Notes From A Small Island #3

'And the rest is rust and stardust'

‘And the rest is rust and stardust’

TO BE A LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER…:

I’ve just applied for a job with the Northern Lighthouse Board to become their Skye-based lighthouse keeper. The position involves keeping a check on four lighthouses on and around the island (including Neist Point, where I stayed at New Years). It’s only a part-time thing (I don’t get to live in a lighthouse) but it’s an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

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

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

I’ve had to put a few friends straight that it’s not going to be a romantic job where I spend most of the day looking out to sea in a stripy jumper smoking a pipe and growing a beard (well, I might try anyway)… I think it’s going to be more of a maintenance job involving carrying stuff to and fro in the pouring rain. I doubt I’ll get it but I bloody hope I do, who doesn’t want to work in a lighthouse?!

The foghorn at Neist Point Lighthouse

The foghorn at Neist Point Lighthouse

***

KATIE MORAG

I’ve been chatting to someone recently who pointed out that I remind him of Katie Morag, the Scottish children’s book character. It was something to do with both of us enjoying beachcombing, finding treasures etc.
I laughed and said I hadn’t read it but I’d take his word for it and he sent me a picture of one of the book illustrations. About half an hour later Mum sent me some pictures she’d snapped during our recent trip to Coral Beach where I had taken advantage of the especially low tide to find shells. They included the photo below.
Obviously there’s no resemblance whatsoever…

Katie Morag collecting beach treasures

Katie Morag collecting beach treasures

Katie Tunn collecting beach treasures

Katie Tunn collecting beach treasures

***

THE 70th ANNIVERSARY OF THE BEINN EDRA CRASH:

Saturday was the 70th anniversary of the WWII bomber disaster on Beinn Edra, the site of which I visited on Remembrance Sunday (you can read my blog post about it here). The Staffin Trust had organised a new memorial plaque which was unveiled at the Columba 1400 centre. This was followed by a service and a lecture from someone at the University of Glasgow.

It was an understandably moving ceremony; time hasn’t dulled the fact that this was a really horrible tragedy. The wind and rain whipped around the building as if to show us the weather that the flight crew had had to contend with.
A prayer read in gaelic by a man who had witnessed the event as a boy was particularly poignant moment.

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

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

But what moved me most about the event was how many people there were there; the hall of Columba 1400 was so full that some folk had to lean in through the back door to listen. It says a lot about the Staffin community (and probably most of the communities here on Skye) that they have collectively taken on the mourning for these 9 US airmen that just happened to lose their lives nearby. It’s a testament to the warm hearts of the Staffin people that they remember the loss as if they were their own family.
In a different way I’ve also seen some of that kindness in the way that I’ve been treated since arriving here.

The new memorial plaque for the Staffin war memorial

The new memorial plaque for the Staffin war memorial

***

SEA VEGGIES

Someone brought some dried dulse into the bakery the other day and I had my first opportunity to try it (something I’ve wanted to do for ages as I love foraging and wild foods).
Dulse is a deep red edible seaweed that used to be a staple of the old crofters diet throughout the North West coastal regions. It fell out of favour as people began to turn towards pre-prepared modern foods but it’s now becoming popular again due to it’s health properties (it’s full of vitamins, minerals and protein) and the trend for foraging and utilising local produce.

No prizes for looking appetising

No prizes for looking appetising

It tasted as you might expect, salty with a strong iodine flavour. It was incredibly chewy too, and I suspect it would make a pretty handy snack for anyone who would otherwise reach for a huge slice of cake in the afternoon (I’m looking firmly at myself here).

I’ve just bought a load of sushi ingredients back from Surrey and I’m going to do some experimenting with different types of seaweeds for wrapping the rice and making interesting salads. I’ve just got to wait until the weather’s good enough to clamber over the rocks at low tide to collect it without getting blown in. Looking out the window now, that may be some time away!

***

MAGIC:

There was something strange in the air the other night.

I’d been driving back from Inverness airport after a weekend in Windsor for a family event. I didn’t leave the city until it had got dark and I had this odd feeling that I was very far from home (which of course, I am, but I’ve never felt that here before. I’ve always felt very settled… It must have been leaving all my loved ones behind that caused it)

Flying visits

The long way home

It was freezing cold and I hit a blizzard again on the road coming up the the Cluanie Dam. It had been a long day, this was the last thing I needed.
It was treacherous but for some reason I felt completely calm, not like the previous time when my shoulders had been up round my ears as I anticipated sliding into a loch.

I came out of the other side of the blizzard to a brightly snow-covered landscape. The moon was almost full and the hills rose on either side of me, silhouetted pale grey against the black sky. Everything was calm, both inside the car and out.

Every now and again my car would disturb an owl on a fencepost and I’d see pale wings swoop up into the night. As I passed the Cuillins one of these owls flew up and followed the curve of the road. I pressed down on the accelerator and sped alongside it for a few seconds before it turned and disappeared into the forest.

There was something so strange about this night that I can’t put my finger on. It felt like a night for mischief and adventures; running around in the snow, midnight swims, sneaking into interesting places, watching meteors.
There was magic in the air tonight.

Driving into Uig I considered pulling over and going for a walk around the Fairy Glen. With work the next morning I decided against it but a wander around the bay wouldn’t keep me up too late.

When I got home I wrapped myself in warm kit, filled a hipflask and grabbed some headphones.
I’ve just downloaded an album by a band called Solomon Grey who composed the soundtrack to the BBC drama, The Casual Vacancy. I had to look them up after watching the programme; their music was perfect… hazy and haunting. I’m always looking for music that I describe as ideal ‘cold winter beach music’; something atmospheric and ephemeral to occupy the background whilst you’re making your way along a shore.
Solomon Grey is exactly that and it’s safe to say that they make perfect midnight wandering music too.

The Selected Works album by Solomon Grey

The Selected Works album by Solomon Grey

I didn’t take a torch; the moonlight was so bright outside that I could see my shadow on the track as clear as if it were bright sunshine. I turned my music down low so that it mingled with the sound of my boots crunching through the icy crust on the snow..
Someone had left a boat pulled up on the shore and I sat in it for a while watching the light on the waves. It was exceptionally still. (Thank you boat owner x)

Artwork by Karen Davis

Artwork by Karen Davis

When my bum got too cold I got up and wandered up the path towards the ruins of St Moluag’s Church. My feet took me up the path on the right towards Rubha Hunish but I stopped myself at the gate. No long rambles tonight, not on a schoolnight.
So I turned back and crunched my way up the track towards the main road.
It was SO still. But I was far from alone. There were birds still making noises, not singing but calling out every now and again. Hares ran here and there in front of me and the heavy, dark shapes of cows in the fields turned silently to look at me as I passed.

I wasn’t sure where to go next. It was well past midnight after an entire day of travelling. My sense of responsibility had a word with my sense of adventure and I turned round towards home.
It did feel sad to leave this moonlight though. I’m sure I sound a little bit nuts or silly but there really was something imperceptibly special about this night.
Again, this sounds ridiculous but it was like there was something huge that was… changing. Somehow.

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

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

I looked back behind me to take one lasting mental picture of the illuminated monochrome landscape of the back of the Quiraing. Then one last look at the stars. Or maybe just 10 more minutes…
I lay down on the track and looked up. Between the silvery clouds the stars were beaming. I picked out the easiest constellations and reminded myself that I really must learn more than just The Plough and friends.

My music shuffled onto the next song, Choir To The Wild, and the moment was perfect.
Have a listen to it on YouTube here (night sky optional but highly recommended). I think you should just about get the picture.

It didn’t take long for my eyelids to start feeling heavy and I tried to fight off the sleep. It wasn’t working very well so I admitted defeat.
So I went home and went to bed… but I took the calmness with me.

The Fairy Glen

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

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

As I rounded the top of the road at Duntulm I pulled over. Despite my address actually being ‘North Duntulm’ I’d never visited the old castle ruins that the area is known for. I wasn’t in a hurry so I walked along the cliff to have a wee snoop around.
IMG_3561

Duntulm Castle stands on an impressive cliff-like piece of basalt that juts out into the sea. It used to be the seat of the clan MacDonald but there’s not much left of it now (I’m not surprised now I know how fierce the weather can be here)
It was interesting enough but I didn’t stay long.

'Inside' Duntulm Castle

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

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

Uig today.  Storms? What storms?

Uig today.
Storms? What storms?

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

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

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

Driving into the Fairy Glen

Driving into the Fairy Glen

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

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

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

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

Hello

Hello

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

Ambling up to the Fairy Castle

The Fairy Castle from the West

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

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

Behind the Fairy Castle

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

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

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

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

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

The waterfall

The waterfall

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

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

A marching baa-nd?

A marching baa-nd?

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

Counting sheep?

Counting sheep?

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

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

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

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

eeb6a3951c2b9ddf6291d9f0cf36e9c6