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™ 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

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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 beautiful but precipitous craggy islands about 40 minutes out of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. Their owner, Tom, 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? (I still remember Tom’s face as I proposed catching the invading black rats as my main form of sustenance…)

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 have to interact with is the millions of puffins and seabirds that descend on the rocky cliffs each spring. They may turn out to be incredibly stinky neighbours but I can’t wait!

The Heather Woman

We never expected to be as busy as we were in Eden. Who knew that boiling a kettle could take over an hour?

Still, amidst the wood chopping, goat milking and porridge stirring I managed to get a little bit of time to be creative.

The Rabbit Hole (my little no-trees-harmed-in-the-making-of Hobbit home) was my proudest ‘artwork’; I put my heart and soul into making it a magical little sanctuary.
(I’ll write more about this once the show is over)
I also created a number of sculptures working with the landscape, my favourite of which was ‘The Heather Woman’.

With one episode still to be shown, I doubt the heather woman will be seen on our screens.
Unfortunately, I also don’t have any photographs of her in her full amethyst glory (I’m hoping to pester the production team for one once the programme is over). However, I do have a picture taken by a lovely local lass, Kate Maclean from April 2017, just after the project had finished.

The heather woman (Kate Maclean)

The Heather Woman in April 2017 as her heather blows away and she begins to return to the earth (photo taken by  @thebirdwentsplat on Instagram)

The Heather Woman was a 7ft sculpture made of old found materials from the beach and heather in full bloom.
She stood at the peak of the tallest sand dune on our beach and looked out to sea towards the Isle of Skye, shielding her eyes with a hand.

She took about a week to make, from digging rusty fencing wire out of the sand to collecting buckets of heather sprigs.
Working in the rain was cold and miserable but, on bright days, the top of that dune was the most beautiful ‘studio’ in the world.

The idea was that she originated from the landscape. She would begin in regal purple, shift to blazing orange and then turn silvery and disintegrate as time and weather took their toll.
The materials would collapse and return to the ground, like the people who have lived on the landscape in the past.

She looked out to sea as we often did during our time in Eden but I wanted her to be timeless. She could have been the wife of a fisherman, waiting for her man to return with the herring, or maybe a strong and sturdy croftess about to be displaced from her home and taking one last look.
Like the people who lived in this area before us, and their memories, she would fade back into the landscape that nourished her.

And why did she face towards the Isle of Skye of all places?
Well, that was part of me, looking home.

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She gazes out to sea… (Photo by timetravelcostumes.com)

We took a lot from the landscape, especially in terms of wood for fires and building. Making beautiful things out of natural materials felt important; leaving lovely things rather than just taking and using.
She was still there after we left and I was told in the local pub that a couple of people would maintain her when they could, if she bent in the wind or suchlike.

When I said goodbye to Eden I visited the Heather Woman one last time. I noticed spiders spinning webs between her limbs and beetles tiptoeing along the sprigs of heather. Tiny things, but perfect.
I hope that, however troubled things were, we left a little beauty behind somewhere.

Eden: the vet and the artist

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At a whale rescue training course in Ullapool -recruiting Rob as another ocean warrior!

Channel 4’s Eden: shouting, crying, sexism, homophobia, rape jokes… Maybe reading about Donald Trump, refugees and looming nuclear war might be a bit more positive..?!

Well, it was tough. The toughest thing I’ve ever done. In the short programmes you think you see people’s dark sides; they haven’t shown the worst of it.

Doom, gloom, booooo, noooooo!

But I’ll let you in on a secret….
It wasn’t all bad.

I made some lifelong friends, I built a Hobbit House and lived in it with a robin and family of voles, I created 7ft sculptures, I became matey with a massive (and sometimes terrifying) Tamworth pig.

Hmm, have I forgotten anything? Oh yeah, just one other thing… Vet Rob.

It’s been really heartening (and kind of weird) to find that people are interested in our relationship.
Obviously, it’s something I could talk about forever so, for anyone wanting to know a little more, here’s a few thoughts on the Eden couple that got away..!

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Our first day together on ‘the outside’!

I remember this one night very early on where I first realised how much I like him…

It was pouring with rain, we were huddled in the stinky straw of the pen, soaked through, and Rob was showing me how to bottle feed a kid goat.
Poor little Monty was the runt of triplets, a tiny tangle of knobbly knees and white fluff, he was so hopeless he couldn’t even suckle.
I watched Rob pick him up with these massive strong, rough-looking hands and nurse this funny little creature so softly and so lovingly… well, that was it for me. Hooked.

I mean, there’s a reason why you get calendars that feature hefty firemen cradling cute puppies. Incredible strength showing pure gentleness. As I said… Hook. Line. Sinker.

So that was it, we picked up momentum and he became my best friend.

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Big softy! (He’ll go mad at me for putting this on here…)

That’s not to say that we didn’t row like cats and dogs. My goodness, we had some explosive arguments in there!
When you’re in a confined environment and you’re stressed, tired, hungry and anxious you see the worst sides of each other very quickly.*
Still, we stuck by the motto, ‘If we can get through this, we can get through anything’

And there was a lot to get through. As you’ll have seen if you watched last night’s programme, in early December Rob exited the project.

Looking back, we’re both pleased that we left when we did and are confident that the decisions we made at the time were what was right.
Rob is an incredibly thoughtful guy and he struggled for a long time with the boys’ attitudes to the animals and one boy who had a particular problem with me.
He only stayed as long as he did because I’d always persuaded him to persevere. But, in the end, it was getting him down deeplyand he needed to go.
Of course, I was devastated when he left without a goodbye but I understood it completely.

For me, I’m pleased that I stayed.
They may have tainted the experience but I didn’t want them to ruin my opportunity like they had done for Rob. Stubbornness maybe. Don’t let them win. It might look like I’m wearing glitter, but I think if you look closer it’s grit.
Somewhere deep down I knew we’d both be fine.

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Reunited on the decking

Fast forward 4 months and we’re out.
On my first day of freedom Mum rented a beautiful house down the road from the Eden site in Ardnamurchan, the first part of her expertly-coordinated plan to help me gently readjust into the ‘real world’.
We pulled up to the drive and I saw through the window a curly-haired figure standing on the decking looking out to the loch.

I’d never seen him in ordinary clothes before. I thought he looked like a rockstar.
He’d never seen me without all the ingrained dirt (and funny smell)!

He met my Mum and, later, the rest of the family. I often daydreamed in Eden about seeing the people I loved most together in one room.

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Rob and the Tunn clan on Armadale Pier, Skye

We’d been a couple for almost a year and this was the first time Rob and I had been in a house together… the first time we’d sat down to a meal at a table with a proper knife and fork… the first time in a car together… the first time we’d slept in a bed with sheets!

A couple of weeks after this we’d travelled to Brighton for our one-year anniversary.
I don’t think there are many couples who can say that the first time they ever sat down for dinner together at a restaurant also happened on their first anniversary! It’s been surreal.

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First anniversary & first restaurant meal together!

Rob’s now found work near my cottage on the Isle of Skye and I’ve got to be his vet’s assistant on call outs around the hill crofts of my lovely little island (once things have calmed down a bit I’ll write about them here -it was a bit like jumping into a tale by James Herriot!)

It was incredibly hard watching last night. It’s taken months for me to piece myself back together and it’s nerve-wracking to relive certain things. Rob has found it tough too but has been patient and understanding.
But for all the shit that happened (and there was a LOT), I’ll always be thankful that I came home with the best souvenir!

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Being idiots on holiday in Santorini

Before Eden it had got to the point where I had the perfect life but I lived it alone.
My main relationship was with nature and the ocean and I had come to terms with the idea that I might not find a partner, it was sometimes lonely but it was okay. A life with gazillions of rescued animals would do.

So I never expected to return with a boyfriend, let alone someone as lovely as Rob.
I don’t want to pinch myself in case it’s not quite true and I still feel a bit guilty in case I don’t deserve him.

It’s a whole new life post-Eden, though our shared love of all things 4-legged means that I still might end up with those gazillions of rescued animals…

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Eden (if you can bear to watch a load of shouting and me ugly crying) is on Channel 4 at 10pm tonight.

*And not just in terms of personality… If a man can still love you when you smell like wet sheep, have a smear of pig poo on your cheek and snot everywhere because it’s too cold to feel it running down your face -well my friends, I think that’s a keeper!

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He seems to be enjoying Skye so far…