Life on the Edge

Beyong Luskentye smallLife on the Edge – it’s the strapline for the Outer Hebrides tourism website, and the title of a new BBC Scotland Series which starts this month (May).  The Outer Hebrides is a chain of Islands that sits only 30 or so miles off the coast of Scotland, but is perched in the Atlantic on the very edge of Europe – next stop Canada.

If you search on line for ‘life on the edge’ it returns pictures of people hanging off cliff edges, and leaping buildings, and there is definitely a sense of exhilaration in going to somewhere as wild and exposed, and remarkably still untouched, as the Outer Hebrides.  Interestingly it is the only place in the UK to make the ‘Wanderlust Magazine’ list top 100 travel destinations.

I was fortunate to spend the best part of a week there, exploring some of the islands in a campervan.  I mentioned ‘Out There Campervans’ in my blog post exploring wilderness Scotland last year (A Week Out There), and this time used one of their smaller, but still well equipped, vans.  The Outer Hebrides is definitely no places for a large motorhome!

It’s difficult to find adjectives to describe the Outer Hebrides that aren’t over-used and hackneyed, but ‘amazing’ and ‘wild’ are two that can’t be avoided!  I didn’t feel that a week was sufficient time to ‘island hop’ and concentrated on the main islands of Lewis and Harris, also tagging on Scalpay and Great Bernera, which are attached to the mainland by road bridge.  Even so, a week wasn’t really enough time to do the place justice.

If you visit, and I would urge you to take the opportunity, the beaches are something that will stick in your mind.  The weather was quite cool at the start of the trip, and the wind blustery, but even so, the rugged, almost deserted beaches were heart-stopping.  When the sun decided to shine it was easy to believe you were in some exotic location, or a film set.  In the end we did get a bit ‘beach blasé’ as there were just so many stunning bays, coves and shorelines to explore! Traigh Lar,  Dhail Beag, Bosta,  Mangersta, Horgabost and Luskentyre are a few of the highlights, but there were plenty more we didn’t get to.

The array of wildlife is another key reason to visit the Outer Hebrides.  Although the weather wasn’t good enough for a boat trip (it wasn’t good enough for the container ship to sail, or the fishermen to go out!) there was still plenty of opportunity to spot wildlife, particularly birds.  Although we weren’t lucky enough to spot golden eagles at the hide on North Harris, we did see one one our way back from Bosta beach, a magnificent creature coasting along the ridge.  One of the joys of having the campervan is that it can be taken to some fairly remote locations and parked up overnight.  We had an interesting encounter with a herd of cattle, and whilst they weren’t strictly speaking, wild animals, it was interesting to see them in a natural setting.  When you have a large bull scratching his head on your wing mirror, you had best be engaged!  We didn’t see otters, or even red deer, but you have a better chance of seeing them here than a lot of places, and there is always next time.

The Hebrides offer a rich cultural history, and for those who enjoy exploring, there is plenty to find out.  We visited the Calanais stones, as this felt mandatory, and their brooding ancient presence was worth the trip.  There was plenty we didn’t see, as we felt that trying to pack too much in would dilute what we did get to.

Like Scotland in general, and the Highlands in particular, the islanders were friendly and chatty.  Most people had the time to spend a few minutes blethering, and the islands seem particularly accommodating, welcoming even, to campers who wish to wild camp.  We only stayed on a campsite on the first evening, and thereafter camped where we landed each day.  There were plenty of safe level spaces, many with stunning views.

I’m a bit of a crafter, and enjoyed seeing some of the local craft work and paintings.  As you can imagine there’s no shortage of artists and photographers prepared to share their take on the stunning vistas, and there are a number of very nice independent art galleries which also double up as cafés.   Hebrides Art is a 5-star visitor attraction, and as well as a stunning gallery of local art, has an excellent collection of island crafts.  We didn’t try the café, but the views of Seilebost from there are jaw-dropping, and the smell of homemade soup and bread was enticing.  I sneaked a peek at the cakes too, and they did look yummy!

The real joy of the Outer Hebrides is of course outside – the space, the peace, the rugged landscape, scoured by the Atlantic Ocean.  Even the Highlands seemed a noisy and busy place by comparison.  This is definitely life on the edge, people shaped by living on the edge, and every bit wonderful because of that.


 Outer Hebrides Visitor Website

The Murder of Crows

P4237306On a recent trip to the Outer Hebrides, I inadvertently spent the night in a campervan with a captured crow for company. The bird was not in the van, lest you’re wondering, but trapped in a cage on the edge of the moor.  The wild bird, or Larsen trap, is quite legal, and supposedly humane – the trapped bird must have shelter, water, food and a perch.  But there was nothing humane in seeing a caged bird die.

The traps are supposed to be checked at least every 24 hours, and I have no reason to suppose that the person who set the trap did not do so.  I wonder as to the efficacy of such interventions in the course of the natural world.  Sometimes members of the corvine clan are caught for research, sometimes to avoid decimation of the songbird population, and sometimes because they affect the livelihood of estates.  I don’t know why this particular bird was caught, but it was scared and alone.  One moment it was cawing in the dawn, and the next it was dead.

Larsen Traps were designed by a Danish gamekeeper (Larsen) in the 1950s, but are now banned in that country because the traps are viewed as inhumane for trapping magpies and crows.  Recent research has indicated that corvines are particularly intelligent, and for any intelligent animal being caged can never be humane.

I know people will always have arguments to support such activity, and rural poverty will always get my sympathy, but I can’t help feeling that this poor animal was a victim of the profit principle – protecting game bird young from the natural predation by crows and magpies.  I suppose that crows are not in decline, and need no protection, but they have young too; maybe a crow family has starved to death whilst its parent died of terror in the bottom of a cage.

I can’t help feeling that there’s not much humanity in murdering a crow, indeed, any creature, and that with artificially high numbers of game birds in the countryside the odd captured crow isn’t really going to make much difference.  As usual our interventions upset the balance of nature, whether we support or decry her.

I toyed with the idea of releasing the bird and risking ‘mischief with intent’ but decided that I did not know enough about why it was there to intervene.  I wish now I had let it go.


Look up There May be a Rainbow Waiting..

Rainbow Loch NessI have always loved rainbows.  When I was a teenager I had a rainbow poster, and when I went to college I sought out a huge rainbow that covered an entire wall of my room.  Rainbows may seem to some an odd thing to love, but for me they’re unendingly  cheerful: somehow full of life and joy and, well, colour.  The dictionary states that a rainbow is ‘an arch of colours formed in the sky in certain circumstances, caused by the refraction and dispersion of the sun’s light by rain’ or it can also be any display of the colours of the spectrum produced by dispersion of light.  A simple and beautiful thing that I’m forever trying to capture on camera, and it would seem I’m not alone – a quick search on ‘Shutterstock’ brings back 178,561 results!

So, what is the fascination with this common phenomenon? Apparently we’ve been captivated with rainbows forever, and there are songs, poems and art to prove the fact.  In Norse mythology the rainbow is the road between the worlds of God and men, Indians believed it was a bridge between life and death and the Irish…well we all know about that elusive pot of gold, and it wasn’t made up for the film!

Of course there’s the biblical reference to the rainbow being a covenant between God and humanity too, a promise that there will never again be a flood that destroys the whole earth (although some of us may have been doubting that last summer!)

Whatever the roots, there are a few aspects that continue to attract me – the nod at hope; the world hasn’t flooded yet, and it’s still exciting to my adult self to look up and see a rainbow in the sky after, or more often than not, during a rain shower; the Irish myth has appeal, hinting at the unattainable – you never can find the end of the rainbow of course.  Finally, there’s just the sheer wonder and beauty of seeing that refraction of light; sometimes bright, sometimes pale, but always magnificent.

I love colour, and am known for my bright choices, and often rainbow shades, borrowing something of the hope, joy and colour from the wonder of the universe.  I seem to have seen more than my fair share of rainbows since I moved to the Highlands.  I’ve not found a pot of gold yet, nor have I managed to take the perfect rainbow photograph, but it still gives me a thrill to look up and see a rainbow arching across the sky in all its splendour.  You could do worse than look up every so often – you might get a nice rainbow surprise!

A week ‘Out There’

Most of us, at some time or another like to get ‘away from it all’, and a holiday is the ideal opportunity to do just that.  In this age of connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G, very few of us actually manage a real break from our inter-connected, online, 24/7 lives.  There are probably few places in the UK outside the reach of technology, but in the far North West of Scotland there are still places where you can’t get a mobile phone signal, never mind the internet, so those who get the jitters when they can’t check their Twitter or Facebook accounts regularly, beware!

I have just returned from a delightful week wild camping in one of the few places in the UK where wilderness really does still exist.  Now I am the first to admit that the idea of being under canvas and digging holes in the woods for shitting in, in wild and wet September, is not my idea of fun.  So, yes I was in a motorhome, sheltered from the vagaries of the UK weather, with chemical loo and cooking facilities, but make no mistake, if you chose to eschew the facilities of caravan and camping sites, you are very much out there on your own.

Scotland has an enlightened view of land use, and actively encourages people to get out there and explore.  The Land reform Act (2003) which came into effect in February 2005 establishes a statutory right to camp in the wild, repealing a section in the Trespass Act of 1865 which contained the offence of ‘camping on land without the owner’s consent’.  We can argue about the impact of tourism on wild places, erosion, and the louts who ‘take more than photographs and leave more than footprints’, but that is for another day.  Most people who wild camp do so responsibly and follow the best practice guidance which is issued with the act, and most of which is common sense.  Michael Surman, owner operator at ‘Outthere Campers’, where we hired the van from, actively encourages people to get out and explore the Scottish Highlands, which he believes is every bit as dramatic as his native South Africa.  Certainly taking a van out and camping off-line is the ideal way to experience some of the Highland’s wild places and wildlife.  On this trip I saw my first sea otter, and spotted a golden eagle, which looked like a jet on the horizon; I took a ferry to the most north westerly point on the British mainland and walked over a 25m swing bridge suspended high above a box-canyon cut by ancient melt-water .  I’m not fit enough to climb mountains or fearless enough to raft white water, but if that’s your thing, the highlands are the place to do it.  In this fast-paced techno world we so often have our backs to nature, tuned out of natural sounds, sights and smells.  Getting back to nature may not be achievable, or even desirable for most people, but a few weeks a year with an absence of electrical interference and 24/7 communications is surprisingly refreshing.

John Muir the pioneering, influential Scots-born American conservationist who was passionate about the wild, said that ‘one day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books’ and whilst as an avid bibliophile and bookworm, I may not 100% agree with the statement, I certainly agree with the sentiment.  There is something about exposure to raw nature that is exhilarating and life-affirming.  Nature isn’t necessarily all that peaceful and tranquil: a river in spate, or a waterfall after a storm is a noisy affair, and trying to sleep when the wind is howling and the rain is pelting in sheets across the landscape you’re inhabiting is not necessarily relaxing, but it can be.  There is a soothing hypnotic quality to rushing water, like white noise, that you can chill out to or engage with.  Sunshine is great, and always welcome, but there is something magnificent about the power of a storm or an angry sea.

Living in a campervan or motor home for a week may cosset you against the worse of the elements, but if you take the opportunity to live ‘off-grid’ and camp wild, you do become aware of the resources you use on a daily basis, as well as how little ‘stuff’ you actually need.  Water may come out of the tap, but the supply is limited by the capacity of the on-board tank; the electricity is not on mains, and won’t power a plethora or electrical gadgetry indefinitely; heating and cooking are via gas, which again is limited by the size of canister.  You can see how much packaging is on the things you buy, and how much waste you generate; grey water has to be disposed of, and there’s no putting sanitary or food items down the plug hole – they will not magically disappear! Tesco, thank goodness, is not on every corner, and if you run out of something you are unlikely to be able to pop out and get it! It’s a good life-lesson if you take it away with you -the earth’s resources are limited, however we chose to live.

Getting out there and wild camping for a week or two is not primarily for didactic purposes, but enjoyment and refreshment, anything else is a by-product of the experience.  You may not have to hunt down supper and cook it over a camp fire, but you will have to find somewhere suitable to camp that doesn’t see your wheels sink in mud, or down a drainage ditch; you will soon learn to work out which way is the prevailing wind direction, and how tall your vehicle is.  You may not need the survival skills of Ray Mears, but if things go wrong you may need your wits about you, as a mobile phone signal cannot be relied upon, and practical decision making may save the day.  There are areas in northern Scotland that are uninhabited, where few man- made structures exist and only the deer, wildcats, pine martins and eagles roam.  Scottish wilderness may be readily accessible by motor vehicle, boat or foot, but it is still wilderness, to be treasured, preserved and enjoyed.  So what are you waiting for?  Get out there!



Let’s Joy up and be Springful!

It’s Spring!  Although confusingly, it is also British Summertime.  It would appear that the weather is as confused as I am.  I sat on a beach this week.  This might not seem like a particularly odd thing to do, but given that it is March and I live in the North of Scotland, it is a little unusual.  The previous two winters have been the coldest on record for decades, and then this year we get a mild, dry winter with hellish gales that blew my greenhouse away!  This is not primarily a blog about the weather, however much we Brit’s love talking about it, but it should be a poke in the eye to climate change detractors.  Something is definitely amiss, and not just in the UK.  That topic is for another day. 

Today the sunshine is my reason for writing, or I suppose more accurately, Spring.  We anticipate it avidly in the depths of winter and when it arrives we hope to slough off the dark, drear and idleness and get into the great outdoors.  Well, I do at least!  The daffodils are glowing in their luminosity, nodding heads in the breeze, the grass is growing, the blossom is blooming, and the animal world is getting jiggy.  There are no lambs here yet –this is northern hill country and lambs born too early would suffer from the cold- but the ewes are head butting and bouncing, and the cows and bulls are back in the fields after their winter confinement.  It’s great to see.  It’s great to be a part of the natural world joying  up for spring.  If the sunshine and shoots and new life don’t put a smile on your face and a spring in your step, whatever your woes, I find that quite sad.  I would urge everyone, townie or country-dweller, to get outside and take some time to notice what’s going on out there: the creatures coming out of hibernation, the birds building nests, the parks and gardens bursting into life.  Spring may not change your circumstances, but it does have the capacity to bring light, life and energy into our greyed-out existences – if we let it!

Magic Beans

Borlotti beans No, not a prelude to the pantomime season.  I loathe pantomimes.  Yes I do! Yes I do!  Although the ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’  folktale itself is quite compelling as a story, for me the magic of growing is a far more magical, and ultimately profitable, experience.  Who wouldn’t be mesmerised by bean stalks curling their way around canes?  Six foot, eight foot; sky high if you like!  Delicate little plants that turn into sturdy, bountiful, bearers of long green pods that taste divine in all their beanie loveliness.

As a child I was always fascinated by anything you could grow from seed: the obligatory cress on the windowsill of course, but also flowers,  tomatoes and many other wonders.  My family weren’t hot on ‘grow your own’ even though we had a huge 160 foot garden, but somehow I got the bug.  I’m not sure if it was uncle Ray’s veg patch or the allotments I spied from the other side of the park, but something lodged itself in my psyche.

I’ve never lost the utter wonder of growing something from seed, especially if it’s something edible!  How do mammoth squash and courgettes emerge from tiny seeds, no bigger than a finger nail?  How do huge leeks form from  a black spec twist of peppercorn?  It is nothing short of amazing.  It doesn’t matter if I grow things from seed for decades, I don’t think I will ever stop being in awe of the determination of nature to shoot up and out – abounding abundantly.

I’m not particularly green-fingered. Not everything germinates, and not everything that germinates produces a crop.  The runner beans were a disaster this year, and the courgettes missed the sunshine terribly (as we all did in this northern neck of the woods), but that didn’t stop a bountiful harvest, which as I write, approaches 180 kilos ..and counting.

I count myself lucky that I’ve always known where my food comes from – I know that peas don’t come from the freezer  section of the  supermarket, and I can identify a carrot or swede, or even more exotic delights such as aubergine.  That’s because although my parents didn’t grow fresh vegetables, we did buy and eat them, usually from the local market.  It’s heartening to see projects such as food for life  teaching young people where food comes from, getting them involved in cooking, eating, and even growing  it.  It’s perhaps sad that we need such
initiatives.  In an age where we can be so disconnected from nature, encouraging people to ‘grow their own’, and giving more children the opportunity to experience the power and wonder of nature first hand can still provide that little bit of magic.  O yes it can!