The Staffin Whale Strandings

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

Staffin slipway after the stranding

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

 

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

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

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

***

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

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

Staffin beach at sunset

Staffin beach at sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staffin Slipway (at the end of the day)

Staffin Slipway (at the end of the day)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

And then they turned and started to leave.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7956
And so that was my experience of the Staffin whale strandings.
It isn’t exactly the end to the story but these are the events of the day and the follow-up isn’t as relevant anyway.

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

Perhaps all I will say to finish is this…

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

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

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

Katie x

The huge amount of equipment needed to help rescue wildlife

The huge amount of equipment needed to help rescue wildlife

 

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

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

Notes From A Small Island #3

'And the rest is rust and stardust'

‘And the rest is rust and stardust’

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.

Oronsay Lighthouse, one of the ones to be looked after. Photo by Finlay Oman.

Oronsay Lighthouse, one of the ones to be looked after. Photo by Finlay Oman.

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?!

The foghorn at Neist Point Lighthouse

The foghorn at Neist Point Lighthouse

***

KATIE MORAG

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…

Katie Morag collecting beach treasures

Katie Morag collecting beach treasures

Katie Tunn collecting beach treasures

Katie Tunn collecting beach treasures

***

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.

Charles Jeanblanc, the aircraft navigator. He died aged just 23.

Charles Jeanblanc, the aircraft navigator. He died aged just 23.

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.

The new memorial plaque for the Staffin war memorial

The new memorial plaque for the Staffin war memorial

***

SEA VEGGIES

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.

No prizes for looking appetising

No prizes for looking appetising

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!

***

MAGIC:

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)

Flying visits

The long way home

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.

The Selected Works album by Solomon Grey

The Selected Works album by Solomon Grey

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)

Artwork by Karen Davis

Artwork by Karen Davis

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.

The night sky over Cill Chriosd Church, Broadford. Photo by blaven.com

The night sky over Cill Chriosd Church, Broadford. Photo by blaven.com

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.

Spring Springing Sprung – Valentine’s Day Part 1

Hello sunshine!

Hello sunshine! 

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

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

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

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

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Unexpected visitors on the lawn

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

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

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

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

Yeah, whatevs, Co-op

Yeah, whatevs, Co-op

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

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

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

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

Finally it settled on the first page…

Home

Home

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

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

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

You’re home

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

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

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

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The Fairy Glen

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

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

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

'Inside' Duntulm Castle

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

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

Uig today.  Storms? What storms?

Uig today.
Storms? What storms?

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

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

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

Driving into the Fairy Glen

Driving into the Fairy Glen

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

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

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

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

Hello

Hello

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

Ambling up to the Fairy Castle

The Fairy Castle from the West

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

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

Behind the Fairy Castle

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

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

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

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

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

The waterfall

The waterfall

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

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

A marching baa-nd?

A marching baa-nd?

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

Counting sheep?

Counting sheep?

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

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

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

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

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Remembrance Day – A Solitary, Remote Memorial

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

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

Dawn on the Trotternish Peninsula by David Noten

Dawn on the Trotternish Peninsula by David Noten

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

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

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

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

A resident of Maligar

A resident of Maligar

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

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

Rough moorland

Rough moorland

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

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

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

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

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

Scattered wreckage

Scattered wreckage

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

Crumpled wreckage

Crumpled wreckage

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

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

The memorial plaque

The memorial plaque

Pieces of other poppies alongside the weathering metal

Pieces of other Remembrance poppies alongside the weathering metal

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

The engine with the cross

The engine with the cross

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

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

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

A beautiful view with tragic memories

A beautiful view with tragic memories

In Memory Of:

Paul M. Overfield (pilot)

Leroy E. Cagle (co-pilot)

Charles K. Jeanblanc (navigator)

Arthur W. Kopp (radio operator)

Harold D. Blue (engineer)

John H. Vaughan (gunner)

Harold A. Fahselt (gunner)

George S. Aldrich (gunner)

Carter D. Wilkinson (gunner)

The upper part of the debris field

The upper part of the debris field

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

Red moor

Red moor

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

Death Shall Have No Dominion -Dylan Thomas

Death Shall Have No Dominion -Dylan Thomas

A nomad in Portree

It’s late when I first get to Portree and I just manage to get to the Information Office before they close. Despite it being October it’s still busy in town and there’s no room at most inns. I roll into the main hostel on the square with the aim to sort out better accommodation in the morning.
As I open the door to the bright yellow townhouse I’m met by a familiar smile and, “Katie!”
“Pat!” I reply as I grin back at the man who ran the Glenbrittle climbing lodge I stayed at last year. Pat was a wealth of information and he guided me to all the best places on the island. It was partly down to his recommendations that I fell in love with Skye and decided to move here.

Bumping into pretty much my only friend here within 10 minutes of getting out of the car is pretty indicative of Skye life. It’s not a small island but everyone seems interconnected in some way here. Saying “it’s a small world” doesn’t quite cover it.

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The colourful cottages of Portree Harbour

Let’s have adventures!

A couple of days ago I left my family, friends and friendly village to travel North and try a simpler life on the Isle of Skye.
I don’t know how long I’ll be here, it may be for days or it may be for years, but I don’t want my loved ones to feel too far away which is why I’ve decided to record my journey.

Skye is full of dreamers from all over the world who have settled here for a better life. Still, everyone I meet has asked why I decided to come to this particular place.
I could give a hundred answers, starting with my first visit to Skye last September, the beauty of the landscape, the wildness of the weather, the clarity of the air, etc etc.

But if I were to put it in one simple sentence it would be this: life is too short to live somewhere that doesn’t make your heart beat a little faster. I know that sounds saccharine but it’s true; we’re not here for long and we need to try to experience beautiful things at every chance we can.

I’m very lucky to have a job where I work from home, I’m not tied to a property and I’m not in a serious relationship. This affords me the freedom have an adventure and the opportunity to follow a (maybe) crazy idea wherever it takes me. In this case it took me back to Skye…

Skye Fairy Pools at sunset (no colour editing!)

The Skye Fairy Pools at sunset, September 2013 (taken on my phone with no colour editing!)