'Keep the sea on your left, and you won't get lost.' That's what my friend said to me before I set out to walk the circuit path on the island of Kerrera. The tiny ferry to Kerrera leaves from just south of Oban, on Scotland's west coast. It has room for one car and 11 passengers. It reminded me of the Irish ferry to Bere Island which had room for two cars, a few pedestrians and one cow.
There were quite a few people waiting to get on, standing at the top of the jetty slope. I moved down the slope and was aware of people behind me also moving down as if at a signal. I stood behind the car and two people at the side of the car, talking to the driver.
When the ferry laid its pale green ramp onto the jetty the car drove on and we started to walk on. Only 11, said the man-in-charge, with yellow oilskin and cap, and to those left on the jetty – I'll come straight back for you. The captain-conductor came round and took our fares and the crossing lasted only a few minutes. I wondered if there was an invisible boat driver or if the captain went into the front of the boat, for which there is probably some technical term, started the engine and set it on its course, which would not be too hard really, always the same, here to there, there to here, no change or deviation. In these automated days it is probably a simple enough task to set a boat's course, probably due west or due north, or somewhere in between, north-west, I'd say that was the direction the boat would be set to, and the opposite, south-east, coming back. But I still like to think there was some mysterious invisible person up front who started the engine and navigated, steering the tiller and cutting the engine a few metres from the shore, with the boat's impetus sending it gliding on. And the green ramp, like an unfolded card table, hitting the concrete jetty with a little bump, and so the boat stops.
I had a small map of the southern part of the island, with the path marked on it. It circled south from the ferry terminal, skirted the south shore, brushing past the tower of Gylen Castle, then coming back up the northern shore, turning inland and crossing the island's low hills, and so returning to the ferry.
Keeping the sea to my left as instructed, even I could not manage to lose my way, but I did not always know where I was on the map, and there were those pesky forks in the track which always make me think of the Yellow Brick Road. Most of the track was wide and clear. I could not find the point where you could leave the main path to head down to the reddish-brown stone of Gylen Castle – the map did not match the terrain. But I continued on the main path and found it later. I simply had not been as far along the path as I thought.
The tall castle-tower looks out to the western sea, with faint shadows of distant islands or mainland promontories showing as thickened lines, blotches on the horizon. There's always, so it seems to me, a sense of longing, yearning, in such outposts looking west. West – in this part of the world – is not the direction of nostalgia or looking back, but the direction of future, of escape from too much history and time that still lies around in the present, possibly packed into bales and stored in some attic or barn, like contraband that no-one knows quite what to do with, reluctant to pay duty to transfer it to that 'foreign country' (as L P Hartley called the past) where it surely must belong. And where it should have stayed, instead of cluttering up our present and embarrassing us so.
East, south-east, is the direction of nostalgia for what is known, loved, and is possible to be returned to. If you follow the line of south-east, you reach the heart of the world – or at least Europe, located on a shifting grid of light – somewhere in Greece.
Far from Greece, on this misty promontory, the gloomy dark brown needle of the castle gazes out into a misty future. I walk a short way along the shore and meet up with the main path. There's another bay, some lush green grass, a house with a meadow in front of it and a few trees. And how the heart leaps at the sight of trees on an island like this, where there are so few.
From the shore the path heads north-east. It is stony now, climbs a little, and a view uncurls out across the sea like unfolding fingers, metal bars of land, green and gold, and from the water, round green hat-boxes with a candy stripe or two of pinkish-red, and a quiver of lemon-yellow feather-grasses, and burnt purple ribbon. If that's the box, what might the hat inside be like, I wonder. Then remember that it's submerged, underwater. Still, the view is colourful, speckled with purple buddleia, yellow star petals, thick fists of off-white flowers, with a heavy, dragging scent, and deep pink roses.
The lime green starry moss that looks smooth and patterned, stitched and solid, as puckered clouds you might look down on from a great height – this moss sinks gently underneath my feet. I discover it was floating like a patterned plate on swampy peat-brown liquid, which flows over my sandals and oozes darkly between my toes.
Sea inlets, lochs, indented fissures of broken edges of land, peninsulas and points, fingers and fists of land, and then these mountains, whose slopes may well continue underneath the water to unimaginable deep furrows of dark places that don't at all resemble land. Land is all broken up with fissures of water, so that what is mainland and what is island and separate, what are fingers and what are estuaries, cannot be distinguished. Land and water are so closely intertwined, locked together, like unrepentant horns.
In olden days, before roads were dug out of the earth and stones were laid on them, before they were flattened, to make land highways, the coastal lakes, the sea inlets, curling round the islands or the promontories, these were the ways of travel. The sea routes were the highways, and the coastal strips, the beaches, the valleys between mountains, and the low islands, were the settlements. These were the places where people stopped, lived, worshipped, grew crops, herded their flocks, taught, made music, recited their stories, built churches and low dwellings, gathered in conversation, collected stones and stories, built cairns, coloured their histories with plant dyes, deep blues, russets and yellow, pale as a winter sun, grew herbs to heal the sick, and balms to cool the fever.
Today is murky and cloudy, but it does not rain. Ascending to the heights of the island after walking for a few hours, there's a view of large ferries from such islands as Mull, Islay and Colonsay, sailing gracefully in and out of Oban harbour. The path slopes back down to the shore, where the little ferry is waiting. No queues to jump this time, just about half a dozen passengers returning.