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Early July, Cullipool and Lochaline Gala week

After a couple of domestic days in Ardfern marina, it was a short motor north to Cullipool on the west shore of the island of Luing where we picked up one of the new visitor moorings off the village of Fladda (below and banner). These can be exposed especially at high water, but in the shimmering calm conditions were ideal for an overnight stop. It was perfect weather for a beautiful sunset (see more pictures) as the sun slowly sank behind the Isle of Mull. With an afternoon tide there was plenty of time in the morning for a quick walk into the hills above the village to see the panoramic views (see more pictures) and to visit to the new "Atlantic Islands Centre" which had informative displays and excellent coffee. The final "must do" was a trip to the shop where they stock the award winning local bread, freshly baked every morning - delicious.

Another short passage, up Loch Linnhe, past Duart castle and into the sound of Mull, brought us to Loch Aline (below). As luck would have it, the following week was the "Morven Gala week" with much to entertain, so we stopped there for six days.

While waiting for the excitements to begin we decided to try a new walk from a folder of suggestions by the local walking group. It started of well, with easy walking along forestry tracks where the trees had been cleared so wild flowers and birds were in abundance. We were entertained by a family of Siskins (right) eating the thistle flowers, and saw what we guessed was a Crossbill amongst the pines. Then the route left the wide track for a path and after some distance this was all but blocked by fallen trees for about half a mile. The only thing that kept us going was the regular "cycle route" signposts, these kept the sense of humour alive as we struggled over and under the mess of pine trunks and branches.

The Gala kicked off on the Saturday with the highland games. Unfortunately the day was a good candidate for Noah's flood with rain lashing down all day, so we gave it a miss. Sunday was the regatta at the marina. It was an excuse to dig out the signal flags and union jack bunting and get Innisfree "dressed overall" (right of above picture). Other boats in the marina soon followed suit and the Tobermory lifeboat came for a visit, making a jolly backdrop to the fun and games of the local sailing club. This included races in diddy little Optimist and Topper sailing boats, pirate fancy dress, walking the plank and a sand castle competition. The shore of Loch Aline is gravel and weed so not good for sand castles, but the local sand mine had dumped a heap of their beautiful white sand next to the slipway and this was a hit with kids and parent alike.

On Monday was the event we were waiting for, a tour on foot around the sand mine (see below). Tour places were limited but we were lucky because we called, instead of the office manager her assistant answer the phone. He did not know there was a limit to the tour numbers and only noted our name instead of a contact number so they could not call to cancel us. The tour started late afternoon after the normal day shift so there was no machinery in operation to endanger us, and it was great to see a working site rather than a sanitized version we have seen in other mine tours.

The tour started with a walk up to and into the mine. The seam of white quarts sandstone is about 6m deep. So far they have mined about 1km into the hillside though we only walked about 100m, just enough to get pitch blackness when all torches were extinguished. They mine the lower 4.5m of the seam in a grid pattern, blasting out 10m wide corridors and leaving 10x10m pillars to support the 1.5m thick cavern roof above which is unstable rock. This means that slightly less than half the available sandstone remains in the mine, but sand is cheap so this much more economical than mining the rest of the sand and having to use much more expensive materials to support the roof.

Returning to sea level we were given a tour of the refining process from start to finish. After crushing to rock, every step involves hugh quantities of water to filter, spin, transport and wash the sand. The water is pumped from the flooded parts of the old mine workings and pumped back again after use, where the sand settles out and it can be used again - brilliant recycled use of resources. They have two grades of sand, "white" and "green". They are both white in colour but the "white" has an extra process step where centrifugal spirals are used to spin out the iron, reducing the content from 500ppm to 85ppm, making it exceptional quality for plate glass production.

There is not much time left of our holiday, so the plan is to do a slow circumnavigation of Mull, stopping when and where weather permits.