Walking on Mull: crossing the sands to Erraid

Walking on Mull: crossing the sands to Erraid

Erraid is an island just off the southern coast of Mull, cut off at high tide but accessible at low tide across white sands.  It was low tide so for our second walk on Mull we headed down to Fionnphort (pronounced finn-a-fort) where we took the single track road to Fidden and then on to Knockvologan Farm.  There we parked the car and walked down the stony track that leads down to the shore as a Hen Harrier lifted off from a nearby fence.

Reaching the shore, we headed to our right in a northerly direction across the uncovered sands between Mull and Erraid, following footprints left by someone who had made the crossing a short time before.

We skirted the edge of Erraid island around a headland of low cliffs of pink granite fringed with bracken, shrubs and stunted trees before eventually following a faint path up onto the island past a boat shed and a white cottage.

Today, the few residents of Erraid belong to the Findhorn Foundation community based in Moray. They live, garden and farm here and provide courses for guests. Following the path past the white cottage, crossing the small streams on bridges, we picked our way past the row of cottages which form the main centre of habitation on the island. Each cottage had a long vegetable garden, stretching down towards the shore, sheltered by solid granite walls.

In 1866, the Northern Lighthouse board proposed the construction of a lighthouse on a grim rock outcrop about 17 miles south west of Erraid to warn shipping away from a group of dangerous rocks, the Torran Rocks.  To carry out the works the Board chose the firm of David and Thomas Stevenson, well known at the time as lighthouse construction engineers.  Thomas Stevenson’s son was Robert Louis Stevenson; he visited the island during the time that the lighthouse was being constructed, and later wrote an account of Erraid at the time:

In a word, there was a stirring village of some [fifty] souls, on this island which, four years before, had been tenanted by one fisherman’s family and a herd of sheep. The life of this little community was highly characteristic. On Sundays only, the continual clink of tools from the quarry and work yard came to an end, perfect quiet then reigned throughout the settlement, and you saw workmen leisurely smoking their pipes about the green enclosure, and they and their wives wearing their Sunday clothes … just as if they were going to take their accustomed seats in the crowded church at home.

On Isle Erraid, there was a good quarry of granite, two rows of sheds, two travelling cranes, railways to carry the stones, a stage on which, course after course, the lighthouse was put experimentally together and then taken down again to be sent piecemeal out to the rock, a pier for the lighters, and a look out place furnished with a powerful telescope by which it could be observed whether the weather was clear [and] how high the sea was running on Dhu Heartach and so judge whether it were worthwhile to steam out on the chance of landing.

The pier that Stevenson refers to in that passage is still there, along with the cottages constructed for the lighthouse keeper and assistant keepers, and the abandoned quarry. The time that Robert Louis Stevenson spent on Erraid provided the inspiration for his novel Kidnapped, published in 1886. In the story, the hero, David Balfour, is shipwrecked on the Torran Rocks and washed ashore on Erraid.  For a while Balfour mistakenly believes he has no way of getting off the island, in Stevenson’s description a barren and rocky waste:

The whole, not only of Erraid, but of the neighbouring part of Mull (which they call the Ross) is nothing but a jumble of granite rocks with heather in among. At first the creek kept narrowing as I had looked to see; but presently to my surprise it began to widen out again. At this I scratched my head, but had still no notion of the truth: until at last I came to a rising ground, and it burst upon me all in a moment that I was cast upon a little barren isle, and cut off on every side by the salt seas.

Past the keepers’ cottages, the track led down towards the jetty, where solid buildings of granite still stand, one with a large whalebone mounted over the door. Further along is the quarry where the stone was quarried for the cottages and two lighthouses, Skerrivore and Dubh Artach, 15 and 28 miles out to sea from here. Nearby stands a ruined house looking northeast to the sea.

In 1977, a Dutch couple, Henk and Arend van der Sluis visited Erraid for the first time, fell in love with island, and purchased it as a holiday home.  Not wanting to leave the buildings empty for most of the year, they reached an agreement with the Findhorn Foundation that members would live in and maintain the buildings for eleven months of the year, leaving the island to the van der Sluis family and their friends for four weeks in the summer.  For the Foundation, the island offers the possibility for

the development of a deeper understanding of what it means to live in harmony with nature, to co-create in the fullest possible way with the life of the island so that what is grown will be something deeply rooted in its quality and life, will be the essential experience of the group there.

A small community of Findhorn members live on the island permanently, while guests are invited to join the community to take part in its activities: gardening, cooking, chopping wood, polishing candles, meditating, singing.  They offer the opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty and the simplicity of life on the island: there is no running water and the practice of cutting peat has been revived for heating and cooking.

It was in the abandoned quarry that we encountered the first of several labyrinths we would see during these few days.  Spiralling circles of stones had been laid out with great accuracy on the turf.  The circles were splendidly decorated with the late summer efflorescence of purple heather.

From the quarry we climbed a path past a circular white metal building that was used to communicate with the two offshore lighthouses. Reaching a high point, we turned and made our way back, past the cottages where children played outside the front doors, and an old, 19th century notice on the gate warned that anyone leaving it open would be fined 40 shillings. A great deal of money back then.

As we retraced our steps across the sand to Mull, we paused for a while and listened to the melodious sound of the wind in the wires of the single telephone line to the island strung above our heads.  It made me think of Dis, the haunting album by the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, on which he duets with an aeolian wind harp, named after Aeolus the wind god of Greek mythology. The instrument is a wooden box, open at two ends, so that the wind can blow through. In the box are strings, which vibrate with the wind. On the album the harp is played by the winds above a Norwegian fjord.

Who dreams these isles,
Image bright in eyes
Of sea-birds circling rocky shores
Where waves beat upon rock, or rock-face smiles
Winter and summer, storm and fair?
In eyes of eider clear under ever-moving ripples the dart and tremor of life;
Bent-grass and wind-dried heather is a curlew’s thought,
Gull gazes into being white and shell-strewn sands.
Joy harsh and strange traced in the dawn
A faint and far mirage; to souls archaic and cold
Sun-warmed stones and fish-giving sea were mother stern,
Stone omphalos, birth-caves dark, lost beyond recall.
Home is an image written in the soul,
To each its own: the new-born home to a memory,
Bird-souls, sea-souls, and with them bring anew
The isles that formed the souls, and souls the isles
Are ever building, shell by painted shell
And stone by glittering stone.
The isles are at rest in vision secret and wild,
And high the cliffs in eagle heart exult,
And warm the brown sea-wrack to the seals,
And lichened rocks grey in the buzzard’s eye.
– Kathleen Raine, ‘Nameless Islets’

See also