The Isle of Mull

“Nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence.” — Dr. Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

With this quote in mind, I went on holiday with my family to the same place that Dr. Johnson visited sometime in the 18th century and formed the above opinion. After a forty-five minute ferry, I arrive in Mull and this is what I see:

Would YOU live here?

Am I missing something?

The Isle of Mull is one of the largest in the Hebrides, a group of islands off the Scottish mainland, the same place where, in 1588, it’s said a member of a little known fleet of ships called the Spanish Armada docked to get provisions and exploded into what I can only assume was a riot of colors.

The colors were later immortalized in the children's TV show, "Balamory."

The colors were later immortalized in the children’s TV show, “Balamory.”

I have no idea what Dr. Johnson was complaining about. There are certainly worse places in which to live. In fact, today many citizens in the Isle of Mull were “born in other parts of the world,” mostly (and understandably) hailing from a certain part of the world’s armpit called Newcastle. We stayed in Mull for a week, and in that time I never once saw a “true local.”

Seriously, where are all the Scots?

Seriously, WHERE are all the Scots?

This is the cost of the Highland Clearances, and it’s never been more obvious than in this remote Hebridean isle. The place names are Gaelic, but none of the island’s inhabitants speak it. It’s a beautiful place filled with romantic medieval castle ruins, deserted white sand beaches, peaceful lochs, white-tailed sea eagles, otters, golden eagles, corn crakes, deer, puffins, whales, seals… and the most a lot of people could say is that it’s their second home.

Everywhere there are remnants of Highland life–you can almost see a buffed, red-haired laird from historical romance, but the clans have long since left. It’s no longer illegal to wear tartan, but somehow I doubt those bleating sheep and fat cattle these lands were cleared for would have any use for such garments.



If there was anything left of traditional Highland life after the Jacobite Risings in the 17th century, the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution got rid of it much in the same way a washing machine would clean a stain from your shirt. How the stain got there, and the lessons learned from the stain, is soon washed from memory. It happened in another time, another era in your life. So, by all means, next time you wear that shirt, feel free to eat spaghetti bolognese without a napkin.

Holiday homes in Bunessan, Isle of Mull.

Holiday homes in Bunessan, Isle of Mull.

It is easy to condemn the English, or the increasingly wealthy landed gentry, for the decimation and forced migration of a culture amused by caber-tossing that even the Roman Empire failed to subjugate.

But notions that our version of “progress” and “civilization” are the best and good for the world, and that the country is running out of space due to immigration, of how unfettered investments and globalization is good for the many and not the few, are still mostly unquestioned and often win elections. When it comes to greed and ambition, to hoarding resources, I think we all remain guiltier than a puppy standing next to a puddle.

That puppy is called Rusty.

That puppy is named Rusty.


Johnson, Samuel. Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Transcribed in 1775.

Lichfield Cathedral

The problem with pointing out that Lichfield Cathedral is unique because it’s the only medieval cathedral with three spires, is that no one seems to know the answer to the follow up question of WHY.

"3 is a magic number. No more, no less. You don't have to guess..."

“3 is a magic number.”

Perhaps it’s because this is the third church to be built on this site.A Norman church was built on the same site in 1085, replacing the wooden Saxon one and in 1195 construction of the present church began.

But three is also a crowd, and like a crowd, the history of Lichfield Cathedral is full of rabble. There were three significant “rabbles” concerning the cathedral and the state. The first of which happened at the Council of Chelsea in 787 AD, often referred to as the “Contentious Synod” because King Offa of Mercia proposed that the Archbishop of Canterbury share powers with the new Archbishop of Lichfield. The proposal was vehemently opposed and although the king got his wish the Archbishopric of Lichfield was dissolved upon his death, presumably because he couldn’t pay the promised annual shipment of gold to the pope any more.

St. Chad’s bones are interred in the Saxon church beneath the present building, so Lichfield became a site of pilgrimage until the Reformation but it wasn’t until the Civil Wars that there would be another major “rabble” concerning the church. Most of the townsfolk were Parliamentarian, the fortified church was Royalist and during this time (1643-46) there were three great sieges of Lichfield. Robert Grenville, 2nd Baron Brooke, led an assault on the fortress on behalf of the Parliamentarians but was killed by a deflected bullet from John Dyott, who was up on the battlements of the central cathedral spire. It is one of the earliest recorded incident of death from a sniper.

With Brooke down, his loyal deputy Sir John Snell had to step up and take over the siege. If this were a Hollywood movie, this would be the point where the hero’s had enough. There would be a heartbeat of silence as Brooke falls in slow motion, followed by a roar of murderous rage that almost drowns out the sound of fire power exploding everywhere. The camera would focus on Snell’s fierce yet undeniably attractive face. Muscles straining, he runs towards the cathedral to avenge his friend. Somehow, he remains unscathed while ineptly shot bullets whiz past him as he saves the day and gets the girl. And she’ll be a thin girl, too. At some point, Celine Dion starts singing because she ALWAYS sings at the end of a film. No one notices as you leave the theatre and go back to your uneventful life, and you just know you will die alone alone alone.

But wait… the guy is named Snell. No self-respecting hero will be called Snell. And this guy was no hero–he was notorious for his tyranny and arrogance. Plus, he profited from the Ship Money collected under Charles I, and married the widow of some dude he harassed to demand payment. If that’s not bad enough, he also did it while looking like this:

Sir John Snell (1593-1671).

Sir John Snell (1593-1671)

The Royalist forces surrendered two days later, and though it was retaken by Prince Rupert of the Rhine in the same year, the real loser was the cathedral. It suffered extensive damage–all the stained glass windows were smashed, the roof was ruined and the central spire was demolished so it could be used as a metaphor for the collapse of a heretofore unchallenged notion called the “divine right of kings.” The Royalty may have been restored with Charles II, but the “natural order” has changed and power had irrevocably shifted to Parliament.

Following the Restoration, the cathedral began the process of refurbishment, made possible by funds donated by the monarch, but anyone who’s had their house refurbished knows it’s a slow and never ending process. In the 18th century, while Lichfield was going through a “golden age,” the cathedral was in decay. It wasn’t fully repaired until the 19th century, when James Wyatt, the same architect who worked on Westminster Abbey and gained the sobriquet “The Destroyer,” was hired. He arranged for some major structural work to be done, and this prompted a final rabble.

Church Interior

Church Interior

Screen by Wyatt

Screen by Wyatt

Wyatt’s work on the cathedral was heavily criticized, most notably by John Carter in Pursuits of Architectural Innovation. Original features were covered by Roman cement and the 15th century library was pulled down. No one liked it, so eventually it was restored to its former grandeur by George Gilbert Scott who had a more sensitive approach to renovation.

Thanks to Scott, original features from the medieval period (including the tombs of ancient Saxon kings) remain today, and the cathedral looks pretty much the way it did in the days when Anna Seward, Erasmus Darwin and Lichfield’s favorite son, Dr. Samuel Johnson, attended sermons in the cathedral hall when he wasn’t busy working on his famous dictionary. They didn’t know why the cathedral had three spires either, but there have been no major rabbles from the crowd since.