One Whole Year #2: Another type of ‘changing’

FullSizeRender

So my last post was about a year of living on Skye and watching the island alter with each month. When somewhere is so naturally beautiful of course you notice the changes. Life here is defined by the seasons.
Even those who don’t work out at sea or on crofts have to mould their plans to suit the shifting hours of daylight. We rush about to get things done in the short days of winter and then, in summer, it seems like the sun has forgot to set and all our hurry disappears.

When I arrived here I didn’t realise I’d gradually become more attuned to the seasons.
In fact, I didn’t realise how much moving to Skye would change me in general.
I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise considering I opted for an entirely new lifestyle…

10858421_558350635913_7366291859306969634_n

Do I fit in yet?

Here’s what’s changed…

Firstly, I am now cold-proof.

By that I don’t mean that I no longer get the sniffles (although living away from the crowds does mean that you catch bugs much less frequently) -it means that I’m now well-acclimatised to the Hebridean weather.
There are many wonderful things about living in a big old house but warmth is not one of them; even with a full fire and the heating on full blast it still doesn’t always warm up fully.
95% of my skin remains covered year-round and I’m no longer bothered that I can see my breath when making a cup of tea or that I can’t feel my toes when I get up in the morning.
Now I actually prefer being cold, it makes me feel hardy (though what my guests think might be another matter!)

IMG_2317.JPG

There’s no such thing as cold when you’re wearing the right socks

I no longer know what day it is.

This is a peculiar thing that affects most people I know on Skye. We run successful businesses and go about our daily lives with no issue at all but, when asked, we often can’t tell you if it’s a Tuesday or a Friday. Though it’s easy to tell when it’s a Sunday because everything’s closed.

IMG_4311.JPG


I care less about money.

Although I sometimes enjoy the high life, I’ve never really been fussed about money (I did choose to become an artist, after all!)

I’m sure this lack of interest might come back to bite me in the bum one day (hello pension!) but right now on Skye it just doesn’t seem to matter as much. Whilst it’s nice to have enough cash to travel or eat out, the best things here are free.

That said, I’m not living the life of a monk.
As the quote goes, ‘Beware of artists as they mix with all sections of society’…  So I might seem to do fancy things, but it really is all by association.
It’s lovely to be invited to swish events but at the end I always go back to the house where I put on an extra jumper on to save on bills and ball up my receipts so I don’t need firelighters. Although the cost of living here is significantly less than London it’s still nice to need less.

IMG_4368

A night staying in a mountain bothy costs nothing. It’s not fancy but good fun

*On the topic of money, I thought I’d mention one of my favourite things about Skye… there’s less of a class system here. Yes, there are differences in wealth but everyone is part of the same community and generally visits most of the same places. 
I always think of the jobs up here being like in a children’s story book or tv show; there’s the postman, the bus driver, the shopkeeper, the doctor… and they’re all respected in the same way. I think that this more level playing field is great.

IMG_6917

You don’t need much to enjoy the view


It’s not just money, I also need less ‘stuff’.

When you don’t have many shops around it forces you to buy less stuff. The thing is, once you’re used to it you realise it’s not really a hardship.
When I went home this Christmas we went into a huge shopping centre and found it kind of gross how people were rushing around with piled-high trolleys grabbing at gifts without thought. It just felt a bit excessive; not what Christmas should be about. I think living on Skye has made me more aware of that.
Of course, I still enjoy shopping (duh!) but I do it far less and I only buy things I really love.
Perhaps, too, it’s also a stronger link to the environment that has made me more aware of the impact of limitless consumerism and the effect that has on natural resources.

12494748_575049321613_3130756081427741033_n.jpg

When you do beach cleans it makes you realise how much stuff there is that we don’t need (this was from Duntulm beach last week -sad irony that this is the only turtle I’ve seen here)

I eat differently.
Living on a croft has made me look at dairy differently; when you see the connection between a mother and calf each day it becomes hard to justify drinking milk and supporting the process in which it’s made.
So I swapped to almond milk and now try to eat vegan food as much as possible, although I am happy to eat certain animal products like our neighbour’s eggs or local venison.
However, my views on food are now somewhat long and complicated so this is perhaps a whole other post for another day…

11150284_563772894663_6644213860567546486_n

A mummy cow on the croft

I don’t think an adult in a backwards cap is odd anymore.

In England a fully-grown, 30+ male wearing a baseball cap the wrong way round would be seen as ridiculous. Here it’s not an uncommon sight… Something to do with outdoor adventures, mountain biking and snowsports.
Maybe they’re just big kids or something.
Actually, I take all of that back, I still think it’s really weird.

IMG_9720

Dude, I’m not sure about your hat…

So, there are still some things that have stayed the same.

As I mentioned at the end of the last post, I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of the beauty of this place, each light and season shows something new. If I ever get jaded then maybe it’s time to move on.

IMG_4311

Still a delight to see cows on the road

Here’s what hasn’t changed…

Sheep.

I still love sheep… And cows… And buzzards… And all the other animals that we come across each day here.
If I have to brake to a halt in the middle of the road because of a load of sheep crossing then I’ll still get my camera out to take a picture. I’m also probably just as likely as ever to post it to Facebook with the tired old caption of ‘Skye traffic’.
I still find them charming and characterful and I’m pleased that that never faded away.

11227907_575043004273_2930963022139245920_n

I see ewe, baby!

I still enjoy dressing up.

Of course, a glitzy party dress isn’t going to see as much of Skye as a pair of waterproof trousers and a tatty old Barbour but it doesn’t mean there’s no reason to try.
Although it’s frivolous I always try and put on a sprinkling of glitter with my perfume each day and, whilst my high heels gather dust, wellies don’t really look so bad with a sequin skirt…
Or maybe they do, I don’t know, or care really. You can’t have a bad day if you’ve put a little sparkle into it….

FullSizeRender

A rare chance to scrub up at the Polo Awards in May

I’m still the same shape.

Whilst I’m not fat I’ve never been particularly svelte or skinny either; I love food and I’m happily soft and a bit squidgy. But I figured when I came to Skye I’d spend all my days out roaming the hills or battling the sea. I’d be some kind of muscular, athletic superwoman.
I didn’t reckon on the cake factor…

11986429_573287222873_1892200236715644977_n

Afternoon tea at Kinloch Lodge

There’s so much good food on Skye, dammit!

If I look out of my window I can see the cafe that does the best brownies I’ve ever tasted (Single Track, by the way, it’s amazing, go there).
If I drive down the road I reach Skye Pie where Simon and Kirsty sell their little pastry-wrapped bundles of deliciousness.
Then there’s the freshly-baked artisan bread at the Skye Baking Co or the lovely afternoon tea at Kinloch Lodge…

On Skye there is no escape from good food!
With the rough weather it’s been less about burning calories and more about burning logs on the fire with a nice cup of tea. I’ve put on a whole stone in weight since I moved to Skye!
Though maybe that’s why the cold doesn’t bother me so much now…

12573746_574947575513_7650625284807972652_n (1).jpg

Festive treats at Skye Pies

I still love a party.

Of course, parties don’t come up very often here so when they do it’s a real treat.
My only problem is that now I get so excited that I tend to go too hard too soon and therefore render myself completely useless for the next few days!

I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to a fair few estate parties on the mainland since I arrived here. The new friends I meet think I’m a wild party girl from Skye; what they don’t know is that I’ve just been saving it up for months so I’m like some kind of human champagne cork.
There’s been some funny stories as a result, but I’ll save those for another day…

IMG_0752

Uh oh…

So there have been some changes and some not-quite-changes. But it’s amazing to learn what happens in a year.
I wonder what adventures there are to come in the next one…

Advertisements

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.

11950821_570887097743_1262220921_n

The Failed Forager


I’m quite a keen ‘foodie’ and the ethics of food production play a big part in my life. Over the last few years I’ve been on quite a journey in learning about where our animal products come from and my diet is constantly evolving to reflect that.

If I explain my eating habits here I’d be writing you an essay. Maybe I’ll write about it another time.
(For example, I don’t eat fin fish because of my views on industrial fishing and fish farming but I will eat it if I ever manage to catch one. I’ll eat a creel-caught prawn but not a dredged one. I’ll eat mussels to encourage bivalve farming. Etc, etc, yawn, yawn…)

I loved Greenpeace's overfishing-themed field at Glastonbury this year

I loved Greenpeace’s overfishing-themed field at Glastonbury this year

Ultimately, my main food/life goal is to only eat animal products that I’ve reared/caught/grown myself or that I’ve seen reared/caught/grown. (I’m actually almost there but since I don’t have any animals it’s more that I’m just defaulting to being a vegetarian or vegan!)
With this in mind, coming to a place like Skye which is so rich in wild natural produce was incredibly exciting. I could finally start to forage for more than just blackberries and wild garlic.


The wild food world is now my hand-dived non-native oyster.

Some of my favourite foraging books

Some of my favourite foraging books

Despite reading all the books and doing the research I’ve actually spent very little time foraging. For no reason other than that I’ve just not really gotten round to it.

However, when I did actually take my first steps into the foraging foray it didn’t go quite to plan…

***

I was down at Flodigarry looking for fossils at low tide when I noticed how many big, fat winkles there were all over the rocks. For anyone who doesn’t know, winkles are little dark brown gastropods commonly found on rocks at the seashore. They’re actually a distant relative of the regular garden snail.

(There’s an advert in the West Highland Free Press that’s simply a phone number with the words ‘LARGE WINKLES WANTED’ above. It says something about my maturity level that this still amuses me)

Fossil and mineral hunting at Flodigarry (I think this beautifully-coloured stone is a form of ammolite)

Fossil and mineral hunting at Flodigarry (I think this beautifully-coloured stone is a form of ammolite)

Anyway, I spotted these winkles as a perfect introduction to my new foraging hobby. The great thing about these being that they’re easy to identify, they’re relatively safe whatever the water quality and, importantly for me, they’re not exactly difficult to catch!

So I picked the healthiest-looking ones off of the rocks and plonked them into my saltwater-filled water canister.
Once home I collected a bowl of seawater from the bay to purge them in (this is the process of putting them in clean, clear water for a couple of hours to let their digestive tracts clear of grit and sand. Delightful)

Whilst I was down there I picked a few handfuls of bright green, stringy gutweed. I was yet to try it but it’s apparently one of the best seaweeds to use raw in an Asian-style salad.

Back in the kitchen I plopped the winkles into the clean water and set it aside whilst I got on with other things.
I got out the pans, made some garlic butter, put some white wine in the fridge, turned the oven on to warm some bread.
I checked on the winkles. Little black antenna were beginning to emerge from the dark grey shells.

The winkles in their bowl with a few stray pieces of gutweed

The winkles in their bowl with a few stray pieces of gutweed

I decided to a bit of washing up.

As I put a mug on the drying rack it bumped the winkle bowl. The little snails, now fully emerged from their shells, flinched.
I caught the movement in the corner of my eye and peered into the bowl.
I gently tapped the rim.
They flinched again, their tiny little antenna drawing back in nervously then slowly peeping back out to make sure the coast was clear.

I couldn’t do it.

Within a couple of minutes I was in the car on the way to the bay with the bowl of winkles splish sploshing on the seat next to me (I have no idea why I decided to drive, it’s literally just a few minutes walk to the water. But that’s nothing to do with the story…)
Hugging the bowl to my chest I picked my way over the rocks to the shoreline, splashing myself as I slipped on the seaweed.
At the water I took 5 at a time and placed them carefully into different crevices and pools… Free Winkle!

Back in the house I put the pans away, threw out the garlic butter and made myself a cheese sandwich.

Kilmaluag Bay

Kilmaluag Bay

I’ve had winkles before but I just don’t like them enough to kill about 30 in one go just for the fun of learning to forage. I doubt I’ll ever have them again actually, it’s not really worth it.
It’s funny, I’ve shot a deer on a stalk and was fine with it but I couldn’t do this. It’s not that enjoying eating venison is worth killing for and garlic butter winkles aren’t, I think all species deserve to be treated equally (and actually, I’m beginning to think that nothing’s worth sacrificing just for a plate of food now). Maybe it’s that the hind was in too poor condition to last the winter and was going to be culled anyway, the winkles weren’t of course…
I don’t know, it’s something I need to work out myself and it’s definitely a post for another time.

What I do know, however, is that there are about 30 slimy little incomers to Kilmaluag Bay who have a strange story to tell about a Big Day Out.

An evening in two parts: The Dulse & Brose restaurant launch and an evening trip to the shore

Considering Skye’s wealth of local produce and my appetite for trying new flavours I really should have written more blog posts about the food up here.
Perhaps the block has been because there’s so much to write… Where does one even start?

Well, actually that’s just been made easy. I’ll start with another start… the opening of the new restaurant, Dulse & Brose, at the Bosville Hotel in Portree.

Dulse & Brose at the Bosville, Portree

Dulse & Brose at the Bosville, Portree

I was kindly invited along to the event by Tim Hunter-Davies whose PR firm was running the evening.
Whilst I’ve been to lots of launch parties in London, this was the first night of this kind that I’ve been to in Skye and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I must admit that I’m always slightly wary of places that have been refurbed and given a ‘concept’.
They often turn out to be somewhere where you sit on cold modular leather furnishings whilst being offered unappetising little jellies and foams inspired by the chefs late discovery of the molecular gastronomy trend.

Skye’s fine dining comes in more than one type: there’s the try-hard-but-miss ones (as described above); the lazy ones that don’t try because they cater for one-off tourist bookings; and the spot-on destination restaurants.
As I got ready, shrugging off my painting scruffs and brushing my hair, I wondered what kind of place this was to be…

A busy opening night

A busy opening night

The venue was already full when I hurried in to escape the downpour.
I looked around at the crowd.
Once you’ve lived on Skye for a wee while you begin to spot the same characters at each event (although faces taken out of their usual context can be quite confusing, especially when the person in question can usually be found working outside on a boat or croft!)
But it was nice to see some familiar faces such as Mitchell Partridge of Skye Ghillie with his lovely wife Samantha, Mina and Chris from Skye Sea Salt, Marcello Tully from Kinloch Lodge and the boys from Skye Adventure, John and Matt.

It was also really lovely to catch up with Paul and Mags from The Oyster Shed and Karen and Colin from Lochshore House in Edinbane (who I’ve been bumping into on Skye consistently since my very first day here!).
One of the nice things about Skye is that it’s not short of friendly or interesting people -these four are both.

Strangely enough, at this event I met a lot of people who I’d interacted with via Twitter and my Facebook pages but who I’ve never met face-to-face before (including a number of the Hunter-Davies team).
A strange success for online networking and finally a positive excuse for spending so much time on the internet!

Paul and Mags from the Oyster Shed with Karen and Colin from Lochshore House

Paul and Mags from the Oyster Shed with Karen and Colin from Lochshore House

The food was a taster selection of canapes representing dishes from the main menu. I watched them glide past on huge white serving dishes like flying saucers whilst I chit-chatted hello to various familiar faces.
It must have been about half an hour before the conversation paused for long enough for me to try anything.

I plucked a little cup from a passing platter. Mushroom soup.
Soup isn’t something I’ve ever been interested in but I wanted to try a bit of everything tonight, this included.

I’m pleased I did, it was delicious. I’m not quite sure how the kitchen managed to get such a lot of flavour into a little serving of speckled taupe liquid. It was velvety and rich in umami with a cheesy, almost truffle-y garnish.
I’ve never ordered soup from a menu before but I’ll definitely have this when I come back here. I’d also be interested to see how well it works in a larger portion.

A terrine made from Kyle rabbit with apple and jam on crisp toasts was equally tasty. The meat was seasoned well (I think rabbit err on the bland) and the puree was sweet but acidic enough to counter the gaminess.
Well done D&B; two out of two.
Those first two tasters were my favourites but the rest were also good. The menu takes inspiration from Skye’s world-class produce and treats it with simplicity and respect. It’s something that I’ve noticed a lot of new places try but fail at; they complicate things with technique and the original ingredients become lost.
The source of each ingredient is stressed on every printed placemat or menu leaflet. For once it’s not just lip service to the importance of provenance.

The taster menu

The taster menu

As for the style/atmosphere of the place itself?

It was exactly how interior design should be done on Skye; contemporary but warm. Clean lines and minimalist design can be lovely but this is an island where you want a cosy place to retreat to on a dreicht day and stark modernism doesn’t usually provide that. The rough wood and earthen tweeds were stylish but in a comfy, casual way.

Skye arts and crafts line the rustic boxy shelves. Like the menu it’s a nice commitment to local artisans. Even the upholstery was made by Skyeweavers, a local couple who weave tweeds in their workshop on a foot-pedalled loom.

A map of Skye and it's local producers

A map of Skye and it’s local producers

It was a generous evening; the canapes didn’t stop and champagne flowed freely. The live music was a nice touch and the atmosphere was relaxed. Top marks all round.
But, all that said, these things aren’t what will make this a successful restaurant. What makes a successful restaurant is the strength of the cooking…

Once the evening had drawn to a close I sat in my car and unfolded the menu from my pocket. Within seconds I’d decided what I wanted to come back and try. I also decided what I’d have on my second visit.
If that’s not a good sign I don’t know what is…

***

I often get a restless energy in the evening, a kind of witching-hour desire to wander. It kicked in again when driving home after the restaurant launch…

As I neared the top of the island I remembered a text from my landlady about long finned pilot whales still in Staffin Bay. Although past 10:30pm it was still light. If they were still there I should be able to see them.

I pulled off the road and went down to Staffin Slipway. A glance from a few viewpoints. Nothing. They’d left.

Staffin Bay

Staffin Bay. Still light at around 10:45pm

Back on the main road I picked up speed and then… what was that? Something splashing close to shore. Not gone!
Almost missing the turning I swerved onto the track for Brogaig car park, crunched to a halt and jumped out.

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that long sequinned skirts and canvas sneakers aren’t the best items of clothing in which to tackle a boggy path after a month of constant Hebridean drizzle.
Painstakingly hopscotching over the puddles and tripping over my hem wasn’t working. I tucked my skirt into my knickers and sploshed through the mud. Who cares about soggy feet when there’s wildlife to be seen…

Muddy toes

Muddy toes

Down on the beach the whales were still slightly too far away to be seen properly. I took my shoes and socks off to wade out but the beach was still too shallow to get much of a view, even when I found a rock to perch on for height.
All I could make out was a closely-knitted group of bobbing heads. It wasn’t behaviour I recognised but I didn’t think anything of it (after all I’m a cetacean enthusiast but not an expert)

It started to rain (again) so I pulled my hood on and fastened my coat right to the top. Despite not being able to see the whales well I enjoyed how surreally special it felt to be standing bare-legged alone on a rock in the ocean in the drizzle in the wee hours. It was nice to just stand there listening to the fat water droplets hit the sea water around my feet.
What is it about the sound of rain that makes us all so calm…

Cold toes

Cold toes

In front of me I noticed some creatures surfing the breakers; left and right, back and forth. Very large and curious seals I guessed.
I dismissed the urge to wade out further to get a closer look: when you’re alone common sense must prevail over adventure; the chance of getting too cold or caught out by a current isn’t worth the risk. Not being able to swim in cold water when and where I want is one of the few things that frustrates me about being up here alone.
As the light finally began to dim I started shivering and it was time to trudge back up to the car.

Moody moon

Late night light

I walked through my door leaving my socks and sneakers in a gritty, sodden pile on the doormat.
It was an enjoyable evening but little did I know that it was to be continued in a less pleasant way…

Philosophising over a Portuguese custard tart

So I’ve been working on a load of posts about what I’ve been up to over the last month. There’s a post about staying at my favourite castle hotel, one about raving the weekend away at Skye Live and one about a trip to the Outer Hebrides following some boy troubles.

For some reason the writing hasn’t come easy. I keep writing bits here and there but it’s been a struggle; I’m not sure why.

Then sitting at home this evening, under a light dusting of pastry flakes, I felt compelled to share some thoughts…

Portuguese custard tarts (Photo by leitesculinaria.com)

Portuguese custard tarts (Photo by leitesculinaria.com)

It’s been an average day at the gallery. Nicely busy, lots of interesting folk popping in for a chat, normal, good.
After work I nipped into the Co-op to buy a few bits and on my way to the till I noticed a pile of reduced pastries. Amongst the doughnuts and croissants there were a couple of Portuguese custard tarts, an old favourite of mine that I haven’t had in years. I dropped them into my basket.

After supper I put the kettle on and made myself a cup of tea.
It’s a tempestuous night tonight and the sea was dark-grey and dangerous-looking. It’s unusual to see such large, angry swells in the bay and I perched on the windowsill to watch the waves crashing. There’s something peaceful about watching something so powerful from the safety of a warm home.
Also, I think there’s something humbling about knowing how powerless you would be against the force of the water. A reminder of how insignificant we really are.
As I thought about this I shook a tart from the paper bag onto a plate and went to take a bite.

But I didn’t get a taste… I got a clear-as-a-mountain-loch memory.
How is it that tastes and smells can yank up the past so much more vividly than sights and sounds?

Biting down into the pastry I got slingshotted back in time, all the way back to when I first discovered Portuguese custard tarts…

I was in my mid-twenties living in South London. On Saturday mornings my boyfriend and I would wander down the road to the farmers market that was (is?) held at the big church near Oval tube station. We’d nose round, deliberating over which flavour sausages to have for brunch and what type of cheese we might like to nibble that evening in front of the telly (we were softly rounded in that contented-coupley kind of way).
If we felt indulgent we would pick up a couple of treats from the Portuguese cake stall to distract our appetites on the journey home (Oval has a large Portuguese immigrant population and these people know how to make good cakes!)
One day we decided to try the custard tarts, cajoled by the little handwritten sign telling us that they were a handmade speciality.
The tarts were delicious. The pastry was crisp with sugar at the edges and chewy at the bottom where it had gone all eggy and soft. They left a strangely fatty, grainy feeling in the mouth but it didn’t matter; we’d found a new favourite.

Oval farmers' market, South London

Oval farmers’ market, South London (Photo courtesy of City & Country Farmers’ Markets)

That must have been about 3 years ago now and this food-induced flashback made me think of how much life can change.
Maybe not all of a sudden with a shocking tragedy or lucky lottery ticket… just bit by bit.
‘Then one day you look back and everything has changed…’

I often think about how confused 2011 Katie would be if she was suddenly transported into the position of 2015 me.
I wouldn’t recognise the place I live, the people who spoke to me, I wouldn’t know anything.
It’s a funny thought…

C.S.Lewis

C.S.Lewis

Just few years ago I was living in an average flat with a nice boy in an okay part of London.

He’d put on a suit in the mornings and go to work in his government job. When I wasn’t at home trying to paint I’d be selling overpriced polo tat in the Burlington Arcade to fat sheiks with world-class ponies. In the evenings we’d slump into our Ikea sofa and watch TV until it was time to go to bed. Once tucked up he’d kiss me on the cheek then roll over and start snoring. I’d lie awake for hours staring at the ceiling.

It was a nice life. I’d become a bit introverted and didn’t go out with our large group of friends much but it didn’t bother me. My boyfriend was a good guy. I’d just sold my first painting over £1k. My family was happy and healthy.

Fast forward 3-4 years…

I now live on my own in a big old croft house overlooking a picturesque bay. Every morning I wake up to the sea and the hills.
I’m not wealthy but painting commissions are steady. I couldn’t care less about money; the majority of things that make me happy are free. I indulge in my passions, particularly in regards to the environment.
I’ve sloughed off all the fake mates and I now only have a small group of friends who I see rarely but love dearly. We party hard when we meet but when they leave I like to go back to reading quietly by the fire.
My family is now a 14-hour drive away but they’re still happy and healthy. I’ve now met my father, found out I have two beautiful (mostly) grown-up half sisters and my parents have reunited after 28 years. Also, we now have almost as many dogs in our entire family as we do people.
I’ve been through an illness that took me into hospital one week a month for a year and I still keep an overnight bag ready in case I’m admitted again. The outlook on life it gave me was worth every moment of nausea and pain. In hospital I saw how short life can be; every chance and adventure should be grasped tight.
I also smile at stuff more, spontaneously, like a loon. Like earlier today when I stopped to wait for a chicken to cross the road. I was almost late with all the animals on the road this morning but I amused myself by wondering why this chicken might be trying to get to the other side.
When my head hits the pillow at night I’m out like a light.

'Traffic' on my way to work this morning. Animals on the road drive me mad as they're always making me late but they make my drive a bit cheerier.

‘Traffic’ on my way to work this morning. Animals on the road drive me mad as they’re always making me late but they make my drive a bit cheerier.

Don’t these sound like the lives of two different people?

I’m thinking hard; trying to sieve through the categories of my life to find out what’s still the same.
Other than getting continued love and support from my favourite people (and the art career) there’s not much, barely anything at all…

However… I still enjoy custard tarts.
(Even though Co-op custard tarts don’t really come close to the authentic Portuguese ones we ate back in London. Those were pretty special)
But, though the quality of the pastries has got worse, I’d say that my life is unequivocally better.

As I said in a previous post, I had intended to return to London life this Spring. I was going to get back to little rented flats and brunches in Clapham.
But I can’t leave yet, my life here is just right for me at the moment and I couldn’t change it now. Even a proper custard tart isn’t worth going back for.

52d68f9c44bf0673dd947e634b8dc380

I wonder what’s next..?

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.