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!)

Advertisements

Luck

Spot the orca

Spot the orca

I’ve just got home after an impromptu orca-spotting trip
(well, I say ‘orca-spotting’ but it was really just a few hours staring at the sea…)

There were a couple of reports on Facebook about a pod being spotted near Neist Point (the most Westerly point on Skye) and there was a possibility that they’d be heading North.

I’ve been working on a portrait in the studio this month so I washed my paintbrushes, made a Thermos of tea, then headed up the road to the ruins at Duntulm, a good vantage point.

The wind made the water choppy and my eyes were streaming. Not ideal for seeing the white mist of a blow or the dark surface of skin or fin.
Still, I sat and scanned the water as best I could.

I sipped the tea (instantly chilled by the wind) from my Thermos and nibbled on a Single Track brownie whilst tourists came and went around me wondering what this bundled-up human being was staring so intently at.

Can you tell it was chilly?

Can you tell it was chilly?

Eluded this time.
After about an hour and a half I got up and wandered back to the car, imagining the whole way that there was a pod of orcas jumping up in acrobatic cheekiness the moment I’d turned my back.

At home I checked my emails and posted a picture online to say that I’d gone for a look but that the shiny buggers were nowhere to be seen.
Often when I post a beautiful picture of Skye someone will tell me how lucky I am to live here. It’s just happened twice with my orca-spotting photo.

I don’t completely disagree with it but I always find it’s a funny thing to say…

I am incredibly lucky with so many aspects of my life.
I’ve probably had too much good luck… at least more than my fair share.
But coming here wasn’t luck. I didn’t just float up here on the breeze; I made a conscious decision to live here.

Moving to Skye was a choice. It meant making sacrifices…
In choosing Skye I’m far away from my the people who care about me most; my family and friends (even the stinky old dogs who I miss to bits).
There’s almost no getting dressed up and going out (something I used to love). There’s no pub. There’s incredibly limited dating prospects. There are less career opportunities (I’ll never become wealthy from my existence here).
I’ve even started to feel the odd pang of loneliness.

BUT…

…there’s nature, wildlife, landscape, light….
These things, for now, are what make me happy.

Brogaig Beach. Worth giving up a few things for

Brogaig Beach. Worth giving up a few things for

In a way, I suppose it’s a selfish existence, to leave loved ones behind for something that I want.

Of course, there is some element of luck; I’m lucky to have had the freedom to come here and I’m lucky that those loved ones have supported me in this decision.
A happy healthy family, no partner, a flexible career… all this meant that I didn’t have ties to keep me in one place. THAT is what was lucky.

But the bottom line is that I think we make our own choices.
I’m lucky in many ways but with Skye I wanted to move somewhere pretty so I did (I might get invited to a lot of fancy things by fancy friends but at the heart of it it’s really a simple life)

Life is short so we need to find what we love and…
…actually, ignore that, it’s a quote by Charles Bukowski: “Find what you love and let it kill you”. I don’t intend to shuffle off this mortal coil anytime soon, thank you.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is… just make your own luck.

Try to be near what makes you happy

Try to be near what makes you happy

As I write this someone’s just sent me a message saying that moving somewhere so remote is brave.
If ‘lucky’ is the adjective I hear most often, ‘brave’ is the second one.
Don’t even get me started on it…

*Also, lucky is when you go out to look for orcas and actually see them. 

Loneliness

7ccd19d0bfd81dd7530b3a993d9968ef

If my most asked question is, “why did you move to Skye?” then the second most asked is definitely, “but aren’t you lonely?”

My answer is always an unwavering “no”.
Actually, it’s usually a bemused “no”… I’m always a little surprised when someone asks me that. If I had been looking for a buzzing social hub I wouldn’t have moved from the outskirts of London to somewhere almost an hour away from the nearest pub.

Some solitude at Coral Beach

Some solitude at Coral Beach

Not that I had intended to come up here and live the life of a hermit… when I arrived I knew that my 2 days a week at the gallery were an important lifeline to help me meet people and get involved with the community a bit.

However, I had expected to enjoy a significant amount of peace and solitude on Skye.
Life was getting busy in the South and I was spending too much time, money and energy doing stuff just to keep other people happy. I’m an incredibly social person (I love a party) but I grew up as an only child which means I also like my own space. I actually think that time alone is a great luxury, as I said in a previous post, it’s quite indulgent.

Some time to think

A place to think

So, a move to Skye was going to be a way of streamlining my life; less time trying to maintain work/social commitments and more time for myself.

Only, it hasn’t really happened.

Not at all.

I’ve tried to be solitary up here, to take time out, but I’ve actually been just as busy as I was in Surrey, albeit in a slightly different way.
I’ve been to music nights, lectures and ceilidhs. I’ve been on sporting weekends, day trips and dates. I’ve even seen the Scottish National Opera and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, all right here in Portree.

Aside from that, I’ve found it impossible to be lonely here because… everyone’s just too nice!

As with most rural places in the UK, the sense of community here is strong; though I’ve never come across this intensity of general kindness before.
In my next blog post I’m going to write about Skye as being a place ‘where everybody knows your name’, and I think it’s that involvement and knowledge of what’s going on in the community that ties in with the people here being so caring.

Liza and Barry at the Skye Baking Co.

Liza and Barry at the Skye Baking Co.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the people I’ve met here are some of the nicest folk I’ve met in my life.

Firstly there was my old pal Pat, who put me up in the big yellow hostel at the last minute when I arrived on the island in the pouring rain with a car full of stuff and nowhere to stay.

Then there were my colleagues at the gallery.

Liza and Barry who own the Skye Baking Co and Skyeworks gallery have created a business where being one of the team really feels like being part of a family. They’ve offered me places to stay when the weather’s been dodgy, they check my car over to make sure it’s running smoothly and they’ve all just generally kept an eye on me to make sure I get through my first winter (the lovely Christine is like an oracle for all things island-related!)

Home -Kilmaluag Bay

Home -Kilmaluag Bay

Later, two weeks after my arrival, I moved into the cottage at Aird and met my landlords, the Macdonald family. I cannot over stress how lovely this family is.

I still can’t quite believe how lucky I’ve been to find this place. They might be my landlords but they’ve always got an eye out for my wellbeing too, whether it’s making sure I’ve got enough fire fuel or just reassuring me that this amount of wind and rain isn’t the norm (I don’t mind it, I expected the weather to be much worse).

Then there’s all the other characters that have come into my Skye life… Peter and Ria my very cool Dutch neighbours with their gorgeous house on the shore, there’s Jane at Neist Point, Linda from Aros, Gordon from the hostel, Morten the photographer, Clare and Ian at the pub, Sarah the writer, my neighbour Mo, Mina and Chris the saltmakers….

I know it’s boring for me to list everyone here but the fact that I bump into at least one of these people every time I go out means that it’s hard to feel forgotten here.

I may have sounded somewhat antisocial at the beginning of this post. Sometimes I am, but I honestly think that meeting new friends can be one of the greatest pleasures in life. A lot of the characters I’ve met here come from completely different backgrounds to me so I’ve learnt a lot from them in the relatively short time I’ve been here.
I also believe you meet people for a reason…

888f3beadd20b24e3acfd3a0588dd1d3

Perhaps one of the best examples of the kindness of the people of Skye is that of a man called Vernon.

We met when I was trying to pre-organise the beach clean at Talisker bay and needed help accessing the track to the beach. I was trying desperately to find out who to talk to locally and I waved him down as I was about to give up and slump back to my car. Not only did he help me with that but he also offered me the use of his van since my little car couldn’t carry a lot of rubbish.

The fact that he’d offer the use of his vehicle to a total stranger was totally humbling and, after completing the beach clean, I realised I couldn’t have done it without his help.

Two of our hardiest beach clean volunteers sheltering from the wind in Vernon's van

Two of our hardiest beach clean volunteers sheltering from the wind in Vernon’s van

The other reason I haven’t had a chance to feel lonely is the number of friends and family that have come up to visit me. My parents, my grandparents, my ex’s parents (the Outlaws!), my Godmother and her family, my friend Vicki, my friend Matt, Mum again…
I’ve had friends ask to visit who I’ve had to turn away because I didn’t have time to squeeze them in!

My grandparents at Portree harbour

My grandparents at Portree harbour

It’s been wonderful showing them my favourite places on Skye.

It was especially important for my close family as I felt that I needed to show them why I love this area and thus in turn explain why I made the decision to move so far away from them.

I’ve enjoyed every minute of having them here (and appreciate the fact that it’s a hell of a journey for them to make) but I can’t deny that it can be exhausting hosting people, even the most chilled-out guests are still guests who you want to feed and look after.

Mum at the Fairy Pools

Mum at the Fairy Pools

And all this is still without even mentioning all the friends from home who I haven’t hosted at the cottage… The London gang who were up for New Year, the Glancarron estate party, the Soval estate party, my old schoolfriend Charlotte…
All these guys came up and stayed at places nearby whilst I enjoyed the feeling of having friends ‘just down the road’ again.

A good internet connection also means that I’m only ever a click away from talking to friends on Facebook too (it might be an annoying addiction but it’s priceless for keeping in contact with everyone back home)

So, after all that, I think it’s safe to say that, nope, I don’t feel lonely up here!

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Open House For Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Open House For Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

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

Moving In

(This post is long overdue… I have been living in the North End for three weeks now. Yet each time I’ve tried to write about moving day something has happened, my computer crashes or the post won’t upload. Very frustrating but here’s one last try!)

My new home overlooking Kilmaluag Bay

Another cottage overlooking Kilmaluag Bay

After spending over 10 days hostelling and B&B-ing in Portree I was beginning to get weary of living out of bags, having limited kitchen access and needing to put on trousers to go to the bathroom.
Moving day couldn’t come soon enough.
Of course there was the added excitement of moving into my own place where I could wake up in the mornings and make friends with the new day by gazing out to the sea with a cup of tea. After all, Portree is lovely but I came here for the natural landscapes, not urban living.

So, just over a week ago, I stuffed my belongings back into their bags and hauled them into the car. On the way I stopped off for supplies and some flowers for my lovely landlady and then I was on the road.

Despite the postal address containing the line ‘Near Portree’, the house is a good 45 minute drive from Skye’s main town (or more, if the sheep have decided to park themselves on the road).
This distance was a big negative when I first started househunting. But then I made the journey… It’s probably one of the most spectacular routes I’ve ever driven.
It’s pretty much just a tour past the natural icons of Skye; The Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock and the Quairang. The weather and the hour make it look completely different from one day to the next and driving this route has become one of my favourite parts of the day.

The drive along the A855 past The Old Mann Of Storr

The drive along the A855 past The Old Mann Of Storr

Back in the car I cranked up the music, put my sunglasses on and wound round the bends with the hills on one side and the ocean on the other. The sun was shining and the sea and sky were a vivid blue; much better than the grey drizzle of the previous day.

As I  turned onto the little road up the house I had to stop.
Sitting on the middle of tarmac in front of me was a bright-eyed collie dog. As I braked to a halt it got up and turned, then looked back over it’s shoulder at me. I inched the car forward and it began to trot along ahead of me. After a short distance I halted again in case it wanted to get out of the road and go back past the car. It stopped too, sat down again and looked at me. I started again and so did the dog. I followed it with amusement, this curious dog seemed to be leading me home.

As I crawled the car along the track I glanced up the hill towards the house.
On the cloud-shaded landscape I saw my new home sitting in a little spotlight of sunshine. It looked as if someone had put a light on to show me where to go. It felt welcoming.

And so I followed my little canine guide up to the only sunny patch in the bay; it was a curiously charming start to life in the North End and I got a little feeling that this kind of thing isn’t unusual here.

The keys were in the door as I got to the house. I meandered through each room and tried to take it all in. This is the first place I’ve ever lived on my own; no family, no housemates, no boyfriend. Just me.
I could make this space mine. An Englishman’s home is his castle, or something like that…

photo 2

I quickly noticed that Patsy had put a great deal of effort into preparing the place for her new tenant; the main bedroom was all made up with sheets and there were even fresh teatowels in the drawers and new pots and pans in the cupboards. But the thing that touched me the most was the main fireplace.
When I had first called about the house I had asked if there was the option to have a real fire, I had said that I know it’s a minor thing but that it’s important for me to have a fire to curl up in front of during the winter months. Patsy had agreed, saying that we all need our home comforts. Today I found the fireplace ready set with a bucket of coal, some long matches and even a couple of candles from the Isle of Skye Candle Co. Out in the utility room there was a further bucket of coal, kindling and firelighters.

The amount of care and attention that Patsy had put into making the house feel homely really touched me. It was my first taste of the kindness that a lot of people have up here. I knew that I’d made the right choice to choose this place to live.

photo 3

My lovely Art Deco fireplace all ready for my first fire (the wood was to stop the wind from coming down the chimney)

Only having a small carful of bags meant that unpacking was unusually speedy.
I didn’t put everything away immediately though. You never know when the sun might be shining again so, after saying hello to Patsy and her husband Donald, I took the opportunity to go out and explore.

The clifftop path

Looking over the bay from the clifftop path

Straight out to sea

Straight out to sea, one of my favourite views

On my first visit I’d noticed a little rocky beach on the edge of the bay just a little further North of the house. I’d go and check that out.

It wasn’t quite as simple as I had expected, as I crossed the fields I realised that I needed to find my way down a vertical craggy rock face first. In the end I found a sheep path that ran along the cliff the zigzagged down a less precipitous part of the rock.
If in doubt always follow a sheep path; they may seem stupid but they’re good navigators. Just make sure it’s a sheep you’re following and not a mountain goat…

Walking along the cliffs

Walking along the cliffs on the sheep path

Rock climbing beasties

Rock-climbing beasties

It was worth the effort. I picked my way over rockpools containing shells, fat ruby sea anemones and tiny darting fish. The only sounds were the lapping of the waves and the songbirds in the grass. It was like my own private beach.
I sat for a while and thought of how busy and stressed I’d been in the months before I came here. Now I have time to sit on a rock and do nothing but stare out to sea and enjoy the peace.

Colourful rockpools with red anemones

Colourful rockpools

A sea anemone

A sea anemone

Shells amongst the rocks

Shells amongst the rocks

Of course, the peace here isn’t constant. Today is calm but I’ve been told about a fisherman who was washed off the rocks metres from where I sat. He was dragged out to sea and never seen again. It’s a tragic thing to happen but it doesn’t seem to be uncommon around here (I’ve heard other similar stories)
This isn’t a place to be underestimated.

Sitting on the rocks looking out over the bay

Sitting on the rocks looking out over the bay

Eventually I head back and begin to unpack into my new home. I couldn’t (still can’t) help but keep stopping to look out of the windows at the view.

As the sun began to set over the sea I pulled a chair over to the window and popped open the little bottle of champagne that I’d brought especially.
With a silent cheers I drank to my new home and wondered what adventures would lie ahead…

Toasting a new home

Toasting a new home