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The otters of Kilberry

A journey of less than forty miles from our house, a drive of nearly two hours as it is almost exclusively along single track roads, brings us to a spot where Ducky can stop on a patch of grass just ten metres from the sea and, it being a camping site, we can spend as long here as we wish just gazing out westwards across the Sound of Jura. Ducky close by the sea at Port BanThe famous Paps dominate our horizon with the isle of Islay hiding just behind them and away to the south there is Gigha floating on a sunlit sea. The breeze gently nudges at our van but it is the sound of wavelets tumbling onto the tiny patch of sand which we hear as we drift off to sleep. This tiny cove of white sand gives the place its name, Port Bàn.

Seen through twenty-first century eyes this is one of the remotest places on these isles, on an isolated peninsula of land almost, but not quite cut off by long sea lochs which slice into the rugged coastline. There are isolated houses dotted about – at Kilberry (the accent is on the second syllable, by the way) there is what tries to pass as a village; well, there is a small bar – but nothing around here approaches the size of what could be described as a township. The single-track road meanders on and on endlessly as it circumnavigates the land making access by road a slow and painstaking process. Blind corners and summits follow one another, simple passing places providing the only refuge when meeting a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. To drive as far as the most westerly piece of land, Kilberry Point, requires determination and in poor weather something else again, a risk-taker’s temperament perhaps.

What tempers our thinking today is that we get about on roads, strips of tarmac artificially constructed to enable us to travel across land which would otherwise be almost impassable. So, faced with a single long and winding road, wide enough throughout most of its length for just one vehicle, we tend to regard destinations far along that road as remote, difficult of access, isolated. But it was not always thus. Man has lived in this place long before anyone thought of building roads, long before anyone even thought of putting one wheel beside another one to take the weight of goods or family on a journey. People arrived here from the sea, such an obvious trunk route that why would you even bother to construct anything on land. Difficult land too, full of hills and forests, mountains and valleys. So putting on ‘ancient eyes’ enables us to see this place differently, not as a remote point of land but as a convenient hub, a stopping place on a longer journey perhaps, a place to trade, to live and farm. If the waterways, the deep sounds that separate the islands, are the trunk routes then this place becomes a service station, a place to rest awhile and re-provision, a place to make a home, to spend your whole life. Thus our remote camp site is not remote at all, it is merely our modern way of living that makes it so.Seals at Ormsary

None of which makes getting Ducky to the campsite at Port Bàn any easier, of course, but we are determined, not least because we are reliably informed that the place is home to the one particular creature that Kate has long wanted to catch a glimpse of. Once persecuted almost out of existence these elusive mammals now thrive best in places where there is an absence of humans, places just like Port Bàn in fact. So where are they? Seals lie about in full view on the rocks. Buzzards soar all along the raised cliff line, calling to each other and showing off acrobatically in the air. We pause for lunch on a walk inland and hear the roar of a rutting stag echoing around us then again close by in the forest. A heron drops out of the sky close to our van just as the sunlight fades away but still there is no sign of the creature we most want to catch a glimpse of.

One evening we take a stroll along the shore, walking into the wind so our scent does not carry, and scan the rocks and kelp beds for a small dark head peeping above the waves.Otter prints I sense that maybe they are watching, for I spot a line of footprints in the sand next to my own, small ones with tiny claw marks, a row of them heading towards the sea. We even find a scat, a fishbone-filled residue, which we are certain our animal must have left behind. We are surrounded by such a variety of wildlife that you would think inevitably sooner or later one small otter would come into view somewhere along this coast. But no, it is not to be. And when finally we take our leave of Port Bàn we are still otter-less, devoid of otter, otter free, with neither sight nor sound of the beast. Otterly disappointed, one might say.

There are compensations, however, for the absence of otters. The land, sea and sky to the west of us together put on a endless show of colour second to none. The Paps of Jura, volcanic remains with scree-covered slopes, look almost snow-covered and the deep Sound beneath them swirls with powerful tidal currents. The clouds are in a world of their own.Paps of Jura

Moment by moment the scene changes. Rain showers over JuraRain squalls drifting along the Sound create this bizarre scene looking like something T M W Turner might have painted. He would have placed some small boats in the foreground, painted the sea in wild turmoil and might then have faced criticism for being too surreal or impressionistic. But we know better as our camera cannot lie.

Returning home after all this is tough but we know we have to come down to earth, to face reality and not complain. We have a boat to sell so we spend the day at Tarbert removing all the personal belongings and detritus we have accumulated over the twelve years of our ownership. Strangely Cirrus Cat floats no higher above her waterline after all this effort. Click anywhere here to see what is now on offer.

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