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…

The Heather Woman

We never expected to be as busy as we were in Eden. Who knew that boiling a kettle could take over an hour?

Still, amidst the wood chopping, goat milking and porridge stirring I managed to get a little bit of time to be creative.

The Rabbit Hole (my little no-trees-harmed-in-the-making-of Hobbit home) was my proudest ‘artwork’; I put my heart and soul into making it a magical little sanctuary.
(I’ll write more about this once the show is over)
I also created a number of sculptures working with the landscape, my favourite of which was ‘The Heather Woman’.

With one episode still to be shown, I doubt the heather woman will be seen on our screens.
Unfortunately, I also don’t have any photographs of her in her full amethyst glory (I’m hoping to pester the production team for one once the programme is over). However, I do have a picture taken by a lovely local lass, Kate Maclean from April 2017, just after the project had finished.

The heather woman (Kate Maclean)

The Heather Woman in April 2017 as her heather blows away and she begins to return to the earth (photo taken by  @thebirdwentsplat on Instagram)

The Heather Woman was a 7ft sculpture made of old found materials from the beach and heather in full bloom.
She stood at the peak of the tallest sand dune on our beach and looked out to sea towards the Isle of Skye, shielding her eyes with a hand.

She took about a week to make, from digging rusty fencing wire out of the sand to collecting buckets of heather sprigs.
Working in the rain was cold and miserable but, on bright days, the top of that dune was the most beautiful ‘studio’ in the world.

The idea was that she originated from the landscape. She would begin in regal purple, shift to blazing orange and then turn silvery and disintegrate as time and weather took their toll.
The materials would collapse and return to the ground, like the people who have lived on the landscape in the past.

She looked out to sea as we often did during our time in Eden but I wanted her to be timeless. She could have been the wife of a fisherman, waiting for her man to return with the herring, or maybe a strong and sturdy croftess about to be displaced from her home and taking one last look.
Like the people who lived in this area before us, and their memories, she would fade back into the landscape that nourished her.

And why did she face towards the Isle of Skye of all places?
Well, that was part of me, looking home.

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She gazes out to sea… (Photo by timetravelcostumes.com)

We took a lot from the landscape, especially in terms of wood for fires and building. Making beautiful things out of natural materials felt important; leaving lovely things rather than just taking and using.
She was still there after we left and I was told in the local pub that a couple of people would maintain her when they could, if she bent in the wind or suchlike.

When I said goodbye to Eden I visited the Heather Woman one last time. I noticed spiders spinning webs between her limbs and beetles tiptoeing along the sprigs of heather. Tiny things, but perfect.
I hope that, however troubled things were, we left a little beauty behind somewhere.

Mackerel!

Mackerel stripes

How do you spot someone who really loves their food?
Well, they’re the ones who manage to write an almost 1000-word blog post about a single ingredient…

***

So, recently I’ve felt like I haven’t done a lot in the way of proper hands-on marine conservation. There are things in the pipeline… beach cleans, a few training courses, Art For Oceans stuff… but they’re still a few weeks off yet.

To make up for this I’ve been trying to do a little ‘mini beach clean’ every time I go for a walk along the shore.
It doesn’t take any effort to bundle an extra bin bag into a coat pocket just in case. Plus it’s no hardship to pick a few bits up here and there.

On a recent visit to Camus More, a local beach in the North of Skye, I did just that. I’d been in the studio for days on end and needed some fresh air so threw on my wellies and went to find a sea breeze.

A quickly-filled bag

A quickly-filled bag

It never takes long to fill a bag. Soon I was lugging around a big bundle of old rope, crumpled milk bottles and plastic strapping.
Once full to the top I flung it over my shoulder like a really rubbish Father Christmas and picked my way back up the rocks to the car.

To road to Camus More leads onto a pier and at the top I came across a couple of fishermen gutting and filleting a box of fish. I’d seen them take their little boat out only an hour or so before. It had obviously been a successful trip.

We chatted for a while and they ended up giving me two beautiful mackerel. Firm and iridescent, they were probably the freshest fish I’ve ever had in my hands (well, apart from live ones).
They joked about my fish-matching trousers as I left.

Unintentional co-ordination

Unintentional co-ordination

I cleaned a beach and was rewarded with a gift. That’s some pretty instant ocean karma right there!

Now, as a rule I generally don’t eat fin fish.

Most people involved in marine conservation wont touch seafood.
This isn’t because of some mermaid-like affinity with fish; it’s because they’re aware of the pressures of the fishing industry on marine habitat. The realities of commercial fishing can be really shocking, especially when it comes to bycatch and catch-size.

Scientists estimate that for every pound of shrimp that's caught, up to 10 pounds of other marine life is discarded. That's things like turtles, birds, dolphins, sharks and other important and precious marine wildlife.

Scientists estimate that for every pound of shrimp that’s caught, up to 10 pounds of other marine life is discarded. That’s things like turtles, birds, dolphins, sharks and other important and precious marine wildlife.

But a couple of fisherman landing a few mackerel isn’t commercial fishing.
I watched them catch the fish with lines and hooks; no bycatch or dodgy fishing methods involved here.
Bar not trying to catch anything at all, this is the most sustainable way to fish that there is (in fact, fishing like this is something that I’ve wanted to try myself on Skye but it’s just another thing I’ve yet to get around to doing).

I also think that, if we do have to eat fish at all, it should be a one-off treat sourced from individuals and small businesses rather than the huge trawler ships that supply our supermarkets. Sustainability should also consider livelihoods; to be pro-conservation isn’t necessarily being anti-fishermen.

*Right, end of marine conservation talk (unless you’re genuinely interested, in which case please see me after class)*

Anyway, I was thrilled with this gift and I my conscience was happy to take them too.
Despite a few unsuccessful attempts to catch my own salmon (turns out I suck at fly-fishing) this was the first time I’d get to eat fish in over a year.

All the gear and no idea; my first attempt at fly fishing for salmon

All the gear and no idea (my first attempt at fly fishing for salmon on Lewis)

At home I made my first attempt at gutting them.
I was pleasantly surprised to find it so easy. Those who complain about gutting fish have obviously never had to tackle something like a goose.

It’s impossible to ignore how beautiful these fish are; their holographic skin and tiger stripes shone bright under the running tap water.
Strange how something so pretty has been relegated to just another everyday ingredient in a British shopping trolley…

Holographic creatures

Holographic skin

It hadn’t even been an hour since they’d left the ocean.
Mackerel is always best eaten on the same day it’s caught but it’s rare to find some this fresh. I’d make the most of it and eat the first one raw.

Before I gave up fish my #1 favourite food was sashimi; there’s a subtlety and cleanliness to it that I find delicious. I’ve missed it.

A foodie’s anticipation in returning to their most desired dish cannot be underestimated; greed is a force to be reckoned with.
My ham-fisted attempts at filleting had no effect on the taste; it was perfect.

Simple sashimi

Simple sashimi

I sipped my wine and pondered course two.
Ceviche.
Lime, chilli, coriander, spices. Eaten before I could contemplate taking a photo.

Course three…
How far can you stretch just two mackerel?
I’d made some bread dough earlier so I stretched out a disc and floured it. In a smoking pan it became a flatbtread accompaniment to go alongside the second fish, simply grilled with a simple squeeze of lemon and a dollop of aioli.

Grilled with homemade flatbreads

Grilled with homemade flatbreads

Could I eke out a fourth course?

It would have been trickier if I hadn’t made such a rubbish attempt at filleting the first one. My beginners attempts left me with enough offcuts to fry up and mash with some lemon, butter and pepper.
Spread onto pieces of toasted flatbread these made tasty little pate canapes.
Short of making a stock with the bones, I’d used up every little bit of mackerel that I could.

There’s a lot of talk in foodie circles of ‘doing an animal justice’ and using (and respecting) every part. I think it’s safe to say that my mackerel were appreciated as much as they possibly could be.

Because of my interests in conservation and animal welfare I’ve always had a complicated relationship to meat/animal products.
Since moving to Skye my food choices have shifted more rapidly. Although I’m happy to eat eggs now I can see the chickens, seeing the bond between the cows and their calves on the croft makes it difficult for me to justify eating dairy. My diet is mostly vegan now.

But I still think that ‘wild’ food is wonderful when there’s enough of it to eat once in a while as a treat.
Maybe next year things might have changed but for now I’m looking forward to the next time I bump into some generous fishermen. I’ve got the wasabi ready.

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On Romance…

There are two questions that I always seem to get asked when talking about my move to Skye.
First I’m asked why, then some people, especially close family and friends, ask the question “Wont you be lonely?”

Sometimes it’s asked in regards to romance/finding a partner and at other times it’s asked in reference to simply being on my own in a remote place.
This will be the first of a couple of blog posts where I’ll respond to these questions. They’re not hard to answer but they’re tricky to put into words concisely so please excuse me if I ramble on…

Whilst being lonely is not something that’s crossed my mind, the idea of romance up here is hard to ignore (especially for someone like me who always has her head in the clouds…)

Situations that we consider to be super-romantic elsewhere are everyday here.
For example, curling up in front of a log fire with a glass of red on a cold, stormy night is just another normal evening in on Skye. Whilst I’m happy to share this with just an old book, I know that it could also be a cosy evening with company.
Then there’s the stargazing, the long rambles across the moors and the stunning beach sunsets.
If you were that way inclined you could easily imagine that you were in some soppy novel here. There are plenty of visiting honeymooners that do!

Curling up in front of the fire on a stormy night

Curling up in front of the fire on a stormy night

But I can’t deny that it’s unusual to be alone in a place, a situation even, that is deeply romantic.
Although I think there’s something strangely romantic about being on ones own too, especially in a place as beautiful as this.

A clifftop sunset

A clifftop sunset

But I don’t miss having someone to share this with.
I think that being single is quite indulgent; I can do what I want when I want with no need to consider anyone else. I can spend my money on whatever I like and spend my time in any way I wish.
Why, I could even run away to live on a hill on a remote island if I wanted to… 😉
I suppose it’s an intrinsically selfish way of being but it’s one that I truly appreciate at the moment and that I’d find hard to part with.

In my previous long-term relationship I let my personality fade into the background as I tried to become the archetypal perfect girlfriend. It’s something I didn’t notice until I came out the other side and realised that much of what made me ‘me’ had been worn away.
After steadily rebuilding my confidence and rediscovering my sense of fun I’ve now become fiercely protective of my lifestyle and that’s probably why I’m extra wary of falling into another potentially wrong relationship.
Whilst having a partner is a wonderful thing, I’d rather wait until I’m 70 to find my perfect sidekick than to settle earlier for someone who doesn’t quite see the world in the same way.

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A quote I live by. I think you can also interpret it as love or passion for a vocation, lifestyle or hobby too…

 

When I made the decision to move to Skye I was quite content to temporarily remove myself from the dating scene.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been trialling a Pick n’ Mix of potential suitors, some sweet and some that were, quite frankly, awful.
Perhaps if I wasn’t up here writing about Skye I could be in London writing a comedic blog about dating. There was…

  • The 21 year old country boy with whom I had nothing in common but a remarkable chemistry (it didn’t end well, unsurprisingy)
  • The conspiracy-theorist musician who believes he’s the Freemason’s chosen one and who insisted on taking me to a very expensive restaurant before admitting he only had £15 when the bill came.
  • The crappy pop singer and shark-lover who seemed perfect until he ditched me for a Spice Girl (he still haunts me, even up here, with his naff songs via pub jukebox machines)
  • The cockney actor that started a fight on our first date and ended up arrested.
  • The Clapham guy who’s a dead ringer for the serial killer in The Fall. Not just in looks either… after a couple of cocktails he genuinely listed his interests as red wine and ‘strangling’. Er…
  • The ageing polo playboy who suggested our first date should be a trip to the Isle Of Wight to help look after his four children.

…Then there were the numerous Mr Nice-But-Dulls and sweet-but-generally-unnatainable pretty boys (I’m a sucker for a nice face).
Plus a generous sprinkling of eco egos, polo creeps, Machiavellian city boy sociopaths and generic all-round hopeless cases.

It’s all been unbelievably fun but it’s also exhausting and sometimes frustrating. Some time off from it all could only be a healthy thing.

Amazingly appropriate stock image

Amazingly appropriate stock image

Of course, when you decide something like this, someone comes along and makes things slightly complicated.

I met someone awesome just a few weeks before I left who could’ve probably ticked all the boxes (and I’m picky so there’s a lot of boxes).
We decided to keep in contact with the promise that “if it was meant to be it will be…”
Timing is always a troublesome thing…

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Whilst I’ve been fine with the idea of having someone special back in London or Surrey, I’ve been reluctant to meet anyone here.
This place for me is somewhere to concentrate on myself without the complications or dramas that come with dating and relationships. I’m here for the beauty and nature, for freedom; no distractions.

But as the messages from London began to peter out I’ve allowed myself to say yes* to meeting people up here and last week I found myself on my first Skye date…
(*I’ve been trying to learn to always say yes and never turn down an opportunity because you never know where it may lead…)

The Boy From The Mainland works on one of the big private estates and lives one small boat ride, one ferry crossing and an almost two hour drive away from me. We ‘met’ via the Tinder app about a month ago but have been so separated by geography and busy schedules that we’ve resorted to postcards and letters to keep in contact (a tick for romance and much more interesting than Whatsapp)

During the day he tends to the animals, goes out on the boat and does physical work on the estate. In the evenings he reads or carves knife handles in front of the fire with his dogs. When he first told me this I laughed and said that he sounds like a real life Mellors from Lady Chatterley. He answered that he hadn’t read it yet and I advised him that it was probably for the best if he didn’t look it up.

So far so typically storybook romantic.

This kind of thing but less beardy...

Er, this kind of thing but less beardy…

Our first date went well and there’s a second planned.
We’ll see… you never know what will happen in the future.

Although there is one thing for certain, that whatever happens/doesn’t happen with Mr Mainland I’ve already been romanced here and I’ve already fallen head-over-heels in love.
Though, it’s not with a person just yet… it’s with Skye itself.

Here Be Dinosaurs!

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

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

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

The dark sands of Staffin Beach

The black and white sands of Staffin Beach at low tide

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

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

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

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


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

Looking back 165 million years!

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

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

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

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

Vicious looking claw-prints

Vicious looking claw-prints

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving In

(This post is long overdue… I have been living in the North End for three weeks now. Yet each time I’ve tried to write about moving day something has happened, my computer crashes or the post won’t upload. Very frustrating but here’s one last try!)

My new home overlooking Kilmaluag Bay

Another cottage overlooking Kilmaluag Bay

After spending over 10 days hostelling and B&B-ing in Portree I was beginning to get weary of living out of bags, having limited kitchen access and needing to put on trousers to go to the bathroom.
Moving day couldn’t come soon enough.
Of course there was the added excitement of moving into my own place where I could wake up in the mornings and make friends with the new day by gazing out to the sea with a cup of tea. After all, Portree is lovely but I came here for the natural landscapes, not urban living.

So, just over a week ago, I stuffed my belongings back into their bags and hauled them into the car. On the way I stopped off for supplies and some flowers for my lovely landlady and then I was on the road.

Despite the postal address containing the line ‘Near Portree’, the house is a good 45 minute drive from Skye’s main town (or more, if the sheep have decided to park themselves on the road).
This distance was a big negative when I first started househunting. But then I made the journey… It’s probably one of the most spectacular routes I’ve ever driven.
It’s pretty much just a tour past the natural icons of Skye; The Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock and the Quairang. The weather and the hour make it look completely different from one day to the next and driving this route has become one of my favourite parts of the day.

The drive along the A855 past The Old Mann Of Storr

The drive along the A855 past The Old Mann Of Storr

Back in the car I cranked up the music, put my sunglasses on and wound round the bends with the hills on one side and the ocean on the other. The sun was shining and the sea and sky were a vivid blue; much better than the grey drizzle of the previous day.

As I  turned onto the little road up the house I had to stop.
Sitting on the middle of tarmac in front of me was a bright-eyed collie dog. As I braked to a halt it got up and turned, then looked back over it’s shoulder at me. I inched the car forward and it began to trot along ahead of me. After a short distance I halted again in case it wanted to get out of the road and go back past the car. It stopped too, sat down again and looked at me. I started again and so did the dog. I followed it with amusement, this curious dog seemed to be leading me home.

As I crawled the car along the track I glanced up the hill towards the house.
On the cloud-shaded landscape I saw my new home sitting in a little spotlight of sunshine. It looked as if someone had put a light on to show me where to go. It felt welcoming.

And so I followed my little canine guide up to the only sunny patch in the bay; it was a curiously charming start to life in the North End and I got a little feeling that this kind of thing isn’t unusual here.

The keys were in the door as I got to the house. I meandered through each room and tried to take it all in. This is the first place I’ve ever lived on my own; no family, no housemates, no boyfriend. Just me.
I could make this space mine. An Englishman’s home is his castle, or something like that…

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I quickly noticed that Patsy had put a great deal of effort into preparing the place for her new tenant; the main bedroom was all made up with sheets and there were even fresh teatowels in the drawers and new pots and pans in the cupboards. But the thing that touched me the most was the main fireplace.
When I had first called about the house I had asked if there was the option to have a real fire, I had said that I know it’s a minor thing but that it’s important for me to have a fire to curl up in front of during the winter months. Patsy had agreed, saying that we all need our home comforts. Today I found the fireplace ready set with a bucket of coal, some long matches and even a couple of candles from the Isle of Skye Candle Co. Out in the utility room there was a further bucket of coal, kindling and firelighters.

The amount of care and attention that Patsy had put into making the house feel homely really touched me. It was my first taste of the kindness that a lot of people have up here. I knew that I’d made the right choice to choose this place to live.

photo 3

My lovely Art Deco fireplace all ready for my first fire (the wood was to stop the wind from coming down the chimney)

Only having a small carful of bags meant that unpacking was unusually speedy.
I didn’t put everything away immediately though. You never know when the sun might be shining again so, after saying hello to Patsy and her husband Donald, I took the opportunity to go out and explore.

The clifftop path

Looking over the bay from the clifftop path

Straight out to sea

Straight out to sea, one of my favourite views

On my first visit I’d noticed a little rocky beach on the edge of the bay just a little further North of the house. I’d go and check that out.

It wasn’t quite as simple as I had expected, as I crossed the fields I realised that I needed to find my way down a vertical craggy rock face first. In the end I found a sheep path that ran along the cliff the zigzagged down a less precipitous part of the rock.
If in doubt always follow a sheep path; they may seem stupid but they’re good navigators. Just make sure it’s a sheep you’re following and not a mountain goat…

Walking along the cliffs

Walking along the cliffs on the sheep path

Rock climbing beasties

Rock-climbing beasties

It was worth the effort. I picked my way over rockpools containing shells, fat ruby sea anemones and tiny darting fish. The only sounds were the lapping of the waves and the songbirds in the grass. It was like my own private beach.
I sat for a while and thought of how busy and stressed I’d been in the months before I came here. Now I have time to sit on a rock and do nothing but stare out to sea and enjoy the peace.

Colourful rockpools with red anemones

Colourful rockpools

A sea anemone

A sea anemone

Shells amongst the rocks

Shells amongst the rocks

Of course, the peace here isn’t constant. Today is calm but I’ve been told about a fisherman who was washed off the rocks metres from where I sat. He was dragged out to sea and never seen again. It’s a tragic thing to happen but it doesn’t seem to be uncommon around here (I’ve heard other similar stories)
This isn’t a place to be underestimated.

Sitting on the rocks looking out over the bay

Sitting on the rocks looking out over the bay

Eventually I head back and begin to unpack into my new home. I couldn’t (still can’t) help but keep stopping to look out of the windows at the view.

As the sun began to set over the sea I pulled a chair over to the window and popped open the little bottle of champagne that I’d brought especially.
With a silent cheers I drank to my new home and wondered what adventures would lie ahead…

Toasting a new home

Toasting a new home

Talisker Bay

For every high there has to be a comedown. So, from the charm of Coral Beach came Talisker Bay…

The beach at Talisker Bay was a place I’d wanted to visit on my first trip to Skye but somehow I’d found myself drawn into the distillery down the road instead (no idea why, of course…)
On Wednesday I decided to try again; I was looking forward to seeing the striking black and white sand I’d read about in books.

As I left the car at Talisker House I came across some feathered friends.
When you think of Skye birds you think of Sea Eagles, Oyster Catchers, Gannets… Less expected is a gang of peacocks (or peahens, to be precise).
They gathered at my feet and looked up at me expectantly. I bent down and cooed at them for a bit but there’s only so much interaction one can have with a bird before looking a little crazy so I left them to it and went to find the beach…

Nice hat. Is it freshers week?

Nice hat. Is it freshers week?

 

As I approached the huge round stones that separate the sand from the grass my heart sank. Little splashes of colour on the natural monochrome of the beachscape… red buckets, blue ropes, yellow bottles.
Always sad to see but not uncommon.

The sand was indeed, striking. The water had washed it into patterns that were like looking at a charcoal drawing of a thunderstorm. Though I didn’t have much time to see it; the tide soon came in and selfishly snatched it back under the waves.

I continued to wander along the tideline and those occassional bright splashes of plastic became more frequent. Within a few minutes I’d reached a section of the beach where when I looked down I saw more man-made material visible than natural.

 

The striking black and white sands below the pollution on the tide line

The striking black and white sands below the pollution on the tide line

 

I wont get too technical here and go off on a rant about marine pollution issues, although I easily could (and would like to, but I fear I’ll lose you).
This stuff is one of the few topics that I know a lot about, mainly through involvement with various conservation groups. Unfortunately, through this knowledge I’ve also seen a lot more case studies of the damage caused by plastic debris than your average visitor to a dirty beach… tangled birds, choked turtles, that kind of crap. It’s genuinely heartbreaking.

Rubbish can arrive on our beaches in a number of ways. Some is flushed down into the sewer systems or washed from city streets into storm drains. A small amount is made by people dropping litter on or near beaches. A large percentage comes from the industries using the ocean itself, especially fishing.
All marine pollution is bad, of course, but fishing gear is one of the most dangerous to marine wildlife. Discarded nets continue to catch animals indiscriminately as they float around the oceans on whichever current they get caught in; it’s known as ‘ghost fishing’ and it affects everything from tiny seahorses to great whales. A nasty business.

It’s this trash coming from the ocean itself that affects Talisker. Nets, buckets, ropes. Containers with the print washed away from years of being in the water. There are containers that could have easily originated on the other side of the Atlantic over a decade ago.

Thousands of small pieces of plastic debris, including scraps of fishing rope

Thousands of small pieces of plastic debris, including scraps of fishing rope

 

Anyway, I seem to be going on a bit even though I said I wouldn’t… Though if anyone has any questions or wants to know more about this stuff please let me know, the more we share this knowledge the better we are equipped to tackle the issue.

SO…

I had arrived at Talisker House and merrily bounced down to the track to the beach and then half an hour later and I’m fuming.
I kick plastic bottles away angrily as I come across a second seabird carcass (again, too far gone to work out whether it died from natural causes or the nets in which it lay).
Who’s in charge of this place? The council? A private owner? If so, why isn’t there enough funding to help a private owner look after it? It’s a popular visitor attraction for goodness sake. Grr.

One of the most wonderful things about moving to Skye is that it’s given me time to reflect.
One of the worst things about Skye is that it’s given me time to reflect.
Yesterday I found myself saddened by the radio news reports; Turkey’s inactivity over ISIS movements, people calling for aid cuts when Ebola is crippling communities, an so on. I spent the evening wondering how humanity could be so callous.
Now I couldn’t understand how we could be so careless. I’ve seen really dirty beaches before but this one, juxtaposed against dramatic cliffs and a stunning waterfall, really got to me.

Talisker Beach with the stunning waterfall

Talisker Beach and waterfall

 

But there’s no point in getting upset about something and doing nothing; anger can positive if you can harness it somehow.
I’d toyed with the idea of hosting a beach clean up here for the Surfers Against Sewage Autumn Beach Clean Series but there’s an existing Skye group that have been running these things for a while so I had decided to leave them to it (I didn’t want to step on any toes either!). Besides, I’d only been here a week after all and I didn’t even know which beaches needed cleaning…

Talisker changed my mind. As I stormed back towards the car with stinging eyes I decided that I had to do something.
So next Sunday I’ll be hosting my first Skye beach clean event with SAS (11am-2pm, meeting on the beach).

Over 150 other people have felt the same way about this problem and will be leading other cleans up and down the UK next weekend. I hope that some of you reading this will consider volunteering your time at an event close to you (it’s surprisingly good fun and you get real feel-good points).
Check out the Surfers Against Sewage website for a list of organised events: http://www.sas.org.uk

A face-off with one of the locals as I started gathering info for organising the beach clean

A face-off with one of the Talisker locals on the way back from the beach

 

The rest of the afternoon was spent going back and forth between the properties around the beach trying to find information about who owned the beach, access rights etc etc -all very dull but necessary stuff for organising a beach clean event.
As the shadows began to stretch I left the area in search of a place where I could exhale and forget the rage I felt at the state of Talisker Bay. The Fairy Pools.

I’ll talk about the pools at length in another post. It’s an incredibly special place, even for someone like me who thinks all that airy-fairy supernatural stuff is nonsense. There’s just something about them.
The landscape looked spectacular in the setting sun as I drove away from Talisker towards Glenbrittle. It was like my anger was butter melting under the hot amber light.

With the determination to get Talisker beach cleaned somehow, even just a little bit, it’s now time to chase that high again…

The drive to the Fairy Pools at Glenbrittle

Late afternoon gold light on the drive into Glenbrittle