There’s always something surreal about the journey to an island: a sudden unexpected arrival in a self-contained world. One that feels as if it possesses its own sense of time, weather, soundscapes, ways of being… Going to Coll I find especially otherworldly; an air of dreamlike uncanniness hanging over the whole experience like a thin film or veil blurring the edges of normality.
This might in part hold its origins in the cloud of sleeplessness that always forms the gateway to my time on the island. It starts with the discord of rising in the witching hour, tumbling into my car while the city sleeps, to start the journey to Oban. The label on my alarm when it wakes me at 3am reads ‘Worth driving through the night for’: a reminder designed to cut through the bleariness and which is time and again borne out to be true. But aside from just the thought of the destination, it feels like a privilege to coast along empty roads as the sky turns from star-punctuated black, to deep pre-dawn indigo, to the faded potpourri of rose and cornflower hanging over Oban bay as my solitary journey melds in with others embarking on holidays, working, returning home.
As weariness peaks, the lullaby motion of the ferry rises to meet it and I spend most of the trip, as I always do, curled up in my sleeping bag, lulled by the low hum of the engine and the soft roll of the boat, wakened only and unfailingly by the shift in movement as we finally leave the Sound of Mull and venture out onto the open water of the home stretch to Coll.
Arriving on the island there is the fresh awareness of solid rock in place of waves and the key shift in the wind. My mind remains in a half-dream but my body performs the ritual act of awaking the slumbering house that I might eventually drift into sleep in it. I’ve come to love the in-between state of these arrival days: languid afternoon bathing; the sudden envelopment of childhood feelings of safety and contendedness when the patter of rain on the roof lights arrives into the sunny day; the hypnotism of flames licking up the inside of the stove; the mixed perfumes of the first pot of coffee and the smoke of the fire. This floating first day colours the days beyond it, casting my experience of being on the island far out from the familiar shore of my more normal routines.
I spend the next four days with no internet, no phone, no music. Just quiet and the company and narrative of my own thoughts, unflavoured by outside interventions. I realise that the last time I existed in this way for more than a day at a time it was because I was deep in a cave in the Ecuadorian rainforest where there was no other option (a fact I was delighted with). Before that? I actually can’t remember the last time I would have spent days out of contact and without my very own filmic soundtrack to colour and shape my thoughts and moods.
With the absence of those outside distractions, thoughts drift up from the depths of my mind like deep sea creatures emerging in the shallows. In my dreamlike state the sensation is less one of clarity than of each thought suddenly being given space to roll around, presenting its blurry outlines from this view and that until a finer definition begins to emerge. I find myself clinging on to the silence and the blissful lack of awareness of the world beyond the low hills around me like a lifeline and it is the idea of this tussle between the quiet and musicality, space and saturation that I find myself drawing throughout my time on Coll.
Seen from the outside it is a fragmented and segregated identity I’ve found myself occupying in the digital ether: four separate email accounts, each an attempt to shield me from infiltration of the work of one role on the space of another. Five Instagram accounts catering to different facets of work, creativity and community. Two Facebook pages to manage (or fail to manage) alongside my personal profile. Four websites to manage; each a different story to convey. And the constant habit of micromanaging a towering heap of playlists; filters to fit every occasion and mood, at home, driving, drawing, music to leech out sadness and stew in happiness. For four days I switch it all off and soak in the island instead.
In the space left where all that noise and connections and inspiration and distraction would normally be time stretches out in long arcs. Unsegmented by this many songs, that many albums, news cycles, the daily waxing and waning of social media peaks. It seems like there is more time. I draw till the light fades and I lose sensation in my fingers. I read a book each day. Without background noise I’m that much more aware of the shifting colours and sounds in the landscape around me; the different birdcalls in morning, afternoon, evening, the soft pop of the fire, the constant unseen roar of the waves washing in on the beach over the hill. I find myself popping outside to listen to the sea in the way I’d usually break the silence with a song.
By the time I go through the sad reversal of my arrival routine, packing, turning off the cottage’s vital supplies one by one, closing the storm doors, I feel like my grip on the lifeline has relaxed to be replaced by an excitement at the prospect of reconnection. Travelling home, once again lulled and entranced by the low rumble of the ferry, watching the Sound of Mull slip away behind us to the frothy sound of our wake, my thoughts turn to each of those ingredients I’ve carefully separated and measured out into the profiles, emails and playlists that shape my daily experience. When I wake up from this Coll dream perhaps its time to start adding them back together so that in this fragmented ether-space we all now inhabit I can at least be one whole piece.
With more thanks than I can adequately express to Wil and Juliette who with their generosity in a place to stay on Coll have over the years given me the space and time for that island to inch its way thoroughly and indelibly under my skin. I don’t know where I would be without it - a different and less dreamy place for certain.