8 Tobermory – Oban

 14–22 X 1773
15–22 IV 2016




Sebastian: I think he will carry this island home in his pocket and give it his son for an apple.
Antonio: And, sowing the kernels of it in the sea, bring forth more islands.

Shakespeare, The Tempest (II.i)


The Isle, after Prospero

islands make
more islands

stars make
more stars


Colosus, Cola, Coll

the horizon’s long
   low and all
      Coll –

the foot of land
   that stands
      in the waves


Ulva, Ullamdha

a name –
   Wolf –
      or outline

or Norse
   for nobody

or an isle
      for the taking



the BIG beach-to
   is two-in-one
      with its coda, Ulva


Hì, Ivona, Iona
the yew isle

   knocked off the cult
      on Cnoc Druidean
the druid’s knowe
   and built below
      Càrn Cùl ri Éirinn

the green cairn
   with its back turn-
      ed on home


Eilean nam Ban
the isle of the women

will these waves
   keep the monks
      of Hì clean?

islands make
more stars

stars make
more islands

WJ Watson refers to Coll in his discussion of the place-names that feature in Adamnan’s Life of Colum-Cille: cos for cox-a, foot; seas for sist-o, stand – though he also notes Colosus may be pre-Celtic. Ulva is from the same source, and suggests tides of colonization. Gometra’s name seems to derive from the beach that connects it to Ulva – the two islands are really one. Iona, which he reads as yew isle, was home to a cultic Druidic community, ejected by Collum-Cille. Over the sound is Eilean nam Ban, isle of the women, who the monks wanted kept off Iona.



Chonzie – as I byname Ken when we are on tour – laying out the old poem-labels, like a game of patience, separating project from project.

for Annie

a life
of note

with or


That was Pat and Annie’s place.’ As the ferry passed Kerrera, I pointed out the old farmhouse, snug against the hill with its back turned to the world, faced Atlanticwards. On the road north we visited the bungalow they moved to, in Kilmiddlefern, and enjoyed Annie’s garden, with a nectarine growing by the warmest wall, from a stone she’d carried with her from the island.

I thought of their bunkhouse and tea garden at the far end of Kerrera, where we’d first met, before I knew her ‘name’, Annie Briggs, and how, despite her years of silence, she’d made another, quieter, performance of her life, fashioned in biscuits and gardens, earning another kind of name, over time, as ‘recluses’ do. Few of us have a Boswell, but our lives still measure the way we take care of our names, or fail to, even if it is only on Facebook.

She still has our thermoses that we left drying by her sink in 2010 to go back to. Journey blends into journey, crisscrossing years and places, picking up old thoughts, leaving others behind.



On scorchio Coll we climbed the ‘mountain’ of Ben Hogh (ascent 14 minutes), to the erratic ‘apple’ thrown by a local giant, balanced on its ‘summit’. Our catalogue of islands and their purposes is ongoing:

house & garden, with vines     Johnson, Inch Keith
seraglio                                        Johnson at Dunvegan, Isle of 

                                                      Skye; Donovan, Isle of Isay
colleges of learning                   Johnson, Isle of Scalpay
inoculations                                The Laird, Isle of Muck
Episcopal church                       Johnson, Isle of Scalpay
energy isle                                   Eigg
creative retreat                           Eigg again
freewheeling bicycle rally        Coll



Before we left for Mull we visited the bibliophile Bill Zachs in his historic flat in Edinburgh’s Old Town – it was Alec’s 50th birthday treat, and in some ways those hours wandering a library of Boswell and Johnson’s time felt like as close as we got to them. Bill showed us many of the books they discuss together, as well as old maps, travelogues, original editions of both Tours and Ossian, and a yellow envelope containing a copy of a manuscript diary kept by Mary Hyde – Mary, Viscountess Eccles (1912-2003), to give her full title – in the course of her own Tour to the Hebrides in June 1968. Hyde collected manuscripts, papers and ephemera which now forms a collection dedicated to Johnson at the Houghton Library, Harvard. It includes this astonishing imagination of Johnson as a young child by Reynolds.

Like us, Hyde wanted to go ‘out of books’, going ahead of us on the same road – but eating in better establishments and stopping off at bigger houses.

One evening, after dining in Tobermory, she and her companions ‘drive 7 miles to Dervaig. The longest 7 miles I’ve ever known. Hairpins turns, and for no real reason. We are going to the Barn Theatre, the smallest theatre in the British Isles. Seats 35. Run by Barrie and Marianne Hesketh. Production tonight The Tempest. Alas, we are late, and have to wait for the one and only interval.’ There are photos of the barn, and more on this production in the theatre magazine Tabs. Mull Little Theatre survived and flourished at Dervaig for forty years, and greatly added to the island’s fame; it survives as Mull Theatre in newer (and larger) premises near Tobermory.

From Treshnish, looking back at ourselves on the low isle of Coll, we imagined watching the Le Tour de Coll: the All-comers Zen Freewheeling Cycling Championship, through binoculars, the riders a skein of colourful geese travelling up – no, down – no, all the way along that flat rock, round by the castle, and all the way back again, pedal-free to the pier.

Islands make the sea known. As we tune in to their discrete measures they call us on to smaller isles:

from Ulva to Gometra
   from Gometra to Inchkenneth
      from Inchkenneth to Erosa
         from Eorsa to Eilean nam Ban
            from Eilean nam Ban to Sgeir nam Damh

And there it stops, for people don’t live on skerries – nor do stags, so we wonder how Sgeir nam Damh got its name (it’s the wrack covered wrock in the middle distance of the photograph). Remembering the official mariners’ definition of an island as an entity of land that a sheep can graze on all year round. There will be less of them in a decade.

Misreading Gometra as Geometra, and thinking back to Cocker’s Arithmetic, which Johnson gifted to the innkeeper’s daughter at Anoch, Alec sketched out a set of disciplines to be studied when time allows:



Our book pairing for Cocker was a biography of Alan Turing, whose fame was born from the invented Colossus.

Islands are no different to anywhere else, except that, being a bowl of fruit set in the table of the sea, they are there to be appreciated. They also share a common language: weather.

Telling the Weather (Treshnish)

(1) Space : can you see Coll? (And Rum?)

(2) Time : can you see the windmill turning? (How fast?)

(3) Belief : will it be scorchio tomorrow? (For how long?)

On Treshnish there are local indicators of the prevailing wind in two verticals: the ancient hazel woodland, which is hardy and hides from deer in clefts and fankles, and the recently imported windmills, whirring on the hillside. Our base for the week is an award-winning combination of biomass, solar, windmill turbines, hens, and turkeys, producing 30,000 somethings a year.

the windmills
and the hazels

follow the winds
in different ways

Trees and windmills place the wind outside. Johnson would have included these local details; he was interested in economy and, having come too late to find the ‘primitive’ culture he read of in Martin Martin’s tour, he made do with studying island society – praising Young Col for introducing turnips to Coll, and MacLeod’s orchard at Dunvegan.

On Mull Johnson repeated his gripe about the lack of trees in Scotland, noting that the problem is one of time. Between ‘the seed and the timber’ there is, he says, a ‘frightful interval’, during which the investment in the crop sits with its roots in a bog, making nothing but an annual ring; life as a Beckettian ordeal, merely to be endured.

tree: a rising earth-bound root.

Johnson would have been appreciative of the ugly acreages of sitka planted inland, and have wanted them to be used locally, as biomass fuel, rather than ferried off. Small though the plants are in number, the island has the highest ratio of biomass heating systems per head in the UK – well, perhaps until recent events in Northern Ireland, where you can find more biomass plants in one shed than in the whole of the island. There are also community and private hydro schemes producing up to 500 kwh. If it weren’t for the hostility of the present Westminster government this would be an era of metamorphosis, of windflowers, dragonflies and oysters, the panoply of devices driven by wind and tide that have the potential to convert each island into a common sense ‘district’ heating system, getting rid of dirty diesel. They could and most likely will send energy down cables to Oban, Thurso, and Aberdeen. Otherwise the coastlines of low islands, like Coll, will be redrawn. They may be anyway.

Now that weather is also energy a windy or rainy day is a productive one. The income pays for new community centres, and on some islands, like Tiree and Rousay, there is £100,000 or more annually to improve lives. On Coll, and also on Eigg, the café-pub-bunkhouse-come-all-ye-ceilidh-hall-community-centre hosts daily conversations that are also negotiations redefining island culture. On an island as large as Mull, with a population that is predominantly incomers and homes that are mostly second, how easy is it for the community to have a holistic vision of ‘the island’? Incomers are fine, if they are present, but it seemed to us that mainland notions of property held sway.

Eigg, Coll, Mull: different varieties of ‘non-native apple’ in a post-Gaelic era – some communities are creating new versions of crofting and commons, re-mapping themselves, while others continue as picture postcards. Our friend Maoilios Caimbeul, who used to live in Tobermory, has a poem lamenting roads that lead nowhere, where once they connected countless villages. Mull was severely cleared, losing half its population between 1821 and 1881, and over half again by 1961, when it reached a low of just over 2,000. Today that has increased to 3,000, still only 30% of the 1821 total.

If, as Jonathan Skinner says, the wild is where humans are not, then these bogs are post-emigration. They bear the memory of cow shit and shieling, as flushes and patches. While the population is increasing there don’t seem to be enough people living here to shape the conversation into a thing, an island parliament.

RAISED BEACH : a salted wave held in the land

On Mull the coast is measured out in raised beaches. They rise from the dark shoreline, roll themselves into pastry bluffs, which are connected by pitches of grass, ling, and bracken, to flat topped tables, like dùns or handy craters. The tops of Mornish, above Calgary beach, look perfect for clangers and soup dragons. On our first trip, as is traditional, the food bag was carefully packed but stayed at home so, what with the cold rain and the wind coming in off the sea, soup would have been good. MacDiarmid’s great poem, ‘On a Raised Beach’, broods on bigger issues than discomfort.

    These stones go through Man, straight to God, if there is one.
    What have they not gone through already?
    Empires, civilisations, aeons. Only in them
    If in anything, can His creation confront him.
    The bare stones bring me straight back to reality.
    I grasp one of them and have in my grip
    The beginning and the end of the world

Turning off the road towards our cottage at Haunn, a single flowering tree was conspicuous by the Ensay Burn, in a leafless wood. Eck took it for a gean worthy of Edo, Ken suspected magnolia. A walk would settle the matter. Through an old burial ground, the grave inscriptions obscured by lichen and moss, Ken sighted pink through the trees, on the other side of a deer-fence. A gate led into a hazel wood, and a slippery bridge improvised from fence-posts. Within the wood was a mossy wall, and it felt like a place long neglected. Approaching the magnolia (as it turned out to be) its petals lost any intensity of colour against a slate grey sky as it started to rain..

We had a copy of Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, translated by W.S. Merwin and Takako Leto.

Three poems, after Buson


on the road to Treshnish
among leafless hazels
a magnolia tree in bloom


I drive on past Calgary
and have the flowering magnolia
all to myself   


for Chonzie

soon the magnolia
by Ensay Burn
will lose its blossoms

and the glen
will return
to leaves

Coda, after Turrell.

not light
but what

light re-


Driving, Ken arrived via the ‘hairpin bends’ of Mary Hyde’s ‘longest 7 miles’; one tight bend in particular just out of Dervaig came as a particular surprise, and it was as well there was no other traffic. In Tobermory he found his way to the Mull Museum, and this little relief of the travellers’ arrival.

From Tobermory Boswell & Johnson made their way south to Ulva. Earlier we had pondered their route over the island’s waist. It was not a good day: Johnson ridiculous again, his bulky frame on a wee sheltie, his lower limbs wetted in rivers and dragged through the bog. He was exhausted, and fretting to be back ‘in touch’, for he missed the mainland. He had letters to send to the Thrales, just as Alec had people to worry about:

for a worried friend

too many

while he

for his


Ho! Sheltie, how-come yir glaring wi doubt in your ee,
How flee me, eh? You kin tell I ken a trick, or three, aye?
Like they say, I’d slip the reins on, nice and easy
N’ tak yir can fer a canter, roun the parrock rails.
But here you stond, croppin’ grasses, jigging like a lassie.
You’ve nivver lit a Moorlan jockey redd ye in Sheltie ways.


It was the Lewis-folk set a donkey
With a cuddy

To modify
The half-pint pony.

Anakreon (417, 34), AF after Davenport’s translation

Names further us on. Here it was Johnson’s mention of the ‘reliques of humanity’, a nameless ‘ruined chapel’ on the roadless moor, the whereabouts of which we enjoyed debating as we surveyed the map. Alec held out for a ruin half way across the island, Cille a’ Mhorair, in Glen Bellart. Morair, lord, earl, so the translation may be Earl’s church, made more likely by the names extending to the wood and burn nearby. Ken suggested Kilmore, near Dervaig, as ‘the vestigial remains of the old parish church of Kilmore (Kilcolmkill) lie within the burial ground’ (Gus Am Bris An La, 2006).



In the museum Olive, who had walked across the island, told how the route on their map is that of least resistance, following the low ground. She suggested, as a third possibility, Kilninian, just west of Torluisk, which is the house they may have been making for, before they discover their mooted host, ‘a gentleman that lived on the coast… lay in bed without hope of life’. According to Gus Am Bris An La, however, ‘the present church building dates from 1755’, so it’s unlikely to have become a ruin only 18 years later. What it has become in the interim is, of all things, Romanian Orthodox; Johnson, you feel, would have been fascinated.


‘Bàrr òir a’ cuarachadh Eilean Ulbhaidh’

‘A golden crop surrounds the Isle of Ulva’

Traditional Gaelic proverb (over 100 tons of kelp was exported annually from Ulva at one time).

The uncertainty over the meaning of Ulva, whether Wolf – from a beast or the shape of the island’s outline – or Norse, meaning the island is uninhabited and ready for colonization, is an echo of Johnson’s realization, as he worked on the Dictionary, that language is a tide of usage, marked by faults, cracks, and make-do joins, like Maclean’s house-with-a-crack-in-it, on Coll.

Gometra and Ulva, seen here as one, from near Burg, looking over Dùn Aisgain and Loch Tuath.

Changing the sign from white to red will call the Ulva ferryman out of his hut. On the island the boatshed has brown and white wool, barnacle and greylag geese, and good oysters and bad oysters, as Chonzie found out.

The boatman tells us there are about 20 people on the island today. No concerns about immigration. We step over a golden retriever to enter The Boathouse, where we pay for our passage. Ken follows the route of Woodland Walk, and enjoys the sunny spring island landscape more than Boswell seems to have enjoyed his outing on the island.



after Boswell

From the coast there is a fine prospect of Eorsa and Inchkenneth, as well as the Mull of Ross and Iona in the distance, though it is a scene of tragedy: Johnson describes how Young Col was drowned ‘between Ulva and Inch Kenneth’, in 1774, at the age of only twenty-four.

This Amiable Man
i.m. Young Coll

Ken switched back into woodland; now the sun lights up mossy birch trunks. Taking the Minister’s Road uphill, the view to the north opens up; a descent to the white church, then the road back to The Boathouse. The road was full of puddles, in many of which tadpoles wriggled. Would the puddles would last long enough for frogs to emerge? A dry spell, and more sunny afternoons, and maybe not. Back at The Boathouse Alec, and several other people, were sitting at tables outside. Ken orders tea and a dish of oysters (dodgy), which come with lemon, tabasco and good bread. A chaffinch lands on the table; an offer of crumbs draws it close enough for us to admire its blue-grey quiff and matching beak.

Alec was winter weak and didn’t leave sight of Eilean a’ Chaolais, the kyle isle. From his end of Ulva the ridge of Ben More and A’ Chìoch, the big ben and the pap, had a celebrity silhouette to match Rùm.

We saw the spear-point of Askival the next evening, looking west from Ugag, on the Mornish peninsula.

On the way back to Treshnish we stopped at Lip na Cloiche, where Lucy Mackenzie lives, a friend of a friend in Edinburgh, who recommended we contact her if we wanted to get out to Inchkenneth. A quick phone call, and everything’s arranged for the next morning.


We came across this Orion on Ulva, and records tell us that there was also an Orion out of Oban, OB222, setting pots and traps for several years around the millennium. When Johnson suggests they erect a statue to Young Col, who ‘does every thing for us’, Boswell replies, ‘we will have him with his various attributes and characters, like Mercury, or any other of the heathen gods’.

We had recently received David Bellingham’s ‘Hidden Solar System’ (for Iona), and, starting with Mercury and Young Col, pondered the rest of Boswell’s Solar System, 1773.

MERCURY / Young Col

VENUS / Flora Raasay

EARTH / James Boswell

THE MOON / Joseph Ritter

MARS / Sir Eyre Coote

JUPITER / Samuel Johnson


SATURN / Lord Auchinleck

URANUS / Lord Monboddo

NEPTUNE / Malcolm Macleod

PLUTO / Lady Macdonald



oak staff


oak tree

BOG : a region in which a traveller is likely to suffer the loss of the measure of feet and yards



after John Cage, Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)

Johnson was grumpy from losing his ‘good oak staff’ on the traipse from Tobermory. It was adapted as a measuring device, with nails added to indicate a foot and a yard. Recently a friend visited who was somewhere on the spectrum, and they comforted themselves by measuring the house and city. I wondered if Johnson was the same? Having promised to donate the staff to a museum when he dies he can only joke, sourly, that no islander is likely to return it, there being so little timber to be had on Mull.

The journey that Johnson made through the Gaelic landscape falls into three symbolic parts:

Firstly there is the inception of his place-aware writing project, which comes to him sitting by a river, hemmed in by hills, by Loch Cluanie, among bog myrtle. It is the task of writing that shelters him from the anxieties the harsh hills inflict on his mind.

Secondly, the loss of his spurs in the waves, as the travellers are rowed with oars and ancient airs, from Skianadin to Raasay, which sends him into the full flow of islandness, and introduces him to the first of the little Hebridean ‘courts’ he was welcomed into, where the shock of the ’45 still reverberated, and the trauma of emigration was making itself felt.

Finally, weary, fretting for the mainland, he comes to Mull and suffers the loss of his staff, an inconvenience bringing a symbolic end to measure.

Over the course of the tour Johnson surveys Scotland as Bowell measures Johnson. There is only so much novelty, and change, we can adapt to. There is a reason most journeys are relatively brief, for we live tamped down lives, or worry we’ll become misfits. Johnson has seen all the heath and hills he can cope with and, without his staff, he is made anxious by the vertigo of purposeless. How. Much. Further.


a mind


We’re here because we’re here because we’re here.

The Doctor never got his staff back, but there is a tale of Coinnech, one of Collum-Cille’s monks, who made a voyage back to Erin, but left his holy staff behind; handily he found it again, lying on the grass of the Isle of Texa, off Islay. Those were the days.


This wee isle is like a conspectus – summary viewpoint – all of its own: from the model moor on top you can see all around, and there is a poet’s seat, for making notes.

our heads
are round

so that
our minds

can change

after Picabia

Ken suffered overnight from the Ulva oysters, but recovered in time to leave at 8, for the hour’s drive to Aoineadh Mòr. Carol and Wayne have been looking after the house on Inchkenneth for the Barlows for 11 years. Its most famous previous owners were the Mitfords; Unity, a Nazi sympathiser and friend of Hitler, spent her final years here being cared for by her mother after a failed suicide attempt left her seriously disabled, and died in Oban in 1948.

For a time her sister Jessica was the owner, and she threatened to let the Soviets use it as a  submarine base. If only Project Fear had found out.

We were given wellies and a life jacket, then Wayne took us across on a Zodiac dinghy, and we trudged across seaweed to the sand and grass by the house. It was a glorious semi scorchio day and the sea was kind. As we skipped over the oddness increased: a square off-white harled house with its imposing four storeys, and oriel windows running up the centre, set against the Hebridean sward. (There is a film of the house and island, with insightful interviews, by Simon Morris online.)

We walked in the nearby garden, chapel and graveyard, then struck out for the ground behind and other views. Ken went up to A’ Chrois, with views back across the island, as well as down to the Ross of Mull and Iona, and found his way to the Poet’s Seat. There are six cows on the island, and about 80 sheep; the farmer at Knock Farm has grazing rights.

Back at the house, Carol made tea, then gave us a tour of the house, undergoing renovation. She tried to dismiss the story of a swastika engraved on Unity Mitford’s bedroom window. I’ve met people who said they’ve seen it. A C4 documentary team decided Unity’s actual bedroom was too small for their purposes, and relocated her to the main bedroom on the top floor with a ‘tent’ (four-poster); not very practical for a patient in need of constant attention. This room has open views to the cliffs and slopes of Gribun; a webcam is set up to broadcast the view, but only to those who have the web-address, as too many log-ins hamper the house broadband. Wayne showed us some of the smaller buildings, including a partitioned area full of minke whale bones, from specimens washed ashore dead. The electricity is run with a mix of new, old and improvised equipment, including an old coffee jar, an image of which has gone viral among renewables geeks.

We made our way down to the beach, Port an Ròin on the orange OS map; an annotated map in the house gives it as ‘Cove of the Cleat’, while Maclennan’s dictionary gives ròin as ‘a hair’s breadth’. Ken walked out to the Humpies, or An Iollach, at the south end of the island. On the eastern side a gently sloping sandy beach runs into the sea, but on the western side (only yards away at some points) there’s a series of high-sided inlets with rocky floors; not much of a drop, but vertiginous enough.

After a snooze in warm sun he returned to the chapel. A number of old grave slabs, some with intricate carvings, have been placed against the wall at one end, like others in Kilmarie Chapel at Craignish, and at Rodel Church on Harris. Of the graveyard stones, most are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but one has the date 1676, and would have been there when Johnson and Boswell visited. They arrived on a Sunday, and took part in prayers and hymns with their host, Sir Allan Maclean, and his daughter, after which Boswell felt ‘truly pious’.

The chapel is not far from the house, but far enough, perhaps, on a moonless night to feel isolated and eerie. Moved to pray outside in the dark by the Celtic cross to Columba, Boswell spooks himself; ‘I was for going into the chapel; but a tremor seized me for ghosts, and I hastened back to the house’.

Unity’s window
keeps an eye

out on
Jessica’s fleet





Oh Iona, winds are blowing
Shall I see you home again
Oh Iona, I remember
Days of beauty, days of pain
I believe you I am with you
To a promise I will keep

‘Iona’, The Skids







(Iona Abbey)










A Columban poem decrying paganism gives a not unattractive description of its value-system.



The crystals, gluten free oatcakes, and three-cornered leeks in the soup suggested a re-infiltration by the old Yew-cult was underway.



i.m. John Smith

the lark
that sang
in shadow

At his interment a single lark was said to have called in the blue sky.


We caught the ferry at Fionnphort, along with a lorry carrying building materials (brieze blocks, and big bags of sand). White sand, blue green water, jagged black rocks… all still familiar from Ken’s only previous visit, on a July day less sunny than this, back in 1976. 150 years earlier again, Felix Mendelssohn had visited, describing the island as ‘a very Ossianic and sweetly sad sound’. In the garden of the Heritage Centre, we were granted birdsong, overlaid with the sound of building, at a nearby site where the ferried materials were unloaded. The trees, unlike those on Mull, were starting to leaf – a few emerging on the rowan, while the sycamore’s had opened, if not fully unfurled. Beneath them daffodils and wild garlic flowered; later we found a dark fritillary at the nunnery.

The cathedral complex felt manicured, after the relative wildness of our other destinations this week. Despite the sun, a cold wind was blowing. St Martin’s Cross stood out against blue sky, just below the knoll where Columba’s scriptorium was said to be. Inside the abbey church there jostle for room elements from its long and broken history – Celtic church, Benedictines, post-reformation decline, Macleod’s inspired restoration. The contemporary egalitarianism of the Iona Community stands in contrast to the aristocratic graves of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, who in 1899 granted the church to the Iona Cathedral Trust, which began the restoration. Stepping back out to the cloisters, the sun shone between stone columns, and Lipchitz’s large bronze sculpture in the middle seemed too heavy, too earthbound for the place.

We photographed labels at the beach. ‘I’, pronounced ‘ee’, is said by some to be Iona’s original name, and means simply ‘the island’ in Gaelic; the rock is so old that it predates life on earth, and contains no fossils. 

without fossils

no creatures

after Trenholme

Bibliography: F. Marion MacNeill, An Iona Anthology (1947)



famed for
its Episcopalians

and ex-prisons

take care jailer
   the alteration

   of jurisdiction
may prove a trial

Lochbuie as a long narrow road off a long road, at the end of a long trip, so the effort left us hoping it would be worth it.  It was only when we got sight of the castle that Alec recognised he’d been here many times on the big screen.

Emeric Pressburger: ‘Let's make a film about a girl who wants to get to an island, but who is delayed from getting there and when she can get there she no longer wants to.’

Michael Powell: ‘Why does she want to go there?

Emeric Pressburger: ‘Let's make the film and find out.

The famous scene of reconciliation and betrothal in I Know Where I’m Going was filmed here. It plays on the familiar idea of marriage as a prison, though here the prisoner surrenders willingly. Pressburger wrote the script in 5 days, based around his concept and the folktale, which would have come via Seton Gordon, a good friend of Powell’s. Gordon was adviser on Gaelic, music and lore, who ensured that the representation of Gaelic culture was more realistic and gracious than was common at the time, with some snippets of the language included in the dialogue.

Donald Meek (ed): The Campbell Collection of Proverbs
Michael Powell: A Life in Movies


At the road end the Old Post Office is supplied with food, drinks, an honesty box and a warning against snakes.

We walked to Moy Castle, passing a small pisky chapel named for St Kilda, a saint unknown to the church. (Wikipedia hypothesis that the name of the island archipelago derives from the Norse sunt kelda, sweet wellwater.) Nonetheless, the saint’s portrait in stained glass colours the church’s dark interior. Perhaps we can construe him as the missionary who converted the Ossianic heroes’ descendants.

At Moy Castle Johnson and Boswell met Maclean of Lochbuy, who had been described to them as a something of a Falstaff, or a Don Quixote; Boswell however finds ‘a bluff, comely, noisy old gentleman, proud of his hereditary consequence’. He asked Johnson, ‘are you of the Johnstons of Glencro, or of Ardnamurchan?’, to which Johnson ‘made no reply’, surely one of the very few occasions in his life when he was lost for words.

He must have later refound his tongue, as, using a phrase unknown to him, Lady Lochbuy describes him as ‘a dungeon of wit’. Boswell says the phrase is common, and expresses ‘a profoundness of intellect’, but its use is ironic given the castle has an actual dungeon, and a few years earlier Lochbuy had been heavily fined by judges including Boswell’s father for incarcerating his enemies in it.

Lady Lochbuy was the sister of Sir Allan Maclean, their host on Inchkenneth, who accompanied them to Lochbuie. To her brother’s displeasure, she proposes offering Johnson cold sheep’s-head for breakfast; Boswell, ‘for a mischievous love of sport… took the lady’s part’, and enjoyed the subsequent scene of cross purposes in which she read Johnson’s declining the offer of this delicacy as mere politeness and pressed him, until ‘he confirmed his refusal in a manner not to be misunderstood’. Their next meal is on the mainland, in Oban, and their time of being ‘confined’, as Boswell puts it, to the islands is over.

We were able to travel to Mull and the neighbouring islands thanks to an award from The Society of Authors’ Authors’ Foundation.