Exploring Erraid in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson

In this extract from ‘The Writer, The Island and The Inspiration’ in her new book Writing Landscape, Linda Cracknell travels to the tidal island of Erraid in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and his hero David Balfour from Kidnapped.

Before travelling to France in summer 2019, and having now read Kidnapped, I made a mini-pilgrimage to the Isle of Mull’s western peninsula, the ‘Ross of Mull’. And then, to where, at its far western tip, Erraid is connected and separated by the tidal pulse.

I’m intrigued by tidal islands; a threshold opening and closing in a rhythm cosmically determined. I wanted to arrive there under my own power – bicycle and then foot – and then be contained, surrounded for another twelve hours, forced to appreciate nature’s disinterest in my needs. I was intrigued by the idea that a space that was land when I set out on my journey would transform to sea. A drawbridge raised.

As a voluntary castaway rather than an enforced one, my experience was as different as it could be to Balfour’s. June sunshine sang over me as I pedalled, with my load of camping gear, the 40 miles from the ferry landing at Craignure, over a high pass towards the tip of the peninsula. I finally stopped on one side of an inlet tapering from the Sound of Iona towards the place where the two land masses of Erraid and the Ross of Mull come closest to touching.

I’d timed my arrival for low tide at 6pm. But far from being dry, a small estuarine river ran midway, and it was clearly deep enough to prevent me taking any chances. Only later I understood that as this was the ‘neap’ period of the tides, when the moon is midway between phases of old and new and has least magnetic influence, the difference between high and low water is smallest. In contrast to the tidal conditions for David Balfour at full moon, for me not only was high water not so very high, but neither was low water so low.

A farmer directed me to a place further around the coast where I’d be able to cross. Abandoning my bicycle, I struggled across fields carrying bike panniers loaded with enough food and 2 litres of water to allow me to stay a single night. I stepped across a narrow stretch of white sand and barely lengthened my stride over ‘the sea’ between islands.

Cheered by landfall, I climbed from shore to plateau and dropped my bags. Flickering bog cotton marked soggy channels ahead but there were no obvious paths, no visible ‘Balfour Bay’ on an island only a mile in diameter. Abandoning one of my panniers, I set off with the other, following a compass bearing I hoped would lead me to it.

I sweated across the highest ground, ankles scratched by heather and bog myrtle. The scrape of barren terrain went on until, without warning, the scale suddenly flipped, and the sea appeared below me. Between me and it was a narrow green valley leading to a slot of white sand which widened between a pair of granite cliffs striding south-west, out into the sea. Even from a distance it was clearly the paradise I’d imagined. The bog relented and my steps quickened as I dropped down, small hills rising around me, till I was on sheep-cropped, firm turf above the sand. A cobalt sea waited beyond. There was no yacht moored in the bay, no other tent. I had the place to myself.

Within an hour I’d returned for the other pannier and the tent was up on the grassy bank. I was alone with rock-pipits, plovers, sandpipers whistling the place alive on a long, cool Midsummer night. I walked barefoot down the shallow burn which carved the sand with feathery branches resembling the bronchioles of lungs. At the beach-proper, the bite of seawater on my toes told me I would not swim. But I paddled in a lagoon which crossed the beach, trapping a mix of salt and freshwater against a rise in the sand. It was brackish and warm.

When planning the trip, the short length of my stay seemed determined by the unavailability of fresh water. But now I found that, although unmarked on my map, a small burn ran towards my camping spot just before driving through turf to drop to the sand. There were sheep here so its cleanliness was not guaranteed, but I reasoned that by boiling it for five minutes, I would make it safe.

Because of the effort of getting here, I immediately decided to stay not one night, but two. The weather promised well for the next day and I wanted to sink into the place. My adventure in cycling from Craignure had already purged my restlessness.

Balfour’s ‘horrid solitude’ was now possible. But that first night on Erraid I relished being alone, and an escape from what I had witnessed earlier at Fionnphort, the ferry port for the Isle of Iona. While consuming takeaway langoustines and tea, I’d watched a boy of about eight in round spectacles bagpiping ashore strangely quiet tourists from the ferry as they returned to rows of coaches. The procession seemed to go on and on. This shock of mass tourism in what we think of as a remote place, was later compounded by the sight of a cruise ship, luminous in low sunlight, looming like a tower-block first over the tiny island of Staffa and then the harbour at Iona.

I was unhurried, free to enjoy simplicity. To sleep, stroll, boil water for tea, munch oatcakes and cheese, stare at the lengthening shadows and the strike of last sun on white sand. Not for the first time I wondered whether I’ve been designed to be a desert-island castaway, to live unobserved amidst the small patrols of sheep and the cormorant family out beyond the shore. One flew in and out from a nest deep in the cracked granite, delivering the catch. Their cackles were amplified by rock, conjuring monstrous creatures. Barnacles clustering on seaward rocks charted the sea’s departure and return in their breathing and feeding, their shell doors opening and closing with the tides. I heard birds pipe on from within my tent until at least 11.30pm. The night temperature plummeted and I slept in thermals with the sleeping bag hood caught tight over my head.

I relished my own ‘exile’, reconnecting with my seventeen-year-old self on her first cycle tour with a tent. No one, including my parents, knew exactly where I was. I met people, solved my own problems and fended off harassment long before the days of mobile phones. It was a thrill, that first independent adventure. I inhabited my true self, or another version of it. I also discovered that I was more gregarious than I knew, but that the comfort of talking with another person could sometimes be traded for dialogue between pen and notebook. Such travels, I believe, gradually led me towards a writing life, with travel in it. When taken alone, such journeys offer keen exposure to adventure, adversity and joy.

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