The Sea Monster

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

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Looking for shells and seaweed at Coral Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rob at the top of the cliffs

It was not what we expected…

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

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

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Measuring the individual vertebrae

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

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

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

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Watching my first basking shark at Rubha Hunish

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

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

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Rob with the scattered skeleton

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

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

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

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

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It was a strange-looking skeleton.

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

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

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

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

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

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Plastic on the beaches is a constant problem

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

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

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

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Still looking…

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Guesthouse Katie opens for August: Family, friends, filmmakers & photographers (and my first basking shark!)

(Most of) my August visitors

(Most of) my August visitors

September rolls in and it’s the calm after the storm here at the cottage.

Since moving to Skye I’ve always had a nice little trickle of visitors travelling up from the South; it’s super lovely to be able to share my new home with friends and family.
Then this August came around and someone turned the taps on full… it was Guesthouse Katie open for summer season! It’s been totally manic but great fun at the same time.

Mum and I rocking the bobble hats on Scarista Beach, Harris

Mum and I rocking the bobble hats on Scarista Beach, Harris

My first visitor was someone very important, my Mum.

Her visits are always special. As I grew up it was just the two of us so it’s not easy to have left her so far away.
It’s her third time up here but this was the longest stay so far. Having 10 days meant that I got to take her to some places that are a little further from home, like Applecross and the Outer Hebrides.

We did a little potted tour of the area which included some Highland Games, a Michelin star lunch and even helping out with some sheep shearing!

We did so much that I think I’ll have to write a separate post about it (otherwise we’ll be here forever). To be continued…

Mum looking out towards Skye from Applecross Bay

Mum looking out towards Skye from Applecross Bay

Week 2 of August and here came the next set of visitors… The Boys

Will, Dickon and Hugo are some of my oldest friends. We met way back, at the end of our A-levels, when we spent that entire carefree post-exam/pre-university summer together just hanging out and enjoying the sunshine.

With life and geography getting in the way I rarely see them now but when we do it’s always comfy and fun. We’ve argued, laughed and cried together and I love them to bits. This was to be a fun week.

Will, Patrick and Dickon at the Quiraing. Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait

Will, Patrick and Dickon at the Quiraing. Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

We also happened to be joined by my friend Patrick, a Savile Row tailor and adventurous cyclist whom I’d met for the first time a couple of years ago a Polo Awards bash.

I was slightly apprehensive about whether they’d all get along, what with the boys being a big scruffy bundle of energy and Patrick being a suave London gent (though I have seen him pull some epic moves on a dancefloor)…

I needn’t have worried, they got on fine and enjoyed a day out hiking the Quiraing together whilst I put in a shift at the gallery.
The only wobble was with the introduction of a new board game, The Settlers Of Catan. I’m not sure I’ve witnessed competitiveness at that level before; the Tunn Christmas Scrabble Championship has nothing on this.

Serious competitiveness. I stayed well out if it!

Serious competitiveness. I stayed well out if it!

A house full of boys is a beautiful but chaotic thing. Lots of catching up was done over many bottles of whisky.
Patrick stayed for two days before he had to leave for a meeting somewhere near Oban.

Despite the dull weather we filled the next few days with walks along the beach, fossil hunting and a very (VERY) cold swim at Loch Shianta.

Loch Shianta is a really deep little pond billed as the ‘healing loch’ and is the most stunning vivid blue colour. There’s something eerie and magical about it; I’ve wanted to swim there for ages but have been waiting for company to go with (safety first!).

Since our dip my views on it have changed slightly.
I mentioned our swim to a girl from work and she looked at me in shock “Oooh, we don’t swim there! They used to drown cats in there. It’s dangerous, full of death…”
Err… lovely!

Will about to make a splash (photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait)

Will about to make a splash. Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

Each day with the boys was lovely but the last one was particularly special…

The sun had finally decided to make an appearance and I decided to take them on my favourite walk; straight out of the back door and up to The Lookout at Rubha Hunish. It was chilly and blustery but the view over the bright blue sea over to the mainland was as good as ever.

When we got to the bothy we sat down for a rest on the clifftop overlooking the headland below. We swigged our water and I automatically scanned the water in the bay below. I rarely spot anything interesting but I look anyway, just in case.
But this time, for once, I did spot something. Dark, almost black, two parts above water….
OH HOLY SHHHHH…
Basking shark!

Me (about 30 seconds before I noticed the shark and that weird grimace turned into a grin!) -Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait

Me (about 30 seconds before I noticed the shark and that weird grimace turned into a grin!)
Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

The poor boys. I was up and running to the cliff path in an instant (those of you who know me will know that I rarely move fast if I can help it)
I yelled some general directions to the path over my shoulder and slipped and skidded down the path as fast as my clumsy little trotters would take me.
This wasn’t actually the first time I’ve slid down a rocky cliff on behalf of a (supposed) basking shark, but that’s a story for another time.

Now, I know that this might seem like an over-reaction to some people… to most people, probably…
But where some people have a favourite football team others of us have favourite animals. Bucket list ‘To See’ creatures.
I’ve been desperate to see a basking shark for years and I’ve been on tenterhooks waiting for them to arrive in Skye (they’re late and few this year here). Imagine watching your favourite team winning right in front of you, that’s the feeling.

Watching the shark

Me and the shark

By the time I got down to the rocky shore Will was already there (long legs for easy overtaking).
We clambered down to the barnacled tideline and watched this huge, dark creature gently weave through the water just metres in front of us (although technically this one was quite small for a basker, only 3-4m long).
The adrenaline was running and I was high as a kite.

Will, Dickon and I on the rocks (photo by Hugo-Donnithorne Tait)

Shark watching positions. Photo by Hugo-Donnithorne Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

We sat for ages.
The sun came out and the water glittered as we watched this giant fish meander back and forth between clouds of jellyfish.
We’d been watching the gannets diving all week but now we had a front-row view. The water was so clear that you could even see their bubble-trail once submerged. At one point a gannet surfaced and had to swerve off-course to avoid flying straight into the shark fin.
It was incredible.

Watching these awesome animals in one of my favourite places on Earth with some of my oldest friends is an experience that’s going right up there in the top 10 best moments of my life.
I’ll never forget that amazing afternoon.

Hugo's picture of the shark -a million times better than any of my snaps. Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

Hugo’s picture of the shark -a million times better than any of my snaps (but he is a pro so what do you expect?) Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

On week 3 my visitors were Dom, his son, Leo, and their dog, Kit.

Dom is a filmmaker and he was up here to make a short mini-video featuring me for the outdoor equipment company, Alpkit.
(Alpkit, by the way, have a company motto that I love: ‘Go nice places, do good things.’ Is there any other rule for life needed really?)
So Dom’s making a series of these films for the company, each featuring a different person living a different kind of outdoors lifestyle. I’m the arty girl who left London-life for island life and loves anything ocean-related.

I’ve only met Dom once before and I did try to tell him that my life certainly isn’t interesting enough to be filmed but they weren’t persuaded…

Dom setting up his camera in the garden

Dom setting up his camera 

Unfortunately things didn’t exactly go as smoothly as planned…

First of all Dom’s camera drone broke and wouldn’t get started again (if you know what the landscape in Skye is like you’ll know how incredibly frustrating this was!)
Okay, we said, lets get some of the in-the-water swimming footage instead…
We drove to Coral Beach but it was so busy we couldn’t even park, let alone find a quiet spot to get some filming done.
We to Kilmaluag Bay to try there instead. As we wetsuited up I noticed that the bay didn’t look as pretty as usual. When we reached the water we saw that it had turned a murky, peaty brown; completely different to the Carribbean blue of just a few days ago. Argh!

A bright blue Kilmaluag Bay just a few days earlier

A bright blue Kilmaluag Bay just a few days earlier

Despite a barrage of hiccups, we managed to scrape together enough footage for Dom to use.

He’s actually just sent me the first rough cut of the film and it looks fantastic. Of course, hearing your own voice is always pretty cringey (and I have a terrible lisp!) but the boy’s done good. I’ll share it on here once it’s out.

In the meantime you can see more of Dom’s stuff here:
Land and Sky Media

Kit the dog looks on whilst Dom catches some footage of light on the Quiraing

Kit the dog looks on whilst Dom catches some footage of light on the Quiraing

Towels in the wash. Bedsheets changed. Week 4 begins…

My guests seem to have been staying in order of decreasing familiarity; my last set of visitors were two people I’ve never actually met before in person, Anthony and Anne Sophie.
Anthony is an incredibly talented photographer and a friend-of-a-friend; at one point we moved in similar circles in the London art/alternative scene. He is best known for his brilliant Self-Styled project which you can check out here.
His girlfriend, Anne Sophie, is an extraordinarily ingenious costume designer and, to my delight, fellow sparkle-lover. You can see some of her pieces here.

I was slightly nervous about putting up two people who I’ve never met before, especially when they’re both artists whose work I admire.
Would they mind being stuffed into the twin room with my mis-matched sheets? Would they be expecting something a bit fancier? Our mutual friends can be fairly ‘quirky’… what would they be like?

Sophie photographed by Anthony in the Welsh mountains as part of their collaborative project (Photo by Anthony Lycett Photography, www.anthonylycett.com)

Sophie photographed by Anthony in the Welsh mountains as part of their collaborative project. How aresome is this shot?! (Photo by Anthony Lycett Photography, http://www.anthonylycett.com)

I needn’t have worried, they were two of the nicest ‘strangers’ I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with.
Genuinely sweet people.
Plus, having Sophie working on one of her rainbow-coloured, glittering costumes in my home was an absolute delight (imagine waking up to a riot of colour in your normally neutral living room)

A detail of one of Sophie's creations. How can you not be happy when waking up to colours like these?!

A detail of one of Sophie’s creations. How can you not be happy when waking up to colours like these?!

Like Dom’s visit the week before this was a trip with a mission…

Firstly Anthony took some pictures of me in the studio for one of his recent projects where he’s been photographing all different kinds of artists in their working environments.
Of course, it’s a massive honour to be photographed by someone with his skills (when he’s working you can tell his brain is whizzing with ideas) but when I found out that some of his other subjects include names like Gavin Turk and Micallef I almost keeled over! (If you don’t know who they are let’s just say they’re VERY successful artists. Or you could just Google them…)

My scruffy little studio didn’t feel worthy of this kind of attention!

One of Anthony's photos in his artists series: Sue Kreitzman in her London studio. (Copyright: Anthony Lycett Photography, www.anthonylycett.com)

One of Anthony’s photos in his artists series: Sue Kreitzman in her London studio. (Copyright: Anthony Lycett Photography, http://www.anthonylycett.com)

The second half of the visit was spent snapping Sophie in one of her magical costumes on location in the Quiraing.

Sophie and Anthony are working together on another series where he photographs her wearing her creations in various locations all over the UK.
Putting this vibrantly-dressed girl in the midst of these dramatic natural landscapes creates images with a surreal, dream-like quality.
It’s a really cool project.

Anthony shooting Sophie on location in the Quiraing. To see the actual picture you need to visit Anthony's website!

Anthony shooting Sophie on location in the Quiraing. To see the actual picture you need to visit Anthony or Sophie’s website!

Also like with Dom’s visit we had our fair share of hiccups.
A good few hours were spent huddled in the car waiting for the rain to pass so we could get a clear shot of Sophie. Then as soon as the sun came out so did the midges. It was a fairly speedy photoshoot once they’d turned up!

But we did get a good picture and I finally managed to get Anthony the local chippy supper that he’d been wishing for since he’d arrived. We ate our chips on Portree Harbour and celebrated the successes of the day.

Don't feed the seagulls! Anthony and Sophie in Portree Harbour

Don’t feed the seagulls!

Then, as fast as everyone had turned up, they had gone again.
August is over and Guesthouse Katie has closed. Time for a wee sleep until the next visitors arrive…

that turned up on the doorstop last week. Lots of memories here, thank you boys xx

that turned up on the doorstop last week. Lots of memories here, thank you boys xx

The Staffin Whale Strandings

Note: This is by far the longest post I’ve written (so long that I haven’t even proof-read it yet).
It’s quite different to my usual ones as I wanted it to be a true account of my experience of the day. If you’re a regular reader and this doesn’t interest you please just skip through as I’ll have another new post up towards the end of the week.
-Katie
****

Staffin slipway after the stranding

Staffin slipway after the stranding. Hoping that the whales are now far from here.

 

As some of you have noticed, my last blog post described the night before the mass whale stranding in Staffin last week. What started off as an evening of fun and awe turned into a day of struggle and emotion.

This post is a personal account of events and is not endorsed by BDMLR or any other official body.
I write from the perspective of someone who is devoted to marine conservation but who has no official qualifications or training in the subject. That might sound like hyperbole but it’s not; looking after our ocean environments is one of the most important things in my life and to be nearer to the sea is one of the reasons why I left London for Skye.
Yet all the report reading, the project launching, the networking, the weekends at Whalefest and the constant campaigning means nothing when you’re faced with a struggling creature that you know so much about but, in reality, you’ve had no hands-on experience with.

Like most people who love wildlife, I’ve always wanted to get as close to animals as possible, to study them and see how they work. After the strandings I think we’d all prefer to watch these creatures from afar (in fact, I’d prefer not to see these particular ones ever again).

***

It’s an overcast Tuesday morning and indulging in a few extra minutes in bed means that I’m cutting it fine for getting to the gallery on time.

The road through Staffin from the North skirts round the bumpy slopes just under the heights of the Quiraing. Once you pass through the strange little hillocks around Flodigarry you can catch a glimpse of Staffin Bay far below in front of you. The flat water catches the morning light in a way that makes it look like it’s made out of that textured foil used to wrap chocolate; it’s a beautiful thing to wake up to and I always make a point of trying to take it all in.

Staffin beach at sunset

Staffin beach at sunset

Today something was different.
In the exact spot where I’d stood the evening before there was some kind of commotion; a group of people and a boat in the water nearby.
If I had stopped I would’ve been late to open up the gallery so I carried on. But passing by I couldn’t help feeling that something was wrong.
I wondered if it was an animal in trouble or whether someone had somehow been injured or got into trouble in the water. As I drove on into Portree I tried to assure myself that it was just a group of tourists whale-watching (as I had done the night before) but I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that something bad had happened.

Arriving at work I forgot about the people on the beach and set about opening up the gallery.
The usual routine… Lights on. Set up till. Music on. Grab a cup of tea. Check phone.
My usually-minimal screen was flooded with little notifications. Whatsapp, texts, Facebook… everything.
‘A mass pilot whale stranding in the North of Skye’
Oh shit.
I rushed to scroll through them and came across a message from Liza who owns Skyeworks: “If you want to go and help with the whales I can look after the gallery…”
My coat was on and I was out of the door within 30 seconds.

I didn’t just drive North; I flew.
I’ve always been a very cautious driver up here, slow and steady like a tourist, not a local. This time I could have overtaken any lifelong island resident.
A quick stop off to pick up a wetsuit (thanks Birdy at Single Track), some water socks (thanks John at Skye Adventure), some juice for the volunteers and some towels and sheets for the animals then it was straight to Staffin.

The first stranding at Brogaig Beach. Photo copyright: BBC Crown Copyright

The first stranding at Brogaig Beach. Photo copyright: BBC Crown Copyright

The rescue effort had moved from the Western side of the bay (Brogaig Beach) to Staffin Slipway by the time that I had arrived.
21 long-finned pilot whales had stranded that morning on Brogaig and 18 had been re-floated successfully. Of the whales that didn’t make it one was a mother who had been having difficulty giving birth to a calf (this is the suspected reason for the stranding).
Despite the ease of this initial effort, 10 of the whales went on to re-strand on the rocky shore of nearby Staffin Island. This wasn’t just harder for volunteers to reach but also a nastier surface for the animals to be stuck on.

The road was lined with cars when I got there and most people were being turned away. I was lucky to be allowed through and I arrived to see a number of familiar faces by the slipway: Skye Ghillie Mitchell and his wife Sam, my neighbour Mo, Andy the Coastguard…
There were even some familiar faces who had also volunteered at my Art For Oceans beach clean just a few days earlier (a marine conservation/ocean-heavy week, we quipped).
As I looked to find out what was happening I noticed a constant stream of local people turning up with snacks, towels, blankets and offers to help. A result of the Skye jungle drums
but proof of the kindness of people here.

Staffin Slipway (at the end of the day)

Staffin Slipway (at the end of the day)

I don’t have any formal training with British Divers Marine Life Rescues so I might have been turned away but in the end I was allowed to be zipped into a drysuit and loaded onto a boat with a pile of equipment to transport us over to the stranding site.
It was an ironic turn of events… I had been planning on doing a course with BDMLR ever since meeting their co-ordinator, Stephen Marsh, at Whalefest earlier this year (we both stayed at the house rented by the Earthrace team) and I was going to book into the Stornoway course in a month’s time. Not only that but the day before the rescue I had emailed the Scottish Marine Animals Strandings Scheme replying to a Facebook appeal for new volunteers.
It was a ‘just in case’ situation, I didn’t think I’d ever actually see a stranding so close to home.

 

Stranded whales on the rocks at Saffin Island. The boat in the background is a Marine Scotland vessel (the fisheries security organisation that send officers to come and help). Photo by Adam Williams

Stranded whales on the rocks at Saffin Island. The boat in the background is a Marine Scotland vessel (the fisheries security organisation that send officers to come and help). Photo by Adam Williams

As we landed on the island we were able to see how spread out the animals were and how far up the rocks they had managed to beach themselves.
They were large dark masses draped in wet white sheets and towels to keep them from drying out. Small teams sat around each one whilst other volunteers went between them relaying information or equipment.

I was directed towards a lone juvenile in a group of 4 whales.
The largest of the group was being held upright by a pontoon and attended by three guys who rocked it back and forth and poured water over the whale’s body. The second largest was on its side and was being helped by a volunteer called Laura. The smallest of the group had died before rescuers had arrived and it sat forlornly next to the others.
I sat down next to the second smallest, a juvenile, and stared.

The group of 4 whales. The largest on the pontoon at the back, the female on her side is on the right, the juvenile is in the foreground and the passed calf is on the left. Photo by Adam Williams

The group of 4 whales. The largest on the pontoon at the back, the female on her side is on the right, the juvenile is in the foreground (with Anne) and the passed calf is on the left. Laura is standing up in the middle. Photo by Andy Kulesza

On first sight, they don’t look like real animals. With their eyes closed their thick black skin makes them look like some kind of rubber model; they seem unreal.
But then I sat down next to this one and a sharp breath rushed out of the blowhole. As it did so, all the muscles under that blubbery, tough skin tensed and the tail tremored. Whether human or animal, it was instantly recognisable as a kind of physical discomfort; it was struggling.
And suddenly it was all very real.

I didn’t expect to be as emotionally affected by the whales as much as I was.
Yes, I love cetaceans and I cried when I saw my first sperm whale and my first fin whale (on the same Turmares research trip -it was an emotional day!) But I’ve seen pilot whales many times before, I’m used to them.
I’m also used to seeing wildlife in really, really awful situations. One of the downsides of being even slightly involved in conservation means that you regularly come across examples of how careless and cruel humanity can be. There are photos and videos out there so horrible that they’d make even the most hardened old man burst into sobs.
But even being familiar with footage of pilot whales being hacked to death in the Faroese grindadrap hunt didn’t desensitise me enough to come away from the Staffin rescue unscathed. I will never forget those sharp breaths and tensing muscles. That physical struggle.

One of the whales showing signs of injury from the stranding. It's hard to not be moved by pictures like this. Photo by Andy Kulesza

One of the whales showing signs of injury from the stranding. It’s hard to not be moved by pictures like this. Photo by Andy Kulesza

The creatures needed to be rocked gently back and forth to help keep their bodily fluids evenly distributed. The ones laying on their sides were most in danger of having blood build up on the lower side which causes problems with the lungs (the lower one can fill with blood which overstresses the upper one). This additional weight would also cause listing when they reached the open water, making the animal take longer to right itself.
Apparently the juvenile I was assigned to had the best chance as it was young and upright. I took my place next to it and began to rock it.
“NOT NEAR THE BLOWHOLE!”
I looked up and a masked face was telling me to move.
He warned me that the bacteria in the blasts of breath from a blowhole could make a human seriously ill, to the point of hospitalisation and even death.
You’ll notice in all the pictures we’re wearing gloves and most of us are wearing masks. This is why. Although Mitchell and I got blowhole spray in our eyes more than once when refloating the larger animals so I suppose we were lucky to not get contaminated.

I moved back along the body of the whale to a safe distance and the masked man in charge gave me a quick explanation of what to do…
The whales needed to be kept moving, to stay wet and to be made calm. They respond well to human voices, especially to women singing. Don’t get close to the blowhole and don’t let water get into it or they could drown. Make sure that they’re eyes and blowhole are kept moist with KY Jelly.

Rocking the whales to stop their organs from failing under their weight. Photo by Andy Kulesza

Rocking the whales to stop their organs from failing under their weight. Photo by Andy Kulesza

Laura, the volunteer attending the large whale on it’s side next to me, coached me as we sat.
Many of the other volunteers were people who had done the BDMLR medics course but hadn’t yet experienced a stranding. Most had dropped everything and driven for 4+ hours to get to Staffin.
This was Laura’s first time but you could tell she was trained and she remained steeled and calm with her whale despite having sat in that same spot for hours on end in the cold.

Rain and drizzle was a relief. We volunteers got chilly but it kept the animals wet.
We waited and talked and rocked and sang and poured water. I mumbled incoherent sentences into the big rubbery flank and willed this whale to be okay. I hoped that, like dogs, they could somehow sense feel how much care and love was around them.

At one point the two whales that Laura and I were attending started calling to each other; a conversation of sad, distressed whistles. I’ve always loved the dolphin noise and whalesong but this was horrible.

It was when the large whale resting on the pontoon had gradually slipped down and needed to be propped back up again that I was really hit by the helplessness we all felt at some point that day.
My job in the action was to tuck under the lower pectoral fin so that it wasn’t pushed out of place when the whale was moved. I went to grasp the fin and noticed how the skin had been grazed off one side by the rock. It was a rich red with blood and looked so sore. I tried feebly to cushion the fin away from the rock with seaweed but I knew it wouldn’t really stop any pain. I don’t know why this got to me more than anything else.
As the command came to move the whale I concentrated hard on the fin and didn’t look up; partly to make sure I’d put it in the right place but mostly to hide my face so that no one saw the tears running down into my mask.

The large whale being propped up by a pontoon. Just looking at these pictures brings back a lot of feelings. Photo by Sam Nicolson

The large whale being propped up by a pontoon. Just looking at these pictures brings back a lot of feelings. Photo by Sam Nicolson

When the whales stilled it was easy to forget again that they were living beings. Hours spent staring at the still, scarred dorsal fin felt like looking at a battered old plastic rudder. But then these little things jerked them back into being conscious creatures.
I had no need to hide any tears that day (I’m sure everyone there went through the same range of emotions) but all the other volunteers were so determined and focused that I wanted to show I could be too.

And so we waited.
The animals had stranded at high tide meaning that we had to wait until the next one to get them back out. Looking at the low water so far away, this felt like forever.
Every now and again we got up and switched places with another volunteer, warmed up with a cup of tea or popped to the loo.
Then more waiting.
A vet came to assess each whale and one that was bleeding heavily had to be euthanised. Whilst it sounds harsh, I considered how it was ‘lucky’ that these whales were small enough to be put out of their suffering rather than be left to die slowly like larger great whales.
More waiting.
A boat came laden with soup and coffee. After hours of being damp and cold we said that this might have been the best coffee we’d ever tasted.
More waiting.

When the tide finally returned we were ready. As we’d been briefed, it was going to be a case of ‘wait wait wait, GO!’
It was all hands on deck with the rescue effort. No more hanging around, suddenly we were all needed.

Because we were so focused on our particular animal I can’t give an accurate general account of what happened.
As the water reached each whale the creatures slowly began to stir, moving their tails in response. Teams of volunteers went to each whale, ready to guide them backwards out of the rocks.

Getting ready to refloat the whales on the incoming tide. Mairi and Sam look after the juvenile whilst the larger whale is refloated. You can see Adam and I using a towel to raise the blowholeout of the water. Photo by Sam Nicolson

Getting ready to refloat the whales on the incoming tide. Mairi and Sam look after the juvenile whilst the larger whale is refloated. You can see Adam and I using a towel to raise the blowholeout of the water.
Photo by Sam Nicolson

I found myself attending Laura’s whale with Mitchell (Skye Ghillie), Anne (from The Royal) and Adam (a neighbour who runs the Shulista wigwams).
The main effort was concentrated on getting this whale upright so that it could be pushed back out. However, those of us at the head end noticed that the rising tide was beginning to breach the blowhole and it suddenly became a rush against time to raise it away from the water.
I’ll never forget the stress of trying to hold that whale’s head up. For the first few minutes I sat with my knee wedged underneath, the entire weight of the head crushing it against the rock. As the water rose Anne got her knee under too. Then eventually Adam suggested using a towel as a sling and we grunted and struggled as we tried to grip the towel holding all that weight.
Seconds later the whale was righted and we were out in the water.

We worked the fins and tail up and down to get the blood and feelings back into the muscles. As we did so the whale began to gain strength and started kicking back against us.
Mitchell was getting the full force of awakening fins and as I looked over the blowhole at him I thought of how different this evening was to the one that I’d bumped into him and Sam at the night before….
7pm on Monday: Bosville restaurant opening with champagne and canapes.
7pm on Tuesday: In the sea wrestling a whale.

Moving the whale in the waterto get the muscles working again. Mitchell and I are the two in masks at the head end.

Moving the whale in the waterto get the muscles working again. Mitchell and I are the two in masks at the head end. Photo by Sam Nicolson

 

It’s not as easy as just putting them back in the ocean and watching them swim off. We had to wait for all the whales to be back in the water and moving again before we could let them go. If this didn’t happen there would be a risk of them re-stranding.
It wasn’t long until they were ready and, on instruction, we released them. We watched them glide away from us and willed them to regroup.
We watched them get their bearings and then circle back towards us…
NO NO NO NO!
We rushed towards them to shoo them away from the shore as they barrel-rolled over a rocky outcrop. Stumbling and falling over the stones and seaweed we pushed them back and splashed the water to frighten them away.

And then they turned and started to leave.

 

The moment we all wished for; the whales make their way out into the open water. Photo by Adam Williams

The moment we all wished for; the whales make their way out into the open water. Photo by Adam Williams

The feeling of elation in seeing them swim free in the water is incredible, there really is nothing like it (again, not hyperbole).
I glanced at the tired, wind-beaten faces next to me and every eye was bright with hope. From a silly sentimental bugger like me right up to the big tough guys from Marine Scotland (the maritime law enforcers), by now we were all 100% emotionally invested in this little group of cetaceans.
I don’t think any of us have ever willed anything to bugger off so much in our lives!

As we cleared up and watched the last whales being guided out by the other teams we noticed a rainbow appear. After a grey, drizzly day the sun was breaking through and it felt apt to smile.

6 of the 10 whales that stranded on Staffin Island were returned to sea. Two had died before rescuers reached the island and two were euthanised whilst we waited for the tide. With the three earlier losses on Brogaig beach it was a hard day. Over the course of it we had all gained an acute awareness of the intelligence of these creatures; not least because of their connection with each other (so much so that they would all strand together).
Our personal experiences with the whales were diverse and we’ll all take away different memories from that day but a general respect and sadness for the loss is something everyone will share.

With that said, the rescue still had a positive outcome. 6 were rescued on Staffin Beach and 8 were refloated from Brogaig and didn’t re-strand. At one point there was a suspicion that none would survive from the second rescue attempt.
This was a hard rescue in tricky terrain so the outcome was good.

For me, the most positive outcome was seeing the hard work and effort of everyone involved. Everyone. From the BDMLR guys to the vet, the Coastguard, the team from Marine Scotland, Andy from Stardust Wildlife Tours…
There’s the volunteers who dropped everything to come down and help. Businesses and shops were closed and some people drove from the other side of the country to help.

Then there’s the support from all the people who stayed onshore. There were the staff at Columba 1400 who made soup and sandwiches, Sally from Shulista Wigwams with coffee and snacks from Staffin Stores and all the local people who came down with food and blankets.
As we all said (many times), “Faith in humanity: restored.”

(I also owe a huge thanks here to my boss, Liza, who was kind enough to let me go and help, knowing how much whales and marine conservation means to me)

I think we all made some good friends that day; the trauma brought lots of us together, people who live near to each other but who’d never had a chance to meet. As we waited for the boat to ferry us back to Staffin slipway we chatted and promised to keep in contact and share pictures.

Being ferried back to Staffin Slipway by Marine Scotland. Photo by Adam Williams

Being ferried back to Staffin Slipway by Marine Scotland. Photo by Adam Williams

Back on the slipway itself we peeled off our wet clothes (only one person’s drysuit stayed dry!). My toes had turned white from being damp all day and I was half surprised that I hadn’t sprouted webbing between them. We shivered as we unloaded the equipment from the boat.
Next to the slipway lay a pile of the deceased whales, towed over from Staffin Island when the tide had come in. They looked elegant and beautiful and unreal. A sad reminder that not everyone made it.

I drove my neighbour, Adam, home then staggered into my cottage.
It was cold and dark. I felt chilled so I stripped and walked straight into the shower and just stood there.
I  might have been standing for half an hour, maybe even a whole hour.
When I got under the warm water something hit me. This stillness after a day of adrenalin was almost paralyzing; the shock of being back in a familiar space after a day of something so dramatic and strange.
There’s only one word that accurately describes this feeling: overwhelmed.
I was totally and utterly overwhelmed.
As the hot water slowly defrosted my bones and brought me back to my senses I couldn’t help let tears flow freely with the soap suds. It was only a whale rescue but this reaction to it was almost like a reaction to some kind of trauma.
I hope I don’t sound like I’m over-reacting here; I’m sure lots of the other volunteers had exactly the same experience.

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And so that was my experience of the Staffin whale strandings.
It isn’t exactly the end to the story but these are the events of the day and the follow-up isn’t as relevant anyway.

I usually like to wrap up my blog posts with a tidy little paragraph summing everything up but to be honest I’m too tired to do it this time. Reliving the events, even just through typing, is emotionally exhausting (I’ve had tears in my eyes many times whilst typing this).

Perhaps all I will say to finish is this…

Firstly, that I’m completely humbled by the kindness shown by the people involved in every part of these rescues. I have often felt down and disheartened by what people can do to wildlife/nature but seeing this amount of love and care is something I will always carry in my heart.

Secondly, I have sometimes felt like a bore, peppering my Facebook feed with whale articles and seeing my friends cringe when I tell them that something is bad for the ocean. But after witnessing these creatures first hand I don’t care about judgement, I’d fight tooth and nail to do anything for these animals (something I’m sure the other volunteers would agree with)

And lastly, I hope and pray that this will be the last and only stranding post I ever write…
But, if another stranding does happen then we’ll need all the help we can get again. This would be through trained volunteers or via fundraising for local equipment.
Noel H from British Divers Marine Life Rescue has set up a campaign to raise money to buy a pontoon for rescues in NW Scotland. If anyone can help to put a few pennies into the fund then please visit his Just Giving page here: Noel’s BDMLR NW Scotland Pontoon Campaign.
If you think you can help out by becoming a medic then please check out the BDMLR website to find a course in your area here: BDMLR Courses. If you fancy coming on the Stornoway one in July then I’ll see you there!

Katie x

The huge amount of equipment needed to help rescue wildlife

The huge amount of equipment needed to help rescue wildlife

 

A familiar sticker on a  BDMLR box... One of my favourite organisations :)

And finally… a familiar sticker on a BDMLR box. The Black Fish is one of my favourite organisations 🙂

The Otter License

Hello! Apologies for being a bit quiet recently… I’ve been buzzing about down South and up North, partying over in Germany and on Skye and all over the place.
I hope to catch up a bit over the next week or so. Watch this space!

In the meantime I thought I’d tell you about something exciting that I received recently…

I am now the proud owner of an official otter license!

Grrr!

With the otter skull… Grrr! (It’s missing the fangs here but they’re also pretty impressive gnashers)

You might, quite rightly, ask what an otter license is (everyone else has…)

You may remember a few blog posts ago I mentioned finding an otter skeleton on a walk from Rubha Hunish down to Erisco village. What I didn’t write in the post is that I bagged it up along with all my other beach-combed treasures and took it home with me.

Because otters are a protected species I had an inkling that I needed a special license to possess the skeleton legally (an intuition that turned out to be right).
Licensing laws such as these aim to protect certain wildlife from being exploited (alive or dead) by the taxidermy trade and other kinds of nasties that might lead to the decline of an already pressured species. Other animals listed as Eurpoean protected species include bats, wildcats and sturgeon.

So I duly printed out and filled in the application form. It required a fair bit of detail and I had to prove that I will be using it for educational or learning purposes rather than for simply keeping as a cool beach find. (Luckily, I can use it to teach volunteers about the effects of marine debris on wildlife at my Art For Oceans beach cleans, so that box is easily ticked)
Once popped in the post all I had to do was wait…

And here it is!
It might not be the most normal thing to get excited about but I’m chuffed to bits to get it through. One step closer to being my own Natural History Museum!

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.

IMG_5102

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)

Spring Springing Sprung – Valentine’s Day Part 1

Hello sunshine!

Hello sunshine! 

As I looked out of my bedroom window the other day I noticed something new in the garden.
Down amidst the long grass at near the fence there were three little white snowdrops bobbing in the breeze.
It made me smile; having moved in in October I hadn’t realised that there were flowers in the garden.

The next day when I looked there were a few more.

The day after that they started to appear on the lawn itself.

Now there are little flurries of snowdrops all over the garden and there’s even a wee golden crocus which glows like a cheery beacon squeaking, “summer’s coming!”

IMG_4982

Unexpected visitors on the lawn

As the flowers gradually began to appear this week, so did the sunshine. Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, was particularly bright and beautiful.

As a single girl living alone I knew I had to brace myself for February the 14th.
It’s funny, you can be the most happy/content/commitment-phobic singleton in the world every other day of the year but when everyone else is getting spoilt (and showing it off on Facebook) it does feel a bit rubbish to not be doing anything.

With this in mind I had decided to treat myself by buying a special Saturday breakfast in the morning and an indulgent wine and pizza supper for the evening (obviously buying wine runs the risk of drunk texting but last night I managed self restraint, yay!)

I’d woken up to messages from my girlfriends detailing what gifts they’d been treated with for Valentine’s Day so I must admit I started off a little grumbly. Though with the sun out and one card on my doormat I couldn’t stay that way for long.
(Still no idea who the card is from, it’s a bit cheeky but nice to be thought of!)

Yeah, whatevs, Co-op

Yeah, whatevs, Co-op

The weather was so charming, I thought I’d grab a few magazines and enjoy my breakfast in the sun (with a big hoodie and hat of course, it is still February after all)

With seagulls squawking above it wasn’t peaceful but I haven’t lived by the sea for long enough to find that noise annoying. To me that sound still means fun; seaside holidays in Brighton or Weymouth with stripy deckchairs, runny ice creams and salty air.

I sipped my tea and pulled open the plastic of a new magazine.
I don’t usually buy magazines and I certainly never buy women’s magazines. I hate the way they shout about celebrating body image on one page then five pages later they’re telling you how to diet. They’re all regurgitated features about image, pleasing men and celebrity. Yes, being interested in those things is fine but there is SO MUCH MORE to being a woman than that.
That’s why I’ve subscribed to a relatively new magazine called Oh Comely!
I first came across it when I took part in their November Care Package Project, where you create a package of lovely things to send to a stranger through the post (for more info about that click here). It’s an intelligent publication based on crafts, words, homeliness and happiness; it’s feminine but not dumbed down. A breath of fresh air.

I flicked through the magazine…
An article about a lady rearing rare breed sheep.
A piece about crafts using driftwood.
…All curiously appropriate features for a girl who lives on Skye.

Finally it settled on the first page…

Home

Home

Stop Trying So Hard To Be Found (a letter from the editor):

The next time you’re lost, stop
trying to find your way. Try
something different.

Hold two fingers to your wrist
to find the beat of your heart.

You’re home

It’s funny how just a few little words can speak to you so strongly.

I almost felt as if they were written just for me. They reminded me that I shouldn’t listen to anyone who says I need roses; I’ve got my snowdrops and my ocean and I’m home.

Sitting with my flowers, a mug of tea in one hand and a pile of toasted Scotch pancakes in the other, I don’t think I could have imagined a better Valentine’s morning.

913b005fa9717153bf07645d6f748378

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 🙂