under a hot sun. The sails hang limply – the wind is a mere puff, three knots, and we are only just managing one knot in speed. Probably most of that is due to the current. Ahead of us is Coll, our destination, low and long on the horizon. To the north are the unmistakable silhouettes of Eigg and Rum, and beyond that the mountains of Skye, dark blue in the haze. Behind us lies the Dutchman’s Cap, one of the islands of the Treshnish Isles, and Mull, its Loch Tuadh framing the view through to Ben More rearing its head into the clouds. Guillemots and puffins bob up and down on the slight swell coming from the south-west, flapping noisily off as we approach, then finding somewhere else to settle further away from us. We pass a flock of cormorants nervously looking this way and that, eventually diving to escape this intruder into their domain. We lie lethargically enjoying the warmth, each in our own thoughts.
The news on the radio is full of Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK. My mind goes back to a day in 2016; three other colleagues and myself are having lunch. Someone jokingly asks what we should do if both Brexit and Trump are voted for. We all laugh at the impossible, the world order is too resilient for that. People aren’t going to vote for leaving an organisation that has been beneficial to the UK and Europe, are they? The ties are too strong surely – we all go to Europe on our holidays and travel freely without visas, some of us have married Europeans, there has been peace for forty years. Sure, some of the regulations are a bit of a pain sometimes, but hey, every country has its rules and regulations, and surely the benefits of being in the EU outweigh these little annoyances? And Trump, well, what is there to say? Building a wall between the USA and Mexico! Surely we had learnt our lessons on the futility of building walls in keeping people out or in – Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the Maginot Line? People are not going to vote for that, are they?
And here we are, three years later, almost to the day. The world order has been well and truly shaken. Britain is a divided nation, the complexities of leaving the EU are now apparent, a Prime Minister has resigned and a search for a new leader has begun, a leader who the country will have little say in choosing. False news perpetuates itself, people don’t know what to believe; many don’t seem to care anyway, as long as it fits their view of the way the world should be.
What has changed? The world looks the same as it ever has – the mountains, the sea, the islands, the wildlife. The towns, the villages and the harbours don’t seem any different from what they did three years ago. All that has changed are the stories we tell ourselves – the EU is evil rather than beneficial, immigrants are bad for a nation rather than good, inequalities are all due to Brussels and not Westminster, we have lost our sovereignty and need to regain our former glory. Or is it as Harari says, that we have lost the old stories that gave life meaning, having surrendered ourselves to consumerism and the easy life, and we are now desperately floundering around looking for new narratives? But will Brexit and Trump give us those new stories? So far they are saying what we shouldn’t do rather than what we should do. Where is the vision?
A breeze springs up – it has gone around to the north now, just as the weather forecast said it would. We adjust the sails so that they fill and Ruby Tuesday surges forward on a close reach towards Coll. It always surprises me how quickly the wind can change – one minute it is dead calm, next minute there is a strong breeze. A bit like world events, I suppose.
We arrive in Loch Eatharna, tie up to one of the visitors’ buoys, and take the dinghy to explore Arinagour, the capital of Coll. It is tiny, but seems to have all the essentials at least – a café, a deli, petrol station, fire station, post office, bike hire, community centre and hotel.
In the evening, we eat in the Coll Hotel. The First Mate has venison and I have scallops. The barman and waitress turn out to be a couple from New Zealand working on Coll over the summer on their Overseas Experience. I remember back to the time when I did the same thing – how long ago it seems now and how much water has flowed under the bridge since then. I realise that it hasn’t finished – I am still on it at the moment. Am I a nomad?
The next day we decide to explore the island by bike. We extricate the two bikes from the rest of the gear that has accumulated in the spare cabin of Ruby Tuesday that we use for storage, and somehow manage to load them one at a time into the dinghy. There isn’t enough room for two bikes, two people and two rucksacks so we make two trips. At the pier, we manage to manhandle them up the slippery steps and assemble them at the top. It is the first time they have been out this year and we hope that nothing has fallen off or gone wrong with them since last year in Campbeltown. Everything seems fine. Even the tyres are still pumped up.
My foot is still bothering me and seems to have some infection on the inside of one toe. The First Mate has convinced me that I need to see a doctor, so I ask Mr Google if he knows if there is one on Coll. Sure enough, he comes back immediately with the details of the island’s only doctor in Arinagour. I ring the number and ask the receptionist if it might be possible for the doctor to have a look at a poorly foot. It isn’t the receptionist though, it is the doctor herself. She can see me when the surgery opens in the afternoon. Considering I was thinking that we may have to go back to the mainland to find one, that doesn’t seem long.
At 1630, we are waiting in the waiting room. The doctor is a little late. The First Mate finds an article in a National Geographic magazine about a Greek ship that had sunk in the Mediterranean with all its cargo on board. I wonder to myself if it is the right thing to read while sailing. Another patient comes into the room, and the First Mate starts talking to him, so I gently close the National Geographic and put it back on the pile.
The doctor arrives and apologises – she had another call to make and it took longer than she thought. We go into her room and she looks at my toe. I think I hear a sharp intake of breath like when the man in the garage is estimating the cost of repairs to the car, but I might have imagined it. She puts me on a course of antibiotics and says that if it doesn’t get better in a week I should come back. Explaining that we are travelling by boat and are heading for Coll, I ask her where the next doctor would be. She thinks there is a visiting doctor on Eigg, but is not sure. Otherwise Mallaig. It brings it home to us how many things we take for granted on the mainland that the islanders don’t have.
Leaving the medical centre, we set off on the small road heading for the west coast of Coll. The scenery reminds us of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, with myriads of small rock outcrops protruding through the thin soil. In the valleys between, more fertile areas support lush grassland with sheep contentedly grazing.
We stop at the top of a knoll and survey the vista in front of us. A corncrake calls from some long grass in the nearby field, although we can’t see it. Below us are whitewashed buildings which we identify on the map as the Ballyhaugh Hebridean Centre. At first, we think this may be some kind of heritage centre, but on entering it, we see that it is much more like a hostel.
It seems deserted, but suddenly a woman appears.
“Is this a kind of museum open to the public?”, I ask.
“No, sorry, this is private,” she says. “It is run by the Project Trust, and arranges gap years for school leavers to go abroad and work in developing countries to give them experience before they settle down to their careers here. They go all over – Asia, Africa and South America.”
The First Mate suddenly blurts out “Do you come from Inverbervie by any chance?”. Inverbervie is a small village not far from where we live. I wonder why on earth she asks the woman that.
The woman is equally nonplussed. “Yes, but how on earth do you know that?”, she says.
“You look so much like one of my former work colleagues, and I remember now her saying that she had a sister who lives on Coll. Are you Shona’s sister?”, continues the First Mate.
“Well, well, well”, says the woman. “Yes, I am.”
It’s a small world. The First Mate explains about her work and they start to have a good old natter. The woman has worked on Coll for the Project Trust for fourteen years and loves island life. She met her partner here and her children from a previous marriage came here with her of their own choice.
From the Hebridean Centre, a rough track leads over the sand dunes to the beautiful sandy beach at Hogh Bay. Having seen very few people on the way down, we are not really surprised to find that we have it to ourselves. We sit on a chair-shaped rock and eat our apples and drink our coffee, drawing pictures in the sand with our toes like we did when we were children, and absorbing the beauty of our surroundings. The sky is an azure blue, the sun is beating down, and the sand is yellow and warm.
Two oyster-catchers fly overhead, wheeling and diving as in a dogfight. We follow them over the dunes at the back of the beach, and notice discordant dark clouds gathering behind them. It is time to push on.
On the south-east corner of the island we find Breachacha castle. Actually, there are two castles, Old Breachacha Castle and New Breachacha Castle. The old one goes back to the 1500s, whereas the new one was built in 1750.
The latter’s claim to fame was that it was visited by Johnson and Boswell in their trip around the Hebrides, although Johnson wasn’t particularly impressed by it. “I liked it at first”, he said, “but eventually I came to see it as a mere tradesman’s box.”
The First Mate, however, doesn’t agree. “I’ve always wanted to live in a house with a turret”, she says. “Ever since I was a little girl. And I read somewhere that it is for sale. At least it was last year. I wonder if it still is?”
There don’t seem to be any For Sale signs around, so we guess that it has been sold. Besides, it looks like it needs a lot of work. I wonder what the new owner has bought it for. It isn’t the sort of place that I would want to live – great views out over the sea, but otherwise somewhat bleak – no trees, nothing except featureless moorland all around.
That evening, we eat again at the Coll Hotel. As we order, we chat to two other sailors at the bar, and we decide to have dinner together. They turn out to be two doctors, Richard and Paul, who are on their way out to Barra in the Outer Hebrides and are planning to leave at 0500 in the morning. I briefly wonder if doctors are like buses – I have not seen one for a long time, and here on Coll I see three in a day. The conversation, however, is light-hearted.
“Did you know that research has shown that men live longer if they are married while woman die sooner if they are married?”, says Paul. We puzzle over that one for a while.
“I wonder what happens if men have two wives, or even three?”, I muse. “Do they live even longer?”
“I hadn’t thought of that”, says Richard. “Perhaps I’ll try it.”
“And be responsible for the early deaths of three woman rather than just one?”, says the First Mate. “I thought you were a doctor?”
While we are wining and dining, the wind goes around to the south-east, blowing right into the anchorage and whipping up a vicious chop. It is quite difficult to climb into the dinghy as it keeps on being dashed up against the pier wall. The doctors decide to lift theirs onto the pier and over the other side, but we persevere and in between waves eventually manage to clamber in. The ride back to the boat is bouncy and seems a long way. The wind continues all night, and we don’t sleep well. In the morning it is calm again.