Mark Steel tells you the 'story of Tobermory', after his visit to record Mark Steel's in Town
I expected orangey hills and sharp bends descending into swampy lakes and mountains and signs saying ‘Sheep in road’, but I didn’t think that meant there would actually be SHEEP, in the ROAD. It’s like the sign for falling rocks. You don’t expect that to be sign for a rocks actually falling. But on the way to a place called Strontian this kept happening, then there was a ferry and then more sheep and finally a village with a school hall, where 150 people came for my show, which in terms of a proportion of the population is equivalent to selling out every night for 700 years at the 02 in London.
I had to set off at five the next morning to get a ferry that took me to a road that led to another ferry and then to the island of Islay and a place called Bruicladdich, an eight hour journey. I was advised to have a look at Port Nahaven, about eight miles away, so I drove up a single tiny track and was so far west you can clearly see Donegal. It all seemed so remote it demanded a swim, so I clambered in the sea next to a goose.
Back in Bruicladdich I said to someone setting up chairs at the hall "I went for a swim in Port Nahaven, next to a goose". And he said, “Ah that’s Gavin.”
“Who’s Gavin?” I said. “Gavin the goose”, he said. That’s how remote these places are. Not only does everyone know each other, they know the geese, from eight miles away.
I mentioned the goose during the show. “That’s Gavin the goose”, they all called.
The next morning I got a ferry at six o’ clock, past more and more stunning orange hills and breathtaking mountains and lakes, until I found myself saying out loud to myself, "I’m breathtaking mountained up to be honest. I could do with a shanty town".
So Oban seemed like a dazzling metropolis, too much to take in at once, like arriving at the city in Blade Runner. From there I got another ferry, then drove across the Island of Mull to the capital, Tobermory, most famous as the setting for the children’s show Balamory.
It was chosen because the houses round the harbour are a variety of dazzling pastille shades, and there isn’t anything apart from the bit round the harbour, as the whole population is 900, a mere 11 times more than Bruicladdich.
It’s also ridiculously idyllic, as if its shape is specially designed so that the sea slooshes with maximum calming qualities, and there’s no point at which you can’t see at least twelve boats bobbing as gently as it’s possible to bob. It must be almost impossible to be angry in Tobermory. Anyone who yells “BOLLOCKS” in Tobermory should be immediately locked up as a psychopath.
And there’s a distillery. We’d arranged for a trip round there, and the enthusiastic guide reeled off facts about bubbles and pipes and yeast and fermentation as if she was expecting us to take notes and start up a distillery of our own. Sam Bryant, the producer, is normally full of questions at this point, asking when the place was set up, if we could meet the workforce, if we can be taken into the drainage system, if we can live amongst the locals until we’re accepted by them as natives and take one as a wife. But on this occasion he was disconcertingly quiet, until he managed one question – “Can I use the toilet?”
And poor Sam spent the next two days shivering and spewing and shaking and having delirious illusions about the houses being pink and green and yellow.
At the top of the hill there’s a golf course, that overlooks mountains and orangey hills and tributaries and geological bits that seemed so irrelevant when we were being taught about them in geography. So I went to the shop that I’d been told hired out clubs, but the woman there gave me a set of left-handed ones.
“They’re left-handed”, I said. “They’re not”, she said, and we did that a while until she said “Oh dear they are”, and I wondered whether she was a character in Balamory, Mrs. Wrong-Way-Round who couldn’t tell left from right.
I set off for the course, but the clubhouse was shut, in that way that’s more than shut; desolate, as if to open it would disturb the pattern of the universe. I went back to the shop and she said “Oh I forgot to tell you, it’s shut, but you can play anyway". And you could, because the golf course, like most of the island is miles and miles of orangey hills and lakes and mountains and even centuries after the Enclosures it would be quote tricky to stop the few people around going wherever they pleased.
Which is why it must have been such a shock to be home to Balamory. At its peak the popularity of the show attracted hundreds of visitors a day, families eager to see the harbour featured on the programme. So we went to the colourful house of Hunia and Blair, which was used as the home of Miss Hoolie, the character who presented the show.
Hunia and Blair are the sort of couple that, in their seventies sat in their personal armchairs occasionally tending to the log fire, forever insisting you eat all their biscuits, make you want to adopt them as grandparents and leave you looking forward to being 75. She loved the actors who came to their house, she said, and the children who came as visitors to see the place where Miss Hoolie was filmed. But then she began to talk about the parents of the kids, many of whom seemed unable to work out that Balamory wasn’t real.
“They’d hide in the garden, in the blood GARDEN. And I’d say to them ‘Get away from the house’. But they’d say ‘We want to see Miss Hoolie’. I’d say ‘She’s not here woman, she’s not real’. And they’d say ‘But we’ve seen her on the telly’, and I’d say ‘That’s the TELEVISION, it’s not REAL’. And they’d say ‘But I want her to speak to my kids’.”
Until eventually she was up out of the chair yelling “I had to go right up to them and say ‘ARE YOU MAD? BLOODY MAD? WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU? IT’S NOT. BLOODY. REAL. ARE YOU BLOODY CRAZY?'"
Then Blair said “I went up to one and said ‘If you went to the Rio Grande would you expect to see John Wayne shooting bloody Indians’?”
The cast certainly weren’t the same as their characters. The Observer once reviewed a music gig on the island by saying “At the front of the crowd were PC Plum, Archie the Inventor and Miss Hoolie, all swaying wildly from side to side by a line of Bacardi Breezers.”
Indeed Miles Jupp, who played Archie, told me the next morning he saw the ferryman, who said, “Good night, was it Miles?” So Miles said it was, and the ferryman said “Did you get up the stairs alright?”
“Why do you ask?” he said. “Don’t you remember?” said the ferryman, "I gave you a lift home and carried you up the stairs."
The Balamory situation was too much for one man, who lived in the house of Josie Jump. Eventually, according to the Daily Mirror, a family knocked on his door to ask for Josie and he said “She’s not here. I murdered her.”
After the show I implored the barman in the main pub on the harbour to find us some Red Stripe, or something Jamaican we could drink in honour of the next destination, the Jamaican Handsworth. Eventually, after he’d scurried for an hour in his basement, we settled for Malibu; unsatisfactory, but the best we could do.
The next morning I jumped into the harbour for a swim, and as my nerve endings became enveloped in the icy water, I couldn’t help shouting “BOLLOCKS.”
The music at the end of the show was Island in the Sun, which might make sense if you hear the programme. But if you disagree, please let us know, as we can do nothing about it now whatsoever.