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

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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

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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

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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!

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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.

A photo journey from Fort William to Skye…. Inverlochy Castle, the Commando Memorial & some characterful wildlife

Warning: this is quite a long post as I didn’t want to leave too much out. My apologies if it’s a bit tedious!
(Written on Monday, the day after my ski trip to Nevis)

‘Time you enjoy wasting is not time wasted’

If you asked me what my perfect day here might be like, I might say a day something like today. A day of ambling, exploring, stopping and pausing. And maybe some cake.

I’ve just got home from a walk around the bay. It’s a still evening and the snow is reflecting the light of the full moon so that everything is illuminated in black and white. No need for a torch.

Moon face

I waded out to one of the big rocks and sat there for a while with my hipflask and music until my bum hurt from the cold. I got up and wandered along the road to warm up. It was so peaceful, if I didn’t have to be up early tomorrow to start back at the gallery I could’ve walked all night.

Sitting on the rock in the bay…

So that’s how my day is ending, I’m getting this the wrong way round… I’ll begin again…

I stayed at the SYHA Glen Nevis hostel for a second night last night. There was no way I was going to risk getting caught in a blizzard in the dark again. Now I’ve tried it, four-wheel ice skating isn’t something I particularly enjoy.

Inverlochy Castle hotel

A quick wash and dress and I was away. No wellies and scruffs this morning though, I had to pop into Inverlochy Castle Hotel to sort out a reservation.

I visited the restaurant at Inverlochy on my Scottish tour in 2013. Of all the Michelin starred places I ate at, I felt there was something extra special at this place. Apparently Queen Victoria said it was the most romantic place she’s ever visited. I can certainly see why she liked it, it is old-fashioned but also warm and charming.

Crackling fires and cosy cushions

Crackling fires and cosy cushions

Anyway, spending a night there has been on my bucket list ever since and last year my parents kindly gave me a voucher to stay for more than just one meal.

I popped in to book my weekend but I couldn’t resist ordering a cup of tea and a slice of Dundee cake whilst I was there. If only every morning could begin like this!

You know you’re somewhere special when your cake is served with three other baked goodies on the side!

It wasn’t easy to leave the crackling fire and impossibly comfy sofas but however much I tried I couldn’t justify staying all day. Not sure I could afford it much either…

Back on the road I had to put my sunglasses on, perfect white snow dazzled against the blue sky; a perfect day.

The commando memorial sign with Ben nevis in the background

Just outside of Fort William is the Commando Memorial. It’s a place I’ve passed many times but never stopped at.

The memorial sculpture by Scott Sutherland with ben nevis behind

As I pulled into the car park it struck me how beautiful the monument looked as it was silhouetted in the sun against the snow. It reminded me of the bomber crash site that I wrote about on Remembrance Day; that weird juxtaposition of sadness and prettiness all at once.

A tribute to the commandos of WWII

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Brushing the snow off the wreaths at the foot of the statue I thought how striking the red of the poppies looks against the purity of the snow. Again, a kind of sorrowful loveliness.

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There’s a little memorial garden nearby to remember those who have fallen in more recent conflicts. The remembrance plaques are low to the ground so most are covered or partly covered by snow. Little gaps revealed engraved messages or peeks of photos; smiling young men in stiff uniforms.

A plaque in the memorial garden

A number of the plaques had been adorned with rubber wristbands emblazoned with charity names like Help For Heroes or Walking With The Wounded. Wristbands similar to the ones I’ve been given by my friends in the army.

Wristbands around a cross in the memorial garden

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I suddenly found it quite overwhelming. I don’t think it was from worry about my friends; I’m not sure what it was. Maybe it’s because it felt like such a ‘relevant’ form of mourning, in which I mean it’s very current, somehow more accessible than a carved stone that could have been made yesterday or thirty years ago.
Despite the peace I couldn’t linger for too long.

The Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge

The Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge

*Just a note to any of my military friends who may be reading this (or their friends/family): If you have a connection to the memorial and want me to place a wreath, wristband, note or whatever here just let me know. It’s a meaningful place but I know it’s far away for most people. I don’t pass here often but I’m more than willing to place something for you.

The shores of Loch Cluanie

Back on the road I was soon distracted from my melancholy by the scenery. It was a landscape that doesn’t seem to suit the UK and round each corner it was slightly different. On one side it looked like the Swiss Alps, on the other it looked like Lapland as imagined in Elf.

A simplified snowscape

A simplified snowscape

Loch Cluanie

At the Cluanie Inn I slowed down to see if my old deer pas were about. Sure enough there they were, hanging out around the red telephone box and bins like a gang of misplaced teenagers.

I stopped and said hello, took some photos and let them sniff me. When a clang announced the sound of a back kitchen door opening they turned and trotted over to the back of the Inn.

Hanging around at the Cluanie Inn

That answered my question about whether they were tame because they’ve been fed scraps. I suppose it’s better than if they had lost their natural fear because they’re starving.
A brief conversation with one of the ladies at the Inn revealed that they even have names! The hinds are Florence, Flossie, Clicky and little Muddy. The young male doesn’t have a name and isn’t fed because it can cause aggression. But he’s got a lovely harem so I don’t think he’s doing too badly!

A handsome young man

Leaving Cluanie I passed through Glen Shiel. I’ve never stopped there but the brown crossed-sword signs indicate that it will be an interesting place to explore in future.

As I came to the sea lochs around Lochalsh I noticed how still the waters were. The mirrored surface reflected the hills and clouds so clearly that they looked like nature’s more detailed answer to a Rorschach test.
I parked up outside Kintail Lodge (closed for winter) and picked my way along the rocky shore. The water was so still that I could see every fragment of shell and frond of seaweed under the water. The only ripples on the surface were made by me and my boots.

The calm waters of Loch Duich

Old modules

There was a fishing boat nearby with it’s name hand-painted in fading reds and oranges like the letters on an old fairground carousel. I couldn’t get a nice picture with my phone but there was something particularly charming about this mouldy old vessel, quietly retired on this peaceful shore.

An old fishing boat

Lovely old paintwork

I skated my way along a slippery jetty and sat down on my jacket at the end. The water beneath my feet was a metre or two deep now but I could still see right down to the grains of silt on the bottom. It might be the clearest water I’ve ever seen, it almost seemed easier to look through than air.

Sitting on the dock of the bay… Popping bubbles!

I sat and watched the little grey trout darting between rocks at my feet. As I did so I fiddled with the bladder wrack seaweed I sat next to and I found that I could pop the little air pockets in the ‘leaves’ …like a natural kind of stress-busting bubble wrap. Not that there was any stress to be found in a place as calm and serene as this.
An hour or maybe two passed before I realised it was probably time to be on my way.

A place to while away the hours

I didn’t get far down the road before I noticed the horns of a large feral goat waggling around in some heather down next to the shore.
I’m not sure what it is about these creatures but I find them endlessly fascinating; it must be something about their strange, wild character.

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I turned off the main road and crept up a nearby dirt track still in the car. Because the goats tend to feed next to the roadside they seem to be much less afraid of people in cars than of humans on foot.

More appeared as I inched closer. This was the biggest group I’ve seen so far and they were much less nervy than the others I’ve come across. I got out and softly made my way towards them.

It looks calm and peaceful but there’s a great clattering of horns as they push each other out of the way to feed

If you can get close enough to them the smell of feral goats is amazing. It probably sounds incredibly weird to say it but they’ve got this satisfyingly warm, livestock-y smell (a bit like healthy cattle) but it’s so… goaty.
I suppose the only way I can describe it is to say it’s like the most expensive, well-aged French goats cheese you’ve ever tried. Those ones rolled in grey ash and licked by monks who live in caves, you know the kind. I know it sounds horrendous but somehow it’s really nice too. Just trust me on this one!

Wild looking beasties

As I got closer I noticed something small and dark nearby, on the other side of the road.
A cat maybe?

Something small and dark in the distance

No, not a cat, a tiny kid goat!
Cute can’t even describe this tiny thing. It’s was as adorable as a lamb but smaller and with more character.

The kid rejoins it’s mother on the brow of the ridge above the road

I watched them until I was joined by an ex-forestry ranger walking his dog. We discussed the pros and cons of goats, beachcombing, otters and forest fires before parting ways.

The sky was stunning as I neared Skye Bridge. Despite the fact that there are a million photos of Eilean Donan Castle out there I couldn’t resist getting one quick snap whilst it was looking so lovely (and a million isn’t an exaggeration by any means).

Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in Scotland after Edinburgh (I think it’s earned it though)

Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in Scotland after Edinburgh (I think it’s earned it though)

I always feel a barely-perceptible swelling of happiness inside my chest when I cross the bridge; a feeling of coming home. I get it even when it’s dull and drizzly so crossing on an evening like this feels extra special.

Skye Bridge and the lighthouse on Eilean Bàn

I had a couple of things to do before heading home but both had been cancelled. With the extra time to spare I treated myself to some mussels and chips in the pub before meandering home through the twilight.

The sun setting as I drive North

My wandering mood hadn’t gone by the time I reached home. I threw on some more warm clothes and grabbed a torch then set out for the shore.
Which brings us back to the start of the story 🙂

Coral Beach

Skye is a walkers paradise and when I decided to move here I promised myself to try to get out exploring at least every other day. I hadn’t got much of a chance in my first couple of days, then when I found myself with a little more time the wind and the rain had set in.
However, I’ve quickly learned that the weather here is unpredictable (if I waited for sunshine I might be waiting all day/week/month) so I put on my wellies and set off to a place that I like so much I probably wouldn’t even notice the drizzle.

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Woolworths

On my way out of Portree I stumbled upon some kind of sheep sale. I pulled up to investigate.
Turns out that someone with blonde Heidi plaits and a sparkly turqoise jumper stands out a bit at a livestock sale. I thrust my hands in my pockets and sauntered around trying to look casual but I doubt I was fooling anyone. Inconspicuous I was not.
So I didn’t stay for too long, which was good because there was a pen of really small, cute little sheep that I’d happily have taken home. Ten more minutes and I may have gone home with thirty-odd new pets.

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Sheepless, I was on my way to Coral Beach in Claigan, North of Dunvegan. I’d visited here on my first trip to Skye last year and had been entranced by the white sand studded with black rocks.

The sand is actually made from something called maerl which is a coralline red algae (basically a seaweed which has a hard body like a coral). It’s a creamy white colour like Carribean sand but it’s much coarser and it’s full of shells because maerl beds are fantastically nurturing little ecosystems.

Sand at Coral Beach

Sand at Coral Beach

As you can imagine, it’s a treasure trove for someone who loves shells and other natural artefacts. On this trip it wasn’t long before my pockets were rattling with lots of tiny mother-of-pearl snail shells.

I was talking to friends recently about bad habits in people who are passionate about conservation. One of my friends, a vegan, admitted he uses too many plastic bags. One of my bad habits is shell collecting, something which seems harmless enough but the removal of shells by hundreds of people collectively can make a substantial impact on wildlife habitats (homeless hermit crabs, for instance).

My other bad habit, in case you were wondering, is using glitter with abandon. It’s well recognised as a troublesome microplastic within the marine conservation community but I hope that I do enough other good deeds to offset a little sparkle now and again…

One of many beautiful shells from Coral Beach

One of many beautiful shells from Coral Beach

I’m not sure what to do with my haul yet. When I lived in Spain over the summer I made a shell crown with the ones I found there (many of you will recognise it from my Facebook/Twitter avatars). Maybe I’ll make a British or a Skye version. The lustre of the white shells against the indigo of a mussel shell could look quite striking…

Colourful sands and seaweeds

Colourful sands and seaweeds

One of the more remarkable things about Skye is that the colours here seem to be pumped up. It’s like everything has been slightly over-saturated by a real-life photo editor. I don’t know whether it’s the light, if it’s just that I’m looking harder, or even if I’m just high on the extra oxygen in the air up here!
The photo above is just some sand and seaweed but the colours struck me as I picked my way through the rocks. Not just the varied shades and colour but also the textures too. I can see why it’s an artist’s paradise up here.

Swirling sea grass

Swirling sea grass, mesmerising in the lapping of the waves

One of the most beautiful things about coral beach is that there’s so much to look at here. There are birds to listen to, rockpools to peer into, seaweed to pick through…
So many tiny things that you only notice if you take the time to look.

NOTE: I hope that no-one will mind me going a bit soppy with some tinpot philosophising here… The thing is that our experiences are so intertwined with our feelings at the time that it doesn’t make sense to just write factual points and leave out everything else.

I realised as I was picking my way through the debris of the high tide line that I was smiling to myself (I naturally settle into a frown so this isn’t a common thing). I couldn’t be happier. Just wandering about, finding things, having time to breathe in the fresh air.
This isn’t exactly an unconscious thing. Over the last few years I’ve taught myself to start noticing little things and to find joy from them. I think it started after the break-up of a long-term relationship where I had the chance to find my own character and interests again.
I’ve learnt to find joy especially in things that occur naturally (which is probably tied in to why I’m so ferociously protective over the environment). It’s almost like trying to go back to a childlike state where you find awe and wonder in all these new things. It might be natural like an iridescent beetle landing on your hand or it might be people-related, like sharing a hello with the old lady in the post office, that kind of stuff.
But it’s an incredible thing because when you start getting enjoyment from the small things in life it increases the amount of happiness you experience every day. That’s pretty incredible. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Water above and below

Water above and below. Rubbish weather in beautiful colours

Unfortunately all the internal sunshine in the world can’t affect the real weather and all of a sudden the wind picked up and the skies got dark. Time to head home.

A faceful of wind and rain!

A wind and rain selfie!

Again with the colours!
As I passed the pebble beach I couldn’t help but take a snap of the stripes made by the red seaweed against the black rock and the blue sea against the tweedy-coloured shoreline.

Stripes of colour on the pebble beach

Stripes of colour on the pebble beach

It wasn’t a long walk back to the car, maybe about 20 mins, but by the time I got there I might have well been swimming. I’d forgotten that when Skye does rain it REALLY does rain, like one of those rainforest showers.

When I reached the car park I had to literally squeeze the water off my legs and empty my wellies. A Chinese family in the people carrier next to me gave me apologetic smiles as they watched me flailing around ineffectively. Eventually I gave up trying to get drier and slopped into the car. I made the sound that wet washing does if you drop it when getting it out to dry. I didn’t care, I was still smiling.

You had one job, wellies!

You had one job, wellies!