I came across this quote by Byron recently, I think it’s very true…
TO BE A LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER…:
I’ve just applied for a job with the Northern Lighthouse Board to become their Skye-based lighthouse keeper. The position involves keeping a check on four lighthouses on and around the island (including Neist Point, where I stayed at New Years). It’s only a part-time thing (I don’t get to live in a lighthouse) but it’s an opportunity I couldn’t miss.
I’ve had to put a few friends straight that it’s not going to be a romantic job where I spend most of the day looking out to sea in a stripy jumper smoking a pipe and growing a beard (well, I might try anyway)… I think it’s going to be more of a maintenance job involving carrying stuff to and fro in the pouring rain. I doubt I’ll get it but I bloody hope I do, who doesn’t want to work in a lighthouse?!
I’ve been chatting to someone recently who pointed out that I remind him of Katie Morag, the Scottish children’s book character. It was something to do with both of us enjoying beachcombing, finding treasures etc.
I laughed and said I hadn’t read it but I’d take his word for it and he sent me a picture of one of the book illustrations. About half an hour later Mum sent me some pictures she’d snapped during our recent trip to Coral Beach where I had taken advantage of the especially low tide to find shells. They included the photo below.
Obviously there’s no resemblance whatsoever…
THE 70th ANNIVERSARY OF THE BEINN EDRA CRASH:
Saturday was the 70th anniversary of the WWII bomber disaster on Beinn Edra, the site of which I visited on Remembrance Sunday (you can read my blog post about it here). The Staffin Trust had organised a new memorial plaque which was unveiled at the Columba 1400 centre. This was followed by a service and a lecture from someone at the University of Glasgow.
It was an understandably moving ceremony; time hasn’t dulled the fact that this was a really horrible tragedy. The wind and rain whipped around the building as if to show us the weather that the flight crew had had to contend with.
A prayer read in gaelic by a man who had witnessed the event as a boy was particularly poignant moment.
But what moved me most about the event was how many people there were there; the hall of Columba 1400 was so full that some folk had to lean in through the back door to listen. It says a lot about the Staffin community (and probably most of the communities here on Skye) that they have collectively taken on the mourning for these 9 US airmen that just happened to lose their lives nearby. It’s a testament to the warm hearts of the Staffin people that they remember the loss as if they were their own family.
In a different way I’ve also seen some of that kindness in the way that I’ve been treated since arriving here.
Someone brought some dried dulse into the bakery the other day and I had my first opportunity to try it (something I’ve wanted to do for ages as I love foraging and wild foods).
Dulse is a deep red edible seaweed that used to be a staple of the old crofters diet throughout the North West coastal regions. It fell out of favour as people began to turn towards pre-prepared modern foods but it’s now becoming popular again due to it’s health properties (it’s full of vitamins, minerals and protein) and the trend for foraging and utilising local produce.
It tasted as you might expect, salty with a strong iodine flavour. It was incredibly chewy too, and I suspect it would make a pretty handy snack for anyone who would otherwise reach for a huge slice of cake in the afternoon (I’m looking firmly at myself here).
I’ve just bought a load of sushi ingredients back from Surrey and I’m going to do some experimenting with different types of seaweeds for wrapping the rice and making interesting salads. I’ve just got to wait until the weather’s good enough to clamber over the rocks at low tide to collect it without getting blown in. Looking out the window now, that may be some time away!
There was something strange in the air the other night.
I’d been driving back from Inverness airport after a weekend in Windsor for a family event. I didn’t leave the city until it had got dark and I had this odd feeling that I was very far from home (which of course, I am, but I’ve never felt that here before. I’ve always felt very settled… It must have been leaving all my loved ones behind that caused it)
It was freezing cold and I hit a blizzard again on the road coming up the the Cluanie Dam. It had been a long day, this was the last thing I needed.
It was treacherous but for some reason I felt completely calm, not like the previous time when my shoulders had been up round my ears as I anticipated sliding into a loch.
I came out of the other side of the blizzard to a brightly snow-covered landscape. The moon was almost full and the hills rose on either side of me, silhouetted pale grey against the black sky. Everything was calm, both inside the car and out.
Every now and again my car would disturb an owl on a fencepost and I’d see pale wings swoop up into the night. As I passed the Cuillins one of these owls flew up and followed the curve of the road. I pressed down on the accelerator and sped alongside it for a few seconds before it turned and disappeared into the forest.
There was something so strange about this night that I can’t put my finger on. It felt like a night for mischief and adventures; running around in the snow, midnight swims, sneaking into interesting places, watching meteors.
There was magic in the air tonight.
Driving into Uig I considered pulling over and going for a walk around the Fairy Glen. With work the next morning I decided against it but a wander around the bay wouldn’t keep me up too late.
When I got home I wrapped myself in warm kit, filled a hipflask and grabbed some headphones.
I’ve just downloaded an album by a band called Solomon Grey who composed the soundtrack to the BBC drama, The Casual Vacancy. I had to look them up after watching the programme; their music was perfect… hazy and haunting. I’m always looking for music that I describe as ideal ‘cold winter beach music’; something atmospheric and ephemeral to occupy the background whilst you’re making your way along a shore.
Solomon Grey is exactly that and it’s safe to say that they make perfect midnight wandering music too.
I didn’t take a torch; the moonlight was so bright outside that I could see my shadow on the track as clear as if it were bright sunshine. I turned my music down low so that it mingled with the sound of my boots crunching through the icy crust on the snow..
Someone had left a boat pulled up on the shore and I sat in it for a while watching the light on the waves. It was exceptionally still. (Thank you boat owner x)
When my bum got too cold I got up and wandered up the path towards the ruins of St Moluag’s Church. My feet took me up the path on the right towards Rubha Hunish but I stopped myself at the gate. No long rambles tonight, not on a schoolnight.
So I turned back and crunched my way up the track towards the main road.
It was SO still. But I was far from alone. There were birds still making noises, not singing but calling out every now and again. Hares ran here and there in front of me and the heavy, dark shapes of cows in the fields turned silently to look at me as I passed.
I wasn’t sure where to go next. It was well past midnight after an entire day of travelling. My sense of responsibility had a word with my sense of adventure and I turned round towards home.
It did feel sad to leave this moonlight though. I’m sure I sound a little bit nuts or silly but there really was something imperceptibly special about this night.
Again, this sounds ridiculous but it was like there was something huge that was… changing. Somehow.
I looked back behind me to take one lasting mental picture of the illuminated monochrome landscape of the back of the Quiraing. Then one last look at the stars. Or maybe just 10 more minutes…
I lay down on the track and looked up. Between the silvery clouds the stars were beaming. I picked out the easiest constellations and reminded myself that I really must learn more than just The Plough and friends.
My music shuffled onto the next song, Choir To The Wild, and the moment was perfect.
Have a listen to it on YouTube here (night sky optional but highly recommended). I think you should just about get the picture.
It didn’t take long for my eyelids to start feeling heavy and I tried to fight off the sleep. It wasn’t working very well so I admitted defeat.
So I went home and went to bed… but I took the calmness with me.
If my most asked question is, “why did you move to Skye?” then the second most asked is definitely, “but aren’t you lonely?”
My answer is always an unwavering “no”.
Actually, it’s usually a bemused “no”… I’m always a little surprised when someone asks me that. If I had been looking for a buzzing social hub I wouldn’t have moved from the outskirts of London to somewhere almost an hour away from the nearest pub.
Not that I had intended to come up here and live the life of a hermit… when I arrived I knew that my 2 days a week at the gallery were an important lifeline to help me meet people and get involved with the community a bit.
However, I had expected to enjoy a significant amount of peace and solitude on Skye.
Life was getting busy in the South and I was spending too much time, money and energy doing stuff just to keep other people happy. I’m an incredibly social person (I love a party) but I grew up as an only child which means I also like my own space. I actually think that time alone is a great luxury, as I said in a previous post, it’s quite indulgent.
So, a move to Skye was going to be a way of streamlining my life; less time trying to maintain work/social commitments and more time for myself.
Only, it hasn’t really happened.
Not at all.
I’ve tried to be solitary up here, to take time out, but I’ve actually been just as busy as I was in Surrey, albeit in a slightly different way.
I’ve been to music nights, lectures and ceilidhs. I’ve been on sporting weekends, day trips and dates. I’ve even seen the Scottish National Opera and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, all right here in Portree.
Aside from that, I’ve found it impossible to be lonely here because… everyone’s just too nice!
As with most rural places in the UK, the sense of community here is strong; though I’ve never come across this intensity of general kindness before.
In my next blog post I’m going to write about Skye as being a place ‘where everybody knows your name’, and I think it’s that involvement and knowledge of what’s going on in the community that ties in with the people here being so caring.
It’s not hyperbole to say that the people I’ve met here are some of the nicest folk I’ve met in my life.
Firstly there was my old pal Pat, who put me up in the big yellow hostel at the last minute when I arrived on the island in the pouring rain with a car full of stuff and nowhere to stay.
Then there were my colleagues at the gallery.
Liza and Barry who own the Skye Baking Co and Skyeworks gallery have created a business where being one of the team really feels like being part of a family. They’ve offered me places to stay when the weather’s been dodgy, they check my car over to make sure it’s running smoothly and they’ve all just generally kept an eye on me to make sure I get through my first winter (the lovely Christine is like an oracle for all things island-related!)
Later, two weeks after my arrival, I moved into the cottage at Aird and met my landlords, the Macdonald family. I cannot over stress how lovely this family is.
I still can’t quite believe how lucky I’ve been to find this place. They might be my landlords but they’ve always got an eye out for my wellbeing too, whether it’s making sure I’ve got enough fire fuel or just reassuring me that this amount of wind and rain isn’t the norm (I don’t mind it, I expected the weather to be much worse).
Then there’s all the other characters that have come into my Skye life… Peter and Ria my very cool Dutch neighbours with their gorgeous house on the shore, there’s Jane at Neist Point, Linda from Aros, Gordon from the hostel, Morten the photographer, Clare and Ian at the pub, Sarah the writer, my neighbour Mo, Mina and Chris the saltmakers….
I know it’s boring for me to list everyone here but the fact that I bump into at least one of these people every time I go out means that it’s hard to feel forgotten here.
I may have sounded somewhat antisocial at the beginning of this post. Sometimes I am, but I honestly think that meeting new friends can be one of the greatest pleasures in life. A lot of the characters I’ve met here come from completely different backgrounds to me so I’ve learnt a lot from them in the relatively short time I’ve been here.
I also believe you meet people for a reason…
Perhaps one of the best examples of the kindness of the people of Skye is that of a man called Vernon.
We met when I was trying to pre-organise the beach clean at Talisker bay and needed help accessing the track to the beach. I was trying desperately to find out who to talk to locally and I waved him down as I was about to give up and slump back to my car. Not only did he help me with that but he also offered me the use of his van since my little car couldn’t carry a lot of rubbish.
The fact that he’d offer the use of his vehicle to a total stranger was totally humbling and, after completing the beach clean, I realised I couldn’t have done it without his help.
The other reason I haven’t had a chance to feel lonely is the number of friends and family that have come up to visit me. My parents, my grandparents, my ex’s parents (the Outlaws!), my Godmother and her family, my friend Vicki, my friend Matt, Mum again…
I’ve had friends ask to visit who I’ve had to turn away because I didn’t have time to squeeze them in!
It’s been wonderful showing them my favourite places on Skye.
It was especially important for my close family as I felt that I needed to show them why I love this area and thus in turn explain why I made the decision to move so far away from them.
I’ve enjoyed every minute of having them here (and appreciate the fact that it’s a hell of a journey for them to make) but I can’t deny that it can be exhausting hosting people, even the most chilled-out guests are still guests who you want to feed and look after.
And all this is still without even mentioning all the friends from home who I haven’t hosted at the cottage… The London gang who were up for New Year, the Glancarron estate party, the Soval estate party, my old schoolfriend Charlotte…
All these guys came up and stayed at places nearby whilst I enjoyed the feeling of having friends ‘just down the road’ again.
A good internet connection also means that I’m only ever a click away from talking to friends on Facebook too (it might be an annoying addiction but it’s priceless for keeping in contact with everyone back home)
So, after all that, I think it’s safe to say that, nope, I don’t feel lonely up here!
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!”
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!)
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…
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
Hold two fingers to your wrist
to find the beat of your heart.
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.
I bought a new set of 50 Crayola colouring pencils a couple of weeks ago to work on some illustrations and I haven’t been able to put them down since. New art materials are a bit like sweeties to me and if fancy art pencils are high-end chocolates then Crayola pencils are Pick n’ Mix.
So here’s a little doodle I drew this week of my new home on Skye (and all it’s current inhabitants!)
Since I’m mentioning sweets…
I’ve been trying to learn a bit of the native language whilst I’m up here.
I’m desperately bad at it, there’s something about Gaelic that seems more tricky to pick up than other European languages. Somehow the words wont stick to my brain cells. The ultimate in linguistic Teflon.
It’s quite a gutteral language, very different from French or Spanish, and apparently German visitors find it easier to pick up than the rest of us. It’s a funny one to hear spoken (I find myself stretching to try and hear familiar words) but it’s hauntingly beautiful when sung.
The signage around Skye is a helpful way to learn a few basic pronunciations as the Gaelic place names are usually written in green above the English ones. I love seeing how some of our everyday Anglo words have been integrated into the Gaelic language with terms such as ospadal (hospital) and oifis a’ phuist (post office).
But there’s one Anglo-Gaelic word that I know particularly well because I think it’s quite charming. First spotted in the Co-op in Portree, the sign for the confectionery aisle…
Perhaps I’m easily pleased but I love that.
Quite appropriate for my first year on Skye, I think. Though I think every year is a sheep-y one up here!
‘Up where the mountains meet the heavens above
Out where the lightning splits the sea
I would swear that there’s someone somewhere
Driving to the gallery this morning I had to stop to let some sheep cross the road. There’s blue sky and sunshine dazzling on white hills and I have the windows fully down to feel the breeze.
Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out For A Hero’ comes on the radio and I crank it up and sing along to the top of my voice. AS it nears it’s finale I make a dramatic gestural flourish out of the open window to the sheep coming onto the road on the right…
And make eye contact with three old crofters perfectly camouflaged as they lean against a five bar gate only a couple of metres away from my door.
They give me an amused wave and as I sheepishly return their greeting I hear one of them say to the others, “that’s that English girl…”
It occurred to me yesterday that someone watching me look for fossils might think I’m some kind of real-life Gollum.
The large boulders on the beach aren’t easy to navigate swiftly so I’ve taken to spider-crawing over them on my hands and feet as I peer and peek between the gaps. Every now and then I’ll squat down and pluck an interesting stone out of a stream or rockpool, inspecting it up close and rolling it between my fingers. Some are shoved greedily into a pocket but most are flung back to where they came from.
I haven’t started saying “my Precious!” yet but then I still haven’t found anything particularly exciting… it might only be a matter of time!
When I woke up the morning after the storm there was still no power.
The windows were streaked with bits of grass and soil as I looked out to assess the damage. It was grey and the sea was choppy but everything seemed fine.
As I got in my car to pop to the shops I bumped into my landlady, Patsy, unfortunately they hadn’t been as lucky. Their chimney pot and shed had both been smashed to bits and one of their little boats had been lost over in Staffin. All the animals were fine but it was such a shame that there was so much damage for them to sort out.
I later made my way into Portree and as I drove it became evident that it wasn’t just Patsy and Donnie who’d lost stuff…
Bus stops, field gates and sheds were in pieces and there was rubbish all over the place. And wheelie bins everywhere, of course.
If I ever get reincarnated as a wheelie bin I sure as hell hope it wont be on Skye. Whenever it’s windy they’re the first thing to be hurled across roads, flung into fields or pushed down ditches. All over the island people have built little houses or brackets for them but they still seem to be the first casualties of bad weather. The great wheelie bin massacre.
Despite feeling sorry for them, I was amused to see that the sheep were a particularly bright shade of white this morning and the cows seemed slightly fluffier.
Once I’d collected my provisions I returned to set up my nest for the night.
One of the problems with my cottage (and most houses on Skye) is that everything is electric, including the oven and heaters, so I’d need to stay by the fire to keep warm.
P&D very kindly lent me their BBQ which has a gas ring so I was able to have a nice hot cup of tea with the biscuits I’d just treated myself to. Nae bad really.
The thing with situations like this is, you can either complain or you can make the most of it.
I enjoy camping out. Not the pack-your-spork-and-book-into-a-site camping, more the let’s-grab-a-bottle-of-wine-and-shove-on-every-jumper-you-can-find spontaneous camping, the trampy kind where you feel like you’re one of the Famous Five (but less fresh-faced and maybe slightly tipsy)
It would be like camping, only indoors.
After the Tunn Family Blackout Christmas Of 2013 I’ve had plenty of practice in coping without power. That particular festive gathering also involved flooding, explosions and a BBQ’d turkey supper for 17 people. This would be a breeze.
Actually, it was quite literally a breeze since the wind did a good job of joining me inside the house but a little bit of DIY door-sealing and cushion barricading soon sorted it out.
I went upstairs and selected a few books to keep me company. Then I dotted tealights around the hearth, piled up blankets and poured myself a nice glass of Glayva (which was gross so I poured a Jura instead).
I strapped a small torch to a headband for a hands-free reading light and tucked myself in. Before the night was over I’d devoured my entire novel in one go. It’s such a luxury to have the time to do that. Plus, the torchlight-reading made me nostalgic about those sneaky childhood reading sessions I used to have when I should have been sound asleep.
There are ways to hate a blackout and there are ways, it seems, to have a lovely time.
(The book, by the way, was The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Nice enough but not one of the best books I’ve ever read, though I like the African setting and references. The next day I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; short but interesting)
The following morning there’s still no power or phone. I try to make myself look vaguely human and drive down to Portree again in search of hot food and wifi.
Of course, I’m keeping my distance from anyone with a nose as I haven’t seen hot water in quite a while now. Luckily everyone else seems to be in a similar, stinky boat.
Rumours fly around the village… This person says it’s back on at 8pm. This person says tomorrow morning. This person says Monday at the earliest.
Huge van-sized generators have appeared dotted around in an attempt to keep the main hubs running.
I nip into Cafe Central where the owner very kindly lets me use his power sockets to charge my computer for work stuff. In there I meet a group of somewhat harassed-looking engineers, one of them tells me he’s driven for 12 ½ hours to fix the problems. I’m glad I don’t have that job.
I hear that many areas also lost their water supply as the sumps stopped working. I think to myself how strange it is to be on an island surrounded by water, where water pours from every hill and mountain, but there’s nothing in their homes.
Further water shortages are expected in more places but it’s not a problem, I’ve got plenty of fresh burns and springs nearby where I can take some buckets if needs be. When I moved here I expected blackouts, snow and ice but I didn’t think I’d be going to collect water from the streams!
Can’t complain though, after all, I did move to Skye for an adventure!