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…

82 Islands!

On Friday I revealed my upcoming project, 82 Islands, on social media. The positive response was overwhelming. 
Of course, I’M dead excited about it, I just hadn’t expected others to be too! 
Combining my love of islands with a Leave No Trace message is something that’s far too fun for me to seriously call it a ‘challenge’ or ‘adventure’ but I’m looking forward to sharing it all with you as I go.

Here’s what 82 Islands is all about…

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I’m feeling restless.
It’s now been a whole year since I spent six weeks on the uninhabited Shiant Isles and two years since we completed a year of living off-grid in the woods.
Definitely time for another project.

It’ll be no surprise to hear that I have a fascination with islands.
After all, I decided to relocate to Skye, leaving my family and friends a 13-hour drive away. It’s not always easy but I think it’s worth it.

Why are we drawn to islands?

Is it the proximity to the sea and the way living by water affects us mentally? Is it the idea of being solitary or in a closely-knit community separated from wider society? Or could it be the most basic thing of all where, through media culture, we’re conditioned to associate the idea of an island with ‘paradise’?
I suspect it’s a combination of the above plus many other things.

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For me, there’s also the urge to get to know these places. To meet them. To learn their personalities. Because the most brilliant thing is that each and every Scottish island I have ever visited has a completely individual character.

This was something I became fully aware of on my Shiant Isles castaway trip last year.

Even this little archipelago of relatively small islands showed that each one had a completely different nature.
The Gaelic names of the islands are Eilean Mhure (Mother Island), Garbh Eilean (Rough Island) and Eilean an Taighe (Home Island).
These correspond to the different characters of each… Rough Island is high and craggy. Mother Island is a fertile grassy plateau holding the possible remnants of religious buildings. Home island is, unsurprisingly, where the last human settlement was.

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From the scrubby hills of Rough Island (Garbh Eilean), looking over to the fertile plateau of Mary Island (Eilean Mhure)

More well known is Lewis and Harris. They might be one land mass but they’re two distinct entities; Lewis with it’s evocative, expansive peat moors and Harris with those famous ice white beaches.

Each island has it’s own specific mix of flora and fauna, geology and history.
This is part of my attraction to islands (in addition to seeking solitude amidst nature, of course) and is why getting to know just one isn’t enough.

BUT…
There’s a responsibility in spending time in such unique natural places.
Especially for those of us who broadcast our experiences whether that be through writing, photography or social media.

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Sights like this at the iconic Neist Point are becoming more common and pose a wildfire threat as well as looking ugly and making the rest of us really pissed off!

There’s a dichotomy going on between the way we interact with wild spaces.
Whilst it’s important that we promote things like getting outside so that people can connect with the landscape and want to protect it, there’s also a downside… more footfall means more erosion, litter and other damage.

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Seriously people?! (Taken at the Falls of Falloch)

We could never close National Parks or warn people off visiting the Hebrides but what we can do is educate people to care for them properly.

Because of this I’m also going to use this trip as a way of spreading the Leave No Trace ethos. It’s something that’s close to my heart as Skye is an island that struggles with irresponsible campfires, rubbish left by roadsides and lack of loos.
I want to make sure my visits don’t negatively impact the islands and encourage others to follow suit.

More than that, I’d love it if we all started following something I’ve heard of many times in regards to staying in bothies:
‘Don’t just leave it as you found it. Leave it better.’

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‘Leave nothing but footprints…’

THE ADVENTURE:

Last autumn Ordnance Survey and Sheffield University created a poster of all of Great Britain’s largest islands.
It’s a really cool image where they included all islands over 5km square and charted their dimensions, length of coastline and population (if any).

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The inspiration

Like a lot of people, I saw this and thought, “That’s awesome! I’d love to visit all of those”
As time went on, the idea never really left me and so here we are!

Over the course of the year I’m going to be staying on all 82 of Great Britain’s largest islands.
The trip will be supported by Ordnance Survey and #GetOutside but it will be self-funded and I’ll be planning my journeys to fit around my work (and when I can afford to travel!)

I’m lucky in that Skye is pretty much in the middle of all the islands.
71 of them are in Scotland, England has nine and Wales has just two.
…I think this might be the only time that Skye has ever been in a convenient location!

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I’ll become extra familiar with crossing The Minch

My aim will be to get to know these places. To meet them; their people, their nature, their history..
It might not be as extreme as some of the things I’ve done previously but it’ll still be a big undertaking and on each island I’ll be doing the following things…
-At least one night bivvying.
-A mini beach clean.
-A wild swim.
-And the creation of an artwork. Probably a sketch but I’ll see where the inspiration takes me!

…It might sound like a lot but it’s worth noting that a sea swim in Shetland in January would be a very quick thing!

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Beach cleaning is one of the simplest ways to leave a place better than you found it



The emphasis of each visit is to enjoy the islands responsibly and mindfully; to gain a little bit of familiarity with the individual character of the island rather than take part in fast tourism or just ticking a name off a list.

For once, this will be a more social trip (not just hiding away like a hermit each time, though I might do that once or twice on the uninhabited ones…)
I’ll be inviting others to join me along the way and hoping to meet some local residents as I go. I’m especially keen to invite camping newbies or people who might not have the confidence to start alone.

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Leave No Trace bivvying: still a better view than most hotels

 

We’ll see what happens… I have a feeling that this will evolve and adapt as the year progresses!

If anyone reading this feels like joining me or has any suggestions of things to do or people to connect with on each island please let me know.
I’m still working out a few security protocols but watch this space for opportunities to join in as I’ll be posting those here too.

I’m also still open to sponsors so also give me a shout if you think your brand would make a good fit for the trip!

Eeek, I’m very excited!

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Okay this photo is half excited, half frozen but it proves my point about quick swims at least!

 

My kit list for a weekend in the wilderness

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A room with a view!

Yesterday I opened a message from my friend, Clare.
She’s going camping for the first time soon and, knowing I love sleeping under the stars, she wondered if I could advise on what she should take.

I’ve had a few friends ask me similar things recently so, rather than replying to everyone privately, I thought I’d share my thoughts in a blog post.

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Wild woman! Looking dishevelled after 6 months of living in the woods (photo by Rob Pattinson)

The first thing I should say is that I’m certainly no expert on camping, this is simply what works for me! It’s my basic starter list.
If you’re a seasoned camper you might think there are too many items… Or you might think I’ve missed things.
For some folk a stovetop coffee pot is a vital necessity, for others it’s a proper pillow or a good book… Whatever makes you happy!

Each different style of camping has a slightly different packing list.
Are you taking a tent? Bivvying? With tarp or without? Have you got a camper van? Are you going to build your own shelter or dig a snowhole?

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Making a basic shelter using found materials and existing structures (photo from my island trip)

I usually choose to bivvy, the most basic way to sleep wild.
There’s no tent involved, just a waterproof (aka bivvy/bivvi) bag to keep out the elements. There are no walls so you can fall asleep watching for shooting stars. If lots of rain is forecast I’ll also take a tarp so I can sit outside of my sleeping bag.
I’ve based my list on this way of sleeping out but it’s easy to adapt. If you’ve got a campervan with all mod-cons feel free to replace practical roll mats and tarps with heavy bottles of wine -enjoy!

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Cider with Pip the pup on a recent camp out

Over time you’ll find out what works best for you. You’ll swap the things that you rarely use for little luxuries or favourite foods.
Sometimes I’ll have a bag stuffed to bursting that I can barely carry and at other times I’ll pack little more than sleeping gear and a toothbrush. It all depends on my mood, where I’m going and what the weather is like.

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I rarely camp out without a book or two; it’s the perfect opportunity to switch off and chill out.

That said, it took a long time for me to learn that I didn’t always need to fill my bag with additional stuff ‘just in case’. I used to make sure I packed clothes for all eventualities, a spare set in case I got wet, some clean stuff, maybe I might need this extra thing, how about a choice of breakfast foods or books?

Then I bought the ‘Microadventures’ book by Al Humphreys* and my whole attitude to sleeping out changed.
A microadventure is an achievable adventure that is short, cheap, simple and usually close to home. They can be enjoyed on a weekday night, after work, even just in the back garden. And you don’t need much stuff.

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Bivvying near Inverness airport -a cheap and fun way to catch the first flight of the day

The bit that really stood out to me was where Al (with apologies to his Mum!) said he doesn’t always bother taking spare socks or pants if he’s just heading straight home the next morning.

It reminded me of doing a similar thing during sixth form. On weekends, after raiding someone’s parents’ wine cellar we’d grab as many coats and scarves as we could and trundle out into the night in the direction of Windsor Great Park. Once there we’d curl up under a big oak tree and giggle and get spooked by nocturnal noises until we fell asleep. At dawn we’d wake up, shivering and damp, with huge smiles on our faces.
We’d call it ‘going trekking’ and laugh about it as we walked home towards the inevitable ticking-off.

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From the archives… Baby Katie & friends getting spooked by owls in Windsor Great Park circa 2002.

In many ways, reading ‘Microadventures’ was a lesson in returning to that youthful spontaneity. We don’t need expedition-style prep to enjoy a night or two under the stars. It’s simply about having fun.

Since we’re here I want to take this chance to tell camping newbies the rule number one of enjoying wild spaces…
Leave No Trace!

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Litter, firepits and scorch marks -bad camping practice that ruins these beautiful places for everyone (photo from Facebook group ‘Glen Etive: The Dirty Truth’)

This probably seems obvious but, with a growing interest in wild camping, there’s been a huge (and not very nice) impact on our natural environments.
I see it first hand here in Skye but it’s a growing problem across the UK so it’s important that we all know how to camp responsibly.
There are a number of basic principles that all new campers should know and I’ve detailed ‘The Big Three’ that I think are most important in my previous VIB** blog post here.

So, after all that, here’s what I’d pack for a weekend living wild…

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Tea, chocolate and a good book in a beautiful place… perfect!

MY BASIC WEEKEND KIT LIST…

SLEEPING
The main activity! My sleeping bag and bivvy take up a good 75% of the space in my rucksack (mostly because I’m a stuffer, life’s too short for rolling and folding a sleeping bag).

Sleeping bag
Rollmat or air mat: I prefer a military-issue rollmat, not as comfy but I usually pop the others!
Bivvy bag: Over my sleeping bag to keep me dry.
Tarp/waterproof blanket/tent (optional): An optional additional barrier against wet weather. I like to take a small tarp so that I don’t have to retreat to my sleeping/bivvy bag when it rains at mealtimes.
Bungees/paracord/tent pegs (optional): For securing tarp (or tent). Bungees are especially helpful as you can also use them to secure bulky stuff like roll mats to the outside of your bag.
Pillow (optional): I never bother, choosing instead to use a rolled-up jumper or whatever is at hand  but some people find it makes a big difference to the quality of their sleep.

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Enjoying a cosy lie-in thanks to my trusty Alpkit bivvy bag

PERSONAL KIT
This will obviously vary depending on how long you’re off-grid for and also how mucky you don’t mind being!

Toothbrush and toothpaste
Soap: Those small, individually-wrapped soaps you get from hotels are perfect.
Lip balm/hand cream: These aren’t essential but I find both really helpful, especially if I’m away for more than a couple of days.
Spare socks, underwear and baselayers: Unless it gets wet you only really need to change the layers closest to your skin. It’s only a weekend and no-one’s judging you! I never bother with pyjamas or swimming kit as it’s easier just to strip off.
Warm kit: Hat, neck buff, gloves. Even if it feels warm it’s worth having these just in case the temperature takes a dip.
Waterproofs
Towel (optional): You can get great lightweight camping towels that fold up neatly. I prefer a ‘proper’ towel despite the bulk.
Tissues: I add these with reluctance as seeing dirty scrunches of tissue paper discarded in natural places is one of my biggest pet peeves… If you need a wee why not embrace your wild side and try out some moss instead? If you must use tissue always bag it up and take it away with you.
Tissues can also be handy for fire lighting, drying tech and runny noses.
Sanitary items (if needed): As above, please take your rubbish away with you!

Compostable dog poo bags: For used tissues, sanitary items and even, ahem, number 2’s! (Remember not to flush the bags themselves when you get to somewhere with plumbing)

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You can’t beat nice dry socks after a long walk!

COOKING/EATING
Part of the pleasure of camping for me is a brew with a view, a quickly-scoffed chocolate bar after a long walk or a dram of whisky whilst looking at the stars.

Tin mug: I always take two as one can double up as a cooking vessel.
Cutlery: I don’t bother with specialist camping cutlery as I usually break it or lose it! A fork, dessert spoon and a couple of teaspoons usually do for me (with my regular bushcraft knife)
Mess tins
Cooking system: There’s a huge variety to choose from. The easiest type to start off with is a simple gas canister with a stove attachment. My favourite is a Kelly Kettle system which uses natural fuels. You can see a range of different types here. Take a look around to see what suits your needs best.
Metal scouring pad: I’ve sacrificed far too many pairs of clean socks and knickers because I’ve forgotten to bring something to wash up with!
Food & drink: This is a whole blog in itself so I won’t make a list here. Just be aware of weight, ease of cooking and whether things will keep without being refrigerated. Take more calorific food than you would eat at home and don’t forget treats!

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A ready-to–heat pouch of curry quickly warmed in a cup over the stove/fire is my favourite easy supper

SAFETY:
You probably won’t need most of these but you might regret it if you forget them!

Headtorch: I take two, just in case!
First Aid Kit: You can make your own or buy a ready-made kit (Lifesystems has a great selection here) I also like to add extra medicines such as burn gel, rehydration sachets, Imodium, Anthisan, etc.
Insect repellent and an O’Tom Tick Twister.
Emergency shelter/silver blanket.
Map & compass (if needed)
Mobile phone/GPS/radio: To call for help in case of emergencies. Be aware that in remote places you may not get phone signal. I use a GPS Spot Tracker and have an old Nokia as a back up.

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Don’t let injuries or disabilities keep you inside. You don’t have to hike a mountain to enjoy camping out (I ended up in this cast after a trip in my house -staying indoors is risky!)

PRACTICAL
The handy stuff.

Water bottle: I take multiples as well as a collapsible water carrier.
Lighter/matches/flint and a back-up.
Knife.
Superglue, string, duct tape: For repairs… I never regret packing these!
A waterproof bag or two: For keeping things dry, storing rubbish, wet clothes etc. Alpkit’s drybags are my favourite.
Trowel: To dig a 6-8″ hole in case nature calls. Check out this article to see how to poop responsibly in the woods without causing harm to the environment, other people or wildlife.

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A few strategic scraps of duct tape stopped the tiny holes in my tarp from ripping further. It’s not that tidy but it works.

MY FAVOURITE HANDY EXTRAS
These are the things that I take to make living outside a bit easier or more comfortable. You might agree or think they’re a waste of space. That said, once you’ve tried a hot water bottle on a frosty winter night it’ll be hard to go back!

A Kelly Kettle: Probably my favourite bit of kit for spending time outdoors. In the right conditions I can boil water faster than my electric kettle at home. I use it for making hot drinks, filling hot water bottles and for even heating water for laundry. It’s more useful than 80% of my ex boyfriends.
Hot water bottle: Pure joy for frozen toes and long chilly nights. I now find it quicker, easier and more fuel efficient to make a HWB than to build a fire (not to mention less risk to the environment!)
Whisky: Central heating.
Large bags for beach cleans/impromptu litter picks.
Slip-on sandals/wellies/Crocs: for putting on quickly around camp.
Bottle opener/tin opener: Forget at your peril!
A small axe/hatchet: Good for making kindling. Equally good for digging, levering and for opening cans when you’ve forgotten the tin opener!
A notebook and pen: A bit of peace usually gets my mind sparking with new ideas and future plans.

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My beloved Kelly Kettle boiling water for my morning brew

…Aaaaand a rucksack to carry it all.

It looks like a long list when written down like that but it all packs up fairly easily, especially if you attach bulkier items like mats or Kelly Kettles to the outside of your pack.
Sometimes it’s also handy to bring a smaller backpack for when you’ve set up camp and want to go exploring. I call this my ‘handbag’ and use it for keeping a bottle of water, my safety kit (phone, emergency blanket, first aid kit etc) and warm/waterproof clothes close to hand.

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Big enough bag?!

The safety stuff is pretty important but the rest of it is all just personal preference.

Hopefully my basic guide is of some help but it’s also worth checking out other blogs for different ideas. What things would you add or remove?

Happy Camping folks!

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*

**Very Important Blog, please read! 

*Buy this book. You will not regret it.
Al has probably been my biggest inspiration in getting outside so far. He makes it feel manageable and easy as well as exciting and his enthusiasm is infectious. Microadventures taught me a whole new way of enjoying nights spent under the stars with the ‘5-9’ idea and a more casual approach to adventuring. He’s also written a much more comprehensive guide to packing than I have here!

The Escape

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post about a solo Girl Friday/Castaway adventure that I’ve been thinking about for years.

On 31st March I waved goodbye to Skye and set sail for the Outer Hebrides.
The next day I was on a RIB speeding towards the silhouette of three dramatic uninhabited islands.

The next six weeks gave me some of the most extraordinary moments of my life.

Not everything went as planned, there were deep lows as well as soaring highs, but I found something in the disconnection from human contact that I’ve never experienced before… an almost-spiritual clarity and peace.

I’ve got so much to talk about in relation to my time there… from the wildlife I saw and the environmental observations I made to the dwelling I built and what it feels like to be removed from modern life.
I’ll follow up with further posts (please leave any questions below)

I owe thanks to Tom Nicolson for the use of his islands and Dòl Eoin MacKinnon for putting together this brilliant video.
Most of all I’m thankful to Stornoway RNLI and the staff at Stornoway Hospital for looking after me when I suffered from concussion part-way through the trip. I hope that I can help to repay a tiny fraction of your kindnesses but I’ll still be forever indebted to you for your help (and for putting up with me being stinky!)

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!

New Moons & New Starts…

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Insert cheesy caption about changing tides here…

Is it just me or did January seem to last for about eight weeks?!

Not that I mind January…

Tucked in between the island weather warnings we are treated to vivid blue skies with sparkling sunshine and a clarity to the air that we don’t see in warmer months; happy breaths of respite amidst the seemingly-endless days of sleet and overcast skies.

I’m often cold but I’m happy in the knowledge that I’m only going to get warmer from now on (I know spring has sprung when I finally regain feeling in my toes. A few weeks to go yet…)

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Clear blue winter skies and the Trotternish Ridge all to myself!

The days are getting longer…
When I visit nearby bothies and tourist spots I have them all to myself (I can wake up and brush my teeth in my pants and wellies looking like a scruffy urchin without scaring anyone -yay!)
In my garden, tiny green spears precede buttery-coloured crocus buds and the pearls of new snowdrops.

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Hullo little friend!

Well, with all that said, I think January is pretty bloody lovely, actually!

I think the reason why it’s felt so long for me is that so much has happened.
Huge things, both good and bad, made for an exhaustingly busy month…

Unfortunately, Rob and I parted ways after almost two years together. Although it’s always sad when these things end, there are no hard feelings between us and we’ll always have fond memories of our time together. Although we realised that we look at life in completely opposite ways I’ll always appreciate the how we got each other through such an extraordinary first year together!

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Back to kissing frogs!

It’s strange being single again though, a weird mix of oh-bugger-here-we-are-again-I’m-too-old-for-this and lovely freedom. I’m not saying finding a partner on Skye is hard but it’s probably easier to teach quantum physics to adolescent piglets…
Suppose I’ll just have to get my own Valentines present this year.

On top of this I travelled back to the South of England to help Mum move house.
Despite being in my 30’s I still count the family home as ‘home home’, even though I’m very much a Skye-girl now (I’ll always be an ‘incomer’ but hopefully I can also be ‘a local’!)

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Bye bye, Meadowview Cottage!

 

 

Some good news has been that my painting sales have been busier than they’ve ever been before (whoopee!) but the real big, red cherry on the cake is this…
I’m now an Ordnance Survey #GetOutside Champion!

Okay, fair enough, if you don’t follow outdoorsy/adventure social media then you probably don’t know what that is (although you’d have to be living on the moon to have not come across Ordnance Survey before).

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Woohoo, I’m a #GetOutside Champion… They even put up a picture of North Skye to make me feel at home… 😉

To put it simply, I’ve joined a team of 60 of some the most inspiring and exciting adventurers in the UK today. For the launch event in the New Forest I got to meet fellow Champions including Ben Fogle, Shaun Conway, Sarah Outing MBE and a whole crowd of ridiculously awesome humans (and no, I’m not quite sure how I got in there either..!)

I won’t go into too much detail as I’ll write a new post about it later this week but it’s a great honour and, after an overwhelming January, it’s just what I needed to kickstart an awesome 2018.

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The 2018/19 Ordnance Survey #GetOutside Champions (I’m the one in the middle who can’t quite believe she got in there!)

One of the many inspiring people I met at the #GetOutside launch event was Anna Humphries, a mountain leader, Bear Grylls instructor and generally all-round kickass superwoman. I was lucky enough to be sat next to her at the launch dinner.
Whilst we ate we talked about the rare event of the supermoon, blood moon and blue moon all coinciding at the same time. Amongst her many talents, Anna is fantastically knowledgeable about the universe. She explained about energies and planets and how, after many folk experienced difficulties over winter, good things are set to align this year because of these celestial events.
Now I’m a sceptic with most things but she explained this in such a scientific and rational way… it really made sense.

It’s been quite a turbulent month for me but, you know what, I feel deep down that Anna is right… 2018 is gonna be a good year.
I’m excited already…

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Bring it 2018, I’ve got a new jumper and a cup of tea and I’m ready for ya!