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!)

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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

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…

Blackout

When I woke up the morning after the storm there was still no power.

The windows were streaked with bits of grass and soil as I looked out to assess the damage. It was grey and the sea was choppy but everything seemed fine.
As I got in my car to pop to the shops I bumped into my landlady, Patsy, unfortunately they hadn’t been as lucky. Their chimney pot and shed had both been smashed to bits and one of their little boats had been lost over in Staffin. All the animals were fine but it was such a shame that there was so much damage for them to sort out.

All the fences looked like they'd been decked with little streamers from the grass that had got caught.

All the fences looked like they’d been decked with little streamers from the grass that had got caught.

I later made my way into Portree and as I drove it became evident that it wasn’t just Patsy and Donnie who’d lost stuff…
Bus stops, field gates and sheds were in pieces and there was rubbish all over the place. And wheelie bins everywhere, of course.
If I ever get reincarnated as a wheelie bin I sure as hell hope it wont be on Skye. Whenever it’s windy they’re the first thing to be hurled across roads, flung into fields or pushed down ditches. All over the island people have built little houses or brackets for them but they still seem to be the first casualties of bad weather. The great wheelie bin massacre.

Despite feeling sorry for them, I was amused to see that the sheep were a particularly bright shade of white this morning and the cows seemed slightly fluffier.

Stormy seas. It's hard to see because there's not much here for scale but these waves were huge.

Stormy seas from the road above Dutulm. It’s hard to see because there’s not much here for scale but these waves were huge.

Once I’d collected my provisions I returned to set up my nest for the night.
One of the problems with my cottage (and most houses on Skye) is that everything is electric, including the oven and heaters, so I’d need to stay by the fire to keep warm.
P&D very kindly lent me their BBQ which has a gas ring so I was able to have a nice hot cup of tea with the biscuits I’d just treated myself to. Nae bad really.

The thing with situations like this is, you can either complain or you can make the most of it.

I enjoy camping out. Not the pack-your-spork-and-book-into-a-site camping, more the let’s-grab-a-bottle-of-wine-and-shove-on-every-jumper-you-can-find spontaneous camping, the trampy kind where you feel like you’re one of the Famous Five (but less fresh-faced and maybe slightly tipsy)
It would be like camping, only indoors.

After the Tunn Family Blackout Christmas Of 2013 I’ve had plenty of practice in coping without power. That particular festive gathering also involved flooding, explosions and a BBQ’d turkey supper for 17 people. This would be a breeze.
Actually, it was quite literally a breeze since the wind did a good job of joining me inside the house but a little bit of DIY door-sealing and cushion barricading soon sorted it out.

BBQ-ing the turkey, Christmas 2013

BBQ-ing the turkey, Christmas 2013

I went upstairs and selected a few books to keep me company. Then I dotted tealights around the hearth, piled up blankets and poured myself a nice glass of Glayva (which was gross so I poured a Jura instead).

I strapped a small torch to a headband for a hands-free reading light and tucked myself in. Before the night was over I’d devoured my entire novel in one go. It’s such a luxury to have the time to do that. Plus, the torchlight-reading made me nostalgic about those sneaky childhood reading sessions I used to have when I should have been sound asleep.
There are ways to hate a blackout and there are ways, it seems, to have a lovely time.

Cosiness

Cosiness

(The book, by the way, was The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Nice enough but not one of the best books I’ve ever read, though I like the African setting and references. The next day I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; short but interesting)

The following morning there’s still no power or phone. I try to make myself look vaguely human and drive down to Portree again in search of hot food and wifi.
Of course, I’m keeping my distance from anyone with a nose as I haven’t seen hot water in quite a while now. Luckily everyone else seems to be in a similar, stinky boat.

Rumours fly around the village… This person says it’s back on at 8pm. This person says tomorrow morning. This person says Monday at the earliest.
Huge van-sized generators have appeared dotted around in an attempt to keep the main hubs running.
I nip into Cafe Central where the owner very kindly lets me use his power sockets to charge my computer for work stuff. In there I meet a group of somewhat harassed-looking engineers, one of them tells me he’s driven for 12 ½ hours to fix the problems. I’m glad I don’t have that job.

I hear that many areas also lost their water supply as the sumps stopped working. I think to myself how strange it is to be on an island surrounded by water, where water pours from every hill and mountain, but there’s nothing in their homes.
Further water shortages are expected in more places but it’s not a problem, I’ve got plenty of fresh burns and springs nearby where I can take some buckets if needs be. When I moved here I expected blackouts, snow and ice but I didn’t think I’d be going to collect water from the streams!

Can’t complain though, after all, I did move to Skye for an adventure!

Not so bad after all

Not so bad after all

January Storm

I wrote this post a few days ago. Unfortunately the storms soon took out our power and phone lines which means it’s been a bit delayed in getting to you.
Here it is nonetheless… (at least you now know that I wasn’t actually blown away!)

I never used to be that interested in the weather. Yes, I loved the sunshine and the snow, rumbling storms and autumn breezes. Like any other British person, it’s my go-to topic of conversation with strangers. It’s not forced small talk, I actually quite enjoy it.
But then I moved to Skye and the weather has become one of the main characters in my daily life.

It’s not just any character either, it’s unpredictable and changeable and sometimes more than a little bit absurd.
I looked out of my bedroom window earlier and there was sunshine and blue sky. It was also hailing violently with rainbows beaming up from the sea. As I remarked to my friends, it’s sometimes like Skye’s weather is on drugs.

A day full of rainbows. An everyday sight on Skye.

A day full of rainbows. An everyday sight on Skye.

Over the last couple of days there’s been a torrent of weather reports about hurricane-force gales making their way towards the Hebrides.

Warnings of impending meteorological doom have been coming thick and fast from friends and family down South whilst I’ve been prancing around in the Scottish sunshine wondering what all the fuss is about. “Will it or wont it?” was the hot topic in Staffin stores this afternoon.

Crisp blue skies looking out towards Staffin Island

Crisp blue skies looking out over Staffin Slipway towards Staffin Island

Well, it will. Quite a lot actually.

I’m currently sitting in bed surrounded by candles whilst gales roar round the cottage. I can’t quite describe the noise, I suppose I’d put it somewhere between an aeroplane take-off and Armageddon. Just before the power went out I read a post on my neighbour’s ‘Skye Weather’ Facebook page saying that his instruments had just measured a windspeed of 109mph, the fastest he’s ever recorded here.

I’ve always loved storms but as I’ve got older I’ve begun to worry about their effects (growing up sucks reason #325).
Whilst I’m cosy inside there’s likely to be a lot of wildlife (and people) having a hard time exposed to the elements. These aren’t unfounded concerns; the Scottish Marine Mammmal Strandings Scheme put out a warning today saying that we should expect a large number of animals washed up on the shores tomorrow and dips in certain bird populations often reflect severe weather patterns.
Tonight would be much more enjoyable if I wasn’t sitting here worrying about Charlie the bull and his sheep and cow pals.

A weather-sensitive sheep

A weather-sensitive sheep

When I first moved here a few of my neighbours jokingly said that it was a waste of time buying garden furniture as it just blows away. They weren’t kidding. I popped out to the car this evening and could barely stand up. As I jumped in to move it closer to the house I found myself completely unable to pull the door closed until a lull allowed me to wrench it back.

The weirdest part of the wind outside, though, was that you could hear the strongest gusts coming before they hit you. I heard this really intense whistling sound as they worked their way over the hill towards me. The only thing I can think of that it’s similar to is the whistling of a dropping bomb from old WWII footage, just with a slightly deeper, rounder sound. Maybe like a tornado. This weird howling WHOOOSH coming closer and closer and then you’re smacked sideways. It’s one of the most peculiar natural things I’ve come across and, to be honest, there was something quite creepy about it.

That was more than enough fresh air for this evening so I ran inside and slammed the door behind me. Even inside I had to put my full weight against each door to close them, then I barricaded them with cushions and furniture. Sitting back down on the sofa I noticed little lumps of soot sprinkling their way down the chimney and into the room. The papers on the coffee table rustled in a breeze and loose strands of hair blew across my eyes. It was actually windy inside the house!

I nipped to the loo and found the bathroom soaking. Not flooded but splashed, all over the walls and even up the mirrors. I looked for leaks but couldn’t find one. Then I glanced into the loo and saw the water sploshing back and forth like a miniature ocean tempest. I flipped the lid down as the power went off and everything went pitch black.

One of the last Facebook posts from Skye Weather before we lost power. Shulista is about 3 mins down the road.

One of the last Facebook posts from Skye Weather before we lost power. Shulista is about 3 mins down the road.

That was about 20 minutes ago. I’m now hiding upstairs in the comfort of my lovely bed enjoying the residual warmth from my now-cooling electric heater. The building is actually shaking -not something I’d expected from a sturdy stone crofters cottage. A bit unnerving. The glass of water on my bedside table is doing that ripple-y thing like that scene from Jurassic Park. Other glasses are dotted around the house catching various new leaks that have sprung with gusto this evening. I don’t blame the drops, I wouldn’t want to be outside either!

So, it’s getting louder and louder and I half expect to wake up tomorrow to find my lovely house has been blown away in the night, Wizard of Oz-style. I suppose the only thing I can do is get some sleep and wait for it to pass.

See you in the morning (hopefully…)