The first things I notice are the seats: crisp diagonal lines of sherbet pinks and pillar box reds criss-crossing the top deck of the Caledonian ferry from Oban to the Isle of Mull. Standing on the contrasting tennis-lawn green floor looking out onto a roaring mist, it feels like stepping into a Wes Anderson moodboard.
A 45-minute ferry ride off Scotland’s west coast, Mull is one of the world’s best-kept wild secrets. On Mull, an island so picturesque it could (almost) make poets of us all, I am told the wildlife flocks to you…well, not to me, as I travel in low season to experience island life without the crowds.
In a neat 40-miles from start to finish, Mull is best navigated by car. Or with more time, strong hamstrings and no plans to make a pit stop at the Tobermory whiskey distillery, cycling is an attractive option too. We booked the ferry last minute; and even in low season, the ferry is full. Undeterred, we hire a taxi guide on Mull to deliver us point to point.
As we wind through narrow coastal lanes, our guide explains that the island is mostly accessed via single track roads, promptly adding: “Aye, you can tell it’s an American tourist alright as the car will be brand new, in a heap on the wrong side of the road” as we pass two crashed cars flirting with the cliff’s edge.
"Looking out to a roaring mist, it feels like stepping into a Wes Anderson moodboard"
Tobermory’s rainbow coloured harbour is where the majority of island life occurs and draws the most interest; but the less-travelled west coast of Mull is home to Calgary Art in Nature. Occupying a steep woodland site above Mull’s most beautiful and dramatic beach, Calgary Bay, the multi-disciplinary space contains woodland art walk, on-site accommodation, café and indoor gallery showcasing local artists and silversmiths. Taking advantage of the momentary pause in sideways rain and armed with a map to identify works, we meander through the woodland art walk.
Like many examples of landscape art, the works are fun to uncover but can be tricky to find. Protected by the branches of an overarching oak tree, we eventually find Phoenix Rising, Patrick Elder’s minimalist sculpture. Cast in bronze, it emits a glint of light despite its matt finish; and seems to mirror the weather’s ever-changing mood.
As we ascend the steps to what will be an orchid meadow in full bloom, we pass Graham Kent’s enigmatic Stone Domes, which evoke a feeling of the abandoned homes of a forgotten pint-sized civilisation. Soon enough works expand from little to large when we are confronted by three enormous faces of twigs and leaves, suspended from the trees overhead. They are The Mull Giants – part of a nationwide community project called Giants in the Forest – 37 giant heads crafted from the land and living and changing with the seasons. From a distance, their features are one with the world they came from – it’s only as we approach them that they leap out of the shadows. As a result, we feel the works before we see them.
On-site food is wholesome and local. We try a little of what we fancy – Tobermory smoked trout is as fresh as a dip in the North Sea. Piled high on a slice of strong island rye with a bitter pale ale fittingly called The Terror of Tobermory, it goes down a treat. We don’t need to walk far to our bed for the night; and pleasingly, the keen eye for quality extends from field to plate to sleeping quarters.
There’s a sense of completion as we close the door to Kittiwake, a decadent wooden hut in the woods crafted from the surrounding materials, including a disused boat. Reciprocity plays out in every corner, with every material humming in unison – of (wo)man and nature working together. As an environmentally-conscious retreat, the hut relies on solar energy; and so we nestle into a thick goose-down duvet to the sound of a crackling fire from the woodburning stove. We drift off feeling as though we’re the only people on the island, with the Mull giants keeping watch.
"Reciprocity plays out in every corner, with every material humming in unison"
This space on Mull and approach to contemporary art mimics our earliest creative impulses in a blending of nature and culture; forging materials from the natural world and crafted with a human touch to create dialogue. It’s an art that can’t be bought or sold but merely experienced. You walk through it, and even for a moment, you live within it. It can feel like a secret to stumble upon. An internal thought whispered into the ether. We head for the ferry back to the mainland feeling that nature is a permanent fixture and we are a fleeting moment in its company.
Calgary Art in Nature
Location: North Mull, Scotland
Open March – November, 10:00-17:00