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…

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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…

DOWN WITH KRILL OIL!

 



Following on from my last post about the Niteworks video I thought I’d share something else that came to fruition whilst I was away in Eden…

If you read this blog you’ll probably have worked out that much of my life revolves around the ocean, wildlife and marine conservation volunteering.

There are so many problems facing the ocean but there’s one thing that’s particularly weedled its way under my skin… mostly because of how completely pointless it is… the sale of krill oil.


Krill oil, unsurprisingly, is the oil that comes from mushing up billions of tiny free-swimming crustaceans called krill.

Krill oil in the UK is sold straight to consumers as a dietary supplement. It’s peddled as an anti-ageing product, a miracle pill to keep away the wrinkles and fine lines.
Carol Vorderman didn’t seem so clever to me when she became the desperate face of Bioglan Krill Oil.

In the Southern Ocean, krill is the primary food source for many Antarctic animals including whales, seals and penguins. Strong krill stocks are vital for the existence of the entire Antarctic ecosystem.

In the last decade or so, bigger and bigger fishing boats have been engineered to hoover hundreds of thousands tonnes of krill out of the ocean.
Wildlife populations have declined as a result with case studies reporting malnourished humpback whales stranding off the coast of New Zealand and penguin populations plummeting.

So, to put it simply…
THEY NEED KRILL, WE DON’T

Grrrrraaarrrrrrrgghhhgghhhhh! It makes me so mad!

I mean, come on Carol… I’d rather be a wizened old prune sunning my raisin-face whilst humpback-spotting than know that my vanity has contributed to wiping Great Whales off the planet.

So, I’ve been writing to supermarkets, spreading the word via social media and executing my own one-woman campaign against the stuff using good old pen and paper…

 

For legal reasons I’d just like to point out that I was terribly sad to have mislaid these notes whilst out shopping for groceries. Silly me…

As thrilling as guerilla educating is, ‘accidentally’ leaving notes in shops was never going to change much so I started writing to those at the top.

My main target was Waitrose. I’d had various emailed conversations with them over the last 4 years or so as they market themselves as one of the most environmentally conscious supermarkets in the UK. It’s a long story but they were reassured of sustainability by the WWF and MSC labelling, two organisations that receive funding from fisheries.
They dug their heels in, put their head in the sand, whatever. So I created a petition: Petition: Waitrose: The sale of krill oil is destroying the Antarctic ecosystem

The first 500 signatures was easy, after that it slowed down. Then I had to abandon the campaign to enter ‘Eden’.

Coming back to ‘real life’ after Eden was emotional. I got to talk to my family again, see my favourite places, feel freedom.
Yet the first thing to bring a tear to my eye was to see that Waitrose had finally taken krill oil off its shelves.

It might not have been anything to do with me, they may have already begun investigating it by the time that I started the petition, but to think that I may have played even a teensy-tiny part somewhere along the line is incredibly special to me.

Krill might be tiny, my voice amongst millions of others might be tiny, but maybe even tiny things can try to make big changes.

Maraiche

In this post I wanted to share something with you that I’m really proud of being involved with. It includes two very talented Gaelic gentlemen, a band I listen to on repeat, the haunting vocals of Kathleen MacInnes and some of my most favourite places.

The awesome thing about living on this island is that there’s always something fun and creative going on, you never know what you’ll get up to from one week to the next…

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I’ll begin by letting you know about three things that I love:

-Skye
-The water
-Music by the Skye-grown band Niteworks

So, when Dòl Eoin, a talented filmmaker I’d met on the set of Bannan, offered me the chance to take part in the band’s new video there was no way I could refuse.

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Dòl Eoin scouting out the locations around Lealt Falls, where the protagonist climbs away from the waterfall

The words of ‘Maraiche’ are sung in Gaelic and they tell the tale of a woman who has lost her love to the sea.
Dòl Eoin’s vision for the video begins at a Niteworks gigwhere we see her catch a glimpse, or maybe just a memory, of her departed sailor as she becomes entranced by the music. Chasing this vision she races through the streets of Glasgow and we follow her and her memories, Alice In Wonderland-style, towards the sea…

We began filming in familiar Glasgow spots (Ashton Lane, the Tradeston Bridge) then moved on to some of Skye’s most-loved locations; Neist Point, The Fairy Pools, Lealt Falls….
I only had about a week before I was due to leave for Eden and we had multiple locations to shoot in over a number of days so it was a race against time.

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At the Fairy Pools. Dòl Eoin sets up the camera whilst Calum looks on.

My ‘lost sailor’ in the video is someone who loves the water even more than me.
If you live in Scotland and use social media you’ve probably already seen Calum Maclean.
The video of a nutter swimming through a high-altitude icy loch? That’ll be Calum. The naked bum disappearing behind a magnificent waterfall? Probably also Calum. If you haven’t already seen him, look him up, his short videos for BBC Scotland’s The Social are well worth a watch.

They may be a Caribbean blue but the Fairy Pools in March aren’t the warmest of waters (in fact, they’re equally freezing in the summer months too…)
Tourists looked on in confusion whilst, fully clothed, we ducked under, fell off ledges and attempted to film an underwater kiss.
When we finally finished I realised I couldn’t have done much longer. I shuddered big, involuntary juddering shivers and I slid and stumbled down the muddy track back to our cars with limbs barely working -a mild case of hypothermia that was cured by a few hours in a warm pub!
It was worth it though, the aquamarine water of the Fairy Pools made a stunning backdrop to the music.

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A picture rudely swiped from Calum’s Instagram (sorry @caldamac!) It was as chilly as it looks but I love the yellow against the turquoise of the Fairy Pools

Whilst I’m obviously biased, I think Dòl Eoin captured the spirit of ‘Maraiche’ perfectly. I’m was chuffed, still am chuffed, that he’d choose me to work with.

Of course, I didn’t get to see the finished video until I’d left Eden earlier this year but I was thrilled to finally watch it (though I often sat on those Ardnamurchan sand dunes humming Niteworks tunes to myself as I watched the tide go out)

If you’d like to watch it too, you can find it here: Niteworks – Maraiche (feat. Kathleen MacInnes)

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A still shot at Lealt Falls


To learn more about Niteworks and hear the rest of the album visit their webpage niteworksband.com

After ‘Eden’

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Once I’ve replaced the ingrained Scottish dirt with a real-life tan!

 

Hello long lost friends!

Unless you happen to be my Mum or my Nan, you probably haven’t noticed that I’ve barely posted since returning from Channel 4’s ‘Eden’ project but…

I’ve purposefully hung back from blogging since re-entering ‘the real world’. Much of my post-Eden life has been influenced by the experience and so it’s tricky to write openly without giving a few things away (we’re sworn to secrecy to not leak info on the programme before it airs!)
Not that I’ve had much time to twiddle my thumbs or write recently -catching up has been buuuuuuusy, but more on that another time…

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A little bit of post-Eden luxury in Santorini. Well-earned, I’d like to think!

But now Eden is coming back to our screens. Not only that, it’s coming back as ‘Eden: Paradise Lost’, a reference to how dark it became in there as everyone was pushed to their limits (prepare to see me ugly crying about 99% of the time…)
Did you notice the Lord of the Flies picture reference at the bottom of my last post, just imagine that story but with more booze and swearing. Egads!

Press interest is ramping up and I’m holding my breath as to what is included in the series. There will be 5 episodes shown over 5 nights and I don’t think they’ll be showing us skipping round a campfire holding hands…

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‘Eden:Paradise Lost’

I’m dead nervous about the whole thing… Will I come across badly? Will I embarrass myself? Do I look like an idiot? Will people hate me?
There’s no way of predicting it. I do know, however, that I stayed true to myself and my beliefs even when it sucked! Whatever happens, at least that’s something!

Right, I’ve already said too much about all that… shhh Katie!

So, I can’t detail Eden stuff but I will try and write general posts about what I’m up to at the moment. Because I’m having to skirt around certain topics, things might not be in chronological order but I’ll write more as things unfold on screen.
Not long now, deep breaths…

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Eden: Paradise Lost starts on the 7th August, 10pm, Channel 4 (please forgive me all the ugly crying and losing my cool)