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.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Corncraking

We were visiting Barra to undertake corncrake surveys, as well as do some school work.

I'd gone over the day before James, the field officer, arrived, and went into a small school to do a session with the P1-4. It was brilliant, and after that, I went for a nap, and awoke again in time to start corncraking at midnight.

It was a clear night. Still, beautiful moon and not dark yet. In fact, that entire night never got truly dark. It was glorious. Except, those conditions are not great for corncrakes, as I discovered.

It was silence. Even the corncrake in the campsite was quiet, despite the fact that it had been craking all evening before that. And thus it was the whole survey. In areas where I was expecting a cacophony of craking, there was an eerie silence. I was very aware of how alone I was doing this survey, and the silence was forboding.

I finished up, and was in my tent, asleep, by half past 3.

The next day was another great day. I woke late (of course!) and went and carried out various other surveys on the island, getting to know more of the route in order to survey new areas that night. James was coming over on the afternoon ferry, so once I'd collected him we headed down for some fish and chips in Castlebay.

That night there was no napping as we had a public walk to run, which started at half past 9. We finished at 11, headed back to the campsite to get ready and then headed out on the survey again.

We were tired. It was better conditions than the night before, with better cloud cover, but it was still eerily silent in places where there should have been corncrakes. On Vatersay, we 'rescued' a rabbit: a 2am haze meant that we (I) was convinced that the rabbit needed saving. As we were to discover, it was a wild living pet, who was friends with the locals and their cats, and was very happy where he was! He came back with us to holiday on the Uists, anyway.

Later, at about 4am, when we were almost back at the campsite, I was conversing with myself. James was asleep, and I was in a enough of a sleep-deprived delirium to be unaware that his answers weren't making real sense to my questions. When I stopped the car to get out and cuddle a kitten, his bemused face just wondered what on earth was going on!

We slept, and woke to rain, which we needed to pack our tents up in. I don't think either of us slept well in the three hours we had to sleep, so there wasn't a lot of chatter on the way to the ferry. And this time round, there was no getting out to look at the gannets and the seals, we both managed to sleep in the van on the way back. We arrived back on Eriskay, just as James had reached a nice dream stage and just as I had fallen asleep. Great timing...

Further up the road we met up with Jamie, the RSPB reserve manager, to go and survey for a particular nest. We thought we'd be okay, but our footsteps were becoming smaller and smaller and our speed dropped right down. Eventually, Jamie admitted defeat and left us in a gully while he went on. It wasn't a hard decision to know what we were going to do: sleep.

I found a perfect, Heather-sized nook in the vegetation, curled up and slept almost immediately. James, just recovering from Lyme Disease, slept on the rocks. It remains one of the best sleeps I've ever had!

Woke to share Jamie's lunch and then walk back to the cars. And then home. And then to bed to sleep for as long as possible!

That was my first Barra trip, and sums up the absolute exhaustion that both James and I experienced that day. I've always been one for enjoying a nap in the hills when out and about, but this was something else altogether. This was absolutely, 100% required, and by gum, I have the utmost respect for all the corncrake surveyors out there that work that 12-3am shift every night from mid-May to mid-July. Just glad it's not me!

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Flight

The feeling of racing, spinning, diving, rising and falling with the wind. The waves firing up to meet your wings and, impervious, you fly on. Soar on, for the energy is in the air, the wild wind, the tumultuous breath of the earth – not in you. You feel buffeted and by allowing yourself to be so you thus become strong. You are animal, after all. Wings, feathers, bones, muscle, sinew.

The possibilities are immense - you just need the power of imagination and with it you can travel the world. There is no limit, except the one you desire for yourself. The wind has not ceased, it continues to blow.

Your attention wavers and you tumble. The wings that have kept you aloft were almost the downfall, and the wind and the sea almost brought you down. But not yet. Your story continues. The wings are still present for another day.

The sky lifts you again.

The future is beneath you, the hope and thought of another day lifting you higher and higher and you are strong. Stronger than the negative forces and stronger and more beautiful than the good, for life thrums through you: wings, feathers, bones, muscles, sinew and something worth more than all of those; something ever-lasting and made of light.


For you, you are soul. 

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Uist Diaries

There has been too much of a gap. Since the last post which I wrote when I just moved over, I've not written anything on here - that's a gap of 3 months, the longest time that this blog has been silent since I started it, several years ago.

And now I do not know how to sum up the past couple of months.

How can I explain how I've gotten used to the wind, and miss it if it's not there?


How to explain how walking on the beach revives me, enlivens me, and clears my head?

How there are aspects of the job which are very hard, but the good moments make it wonderful?


Hearing corncrakes for the first time, and surveying for them, and worrying that the silence is ominous.

Introducing people to the islands and showing them what it's all about.


The wheeling, plaintive cries of the peewit, the oystercatcher and the curlew.

The closeness of the wildlife, how everything seems to be rightthererightnow.


Having a heavenly house to come home to at the end of the day and meeting really great people.

Missing the sky when I go back to the mainland. Struggling with working long, difficult days, but knowing that this is what I want to do, and this is where I want to be.


 Experiencing really bad weather, and really good weather the following day.

Flying a kite for the first time when I was wee (read this: o by the by - e e cummings) and absolutely loving the use of the wind and feeling like I was in flight.


Heaven: this is heaven.

It's not easy being here, and being far from family and friends and the people I love, but if this is right, and this is where I want / need to be, then it will all work out. And those on the mainland know that they've got accommodation in the coolest place possible!

I want to write more regularly, and now that I have internet in my house (finally) you will probably be subjected to my musings a lot more regularly, enjoy, y'all!