By Chris Wallace
I spent the weekend channelling John Keats on the Isle of Mull. In 1818 Keats and his friend Charles Armitage Brown toured Scotland. Keats and Brown walked miles in drenching rain to Oban, the Scottish port most convenient for travellers from the south to embark for the island crossing. The ferryman dropped Keats and Brown at a minor Mull village and the two trudged on foot through bogs, over rivers, across rocks, eventually sleeping in damp clothes in a Mull shepherd’s cottage on their first night.
Keats got a cold. Eve Eckstein in her book on historic visitors to Mull recounts Brown’s letter to a friend about Keats’ health shortly after. By the time they reached Inverness a fortnight after that cold damp night in the Mull shepherd’s hut, the poet was seriously ill with Keats “too thin and fevered to proceed with the tour”. Keats never recovered his health and died three years later from tuberculosis.
I got my cold on the flight over to Britain, not sleeping in damp clothes in a shepherd’s hut. But it did get worse on Mull. Even through the veil of a fever, the island is extraordinary. Like Australia there’s something huge, hard and unrelenting in the beauty. It’s a landscape as likely to kill as kiss you. Sick, you’re just as likely to want to roll over and die as fight to stay dry and recover. It is Darwinian.
The wild Hebrides was an artistic rite of passage for Romantics like Keats. Staffa and Iona were the ultimate destinations and Mull the remarkable stepping stone along the way.
Samuel Johnson and James Boswell had cut a swathe early on, touring the area in 1773, each publishing journals of their travels. By the time Keats and Brown followed the trail, the Hebrides had become positively voguish, and Keats’ poem “Staffa” celebrated the moment. Felix Mendelssohn visited in 1829, the trip famously yielding Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture, the main theme of which came to the composer standing in Staffa’s famous Fingal’s Cave.
Two years later, in 1831, when painter WM Turner made it to Staffa, the weather was so bad he only had an hour to make the sketch for Fingal’s Cave from the Inside. By the time Wordsworth got there in 1833, Eve Eckstein recounts in her book, he had to get the steamboat driver to take him back after the visiting hordes had departed so he could get a bead on the place. Wordsworth’s Sonnet XXIX Cave of Staffa After the Crowd had Departed was the result. The area hasn’t ceased to fascinate since. Canberra Mitford tragic, journalist Malcolm Farr, will be pleased to know the Mitfords had a holiday house on Inch Kenneth, a tiny dot of an island off Mull to which parcels of books and Harrods goodies were regularly delivered from London in the 1930s and 1940s.
We hear a lot about the strong Australian dollar smashing Australian tourism, but no-one talks about the flipside. It hasn’t been this cheap in decades to get out and look around the world. The statistics show we are and that’s a good thing. Australians might get a little less whiny and resentful when they see the fifty or so countries we collectively come from and compare it to what we’ve got back home – and I don’t just mean materially.
Anglo-Celtic Australians, for example, rarely reflect on that conflation’s individual elements. Walking down Princes Street in Edinburgh I saw Australian faces all around me, ditto Grafton Street in Dublin. Yet the Scots and Irish are as different as Greeks from Italians and each have their own problems. The religious bigotry played out violently in the Scottish football scene, and the ripples from the ongoing, traumatic decolonisation of Ireland, remind one what an ocean of relative calm Australia really is.
A few of our tourism industry operators could do with getting out more, too. I stayed on Mull at “Highland Cottage” in the island’s main village, Tobermory. Proprietors Jo and David Currie run a tiny hotel with a stunningly successful restaurant for just 20 diners at a time – the food easily “Two Hats” by Australian standards. (They shut up shop for four months a year and hang about in New York amongst other places.) Tobermory also boasts “Café Fish”, just rated Britain’s best fish restaurant. This in a village of 700 people. Can Bateman’s Bay say the same?
The links still run two ways, too. As I sat down to a stunning repast at “Highland Cottage”, it turned out that chef Jo Currie is a cousin of Bill Shorten. David produced a wonderful picture of Bill’s Scottish great-grandfather, Newcastle dockside, at ship launch way back when. Small world. Get out and live in it.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times on 17 September, 2011