A ‘Girl Friday’ Adventure: 40 days and 40 nights in the wild

Noisy neighbours…

I moved from London to Skye seeking peace, wilderness and a life closer to nature.
I found one of those things but the rest wasn’t quite what I expected…

On this funny old island I discovered new friends, hundreds of things to do and a diverse, vibrant community.
I was definitely closer to nature but my calendar has never been busier!

I fell head-over-heels in love with my new home here yet I’m still searching for that peace. I haven’t quite got there yet.
The desire to find a certain type of solitude with nothing but the hills or sea for company pulls at me like a little fishhook caught in the back of my mind.

The peace and calm of the cold white sands of Scarista, Harris

 

So in 2015 I set about on a plan that would help me find it…

A solo expedition to an uninhabited island far out at sea; somewhere remote, wild and windswept.
No human contact, no electricity, no entertainment such as books or sketchpads. I’d be completely alone… wildlife and the landscape would be my only company.
It would be a kind of Castaway or Girl Friday experience, only without the sand or the sunshine!

Sleeping under the stars just outside Inverness (hopefully I’ll be doing this without the injured-ankle support boot on my island adventure!)

I located my temporary home; a set of windswept islands about 40 minutes away from the nearest harbour. Their owner was incredibly kind and accommodating, if a little bemused by my requests.
Shortly after I’d secured my stay I was lucky enough to win a grant from Tim Moss’ brilliant Next Challenge and a big bundle of kit from Lyon Outdoors. It doesn’t seem like an unusual adventure so I was heartened to see that people were interested.

There’s a surprising amount of planning involved to be able to exist in such a pared-back way…
What safety measures do I need to put in place in case I fall and break an ankle? How do I get there?
Do I bring food supplies or do I exist on shellfish and seaweed?

The adverts launching Eden on Channel 4. The photos show the beautiful scenery of Ardnamurchan

 

But when the opportunity to take part in Eden popped up in the middle of all this planning it was hard to turn down…
I temporarily postponed my solo trip.
The islands would always be there, this Eden project would not.
Besides, a year spent off-grid in the woods sounded like the perfect halfway stepping stone to my island adventure.

Now Eden has finished… I’m out and settling back into reality after Reality TV and, excitingly for me, my Girl Friday trip is back on!
At the beginning of next year I’ll be hopping on a boat and setting up camp as these feathered friends begin to arrive for the nesting season…

 

Atlantic puffins (photo by inhabitat.com)

Spending a year off-grid in Ardnamurchan wasn’t exactly the immersive close-to-nature experience that I had expected.
In fact, it was more community-focused than I had ever imagined and it often felt like a constant battle to persuade certain people to respect the environment in which we were living.

Now my island trip is back on the only community I’ll be interacting with is the thousands of seabirds that flutter onto the rocky cliffs each spring. They may turn out to be incredibly stinky neighbours but I can’t wait!

A photo journey from Fort William to Skye…. Inverlochy Castle, the Commando Memorial & some characterful wildlife

Warning: this is quite a long post as I didn’t want to leave too much out. My apologies if it’s a bit tedious!
(Written on Monday, the day after my ski trip to Nevis)

‘Time you enjoy wasting is not time wasted’

If you asked me what my perfect day here might be like, I might say a day something like today. A day of ambling, exploring, stopping and pausing. And maybe some cake.

I’ve just got home from a walk around the bay. It’s a still evening and the snow is reflecting the light of the full moon so that everything is illuminated in black and white. No need for a torch.

Moon face

I waded out to one of the big rocks and sat there for a while with my hipflask and music until my bum hurt from the cold. I got up and wandered along the road to warm up. It was so peaceful, if I didn’t have to be up early tomorrow to start back at the gallery I could’ve walked all night.

Sitting on the rock in the bay…

So that’s how my day is ending, I’m getting this the wrong way round… I’ll begin again…

I stayed at the SYHA Glen Nevis hostel for a second night last night. There was no way I was going to risk getting caught in a blizzard in the dark again. Now I’ve tried it, four-wheel ice skating isn’t something I particularly enjoy.

Inverlochy Castle hotel

A quick wash and dress and I was away. No wellies and scruffs this morning though, I had to pop into Inverlochy Castle Hotel to sort out a reservation.

I visited the restaurant at Inverlochy on my Scottish tour in 2013. Of all the Michelin starred places I ate at, I felt there was something extra special at this place. Apparently Queen Victoria said it was the most romantic place she’s ever visited. I can certainly see why she liked it, it is old-fashioned but also warm and charming.

Crackling fires and cosy cushions

Crackling fires and cosy cushions

Anyway, spending a night there has been on my bucket list ever since and last year my parents kindly gave me a voucher to stay for more than just one meal.

I popped in to book my weekend but I couldn’t resist ordering a cup of tea and a slice of Dundee cake whilst I was there. If only every morning could begin like this!

You know you’re somewhere special when your cake is served with three other baked goodies on the side!

It wasn’t easy to leave the crackling fire and impossibly comfy sofas but however much I tried I couldn’t justify staying all day. Not sure I could afford it much either…

Back on the road I had to put my sunglasses on, perfect white snow dazzled against the blue sky; a perfect day.

The commando memorial sign with Ben nevis in the background

Just outside of Fort William is the Commando Memorial. It’s a place I’ve passed many times but never stopped at.

The memorial sculpture by Scott Sutherland with ben nevis behind

As I pulled into the car park it struck me how beautiful the monument looked as it was silhouetted in the sun against the snow. It reminded me of the bomber crash site that I wrote about on Remembrance Day; that weird juxtaposition of sadness and prettiness all at once.

A tribute to the commandos of WWII

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Brushing the snow off the wreaths at the foot of the statue I thought how striking the red of the poppies looks against the purity of the snow. Again, a kind of sorrowful loveliness.

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There’s a little memorial garden nearby to remember those who have fallen in more recent conflicts. The remembrance plaques are low to the ground so most are covered or partly covered by snow. Little gaps revealed engraved messages or peeks of photos; smiling young men in stiff uniforms.

A plaque in the memorial garden

A number of the plaques had been adorned with rubber wristbands emblazoned with charity names like Help For Heroes or Walking With The Wounded. Wristbands similar to the ones I’ve been given by my friends in the army.

Wristbands around a cross in the memorial garden

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I suddenly found it quite overwhelming. I don’t think it was from worry about my friends; I’m not sure what it was. Maybe it’s because it felt like such a ‘relevant’ form of mourning, in which I mean it’s very current, somehow more accessible than a carved stone that could have been made yesterday or thirty years ago.
Despite the peace I couldn’t linger for too long.

The Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge

The Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge

*Just a note to any of my military friends who may be reading this (or their friends/family): If you have a connection to the memorial and want me to place a wreath, wristband, note or whatever here just let me know. It’s a meaningful place but I know it’s far away for most people. I don’t pass here often but I’m more than willing to place something for you.

The shores of Loch Cluanie

Back on the road I was soon distracted from my melancholy by the scenery. It was a landscape that doesn’t seem to suit the UK and round each corner it was slightly different. On one side it looked like the Swiss Alps, on the other it looked like Lapland as imagined in Elf.

A simplified snowscape

A simplified snowscape

Loch Cluanie

At the Cluanie Inn I slowed down to see if my old deer pas were about. Sure enough there they were, hanging out around the red telephone box and bins like a gang of misplaced teenagers.

I stopped and said hello, took some photos and let them sniff me. When a clang announced the sound of a back kitchen door opening they turned and trotted over to the back of the Inn.

Hanging around at the Cluanie Inn

That answered my question about whether they were tame because they’ve been fed scraps. I suppose it’s better than if they had lost their natural fear because they’re starving.
A brief conversation with one of the ladies at the Inn revealed that they even have names! The hinds are Florence, Flossie, Clicky and little Muddy. The young male doesn’t have a name and isn’t fed because it can cause aggression. But he’s got a lovely harem so I don’t think he’s doing too badly!

A handsome young man

Leaving Cluanie I passed through Glen Shiel. I’ve never stopped there but the brown crossed-sword signs indicate that it will be an interesting place to explore in future.

As I came to the sea lochs around Lochalsh I noticed how still the waters were. The mirrored surface reflected the hills and clouds so clearly that they looked like nature’s more detailed answer to a Rorschach test.
I parked up outside Kintail Lodge (closed for winter) and picked my way along the rocky shore. The water was so still that I could see every fragment of shell and frond of seaweed under the water. The only ripples on the surface were made by me and my boots.

The calm waters of Loch Duich

Old modules

There was a fishing boat nearby with it’s name hand-painted in fading reds and oranges like the letters on an old fairground carousel. I couldn’t get a nice picture with my phone but there was something particularly charming about this mouldy old vessel, quietly retired on this peaceful shore.

An old fishing boat

Lovely old paintwork

I skated my way along a slippery jetty and sat down on my jacket at the end. The water beneath my feet was a metre or two deep now but I could still see right down to the grains of silt on the bottom. It might be the clearest water I’ve ever seen, it almost seemed easier to look through than air.

Sitting on the dock of the bay… Popping bubbles!

I sat and watched the little grey trout darting between rocks at my feet. As I did so I fiddled with the bladder wrack seaweed I sat next to and I found that I could pop the little air pockets in the ‘leaves’ …like a natural kind of stress-busting bubble wrap. Not that there was any stress to be found in a place as calm and serene as this.
An hour or maybe two passed before I realised it was probably time to be on my way.

A place to while away the hours

I didn’t get far down the road before I noticed the horns of a large feral goat waggling around in some heather down next to the shore.
I’m not sure what it is about these creatures but I find them endlessly fascinating; it must be something about their strange, wild character.

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I turned off the main road and crept up a nearby dirt track still in the car. Because the goats tend to feed next to the roadside they seem to be much less afraid of people in cars than of humans on foot.

More appeared as I inched closer. This was the biggest group I’ve seen so far and they were much less nervy than the others I’ve come across. I got out and softly made my way towards them.

It looks calm and peaceful but there’s a great clattering of horns as they push each other out of the way to feed

If you can get close enough to them the smell of feral goats is amazing. It probably sounds incredibly weird to say it but they’ve got this satisfyingly warm, livestock-y smell (a bit like healthy cattle) but it’s so… goaty.
I suppose the only way I can describe it is to say it’s like the most expensive, well-aged French goats cheese you’ve ever tried. Those ones rolled in grey ash and licked by monks who live in caves, you know the kind. I know it sounds horrendous but somehow it’s really nice too. Just trust me on this one!

Wild looking beasties

As I got closer I noticed something small and dark nearby, on the other side of the road.
A cat maybe?

Something small and dark in the distance

No, not a cat, a tiny kid goat!
Cute can’t even describe this tiny thing. It’s was as adorable as a lamb but smaller and with more character.

The kid rejoins it’s mother on the brow of the ridge above the road

I watched them until I was joined by an ex-forestry ranger walking his dog. We discussed the pros and cons of goats, beachcombing, otters and forest fires before parting ways.

The sky was stunning as I neared Skye Bridge. Despite the fact that there are a million photos of Eilean Donan Castle out there I couldn’t resist getting one quick snap whilst it was looking so lovely (and a million isn’t an exaggeration by any means).

Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in Scotland after Edinburgh (I think it’s earned it though)

Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in Scotland after Edinburgh (I think it’s earned it though)

I always feel a barely-perceptible swelling of happiness inside my chest when I cross the bridge; a feeling of coming home. I get it even when it’s dull and drizzly so crossing on an evening like this feels extra special.

Skye Bridge and the lighthouse on Eilean Bàn

I had a couple of things to do before heading home but both had been cancelled. With the extra time to spare I treated myself to some mussels and chips in the pub before meandering home through the twilight.

The sun setting as I drive North

My wandering mood hadn’t gone by the time I reached home. I threw on some more warm clothes and grabbed a torch then set out for the shore.
Which brings us back to the start of the story 🙂

Skiing at the Nevis Range

My favourite winter warmer!

A most effective winter warmer

Sometimes I think that the most apt way to describe my new home is that it’s a playground for people who love being in nature.
If you’re into anything outdoorsy there’s so much to do here; walking, climbing, swimming, sailing, diving… and in winter, skiing.

There are no snowsports on Skye unless you fancy lugging your skis up a hill and praying that you don’t hit a boulder or a bog on your way down. However, there are lots of ‘proper’ resorts just a couple of hours drive away such as the Cairngorms, Glencoe or Glenshee.

The Nevis Range is my closest resort, about a three hour journey from the North of Skye, just on the edge of Fort William.
I adore skiing; every time I step outside onto snow, breathe in the icy air and hear that familiar crunch I get a yearning to be on the piste. It’s a weird craving but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling it.
So, when I noticed a couple of empty days on my calendar I decided to grab the chance and take myself off for a day or two to Nevis.

Driving into the Nevis resort

Driving into the Nevis resort

To get a full day on the slopes I decided to check into my hostel the evening before. I’d booked a night at the Glen Nevis climbers’ hostel owned by SYHA.

I’d just like to say a bit about the SYHA organisation because I think they’re fantastic.

I used them almost every night when I travelled round Scotland in 2013; scrimping a bit on my accommodation meant that I was able to splash out on Michelin-starred restaurants without worrying about costs.
But then, it wasn’t really scrimping at all…
Okay, so they’re not exactly luxurious, they are hostels of course, but each facility is clean and well-equipped, they’re in some incredible locations and their staff are fantastic sources of local knowledge. Whilst some of their buildings are, others are old converted schoolhouses, loch-side hunting lodges or even UNESCO Heritage Sites. I really can’t recommend them highly enough.

Glen Nevis hostel, basic but comfortable

Glen Nevis hostel, basic but comfortable (photo by hostelworld.com)

I had a bit of admin to do before leaving Skye which meant that it was dark by the time I crossed the bridge. This wasn’t a problem until I neared the Cluanie dam where the roads wind around the hillsides over the deep, half-frozen lochs below. Suddenly the clear night sky turned white and I was in the middle of a blizzard. Within minutes the tarmac was covered in inches of snow and, despite crawling at a snails pace, I found I could barely control the car.

I was just over halfway to Nevis; do I turn back, continue forward or pull over and stop altogether? I continued on with my shoulders up round my ears, muscles rock-solid with tension. I tried as hard as I could to forget the stories I’d read in the local paper before Christmas about people veering off the road and drowning in the lochs below. I kept my windows wound down just in case.
Driving at 15-20 mph I thought it would take me all night to get there. A couple of times I pulled over to let another car overtake only to find them further down the road having skidded off to the side. As I noticed the drivers talking furiously on their mobiles and I thought of the tortoise and the hare!

Not ideal...

The start of a blizzard. Uh oh…

It took about 5 hours in total to reach Glen Nevis, 20 minutes of which were spent trying to excavate myself from a snowdrift I had slid into on a corner (it’s amazing the superhuman powers that a bit of panic seems to bestow)

Whilst I was excited to go skiing, I hadn’t quite intended for it to be on four wheels…

The Nevis Range was particularly busy on Sunday because they had a special anniversary offer on. It was a bargainous £12.50 for a day pass, apparently the same price they were sold for in the 80’s. With equipment hire it still came to less than £35 for the whole day.
This meant that there were more visitors than usual but to be honest it wasn’t any more crowded than an average day in any European or American resort. It must also mean that on quiet days, weekdays perhaps, you can have the pistes almost to yourself.

Whilst there isn’t the atmosphere or scale of a large Alpine resort, it was surprisingly good skiing. Though when the signs at the top of the lifts say to watch out for natural hazards they really aren’t kidding -I had to narrowly swerve more than one massive water hole on my way down.

Perhaps this isn’t great place for anyone partially sighted!

I mentioned this to a local instructor I shared a T-bar with, a hairy young guy that smelled strongly of woodsmoke. He laughed and said that the odd tumble down a hole or over a rock is what made the area more interesting. That’s one way to look at it I suppose!

Looking down onto Fort William and out towards Eigg

Looking down onto Fort William and out towards Eigg

I was lucky enough to have chosen to ski on a bluebird day and the views over Fort William were extraordinary. It was so clear that every now and again you could even see the island of Eigg in the far distance.
You can tell it’s not a wealthy resort, the visitors are mostly locals, but what it lacks in shininess it more than makes up for with the landscape.

I took the opportunity to take a couple of pictures; one for my Grandpa who’s currently recovering from his third hip replacement (this is a replacement replacement, he doesn’t have three legs!). He skiied in Scotland back in his army days so I was thinking of him twofold up there.

The other was for my friends at Whalefest who are drumming up support for a campaign by asking for #Whalefie pictures (basically selfies with some kind of cetacean, please get involved as it’s for a great cause!)
I got a few funny looks pretending to kiss a sparkly whale Christmas decoration at the top of a mountain!

Get well soon, Gramps! xxx

Get well soon, Gramps! xxx

A whale weirdo!

Pucker up Moby! 

Whilst I’ve enjoyed my own company for most of my adventures up here, I think I’ve finally found something which I think would have been better with friends. Yes, being alone is a chance to really concentrate on technique but there’s something about having a laugh with a group of mates that makes skiing extra fun. It wasn’t ‘not fun’ it just wasn’t ‘as fun’.

That said, I did make a few friends on the gondola and chair lifts up; a couple of sea kayak instructors from Wales became my lift buddies for the morning. I also learned here what most 7 year-old know to be true, that sharing a packet of Love Hearts can do wonders for popularity!

Wind-blown snow-covered fences, a sign that not every day up here is quite so calm

Wind-blown snow-covered fences, a sign that not every day up here is quite so gentle

Still, the end of the day came too quickly, though the sunset cast a beautiful soft mauve light over the emptying mountainside. I treated myself to a hot chocolate with marshmallows and cream whilst I watched it and waited for the gondola queues to shorten.

Too exhausted to face another night-time blizzard I checked in for another night at the hostel. I fell asleep fully-clothed and face down on the bed where I had an incredible dream about being a record-breaking winter Olympian.
Unfortunately I think it’s going to take more than one day here at Nevis to get to that..!