82 Islands… #2: Berneray

I settled on Skye but it’s places like Berneray that made me move up here.
My second island is one that has been close to my heart since I arrived in Scotland.

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Eilean Bhearnaraigh

The Outer Hebrides (or Western Isles) are a long chain of islands that stretch along the North West Coast of Scotland, sheltering Skye and mainland Scotland from the wild force of the Atlantic.
Berneray sits right in the middle of these stepping stones, a tiny island tucked between the larger North Uist and the mighty hills of Harris.
Although not much more than 3 miles long and 2 miles wide, it’s a place rich in history and interesting species of plants and animals.

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Island number 2!

Getting to Berneray is easy from North Skye so I hopped on the Calmac ferry as a foot passenger.
Travelling by foot is a great way to visit smaller islands… you rarely have to book in advance, it’s cheap and (my personal favourite) you can enjoy a pint as you watch the waves go by. Plus, it’s much better for the islands themselves.

West Coast travellers will know that specific feeling of excitement you get when standing on the open deck of a Calmac ferry.  The red plastic chairs, painted green floor and white railings between you and the sea all mean one thing… adventure awaits!

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A bit of a windy crossing!

I arrived at Lochmaddy in North Uist at half nine. Being almost June it’s still light late into the evening and even at midnight it’s still bright enough to walk outside.
But it was late enough that the buses had clocked off and I was sleepy so I took a cab and got into the front seat. A sticker on the dashboard showed a seabird with a smoking cigarette and big words underneath, ‘NO PUFFIN!’

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Hello Lochmaddy

It turns out that I was sharing a car with a local celebrity.
Alda is 83, a kind gent who has lived in Lochmaddy for his whole life and who has almost too many great-grandchildren to count!
He told me local stories as we chatted, trundling along single-track roads, crossing the causeway and finally ending up at the traditional blackhouse cottages of the Gatliff Trust Hostel (where Alda was born!)

The hostel probably ranks as one of the best situated and most beautiful in the UK as it sits right on the edge of the white sands of East Beach and looks over the water towards Harris.
Aside from it’s charm, it’s also a very handy base as campers and other visitors are welcome to use the facilities for £10 per night (bring cash).
I was tempted to book into the dorm and crash out but the summery lightness of the evening made me want to explore.

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Looking towards the Harris hills from West Beach

Dozens of oystercatchers squawked in the fields as I passed, determined to be heard above one another.
Have you ever had a serene moment spoiled by an oystercatcher? They’ve got no respect for peace and quiet (but in a strangely charming way)

I followed the signposted footpath up the hill and past the cemetery with its impressive patchworked lichens. The roar of waves met me long before before I saw the first pale sliver of West Beach.
I wrestled my sleeping stuff out of my bag and wriggled inside. It was almost midnight. Time to sleep.

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Good morning!

Arriving somewhere in the dark (or near dark, in this case) is one of life’s purest pleasures. I’m definitely not a morning person but the excitement of waking up in a whole new place, that ‘Big Reveal’, is one of the few things that makes me leap out from under the covers. That and a really good breakfast.
Waking up at the very Northern end of this expansive white beach to the sounds of the sea was every bit as special as you could imagine. Okay, it was a bit breezy and the clouds looked aggressive but that just adds to the atmosphere.

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Those colours!

West Beach is a 3 mile long ribbon of bright white shell sand. It’s so beautiful that a Thai tourist board once accidentally used a picture of it in their brochure.
But the beaches of the outer Hebrides aren’t second to foreign shores, these ones have an abundance of wildlife and are backed by a very unique, coastal grassland known as the machair

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An example of species diversity on the machair -the remains of a mouse in an owl pellet (notice the yellow teeth and the ball-joint socket)

Machair is a Gaelic word which describes the fertile grasslands that lie low behind the sandy dunes. It’s a diverse and delicate ecosystem, often scattered with rare wildflowers, and is home to all kinds of bees and ground nesting birds.

I watched the gannets, gulls and tiny sandpipers from my sleeping bag but it took an hour of walking along the shore before I saw another human.

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Other people: rarer than the seabirds on this beach

The blues and whites looked like someone had digitally edited them to an unrealistic saturation.
In hot countries there’s a translucent, almost-faded aspect to this beachy colour palette… It seems slightly sun bleached.
In Scotland the turquoise sea is bold and opaque. Like it’s challenging the darker, moodier sky above it.

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Blue seas under moody skies

I cut over the dunes and walked across the machair, following the waymarkers.
This is one of the fragile places where it’s important not to cut your own path but it wasn’t easy to trace the tracks.
I passed through daisies, buttercups, delicate fuschia orchids and plenty of flowers I couldn’t name.

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Orchids on the machair

I walked into a great commotion in the middle of the machair and looked skywards to see lapwings swooping low, calling out warnings.
They are ground nesting birds and these ones were clearly defending their babies.
I was conscious of causing them stress so moved quickly along the path but soon saw that it was not me who they were paying attention to. A gang of gulls stood like sentinels amidst the tufts of grass, every now and again taking flight and testing their luck against the concerned parents.
I left them to it.

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The Chair Stone -a throne for old Viking leaders?

Berneray has a lot of history for its small size and there are plenty of intriguing archaeological items dotted around the landscape. My walk took me past a stone circle and intriguing ‘Chair Stone’ before reaching the community hall and the roads that characterise the East side of Berneray.

If the West feels completely wild then the East is the opposite. It’s still picture-perfect but in a different way…
A road follows the coast from South to North and it’s dotted with thatched blackhouses, colourful fishing boats, neat gardens and pebble shores. It’s pretty but it’s not for show, this is a working community.

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Driving the East side of Berneray

The shop and bistro is an integral part of this. I stopped for lunch, chatted with some of the ladies there and brought supplies for supper.
They had a steady stream of customers but I learned that trade is generally reduced by visitors stocking up on supermarket supplies en route. More people spending locally would mean more business opportunities and choice for local folk.

I had to make a concerted effort to find areas that might need a beach clean.
Sometimes there’s not much rubbish because strong currents don’t allow it to settle but I don’t think this is the case for Berneray.
Instead I suspect that keen hands have worked hard to keep their island tidy, especially considering that it’s lucky to have its own Surfers Against Sewage rep.
I picked up what I could as I roamed the island but it made a nice change to see so little plastic dotted around.

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Colour co-ordinated beach litter

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering, making rough sketches and talking to local folk.
I learned that the issues that affect Berneray are completely different to those on Skye.
There are a few upsides to being more remote…
The ferries limit the amount of visitors so they don’t get the same congestion on the roads that we do. Also, the people who have travelled this far are more likely to be return visitors and ones who clean up after themselves.

It was true… There were at least 10 camper vans parked near East Beach but not one patch of scorched grass or discarded tissue in sight. It was brilliant.

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Most of the plastic seemed to come from the sea, not from litter left on the beach

There is only one downside and that’s that the extra vehicle weight has eroded the dunes back noticeably within the last few years.
I’m not sure what the answer to this is; I’d be interested to learn more. It’s not something I’d noticed since I was so distracted by just how clean the area was.

It was near here that I decided to sleep for my second night. East Beach is a sheltered bay and a much safer place for a swim.
I laid my mat, sleeping stuff and rucksack out on the sand above the (slightly stinky and seaweed-y) tide line and walked up the road towards the hostel to refill my water bottle and use the bathroom.

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A sea of daisies

‘There’s no pub in Berneray’

…This statement is half true.
There’s no official, licenced public house. There is, however, Berneray hostel in the evenings.

It was a clear but chilly evening. Low, blue-tinged light. Lapping waves. Air so clear that each breath felt like drinking iced spring water.
Walking through the hostel door into the communal kitchen was like walking into a solid wall of human voices, thick heat and mixed cooking smells.

The room is dominated by a long central table, a mosaic of those laminate ones you see in schools. Around it sat an eclectic bunch of travellers… European kids in proper outdoor gear, a smart older couple from Edinburgh, tired cyclists in long johns and pyjamas.
Before I could reach the sink I was ushered into a chair by a man with a thick Argyll accent and a furry trappers cap. His name was Hugh and he wondered if I’d like some of the chicken soup he’d just made for everyone. The welcome was as warm as the atmosphere.

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Impromptu communal meals (photo from 2016)

I said that I should get back to my stuff but another Scottish fellow, Ian, offered me a goblet of gin with lemon and I found myself relaxing into my moulded chair.
It took a few minutes for us to realise that we’d met before over this same table about 3 years previously…
Scotland is a big country but it’s also a very small world.

Hugh went to fetch a bottle of Talisker whisky and Ian and I reminisced about the last time we both stayed here.
I had come over for some escapism following a break-up. He was working here. The crowd was an equally-eclectic mix of different characters and we drank well into the night, roaring with laughter at shared stories.

 

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The unofficial pub (from my visit in 2016)

I fondly remembered a lovely old-ish boy from Stornoway. He was wizened and salty, with a shock of black hair that erupted in all directions. He and his friend were here for the fishing but he spent more time enjoying the drams and the atmosphere leaving his friend exasperated and impatient.
He had a heart of gold; sharing all he had and even buying us dressed crab as a Sunday treat (almost everything closes on the Sabbath in the Outer Hebrides but an enterprising fisherman has taken the opportunity to make door-to-door fresh food sales!)

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Our turkey eggs (from my 2016 visit)

My favourite memory of this man was when he saw us cooking some big eggs we’d brought from a local croft…
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
“Some turkey eggs, want one?”
“Nae thanks. Do you wanna know the best eggs? Sea eagle eggs. Have you ever tried a sea eagle egg? HUGE! They’re a bit fishy but if you can get one they’re a real treat…”

For anyone who doesn’t know, eagle eggs are strictly protected and eating them could result in a massive fine and maybe even a jail sentence.
We stood wide-eyed and mouths agape at this story, then he offered us a dram and the evening continued.
I won’t mention his name for obvious reasons but I hear he’s doing well. I just hope he hasn’t come across any nests recently!

Whilst lots of places are becoming more cosmopolitan and homogenised, you start to realise the value of these little corners of the British Isles where you can still meet unique characters to share laughter, drinks and stories.

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Still light at almost midnight

The whisky and heat took effect and my eyelids got heavy. I finally excused myself, opened the gate and returned to my camping spot.
I was out the moment my head hit the pillow.

Urrghhughhh.
Okay, perhaps that was a bit too much whisky.
The morning was cold and dewy and I wanted to stay in bed. I could have laid there listening to the placid wavelets and busy birds for hours. Only I had a bus to catch and a swim to squeeze in.

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I’m cold and tired, please don’t make me get up!

It might seem like I’m always keen to dive straight into the cold water.
It’s not true.
It takes a monumental amount of effort and self-encouragement to even dip a toe in. That initial sting is never pleasant for me but it’s all worth it for the buzz of feeling refreshed and alive afterwards (one of my life mottos is that you never regret a coldwater swim and it hasn’t failed me yet!)
This hungover beach wake-up was no exception and I cursed myself for putting swimming into my list of things to do on each island.

Of course, ten minutes later and I was grinning from ear-to-ear, soggy and trying hopelessly to pull a pair of tight leggings over damp, goosepimpled legs.
It was a quick dip because I was running late but it made all the difference. I was suddenly wide awake and striding towards the bus stop.

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What an incredible place to start the day

For a small island Berneray has A LOT to offer.
I was amazed at how different this trip was to island number one (and not just because I was treated to sunshine and didn’t have to pick up poopy tissues!)
It just proves how different each island is and how the set of pressures can vary immensely.

I wonder what the other 80 will bring…

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Having a horrible time…

 

LEAVE NO TRACE – 3 THINGS:

TRAVEL ON FOOT
Berneray is a smaller island with relatively easy terrain; you can complete the circular walk of the island in a day and still have time for plenty of tea breaks.
Because of this, it’s a great island for exploring on foot.
There are also taxi and bus services available locally. The bus timetable can seem a little cryptic so don’t be afraid to ask for advice!

STICK TO THE PATHS
The dunes and machair are delicate ecosystems that are easily damaged by stomping feet like mine. Following waymarkers and sticking to obvious footpaths are one way that we can limit the (literal) footprint we leave in these places.

BUY FOOD LOCALLY
It can be tempting to stock up on supplies from the supermarket on the way to the islands. Whilst this is a good way to travel cheaply, it means that independent businesses don’t always get the financial support that they need.
Buying food and drink from smaller shops and cafes is a way of giving back to the community. It’s also a brilliant way to chat to local folk, learn about regional specialities and find out some of the best places to visit -it’s a win win.

82 Islands… #1: The Isle Of Skye

It’s begun…
And where better location to start the project than on my home island of Skye?

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Skye is also known as Eilean a’Cheo (‘The Misty Isle’) and it certainly lived up to it’s name as I kicked off 82 Islands this week…

I already bivvy, swim and beach clean as much as I can here so I decided to choose a location I’ve never slept in before for my first camp-out.
The wonderful thing about Skye, and the Highlands and Islands in general, is that however much you explore there’s always somewhere new to discover. It’s one of the best things about living here.

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A slightly soggy sea view…

The weather has been pretty rubbish. Nice and warm but with strong winds and lashing rain. Not ideal of course, but if I’m put off by the rain then I may never get going (this is Scotland after all and the reputation is there for a reason!)

Bags swiftly packed and I found myself toddling down a path towards one of the most spectacular set of waterfalls in North Skye, Lealt Falls.

Now, this trip is about responsible tourism and a growing issue is geotagging which is causing thousands of people to flock to specific locations that often aren’t able to handle the increased pressure.
It’s something I’m going to have to consider whilst doing 82 Islands…
I’ve decided to mention Lealt here because it has recently been updated with viewing platforms and parking areas so it has the infrastructure to handle more exposure.
I won’t say exactly where everything is on my trips, though, and one of the joys of visiting these islands is wandering off the beaten track and finding places that aren’t on every tour companies’ tick-list.

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One of North Skye’s natural beauties

The rain meant that I was to do my first bivvy alone but, on the plus side, it also meant no midges or crowds.
I carefully wound down the path and felt a quickening pulse as I heard the enormous crashing of the waterfall before I even saw it.
Lealt Falls are always spectacular but after all these showers it has a power that’s almost ferocious.

It was certainly fuller than last time I was there…
We were filming a music video for the band, Niteworks, and the story was a kind-of Alice In Wonderland journey.
Same weather though and I was equally soggy then and now (though the previous time was on purpose to make it look like I’d just come out of the waterfall -you can watch it here)

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That waterfall again…

My awe was swiftly cut short.
As I walked along the waterside I came across something that’s becoming a more and more common sight in our natural spaces. It was not what I wanted to make my first video diary about…

Yuck!
As I said in the video, accidents happen. But it’s all about how we leave these things.

So, that wasn’t great but, if anything, it shows exactly why I need to use 82 Islands to promote a Leave No Trace way of travelling.

I decided to set up camp on the shore instead.
It’s a pretty cool area as it used to be home to the old diatomite works. What’s left now are stony ruins with rusting chimneys, barrels and machinery.
Diatomite is a rock formed out of the shells of single-celled creatures (diatoms) that is used in things like paint, toothpaste and dynamite. It was quarried 3 miles above the shore and transported down by hand for processing and shipping.

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The old factory and chimney camouflaged against the rocks

The industry died out in the 60’s and these dark shells of buildings are the only sign that this used to be a busy place.
The jagged remains of the walls echo the weird shapes of the rocks above, hidden and revealed by moving mists.

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Using my trusty Kelly Kettle stove. Campfires leave scorch marks but one of these on a rock is clean and tidy

I found a flat, open spot to sleep.
Setting up camp is quick when you’re bivvying, let me give you a video tour…

As you can see, there’s no point in fighting the rain, you might as well just wrap up and make the most of it!
A supper of curry and a homemade naan cooked over my Kelly Kettle stove kept me warm (not to mention a few drams of whisky -proper central heating!)

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My camp kitchen. Curry and dough ready for cooking

Why does food always taste better eaten al fresco?!

Being late May, the daylight stretches well into the evening and after eating I pottered around the beach looking at the interesting stones on the shore… from egg-shaped pebbles with barcode stripes to huge, wave-carved rocks that looked like nature’s answer to Henry Moore.

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Water-smoothed stones

As the drizzle turned to chunky rain I retreated to bed with a whisky hot chocolate and fell asleep listening to the droplets hitting the waterproof surface of my bivvy bag.

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Night night!

Morning brought more rain. That wasn’t a surprise.
The surprise was getting up, making a cup of tea, and then realising that it wasn’t even 4am yet!
The fact that it never really gets properly dark at night is much more obvious when you’re sleeping outside! The spooky mists and sodden clouds made it even harder to tell night from day.

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Misty cliffs

But I used the early time to wander around the ruins and pack up before the first visitors started to peer down from the viewing platforms above.
Between the jagged walls grew dog roses and tiny flowers. Pink thrift grew from between two bricks. Nature reclaiming the factory.
I collected rubbish from the shore -the usual offenders of old rope and plastic strapping.

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Dog roses in the ruins

The quiet hour meant I could also slide into the pool of the waterfall without an audience.
I like swimming alone. It means I don’t have to worry about putting on a swimsuit or being conscious of my body. It has a freedom where I can muck around and giggle to myself or float and just listen to the birdsong.
Plus, when I say ‘swimming’ I should say that I’m more of a wallower, hippo-style.
The pool at the bottom of Lealt is wide, deep and peaty. When you look at your legs under the water they have a warm sepia glow; it’s like sitting in a big cup of stewed, chilled tea.

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Waterfall bathing

When people see photos of wild swimming they always ask, “But isn’t it cold?!”
In all honesty, yes it is.
The first touch is icy and often unappealing. It takes a few minutes to get used to it but soon enough it starts to feel better. That’s how I felt getting in and out at 5am on a rainy Saturday morning. I couldn’t have felt more awake!
Which is what I needed for the task ahead…

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The most effective alarm clock!

‘Don’t just leave it as you found it. Leave it better.’

I’m making this my 82 Islands mantra.
Unfortunately that meant one thing… clearing up the mess that had greeted me upon my arrival.
I always carry a supply of emergency compostable dog poo bags in my rucksack and these came in handy to clear up the poopy wet wipes left on the path. Some rocks from the river covered the stuff I couldn’t pick up.
Now, I’ve got a pretty strong stomach but this was grim. I gagged my way through the entire operation whilst cursing the person who left it there.
But it’s gone and safe, and now other visitors don’t have to be distracted from the beauty of the place like I had been.

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Yuck yuck yuck yuck

Back at the car I made myself a coffee and drank it on one of the platforms overlooking the waterfalls below and their overhanging trees.
I had the place to myself and the mists against the lush green vegetation reminded me of something prehistoric. I hummed the Jurassic Park theme tune to myself (this is something I do often and really recommend it!)

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Now THIS is a brew with a view

As I left I passed a couple of donations boxes and rummaged around to put in a few quid.
When things are available to us for free it’s always tempting to take advantage of that and enjoy a cheap day out but there’s often a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes.
Sometimes, however hard we try, we make an impact simply by being at these places and donating where we can can help offset that.
For me at least, this was the least I could do for a bargain of a sea-view room with a private pool and a 90m tall shower!

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A donations box and (on the right) the reasons why they’re needed!

LEAVE NO TRACE: 3 THINGS
(I think that each island visit will highlight a few things that need remembering. Here are the ones for Skye…)

STICK TO THE PATHS
It’s often tempting to stray to the outsides of paths, especially if the path itself is muddy but please try to stay on the main path as much as you can. This is to help avoid extra erosion and damage to native plants.

HELP, I NEED THE LOO!
Whilst it seems like these places are wild and quiet, they’re actually often used by people for work and pleasure. Please take any wet wipes or tissues with you (they don’t dissolve in the rain and can still be there a year later!)
Solid waste should be dug into a hole at least 6 inches deep or taken with you using a dog poo bag. Please use the public loos wherever possible.

DONATIONS WELCOME
If you see a donation box please chuck in a few coins. The fact that the box is there shows that it’s maintained by volunteers and that it relies on these for the upkeep. Just the cost of a cup of coffee from everyone will make a huge difference and help your future visits be more pleasant too.

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One done, only 81 (!) to go…

I’m A #GetOutside Champion!

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The 2018/19 Get Outside Champions team!

So something exciting happened to me earlier this year…

At the start of 2018 I was lucky enough to be chosen to become one of Ordnance Survey’s #GetOutside Champions, a team of ambassadors tasked with inspiring others to spend more time outdoors.

Did you know that the average child today spends less time outside than a prison inmate?
This is a ticking time bomb health-wise; the children of today are expected to have shorter lifespans than their parents. Also, how can we expect them to appreciate and protect nature when they have little knowledge or experience of it?
These are just two of the many reasons why the #GetOutside initiative has been created.

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Cheese!

 

At our first get-together the team list read like a who’s who of British adventurers.
It included names such as…

-Ben Fogle, TV presenter and adventurer.
-Mel Nicholls, Paralympic medallist and endurance wheelchair racer.
-Dwayne Fields, TV presenter and the first black Briton to reach the North Pole.
-Sean Conway, endurance adventurer and the first person to swim, cycle and run the length of Great Britain.

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Our Everest experts

There are folk who have climbed Everest (multiple times!), world record breakers, book writers, TV personalities, photographers, filmmakers and charity founders.

How on earth did I manage to slip in there? Was there a mistake?!

That’s what ran through my head at the big launch event in the New Forest.
I remember being sat at a table with Sarah Outen MBE and being a bit starstruck.
Sarah completed her round-the-world circumnavigation in 2015 and was the first woman and youngest person to row the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Like many of the other Champions, I’ve followed her on social media and for a number of years she’s been a bit of a hero of mine. Getting to meet her in person felt surreal.

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Table of dreams: Medals, MBE’s, world record holders… but most of all, simply wonderful people!  (I still can’t believe I got to hang out with this lot!)

As we listened to our introduction talk I glanced around the room. I could almost feel the sparks of energy coming off this crowd of 60 inspiring, highly-motivated, extraordinary people. It was exciting.
And terrifying.

Don’t they know I’m a fraudster!

I don’t have the skills or expertise to be sitting amongst this lot!
I’m not an athlete or sportsperson or record breaker, I’ve never scaled a mountain or rowed an ocean, I’m fairly new to proper map reading and I get wheezy when I climb hills.
I enjoy bumbling around outside, soaking up the joys of nature and a gorgeous view. I just love being outdoors.

Just chillin’ by the sea

But that’s where I fit in…
This is EXACTLY why I’m a #GetOutside champion.

Whilst I’ll always feel like a bit of an imposter next to the likes of Sarah or Ben, I’m here to prove that you don’t have to be super fit or especially sporty to enjoy time spent outside.

IF I CAN DO IT ANYONE CAN.
(Excuse the capital letters but this really needs to be shouted from the rooftops! Say it again folks!)

This is a vital part of the #GetOutside campaign.
Alongside the professional mountain climbers and endurance athletes we have Champions who are veterans, people with various disabilities, people from different backgrounds, asthmatics, families with kids and even a couple of four-legged companions.
There are a number of us who use the great outdoors as a tool to help our mental health.
Our aim is to show that anyone, whatever your ability or fitness, can enjoy time spent outside.

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All different ages, backgrounds, abilities and sizes (and all slightly silly!)

For me it’s all about getting close to nature, exploring this beautiful and weird natural world around us. It’s about curiosity and learning.
I firmly believe that one of the keys to being happy is to find joy in the smallest things… an unusual cloud… a spot of unexpected colour… even just a bee having a scratch!
Once you start noticing those things you’re able to start appreciating these little bursts of happiness more often.

It’s all about the little things

All this may sound flippant but it’s rooted in something important.
It’s been medically proven that time spent outside is good for people suffering from depression or other mental health issues.
When life gets stressful or if I’ve had some bad news I find it soothing to take a break, go for a walk or sleep out under the stars. It helps me to clear my mind.
Fellow Champion, Eli Greenacre, talks about the benefits of getting outside for mental health better than I ever could. Check out her story here

As a self-confessed tree-hugger I also think it’s incredibly important to spend time in nature to fully realise how valuable it is. When you see how varied and interesting wildlife and the natural landscape is you’re naturally more inclined to want to protect it.

So here I was, sitting in a conference room amongst the most inspiring group of people I’ve ever met; all ready to spend the next few years encouraging as many people as we can to spend time outdoors.
And do you know what? Their energy was infectious.

Getting to know each other by causing general chaos during orienteering!

Whatever I’m going to do for Ordnance Survey, it’s nothing compared to what I get out of it…

-I hadn’t expected to spend an evening round a table with a group of new friends, laughing so hard that my sides still ached as I packed up my stuff and drove home.
-I hadn’t expected to chat to Anna Humphries aka ‘Mountain Girl’ about the wonders of the moon or enjoy a few too many drams of whisky between ruggedly-bearded adventurers, David Wilson and Sean Conway (#adventurehangover)

Sian Anna Lewis and I wondered whether we could get an honorary membership to the exclusive Adventure Beard Club with David Wilson and Sean Conway

-I hadn’t expected to giggle uncontrollably with two absolute heroes, Sarah Outen and Mel Nicholls, and for them to continue to bring sparkle and smiles into my days whenever I need it (and even when I don’t!)
-I hadn’t expected to come away from the launch event grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
-And I really hadn’t expected to come away feeling like I was involved in something that is truly special.

Over two days we laughed, cried, discussed, messed around and then laughed some more. I genuinely feel like I’ve become part of a family.
Now that I’m part of the Champions team I feel like I’ve got a whole army of encouragement behind me. They send me advice if I’m uncertain and messages of motivation and support if I’m feeling down.
I feel ridiculously lucky!

 

A Sunday stroll that turned into a boggy ramble! (And a rare photo of Mel before all the mud splatters!)

Now I’m excited to see what lies ahead.
I’ve already had great support from the OS team with a trip that I’ve recently completed and I can’t wait to represent the brand at Countryfile Live this August (come and say hello!)

I’m feeling absolutely, tremendously, brilliantly inspired.
Now it’s my job to try and pass some of that inspiration on to you!

Woohoo! They even put up a picture of Skye at the launch event!

Hallo Harry

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Me and ma pal at sunset overlooking Uig Bay

We have a new addition to the household this month; a quiet and strange wee beastie with beady eyes and a snappy appetite.

Little Harry is the latest in a long string of family rescue dogs. Mum does a lot to help rehoming charities and shelters but unfortunately she’s a terrible fosterer.
By that I don’t mean that she’s bad at looking after them. It’s quite the opposite… once we’ve got to know them she finds it too hard to give them away!

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Tuppence, our first ever rescue dog, came to us in a terrible state but she eventually perked up and here she is enjoying Staffin Beach

Most of the dogs settle into the family easily (I firmly believe rescue dogs know when they’ve landed on their feet) but old Harry was a bit different.

He has something called Cushing’s disease caused by a tumor near his brain. As a result he’s a pot-bellied, scruffy little thing who walks with a rolling, bulldog-like gait because he finds it painful to move.
He is also short-tempered.

Our other dogs weren’t keen on this snappy newcomer and so, with their comfort as my excuse, I whisked him up to Skye with me. Rob, Harry and I are now three.

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Sniffing out a catshark in front of the Cuillins (about 2 seconds before Harry pounced on it and I had to wrestle the dead fish from his jaws…)

It’s a joy to have a wee buddy around to keep you company, especially working from home.
Not that he’s like a normal dog. He isn’t particularly interactive, he doesn’t make noise and he very rarely wags his crooked little tail.
Ah, and he also doesn’t like walking.

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Harry prefers to experience the Great Outdoors lying down

As anyone who reads this knows, I’m fond of a wander. Living amidst such incredible scenery here on Skye, who couldn’t be?

With his sore muscles, it isn’t fair to force Harry to walk long distances. How do I get in a day’s rambling or camping with a dog that won’t budge?

After some Googling*, rummaging in the cupboards and a bit of snipping and sewing I had a solution…
The Carry Harry™ prototype!

Okay, so it’s only an old rucksack that I’ve cut up and padded out but it’s just a tester. (Other potential names could be the Pup-oose or Doggy Bag but maybe not the Harry Carry as it sounds a bit like Hari-Kiri!)

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Rain sweeping over the Trotternish Ridge from the Quiraing

We gave the carrier it’s first trial at the Quiraing.
At this time of year it’s a completely different place to the summer; no cars or crowds. It seemed even quieter than usual but I suspect that may have had something to do with the unrelenting rain.

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Even through the mist and drizzle the Quiraing never fails to be spectacular; I had a wonderful walk.
I think Harry was less impressed.

It turns out that, on top of walking, Harry also dislikes rain and heights.

Here, on an island comprising mostly of rain and heights.

It’s a good job he’s cute.

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First test (don’t worry, he’s not too cold! Harry did have a fleece on but didn’t like it)

So the Carry Harry is still undergoing development and I’m continuing my search online for the comfiest purpose-built carriers (if anyone has any tips let me know!)

With the beginnings of Storm Caroline howling around the house, Harry is even less keen to go outside (he got blown over in the garden earlier). We’ve got the fire on and our walking stuff drying next to it.
For now, we’re staying in.

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I’m comfy enough right here, thank you.

***

*I’ve actually switched search engines to Ecosia, an organisation that plants a tree for every search you make. It’s just as good as Google but you’re helping to save the world by doing something you’d be doing anyway.
It sounds like a scam but it’s completely legit so there’s no reason not to make the switch. Check them out here: Ecosia Search Engine

It’s good to be home…

 

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Rehabbing and retoxing in luxury at Kinloch Lodge back on the Isle of Skye -from one extreme to another! (And check out those mega roots!)

Aaaaand… she’s back!

As a couple of eagle-eyed readers have noticed, I’ve spent the last year living off-grid in the wilds of Scotland as part of the Channel 4 Eden programme (see more here).
It was a hell of a ride… There were soaring highs, unbearable lows and everything in-between. I’ve learnt a lot: good, bad, muddy…

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Who’s that funny face there in the middle?! 

It’s been a crazy, surreal 12 months away and I’m now spending the next few weeks gently readjusting back to ‘normal’ life. After such a long period of time away from family, friends, technology and the media the ‘outside world’ feels pretty overwhelming!
Because of that, I’m trying to limit screen time whilst I ease back into things. I can’t say much about the programme until it’s all finished but I’ll write a bit about my real-world rehab/readjustment on here once I’m a bit more settled.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a handful of mini-insights into what it’s been like over the last week…

  • My reaction on seeing a child for the first time in a year: “That person over there is really small!”
  • …first horse: “That thing is huuuuge! Have they always been that big?!”
  • First time seeing Skye Bridge again: It was overwhelming to see home again. Got misty eyes for my Misty Isle!

Oh, and a couple more things….

1. Always take things with a wee crunch of sea salt.

2. To that question that everyone keeps asking… Yes, I did bring home a special souvenir from Eden. He seems to be fitting into Skye life rather well 😉

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Hmm…

 

Alpkit: Go nice places, do good things

I was thinking this morning about all the things I’ve been up to over the past year that I’ve still yet to write about… foraging missions… whale rescue training… trips to Applecross, Harris, Glasgow, Edinburgh…
Then it occurred to me that I’d never shared the video made for Alpkit by Dom Bush who came to stay last August (blog post here)

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Cumbria-based kit-makers Alpkit don’t just make fantastic products (their filoment jacket is probably the warmest, lightest thing I own) -they also have a really great ethos and attitude.
The company motto is ‘Go nice places, Do good things’ and they have a really dynamic and refreshing approach to how a business interacts with its customers. It’s a brand I’m really chuffed to have been involved with and highly recommend (and no, I’m not getting paid to say that).
You can see the adventures they get up to on their Facebook page here.

Dom Bush of Land and Sky Media is a fantastic award-winning filmmaker and it was great to have the chance to be filmed by him. Please ignore me and my lispy ramblings and just enjoy his beautiful camera skills…

To see more videos by Dom for Alpkit check out the Screenroom section of the Alpkit website here. The one about fell-runner Nicky Spinks is amazing -she’s a superwoman!
As well as a catalogue of their products they’ve got lots of interesting blog posts to inspire you to try out your own adventures.

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A leaving note…

Not the M25

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As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I work two days a week at the Skyeworks Gallery down in Portree.
There’s a lot of things I enjoy about working there but one of the things I least expected was the commute.

Originally I had looked at living only just outside of Portree; I didn’t know if the roads on Skye would be treacherous in winter so I thought that was the sensible option.
Of course, falling in love with my funny little house sent the sensible option flying out of the window (although I’ve since found out that the warm, salty sea air here prevents it from getting too icy here anyway)

So, twice a week I drive 45 minutes down the Trotternish Peninsula to work and 45 mins back

…And I love it.

Rush hour

Slow moo-ving traffic

No journey is ever the same.
Morning rush hour on the A855 is when the young farmer walks his characterfully shaggy ‘coos’ down the middle of the road.
Stubborn, wild-eyed sheep threaten to make me late most mornings. Once in a while my journey is blocked by the solid figure of Charlie the bull.
Sometimes I’m greeted by the collie at the end of my road who runs alongside the car as far as it can. At other times I find myself swerving around the chickens, turkeys, ducks and bunnies who congregate at the bottom of my hill.
I usually see a couple of birds of prey perched on posts as I pass the croft cottages and if I’m lucky I’ll spot a sea eagle or two circling over the clifftops just past Staffin.

Rush hour in Kilmaluag

Rush hour in Kilmaluag

On a particularly busy day I might even see some people too.
I like the way the other drivers thank you here, not just a finger lifted from the steering wheel or a solemn nod, you’re more likely to get a proper wave and a grin. Of course, you get the grumpy ones too, and the bewildered tourists, but I enjoy sharing a “Good Morning” smile with the postman, the bus driver, the farmers on their quad bikes…
If it sounds a little like living in an unusually cheery children’s TV show, Postman Pat or Balamory, you’d pretty much be right.

The Quiraing

The Quiraing

Whilst all this is lovely the really incredible thing about my commute is the landscape.
My journey takes me past some of the most famous sights of Skye; the Quiraing, Kilt Rock and the Old Man Of Storr. The spectacular views seem to look brand new every day under different lights and weathers.
Sometimes the tops of the hills are spookily encased in mist with a dark, stormy background. At other times the jagged rocks look like they’re on fire from the neon-red sun setting behind them. When the light has been soft, almost misty, I’ve felt as if I’m driving through an old painting come to life, like that bit in Mary Poppins where the jump into the chalk drawings.

Heading home past The Old Man Of Storr

Heading home past Loch Fada and The Old Man Of Storr

Even something as basic as the road itself is fun. There’s a straight-ish bit over little hills where I like to put my foot down and you can feel your stomach lurch over every drop, fairground-style. Then there’s the flat, open bit along the cliff where you feel like you’re flying along the top of the world.
My favourite part of the journey is where, from going parallel to the coast, the road bends to the right so you face straight out towards the open sea. At the same time the tarmac also curves downwards, disappearing from sight. It gives the impression that you’re about to drive off a cliff and plummet straight into the water hundreds of feet below, Thelma and Louise-style.
The first time I drove it it made my pulse quicken like at the top of a roller coaster before the drop. Even though I pass this way every day I still get that little buzz of exhiliration as I speed towards the waves.

Looking over towards the mainland from the cliff road

Looking over towards the mainland from the cliff road

Could I ever had imagined that I’d enjoy a commute enough to be inspired to write over 600 words about it? Not likely.

Yet with my favourite music on I’m reminded why I moved to Skye every time I make this journey; here’s something that should be ordinary but instead it’s extraordinary. 45 distracting minutes to ease me in or out of the working day.

As Graham, one of my new friends, put it, “If you ever get bored of that drive then it’s probably time to move on from here.”

Morning sunrise over Loch Leathan

Morning sunrise over Loch Leathan