Saturday, 24 June 2017


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


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!

Spook the Rook: The Return

Some of you may remember my stories about Spook, the rook that fell out of the nest and that I raised while living with my parents a couple of years ago.

Well, the last time I saw him was February 2015, when I was looking after my dad’s sheep while they went on holiday. I was out feeding the sheep in the bottom field when I heard him. His call had become distinctive to me, and I looked up to see three rooks flying overhead. I shouted his name in greeting “Spooky!” and one of the rooks separated from the others and circled over my head several times, looking down at me and shouting in return. He then re-joined his companions.

The next summer we all kept an eye on the rookery, but there was no sign. Whenever I was home and heard a rook I would shout a greeting, but there was never any reply from the rooks.

And so time passed. We would still talk about him at times, and always the conversation would come back to the same thing: I saw him in February, he must have survived that winter, he must be alright, but moved on elsewhere. I have loved rooks ever since Spooky. For my 30th birthday my parent’s had a ring made for me with a rook on the front – a totem animal, they’re special to me.

I never thought that the current situation would change. It was 2014 that I found Spook, he was last seen in early 2015, and there was no sign of him for the past two summers. I thought that we would never know how this story ended. That was, until I received a letter from my mum that went like this:
“…a rook by patio door making a racket – flew away but that’s the third time it’s happened. I wonder if it’s Spook??? I really do!” There was a bit added afterwards saying “It is Spook! He pecks the window and poos everywhere!” This continues in the letter where she says “You will have opened the card and read the news of Spook. He is definitely back, and what a noise he can make! I think he likes to tap on patio door windows when no one is in as he flies off when you walk through. He produces masses of excrement!!! He has a VERY loud voice indeed. We are not going out of our way to encourage him as it could get very messy indeed!!! But it is amazing to have him around and to think of him with his own family, and yet he still remembers his upbringing!”

Since the letter was written on Monday, he has stopped appearing so much. Mum thinks the eggs have hatched.

We never knew if Spook was male or female, deciding to call him “him” as it made it easier than saying “it”, however the fact that he was not incubating the eggs would imply that he was male – only the female will develop a brood pouch, and I am so proud that he has returned to the same area where he grew up. What a bird.

He’ll be three years old, with a birthday around about now. What has he been doing for the past couple of years? What has he seen? And to have returned to the nest now that he’s required (if the chicks have hatched he’ll be busy on feeding duties) after having said “hello, I’m back” is just incredible: it makes him seem very human.

Although we try not to anthromorphise animals, this is one example where a bird is showing capabilities far beyond what we would normally attribute to them. It shows loyalty, great skills of remembering, familiarity, but also knowledge of what’s to be done. He was raised by humans. We fed him tinned cat food by hand while he would stand on the ground. But it sounds like he has the knowledge of how to feed his youngsters, despite the fact that that was not taught to him.

This, more than anything, has really brought it home to me how amazing animals are. They're capacity for remembering, learning, developing is far higher than we give them credit for, and it's just utterly wonderful to have been part of such an intelligent birds life.