Oban and on the water

It’s definitely spring in the Highlands of Scotland. Five years ago, when we were here last, we experienced what became as ‘isn’t it lovely, wait five minutes’ aka ‘summer in Scotland’, when out of the blue torrential down pours would drench us to the bone and then disappear just as quickly. After the first half a dozen times it became a bit of a joke, at least I think that’s why we were laughing, or maybe it was the frustration/crazed minds we’d all developed due to constantly having to change clothes or shoes because once again we were a sodden mess. Anyway, I mention this because this morning when we peeled back the curtains, expecting to see Oban’s harbour, maybe a boat or two, the islands in the background, all we could see was the car park. There was a mist so heavy and dense it could only be described as a ‘Scotch Mist’, that fabled weather phenomenon that occurs only in Scotland, when this grey and wet substance all but crawls across the water and drifts down from the mountains at the same time, devouring everything in its path as the two meet and do battle somewhere in the middle ground. There can be no winner, this eternal battle is fought time and again, and with each skirmish all the towns, houses, livestock and roads are consumed and banished to the benches until the sun rises a little higher and eventually breaks through. In some instances that can take all day. Today was one of those days. At some point during the night war had been declared and the two opposing forces were well into it when we woke up, the bay swallowed whole with nary a boat nor sea-bird to be seen or heard, the road well on the way to disappearing and leaving us, peering out the window and left wondering if we’d survive. Needless to say we did.

By 8am the battle was winding down, it appearing that both sides were retreating for once, and we decided to make a break for the town centre and ultimately the ferry. We’ve been over to the Isle of Mull several times, in some ways it’s become a sort of pilgrimage, whenever we’re in the area we go, or it’s become a point of reference in our family history ‘oh, remember when…’ and used to punctuate travel stories or mark the year of different explorations. We’ve also seen it in both the high and dry summer, when the beaches were a glistening white sand with russet red rocks at Fionnport, and like today when it’s colder, wetter, bleaker, and yet there’s always something about it that keeps us charmed and thinking about the next visit. Today however was our first visit to Duart Castle, we’ve always talked about it, we’ve intended to do it several times but been distracted at the last moment and missed out. Finally we made it, we booked our passenger tickets over on the ferry, we were there on time – early even, a rarity for us – and managed to find the right coach to the castle once we arrived at Craignure. From there it was a 4 mile bus ride, with a somewhat amusing driver who seemed to narrate the whole journey with slightly off kilter remarks that weren’t entirely informative/entertaining/insulting, but left you wondering just which he’d actually intended them to be. All the way from the port to the castle is drizzled and dripped rain, the windows of the bus looked more like a prison cell with watery bars to keep their captor in, and when we arrived at the castle it didn’t improve much, but that’s about where the ‘dark cloud’ ended. We climbed up the stairs and entered into the courtyard of the castle – it’s currently under some repairs, so south face is hidden behind some scaffolding which nicely provides some shelter outside the entrance – before crossing the threshold and into the castle proper.

If you were to go to Duart with the expectation of a ‘proper’ highland castle that dated back to the mists of time, then Duart will disappoint you. It’s current life – it’s had several – began in the early years of the 20th century when the then current Laird completely renovated and restored into a functional home the ruins of what was the castle after it’s previous incarnation – much destroyed by skirmishes over 500 years of political disputes – and is now in the hands of his son and the current McLean Laird. Parts of the lower sections of the castle quite literally are built on the original foundations of the defences from the 12th century – apparently the current Laird’s father used a lot of it to rebuild/repair the castle as it is now – but most of the ‘modernisation’ has paved over all the medieval and ancient remains and is fitting to the 1900s with its copper pipes, china door handles and cast iron appointments. Now, don’t for one minute think that I’m knocking the castle, or that I didn’t enjoy myself, because that’s not the case at all. The castle is brilliant in its new life, the dungeons were converted into the kitchen, they do however have a portion of the dungeon set up as it was with a display, and you’re guided through the building from the ground level to the banqueting room, where if you’re lucky you’ll catch Scott telling the story of how the McLeans made their name in the highlands and forged a rather interesting dynasty. For us this proved to be most interesting, not only because Scott’s storytelling was so engrossing, but because we kind of bumped into by accident, and ended up having quite the chat with, a thoroughly delightful older gentleman who happened to be the current Laird, who asked us about certain sights within the castle, and upon realising we hadn’t seen it all to his satisfaction, personally led us back up to see them with a few personal comments along the way.

Gobsmacked after our tour we stumbled back down the stairs intent on walking back to the coach and our return sailing, only to be met by him again, only this time we were able to comment on the matters he’d asked about and hopefully warmed his heart by offering our gratitude on his assistance and congratulations on coordinating such a wonderful exhibit on what most would consider to be a minor castle/family in Scottish history. If you’re planning to go to Mull, do try and stop in to the castle – it also has conveniences and tea rooms with an attached gift shop for those inclined – it really is a wonderful piece of history and well worth the effort of getting there. The return bus ride was as entertaining as the first and all too soon we’d arrived back at Craignure, fortunately to see the ferry arriving and not retreating into the horizon. Both sailings were remarkably calm and straight forward, the trip so boring we managed to snooze the entire thing, both ways! Once back in Oban however it was straight into the Caledonian Hotel for a scone and a hot cup of tea. Refreshed, and warmed up after the blustery weather, we plotted the remains of our afternoon, would we try sightseeing? No. What about another walk around the esplanade? No. How about some retail therapy and another cup of tea back at our digs? Yes! And so we did. Suffice to say a book store was found and arms were weighed down, there is now some serious consideration being given to baggage allowances. As we ambled back we also stumbled across a small ‘frozen foods’ mart and couldn’t help ourselves, subsequently we’re now weighed down all the more by several packets of McVities Jamaican Ginger Cake and some Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers. Good thing they’ll be long gone before the flight back. We did however also manage to scare up some dinner, some fish and chips no less, and were mightily surprised at how tasty said fish and chips were, also very thankful as the mists are already creeping back towards shore and we’re no doubt in for another night of mountain mist vs sea fog warfare.