The Raft Race

Posted in This Wild Life, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Arrival of the Food

It’s 13:10, and here comes my food. At least I hope it’s sitting in that white van. I could only carry enough food for the first half of my 10 day stay here on Muck, so yesterday I emailed an order to the Co-op in Mallaig who then instructed me to ring them before 7am the next day to pay for it. There is no signal or wifi at the bothy so at At 6:15 I walked down to the other side of the inlet and then up to the lavish community hall where there are all kinds of facilities including a nice warm clubroom with wifi, pool, table football and a huge TV screen.

With my ridiculous level of hearing loss phone calls, even with a bluetooth connection to my aid, are very hit and miss, but fortunately I could understand the lad on the other end of the phone. However, my Google “wallet” didn’t show the full number on the card so I had to ring off, walk all the way back to the bothy to find an actual bank card, walk back again and finally pay for my groceries, still before the 7am deadline.

This is the bothy. It’s not suitable for letting so I’m a sort of self-sufficient guest here.

I needed the food because I had invited my 81 yr old friend Rosie and my host, the owner of the bothy, Ewen McEwen to a meal that evening. Ewen had offered to pick up the food and I watched his little blue van moving slowly along the road from the harbour until eventually he delivered my 2 boxes with more or less what I had ordered. Phew!

Ewen is instantly recognisable if you have seen the film “Prince of Muck” which focussed on his brother Lawrence who was then the laird but died just before the film came out.

I also bought a frozen pack of Muck Farms lamb mince which I cooked slowly for a long time to make a sort of Bolognaise. With some pasta and veg it made a good meal. Rosie and I have similar political attitudes and I knew Ewen, a geologist who had worked in Iran and other strange places, was no conventional Tory, so I hoped for some interesting conversation. I was not disappointed! I disagreed with him over the SNP which he is very anti, but we shared a love of wild country and island life. I gained even more insight into what makes small communities work. Feuds and antagonisms will always crop up but they have to be sidelined.

It’s been a mixed blessing staying here rather than the bunkhouse. The space and privacy is wonderful but it can get lonely and has tested my psychological dependence on the internet.

So, although the sun is showing and it’s dry, it’s still cool outside so on with the warm coat and over to the hall to get my fix.++

Posted in This Wild Life, Travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Causeway

I’ve just wheeled my electric Brompton bike off the ferry to Rathlin Island and begun the 4 mile trip to the seabird cliffs at the western end of the island. The rough narrow lane takes an abrupt turn uphill and I change down and pedal hard, ringing the bell to get past a group of walkers. The motorised front wheel slips as the hill gets even rougher and even steeper, and I’m really struggling, so I stop and walk. It’s worse, much worse, but I can’t re-mount on a steep hill.  The bike weighs around 18 kilos and I’m carrying some 9 kilos of photo gear on my back. I can’t stop; the people behind will laugh at me, but there is no energy in me. This isn’t me. I’ve been up loads of hills on this bike and never felt like this before. When I get to the top I’m gasping for air. Riding on, I cough till I choke. Eventually I recover but still feel nauseous. What has gone wrong? 

Yesterday – another cold grey windy day in Ulster – I set off fairly early to cycle from our base in Portballintrae the 3 miles to the big visitor centre at the beginning of the Giants Causeway coast. From here I set myself to walk the 5 cold winding and windy miles along the cliffs to Dunseverick where I had arranged to meet Thelma 3 hours later. 

Below me were the vertical cliffs, great stacks of basalt organ pipes and those miraculous hexagonal blocks. To the right was old pasture full of orchids. Step off the path and  you sink into a dense cushion of wiry old grasses. On the rocks are thrift and heather, yellow, purple and kidney vetch and much else I can’t name. At one of the little bays a Fulmar is balancing in the wind just below me, several more on vertiginous nest shelves.

Way below is a well-tended bothy with no access by foot. It was built in another age to store fishing gear.

The walk was a rousing, finger up challenge to my demon, my gut brain, my chimp which has been persecuting me of late. It worked. I was tired but uplifted.

That was yesterday. Now though I don’t recognise my body’s response. I stop, rest the bike on a fence and think. To banish the chimp I’ve been taking Tramadol, but I mustn’t take it too often. Today, with the crawling tension again a threat, I had tried something different: propranolol,  a beta blocker. Beta-blockers slow your heart-rate – the last thing I needed for intense physical effort. Another bit of plastic, pills and foil for the bin. Perhaps the creatures that live in the landfill will find some karma.

The sun came out, the landscape was wonderful and there, down by the lighthouse were the birds, countless thousands of them. Look directly down from the cliff top and below you is a city of birds with a delicate traffic of white and dark shapes weaving in and out above the ripples of the sea, the movement unceasing and so good for the human soul, so bad for the chimp.

There is a pattern to the movement. The Fulmars with wings out straight, the Kittiwakes flying like gulls and the Auks, short fat pointed bodies with rapid wings; they all fly out from the cliffs, wheel round and fly back again. They are all of them obsessed. They want to be where the nests are but there isn’t room for them all so they fly, out and back, out and back. Perhaps it’s just their way of passing the time until they need to head out to the ocean to feed. Perhaps they are tormented by some ancestral dinosaur brain, but I hope they are just full of joy.

Posted in This Wild Life | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Look, No People

Each of us blindly following the pull of our fossil fuel prosperity, we uphold the freedom of the individual, the right to go where we please and so we destroy the things we love by crowding them. That lovely old building, that gorgeous view, and those swarms of selfie-takers; those queues of climbers snaking up Everest;  those mountain paths worn down by so many feet.

It’s good for the soul then to find places where people seldom go because access is dangerous or limited. Military land in Britian has saved places like Salisbury Plain and Pendine Sands from being loved to death. Ginst Point, at the far Eastern end of Pendine Sands is open only at week-ends and not that easy to find. It is part of one of the biggest sand-dune systems in Britain and home to a host of strange and some familiar plants and to the skylarks – hundreds of them. Below are Campion, Evening Primrose and Vipers Bugloss.

Waiting on Friday afternoon for the ranges to open, I followed a footpath through fields with the half-wild status of less dangerous military land to what must have been a classic stone built farm house and yard. I did not feel sad. If it had been in use as a farm it would be piled up with black plastic-wrapped bales, heavy machinery, ton bags of fertilizer, and too many cattle or sheep.

What a strange and exhilarating feeling to walk out, very early the next day, onto the huge expanse of sand – miles of it stretching so far out it merges with the sea – and to see the trail of my footprints the only scar on the surface.

I stopped by a bramble bush where I could hear a Whitethroat scolding me. There was a glimpse of its head, food in beak, but it was not until I moved further away that it felt its nest a little more secure and moved into the open.

Posted in This Wild Life | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

How Lucky I am

How lucky I am that what upsets me most this lovely May is the empty sky, the silent spring.  Last year for the first time there were no House Martins nesting in the village. Now there are no Swallows. By trudging up the hill I saw and heard a cuckoo last year, but not this.

These special birds have not disappeared totally. A few days ago, in the early morning, I travelled up the valley to the Junction Pool and hauled my photo kit up the steep Allt Rhyd y Groes from the Pysgotwr. There, high up between two areas of forest and moorland protected by NRW and the RSPB there is a farmstead with old barns and a lake and there they were, a whole flock of Martins, a few Swallows, and a very sleepy horse.

There was also an entry into the Welsh Heritage Caravan competition, and the return route could hardly have been more beautiful.

How lucky I am that I have enough to eat, that no mad fanatic is killing my grandchildren, no tyrant dropping bombs on me, that I have water and shelter, warmth, friends and family. So, what’s a few birds here or there? The answer I think is that there have always been mad tyrants and fanatics killing us, but as far as we can tell from what we read, we have never before been able to seriously alter the balance of nature.

Perhaps I am lucky that I’m not likely to be around when, as the American “preppers” say TSHTF. (Look it up)

Posted in This Wild Life | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Morning at Port Mor

After a week of gale-force to moderate wind the only ripples in the water are those of the incoming tide. The sun is being selective, choosing which crags to light up. It casts glowing reflections sparingly, hiding mostly behind thin cloud, but can still pick out the boats in the harbour.

Out beyond the old jetty is a group of Eiders and just today a small group of Guillemots. Much nearer in the inlet are two House Martins swooping and banking over the water – the first this year.

The sun also picks out the brilliant shanks and bill of our single Redshank, which is chattering and strutting at the tide line as are the two Sandpipers. All around are those ventriloquists of the marshes, the Snipe. Some are hurtling around above me with wing-beats so rapid they remind me of bats. They circle and then stoop, bracing their outer tail feathers against the wind to produce their characteristic thrumming sound. Some of them are on guard duty and sit on a fence post calling “chakka chakka”. It’s very loud but where is it coming from? I have to use binoculars to find the bird.

Posted in This Wild Life | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mucky Weather


Temperature 3 degrees, wind speed 40 chance of precipitation 99%, and the wet stuff can’t make up its mind how best to punish me. It wants to get me nice and wet, but can’t resist the temptation to turn into hail and give me a good pounding.

I’m trudging across rough moorland to get to a bay where there is an old bothy and a good view. Just ahead is a steep valley with a small plantation of conifers. I’ve not been down there before and at least the wind should be less ferocious.  Not so, this is a clever wind which finds its way round corners and down valleys. Now I have a bog to get through.

Surely though when I get there I can sit in the shelter of the bothy, set up my tripod and camera and wait for all the wonderful birds to turn up.  Indeed, as it turns out, I can, and it really is a little better at the side of the rough old stone hut. Even the sun put in a brief appearance, but the wonderful birds had more sense than to go out flying today.  This is what it looked like when I was here last May.

There’s a gannet out to sea, the usual little gang of Oystercatchers and one of those birds with the long curvy beaks which could either be a Curlew or a Whimbrel. Duly noted; stanav position noted, half hour of watching done and another bit of my bird survey of Muck sorted. At least the waves were fun.

Now; how do I get back? It looks like a choice between a saturated bog or a steep craggy hill and that howling gale again.

Don’t you just love the Spring?


Temperature 6 degrees, wind speed 15 hardly a cloud in the sky. It’s time for an early start, so I pack a flask of coffee, a snack, and a lightweight waterproof just in case. It’s a long walk and a stiff climb to get to where the eagles are.

The views are so amazing I keep stopping for pictures. The birds are out enjoying the sun too. Meadow Pipits are everywhere. This was the copse I trudged through yesterday.

I take a detour south to check the cliffs where Shags, Razorbills and Fulmars nest. The Razorbills are still absent but the Shags and Fulmars are nesting. Everywhere on the island are Oystercatchers. They don’t like me being here and flutter overhead shouting at me. I still love them though.

An hour or so of slow trudging later I get to the highest point on the island Ben Airein at 137 m. From here I can see in the far distance the ferry from Mallaig still an hour away, and behind it Ben Nevis still snow capped.

So here I am sat on the same rock I used in May, and after 20 minutes or so relaxing with some coffee and a snack here is the eagle again. The pictures are not so good, and I think part of the problem is haze. I can’t call it heat haze because I still need gloves and layers of warm clothing, but there must be moisture rising in the almost still air.

Oh joy! The first swallows making landfall and the sun has brought out the flies to feed them – darting to and fro they are too quick for me. The sun has also brought out some early flowers – celandines I think. Time passes quickly – 90 minutes has gone and I must pack up the kit and start the long trudge back. I’m tired but happy and intrigued to see a dark coloured heron just as I reach the little village. When I edit the pictures later I am astonished to see, for the first time, a Purple Heron – very rare in this part of the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Island Oddballs

They say it takes one to know one, and it’s a badge I’m happy to wear. Certainly this, my longest and most challenging trip to the little island of Muck has thrown some fierce weather at us, but it has also thrown up some good company.

Thursday was Rosie’s 81st birthday. An octogenarian radical, who lives alone in an ex-BBC pod-house, she is the lady I befriended when I was here in May. Also staying in the bunkhouse is Marg aged 80 who has been here many times and has even written a book about Muck and some of the other small islands. She gave Rosie this hat:

To celebrate we went to the tea room where they were doing a pizza night and found another eccentric already there. I had met her earlier. She is Ruth, early thirties, who earns a good living wandering around Scotland in her camper and taking videos: Ruth Aisling – YouTube I think she found us three very talkative old-uns a bit baffling but when alone she too is another island eccentric – a very different kind of internet influencer.  She spent years in Japan with her Japanese ex and easily switches to Japanese for the substantial following she has there.

Then this lot arrived:

This is the Dewhurst family, in descending order they are: Mark, Jacqui, Emily, Edward, Jessica and Anna. Two of the children slept in a tent outside, and they spent the two blustery, cold, showery days they were here exploring this wild country. They come from near Aberdeen. Mark is a GP and Jacqui works in health care and I have seldom met such and interesting and delightful family – different in that they all seem so well adjusted to life in these strange times.

I’m here for 2 weeks to do a bird survey. I’ve been drenched, battered by the wind, cold and exhausted, and yesterday I thought the whole thing was crazy.

Today it still is, but I’m making progress. My list of species is growing daily and to my delight the Golden Eagles are still here. Watch this space.

Posted in This Wild Life | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Heading North Again

I’m in the little car park of the Mallaig swimming pool high above the town, and from the  windows I can see the long distinctive profile of the island of Eigg. At the southern end it rises gently to  vertical cliff and then the peak of An Scurr, underneath its woolly hat of cloud looking like a wedge stuck on top of what looks from here like  a plateau. It’s not; I’ve climbed up there, and the ground dips down beyond it before rising into the long ridge above Cleadale. The skyline then takes a gentle curve down to the sea at the north end.

My destination can just be made out as a smudge above the sea at the south end of Eigg. In Wales it would be called Ynys  Moch – pig island, though the Gaelic muc-mhara – sea-pig means porpoise. Here and now it is simply Muck. This will be my third visit in a year and the most challenging. I have offered to do a bird survey of the whole island with these objectives:

  • To find out which species are breeding on the island and record the locations and approximate numbers of nesting territories.
  • To establish a base line from which future surveys can be undertaken to assess any declines or increases in those numbers.
  • To produce an illustrated guide to the island’s bird life which could be sold
  • To provide some data to understand the impact of human activities and on the wild bird population.
  • This would include the impact of tourism, farming and the rearing and shooting of game birds.

Three days ago I was privileged to spend a couple of hours with Pete Ulrich and his brother Hans in the cold, wet but beautiful Ennerdale in Cumbria. He earns his living doing surveys for the RSPB, but also for wind farm companies – a statutory requirement which has enabled people like Pete to have such an interesting career. His methodology is daunting to an amateur like me, but I owe it to him, and to the island,  to do the job in such a way that it can be replicated by others in later years.

On Saturday night, Sunday and last night I was a guest with a close friend from my student days in the Borders town of Hawick. We shared an intense experience when we were students playing in a band called “The Soulbenders” every night for a month at a seaside town in Basque Spain in 1966 and caught up again at a band reunion in 2017.

Now 78 he has recently married for the third time: Birgitta, a vibrant woman a decade or so younger whom he has known most of his life. It’s a romantic novel with a twist in the tail: the house they live in belonged to her father. When he died he bequeathed them 5 years residence before it has to be sold. Jim, a fluent speaker of Japanese, still has work as an interpreter for Japanese film crews but no capital. Somehow I think they will keep those smiles.

Posted in This Wild Life | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Return of Brian

Posted in This Wild Life | Leave a comment