Monday, 14 August 2017

The Wheatears


Despite living amongst suitable habitat, it’s only now that the wheatears have been seen around my house.

In fact, as I write this there is one sitting on a fence post in my garden and swooping down onto my wildflower lawn to feed. The lawn is hoaching with insects, so I’m pleased to see that it’s attracting in some vertebrate life.

It’s a time of transition: summer to autumn. And let me tell you there is a real change in the air. I almost need a blanket on my bed again (waking up a bit chilled in the night, and telling myself not to be daft. It is still August, after all!) and the crispness and freshness in the air has arrived.

I like the feeling. It has been a wonderful summer. Plenty of hot days, outdoor swimming and short-wearing. It’s been great. But summer does start to feel a bit dull after a while. Autumn is definitely my season. The wildlife is better, although it is sad to say cheerio to the summer migrants: the swallows, the corncrakes and, of course, the wheatears.

Soon the glens will be echoing with the roar of the stags – they’re already looking rather majestic, but before that comes the hills are still purple with heather, and they look utterly resplendent. It will be my first autumn on the islands, as this past season was my first entire summer and I continue to feel very excited about seeing the changes as they happen.

Autumn is not here yet, but it’s easy to feel that wee shift in the air which promises cold. And the amassing wheatears are testament to that. They are feeling the pull to begin their migration and to head off to the south, but they’ll be back and as the cold of winter looms, it’s comforting to know that our summer will return.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Once,

about 8 years ago, I went to an art show with my mum.

It was in Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Art Fair it's called and it was wonderful. Well, it was alright I suppose, until I saw it. The one.

It was a painting in tones of blue, that was all. Simple, and clean. Small. Oil.

But it was magnificent. It showed a series of low hills, one of which had a wee group of trees, just skeletons against the dark sky, a lonely, bleak landscape.

And that was it: it was truly awe-inspiring.

And I've never forgotten it.

It cost £300. And at that time I didn't have £300 to my name, never mind to spend on a wee painting. But to this day, I wish that I had borrowed that money, and passed it on, so that I could now look upon that painting and just feel that honest, true, clean love that I had for it then and that I still have for it.



I write this as a reminder.

That all can be well and fine, but sometimes the things we do for love, for art, are above and beyond reasoning, and that it is that that makes life truly wondrous.

And this is the way it should be.

Do not hold back.

Dance, sing, laugh (holy goodness, please laugh), jump, cartwheel and try, oh try, to do so without fear, without guilt and without self-reprimand.

For what is life without something to lie in bed at night and smile in memory of?

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Shock Therapy

Dazzling sunshine and a strenuous walk. The kind of walk that’s most effective when the head is full of thoughts that seem to follow no matter what.

Take time out to do a bit of scrambling. Get to the top of a wee wall and stretch. All that can be seen is mine: to explore, discover, find: it is my home. Enjoy, breathe in and re-find the path and continue to walk. Disturbance on the sea loch. The red throated diver pair are there and calling. The gulls are getting interested: what just happened?

It would appear that for me, at times some things cannot be answered.

 
And keep walking. A woodland. Ah, a hug would be wonderful right about now, and if there’s no body then perhaps one of those trees might do the job just as nicely. Instead, after clambering through bracken (only waist high, what a treat!) and climbing fences, the woodland is not the hugging kind. It’s small with hazel, aspen and rowan. My arms, if they could bend so far would go round each stem ten or twelve times. Not hugging material.

But, oh, look!

A white-tailed eagle, watching me watching the trees. I take another step and it flies. It was an adult. Closest I think I’ve ever been to an eagle, apart from that chick in the nest, that time. Then, round the corner, and obviously spooked, a peregrine flies past me, so close I can feel the whisper of air on my face. This is a good place, and I promise myself to learn how to fox walk: to learn how to be quiet so that I can visit these unvisited places and the animals can continue undisturbed by my presence.
 

Then, the hug I’ve been waiting for. The small burn has become pools and waterfalls, and it’s calling my name. I strip, unworried: no one walks off track here, this is secret, this is hidden, and I plunge into the water. It’s a whisper on my skin. Soft and kind, and I float, my body being carried by the flow of the water, the skin brown underneath the peat-staining.

Dragonflies float overhead. They whizz past me, here at least is an animal unbothered by my presence. And then the wren starts singing and I know I’ve found somewhere special. The sun beats down overhead and I lie in that water and I watch and I feel my body, my muscles relaxing and just being. There is no outside pressures, for the first time in what feels like weeks, my brain is silent and is smiling with me.


Getting out the water, I climb the rocks, up to the next pool and then the next, each as delicious as the one before, but the last has a real waterfall and I plunge in, and swim into the flow. It’s heaven, absolute heaven.


Drip drying I relax on the rocks, before getting dressed again and wandering down the hill. Avoiding the huge spider webs that remind me of the hummingbird-catching spiders in the Amazon (what were they?!) and trying not to leave a path. I need a refuge, a place I can go, and I think I’ve just found it.
I receive my tree hug on the way back, finding a couple of huge ash trees capable of giving me some love and comfort. But after my swim, after the sunshine, the herons, the raptors and the dragonflies I am at peace, and I am comfortable.

It’s not a feeling that will last forever, but it’ll do for just now.  

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Journey

I made the journey from the North Sea to the Atlantic, from a previous home to my new home, took two ferries and feel now, finally, I am saying goodbye to the east.

It was my last scheduled visit to the fertile east coast, and I don't know when I'll be back.

I awoke in Inverness, then spent the morning in Nigg. From Nigg I took the wee car ferry across to Cromarty. First time! And first ferry of the day. Chatted with a lovely couple who have been exploring the area prior to moving to Nairn. They seemed full of joy and excited about future prospects.

Then, I took another new path and drove the Eathie road back to Tore and the A9. Said goodbye to the Black Isle and all the joy and memories it has given me. It wasn't far past Inverness before I felt the weight of my journey becoming greater.

It started as I passed the place where the fairies live, and memories rose up of the big, friendly gentle-man who told me that story.

I drove along the opposite side of Loch Ness where Mario and I swam and stayed late into the night eating salmon and sharing secrets and creating a really beautiful evening.

Passed Abriachan where Charlotte held an incredible women's yoga retreat.

And then Drumnadrochit and the turn off for Glen Affric and all the endless memories that have been created there, at Tomich and Corrimony, and on what feels like every path, every corner and every twist of that glen.

Drumnadrochit itself: a set of farewells, a blind date, an ancient sweet chestnut tree and a strange hostel stay.

Onwards, to Invermoriston: the turn off to Dundreggan, home of Trees for Life and the thousand memories they have created for me. A very special sit spot, fantastic moments on the hill: howling with Phil and Lee doing the stonechat dance, a pregnant pine marten. Snow, rain, hail and sunshine and the magic of creating a forest. But also, the sadness of saying goodbye to my role as focaliser, a bittersweet memory still.

Then, other memories of visiting Invermoriston itself. "Hey bear" with Mhairi, and hiding from the camera in cubbys under the old bridge. And of admiring the folly every single time I drive past, but never having visited that particular place.

It felt like a memory map I was living, all the other hundred times I have driven that road were compressed into one, and the memories (good and bad) pressed down. Struggling on a TfL week and 'escaping' to Fort Augustus. Eating an entire (24) pack of jaffa cakes on the way back and getting through the rest of the week.

Driving beside huffy people, chatty people, laughing people - being stuck in a minibus for over an hour (am I remembering that correctly?) while we told stories of Mongolia and our obsession with walking clockwise around landscape features.

Onto Fort Augustus then, the location of numerous pit stops. Quick dives into the shop for snacks and lunch, and enforced halts due to the canal bridge being opened for boats. Always so many tourists. Photographing everything and anything (when they get home how on earth do they edit their thousands of photos?!).

Then the landscape opens up, the road widens and the hills become more immediate, closer and more dramatic.

The turn off for the River and Loch Arkaig. Scene of fantastic bothy stays in the honeymoon suite(!), midgiest camp ever known and other off track wanderings.

The Ben was standing out today, with the sun highlighting its shape like I've never seen it before. I've never been up Ben Nevis. Do I mind? Not one iota. Will I ever go up? Perhaps, never say never...

Then down the Mallaig road. Road to the Isles. We must have travelled this road for my auntie's funeral, but I have no memory of that journey now. I do have memories of collecting Kirstin at Lochailort train station and camping there with her and Ben. Funny how time disappears.

Other memories of walking Knoydart, strolling underneath the Glenfinnan viaduct, passing the electric bothy, and walking into the wild place that still seems so fresh in my mind. Remembering getting on the train at Mallaig back to Glenfinnan on the 18th of September 2014 six days after we set off, only to be told we were travelling free - with the hope that Scotland would soon be independent. The mood was exuberant, people on the train were high, we were talking loudly and everyone was so sure our dreams would come true.

There's been more than one trip to Inverie: the other was by boat rather than foot, and for Hogmanay. Who would have known that Forbes would be dead, five months later, but in life we had a celebration for the new year that was worth remembering.

I arrive in Mallaig, and there is the Knoydart boat - the very same one that I've been on three times. Twice for that Hogmanay, once after walking from Glenfinnan to Inverie. I have memories of us getting the tour of Loch Nevis, and seeing the bothy that we'd just walked from that morning. There were porpoises present on that boat journey.

Mallaig is full of memories. Seeing gulls nesting on the train tracks. And today I saw birds just almost fledged. Ice cream eating. My long desired fish and chips dropped on the train platform. Missing the ferry for Armadale and thus messing up our planned trip to Rum (I've still never been). Ah, yes, the ferry to Armadale.

And then I'm on my ferry, the one to Lochboisdale. I've never taken this ferry before, having done Oban to Lochboisdale and Uig to Lochmaddy; this is new.

And we pass Armadale and I can see the otter rocks where we would sit and watch otters endlessly for hours.

And then the Cuillin start to come into view, and I remember our big walk from Sligachan, to Camasunary (the old bothy), to Loch Coruisk, back to the bothy and to sleep. To Bla Bheinn, then Elgol and stopping off for a wee skinny dip in the pools at Torrin. And then back to Broadford for fish and chips (for that is the reason we hike, yes? for the fish and chips at journeys end).

And the bus back to Rubha Phoil: heaven.

I imagine Ludwig living there now, and Mick back there and wonder if his memories are the same as mine.

Then older memories, of camping on Skye close to Dunvegan Castle, and being bombared by midgies. All the more shocking after the midge free camping on the Uists.

And then, having passed all of this living history, the ferry takes us out into the open water.

The weather during this journey was such that I spent the whole time on the very top floor of the ferry and when the dolphins came, the view was wonderful. There must have been forty of them.

And what were they saying? Save your tears, perhaps. For these memories are still with you, and new ones are to come.

I said goodbye to someone I care about before leaving the east, and my heart feels heavy and sore.

On my journey I felt like this really was goodbye. I feel like I'm moving into a new stage of being. A new home, a new place, and let me tell you this: it feels right. To be here, sitting on my bed, having watched the sun set, I know a relaxation deep in my bones that tells me these islands and my being here is right. Just, right.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Constructing

I wonder how things have changed.

I used to work in the construction industry. Visiting sites to ensure compliance with the law, and hopefully to inspire and inform the workers about wildlife / nature so that they too would feel compelled to protect and defend it.

Some sites were more successful at this than others.

I've kept in touch with some of the people from some of the sites, and they've told me about leverets (baby hares) they were finding around their machinery, which they saved. They take photos of the deer, and attend toolbox talks.

Some of the sites that I visited were not so good. Pollution, fast work, rushing, impatience and just a real, deep lack of care. And these are the sites I wonder about. One, a hydro, in one of the most magical places I had ever been, but the work hadn't started before I left the company, and I just hope it never is. Some places should not be developed.

I remember once I ended up in the water. There was a pool, crystal clear, deep (surprisingly so), utterly gorgeous, and it was near the road. At the end of each day I worked there I would take some time out and visit this pool, sit on the rocks above it and just give some kind of thanks.

Often I would be working in really warm weather, but by the time I finished work it would be 7pm, and it would be cooling a bit. I never really summoned up the courage to get in the pool, until one day I dropped a piece of equipment by accident and it slithered down the rocks into the water. Whoops!

I needed to get it back, so I removed my boots, socks etc and zipped my trousers into shorts. It didn't look that deep, after all. Turns out, it took me above my waist. I was soaked: my top and trousers were drenched and I had been correct. The water was absolutely freezing. Numbingly cold.

Anyway, I retrieved the dropped hammer, and I enjoyed the process. To have to get into that water was just heavenly. It was pure, it was immense. Cleansing.

I didn't feel so good having to get changed in the busy car park with only my scarf to dry myself on, but hey ho, sometimes these things have to be done. And I wouldn't change that day for anything. But I do wonder what's happening now. Is the pool still so deep? Has work started within the ancient woodland? Is the flow of the invisible waters still so merry? Or is it changing, and losing some of its magic?

To have retreated to an island is a wonderful thing, however there is no escaping the fact that I now have no impact on how these projects are undertaken. (Did I ever, really?) and that that special place could have vanished. I will find out, one day, but I may find it difficult to go back there, for do I really want to see and weep afresh at the changes wrought by human kind?

Probably not, my memories are alive and well, and still on my skin I can feel that wonderful tingling cold of those divine waters.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Big Sky Country

I'm living in big sky country now. A place where the skies seem to dominate and the land becomes lesser under the changing moods. All-encompassing, taking up more than its fair share of your vision. And quick to change.

It is an angry old man’s face, with lines around his eyes where he laughs with his grandchildren.
In this country, it’s the sky that rules. The land is a footnote, where the afterthought lies, and the day’s emotions are clear in that sky. Quick to anger, but just as swift to reward, the sky changes our own moods through its capricious nature. And just when all seems black and heavy, there’s a moment when the horizontal rain hesitates, and the clouds part slightly; a shimmer of sunshine releases a rainbow and the air becomes exhilarated.

At night, the sky reaches to infinity, with a multitude of stars twinkling above. The clouds, especially under a full moon, shift and change shape and bring to life the countless stories of ghosts and spectres. The eerie call of the peewit sends shivers down the wanderers back. 

Big sky country. Back among the hills and glens of the mainland I start to feel enclosed. Even in my refuge, the forest, I look for the big sky. I ache for it, feel a homesickness for the raw nature of big sky life. The sunsets are glorious, the sunrises intimate and dramatic. The silence below the big sky is immense. Sometimes it makes me dance and jump with wonder, sometimes I want to howl, but out here the need for wolves is lessened: they were never here, will never be here and there's enough wildness in the eagles flying and the otter swimming for my heart to be content. 

To be wild, to wander and know you'll not see another soul. To be on beaches that seem endless and to hear the call of the tern and to know, therefore that all the skies are connected for the tern has flown from the furthest skies to here. To feel the endless wind, that takes your regrets and flings them into the abyss: this is what the big sky country is all about. 

This is my love letter to the place of wonder. 

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Storm Petrels // Mousa

Alternative title: The Best Wildlife Experience I Have Ever Had.

And the memory of it still makes my heart go a bit giddy: it just captured everything that I love. Drama, ancient history, a boat ride, and secret animal happenings.

We visited the Shetland Isles a few months ago. And it was an incredible trip where we crammed as much into the days as possible. It was exhilarating, tiring, overwhelming, exciting and thoroughly fascinating.

Shetland was a wonderful place to visit. However, there was one absolute stand out night that I will remember forever:

The night we went to Mousa.

Mousa is a small, uninhabited island with a very special bird breeding on it. The storm petrel. They spend their daylight hours feeding out at sea, only returning to their nests in the dry stane dykes which criss cross the island in the twilight hours. For after living a completely pelagic life for up to five years pre-breeding stage, the storm petrel returns to Mousa to breed, finding sanctuary after their night-time migration within the cavities of the dry stane structures in which it nests.

Most spectacularly of all, the storm petrels on Mousa also nest within the age old broch which is a feature of the island.

In the daylight this broch must be stunning. It's the most intact broch still in existance, as most have tumbled, or been dismantled in the many years since they were built. And the Mousa broch now provides the perfect nesting cavities for the storm petrel. Trips to see the storm petrel are at night, and if the broch is stunning during the day it is something else completely at night.

There is something to see in this photograph! Just make sure to tilt the screen enough to pick out what's hidden in the darkness...

For the broch is immense, not just in its sheer size but in its sheer age. It feels like it's been there forever and will be there forever more. You climb up inside, feeling the way with your feet, up and up and up until you're outside the broch and standing on its top walls. It's then that the stormies appear, flying all around you, swooping and diving so that they feel like swallows, but it's night, so you can see nothing until they're right there in front of you, and can only make out the outline and shadow of your companions features.

It's the noise the stormies create that's astounding. They produce a weird purring, repetitive croaking (listen to the audio clip) from within the walls and the sound seems to reverberate around and through the body. It's wholly addictive: I could have stayed crooked, back bent and listened to the stormies within the walls for as long as they called. The magic of the broch and the birds created a unique and memorable night of bird watching that I would love to experience again. I could have stayed and watched and listened all night, my tiredness was forgotten.


I suppose the stormies flew most like bats, but they were far more magnificent, however that feeling might have been enhanced because we were standing on the walls of an ancient broch. The whole night was wholly surreal, including the stroll back to the boat and the crossing of the sea back to Mainland in the black of night. Afterwards sleep, dreams, awakeness and to bring us back down to earth we travelled back to the Scottish mainland the next day.

The whole night was rates amongst the best experiences of my life and I would return to Shetland again just for that experience: it was truly wonderful.