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Kidnapped by a tidal island
16 June 2019
‘The time I spent upon the island is still so horrible a thought to me ...’
Forced to eat a diet of limpets, buckies and periwinkles, some of which made him sick, Davy Balfour, having been shipwrecked on the Isle of Erraid, never did get used to the ‘horrid solitude’. He found himself ‘quite alone with dead rocks, and fowls, and the rain, and the cold sea.’ It rained continuously for nearly three days. Believing himself to be totally enclosed by sea, he beseeched passing boats to save him. He was ignored until finally he understood the word ‘tide’ shouted across the water by a fisherman, and came to realise he was on a tidal island and at the ebb could walk dry-shod onto the Ross of Mull, berating himself for not understanding better the ways of the sea.
Like the hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ (1886), I spent three nights here, camping in what is now known as ‘Balfour Bay’. I had intended only one night. Unlike him, I came deliberately and stayed as long as I did because I was entranced. The ‘trick’ of the tidal island experienced by Balfour, his ‘pitiful illusion’ of being trapped, wasn’t mine. I actively wanted to be on this island, and came prepared to be cut off. Yet, as I was visiting during the ‘neap’ period when the moon has less magnetism and the difference between high and low tide is smallest, the islet remained attached by a creek of dry white sand to the Isle of Mull.
On a kind of pilgrimage ahead of my Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, I’d been intrigued to learn that RLS had spent time here when his engineer father was quarrying and building the lighthouses at Skrerryvore and Dubh Artach. This was how the ‘islet’ came to play its part in Balfour’s famous journey. My own journey there by bicycle from Craignure satisfied my restless impulses. Once installed on a grassy bank with a warm sleeping bag, a stove and supplies, my immediate surroundings gave me little need for further movement other than meandering with the burn to the shore to where fresh and sea-water meet, noted the changing tides, the glassy translucence of the turquoise water, and the shells and algae that washed in.
The life of the green and granite amphitheatre revolved around me each day, its sandpipers and plovers singing out the long length of the June day, a gang of boy-racer ravens diving and climbing in the thermals and seeming to enjoy the echoes of their raucous croaking. I watched a Golden Eagle hunting and cavorting with a northerly through my binoculars, and felt my breath stall in response to its brute grace. Even horizontal in my tent with no view, the place pulsed on conspicuously: the rhythmic wash of waves crept a little closer at high tide; sheep came to sunbathe the cold night from their bones on the white sand at six a.m..
My food stretched to a second unplanned night there, but by the afternoon of the next day, I was still reluctant to pack up and make my way back across the island and the dry creek. However, it would be a hungry night if I stayed. And then, miraculously, and again so unlike Balfour’s experience, a passing stranger with a 10-week supply of food on her boat offered me whatever I needed. Rather than limpets, I feasted on tinned mackerel and shortbread, with muesli in store for the morning. I sank ever more deeply into being there, to watch and listen, and scramble amongst the clefts of granite, feeling that there was nothing else at all that I needed, and that I was gloriously irrelevant to the steady turning of the place.