A venture South (social whirling)

5am survivors photo at the Duchess of Richmond's Ball, Germany

Our 5am ‘survivors photo’ at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, Germany

To say I’ve been busy over the last couple of months has been an understatement.

My previous visions of having endless spare time to read, write and faff about aimlessly on cold, windswept beaches have all been thoroughly smashed to bits. I’m not quite sure how it’s happened but my life up on Skye has become almost equally as busy as it was back in London.

I’m always very conscious that life is short. It flies by.
We don’t have long to do everything that we have ever wanted to do. And there are all these little opportunities that could lead to a million different things.
It’s a race against time and, I suppose, also health…

Aaargh, how stressful is that?!

He's right you know...

He’s right you know…

 

So, my calendar gets filled up with all these things that I mustn’t miss out on, even up here where supposedly life is calmer (hmm, yeah right).

On a similar but smaller scale, whenever I visit home I find myself packing so much in that the trip becomes a blur of activity planned with military precision. So many people to see in such a brief period of time…
A business meeting in the morning, lunch with the girls, 3pm tea with family, a dinner party with old friends…

“Hi Katie, I hear you’re back in town this weekend, fancy a drink?”

“That would be lovely, I’ve got a slot between picking up a canvas in Covent Garden at 4:30pm and supper in Brixton at 5:15…”

Celebrating my sister's 21st birthday with a night out in Brixton Village

Celebrating my sister’s 21st birthday with a night out in Brixton Village

Though it might be exhausting it’s definitely not unenjoyable.
I suppose it’s actually quite a treat to see most of your loved-ones all in one go, one straight after the other. A bit of a ‘favourite person binge’ perhaps..?

My last trip down South was exactly that.
This was my third trip back home in a month (I popped back two consecutive weekends before this, once for a funeral and then again for my uncle’s 50th) and as it was a longer visit I decided to drive down.

My primary reason for returning was to attend the annual Whalefest event in Brighton.

In  case you haven’t already noticed I’m massively into marine conservation; I’m all-at-once both fascinated by the variety of life our oceans hold and horrified by the way it’s exploited.
In fact, my love for the ocean might explain much of why I chose to move to an island; there’s something about being close to the water that is soothing and renewing in an almost primal way (that might sound mad but it’s a recognised truth, it’s quite well-explained in this article here)

A beautiful Brighton sunset after the first day of Whalefest

A beautiful Brighton sunset after the first day of Whalefest

Put simply, I think Whalefest is brilliant.

From it’s beginnings in 2011 it’s now become the largest celebration of wild whales and dolphins in the world.
It brings the general public together with scientists, conservationists, TV personalities, NGOs, international tour operators… basically anyone and everyone interested in protecting our marine environments.

What makes it really special is that there’s something there for everyone.

I could take a toddler there and they’d have a great time playing with shark teeth whilst I could chat to an expert about how international activism affects relations with the Faroese authorities regarding the annual grindatrap (whale slaughter).
Whether you’ve got biology degrees bursting out of your wetsuit or whether you think blubber is just what you do at the end of watching Titanic, if you like ocean wildlife you should pop down.

Okay, enough of the promo spiel now (would you believe, they didn’t even pay me to say all that!)

Hands on stuff for kids (and excited adults) in the Experts and Artefacts zone

Hands on stuff for kids (and excited adults) in the Experts and Artefacts zone

 

Aside from all the interesting talks and interactive exhibits it’s also a great excuse to catch up with like-minded mates. The marine conservation community in the UK is surprisingly small and through Whalefest I’ve had the chance to meet tons of inspiring individuals who I’m now lucky enough to call friends.

But there were still new people I hoped I’d get a chance to chat to. Weirdly, almost all of these new people have been or are based in Scotland.

For example, I’ve been familiar with Mull’s Basking Shark Scotland for years but I hadn’t had a chance to meet it’s founder, Shane Wasik, until we were both down in Brighton, very far from our home islands!

Meeting the ever-inspiring Virginia McKenna and Will Travers of Born Free at Whalefest 2014

Meeting the ever-inspiring Virginia McKenna and Will Travers of Born Free at Whalefest 2014

Perhaps the person who I was most keen to meet was Monty Halls. For those of you who haven’t heard of him he’s an ex-military man and diver turned TV presenter who did a BBC series called The Great Escape, a series where he left city life for 6 months to become a crofter near Applecross on the West Coast (which was then followed by an Outer Hebrides and an Irish version)

I didn’t pay much attention to the series when it aired back in 2009 but my family gave me the box sets when I first moved to Skye. I’ve watched in amusement as I seem to have been following in his footsteps a bit more than intended; from learning to deal with the weather and remoteness to going deerstalking (all with similar emotions!)

Awkward photo with Monty Halls

Awkward photo with Monty Halls

 

It turned out that he was a really nice bloke. We had a bit of a chat about foraging the seashore, escaping the rat race and local conservation. He also noted down a couple of people he thought I would be interested in meeting when I’m next over in the Outer Hebrides; a couple of characters that I’m keen to get in touch with as soon as I can.

So after an inspiring weekend in Brighton it was back home for Mother’s Day with my favouritest person in the world.
I love Skye and I feel at home here but we have a close family and I miss them to pieces, Mum especially, so time back with her is extra special. I’m still working on getting them all to move up here…

The next few days consisted of pub visits with friends, London dinner parties, drink dates and brunch catch-ups. (It was especially exciting to meet little Eli, the newborn son of one of my oldest and best friends, Orla. Congrats guys, he’s gorgeous!)

OMG my mate made a tiny person!

OMG my mate made a tiny person!

On the Thursday I took my half-sister, Emma, out for a meal for her 21st birthday. I thought we should go somewhere trendy (note: someone in late 20’s trying to be cool for someone in their early 20’s) so I decided to take us for dinner and drinks in the new Brixton Market.

Having spent 4 years living in Brixton (well before it came back into fashion) it was weird to be back in the area with all it’s hot new bars and ethnic food joints. We had a really fun night but  I must admit I felt a teeny tiny pang of sadness that this stuff wasn’t part of my life anymore.
(That particular feeling lasted about 3 minutes, after which I got stuck in traffic and decided I hated cities and needed to get back to single track roads!)

I ended the week with a jaunt even further South… flying to a military ball in Bad Fallingbostel, near Hanover.
The white-tie bash was being held by the Scots Dragoon Guards regiment as a final farewell to Germany before they relocate up to Leuchars, just north of Edinburgh.

Here come the girls! (With thanks to Sammie-Jo for the photo)

Here come the girls! (With thanks to Sammie-Jo for the photo)

 

I’m very lucky to have been invited to a fair few Scots DG events, having worked for them doing a couple of military portrait paintings (they’re a really lovely bunch of guys, it’s been a pleasure working for them).
To say that these guys know how to throw a party is a bit like saying that The Queen Mum was just slightly fond of a tipple.
That said, this was without a doubt the best bash they’ve thrown. From pre-parties to battle re-enactments, fireworks to champagne fountains, to DJ’s and pipe bands; it was an epic weekend.

The ball was themed after the historic Duchess of Richmond's Ball and all the courses were inspired by meals/people of the time. This is a Duke of (beef) Wellington!

The ball was themed after the historic Duchess of Richmond’s Ball and all the courses were inspired by meals/people of the time. This is a Duke of (beef) Wellington!

The Scots DG also happen to be historically affiliated to Pol Roger champagne and it’s certainly a celebrated partnership…

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many magnums and jeroboams popped in my life (I might never see it again either!)

Champagne aftermath (and this was only the pre-party!)

Champagne aftermath (and this was only the pre-party!)

And more champagne…

A champagne fountain with the biggest bottle I've ever seen. What even is that, a Balthazar?!

A champagne fountain with the biggest bottle I’ve ever seen. What even is that, a Balthazar?!

And more champagne…

Extra stock

Extra stock

…And even champagne to wash away the hangover!
(Don’t try this at home, this was not a good pairing. I can still feel the nausea now….)

Um no

Um no

But there’s only so much fun you can have before you have to come *bump* back to earth…
We flew home from Germany on the Sunday evening and I was up at 5:30am the next morning to begin the 14 hour drive back up to Skye.

It was a hellish journey but, as always, it was nice to be coming back.
It’s funny how sometimes you have so many fun social commitments that you sometimes feel like you need to get back to work for a bit of rest!

Whilst all this busy-ness has been pleasurable, I think it’s time for me to slow down a bit now and concentrate on enjoying the island again.
I find it very hard to say no to things, both social and work-related -imagine missing an amazing opportunity to do something new!
But it’s time to be firm. Time for me to turn down some voluntary work requests, stem the stream of guests and clear some space in the diary.
Just me and Skye for a bit again.

NYE at Neist Point Lighthouse & Some Resolutions

The foghorn at Neist Point Lighthouse

The foghorn at Neist Point Lighthouse on New Years Day

So it was straight back up to Skye to see in Hogmanay.

For anyone who doesn’t already know, Hogmanay is the name for the Scottish New Year celebrations. It’s something I’ve wanted to take part in ever since I first saw the fireworks at the Edinburgh castle party on the news when I was at school. The New Year is taken more seriously up here than in England and the festivities are accompanied by traditional customs (usually involving fire or booze) as well as a long bank holiday.

Good friends, good wines...

Good friends, good wines…

Strangely enough, the party I went to wasn’t held by my new Skye friends. Nor was I hosting it myself.
It’s a funny coincidence… My friend Jack, from London (who I’ve known for almost 10 years) has an August Bank Holiday party every year at his father’s house just 10 minutes from my village. This year, over the BBQ, I mentioned my move to Skye and he turned round and told me that’s where his Mum lives. Not only that, she also owns the famous Neist Point Lighthouse and he’s been meaning to hold a New Years Party there for some time.
Bingo.
I wouldn’t have to come down for the party, this year it was coming to me!

The most Westerly tip of Skye

The most Westerly tip of Skye

Jack gave me his Mum Jane’s details when I first arrived on Skye but I’ve been so busy since I got here that I never got round to calling her. I hadn’t visited the lighthouse yet either, as I’d wanted to save it for after/when I met her.
I should’ve definitely called earlier; she is super lovely and Neist Point is breathtaking. I can definitely see why Tripadvisor lists it as the #1 thing to see on Skye!

The path to and from the lighthouse (with Livvy and Jack)

The path to and from the lighthouse (with Livvy and Jack)

Neist Point is about an hours drive from my cottage. Whereas I’m on the most Northerly point of Skye, it’s on the most Westerly.
It’s around a 20 minute walk to get from the car park down towards the actual buildings. Our arrival was fairly dramatic as we struggled to stay upright against the wind whilst carrying bags of food and clothes down the cliff steps in the dark.
It was worth it.

The buildings aren’t currently lived in and have become a little dilapidated from exposure to the harshest of the Hebridean elements. All the same, they had all we needed to be warm and comfortable and who cares if the paintwork isn’t perfect… we’re spending New Years at a LIGHTHOUSE!

Neist Point Lighthouse (Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait)

Neist Point Lighthouse (Photo by Hugo D-T and his amazing photography skills)

Over the course of four days we drank, ate, danced, laughed, argued over board games, went for walks, explored and generally had a thoroughly good time.

On NYE itself we cracked open the champagne and watched as the boys valiantly tried to set off an £100 firework in coastal winds that almost knocked us off our feet. After a brief display we all ran back into the warm and the party descended into tipsy silliness (as all good parties should).

What a rabble! (Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait)

What a rabble!

There were 8 of us, most of whom I know from around the time we left sixth form. Although I don’t see these guys often anymore they’re the best kind of friends where you can pick up from where you left off as if you’d only seen each other yesterday. Of course, we’re not quite as fresh-faced and perky as we used to be but it was reassuring to find that we can party just as hard!

Jack was a fantastic host too, he always is, and he was incredibly patient with me when I got all overenthusiastic and know-it-all about the local area (the excitement of having old friends visiting my new home was too much!)

Braving the elements with Jack, Ed and Livvy

Braving the elements with Jack, Ed and Livvy

One of my favourite bits was our New Years Eve swim up at the Fairy Pools; It’s one of my favourite places on Skye and whenever I’ve been there the water has always looked so beautifully blue and inviting. Well, it usually does…

It was chilly and drizzling when we got there and the burns that you have to cross on the path up to the pools had become deep and fast-flowing. It took some serious teamwork to get across them; if we’d been contestants in the Crystal Maze we would have won all the crystals for our brave efforts. When we reached the pools themselves they didn’t exactly have their usual mirror-like calm; instead they were white and fierce and it actually took us a while to find a safe spot where we wouldn’t get caught in a current and flushed over a 10ft waterfall.

They say that the Fairy Pools are icy in the middle of summer so you can imagine how cold they were in late December. I went in with three of the boys and we all went pink as lobsters as our skin panicked from the temperature shock. We all hopped out quickly as our limbs burned from the cold but a second dip wasn’t nearly as bad.

Of course, it was as toasty as anything when we got out and we slopped back to our cars and soggily made our way to the Old Inn to dry out.

A wee dip (and yes, it was definitely as cold as it looks!)

A wee dip …and yes, it was definitely every bit as cold as it looks! (Photo by Hugo D-T)

On our last day there were only four of us left. We had a lazy duvet day and whilst the others snuggled up watching movies in bed I made a start on my New Years Resolutions.

I’m not sure when it happened but making resolutions is a big thing for me now. I think it must have started a couple of years ago when I resolved not to accept any plastic carrier bags when shopping. I kept that one easily (and I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone because it’s a small change with an amazing impact) so I think it’s kept me going.
I still have last year’s ones and I went through them to see how well I’ve done…

New Years Resolutions for 2014

New Years Resolutions for 2014

Less than 50%. Could do better but not bad really, there’s a lot on there.
Here’s this year’s list:

New Years Resolutions for 2015

New Years Resolutions for 2015

I’m aiming for hitting at least 50%.
The whisky one might be a little harder now that I can’t have just one dram with Scotland’s new driving laws.
Getting hillwalking fit shouldn’t be too hard with so many lovely treks to do around the island.
I suppose the one about keeping up with the blog isn’t going too badly if I’m here typing this now…

But there’s one I’m already doing very well with. I had 1000 of them delivered the other day so this one should be in the bag…

Just rolling around in sweets on the floor. What sugar high?!

Just rolling around in sweets on the floor. What sugar high?!

NB: A HUUUUGE thanks to Jane for letting us stay at her incredible lighthouse and to Jack for his fantastic hosting skills. Hope to see you both very soon xx

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…

photo 2

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