Miniatures by Valerie Nieman


Valerie Nieman

CRAIGNURE, ISLE OF MULL — The stone-built Craignure Inn being full, I’d booked into “the shielings” for the night. I had come upon an article about these permanent tents for vacationers, ranks of white plastic triangles like the encampment of a very tidy and very clean army. Not the best of days to be camping, as it was only expected to make it only to 50 degrees with showers, but this would be an interesting Mull experience.

I was welcomed at the campground office and provided with a plastic bag full of bedding and cooking pots if desired—there was a communal kitchen. I trundled up to my half a shieling, equipped with two cots. I could see that a full one, with the ensuite kitchen and heater, would be very comfortable. A heavy metal framework supported thick vinyl walls. One light hung from the peak, and there was a tile floor underfoot. The door zipped closed to keep out midges, which had not yet appeared on my early spring travels.

Shieling—in Scottish Gaelic: àirigh—means a temporary hut used by shepherds on the grazings. The site is close to the water, so you can walk the rough path and look for the family of sea otters that lives there.

The Shieling Holidays tents were just down from the white-painted town hall, in a village so small it barely qualifies for the name. There was the police station, a community center, the 1783 parish church, and a small strip of businesses along the highway including the Island Castaways Charity Shop, the Spar store, and Macgregor’s Roadhouse, and the business and enterprise center with a small tourism bureau to catch people disembarking the ferry.

In the charity shop, a sign on the door was pushing an investment scheme for hydro – a line about “making good on the rain.” Among the second-hand clothes and jigsaw puzzles, I found a tiny etching in a beaten-up gold frame, boats below cottages. Small enough to fit into my backpack. Later I would find the artist, Ian Laurie, was a Scot living in Cornwall, his work considered quite collectible and worth quite a bit more than the two pounds I paid.

I circled the craft fair set up in the community center, tables arrayed with knitting and homemade jams, and noticed the posters promoting Zumba! each week. Craignure might be tiny, a spot on the road, and dependent on Oban-to-Mull ferry traffic, but it has a life.

After a good bowl of leek and potato soup at Macgregor’s, I caught the bus to Tobermory.

The other side of the island was dominated by the immense sea loch, a rugged place of aquaculture and livestock farming and forestry. Our bus met a log truck on the narrow roadway, and somehow we made it past each other without a scrape, which must be a daily occurrence for the drivers but was eye-opening for the visitor.

Tobermory is a Scottish version of the quintessential charming seaside town. The brightly colored houses make for nice photos; it’s become famous as the site of a children’s TV show and attracts families wanting to find that bit of cinematic fantasy. It made me think of Bar Harbor but smaller, the harbor ringed by souvenir shops and restaurants and ice cream parlors. Wedged among the tourist trappings was a small local museum with lots of information on geology, archeology, maritime history, and a stone impressed with a footprint where local kings long ago stood to make a marriage with the land and its people.

I came back and took a walk along the shore, again no otters, which the hosts said were shy and intermittent in their appearances. As a child, I had loved the book Ring of Bright Water, about a man’s friendship with an otter on a Scottish cove, much like this one—another of those old associations appearing unexpectedly. No red deer, either, but oystercatchers were defending a hillock that must have been the site of their nest.

In front of the town hall, a blue Volvo tractor-trailer rig had pulled up. A white-haired man in coveralls and gloves and a natty blue shirt bearing the Royal Bank of Scotland logo was busy around the rig. Neil MacDonald said this was Scotland’s one and only traveling movie theater, one he’d been bringing to places like this for ten years, ever since the arrival of this new truck, which he said “is grand.” For 16 years before, a rented unit had patrolled the single-track roads and crossed the ferries to remote villages.

“I take it to the Western Isles, even out to Barra. Lot of people recognize Barra,” he said, applying a rag to the fender. “When the clearances happened, lot of people went from there to U.S. and Canada.”

When the rig opens up, the design by Toutenkamion provides a “cinemobile” experience with theater-style seats down the length of the trailer, facing a screen at the front. Setting up for the show included extending a set of metal stairs and turning on a tiny running marquee of red lights advertising Muppets Most Wanted and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

I left Mr. MacDonald—MacDonald, now there’s a proper Highland name—to his preparations and went to dinner at the Craignure Inn, a “local” indeed where men arrived in work boots to stand at the small bar and exchange the pleasantries of the day. A poet was writing in a journal at a tiny table by the window. A local lad in wellies was drop-dead handsome, a find for some wandering movie producer—but he didn’t know it, from his soft, abashed expression. People settled into their usual table at the fireside for a card game, dogs turning around their feet.

Coming back from dinner, I found the theater was in full operation. Although big ventilation fans were running, when I stood close to the side of the trailer, I could hear familiar Muppet voices and the answering laughter of children.

By morning, the movie man was gone, his rig vanished down the single-track road, carried away all that color and sound.

I made up my bed in the half-shieling, prepared to crawl in early to warm up from the chilly night, and stretch my aching legs. I heard the ferry klaxon, dogs snarling, the high, piping voices of children. This campground probably had as many people under those white roofs as all of Craignure proper.

Lights out. Even the convenience store, The Spar, closed at 5:30 p.m.

About the Author

Valerie Nieman’s fourth novel, To the Bones, is a genre-bending satire of the coal industry and its effects on Appalachia. “Evocative, intelligent prose conjures an anxious mood and strong sense of place,” wrote Kirkus Reviews. Her third poetry collection, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, was published in 2018, with work that has appeared in The Missouri Review, Chautauqua, Southern Poetry Review, and other journals. Her writing has appeared widely in journals and in numerous anthologies, including Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. She has held state and NEA creative writing fellowships. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte and a former journalist, she teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University. Her work-in-progress, from which this piece was excerpted, is based on a month spent solo hiking in the Scottish Highlands.