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Fingal's Cave on the island of Staffa
May 26th was originally going to be a "down" day -- we were going to take daytrip cruises on the 25th and 27th -- but when we awoke, we saw an absolutely gorgeous blue sky outside (many of our Scottish hosts have commented about how fast the weather can change -- and how inaccurate the weather forecasts are). Thinking that we may not get another day as good as this, we decided to set out for the islands again.
Our outfit this time was Turus Mara (Scottish Gaelic for "sea journey"), a family-run business much smaller than yesterday's Bowman's and MacDougall's Tours. The woman at the ticket office was an ex-patriot American from Atlanta, Georgia, who loves her job. Iain Morrison, a 30-year ex-merchant marine, pilots the main cruise ship, the Hoy Lass. His wife Pat drives the minivan that transports passengers across Mull. Their son pilots the second ship, and their daughter crews.
Our adventure took us back on the 40-minute Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Oban to the Isle of Mull. This time we boarded a small red minivan driven by Pat Morrison, who did not entertain us with 75 minutes of tidbits about Mull. Instead, we were surprised when she drove us onto a fast-moving two-lane road that took us to Ulva Ferry on the northwest side of Mull in only 20 minutes. The scenery was just as beautiful as yesterday, made even more gorgeous by the better weather. At Ulva Ferry we boarded the Hoy Lass, a small cruise ship piloted by Iain Morrison and crewed by a young teenaged girl. Along with two dozen other people, we set out for Staffa.
Staffa (Norse for "Pillar Island") is one of the most famous of Alba's Inner Hebrides Islands. It is a geological wonderland, with stunning causeways and basalt cliff colonnades that rise out of the sea and run in just about every direction. One of the many huge openings in the side of the cliffs is called Fingal's Cave, after the mythical giant Fingal who supposedly created Staffa by stealing some pieces from the larger Giant's Causeway in Ireland. The composer Felix Mendelssohn, when he first saw Staffa and Fingal's Cave, was so moved by the crashing of the waves that he composed his Hebrides Overture.
Another edge: Gail climbing Staffa (the Hoy Lass is down below)
Because of Joss' drowsiness yesterday, we did not give the boys Dramamine today. As a result, Cameron was feeling a little bit seasick and took a short nap downstairs in the back of the ship. This worked out all right, because the Hoy Lass had to completely circle Staffa until the surf settled down enough for us to land. By now Cameron was up again, and we had a little less than an hour to explore the island. In addition to a vertiginous path that climbs to the peak of Staffa, there is a cliffside roped path that goes to Fingal's Cave. Joss preferred to duck under the ropes and hop around on the causeway rocks, while the rest of us made our way into the gaping cave. Gail overcame her fear of edges to sit inside the cave, where spectacular waves crashed and boomed in the darkness inside.
Staffa outside and inside: the Colonnades and Fingal's Cave
Next the Hoy Lass headed north to the Treshnish Isles, an archipelago of eight isolated and uninhabited islands that are currently designated as both a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area. Our destination was Lunga, the main bird sanctuary. By sheer coincidence, we were visiting during the brief period of time that the puffins were on land to nest. (Puffins are both incredibly cute and very mysterious. Normally sea birds, they come into land for only a few weeks a year in order to nest -- actually burrow into the ground -- and breed. Nobody has been able to research puffin chicks, because sometime in the middle of the night they all suddenly take flight for the first time, leaving their burrows and flying back out to sea.)
Our landing on Lunga was ingenious; the Hoy Lass pulled up next to a floating pontoon pier, tied itself to it, and then dragged the pier up to the shore so that we could alight. We had only two hours here; and Iain issued his canned warning that we should not be distracted by the cute puffins at the beginning of the path, but instead should make our way up the mountain path to the hard rock where the main action was. Naturally, half of the people were distracted by the cute puffins at the beginning of the path, and stopped to set up their camera tripods and snap photos. We were similarly distracted; we had no idea that puffins were so cute. They stand less than a foot high, look like big-nosed penguins, and are very friendly (you can walk right up to them). They are also very quiet.
Some puffins in their burrow
We finally managed to tear ourselves away from the puffins, and we hiked the quarter-mile mountain path to the hard rock. Turning a corner, we were astonished to see a huge rock emerging from the sea and completely covered with thousands of birds. In addition to puffins, there were guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags, and a variety of other gulls. The shags were particularly fascinating: they nest in the crevices beneath the rocks, and if you wander too close unaware, they suddenly pop their heads out and start hissing and barking at you.
A puffin-covered boulder at Hard Rock
Two hours was simply not enough here; we could have spent all day. As it was, we parked ourselves on the grass across from the hard rock and ate a picnic lunch while we watched the birds. Cameron and Joss hiked around on the hillside, climbing the rocks and running after the wild hares. Russell tried to take a photograph of a puffin in flight (they look like penguins flying), but he was not entirely successful. In the end, we were the last of the passengers to re-board the Hoy Lass, and it was with great reluctance that we departed Lunga.
The Treshnish Isles are normally also abundant with Common and Atlantic Grey Seals, but we only spotted a few today (an apologetic Iaian surmised that they must all be out fishing). By the time we returned to Ulva Ferry and took the red minivan back to Craignure, it was 7:00 PM before we caught the ferry from Mull back to Oban. We had originally planned to eat out at a Tex-Mex restaurant on the pier, but we didn't get there until 7:55 PM and their liquor license only allows them to serve children until 8:00 PM. So we settled for takeaway Indian food from a restaurant near the B&B, which we ate in our rooms.
Overall, Gail declared that this was one of the single best days that we have spent in our entire year abroad -- very high praise, indeed.
Enjoying the sunshine on one of the best days of the "year"
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