Friday, 22 September 2017

Uist's Woodlands

It was a real concern of mine that when I moved out here I would miss trees. So much of my professional life has taken place within or alongside woodlands and forests. So many lunchbreaks have been spent sitting underneath trees (remember that one time that a couple of young red squirrels were playing chase on the tree in front of me?) or on fallen trees, or being kept warm by crunchy leaves.

Missing them was a real concern.

Now that I’m here under the big, big, glorious skies I don’t feel a lack of trees at all. They’re not here, but the islands would be a completely different place if they were. What helps, however is that there are some places where the trees remain and the remaining patches are beautiful: I’ve never seen Scots Pine in such glorious shapes. Their branches do loop the loops, creating stunning silhouettes against the wider environment.

The remaining woods are spectacular. Alder and hazel and rowan and birch. Elder and willow and pine and aspen. Yup, aspen! The whispering tree. The shimmering, shaking treasure. So the trees out here are just beautiful and I’m lucky enough to be involved in the restoration of a woodland, or rather a plantation – restoring it to a near-wild state.

We carry out work in the woodland a fair bit and take volunteers there too (just let me know if you fancy getting involved!). The bulk of the work at the moment is to remove the non-native Rhododendron ponticum that is trying to dominate. Rhodie needs to be removed for without constant management, it does not live in harmony with other species, and unfortunately that means to restore a native Scottish woodland it must come out.

But there are parts of this woodland that are like heaven. There’s a wee patch of real woodland, where the willows and the birches have gone mad and where there’s dead standing wood and fallen dead wood. There’s fungi and bryophytes (oh bestill, my beating heart!) and a lovely mix of ground flora.

I visited recently after some very heavy rainfall, when the woodland had been subjected to an absolute deluge but had not suffered any damage. The whole place seemed to be crawling with life, and I’ve attached a few photos to demonstrate.

We’re not known, out here, for our woodlands but if our restoration plans succeed that might change. One day, Uist’s forests might be a byword for places of refuge to tired migrants, known as home to woodland birds and as places for humans to quiet a busy mind and calm a frantic soul.


Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Perfect Lunchbreak

The day already seemed perfect. The guided walk was one of the best of the year – the wildlife had appeared and delighted all. An otter had dived and fed in front of us, giving us fantastic views of it not only in the water, but on the rocks and feeding. Interactions between otters and birds are always interesting, and though I see gulls watching otters a lot it was the first time that I’d seen three hooded crows on the same small island as the otter, following it around as it explored the rocks. We lost sight of the otter in the waves and the rocks eventually, and we would have kept watching but the only thing that kept us moving on was the arrival of the midgies.

We climbed the hill for that very reason: I’ve never gone that route before, but this time we sought out any breeze to keep the pernicious wee ... away. And just as we got to the top a raptor appeared, flying straight towards us – it was an eagle, that much was obvious – and it kept on coming. Closer, closer, closer before it banked slightly and there did everyone see the white tail, and the proportions? White tailed eagle and one of the best views I’ve had. But it didn’t just disappear. It then proceeded to use the hill and the thermals coming off it to rise into the sky above us before, finally, banking off and disappearing into the cloud. An unbelievably wonderful sighting that filled me, and the group, with awe.  

Then (could this walk get any better?!) I looked down to discover crowberry all around us so we all managed to have a snack as well. Fab attendees, great weather, fantastic sightings, including a red throated diver that kept diving (funny, that) as soon as it was spotted but the eagle and the otter just astounded us all.

After the walk I was to meet my boss at the visitor centre at Balranald to continue with some habitat management work and so I sat out on the bench at the centre and ate my lunch. Then a familiar silhouette appeared in front of me, surprised I didn’t quite believe it until it flew right past me: a golden eagle. At Balranald! Quite unusual, and just fantastic to see both eagle species, and such great sightings, in one day.

As I sat on that bench that wonderful sunny day, I felt like I was surrounded by birds. Corn buntings were feeding alongside sparrows and greenfinch in the corncrake corner next door, chirping and calling. Two whimbrel flew overhead at different moments, and a group of geese called.

Everything combined to create a feeling of deep contentedness, deep-rooting happiness, and as I sat on that bench and allowed the sounds of the birds to soak into me it came to me how lucky we are to have this wonderful world, and though it may be in trouble, we must not despair and we must all take time to delight in that which it is: our home.


Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Invisibility is a dream

I came across a wonderful film maker recently, after she made a beautiful video about the machair. And, while checking out her other films I watched this and I realised something.

This girl is invisible.

See the arctic terns completely ignoring her? That's rare. And then the corncrake craking and not given one toffee about her presence. The turtle has a mission on mind, but the others - the deer - are all on the constant look out for predators and to the animal world we humans definitely come under that description.

Eleanor Hamilton, film maker is invisible and, if it gives you real close-up experiences like that isn't that something to aspire to, to aim towards?

It reminds me of my Kamana training which I sadly abandoned. I must pick it up again.

It reminds me of this rather wonderful day which I am also trying to write about. It's been a smashing week. The islands have welcomed me back with a flourish after a week away. It's good to be home!

Tuesday, 22 August 2017


There’s a timelessness here that draws me in. Here, like no other place I’ve experienced, the past and the present seem to merge with the future. The landscape is absolutely riddled with ancient monuments: chambered cairns, standing stones, wheeled houses, duns, and they’re all right there, in the machair, or buried in the heather. Forgotten but also not.

I sit on top of a low hill in the late afternoon sunshine. It’s a dapper sunshine, bathing the world in gold. The deergrass is just on the turn, it’ll soon be coating the hills in russet red. At the moment it’s like the green has faded with a new clarity. The hills look glorious.

The land I was walking in was ancient, and it made me wonder about the features. The wee burn that I followed, the lochan that I swam in; were they known to the first people to live here? The people who built these chambered cairns which I explored? The cairns date to the Neolithic period – 6500 years ago.

I found a skull on top of Barp Frobost. It was a heron skull. Sacrifice? Possibly of the eagle gods. I wore it, for if you’re visiting an ancient site and you find a skull of perfection, that’s what one does, right? Maybe it’s just me.

The Uists feel like time warps here. We’re modern humans, we complain about mobile phone coverage, and the dodgy internet. We wear goretek and try to avoid getting wet feet. But the ancient runs alongside us, keeping us in our place. For if history is there at every turn then we’ll never quite erase it – and why, forgoodnesssakes, would we want to? 

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


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.