Friday, 10 August 2018

Hidden landscapes


The changing of seasons is a wonderful moment. Even in August, the summer feels like it’s over and done, with the flowers fading and the land changing colour as the plants fade to coral, to garnet, to warm sienna brown.

The light has changed as well, the skies are gaining more expression through massive cumulous clouds. The sun shines upon them now, casting occasional shards of light over the landscape, but it feels like the heady summer days are gone.

The clouds all have silver linings, forming a beautiful backdrop to our landscape. The rocks on the three hills shine as every lump or crevice is highlighted with deep shadow. Rain can be seen falling on the sea, Skye, Eriskay and sometimes on us ourselves. The darkening sky speaks of weighty clouds and the temperature drops before the rain arrives.

When it comes, it’s fierce. Driving the water deep into the soil, drenching the world. There’s no escape but to be indoors, but just as soon as it’s arrived it’s gone, leaving the land covered in a thousand diamonds.

Yes, I am happy to see the changing season. Darkening skies and higher drama reminds me of the beauty of winter which is far subtler, but far more intense than the obvious beauty of the summer. It reminds me of star gazing, of Aurora borealis, of walking bent double into the wind and of cosy winter nights.

I’m ready for the change, although it may seem strange to say that now. But the islands still surprise and delight me. I am keen to discover more, to delve deeper into the soul of the place, and as everyone knows its winter that lays the bones of a place bare and its winter when you really get a glimpse into the hidden heart.



Friday, 13 July 2018

Voyage to the Outermost Isle

St Kilda.

If you're anything like me, even the name will send a wee shiver down your spine just at the hearing of it. Well, it has long been a dream of mine to visit the isles, and then I did! I just have! And this is, quite literally, something that even now is giving me goose bumps to write.
 
Have you ever anticipated something so much that you almost can't believe that it'll ever come true? To me, that was St Kilda. Well, to be honest, there are quite a few things that probably fall into that category, but one of those things was St Kilda. And the build up - unbelieving, giddy excitement - was nothing compared to the actual reality of visiting. It did not disappoint. Not one iota.

From the moment we all met at Eriskay pier, to the moment I said cheerio to David (Uist Sea Tours) twelve hours later it was just a wonderful experience. My face was beginning to hurt from all of the grinning, and even as I drove up the road to home I could only shake my head in bewilderment at the day I had just had.






Arriving on Hirta was slightly strange, the anticipation was almost too high and the warden was clearly very busy - but a wee explanation about where we could, and could not, go and off we went. Firstly, I wandered through the village, enjoyed the museum, abandoned houses, cleitan and the ancient souterrain. Hearing the St Kilda wren was a real highlight and I wish I had allowed myself more time for the spotting of this wee birds, but my feet kept pulling me up on to the cliffs and there was so much to see that I ended up not properly returning to the village at all.

The cliffs were worth the trip alone. A real babble of seabirds, a chaos spread out in front as soon as the top is reached. The way is steep, very steep, but so so worth it. Fulmar laugh together, sounding exactly like over-excited fishwives, sharing the gossip of the day in a loud, cackling voice. Razorbills and guillemots line up on narrow shelves balanced as if on nothing.




I sat with my feet dangling over, relishing the feeling of being high. I love to have nothing underneath me, I love that feeling of height and I really enjoyed sitting there. Upon standing a group of four women laughed in relief, saying they could relax now they knew I wouldn't fall. I wasn't going to fall, I replied, and in fact when I looked back I could see them too sitting on my perch, taking photos. When on a cliff, it's rude not to feel dizzy.

My first view of a puffin entering its burrow brought me to a standstill. This was the place to have lunch, I knew! And so I had my first lunch, sitting with a view of a puffin street. One, standing sentry outside seemed to want in his nest. He kept peering in, then shaking his head upon retreat. Perhaps his mate was in with the chicks and there was no room. Or perhaps I am just making a story, but whatever the truth they're beautiful wee birds and I was delighted to see them. I was feeling content.





First lunch eaten, I headed up the hill by a detour-y way. There was just so much to see, and so many cliff tops to peer over. The sheep were everywhere. Nimble as goats they must be, and I collected wool as I walked. It'll find its way into some project or another. I also found some delectable feathers. Fulmar, I presume, but soft and pure white. Gorgeous, but unfortunately they escaped my pocket and flew off to decay elsewhere.

The top of the hill came with a sudden mist. Disorientating and thick, it came with the wind out of the west and around me the island disappeared. I knew that the sea mists can linger for a long time, and the last thing I wanted was to get lost on a place like St Kilda, where a wrong step could take me tumbling over a cliff. But I also wasn't ready to return to the village so I took steps onto a wee trail - whether human or sheep (or both) I wasn't sure, and made up my mind: I'd go on. I did make the right decision, as the mist swirled in eddies as I walked, and the tantalizing glimpses of what lay ahead reminded me of other wonderful hill walks where the invisible has been the destination.

I wanted to see it all, that was the trouble. I had 4-5 hours and it wasn't enough time. So I never explored the Amazon's house, or the bay down that way. Which was a pity as that was one of the only bits of running water on the island, and I do love me some running water. Never mind, onwards I went to Lover's Stone. Here, legend has it, young men who planned to marry would have to balance awkwardly on one foot to show his eligibility and to show he could provide for the lass who would be his wife. As I walked towards it I wasn't very impressed, and it was only when I took another few steps to see it from another angle that I realised what an undertaking it was! A fall would surely mean death or at the very least serious injury, but so would working the crags, and that was the reason behind the test.




And here, at last, I found peace. There was no one else in sight, no one else around and I sat and had my second lunch. And pondered. And it was here at the Lover's Stone that I really, truly felt it. Felt the St Kilda magic. It seeped into me as I pondered the day, the cliffs, the birds, the village, even the other people that had come to visit. It is always as I sit alone somewhere and process my feelings that I realise what those feelings actually are.

And it was peace. And it was love. And it was true, bone-settling contentment. It was thorough satisfaction within me in that moment. As I ate my boiled egg (from one of my own hens) I knew I was happy. It's a good moment, and it's been building in these recent weeks / months, this feeling of honest, knowing happiness in my soul. And I found the answer here, balanced on a rock at the Lover's Stone on St Kilda. I could have stayed there forever, listening, feeling, being. But I made the mistake of looking at the time and realised that I had twenty minutes to get back to my boat. So I had to run.

And I did and I relished the feeling of being alive and all was well. I made it to the boat with a wee bit time to spare, but still I was the last to be back. And it was back to all the excited chatter of all my fellow voyagers as they recounted the day they too had enjoyed.

We finished with a trip around Boreray and the sea stacks there. The gannetry. I am going to finish this post here as it's becoming far too long and your attention will start to waver but let me end on this note: St Kilda is amazing. It is truly wonderful and I am so, so lucky to have been able to go. It is an experience I will never forget, even if I am not lucky enough to return. To know happiness in your bones is a feeling that is not readily forgotten. To experience a place that you have felt in your soul for many, many years is unsettling. But St Kilda has lived up to all my wildest of dreams and I am absolutely content.



Wednesday, 4 July 2018

June

This is the last night of June and yet again I had to pinch myself to work out that this was real. This experience - island life - has yet again come up trumps, giving me memories like no other.

For our small team out on the Outer Hebrides June is the most dreaded month. This is the month where we work both night and day shifts and have to keep our heads screwed on and our work well organised.

The reason behind the night shift is, of course, the corncraking. These noisy wee birds are surveyed between midnight and 3am. The numerous studies that look into their behaviour show that the secretive birds are most active between these times. And by active I mean, that during these times they call the most.

Last corncrake survey complete, I lift my head above the parapet and see again where I am. And the world is still here. The island is revelling in the beauty of summer and the place is full of joy. Friends are present, all have had a busy summer but walks on the beach, wee blethers and plans for the future are all enough to remind me that island life isn't all midnight surveys.

And sometimes those same surveys are just pure delight. Eerie fogs creeping over hillsides, listening with open mouthed wonder at the cacophony of sounds - not just corncrakes - that we would normally sleep through. Sedge warblers, terns, oystercatchers, peewits, they're all out there even when we think the world goes onto pause.

It's not just corncrakes, there are also early morning surveys to go and visit the breeding red necked phalaropes. Despite the half 4 rise (never commit to doing a phalarope survey after corncraking!) as soon as there's a glimpse of these spectacular wee birds everything else is forgotten. Now, after midsummer, the sunrise is late enough that I actually got to witness it this morning. We've still got 11 hours extra daylight now compared to midwinter. A sobering thought.

Midsummer this year was strangely dark, gloomy and cloudy, but the night after was bright as bright could be. I was in Ness with my colleagues and having a grand old time of it. Remembering, again, how lovely it is to work with such good people.

Still, July is here, and as I finish writing this it's the evening of the 3rd. The day has been great. A morning on the computer and an afternoon surveying the machair. After work a swim in the sea, wetsuitless. The sea isn't quite as warm as the peaty lochs around my house, but very refreshing after a hot day. Home, and my wildflower lawn is blooming. Orchids, are the current highlight. Even now, after 9pm, the light is streaming in my kitchen window and the hills are promising more memories to come.

June may fly by, with little sleep and hard surveys, but it's worth it. To come out the other side, smiling, heart full of moments that have made the month spectacularly special I've lost my fear of June, though I will treat it with respect. I've come to know another layer of the Uists this month and every day I fall in love with the islands a little bit more and more. With greater understanding, my curiosity is raised as to the winter and a part of me is looking forward to experiencing the unforgiving darkness of midwinter again.

But now, it's summer and sunshine and another hot day beckons tomorrow. What a wonderful place to live and what a wonderful time to be alive.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Flight

Some days give magic to a person. And this was definitely one of those days.

A wonderful morning in the woods with a group of school kids. Their enthusiasm and interest is second to none, and the wee details in their questions is enough to give me hope for the future.

Then an afternoon of ticking off 'office stuff', not the most soul stirring, but essential, and I didn't mind the afternoon.

This evening, yoga with Sheila. And oh boy, it was wonderful. As we stretched and adored the limits of our bodies I could feel flight spreading through my limbs and core. By the time we reached Savanasa I had fully fledged wings sprouting from my shoulder blades, lifting me to the ceiling and soaring through the rain that battered off the windows.

It has been a wee while since I've been lifted in this way, but I welcomed the flight back with open arms. I entered relaxation state with a smile spread about my face knowing, knowing, knowing that all will be all right. For with the power of flight, what obstacles are there to stand in the way?

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Soul Friends

For a lot of people, the closest non-human friendships they have are with dogs. For me, not so, but the intimate friendships between humans and animals are so interesting. I have three to talk about during my mini-series. Possibly four, let's see how the story emerges!

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My favourite pet is the cat. Since the age of 10 we've always had cats on the farm and in the house, and they've always been very special to me. Tilly would greet me when I visited home from university by following me around and sitting on me as soon as I sat myself down. The current cats - Pepe and Gigha - are similarly adorable, and I really miss them. 

My own cat is a rescue cat. Her name is Calloch, which means 'old woman' in Gaidhlig. She's five years old and had never been out of doors prior to me getting her. It wasn't a case of mistreatment, she just lived with an elderly lady who'd been put in a home. As Calloch wasn't friendly to her family, they wanted to put her down. Luckily the Cat's Protection League stepped in and that's where I first saw her in December of last year. 



It wasn't an ideal time for getting a pet: I was just about to go home, back to the farm, for three weeks over Christmas. But I told myself that if she was still there come January, I'd take her. And she was! 

I went to visit her in the cattery where they were housing her. She didn't appear to be very friendly, hissing and swiping at the chap who ran the place. But they liked her, they'd had her since June 2017 and had grown really fond of her. Turns out she'd been adopted out before but brought back within a week as the trial owners had not got on with her at all. "She definitely won't be a lap cat", they said. Well, none of this was making me feel particularly confident that she was the cat for me, but I couldn't leave her so I thought I'd give her a chance. 




She came home with me there and then and I had such a good feeling. The whole way down the road she lay in the carrier, purring at me, with her toes poking through the mesh of the carrier and her big eyes watching me. I chatted all the way down the road, and she purred and smiled at me and the good feeling grew. 

Well, what an amazing transformation! She sat on me for the first time the second night she was here. She sleeps on my bed and tells me when it's time for bed by sitting in front of me and yawning fit to split her head in two. She's trusting and loving and truly faithful. I adore her. And I think she adores me. 




Just this morning, for example, she woke me. I must have been dreaming and making noises or something, as I woke when she rubbed her ear against my arm. She looked into my eyes, winked, and then settled herself back down to sleep. I, however, did need to get up (this was at the back of 5) as I needed to do a particular survey prior to the crofters and visitors getting up and seeing me causing disturbance amongst the nesting birds. 

I've put on an extremely jangly collar and I let her outside. She loves it. Loves exploring, loves being part of the wider world and I am delighted to have given her this life. 





That is my soul-friend number 1. Calloch, my very, very special girl. 

The last photo was after a very hard day at work. I was absolutely done in. And Calloch sat next to me, reaching out her paws to offer comfort. The way they pick up moods is really quite something. Calloch really does makes this house a home. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Scapa Fest

I went to Scapa Fest! And it was wonderful. One of the best things I have ever done, such a feeling of hopefulness and joy pervaded the entire weekend. From singing truly joyful songs while dancing around at the opening ceremony, to doing my first hand stand in about 20 years it was joy from start to finish!

The bardic fire, telling stories (life goal, completed), yin yoga, woodland wanders, freedom of speech during Wakapapa, meeting wonderful, lovely souls, flying yoga. I have already booked my ticket for next year, and I can't wait! Photos will tell the story better than I can, but unfortunately I am no photographer. See those below, for a hint and visit www.scapafest.com or the Facebook page for more divine photography. 


 




Sunday, 27 May 2018

Not so shadowy trees

Many of you will know that I love woodlands, and that I am working to restore some Uist woodland, so imagine my delight to hear about an archaeological dig into the submerged coastal forests of Benbecula?! After a very interesting talk on Thursday evening some of us assembled on Sunday morning to visit the forest.

The beach is actually composed of sand overlaying layers of peat, and after showing us some very interesting artefacts such as bones (dog?), quartz (possibly worked) and telling us about shadow houses, where although the stones have been loosened and the actual signs of life have been swept into the sea, the shadow of habitation remains and can be spotted by the discerning surveyor, my imagination was successfully captured!

After the introduction, we stumbled upon trees. Real trees. Non-shadow trees. Actual wood in the peaty sand. And holy goodness, it felt like I was time travelling. As we each grew more and more buoyed up on one other's enthusiasm the trees seemed to grow amongst us. Lab research of our findings showed it was mainly willow, but we found Scots pine and birch! Oh, what joy.

And all the while, the hot Hebridean sun blazed down and the wind kept things fresh. Our lives felt complete.

Windblown trees. Or, rather, what looked like willows that had fallen in the wind but continued to strive for the sky. It looked like a landscape I had been in before. Knoydart, perhaps, or one of the numerous willowy bogs I have wandered though and delighted in.

The past sometimes feels so close. After a sample had been taken, I touched wood today that hasn't been touched in millenia. Ever, actually as this was the internal part of the tree but still. Once upon a time a woodland was growing on that peat - the peat that's now a beach - and birds sang, just as they sing in the woodlands of Loch Druidibeg. And the grass grew, and the sun rose and the moon waxed and waned. And life still goes on.

And somehow, just somehow, this day has both brought my feet down to touch this delicious earth and lifted my heart and soul into the sky. A feeling that will remain, I think, for to feel in touch with the past is to know the present and that is the best feeling of all.

If you're interested in the research being carried out by the team with Scotland's Coastal Heritage at Risk, find out more here: www.scharp.co.uk

Wonderings: the shallow rootedness of the willow may be an adaptation. Athough they cannot withstand the wind and topple readily, the growth continues by self-rooting, whereby the branches become roots and the individual tree becomes a thicket. This seems too lovely to be a coincidence. Any thoughts?