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Road to the Hebridean Celtic Festival

Road to the Hebridean Celtic Festival

It’s a well-worn routine by now for those of non-islander regulars. The long drive north, landscape changing from cityscape to forest, then hill, burn and eventually mountain and loch.

Spectacular enough in itself, even without knowing the Hebridean Celtic Festival lies at the end of this particular multi coloured rainbow.

There’s no need to rush. Why would you? Who would want to let Scotland in all its summer glory and magnificence speed by when, instead, you can simply drink it all in with thirsty eyes.

It’s a road paved with golden views, and eventually, as the sun begins to drop and shimmers lightly on nearby waters, the road ahead clears to the brow of a hill that guides you gently into the welcome site of Ullapool, its harbour sheltering a few fishing boats in its motherly bosom.

Free parking near the back of the local supermarket already awash with cars, the beat up old faithful, odd shaped motorhomes, shiny new hires. All corralled upon a scrap of land where they know their chariots are certain to be safe from harm.

Groaning under the weight of their backpacks, the soon to be foot passengers file down to the quayside and gaze upon the view. It’s captivating. They can’t help it. Each and every one stops, and stares. Their eyes drift off to the horizon.

A few, only a handful mind, are lured back across the road again by the all sense tickling smell of fresh fish and chips frying away. A guilty pleasure, a final meal for the road. Perhaps even a trip down memory lane.

But others, the regular Caledonian MacBrayne ferry travellers hold back. Their ritual is yet to begin.

They don’t have long to wait, for as if from nowhere, the MV Loch Seaforth slides into view, drawing the seawaters behind it with a tiny wash like dancing bubbles despite her giant size.

The distinct CalMac logo, in fire engine red with a lion crest, stands as tall and proud as ever, even if the roar is more gentle with the new environmentally kinder engines fitted during its build a year ago.

It stirs excitement among the children in the newly refreshed waiting area at CalMac check in, and a viewing gallery for a waiting area that is almost worth the journey’s fare alone.

The experience is a regular occurrence for some, many even. But for those who climb aboard the ferry for their first time, or first time in a while, the change is clear with its new modern lines and layout.

Toddlers make a beeline for the children’s play zone, older types for the glass fronted quiet area. Families and the hungry gather to the side of Mariners waiting for chef to declare the restaurant open.

The meals from CalMac, at any time of day, are worth fasting for be it hearty fish, chips and peas, steak pie infused with local ale, macaroni drizzled with Scottish cheese or their famed breakfast.

While the cutlery and glass clinks and chinks below, the dreamers among the passengers head for the clouds, or at least the viewing deck where a single Saltire flutters in the breeze.

There it’s almost reverentially quiet as several hundred pairs of eyes chase a sunset.

Seats recline an inch or two, here and there a pair of shoes are discreetly kicked off. Books lie opened, but unread, pushed into second place by the free show nature is putting on for them instead.

Others, the bolder among them, head stern and up to the open deck where hair is whipped across shoulders, the salt air fills ageing lungs, and a dozen cameras of varying make and size, are trained on the rocks and waves.

While the rest stay below, studying the news on good sized TV screens peppered around the walls, a few nursing glasses of red wine or bottles of beer, the Cabin Café doing a roaring trade in coffees and of course ice cream for the kids.

Copies of local newspapers are read, the pocket sized programmes for Hebcelt pored over and retained with nods of agreement of what to see this year.

Those early arrival bands lugging guitar cases sporting stickers from festivals across the county, indeed the globe, seeing just where they may feature, who they might want to watch themselves.

It is indeed a comfortable ride, with the captain taking a moment to speak with some of the families he recognizes among the 430 plus people relying on him and his crew to deliver them safely to the other side.

And what a crew.

They don’t just serve and clear, they work. Hard. Watch them on the way home, really watch them as they dance a floating ballet that never stops from the moment the first passenger clambers aboard until the last departs.

They dazzle children with their smiles, show empathy with the trucker who just wants his bed, encourage the foreigner not quite sure what to make of the choice of catering before them, and smile when they come back for seconds.

Tables are cleared without anyone noticing, bags full of waste discreetly made to disappear behind code locked walls, without ever giving up locations of those young ‘uns in the middle of playing hide and seek.

There are tears, of course, from the weeks old baby, nestled in her father’s arms. The tiredness of the day finally taking her. But nobody minds. Not here. No, here everybody knows the importance of family.

Or so it seems. There’s a strong and friendly arm for the frail among us, as walking sticks are retrieved and baggage taken care of.

An orderly procession as those with vehicles skip to the car deck below, ready for the next stage of their journey.

The end of the crossing doesn’t come there though. No. For the departing friends are given something akin to a guard of honour as staff in uniforms or hi visibility jackets say goodbye, good luck and of course, thank you as they exit.

And there she is. Stornoway. In all her islands charm, dressed up with Hebridean Celtic Festival posters and window displays, the crown of the big tent peaking out from within the trees nestling under Lews Castle.

For some, it’s home to kith and kin. For others a chance to explore one of the most majestic parts of the world.

Of course, there are also those here to celebrate Hebcelt’s 20th year of dance, song, food and music.

It may have been the end of another journey for some. But for Hebcelt, in this landmark 20th year, another new voyage of celebration and self discovery is only just about to begin.

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View from UllapoolDeparting UllapoolSunset from Loch Seaforth
Meal aboard MV Loch SeaforthSeaforth view from the DeckLoch Seaforth Aft
PortholeMV Loch SeaforthLoch Seaforth Life Preserver
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