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

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The Sea Monster

So we get a lot of interesting things washing up on the beaches here on Skye. Not only have we got a lot of coastline, we’ve also got a lot of activity going on in the surrounding waters.

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Looking for shells and seaweed at Coral Beach

Some flotsam and jetsam can be beautiful; rare shells, pieces of old ship or historic kitchenware.
More often it’s a frustrating mixture of throwaway plastics and discarded or lost fishing gear (grrrr!)
Every now and again it’s something more interesting…

Last week we found one of the most unusual things I’ve come across: the remains of a rare ocean giant…

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About a month ago there had been reports from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme of a possible minke whale carcass washing up nearby in North Skye (marine mammal medics and SMASS volunteers often go out to investigate reported strandings to identify and record data on the animals that wash up on our local coastlines).

A friend had agreed to have a look for it but they couldn’t safely find it.
We assumed it had been washed back out to sea.

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A minke whale carcass found near Elgol, South Skye (photo by skye-birds.com)

That was until my landlord, Donnie, mentioned seeing some bird activity over a pile of large bones from his boat.

On hearing this, Rob and I armed ourselves with cameras and a tape measure and set off for another investigation. The tall basalt columns of the cliffs can be dangerous (and neither of us are particularly brave around precipitous heights!) but with the added safety of being in a pair we were able to look more thoroughly than before.
Eventually, with me holding on to the back of Rob’s jacket whilst he peered over the edge, we found it.

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Rob at the top of the cliffs

It was not what we expected…

A very clean spine. None of the usual bird activity. A bearable smell.
( You usually catch a whiff of these things before you see them. I once went to identify a long washed-up minke…
The rotten blubber looked like a giant, formless mass of old chewing gum and the stench was unbelievable. It took weeks to get the Eau de Dead Whale out of my clothes.)

The thing we noticed first was the vertebrae, even from a distance we could see that the bones of the spine were perfectly round, not winged like mammals have. It looked like one of those strings of floats you get for dividing lanes in swimming pools.
This was a very big… fish!

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Measuring the individual vertebrae

To reach the remains took careful navigation down a steep cliff path and an hour of scrambling over car-sized boulders skirting the shore. It’s not surprising it was hard to find.
Beetroot-faced and breathing heavily we reached the little beach.

It was easy to identify the species… a basking shark.

Baskers are the second largest fish in the world (after whale sharks). They are gentle giants who arrive in the Hebrides each summer when the warm currents are full of plankton, their main food source.
There was once a lucrative business in capturing basking sharks here for oil. Their numbers plummeted and they are now listed as a IUCN ‘Vulnerable’ species and are legally protected (yay!)

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Watching my first basking shark at Rubha Hunish

I look forward to spotting them when they arrive each year (I wrote about my first sighting here)
The ones I’ve seen have all been relatively small (3-4m max) but they can grow up to 28ft (8m) long!

Now, upon seeing this skeleton, the most awe-inspiring thing was the size.
The spine that had looked teeny-tiny from the clifftops stretched to over 14ft in length. …and that was only a part of it; the rest lay about the beach, scattered by birds.

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Rob with the scattered skeleton

We found 94 vertebrae in total. The biggest ones were as wide and thick as a muscleman’s neck.
When we put the measurements of all the pieces together we worked out that the length of the shark would have been over 24 feet long (and that’s probably with a lot missing!)

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The vertebrae up close. It’s believed that, like a tree, the age of the shark can be determined by the number of rings

The rest of the skeleton was mostly bits of unfamiliar cartilaginous shapes; most pieces as long and thick as my arm.
The scavengers had feasted, meticulously cleaning off all the flesh and leaving perfect off-white pieces. We had them to thank for the (almost) lack of smell.

Aside from the spine, the other most identifiable pieces were two fins, probably pectoral. Again, it was their size that was striking, two great white wings.

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It was a strange-looking skeleton.

Historic incidents of washed-up basking sharks have led to many stories of sea monsters… The way they decompose led to people thinking they were modern-day plesiosaurs, Nessie-like creatures with long necks and big flippers.
The most famous cases are the Zuiyo-maru carcass and the Stronsay Beast; two stories well worth a read if, like me, you find that kind of stuff interesting.

Even picked clean, it was unusual.
Sharks have cartilaginous skeletons meaning that these pieces were not bone; they had a translucence and slight wobble when moved.
Unlike a fish or whale it was hard to know which bit was which or what went where. It felt truly alien.

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A mystery piece. Could this be a part of the jaw?

Whilst it’s sad that such an incredible animal no longer graces our local waters, it was a fascinating thing to investigate.

The even sadder thing, for me, was to find the skeleton surrounded by plastic water bottles. Whilst it’s unlikely that it was this litter that caused the shark’s demise, it was a sorry sight.
We took away a rubbish bag filled almost entirely with discarded bottles.

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Plastic on the beaches is a constant problem

We left the remains as they were. As a protected species, they were not for us to move. The quickly-decomposing ‘bones’ would be reclaimed by the sea soon enough.

That evening we sent our report with measurements and photos to SMASS.
Washed up shark carcasses aren’t common so hopefully the information will go towards helping learn more about these incredible creatures.

It’s now coming towards the end of the shark season on Skye.
There still haven’t been any sighting here in North Skye this summer (which makes this skeleton even more curious) but I’ll be making sure that I get to see a live 
one before the year is out…
At the beginning of October I’ll be heading down to Mull to take part on a research trip with Basking Shark Scotland. I can’t wait… It was fascinating to see this skeleton but nothing beats the magic of seeing a real, living shark.

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Still looking…

One Whole Year #1: Changing seasons

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Just enjoying the view

Well, time runs away and the weeks fly by… I rush about from here to there, busy busy busy; too occupied to have sat down to write a blog post for months.
Then all of a sudden an anniversary passes…
One whole year on Skye.

In fact, that was a few months ago now. I’m not sure what happened to this quiet island life; the last few months have been a blur of artwork commissions, Christmas travels, catch-ups and birthday celebrations. Barely a pause.

 

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Celebrating one year on the island with a fire, bubbles and a tasty Skye Pie

As some of you have noticed, I haven’t posted much recently. I think it’s because I’ve got so much to write about, loads to tell -it’s a bit daunting to know where to start!
But I’m making it a New Year’s resolution to get back on track. My most recent comments have been so kind and encouraging that I’d be an idiot not to try a bit harder!

So, one whole year on this magical island…

Firstly, “yah boo sucks!” to anyone who thought I couldn’t hack it!
Have I said before about how some folk here say you have to do three winters on Skye before you’re accepted?
Well, I’m not sure about that. I think that an incomer here is probably always an incomer; I’ve met people who have been here for forty years who are still considered ‘new’ (probably a good thing as it means I don’t have to change the name of this blog yet)! But acceptance is another thing. Skye folk are so wonderfully kind that I never felt like an outsider; they’re always welcoming.

 

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One of the locals

15 months here means that I’m halfway through that supposed three winter period and I’ve now seen every season on Skye. Well, almost every season…

Ignoring the tourist hoardes, summer on Skye is supposed to be a little bit like paradise. Don’t scoff, the Scottish summertime is stunning. It exists, I’ve seen it. I’ve even caught a tan.
Only, this year it didn’t come.

Every time my family asked about the rain they would laugh and say, “well, you did move to Scotland!” My defence of the West Coast weather was rudely undermined by the daily drizzle.
Luckily this isn’t the norm; even my poor neighbours and landlady were apologetic that I wasn’t experiencing the best summer Skye had to offer. I didn’t mind, it just gives me an excuse to stay on and try another one!

 

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Moody shifting skies

Although I still haven’t got the chance to explore in a T-shirt there’s still been some beautiful days.
When I lived in London it was wonderful to return to the family home and see the seasons change. At our cottage in Chiddingfold it’s a treat to see nature changing; the colours deepen and the smells emerge.

Seeing the seasons in the English countryside is one thing but up here it’s even more intense. Being immersed in a dramatic landscape means noticing all the changes on a grand scale. Whole swathes of hillside turn from dark monochrome to bright green then to hazy purple then vivid rust before back to snowy black and white again. Sometimes at sunset the light catches these colours in such a way that they look like they’re on fire. There’s nothing like it.

 

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‘And the rest is rust and stardust’

WINTER

I arrived on Skye in winter on purpose. It was to be a 6 month escape; close the doors, light the fire, curl up with a whisky, read a book. Time out. Hibernation.
This didn’t happen.
Aside from the obvious fact that I well and truly got ‘Skyejacked’ (brilliant term, not my invention!), I actually found it hard to stay inside when there was so much exploring to be done. Wind, rain and cold are fine if you’re dressed up properly to protect you from them so the weather didn’t bother me.
Last January/February was one of my favourite times here. Of course there was the epic January storm with 100mph winds that caused havoc with 4-day blackouts and damage to houses and crofts. Not great. But after that there was a period of calm with fresh snow and bright blue skies that made everything dazzle. It was crisp and soft and quiet in a way that seemed magical.

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And all at once I saw a crowd…

SPRING

There was an unexpected surprise that came with moving into my cottage. As the ice thawed and the days became (slightly) more warm I noticed a little spot of white appear at the edge of my snow-scorched lawn. Snowdrops!
Over the next couple of months I would rush to the window each morning to see what had appeared. First came the snowdrops, then the gold of a crocus, then a purple crocus. At one point, like a joyful finale, my whole lawn was covered in daffodils in various shades of cream and bright orange egg yolk.
I’d never been interested in flowers before, suddenly I’m a convert.
Of course, spring blooms go hand in hand with baby animals and on the croft I was surrounded!

 

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New arrivals

I would wake up in the morning and drag my groggy body down to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. As I stood at the sink for the kettle to boil I’d look out the window and right there in front of me would be a couple of tiny calves with their new brown skin gleaming in the morning sun like freshly opened chestnuts. Then I’d take my tea to the porch at the other side of the house and watch the lambs run and jump about in the field like little boisterous wisps of cotton wool. It’s like living in a children’s picture book or Easter card.
Forget therapy or medication, you can’t have a bad day when you wake up to this. If there’s anything more joyful than a miniature calf bouncing around like an overgrown excited puppy I’m yet to see it.

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SUMMER
The less said about this the better. How many words does the British language have for rain again?

 

 

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Loch Mealt and Beinn Edra in autumnal colours

AUTUMN

Skye excels at beautiful landscapes; it shows off -an A* student. But there was something I missed about autumn here…

There are very few trees in the North of Skye and, of the ones we do have, only a small fraction are deciduous; the sea and the wind up here have scoured the landscape making it bare of all but the toughest plants. So no shifting palette of rich oranges and golds, no rustle of papery leaves leaving their branches, no smell of leaf mold to breathe in as you wander. It’s a season for all senses; you can feel the changes with your eyes, ears and nose.

In an uncharacteristic turn, autumn in the North of Skye seemed to me to be more subtle. It can begin with vibrant purple heather blooms in September but most of the flowers seemed to be hiding this year, made shy by the constant summer rain. Instead the hills slowly turned from one colour to another, bit by bit, quietly.
Then one day, when driving along a normal route, the sun will break through the mist and pick up the rust colour of the recently-green hillside. It’s a colour so vibrant and intense that when caught in the light it can look almost crimson; reflected in the glow of an early autumn sunset it sometimes looks aflame.

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Russet hills beyond the Loch Damh

In October I was invited by an old friend to spend some time on an estate near Torridon. On arrival our lovely host took me out on Loch Damh to pick up some of the other guests who had been up on the hills all day. On our way back the sun was setting on the russet landscape and I exclaimed with joy at how beautiful the light and colours were. My friend turned to me and said, “But you live here, don’t you see this every day?”
I smiled.
Every day here is different. Each morning brings something new; a new colour, a new species, a previously unnoticed view  -it’s one of the things I appreciate most about my Scottish home.

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Taking in the hills

Whilst I adore the writer, Samuel Johnson, when it comes to Skye I’d prefer to give his famous quote a James Boswell kind-of spin…
When a girl is tired of the Highlands & Islands she is tired of life.
There’s still so much more to be seen…