Scotland, Great Britain
One of the problems with travelling in Scotland in summer is the difficulty of packing light. Into my daypack I throw a sweater, raincoat, sunglasses, sunscreen, spare socks (in case of damp ground), BootsnAll baseball cap, and (always a good idea in the Western Highlands) midge repellent. As I approach Oban, a chink in the clouds makes it look, thankfully, as if the raincoat will be redundant.
The Caladonian MacBrayne ferry waits in port as the day-trippers queue for the journey to the isle of Mull. I carry two tickets: one for the CalMac, and another for the Turus Mara cruise around Straffa and the Treshnish Isles. Islands off islands, looking on the map like an illustration from The Wizard of Earthsea. The Turus Mara brochure promises unpolluted waters, basalt caves, ruined chapels, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, grey seals. But they know what we are really here for, and the front cover illustrates the star of the show, the puffins. “Puffin therapy” the brochure calls it.
The CalMac lands at Craignure and the Turus Mara bus waits to bring us to the boat at Ulva Ferry. We have to travel behind a road-surfacing truck for much of the single track road from Salen. “Just slowing us down for the pace of life here,” says the Glaswegian resident sitting opposite me. He points out Ben More, the “big hill”, on our left. He has been to Mull several times before, although this will be his first trip to the Treshnish Isles. Looking out at the wild landscape, I can see how it could become a place you would return to.
On board our boat, the Hoy Lass, I am glad of the sweater and the raincoat; although the rain keeps off, I need all the insulation I can get. However, there is something so exhilarating about being on the top deck of a boat with the spray on your face and the taste of salt on your tongue. The boat churns up a minty white foam any toothpaste advertisement would be proud of.
First port of call is Staffa, where grey-black hexagonal pillars rise out of the sea. The captain informs us that this island was created by a volcanic eruption 65 million years ago, “on a wet Wednesday in October.” The Hoy Lass lands on a rocky beach and we follow the crazy-paving basalt path to Fingal’s Cave. It is hard to believe that the builders of the great cathedrals were not inspired by this astonishing natural construction. Passing by other visitors is a nerve-racking experience as the path along the side of the cave is narrow and the water a long way down, so clear you can see the pillars extend far below it. The echo of the waves is like nowhere else on earth.
After an hour our boat returns to collect us and bring us to our next destination: Lurga, the largest of the Treshnish Isles and home to the most abundant seabird colony. En route, our captain points out the large black birds fluffing up their feathers on the rocks: shags, a relative of the cormorant. I spot a colourful beak on a small bird bobbing on the waves. My first puffin! I attempt to take a photograph, but it is too far away.
We are deposited on another beach, even rockier than the last and reeking strongly of seaweed. “Awful smell,” says an English girl, sleeve over her nose. “Lovely smell,” says the first mate as he helps her ashore.
The captain points out the path to the cliffs and the seabird colony. “Follow the trail until you come to the Heart Rock. Don’t stop at the top of the first cliff to watch the puffins, or you’ll be there all day. I say that every time, and nobody takes a blind bit of notice.”
As the uphill path begins to level out, I duck to avoid a bird flying over me. I notice the orange and yellow beak as it lands on the edge of the cliff beside its mates. Puffins! I crouch down and take a photograph, and move slowly forward to take another. I worry that at any moment they may fly away, spooked by my presence. I have an ideal shot in my viewfinder, a side profile of that wonderful beak, the orange webbed feet just visible in the grass. I am just about to click when the bird turns its head towards me, eyeing me curiously, and ruining my perfect photograph!
There are two children in our group: a girl of about 10, who sensibly stays close to her parents, and her brother of about 8, who rushes ahead. His mother manages to catch up with him to warn him about the perils of running beside a cliff. He is too enthralled by the birds waddling close to the edge to listen.
But he is far from alone. These comical, curious, gloriously-coloured birds are making children of us all. One Englishwoman sits in the long grass and stares. A young German couple hold hands, and you know this will go down as one of those snapshot moments that define a relationship.
The Glaswegian points out to me the burrows where the puffins nest. “On the mainland, their nests would be disturbed by rats and rabbits. That’s why they’re only found on islands like this.”
I finally decide to follow the path upwards to the Heart Rock. On the way I pass the young boy, whose father is showing him one particularly steep part of the cliff and pointing out just what would happen if he fell down. A shag preens itself on a rock, surrounded by two puffins and three guillemots. It’s easy to feel sorry for the guillemots, which are about the size of puffins but have dull black beaks and feet. It would take a lot of guillemots to outshine a puffin.
The noise grows louder as I approach the large Heart Rock, and I realise that a lot of guillemots is just what I’m going to get. Thousands of them, in the feathered equivalent of a congested high-rise city, an avian Hong Kong. I spot a few puffins, fearless of their neighbours although the orange-and-yellow is easily distinguishable amid the black-and-white. This city of birds obviously suffers no racial tensions.
I ask an elderly lady, whom I spotted on our boat earlier, to take my photograph. She speaks no English, so calls over one of her travelling companions. He is her son-in-law, a Lithuanian working in St Andrews. He talks about how it is a shame that so many visitors to the UK never travel further north than Edinburgh. I say that’s true, but at least it means places like this never get too overcrowded, even in high summer.
All too soon we have to trek back towards the rocky beach where we have an appointment with the Hoy Lass. There is a point from the cliff where we can see the beach, and most decide to spend our last few minutes on the island with the puffins rather than the rocks and seaweed. The Englishwoman is still sitting in the same spot in the long grass, and I wonder if she has moved in the hour-and-a-half we spent here. I use up my last photograph on a puffin with a mouthful of eels. And only then do I see what would have been the photo of the day.
The elderly Lithuanian woman bends forward, a beatific smile on her face. For a moment, she is a child again, full of wonder. That’s what puffin therapy does for you, I guess.