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 🙂

The Fairy Glen

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just hearing things. Despite the drumming rain and howling winds of last night, I found myself waking up to beautiful blue skies again today.

I had a couple of letters to send so I hopped in my car and drove West towards Uig, the nearest settlement with a Post Office.

As I rounded the top of the road at Duntulm I pulled over. Despite my address actually being ‘North Duntulm’ I’d never visited the old castle ruins that the area is known for. I wasn’t in a hurry so I walked along the cliff to have a wee snoop around.
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Duntulm Castle stands on an impressive cliff-like piece of basalt that juts out into the sea. It used to be the seat of the clan MacDonald but there’s not much left of it now (I’m not surprised now I know how fierce the weather can be here)
It was interesting enough but I didn’t stay long.

'Inside' Duntulm Castle

‘Inside’ Duntulm Castle. You can see the snow-covered mountains of the mainland in the distance

The road into Uig winds down from a high hill. I noticed some tourists taking pictures from a passing place halfway down and I stopped to join them. It’s a nice enough harbour/bay but I’ve never paid it any special attention. Today it looked quite lovely in the sunshine with the snowy hills behind.

Uig today.  Storms? What storms?

Uig today.
Storms? What storms?

After posting my letters I decided to check out the Fairy Glen (obviously in a dawdling, exploring kind of mood today!)

Yet another Fairy-centric feature on Skye, the Fairy Glen is a little place a couple of minutes South-East of Uig which is famous for it’s unusual landscape. I’ve never been before but it’s firmly on my To Do list.

The clear, green hills turn into snowy hillocks as I come into the glen. The road winds right through it and it’s instantly recognisable by these funny little cone-shaped, turf-stepped mounds. You can tell it’s got the same kind of strange geological makeup as the Quiraing; only in a kind of cutesy-miniature.

Driving into the Fairy Glen

Driving into the Fairy Glen

I’m the only person there and as I get out of the car the only sound I can hear is my sturdy Muck Boots crunching on the ice-hardened snow.
There are no other footprints here and everything is hushed. As I walk back along the road I find myself breathing extra softly and carefully so as not to disturb the peace.

Still calm. The flat-topped peak on the right is the Fairy Castle

Still calm. The flat-topped peak on the right is the Fairy Castle

I find myself at a lochan with a mirror-like surface. There’s an absolute stillness here, barely even a breeze.
I’m pleased that I’ve come here in winter whilst it’s like this; so that I can have it to myself before the tourist hordes descend.

Hello

Hello

From here I meander my way round the ponds and bushes up towards Castle Ewen, also known as the Fairy Castle. The tallest part of the glen, It’s the natural rock formation that stands proudly overlooking the pond in my pictures above.

Ambling up to the Fairy Castle

The Fairy Castle from the West

As I amble my way up I hear something other than the satisfying *crunch* *crunch* of snow under my feet.
It’s such a hushed sound that it’s almost inaudible, a mellow whooshing noise. The best way I can describe it is as an incredible softness.

As I turn to look down I see a heron gliding over the pond. As it nears the bank it follows the incline of the little hillocks, tracing the shape of the landscape. It swoops round, up, over another and another before following the road round the corner and out of the glen. It was mesmerising.

Behind the Fairy Castle

Behind the Fairy Castle. There are stone spirals all over the place here.

When I got up behind the fairy castle I wasn’t on my own.

Tiny bunnies darted this way and that leaving little dotty tracks in the snow. Blackbirds and a robin hopped from rock to rock eyeing me up curiously. A stranger on their patch!
Even with my new company it remained silent yet as I wandered further I recognised the sound of running water.

I followed it and found a little three-tiered waterfall.

Taking my gloves off I cupped my hands under the flow to take a drink. The water on Skye is such a treat, it’s sometimes worth scaling a massive hill for that alone (it must be high-up to limit the risk of contamination by run-off or dead sheep!)
This was amazing; the coldest, clearest water you could imagine. There really is nothing like it. I gulped it like someone who’s drunk far too much wine and woken up in the morning with a mouth like a desert. I should’ve bought my flask with me.

The waterfall

The waterfall

A bird of prey appeared out of the crags and swooped past me. Though it’s gone before I can identify it.

Then the silence is broken by some shouting and a buzz. A flurry of sheep, almost hidden against the snow, come trotting en-masse over the horizon followed by a farmer on a quad and a couple of collies.
I watch him in admiration as he artfully steers the sheep across the hillside (I tried to chase a single cat out of the house the other day and it was almost impossible) until he’s disappeared out of sight. The noise trailed off only to be replaced with a familiar baa-ing.

A marching baa-nd?

A marching baa-nd?

Sliding down a snowy slope on my backside (on purpose, great fun!) I noticed a procession of sheep making their way along the ridge in front of me.
They’re such funny animals… whenever I go walking on Skye I feel eyes on me, if I look around there always seems to be a sheep somewhere, watching. It would be quite creepy if they weren’t so characterful!
These ones hadn’t noticed me yet, they seemed quite preoccupied.

Counting sheep?

Counting sheep?

They were far too busy to bother with me today so I slipped past them and slowly made my way back towards the car. I made sure that the radio didn’t come on when I put the key in the ignition; I couldn’t bear it breaking the peace.

It’s a strange place, the Fairy Glen. I can see exactly why it’s called this. Obviously the solitude and snow was responsible for the exaggeratedly hushed, peaceful atmosphere but there’s definitely a magical feeling here -I can’t quite explain it.

If we get another blue-sky day this week I’m going to come back with a picnic and a book (If it’s still snowy I’ll just wear salopettes and bring a flask of soup). This feels like a wonderful place for contemplation.
With so much wildlife it also feels like one of those places that comes alive when you just sit for a while and look.

In places like this you might just start believing that magic does exist.

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Not the M25

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As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I work two days a week at the Skyeworks Gallery down in Portree.
There’s a lot of things I enjoy about working there but one of the things I least expected was the commute.

Originally I had looked at living only just outside of Portree; I didn’t know if the roads on Skye would be treacherous in winter so I thought that was the sensible option.
Of course, falling in love with my funny little house sent the sensible option flying out of the window (although I’ve since found out that the warm, salty sea air here prevents it from getting too icy here anyway)

So, twice a week I drive 45 minutes down the Trotternish Peninsula to work and 45 mins back

…And I love it.

Rush hour

Slow moo-ving traffic

No journey is ever the same.
Morning rush hour on the A855 is when the young farmer walks his characterfully shaggy ‘coos’ down the middle of the road.
Stubborn, wild-eyed sheep threaten to make me late most mornings. Once in a while my journey is blocked by the solid figure of Charlie the bull.
Sometimes I’m greeted by the collie at the end of my road who runs alongside the car as far as it can. At other times I find myself swerving around the chickens, turkeys, ducks and bunnies who congregate at the bottom of my hill.
I usually see a couple of birds of prey perched on posts as I pass the croft cottages and if I’m lucky I’ll spot a sea eagle or two circling over the clifftops just past Staffin.

Rush hour in Kilmaluag

Rush hour in Kilmaluag

On a particularly busy day I might even see some people too.
I like the way the other drivers thank you here, not just a finger lifted from the steering wheel or a solemn nod, you’re more likely to get a proper wave and a grin. Of course, you get the grumpy ones too, and the bewildered tourists, but I enjoy sharing a “Good Morning” smile with the postman, the bus driver, the farmers on their quad bikes…
If it sounds a little like living in an unusually cheery children’s TV show, Postman Pat or Balamory, you’d pretty much be right.

The Quiraing

The Quiraing

Whilst all this is lovely the really incredible thing about my commute is the landscape.
My journey takes me past some of the most famous sights of Skye; the Quiraing, Kilt Rock and the Old Man Of Storr. The spectacular views seem to look brand new every day under different lights and weathers.
Sometimes the tops of the hills are spookily encased in mist with a dark, stormy background. At other times the jagged rocks look like they’re on fire from the neon-red sun setting behind them. When the light has been soft, almost misty, I’ve felt as if I’m driving through an old painting come to life, like that bit in Mary Poppins where the jump into the chalk drawings.

Heading home past The Old Man Of Storr

Heading home past Loch Fada and The Old Man Of Storr

Even something as basic as the road itself is fun. There’s a straight-ish bit over little hills where I like to put my foot down and you can feel your stomach lurch over every drop, fairground-style. Then there’s the flat, open bit along the cliff where you feel like you’re flying along the top of the world.
My favourite part of the journey is where, from going parallel to the coast, the road bends to the right so you face straight out towards the open sea. At the same time the tarmac also curves downwards, disappearing from sight. It gives the impression that you’re about to drive off a cliff and plummet straight into the water hundreds of feet below, Thelma and Louise-style.
The first time I drove it it made my pulse quicken like at the top of a roller coaster before the drop. Even though I pass this way every day I still get that little buzz of exhiliration as I speed towards the waves.

Looking over towards the mainland from the cliff road

Looking over towards the mainland from the cliff road

Could I ever had imagined that I’d enjoy a commute enough to be inspired to write over 600 words about it? Not likely.

Yet with my favourite music on I’m reminded why I moved to Skye every time I make this journey; here’s something that should be ordinary but instead it’s extraordinary. 45 distracting minutes to ease me in or out of the working day.

As Graham, one of my new friends, put it, “If you ever get bored of that drive then it’s probably time to move on from here.”

Morning sunrise over Loch Leathan

Morning sunrise over Loch Leathan

Here Be Dinosaurs!

10431480_557529586303_1990130117751215851_nI make no secret of the fact that I can be a bit of a geek. Two of my favourite ‘geeky’ subjects include geology and wildlife, things which are both in abundance on Skye.
Put these both together and you get something else, something that this island is also well-known for…
fossils.

Alongside the usual ammonites and belemnites there is some more unusual, charismatic evidence of a prehistoric era; the Staffin dinosaur footprints.

With Staffin being only ten minutes away from my new home I couldn’t wait for my chance to see these famous fossils. A couple of days after moving in I waited for the late low tide then set off for the beach.

The dark sands of Staffin Beach

The black and white sands of Staffin Beach at low tide

Pulling up in the car park above the beach I looked down over the boulders and scanned the rocks below.
Luckily I’m familiar with the appearance of fossilised sea bed and I spotted the section of tell-tale yellowish ripples from the rocks above before I’d even got down to the beach.
I raced down to them and searched…

“Oh WOW!”
I couldn’t help exclaiming out loud.
It was ridiculous, the most unrealistic-looking thing.
A huge, great big footprint that looked like cartoon or prop from a B-movie. Had someone been filming the next Jurassic Park and forgotten to take one of the set pieces home?
If it looks unreal in my photos believe me, it was more incredible in real life.

Looking down at 165 million years.  (The erosion between the three toes makes this look even more cartoonish!)

Looking down at 165 million years.
(The erosion between the toes is what makes it look more ‘cartoonish’)


A few steps further and I came across more. Three-toed, of all different sizes pointing in all different directions.
Seeing them reminded me of something I’d read online that said the prints looked like the dinosaurs were playing a game of Twister. It’s a pretty apt description!

Looking back 165 million years!

Three toes indicates that this was some kind of raptor. It’s thought that they might be from a Coelophysis, a fast-running carnivore of about 2-3 metres long.

I was surprised to find that, unlike other important sites in the UK, these rocks aren’t protected and sectioned-off. In fact, they’re barely marked at all bar a small diagram on the sign in the car park.
Because of this (plus factors such as the tides and shifting sands) a lot of people arrive and leave having never found them.

-In fact, when I brought the Ranger family to see them they had been completely covered by a thick blanket of sand that would have been impossible to dig through. That time they were not to be seen.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have found them either if I hadn’t already known a little about the rocks to look for.

Vicious looking claw-prints

Vicious looking claw-prints

When I posted a photo of my wellies being dwarfed by a print on Facebook one of my friends was incredulous. It couldn’t be real, surely?
His reasoning that they couldn’t have withstood millions of years of erosion was a fair point. However, as they were only discovered in 2002 (by local B&B owner, Cathie Booth), they haven’t actually been exposed for that long.
You can read more about the discovery here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/2210169.stm

Are there mini dinosaurs here too?! A reminder of the progress of evolution...

Are there mini dinosaurs here too?! A three-toed reminder of the progress of evolution…

Soon enough they’ll disappear again properly, permanently eroded by the moving tide and feet of visitors. Maybe the rocks behind them will give way to reveal more, maybe they wont. I suppose this is just our short space of time where we can look back at prints made in another, far-away short space of time.
Geeky or not, I think that’s pretty frickin cool.

I wonder what else is hiding in the rocks at Staffin beach...

I wonder what else is hiding in the rocks at Staffin beach…

Remembrance Day – A Solitary, Remote Memorial

I haven’t posted in a while because I have a couple of drafts to finish and I’ve been trying to keep the blog in neat chronological order.
However, today was a particularly meaningful day for me so I don’t mind waiving my rule to tell you about it.
It’s quite a long post (that may be a bit serious in parts) but hopefully it’s still a vaguely interesting thing to read…

Today I had planned to drive down to Portree where they hold a Remembrance Sunday service in the main square. Like most people, I always try to do something to acknowledge the day; it’s only a small amount of time to spend on reflection and it’s something that I think is important.
In the end I decided to pay my respects at a place closer to home that I’d heard of but never visited before.

Dawn on the Trotternish Peninsula by David Noten

Dawn on the Trotternish Peninsula by David Noten

I live on the Trotternish Peninsula and behind my house there stands a series of cliff-like rock formations that make up the Trotternish Ridge, a kind of backbone to this part of the island. The tallest part of this is Beinn Edra (a ‘Ben’ means a mountain peak. Like Ben Nevis, Ben Lomond and so on).

Towards the very end of WWII, on the 3rd March 1945, an American B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ was flying over the Hebrides en-route from America to Italy. As it reached Skye it was caught in a thick fog and flew low to gain visibility. This is when it collided with the craggy rocks near the summit of Beinn Edra. All nine members of the crew were killed, eight of them instantly.

The remains of the plane have been left relatively untouched at the crash site on the slope of the hill facing towards Staffin. This is partly due to the fact that the area is only accessible via the East side over remote, boggy moorland.

I scoured the few blogs and websites that mentioned walking up to the site, saving their photos as location references. There are no paths and without an OS map or GPS co-ordinates I only half expected to find it. Also, as I left at 1pm (which only left me three or four hours of daylight to find it and get back) I didn’t have time to do much searching if I veered off-track.

A resident of Maligar

A resident of Maligar

I parked outside a farm in the hamlet of Maligar and began walking West across the heather.
The ascent was indeed as arduous as the websites had mentioned. Car-sized hillocks of peat were criss-crossed by wet bog. At some points the grass was solid but then with the next step it gave way to liquid and found myself in water past my knees. Heather covered holes which I slipped down often.

I cursed myself for not fuelling-up properly before I set out; I’d only had a couple of cups of tea and I felt noticeably weaker for it. A silly mistake, especially when I didn’t have time to take a break and catch my breath.
But as I stumbled over the bogs I thought of the crofters back in 1945 who had raced up the moor to try to help the crew of the B-17. Then I thought of the other people of WWII who were fighting on foot across wet ground that may have not been dissimilar to this.
With that, the attempt to get to the Beinn Edra crash site gained a little bit of meaning in itself; the physical effort I put in became a kind of small personal thank you.

Rough moorland

Rough moorland

Eventually I neared the craggy top of the hill and I started seeing the formations that matched those in the pictures saved on my phone. I scanned the hill but only saw rocks.
Still, this was definitely the right place, I just needed to get higher. I forgot about my tiredness and shortness of breath as I concentrated on getting to the site.
Suddenly, right in front of me there was (something which I now know to be) an engine supercharger; a corroded but generally intact part of plane machinery.

The first piece of wreckage, an engine supercharger (I think)

The first piece of wreckage, an engine supercharger, underneath the crags where the plane hit

I crouched down and put out my hand to touch it. As my fingers touched the cold metal I burst into tears.
I don’t know why, it’s only a lump of scrap, after all. Maybe it had something to do with the way it had been misshapen by obvious force. Maybe it was its unnaturalness on the hillside. But it was almost instinctive and I know for certain that I wont have been the only visitor to have responded in this way.

From there I began to see the other fragments. Everywhere.
Huge bits and tiny pieces. Initially camouflaged amidst the rocks they now appeared in all shapes and sizes. I now understand the officials you see on the news wandering aimlessly through crash sites; here is no centre to pick through, the remains are literally scattered everywhere.
With this, a kind of sicky feeling dawns on you as you realise the level of violence an impact must have to do this. The only mercy here is that such a massive impact would have meant death was swift.

Scattered wreckage

Scattered wreckage

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Most of us have only, thankfully, experienced crash sites on tv. Reporters and eye-witnesses seem to always describe the wreckage as ‘crumpled’ or ‘twisted’. Today I learnt that this is entirely accurate.
The remnants are unsettling, I think, because their odd shapes are a visual memento of savage force overpowering a familiarly strong material. Their crushed and bent bodies reminded me of those soft metallic pie/tart cases which you can scrunch in your fist when you’re finished with them.

Crumpled wreckage

Crumpled wreckage

All in all, it was a moving place to visit, moreso than I had anticipated. Somehow the age of the incident had not softened the power of the crash site. Perhaps it’s because there was so much of the wreckage still there. Perhaps it was something to do seeing it on Remembrance Day…

There’s also a memorial plaque up there, simple but smart. I’m glad that there is something other than twisted metal as a reminder of the aircraft and its crew. I put my paper poppy through a hole on the post to show that someone had been up to pay their respects.

The memorial plaque

The memorial plaque

Pieces of other poppies alongside the weathering metal

Pieces of other Remembrance poppies alongside the weathering metal

I noticed a few other poppy remnants as I climbed up to an engine just under the rock face.
As I got closer I saw that someone had attached a small wooden cross to it. It was greying with age and whatever had been tied to the middle had weathered away leaving only string. I wondered who had left it and what it had said.
Reaching for my notepad I wrote out a few appropriate lines of one of the few Remembrance poems I know, one by Dylan Thomas called ‘Death Shall Have No Dominion’, and tucked it in behind the cross. Being on paper it would quickly disintegrate but for the moment it was my little tribute.

The engine with the cross

The engine with the cross

With the sun dipping behind the hills it was time to turn back; I couldn’t risk trying to cross the boggy moor in the dark.
Just before I left I took some pictures of the wreckage against the backdrop of the rosy, sun-tinted landscape. There was something strange, wrong almost, about the juxtaposition of something so sad and tragic against something so pretty. It’s a cruel outcome where the crew never even saw it, they only experienced its savagery.
But still, there’s a peace up here that I hope does the airmen justice. The entire crash site is a memorial that today had a tranquility which belied it’s tragic history. It was a special, heartbreaking place to visit and the men who lost their lives there will certainly be remembered in my mind for many years to come.

A panorama over the crash site looking out over Staffin towards the mainland

A panorama over the crash site looking out over Staffin towards the mainland

A beautiful view with tragic memories

A beautiful view with tragic memories

In Memory Of:

Paul M. Overfield (pilot)

Leroy E. Cagle (co-pilot)

Charles K. Jeanblanc (navigator)

Arthur W. Kopp (radio operator)

Harold D. Blue (engineer)

John H. Vaughan (gunner)

Harold A. Fahselt (gunner)

George S. Aldrich (gunner)

Carter D. Wilkinson (gunner)

The upper part of the debris field

The upper part of the debris field

To anyone who would like to know more about the accident and the people who tried to help please take a look at this archive page from Remembering Scotland At War:
(Beinn Edra accounts start about halfway down the page with the first article titled: ‘Tubaist Bheinn Eadra/This Terrible Accident Happened’)
http://www.rememberingscotlandatwar.org.uk/Accessible/Exhibition/209/War-comes-to-the-crofters-3-Buaidh-a-chogaidh-air-na-croitearan-3-

Red moor

Red moor

Just a final note: As I walked back down to the car I crossed a section of the moor covered with rusty-looking grass. Under the deep pink of the sky the whole landscape looked a deep red colour; a Remembrance poppy field red. As I stopped to find my camera a flock of tiny songbirds swooped over me and followed the curve of the slope behind towards the crash site. A fitting, fleeting memorial I thought to the men who lived and died in the skies.

Death Shall Have No Dominion -Dylan Thomas

Death Shall Have No Dominion -Dylan Thomas