My kit list for a weekend in the wilderness

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A room with a view!

Yesterday I opened a message from my friend, Clare.
She’s going camping for the first time soon and, knowing I love sleeping under the stars, she wondered if I could advise on what she should take.

I’ve had a few friends ask me similar things recently so, rather than replying to everyone privately, I thought I’d share my thoughts in a blog post.

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Wild woman! Looking dishevelled after 6 months of living in the woods (photo by Rob Pattinson)

The first thing I should say is that I’m certainly no expert on camping, this is simply what works for me! It’s my basic starter list.
If you’re a seasoned camper you might think there are too many items… Or you might think I’ve missed things.
For some folk a stovetop coffee pot is a vital necessity, for others it’s a proper pillow or a good book… Whatever makes you happy!

Each different style of camping has a slightly different packing list.
Are you taking a tent? Bivvying? With tarp or without? Have you got a camper van? Are you going to build your own shelter or dig a snowhole?

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Making a basic shelter using found materials and existing structures (photo from my island trip)

I usually choose to bivvy, the most basic way to sleep wild.
There’s no tent involved, just a waterproof (aka bivvy/bivvi) bag to keep out the elements. There are no walls so you can fall asleep watching for shooting stars. If lots of rain is forecast I’ll also take a tarp so I can sit outside of my sleeping bag.
I’ve based my list on this way of sleeping out but it’s easy to adapt. If you’ve got a campervan with all mod-cons feel free to replace practical roll mats and tarps with heavy bottles of wine -enjoy!

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Cider with Pip the pup on a recent camp out

Over time you’ll find out what works best for you. You’ll swap the things that you rarely use for little luxuries or favourite foods.
Sometimes I’ll have a bag stuffed to bursting that I can barely carry and at other times I’ll pack little more than sleeping gear and a toothbrush. It all depends on my mood, where I’m going and what the weather is like.

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I rarely camp out without a book or two; it’s the perfect opportunity to switch off and chill out.

That said, it took a long time for me to learn that I didn’t always need to fill my bag with additional stuff ‘just in case’. I used to make sure I packed clothes for all eventualities, a spare set in case I got wet, some clean stuff, maybe I might need this extra thing, how about a choice of breakfast foods or books?

Then I bought the ‘Microadventures’ book by Al Humphreys* and my whole attitude to sleeping out changed.
A microadventure is an achievable adventure that is short, cheap, simple and usually close to home. They can be enjoyed on a weekday night, after work, even just in the back garden. And you don’t need much stuff.

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Bivvying near Inverness airport -a cheap and fun way to catch the first flight of the day

The bit that really stood out to me was where Al (with apologies to his Mum!) said he doesn’t always bother taking spare socks or pants if he’s just heading straight home the next morning.

It reminded me of doing a similar thing during sixth form. On weekends, after raiding someone’s parents’ wine cellar we’d grab as many coats and scarves as we could and trundle out into the night in the direction of Windsor Great Park. Once there we’d curl up under a big oak tree and giggle and get spooked by nocturnal noises until we fell asleep. At dawn we’d wake up, shivering and damp, with huge smiles on our faces.
We’d call it ‘going trekking’ and laugh about it as we walked home towards the inevitable ticking-off.

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From the archives… Baby Katie & friends getting spooked by owls in Windsor Great Park circa 2002.

In many ways, reading ‘Microadventures’ was a lesson in returning to that youthful spontaneity. We don’t need expedition-style prep to enjoy a night or two under the stars. It’s simply about having fun.

Since we’re here I want to take this chance to tell camping newbies the rule number one of enjoying wild spaces…
Leave No Trace!

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Litter, firepits and scorch marks -bad camping practice that ruins these beautiful places for everyone (photo from Facebook group ‘Glen Etive: The Dirty Truth’)

This probably seems obvious but, with a growing interest in wild camping, there’s been a huge (and not very nice) impact on our natural environments.
I see it first hand here in Skye but it’s a growing problem across the UK so it’s important that we all know how to camp responsibly.
There are a number of basic principles that all new campers should know and I’ve detailed ‘The Big Three’ that I think are most important in my previous VIB** blog post here.

So, after all that, here’s what I’d pack for a weekend living wild…

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Tea, chocolate and a good book in a beautiful place… perfect!

MY BASIC WEEKEND KIT LIST…

SLEEPING
The main activity! My sleeping bag and bivvy take up a good 75% of the space in my rucksack (mostly because I’m a stuffer, life’s too short for rolling and folding a sleeping bag).

Sleeping bag
Rollmat or air mat: I prefer a military-issue rollmat, not as comfy but I usually pop the others!
Bivvy bag: Over my sleeping bag to keep me dry.
Tarp/waterproof blanket/tent (optional): An optional additional barrier against wet weather. I like to take a small tarp so that I don’t have to retreat to my sleeping/bivvy bag when it rains at mealtimes.
Bungees/paracord/tent pegs (optional): For securing tarp (or tent). Bungees are especially helpful as you can also use them to secure bulky stuff like roll mats to the outside of your bag.
Pillow (optional): I never bother, choosing instead to use a rolled-up jumper or whatever is at hand  but some people find it makes a big difference to the quality of their sleep.

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Enjoying a cosy lie-in thanks to my trusty Alpkit bivvy bag

PERSONAL KIT
This will obviously vary depending on how long you’re off-grid for and also how mucky you don’t mind being!

Toothbrush and toothpaste
Soap: Those small, individually-wrapped soaps you get from hotels are perfect.
Lip balm/hand cream: These aren’t essential but I find both really helpful, especially if I’m away for more than a couple of days.
Spare socks, underwear and baselayers: Unless it gets wet you only really need to change the layers closest to your skin. It’s only a weekend and no-one’s judging you! I never bother with pyjamas or swimming kit as it’s easier just to strip off.
Warm kit: Hat, neck buff, gloves. Even if it feels warm it’s worth having these just in case the temperature takes a dip.
Waterproofs
Towel (optional): You can get great lightweight camping towels that fold up neatly. I prefer a ‘proper’ towel despite the bulk.
Tissues: I add these with reluctance as seeing dirty scrunches of tissue paper discarded in natural places is one of my biggest pet peeves… If you need a wee why not embrace your wild side and try out some moss instead? If you must use tissue always bag it up and take it away with you.
Tissues can also be handy for fire lighting, drying tech and runny noses.
Sanitary items (if needed): As above, please take your rubbish away with you!

Compostable dog poo bags: For used tissues, sanitary items and even, ahem, number 2’s! (Remember not to flush the bags themselves when you get to somewhere with plumbing)

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You can’t beat nice dry socks after a long walk!

COOKING/EATING
Part of the pleasure of camping for me is a brew with a view, a quickly-scoffed chocolate bar after a long walk or a dram of whisky whilst looking at the stars.

Tin mug: I always take two as one can double up as a cooking vessel.
Cutlery: I don’t bother with specialist camping cutlery as I usually break it or lose it! A fork, dessert spoon and a couple of teaspoons usually do for me (with my regular bushcraft knife)
Mess tins
Cooking system: There’s a huge variety to choose from. The easiest type to start off with is a simple gas canister with a stove attachment. My favourite is a Kelly Kettle system which uses natural fuels. You can see a range of different types here. Take a look around to see what suits your needs best.
Metal scouring pad: I’ve sacrificed far too many pairs of clean socks and knickers because I’ve forgotten to bring something to wash up with!
Food & drink: This is a whole blog in itself so I won’t make a list here. Just be aware of weight, ease of cooking and whether things will keep without being refrigerated. Take more calorific food than you would eat at home and don’t forget treats!

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A ready-to–heat pouch of curry quickly warmed in a cup over the stove/fire is my favourite easy supper

SAFETY:
You probably won’t need most of these but you might regret it if you forget them!

Headtorch: I take two, just in case!
First Aid Kit: You can make your own or buy a ready-made kit (Lifesystems has a great selection here) I also like to add extra medicines such as burn gel, rehydration sachets, Imodium, Anthisan, etc.
Insect repellent and an O’Tom Tick Twister.
Emergency shelter/silver blanket.
Map & compass (if needed)
Mobile phone/GPS/radio: To call for help in case of emergencies. Be aware that in remote places you may not get phone signal. I use a GPS Spot Tracker and have an old Nokia as a back up.

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Don’t let injuries or disabilities keep you inside. You don’t have to hike a mountain to enjoy camping out (I ended up in this cast after a trip in my house -staying indoors is risky!)

PRACTICAL
The handy stuff.

Water bottle: I take multiples as well as a collapsible water carrier.
Lighter/matches/flint and a back-up.
Knife.
Superglue, string, duct tape: For repairs… I never regret packing these!
A waterproof bag or two: For keeping things dry, storing rubbish, wet clothes etc. Alpkit’s drybags are my favourite.
Trowel: To dig a 6-8″ hole in case nature calls. Check out this article to see how to poop responsibly in the woods without causing harm to the environment, other people or wildlife.

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A few strategic scraps of duct tape stopped the tiny holes in my tarp from ripping further. It’s not that tidy but it works.

MY FAVOURITE HANDY EXTRAS
These are the things that I take to make living outside a bit easier or more comfortable. You might agree or think they’re a waste of space. That said, once you’ve tried a hot water bottle on a frosty winter night it’ll be hard to go back!

A Kelly Kettle: Probably my favourite bit of kit for spending time outdoors. In the right conditions I can boil water faster than my electric kettle at home. I use it for making hot drinks, filling hot water bottles and for even heating water for laundry. It’s more useful than 80% of my ex boyfriends.
Hot water bottle: Pure joy for frozen toes and long chilly nights. I now find it quicker, easier and more fuel efficient to make a HWB than to build a fire (not to mention less risk to the environment!)
Whisky: Central heating.
Large bags for beach cleans/impromptu litter picks.
Slip-on sandals/wellies/Crocs: for putting on quickly around camp.
Bottle opener/tin opener: Forget at your peril!
A small axe/hatchet: Good for making kindling. Equally good for digging, levering and for opening cans when you’ve forgotten the tin opener!
A notebook and pen: A bit of peace usually gets my mind sparking with new ideas and future plans.

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My beloved Kelly Kettle boiling water for my morning brew

…Aaaaand a rucksack to carry it all.

It looks like a long list when written down like that but it all packs up fairly easily, especially if you attach bulkier items like mats or Kelly Kettles to the outside of your pack.
Sometimes it’s also handy to bring a smaller backpack for when you’ve set up camp and want to go exploring. I call this my ‘handbag’ and use it for keeping a bottle of water, my safety kit (phone, emergency blanket, first aid kit etc) and warm/waterproof clothes close to hand.

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Big enough bag?!

The safety stuff is pretty important but the rest of it is all just personal preference.

Hopefully my basic guide is of some help but it’s also worth checking out other blogs for different ideas. What things would you add or remove?

Happy Camping folks!

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*

**Very Important Blog, please read! 

*Buy this book. You will not regret it.
Al has probably been my biggest inspiration in getting outside so far. He makes it feel manageable and easy as well as exciting and his enthusiasm is infectious. Microadventures taught me a whole new way of enjoying nights spent under the stars with the ‘5-9’ idea and a more casual approach to adventuring. He’s also written a much more comprehensive guide to packing than I have here!

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The first rule of camping: Leave no Trace!

One of the most important guidelines for anyone keen to enjoy the great outdoors is this…

Respect the natural landscape!

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With wildfires raging in the UK this summer, campers must avoid lighting fires near vegetation. Beach bonfires are a good alternative.

‘Responsible Camping’ is something we all need to learn to do.

I’m probably preaching to the converted here but if just one person reads this and thinks twice about starting a campfire on a dry summer’s day then I’m going to keep yelling it from the hilltops!

At the bottom of this post you’ll find MY BIG THREE RULES FOR CAMPING RESPONSIBLY.
(Obviously there are more than three but we’ll just start with the basics for now…)

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Sleeping outside is awesome! (Photo by Pexels.com)

Leaving your trail or campsite as you found it isn’t just the decent thing to do for animals, the environment and other people; it also means that we all get to continue having the freedom to enjoy these wild spaces.
Irresponsible practice leads to rules and legislation that may restrict our access or activity.

This is a subject close to my heart as I’ve seen first-hand the damage caused by carelessness. And it’s definitely getting worse.

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Though big fires might look great on Instagram, building one of these can often be a really shitty thing to do (Photo by Pexels.com)

Over the last few years, as Skye’s popularity has increased, so has the impact on the environment. Magical glens and dramatic vistas are now littered with cigarette butts, scorch marks from campfires and even human waste.

Not only is it heartbreaking to see, it’s also dangerous to wildlife.

It’s not just the Highlands and Islands either; Dartmoor, Snowdonia and the Lakes are also struggling with similar issues.

At best it’s just dirty but at worst, irresponsibility can cause fires like the ones we’ve seen in the news recently.
Last month there were three major fires raging in and around Skye at the same time. Acres of woodland and the wildlife within it, including nesting birds, were lost.

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A wheatear fledgeling surveying the remains of its habitat in Harlosh, Skye after summer fires. Many younger birds were not as lucky. (Photo by Paul Meany)

Glen Etive just off Glen Coe has long been one of my favourite places to stop if I’m travelling between Skye and England; I’ve often stopped for a swim, a pause, a break from hours upon hours spent behind the wheel.

A week ago I was returning to Skye after visiting family. It was late and I was tired. I had missed sleeping under the stars and so I headed to the Glen to get some rest somewhere beautiful.
I wasn’t the only one with this thought.

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One of my favourite swimming spots. At 5am I had it all to myself.

 

It was dark when I got there but the meandering river was lit up with the glow of scattered campfires. Multicoloured tents dotted the banks like a field at a festival. A few groups were playing music.

Every passing place and makeshift layby contained one or two campervans or cars, accessorised with the odd plastic basin piled with washing up and vacated folding chairs.

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Litter on Harris (Photo by Cat Webster)

I drove on to find a quieter spot but none appeared. I finally gave up and turned around near a sign that said ‘No Fires’. It had the remains of a fire behind it.

When I returned at 5am the next morning the glen felt silent but the evidence of the night before was clear to see. Wisps of smoke drifting from smoldering fires. Bits of rubbish.
I looked for a place to swim and came across loo paper and human waste on the river rocks and banks.
It was like someone had vandalised a work of art.

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Wet wipes and other nasties 5 mins downstream of the swimming spot in the photo above.

Glen Etive is a small sampler of a wider problem. As outdoor pursuits have become trendy more and more people have been heading for the hills.

The rise of social media photography (especially Instagram), the need for healthy exercise and financial accessibility have all helped the boom.
My home on Skye has been particularly affected, resulting in a number of ‘Skye is full’ articles appearing over the last year.

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Photos like this one of Loch Lomond are inviting because they seem unspoilt. What you don’t see is the cigarette butts, beer cans and used nappy on the shore behind me.


So, here are my BIG THREE rules for camping responsibly…

DON’T LEAVE LITTER:

It goes without saying, please take your rubbish home with you. Not only does it look awful but it can also be harmful to wildlife.

This includes ‘natural’ litter such as banana skins and orange peel which can take up to two years to disappear!

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Fellow #GetOutside Champ, David Wilson, is being driven bananas by peels left in the Peaks


GOING TO THE LOO:

Piles of discarded loo paper are my biggest bugbear. It’s gross and I hate it. These places may look remote but they’re our homes and it really sucks to see used tissues and human waste in our favourite places.

I guess most folk think tissue just dissolves but even with our crazy Hebridean weather I’m still walking past paper left from over a year ago. Many people also don’t realise that wet wipes are made from plastic, not cotton!

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A grim sight. Unless it’s picked up it could take up to 2 years for this tissue to break down (Photo by Matt Harrison of ‘I Love Skye’)

As for the human waste, that’s not just disgusting, it’s also incredibly dangerous for other people, pets and wildlife.

Girls, if you need a nature wee please either bag up your tissue in a dog poo bag or, since you’re doing the wild woman thing anyway, use moss, grass or seaweed.

For pooping, try to do it before you leave. If that’s not an option you can either bury it using the methods explained here or take it away with you in a dog poo bag. Whatever you do, take the paper home with you -leave no trace!

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New scorch marks that appeared at my favourite secret Skye swimming spot this week. The stones make it look small but this was at least half a metre wide.


LIGHTING FIRES:

We’ve all seen the big black scorch marks left on grass by disposable BBQs. Campfires leave similar ugly burns and they’re becoming more and more common at our national beauty spots.

Fire lighting is a divisive subject, especially since there have been so many wildfires caused by carelessness this summer.
Some folk consider fire building an integral part of camping. Some forego them for the reason given above. Some of us think they’re best on the beach or shore. I rarely light fires because I love the efficiency of my Kelly Kettle.

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Lighting your fire on a rocky shore or beach is a good way of having the benefits of a campfire without damaging the area or endangering wildlife.

Whatever your views on them, the rules on fire lighting are universal:

1. Leave no trace. This should go without saying but the amount of scorch marks appearing here on Skye shows otherwise -you could play aerial dot-to-dot. Never have a fire on grass and, if you have a fire elsewhere, bury all evidence.

2. Don’t have fires on heathland, moorland or in forests during dry weather because of the risk of fires spreading (it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid some of theses places for fire lighting altogether)

3. Don’t leave your fire unattended.

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New warning signs in the Peak District after recent wildfires in the area (Photo by Andrew Dobb)

4. Listen to signs that prohibit fire-building. These places are often prone to fires spreading or are significant to wildlife; there’s usually a reason these signs are there.

5. Dig a pit for your fire. This is for containing the fire as well as helping to leave no trace.

6. Make sure that the embers have cooled down before covering and leaving your fire. Even a fire that seems to have been out for hours can spark up again when you least expect it.

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The remains of a huge campfire on Harris. They might have covered over the embers with sand but they definitely failed to Leave No Trace (Photo by Cat Webster)

There are plenty more guidelines on how to camp responsibly… don’t cut down healthy living trees, close gates, don’t disturb livestock, etc etc.
But really, it’s all just common sense and everything just comes down to the number one thing…

Please, Leave No Trace.

Once you’ve got that sorted then you can move onto the second most important rule of camping…
Have an awesome time and enjoy it!

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Sunset over Uig Bay. A place worth looking after.

Ps: In case I haven’t said it enough… LEAVENOTRACE LEAVENOTRACE LEAVENOTRACE! Please 🙂

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… 😉

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!

Alpkit: Go nice places, do good things

I was thinking this morning about all the things I’ve been up to over the past year that I’ve still yet to write about… foraging missions… whale rescue training… trips to Applecross, Harris, Glasgow, Edinburgh…
Then it occurred to me that I’d never shared the video made for Alpkit by Dom Bush who came to stay last August (blog post here)

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Cumbria-based kit-makers Alpkit don’t just make fantastic products (their filoment jacket is probably the warmest, lightest thing I own) -they also have a really great ethos and attitude.
The company motto is ‘Go nice places, Do good things’ and they have a really dynamic and refreshing approach to how a business interacts with its customers. It’s a brand I’m really chuffed to have been involved with and highly recommend (and no, I’m not getting paid to say that).
You can see the adventures they get up to on their Facebook page here.

Dom Bush of Land and Sky Media is a fantastic award-winning filmmaker and it was great to have the chance to be filmed by him. Please ignore me and my lispy ramblings and just enjoy his beautiful camera skills…

To see more videos by Dom for Alpkit check out the Screenroom section of the Alpkit website here. The one about fell-runner Nicky Spinks is amazing -she’s a superwoman!
As well as a catalogue of their products they’ve got lots of interesting blog posts to inspire you to try out your own adventures.

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A leaving note…

One Whole Year #1: Changing seasons

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Just enjoying the view

Well, time runs away and the weeks fly by… I rush about from here to there, busy busy busy; too occupied to have sat down to write a blog post for months.
Then all of a sudden an anniversary passes…
One whole year on Skye.

In fact, that was a few months ago now. I’m not sure what happened to this quiet island life; the last few months have been a blur of artwork commissions, Christmas travels, catch-ups and birthday celebrations. Barely a pause.

 

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Celebrating one year on the island with a fire, bubbles and a tasty Skye Pie

As some of you have noticed, I haven’t posted much recently. I think it’s because I’ve got so much to write about, loads to tell -it’s a bit daunting to know where to start!
But I’m making it a New Year’s resolution to get back on track. My most recent comments have been so kind and encouraging that I’d be an idiot not to try a bit harder!

So, one whole year on this magical island…

Firstly, “yah boo sucks!” to anyone who thought I couldn’t hack it!
Have I said before about how some folk here say you have to do three winters on Skye before you’re accepted?
Well, I’m not sure about that. I think that an incomer here is probably always an incomer; I’ve met people who have been here for forty years who are still considered ‘new’ (probably a good thing as it means I don’t have to change the name of this blog yet)! But acceptance is another thing. Skye folk are so wonderfully kind that I never felt like an outsider; they’re always welcoming.

 

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One of the locals

15 months here means that I’m halfway through that supposed three winter period and I’ve now seen every season on Skye. Well, almost every season…

Ignoring the tourist hoardes, summer on Skye is supposed to be a little bit like paradise. Don’t scoff, the Scottish summertime is stunning. It exists, I’ve seen it. I’ve even caught a tan.
Only, this year it didn’t come.

Every time my family asked about the rain they would laugh and say, “well, you did move to Scotland!” My defence of the West Coast weather was rudely undermined by the daily drizzle.
Luckily this isn’t the norm; even my poor neighbours and landlady were apologetic that I wasn’t experiencing the best summer Skye had to offer. I didn’t mind, it just gives me an excuse to stay on and try another one!

 

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Moody shifting skies

Although I still haven’t got the chance to explore in a T-shirt there’s still been some beautiful days.
When I lived in London it was wonderful to return to the family home and see the seasons change. At our cottage in Chiddingfold it’s a treat to see nature changing; the colours deepen and the smells emerge.

Seeing the seasons in the English countryside is one thing but up here it’s even more intense. Being immersed in a dramatic landscape means noticing all the changes on a grand scale. Whole swathes of hillside turn from dark monochrome to bright green then to hazy purple then vivid rust before back to snowy black and white again. Sometimes at sunset the light catches these colours in such a way that they look like they’re on fire. There’s nothing like it.

 

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‘And the rest is rust and stardust’

WINTER

I arrived on Skye in winter on purpose. It was to be a 6 month escape; close the doors, light the fire, curl up with a whisky, read a book. Time out. Hibernation.
This didn’t happen.
Aside from the obvious fact that I well and truly got ‘Skyejacked’ (brilliant term, not my invention!), I actually found it hard to stay inside when there was so much exploring to be done. Wind, rain and cold are fine if you’re dressed up properly to protect you from them so the weather didn’t bother me.
Last January/February was one of my favourite times here. Of course there was the epic January storm with 100mph winds that caused havoc with 4-day blackouts and damage to houses and crofts. Not great. But after that there was a period of calm with fresh snow and bright blue skies that made everything dazzle. It was crisp and soft and quiet in a way that seemed magical.

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And all at once I saw a crowd…

SPRING

There was an unexpected surprise that came with moving into my cottage. As the ice thawed and the days became (slightly) more warm I noticed a little spot of white appear at the edge of my snow-scorched lawn. Snowdrops!
Over the next couple of months I would rush to the window each morning to see what had appeared. First came the snowdrops, then the gold of a crocus, then a purple crocus. At one point, like a joyful finale, my whole lawn was covered in daffodils in various shades of cream and bright orange egg yolk.
I’d never been interested in flowers before, suddenly I’m a convert.
Of course, spring blooms go hand in hand with baby animals and on the croft I was surrounded!

 

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New arrivals

I would wake up in the morning and drag my groggy body down to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. As I stood at the sink for the kettle to boil I’d look out the window and right there in front of me would be a couple of tiny calves with their new brown skin gleaming in the morning sun like freshly opened chestnuts. Then I’d take my tea to the porch at the other side of the house and watch the lambs run and jump about in the field like little boisterous wisps of cotton wool. It’s like living in a children’s picture book or Easter card.
Forget therapy or medication, you can’t have a bad day when you wake up to this. If there’s anything more joyful than a miniature calf bouncing around like an overgrown excited puppy I’m yet to see it.

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SUMMER
The less said about this the better. How many words does the British language have for rain again?

 

 

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Loch Mealt and Beinn Edra in autumnal colours

AUTUMN

Skye excels at beautiful landscapes; it shows off -an A* student. But there was something I missed about autumn here…

There are very few trees in the North of Skye and, of the ones we do have, only a small fraction are deciduous; the sea and the wind up here have scoured the landscape making it bare of all but the toughest plants. So no shifting palette of rich oranges and golds, no rustle of papery leaves leaving their branches, no smell of leaf mold to breathe in as you wander. It’s a season for all senses; you can feel the changes with your eyes, ears and nose.

In an uncharacteristic turn, autumn in the North of Skye seemed to me to be more subtle. It can begin with vibrant purple heather blooms in September but most of the flowers seemed to be hiding this year, made shy by the constant summer rain. Instead the hills slowly turned from one colour to another, bit by bit, quietly.
Then one day, when driving along a normal route, the sun will break through the mist and pick up the rust colour of the recently-green hillside. It’s a colour so vibrant and intense that when caught in the light it can look almost crimson; reflected in the glow of an early autumn sunset it sometimes looks aflame.

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Russet hills beyond the Loch Damh

In October I was invited by an old friend to spend some time on an estate near Torridon. On arrival our lovely host took me out on Loch Damh to pick up some of the other guests who had been up on the hills all day. On our way back the sun was setting on the russet landscape and I exclaimed with joy at how beautiful the light and colours were. My friend turned to me and said, “But you live here, don’t you see this every day?”
I smiled.
Every day here is different. Each morning brings something new; a new colour, a new species, a previously unnoticed view  -it’s one of the things I appreciate most about my Scottish home.

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Taking in the hills

Whilst I adore the writer, Samuel Johnson, when it comes to Skye I’d prefer to give his famous quote a James Boswell kind-of spin…
When a girl is tired of the Highlands & Islands she is tired of life.
There’s still so much more to be seen…

A date with nature -Valentine’s Day part 2

Cracking company!

Cracking company!

Following my Valentine’s breakfast I was keen to get out and make the most of the day; after all, this was my first taste of spring sunshine on Skye and I didn’t know if it would last for the rest of the weekend.
I stuffed some snacks into a bag and grabbed my binoculars. It was a clear day with little wind so I decided to walk up to the old coastguards bothy at Rubha Hunish, the last little bit of Skye that juts out towards the Outer Hebrides.

I might live in the most Northern cottage on Skye but Rubha Hunish trumps my house as the bit that gets closest to the Arctic here.
I had a wee look on Google to try and find a map to show you the area and I came across this image on the beardedgit.com blog. I’ve pinched it as it also happens to show my exact Valentine’s Day route from Kilmaluag Bay up across and up to the bothy then back down via Duntulm Castle and along the road.

My route from the bay to Rubha Hunish. Image from beardedgit.com

My route from the bay to Rubha Hunish. Image from beardedgit.com

This wasn’t my first visit to the headland but it’s the first time I’ve walked from my own front door rather than parking at Shulista as the guidebooks recommend. It’s also the first time I’ve gone right up to the Lookout bothy.

I ambled down round the bay and up a little path past the old St Moluag’s church graveyard.
It may sound macabre but the Scots really do cemeteries brilliantly. In the cities there’s the gothic grandeur of places such as the Necropolis (Glasgow), Greyfriars Kirkyard (Edinburgh) and Old Town Cemetery in Stirling.
But the places that I love are in the Highlands and Islands where the resting places have been built on hillsides, overlooking lochs or beautiful glens. Their locations, often alongside crumbling church ruins, are really quite beautiful. Whatever your spiritual beliefs I think there’s something lifting about the idea of your headstone looking out over a stunning landscape for all eternity.

The remains of St Moluag's Church and it's graveyard, Kilmaluag Bay

The remains of St Moluag’s Church and it’s graveyard, Kilmaluag Bay (taken at the beginning of Jan 15)

The bothy soon came into view on the highest point of the rocks ahead (you can see it’s tiny silhouette outlined on the photo below).
I amused myself with a thought… In case being alone on Valentine’s Day wasn’t enough, I had decided to spend the day on my tod in a teeny little box on the top of a cliff. I don’t think you get much more solitary than that!
I must work on being a bit more social….

Walking along the cliffs towards the bothy

Walking along the cliffs towards the bothy

This particular bothy is owned by the Mountain Bothies Association, a brilliant organisation that maintains a whole host of open mountaineering shelters all across the UK (find out more at http://www.mountainbothies.org.uk)

Prior to being taken over by the MBA, this was the old coastguard’s lookout station -the bay windows at the front give a full panoramic view over the waters of the Minch towards Lewis.

As advances were made in radio technology the need for a lookout became redundant and it was turned into the bothy that it is now.

The Lookout

The Lookout

The whitewashed front part of the building, the watchroom, was built by the Macleans of Mull in 1928 -it’s survived the weather here for almost a century (much longer than most of my neighbour’s sheds!)

The watchroom part of the Lookout

The watchroom part of the Lookout

I couldn’t resist exploring inside…
I was surprised to see how characterful it was. Little brass candlesticks, binoculars, a vintage phone and cream wood-cladded walls. It’s got more of a feeling of a little hideaway hostel than a plain old bothy (though, of course, there’s no plumbing or electricity here).

I’ll definitely come up here soon to camp out before it gets busy with all the summer walkers. This would make a pretty perfect place to watch the sunset with a flask of wine.

Overlooking the Minch

Overlooking the Minch

Homely touches

Homely touches

Here and there I noticed little personal touches like scrawled notes and faded wildlife pictures (lots of basking sharks!).

There’s also this small brass plaque dedicated to the late David JJ Brown, the adventurous character who the Lookout is dedicated to. The words ‘wilderness-lover and anti-materialist’ always seem to be next to his name, both here and where I’ve read about him online. He sounds like he was an awesome man; I wish I could have met him.
(You can read more about David JJ Brown and the Lookout dedication here)

'wilderness-lover and anti-materialist'

‘anti-materialist and wilderness-lover’

The Lookout is gorgeous but this was a day to be outside and enjoy the sun whilst it was shining.

I found a spot near the edge (not dangerously near, Mum, if you’re reading this! I’m far too sensible/wimpy to get too close) then unpacked my picnic.

This is a famous place for spotting big beasties in the water and I could see why; the view down onto the sea was amazing. The Minch is sheltered between Skye and the Outer Hebrides so I’ve rarely seen it with rough waters. This means that any wildlife is extra easy to spot as it breaks the rippling surface and alerts the eye.

Unfortunately it’s not the season for whales or basking sharks. There might be dolphins, porpoises or other interesting around though, so I had my binoculars handy just in case.

I didn’t see anything of note… seabirds, seals, a large dark fish that may have been a type of small shark.
I wasn’t fussed, I’ve found my place for when the seasons start. As a total ocean wildlife geek and shark/cetacean lover, I intend to spend most of the summer lolling about on the grass whilst idly gazing into the sea.
This was a dry run (with warmer clothes!)

A perfect view

A perfect view

I’m not usually an ale drinker but a bottle of Skye Gold (leftover from my friend Matt’s visit) made the perfect accompanying tipple.
There’s also a certain satisfaction about knowing you’re drinking something brewed only just round the corner (the Skye Brewery is in Uig, literally just along the coast from here)
I haven’t been to the brewery yet as it’s been closed for winter but I might have to put a visit on my To Do list now that I’ve got a taste for the stuff.

(The other nice thing about a long wander is that it means you can have crisps and dips and a chocolate bar all washed down with beer and not feel guilty about it because it counts as walking fuel!)

Product placement ;)

Product placement

I whiled away a couple of hours up here until the wind started to work it’s way through my clothes and I began to feel a chill.

I may be on my own but I was spending my Valentine’s Day with the thing I love the most after my family: Nature.
This was my date with the ocean, the sunshine and the island.

(Maybe it sounds cheesy but it’s Valentine’s Day so cheesiness gets a free pass at this point)

A birds-eye view over the Minch

A date with nature

As I got up to go I noticed lots of tufts of sheep’s wool stuck to some wire nearby…

I’ve recently discovered the craft of felting (using a needle to mesh wool fibres into shapes) and it’s something I’d like to explore further. I was excitedly telling Liza at the gallery about this one day and she suggested that I could collect the small pieces of wool that can be found caught on fences, it would be a free and local source of materials.

So now I find myself on a clifftop pulling slightly damp strands of fluff from various fences and pieces of heather and stuffing them into my pockets. I must look a bit like a nutter, it’s lucky there isn’t anyone around.

Liza, you may have started me off on a slippery slope here… it might not be long until I’m that strange person who smells a bit sheepy because she makes all her clothes out of tufts of old ewes found on hillsides…

My first felting project -pretty good, even if I do say so myself!

My first felting project -pretty good, even if I do say so myself!

I returned via the coastal path towards Duntulm Castle. This took me down to the flat rocks of the shore where the abandoned village of Erisco now sits in small, stony ruins.
Like many areas of coastline that are off the beaten track this one was suffering from a huge amount of washed-up marine debris. Old fishing ropes and nets (known as ‘ghost gear’), buckets, bottles, even shoes, they were all piled up on the tideline here.

If you’ve read my post about Talisker Bay you’ll know that the issue of plastic pollution is something that is close to my heart. This shore at Erisco a well-known spot for otters and it’s incredibly frustrating and saddening to know the dangers that this rubbish can pose to the resident wildlife.

I was going to put a terrible 'sole'-based pun here but I've spared you the cringes...

I was going to put a terrible ‘sole’-based pun here but I’ll spare you the cringes…

An unwelcome delivery from Iceland

An unwelcome delivery from Iceland

On a more positive note, amongst the brightly-coloured plastic I noticed the soft, rounded shape of driftwood.

I think it’s quite hard to find driftwood, it’s something that everyone likes to pick-up, so I started collecting the best pieces that I thought I might be able to use in future artworks.

A lot of it was wet and heavy so I rammed it into my rucksack to make it easier to carry. Somehow within ten minutes I’d gone from lightly hopping over the rocks to bent over, lugging a bag that appeared to be sprouting long greying sticks. I jammed a sturdy 3-ft fence post under my arm and made a determined effort not to look down in case I saw any more. After all, I was still at least 30 mins walk from home over ground I didn’t know and the sun was starting to set.

Driftwood treasures

Driftwood treasures

As I walked, I wondered how I could organise a way to clean this beach. It’s close to the Duntulm Hotel, would the new owners be interested in helping?
Something to think about…

I stopped and watched two oystercatchers hopping around each other before flying off into the sunset, movie style. There’s something so striking about their vivid orange beaks and contrasting black and white feathers.

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I also kept an eye out for otters, this was the perfect time of day for them, but I was probably being too noisy and cumbersome for them to come near. Telltale crab and mussel shells lay broken and scraped-clean all over the place so I knew that this was the right place.

And then I saw something strange…

A jumble of bones amongst the seaweed and bits of rope.

I knew immediately that it was an otter skeleton. It was missing a few limbs but the elongated backbone and flat skull with sharp, carnivorous teeth were easily identifiable, even though I haven’t seen one of these before.

The otter skull

The otter skull

I checked to see if there was any obvious sign of marine debris as a cause of death (it’s important to record the effects of plastic etc on wildlife as evidence in trying to fight it) but it was too far gone to see.

I suppose I can say I’ve seen an otter now, but I’d rather have seen a live one.

It took a while to lug my wood-laden body over the fields up to the road.
I had to make my way through a field of sheep that seemed to find me very interesting. It must have been feeding time because usually sheep move in the other direction when they see a human -these ones came storming towards me!

Sheep

Sheep

Sheep

SHEEP

What ewe lookin' at?

What ewe lookin’ at?

I must have looked a curious sight staggering back to the cottage in the dark with pockets sprouting straggly bits of wool, a log under my arm and what probably resembled a small tree strapped to my back (along with a couple of faded buoys and bits of old rope).

What with all this and the skull in my garden and the birds in my freezer, I may be beginning to go a bit feral!

Still, I can’t wait to get making stuff with my new beachcombed finds. Some might call it old trash but I think I can make it into treasure.

Sunset at Duntulm (though it would be much lovelier without all the ghost gear)

A photo journey from Fort William to Skye…. Inverlochy Castle, the Commando Memorial & some characterful wildlife

Warning: this is quite a long post as I didn’t want to leave too much out. My apologies if it’s a bit tedious!
(Written on Monday, the day after my ski trip to Nevis)

‘Time you enjoy wasting is not time wasted’

If you asked me what my perfect day here might be like, I might say a day something like today. A day of ambling, exploring, stopping and pausing. And maybe some cake.

I’ve just got home from a walk around the bay. It’s a still evening and the snow is reflecting the light of the full moon so that everything is illuminated in black and white. No need for a torch.

Moon face

I waded out to one of the big rocks and sat there for a while with my hipflask and music until my bum hurt from the cold. I got up and wandered along the road to warm up. It was so peaceful, if I didn’t have to be up early tomorrow to start back at the gallery I could’ve walked all night.

Sitting on the rock in the bay…

So that’s how my day is ending, I’m getting this the wrong way round… I’ll begin again…

I stayed at the SYHA Glen Nevis hostel for a second night last night. There was no way I was going to risk getting caught in a blizzard in the dark again. Now I’ve tried it, four-wheel ice skating isn’t something I particularly enjoy.

Inverlochy Castle hotel

A quick wash and dress and I was away. No wellies and scruffs this morning though, I had to pop into Inverlochy Castle Hotel to sort out a reservation.

I visited the restaurant at Inverlochy on my Scottish tour in 2013. Of all the Michelin starred places I ate at, I felt there was something extra special at this place. Apparently Queen Victoria said it was the most romantic place she’s ever visited. I can certainly see why she liked it, it is old-fashioned but also warm and charming.

Crackling fires and cosy cushions

Crackling fires and cosy cushions

Anyway, spending a night there has been on my bucket list ever since and last year my parents kindly gave me a voucher to stay for more than just one meal.

I popped in to book my weekend but I couldn’t resist ordering a cup of tea and a slice of Dundee cake whilst I was there. If only every morning could begin like this!

You know you’re somewhere special when your cake is served with three other baked goodies on the side!

It wasn’t easy to leave the crackling fire and impossibly comfy sofas but however much I tried I couldn’t justify staying all day. Not sure I could afford it much either…

Back on the road I had to put my sunglasses on, perfect white snow dazzled against the blue sky; a perfect day.

The commando memorial sign with Ben nevis in the background

Just outside of Fort William is the Commando Memorial. It’s a place I’ve passed many times but never stopped at.

The memorial sculpture by Scott Sutherland with ben nevis behind

As I pulled into the car park it struck me how beautiful the monument looked as it was silhouetted in the sun against the snow. It reminded me of the bomber crash site that I wrote about on Remembrance Day; that weird juxtaposition of sadness and prettiness all at once.

A tribute to the commandos of WWII

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Brushing the snow off the wreaths at the foot of the statue I thought how striking the red of the poppies looks against the purity of the snow. Again, a kind of sorrowful loveliness.

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There’s a little memorial garden nearby to remember those who have fallen in more recent conflicts. The remembrance plaques are low to the ground so most are covered or partly covered by snow. Little gaps revealed engraved messages or peeks of photos; smiling young men in stiff uniforms.

A plaque in the memorial garden

A number of the plaques had been adorned with rubber wristbands emblazoned with charity names like Help For Heroes or Walking With The Wounded. Wristbands similar to the ones I’ve been given by my friends in the army.

Wristbands around a cross in the memorial garden

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I suddenly found it quite overwhelming. I don’t think it was from worry about my friends; I’m not sure what it was. Maybe it’s because it felt like such a ‘relevant’ form of mourning, in which I mean it’s very current, somehow more accessible than a carved stone that could have been made yesterday or thirty years ago.
Despite the peace I couldn’t linger for too long.

The Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge

The Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge

*Just a note to any of my military friends who may be reading this (or their friends/family): If you have a connection to the memorial and want me to place a wreath, wristband, note or whatever here just let me know. It’s a meaningful place but I know it’s far away for most people. I don’t pass here often but I’m more than willing to place something for you.

The shores of Loch Cluanie

Back on the road I was soon distracted from my melancholy by the scenery. It was a landscape that doesn’t seem to suit the UK and round each corner it was slightly different. On one side it looked like the Swiss Alps, on the other it looked like Lapland as imagined in Elf.

A simplified snowscape

A simplified snowscape

Loch Cluanie

At the Cluanie Inn I slowed down to see if my old deer pas were about. Sure enough there they were, hanging out around the red telephone box and bins like a gang of misplaced teenagers.

I stopped and said hello, took some photos and let them sniff me. When a clang announced the sound of a back kitchen door opening they turned and trotted over to the back of the Inn.

Hanging around at the Cluanie Inn

That answered my question about whether they were tame because they’ve been fed scraps. I suppose it’s better than if they had lost their natural fear because they’re starving.
A brief conversation with one of the ladies at the Inn revealed that they even have names! The hinds are Florence, Flossie, Clicky and little Muddy. The young male doesn’t have a name and isn’t fed because it can cause aggression. But he’s got a lovely harem so I don’t think he’s doing too badly!

A handsome young man

Leaving Cluanie I passed through Glen Shiel. I’ve never stopped there but the brown crossed-sword signs indicate that it will be an interesting place to explore in future.

As I came to the sea lochs around Lochalsh I noticed how still the waters were. The mirrored surface reflected the hills and clouds so clearly that they looked like nature’s more detailed answer to a Rorschach test.
I parked up outside Kintail Lodge (closed for winter) and picked my way along the rocky shore. The water was so still that I could see every fragment of shell and frond of seaweed under the water. The only ripples on the surface were made by me and my boots.

The calm waters of Loch Duich

Old modules

There was a fishing boat nearby with it’s name hand-painted in fading reds and oranges like the letters on an old fairground carousel. I couldn’t get a nice picture with my phone but there was something particularly charming about this mouldy old vessel, quietly retired on this peaceful shore.

An old fishing boat

Lovely old paintwork

I skated my way along a slippery jetty and sat down on my jacket at the end. The water beneath my feet was a metre or two deep now but I could still see right down to the grains of silt on the bottom. It might be the clearest water I’ve ever seen, it almost seemed easier to look through than air.

Sitting on the dock of the bay… Popping bubbles!

I sat and watched the little grey trout darting between rocks at my feet. As I did so I fiddled with the bladder wrack seaweed I sat next to and I found that I could pop the little air pockets in the ‘leaves’ …like a natural kind of stress-busting bubble wrap. Not that there was any stress to be found in a place as calm and serene as this.
An hour or maybe two passed before I realised it was probably time to be on my way.

A place to while away the hours

I didn’t get far down the road before I noticed the horns of a large feral goat waggling around in some heather down next to the shore.
I’m not sure what it is about these creatures but I find them endlessly fascinating; it must be something about their strange, wild character.

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I turned off the main road and crept up a nearby dirt track still in the car. Because the goats tend to feed next to the roadside they seem to be much less afraid of people in cars than of humans on foot.

More appeared as I inched closer. This was the biggest group I’ve seen so far and they were much less nervy than the others I’ve come across. I got out and softly made my way towards them.

It looks calm and peaceful but there’s a great clattering of horns as they push each other out of the way to feed

If you can get close enough to them the smell of feral goats is amazing. It probably sounds incredibly weird to say it but they’ve got this satisfyingly warm, livestock-y smell (a bit like healthy cattle) but it’s so… goaty.
I suppose the only way I can describe it is to say it’s like the most expensive, well-aged French goats cheese you’ve ever tried. Those ones rolled in grey ash and licked by monks who live in caves, you know the kind. I know it sounds horrendous but somehow it’s really nice too. Just trust me on this one!

Wild looking beasties

As I got closer I noticed something small and dark nearby, on the other side of the road.
A cat maybe?

Something small and dark in the distance

No, not a cat, a tiny kid goat!
Cute can’t even describe this tiny thing. It’s was as adorable as a lamb but smaller and with more character.

The kid rejoins it’s mother on the brow of the ridge above the road

I watched them until I was joined by an ex-forestry ranger walking his dog. We discussed the pros and cons of goats, beachcombing, otters and forest fires before parting ways.

The sky was stunning as I neared Skye Bridge. Despite the fact that there are a million photos of Eilean Donan Castle out there I couldn’t resist getting one quick snap whilst it was looking so lovely (and a million isn’t an exaggeration by any means).

Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in Scotland after Edinburgh (I think it’s earned it though)

Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in Scotland after Edinburgh (I think it’s earned it though)

I always feel a barely-perceptible swelling of happiness inside my chest when I cross the bridge; a feeling of coming home. I get it even when it’s dull and drizzly so crossing on an evening like this feels extra special.

Skye Bridge and the lighthouse on Eilean Bàn

I had a couple of things to do before heading home but both had been cancelled. With the extra time to spare I treated myself to some mussels and chips in the pub before meandering home through the twilight.

The sun setting as I drive North

My wandering mood hadn’t gone by the time I reached home. I threw on some more warm clothes and grabbed a torch then set out for the shore.
Which brings us back to the start of the story 🙂