I’m A #GetOutside Champion!

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The 2018/19 Get Outside Champions team!

So something exciting happened to me earlier this year…

At the start of 2018 I was lucky enough to be chosen to become one of Ordnance Survey’s #GetOutside Champions, a team of ambassadors tasked with inspiring others to spend more time outdoors.

Did you know that the average child today spends less time outside than a prison inmate?
This is a ticking time bomb health-wise; the children of today are expected to have shorter lifespans than their parents. Also, how can we expect them to appreciate and protect nature when they have little knowledge or experience of it?
These are just two of the many reasons why the #GetOutside initiative has been created.

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Cheese!

 

At our first get-together the team list read like a who’s who of British adventurers.
It included names such as…

-Ben Fogle, TV presenter and adventurer.
-Mel Nicholls, Paralympic medallist and endurance wheelchair racer.
-Dwayne Fields, TV presenter and the first black Briton to reach the North Pole.
-Sean Conway, endurance adventurer and the first person to swim, cycle and run the length of Great Britain.

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Our Everest experts

There are folk who have climbed Everest (multiple times!), world record breakers, book writers, TV personalities, photographers, filmmakers and charity founders.

How on earth did I manage to slip in there? Was there a mistake?!

That’s what ran through my head at the big launch event in the New Forest.
I remember being sat at a table with Sarah Outen MBE and being a bit starstruck.
Sarah completed her round-the-world circumnavigation in 2015 and was the first woman and youngest person to row the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Like many of the other Champions, I’ve followed her on social media and for a number of years she’s been a bit of a hero of mine. Getting to meet her in person felt surreal.

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Table of dreams: Medals, MBE’s, world record holders… but most of all, simply wonderful people!¬† (I still can’t believe I got to hang out with this lot!)

As we listened to our introduction talk I glanced around the room. I could almost feel the sparks of energy coming off this crowd of 60 inspiring, highly-motivated, extraordinary people. It was exciting.
And terrifying.

Don’t they know I’m a fraudster!

I don’t have the skills or expertise to be sitting amongst this lot!
I’m not an athlete or sportsperson or record breaker, I’ve never scaled a mountain or rowed an ocean, I’m fairly new to proper map reading and I get wheezy when I climb hills.
I enjoy bumbling around outside, soaking up the joys of nature and a gorgeous view. I just love being outdoors.

Just chillin’ by the sea

But that’s where I fit in…
This is EXACTLY why I’m a #GetOutside champion.

Whilst I’ll always feel like a bit of an imposter next to the likes of Sarah or Ben, I’m here to prove that you don’t have to be super fit or especially sporty to enjoy time spent outside.

IF I CAN DO IT ANYONE CAN.
(Excuse the capital letters but this really needs to be shouted from the rooftops! Say it again folks!)

This is a vital part of the #GetOutside campaign.
Alongside the professional mountain climbers and endurance athletes we have Champions who are veterans, people with various disabilities, people from different backgrounds, asthmatics, families with kids and even a couple of four-legged companions.
There are a number of us who use the great outdoors as a tool to help our mental health.
Our aim is to show that anyone, whatever your ability or fitness, can enjoy time spent outside.

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All different ages, backgrounds, abilities and sizes (and all slightly silly!)

For me it’s all about getting close to nature, exploring this beautiful and weird natural world around us. It’s about curiosity and learning.
I firmly believe that one of the keys to being happy is to find joy in the smallest things… an unusual cloud… a spot of unexpected colour… even just a bee having a scratch!
Once you start noticing those things you’re able to start appreciating these little bursts of happiness more often.

It’s all about the little things

All this may sound flippant but it’s rooted in something important.
It’s been medically proven that time spent outside is good for people suffering from depression or other mental health issues.
When life gets stressful or if I’ve had some bad news I find it soothing to take a break, go for a walk or sleep out under the stars. It helps me to clear my mind.
Fellow Champion, Eli Greenacre, talks about the benefits of getting outside for mental health better than I ever could. Check out her story here

As a self-confessed tree-hugger I also think it’s incredibly important to spend time in nature to fully realise how valuable it is. When you see how varied and interesting wildlife and the natural landscape is you’re naturally more inclined to want to protect it.

So here I was, sitting in a conference room amongst the most inspiring group of people I’ve ever met; all ready to spend the next few years encouraging as many people as we can to spend time outdoors.
And do you know what? Their energy was infectious.

Getting to know each other by causing general chaos during orienteering!

Whatever I’m going to do for Ordnance Survey, it’s nothing compared to what I get out of it…

-I hadn’t expected to spend an evening round a table with a group of new friends, laughing so hard that my sides still ached as I packed up my stuff and drove home.
-I hadn’t expected to chat to Anna Humphries aka ‘Mountain Girl’ about the wonders of the moon or enjoy a few too many drams of whisky between ruggedly-bearded adventurers, David Wilson and Sean Conway (#adventurehangover)

Sian Anna Lewis and I wondered whether we could get an honorary membership to the exclusive Adventure Beard Club with David Wilson and Sean Conway

-I hadn’t expected to giggle uncontrollably with two absolute heroes, Sarah Outen and Mel Nicholls, and for them to continue to bring sparkle and smiles into my days whenever I need it (and even when I don’t!)
-I hadn’t expected to come away from the launch event grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
-And I really hadn’t expected to come away feeling like I was involved in something that is truly special.

Over two days we laughed, cried, discussed, messed around and then laughed some more. I genuinely feel like I’ve become part of a family.
Now that I’m part of the Champions team I feel like I’ve got a whole army of encouragement behind me. They send me advice if I’m uncertain and messages of motivation and support if I’m feeling down.
I feel ridiculously lucky!

 

A Sunday stroll that turned into a boggy ramble! (And a rare photo of Mel before all the mud splatters!)

Now I’m excited to see what lies ahead.
I’ve already had great support from the OS team with a trip that I’ve recently completed and I can’t wait to represent the brand at Countryfile Live this August (come and say hello!)

I’m feeling absolutely, tremendously, brilliantly inspired.
Now it’s my job to try and pass some of that inspiration on to you!

Woohoo! They even put up a picture of Skye at the launch event!

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New Moons & New Starts…

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Insert cheesy caption about changing tides here…

Is it just me or did January seem to last for about eight weeks?!

Not that I mind January…

Tucked in between the island weather warnings we are treated to vivid blue skies with sparkling sunshine and a clarity to the air that we don’t see in warmer months; happy breaths of respite amidst the seemingly-endless days of sleet and overcast skies.

I’m often cold but I’m happy in the knowledge that I’m only going to get warmer from now on (I know spring has sprung when I finally regain feeling in my toes. A few weeks to go yet…)

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Clear blue winter skies and the Trotternish Ridge all to myself!

The days are getting longer…
When I visit nearby bothies and tourist spots I have them all to myself (I can wake up and brush my teeth in my pants and wellies looking like a scruffy urchin without scaring anyone -yay!)
In my garden, tiny green spears precede buttery-coloured crocus buds and the pearls of new snowdrops.

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Hullo little friend!

Well, with all that said, I think January is pretty bloody lovely, actually!

I think the reason why it’s felt so long for me is that so much has happened.
Huge things, both good and bad, made for an exhaustingly busy month…

Unfortunately, Rob and I parted ways after almost two years together. Although it’s always sad when these things end, there are no hard feelings between us and we’ll always have fond memories of our time together. Although we realised that we look at life in completely opposite ways I’ll always appreciate the how we got each other through such an extraordinary first year together!

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Back to kissing frogs!

It’s strange being single again though, a weird mix of oh-bugger-here-we-are-again-I’m-too-old-for-this and lovely freedom. I’m not saying finding a partner on Skye is hard but it’s probably easier to teach quantum physics to adolescent piglets…
Suppose I’ll just have to get my own Valentines present this year.

On top of this I travelled back to the South of England to help Mum move house.
Despite being in my 30’s I still count the family home as ‘home home’, even though I’m very much a Skye-girl now (I’ll always be an ‘incomer’ but hopefully I can also be ‘a local’!)

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Bye bye, Meadowview Cottage!

 

 

Some good news has been that my painting sales have been busier than they’ve ever been before (whoopee!) but the real big, red cherry on the cake is this…
I’m now an Ordnance Survey #GetOutside Champion!

Okay, fair enough, if you don’t follow outdoorsy/adventure social media then you probably don’t know what that is (although you’d have to be living on the moon to have not come across Ordnance Survey before).

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Woohoo, I’m a #GetOutside Champion… They even put up a picture of North Skye to make me feel at home… ūüėČ

To put it simply, I’ve joined a team of 60 of some the most inspiring and exciting adventurers in the UK today. For the launch event in the New Forest I got to meet fellow Champions including Ben Fogle, Shaun Conway, Sarah Outing MBE and a whole crowd of ridiculously awesome humans (and no, I’m not quite sure how I got in there either..!)

I won’t go into too much detail as I’ll write a new post about it later this week but it’s a great honour and, after an overwhelming January, it’s just what I needed to kickstart an awesome 2018.

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The 2018/19 Ordnance Survey #GetOutside Champions (I’m the one in the middle who can’t quite believe she got in there!)

One of the many inspiring people I met at the #GetOutside launch event was Anna Humphries, a mountain leader, Bear Grylls instructor and generally all-round kickass superwoman. I was lucky enough to be sat next to her at the launch dinner.
Whilst we ate we talked about the rare event of the supermoon, blood moon and blue moon all coinciding at the same time. Amongst her many talents, Anna is fantastically knowledgeable about the universe. She explained about energies and planets and how, after many folk experienced difficulties over winter, good things are set to align this year because of these celestial events.
Now I’m a sceptic with most things but she explained this in such a scientific and rational way… it really made sense.

It’s been quite a turbulent month for me but, you know what, I feel deep down that Anna is right… 2018 is gonna be a good year.
I’m excited already…

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Bring it 2018, I’ve got a new jumper and a cup of tea and I’m ready for ya!

Hallo Harry

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Me and ma pal at sunset overlooking Uig Bay

We have a new addition to the household this month; a quiet and strange wee beastie with beady eyes and a snappy appetite.

Little Harry is the latest in a long string of family rescue dogs. Mum does a lot to help rehoming charities and shelters but unfortunately she’s a terrible fosterer.
By that I don’t mean that she’s bad at looking after them. It’s quite the opposite… once we’ve got to know them she finds it too hard to give them away!

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Tuppence, our first ever rescue dog, came to us in a terrible state but she eventually perked up and here she is enjoying Staffin Beach

Most of the dogs settle into the family easily (I firmly believe rescue dogs know when they’ve landed on their feet) but old Harry was a bit different.

He has something called Cushing’s disease caused by a tumor near his brain. As a result he’s a pot-bellied, scruffy little thing who walks with a rolling, bulldog-like gait because he finds it painful to move.
He is also short-tempered.

Our other dogs weren’t keen on this snappy newcomer and so, with their comfort as my excuse, I whisked him up to Skye with me. Rob, Harry and I are now three.

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Sniffing out a catshark in front of the Cuillins (about 2 seconds before Harry pounced on it and I had to wrestle the dead fish from his jaws…)

It’s a joy to have a wee buddy around to keep you company, especially working from home.
Not that he’s like a normal dog. He isn’t particularly interactive, he doesn’t make noise and he very rarely wags his crooked little tail.
Ah, and he also doesn’t like walking.

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Harry prefers to experience the Great Outdoors lying down

As anyone who reads this knows, I’m fond of a wander. Living amidst such incredible scenery here on Skye, who couldn’t be?

With his sore muscles, it isn’t fair to force Harry to walk long distances.¬†How do I get in a day’s rambling or camping with a dog that won’t budge?

After some Googling*, rummaging in the cupboards and a bit of snipping and sewing I had a solution…
The Carry Harry‚ĄĘ prototype!

Okay, so it’s only an old rucksack that I’ve cut up and padded out but it’s just a tester. (Other potential names could be the Pup-oose or Doggy Bag but maybe not the Harry Carry as it sounds a bit like Hari-Kiri!)

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Rain sweeping over the Trotternish Ridge from the Quiraing

We gave the carrier it’s first trial at the Quiraing.
At this time of year it’s a completely different place to the summer; no cars or crowds. It seemed even quieter than usual but I suspect that may have had something to do with the unrelenting rain.

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Even through the mist and drizzle the Quiraing never fails to be spectacular; I had a wonderful walk.
I think Harry was less impressed.

It turns out that, on top of walking, Harry also dislikes rain and heights.

Here, on an island comprising mostly of rain and heights.

It’s a good job he’s cute.

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First test (don’t worry, he’s not too cold! Harry did have a fleece on but didn’t like it)

So the Carry Harry is still undergoing development and I’m continuing my search online for the comfiest purpose-built carriers (if anyone has any tips let me know!)

With the beginnings of Storm Caroline howling around the house, Harry is even less keen to go outside (he got blown over in the garden earlier). We’ve got the fire on and our walking stuff drying next to it.
For now, we’re staying in.

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I’m comfy enough right here, thank you.

***

*I’ve actually switched search engines to Ecosia, an organisation that plants a tree for every search you make. It’s just as good as Google but you’re helping to save the world by doing something you’d be doing anyway.
It sounds like a scam but it’s completely legit so there’s no reason not to make the switch. Check them out here: Ecosia Search Engine

Countryfile Magazine

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A photo from the latest Countryfile blog about life in Eden (image thanks to ©Keo Films)

I’m afraid I have been cheating a little; this is no longer my only blog… I have recently begun writing for Countryfile Magazine.

The posts are still about life on Skye but are slightly different from what I write on here in that the Countryfile articles far less rambling and wobbly (I even get the luxury of having them edited for me!)
I’ll post links to each piece published so you can read both.

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Feeding the piggies -a photo from my latest Countryfile blog post (image thanks to ©Keo Films)

My latest blog for them was about being on Eden. Unlike previous articles I wanted to focus on the behind-the-scenes stuff, the positive things and what I want to remember about the experience.
I was even lucky enough to get permission from the production company to use some of the unseen photos taken whilst we were in there (I’ve used some of them here too, courtesy and copyright of KEO films)
It’s the only time I’ve gone into depth about life in there and it’s probably the only thing I will ever write about it so it’s incredibly personal to me.
You can read it here: Life on Eden: A Year of Living in the Wild

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The resident robin, one of the animal characters I wrote about for Countryfile Mag (image thanks to ©Keo Films)

 

Time to calm down (thanks for the reminder, Al Humphreys!)

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Time to recharge! (That’s a print by Morten Hansen, by the way, I’m not really putting my feet up in the Cuillins…)

Hello folks!
It’s been a while hasn’t it?

I wish I could say I’ve been kicking back, enjoying some time in nature and finally getting round to starting some of the books on my To Read list…

Instead, the phrase ‘headless chicken’ probably sums it up best!
I’ve had exhibitions, art fairs, friends’ events and research trips (and plenty of colds from a battered immune system)

As ever, I had to put work ahead of all the extra-curricular stuff but I’ve really missed writing on here.
With so much going on there’s been loads to talk about, like how our house became a hedgehog hospital or my trip to the eerie but beautiful Ailsa Craig with Basking Shark Scotland.
I’ll try to catch up!

Ps:
If, like me, you grew up watching Sesame Street, you’ll remember at the beginning of every episode they had this bit that said something like, “This programme was brought to you by the letter ‘Y’!”
Well, along those lines, this blog post was brought to you by this brilliant wake-up call from Al Humphreys: Urgent vs Important

Since returning home in March I’ve been getting increasingly bogged down by an avalanche of emails and messages.
It’s time to make the most of living on Skye again.

The Sea Monster

So we get a lot of interesting things washing up on the beaches here on Skye. Not only have we got a lot of coastline, we’ve also got a lot of activity going on in the surrounding waters.

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Looking for shells and seaweed at Coral Beach

Some flotsam and jetsam can be beautiful; rare shells, pieces of old ship or historic kitchenware.
More often it’s a frustrating mixture of throwaway plastics and discarded or lost fishing gear (grrrr!)
Every now and again it’s something more interesting…

Last week we found one of the most unusual things I’ve come across: the remains of a rare ocean giant…

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About a month ago there had been reports from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme of a possible minke whale carcass washing up nearby in North Skye (marine mammal medics and SMASS volunteers often go out to investigate reported strandings to identify and record data on the animals that wash up on our local coastlines).

A friend had agreed to have a look for it but they couldn’t safely find it.
We assumed it had been washed back out to sea.

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A minke whale carcass found near Elgol, South Skye (photo by skye-birds.com)

That was until my landlord, Donnie, mentioned seeing some bird activity over a pile of large bones from his boat.

On hearing this, Rob and I armed ourselves with cameras and a tape measure and set off for another investigation. The tall basalt columns of the cliffs can be dangerous (and neither of us are particularly brave around precipitous heights!) but with the added safety of being in a pair we were able to look more thoroughly than before.
Eventually, with me holding on to the back of Rob’s jacket whilst he peered over the edge, we found it.

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Rob at the top of the cliffs

It was not what we expected…

A very clean spine. None of the usual bird activity. A bearable smell.
( You usually catch a whiff of these things before you see them. I once went to identify a long washed-up minke…
The rotten blubber looked like a giant, formless mass of old chewing gum and the stench was unbelievable. It took weeks to get the Eau de Dead Whale out of my clothes.)

The thing we noticed first was the vertebrae, even from a distance we could see that the bones of the spine were perfectly round, not winged like mammals have. It looked like one of those strings of floats you get for dividing lanes in swimming pools.
This was a very big… fish!

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Measuring the individual vertebrae

To reach the remains took careful navigation down a steep cliff path and an hour of scrambling over car-sized boulders skirting the shore. It’s not surprising it was hard to find.
Beetroot-faced and breathing heavily we reached the little beach.

It was easy to identify the species… a basking shark.

Baskers are the second largest fish in the world (after whale sharks). They are gentle giants who arrive in the Hebrides each summer when the warm currents are full of plankton, their main food source.
There was once a lucrative business in capturing basking sharks here for oil. Their numbers plummeted and they are now listed as a IUCN ‘Vulnerable’ species and are legally protected (yay!)

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Watching my first basking shark at Rubha Hunish

I look forward to spotting them when they arrive each year (I wrote about my first sighting here)
The ones I’ve seen have all been relatively small (3-4m max) but they can grow up to 28ft (8m) long!

Now, upon seeing this skeleton, the most awe-inspiring thing was the size.
The spine that had looked teeny-tiny from the clifftops stretched to over 14ft in length. …and that was only a part of it; the rest lay about the beach, scattered by birds.

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Rob with the scattered skeleton

We found 94 vertebrae in total. The biggest ones were as wide and thick as a muscleman’s neck.
When we put the measurements of all the pieces together we worked out that the length of the shark would have been over 24 feet long (and that’s probably with a lot missing!)

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The vertebrae up close. It’s believed that, like a tree, the age of the shark can be determined by the number of rings

The rest of the skeleton was mostly bits of unfamiliar cartilaginous shapes; most pieces as long and thick as my arm.
The scavengers had feasted, meticulously cleaning off all the flesh and leaving perfect off-white pieces. We had them to thank for the (almost) lack of smell.

Aside from the spine, the other most identifiable pieces were two fins, probably pectoral. Again, it was their size that was striking, two great white wings.

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It was a strange-looking skeleton.

Historic incidents of washed-up basking sharks have led to many stories of sea monsters… The way they decompose led to people thinking they were modern-day plesiosaurs, Nessie-like creatures with long necks and big flippers.
The most famous cases are the Zuiyo-maru carcass and the Stronsay Beast; two stories well worth a read if, like me, you find that kind of stuff interesting.

Even picked clean, it was unusual.
Sharks have cartilaginous skeletons meaning that these pieces were not bone; they had a translucence and slight wobble when moved.
Unlike a fish or whale it was hard to know which bit was which or what went where. It felt truly alien.

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A mystery piece. Could this be a part of the jaw?

Whilst it’s sad that such an incredible animal no longer graces our local waters, it was a fascinating thing to investigate.

The even sadder thing, for me, was to find the skeleton surrounded by plastic water bottles.¬†Whilst it’s unlikely that it was this litter that caused the shark’s demise, it was a sorry sight.
We took away a rubbish bag filled almost entirely with discarded bottles.

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Plastic on the beaches is a constant problem

We left the remains as they were. As a protected species, they were not for us to move. The quickly-decomposing ‘bones’ would be reclaimed by the sea soon enough.

That evening we sent our report with measurements and photos to SMASS.
Washed up shark carcasses aren’t common so hopefully the information will go towards helping learn more about these incredible creatures.

It’s now coming towards the end of the shark season on Skye.
There still haven’t been any sighting here in North Skye this summer (which makes this skeleton even more curious) but I’ll be making sure that I get to see a live¬†
one before the year is out…
At the beginning of October I’ll be heading down to Mull to take part on a research trip with Basking Shark Scotland. I can’t wait… It was fascinating to see this skeleton but nothing beats the magic of seeing a real, living shark.

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Still looking…

A ‘Girl Friday’ Adventure: 40 days and 40 nights in the wild

Noisy neighbours…

I moved from London to Skye seeking peace, wilderness and a life closer to nature.
I found one of those things but the rest wasn’t quite what I expected…

On this funny old island I discovered new friends, hundreds of things to do and a diverse, vibrant community.
I was definitely closer to nature but my calendar has never been busier!

I fell head-over-heels in love with my new home here yet I’m still searching for that peace. I haven’t quite got there yet.
The desire to find a certain type of solitude with nothing but the hills or sea for company pulls at me like a little fishhook caught in the back of my mind.

The peace and calm of the cold white sands of Scarista, Harris

 

So in 2015 I set about on a plan that would help me find it…

A solo expedition to an uninhabited island far out at sea; somewhere remote, wild and windswept.
No human contact, no electricity, no entertainment such as books or sketchpads. I’d be completely alone… wildlife and the landscape would be my only company.
It would be a kind of Castaway or Girl Friday experience, only without the sand or the sunshine!

Sleeping under the stars just outside Inverness (hopefully I’ll be doing this without the injured-ankle support boot on my island adventure!)

I located my temporary home; a set of windswept islands about 40 minutes away from the nearest harbour. Their owner was incredibly kind and accommodating, if a little bemused by my requests.
Shortly after I’d secured my stay I was lucky enough to win a grant from Tim Moss’ brilliant Next Challenge and a big bundle of kit from Lyon Outdoors. It doesn’t seem like an unusual adventure so I was heartened to see that people were interested.

There’s a surprising amount of planning involved to be able to exist in such a pared-back way…
What safety measures do I need to put in place in case I fall and break an ankle? How do I get there?
Do I bring food supplies or do I exist on shellfish and seaweed?

The adverts launching Eden on Channel 4. The photos show the beautiful scenery of Ardnamurchan

 

But when the opportunity to take part in Eden popped up in the middle of all this planning it was hard to turn down…
I temporarily postponed my solo trip.
The islands would always be there, this Eden project would not.
Besides, a year spent off-grid in the woods sounded like the perfect halfway stepping stone to my island adventure.

Now Eden has finished… I’m out and settling back into reality after Reality TV and, excitingly for me, my Girl Friday trip is back on!
At the beginning of next year I’ll be hopping on a boat and setting up camp as these feathered friends begin to arrive for the nesting season…

 

Atlantic puffins (photo by inhabitat.com)

Spending a year off-grid in Ardnamurchan wasn’t exactly the immersive close-to-nature experience that I had expected.
In fact, it was more community-focused than I had ever imagined and it often felt like a constant battle to persuade certain people to respect the environment in which we were living.

Now my island trip is back on the only community I’ll be interacting with is the thousands of seabirds that flutter onto the rocky cliffs each spring. They may turn out to be incredibly stinky neighbours but I can’t wait!