Apparently it’s World Ocean Day! I can never keep up with all these international days, but I was keen to get involved with this one. Since moving to Scotland, the ocean has become a huge part of my local landscape and it never fails to both relax and inspire me.
My local patch is a mile-long strip of rocky shore that’s bursting with wildlife – depending on the tide I can see gannets diving for fish, turnstones foraging among the kelp or bottlenose dolphins flinging themselves into the air.
I’ve also been lucky enough to watch marine wildlife in Norway. During an unforgettable trip in 2020, I saw orcas, humpback whales and white tailed eagles – often all at the same time. Despite a dash of seasickness and some very numb toes, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by such huge animals, and it was a real privilege to share the icy fjords with them.
When I arrived at Troup Head I could barely see. The mist was so thick it obscured the sheep chatting away in a field less than 30ft away. Seeing as I was here to photograph gannets at their clifftop nesting site, visibility as poor as this suggested impending disaster.
Refusing to waste a journey, I geared up and set off on the coast path. I took the long route to the cliff in the vain hope that the mist would have cleared by the time I arrived. Sadly not. As I approached the nesting site I could make out the blurry outlines of gannets gliding past – white against slightly duller white.
I settled on the grass and propped my camera lens on my knees. The entire ocean had disappeared, but luckily a cluster of gannets were perched close enough for me to actually see them through the fog.
I already had huge respect for gannets, with their vast wingspan, dagger-like bills and ability to slam into water from a great height without injuring themselves. But watching them navigate a jumble of clifftops through what was essentially a white-out was even more impressive.
Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, after several hours I managed to get some shots I was happy with. Gannet goings-on continued as normal, and I watched bonding behaviours between mating pairs, grooming, and the occasional brawl when a neighbour shifted too close.
You can anticipate exactly when a gannet is going to launch itself off the cliff, as it takes several slow steps along the ledge with its bill pointed straight up, as if either limbering up for take-off or encouraging its companions to watch. It’s a bit of a showy thing to do and I love them for it.
By midday the mist hadn’t moved and my stomach was grumbling, so I called it a day and strolled back along the coast trail. Scottish weather is nothing if not predictable, but this means you usually don’t have to wait long for it to change.
Sure enough, when I returned the next day the sun was gleaming and the ocean was back. This time I could see gannets everywhere, swirling in the now cloudless sky as well as perching on their precarious ledges.
I’d taken lots of stationary shots the day before so I turned my attention to birds coming into land. This provided its own set of challenges – unlike their sky pointing routine before take-off, there was no warning before they popped up in a flurry of white wings.
It was a pleasure to spend time with such striking and charismatic birds and watch their daily routine from the lofty heights of the clifftop colony.
There are certain birds that I look forward to seeing every year. As the seasons shift, there’s a constant shuffle of some leaving the UK and others arriving. One particular spring/summer visitor who’s pretty much everyone’s favourite is the puffin.
Recently I set off on one of my annual pilgrimages to see these tiny seabirds at one of the clifftop nesting sites they share with guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes. They blend in well despite those luminous bills, often tucked away in their burrows and out of sight altogether. The key is to look for orange legs, which the other cliff inhabitants don’t have.
After a bit of fruitless searching I was just rummaging for some elevenses when a flash of orange made me abandon my search for chocolate. In a scrap of a second I’d seen a puffin fly past, curving around the cliff edge and back out towards the open sea. I hurried into position in case it returned and luckily for me it did, performing four rapid fly-bys with spectacular feet dangling.
Later in the day I tried my luck at a different spot, settling in a cup of earth in view of several grassy burrows that looked promising. I got distracted by a puffin on the water, some 100ft down. Even from that distance I could spot orange legs beneath the clear surface, so I enjoyed watching it through my binoculars as it bobbed around with its larger neighbours.
Birds are like buses in that they’re notoriously unreliable and just when you’ve waited long enough for one, two show up. Once I put down my binos, I found myself staring at another puffin perched 20ft from my lens. The little scamp! Luckily it had decided to take in the views before disappearing into its burrow, giving me a chance to make up for lost time and get some portrait shots.
Forty minutes later, a magic trick occurred and two puffins popped out. Either I’d missed the first one while I was ogling the water, or it had been hanging out inside the burrow the whole time. They lunged off the cliff together and I tracked them heading way out to sea, shrinking to black dots. Not ideal, as I had no idea how long a puffin took to fish.
Two hours, as it turns out. The sun had been screened by cloud all day but of course once I had no puffins to photograph it broke through and illuminated the burrow entrance like a theatre spotlight. By that point I’d spent seven hours on the cliff and evening was drawing on – I had a runny nose, numb bum and grumbling stomach and was ready to call it a day. But any superstitious photographer fears that as soon as you leave, the action happens. A combination of bird FOMO and my usual stubbornness made me stick it out a little longer.
Less than five minutes after I decided not to leave, the puffins returned, now looking radiant in the sun. A snaky pair indeed. Every minute spent staring at an empty burrow was suddenly worthwhile, and I finally left feeling ravenous yet thrilled with the day’s success.
This bun has been in the oven for three years and two months and now she’s finally here.
My book is written as though I’m walking along with you, dropping in history, folklore and other nuggets along the way. There are castles, stone circles, museums, distilleries and also plenty of opportunities to eat cake.
Slow travel is about taking the time to find lesser known spots and really connect with the places you visit. I’m proud of how much I’m crammed into these 328 pages, and I hope that whether your interest is wildlife, whisky or waterfalls, you’ll discover something special. Incidentally, it’s the perfect size to slot in your rucksack and take out and about.
Today I’m thinking back to a little girl who loved writing so much that she thought maybe she could be an author when she grew up. Well, she did it.
Yes those are dolphins jumping in the background – I’m just that good!
It’s that time of year again! One of my favourite things about spring is watching ospreys plummet into the water and emerge carrying huge flatfish, with the suave flourish of a magician extracting a rabbit.
I’ll be honest – I rarely get excited about larger raptors as they’re usually just a hazy speck in the sky. But ospreys bring all the drama, sometimes appearing out of nowhere and sending nearby herring gulls into a flap.
An osprey will hover high over the water, using its incredible eyesight to track a fish. Then it sidles down through the air, finally slamming into the shallows talons first.
It’s often a game of luck if you’re standing in the right place when they dive (and if you’re nimble enough to catch the actual dive, which I regrettably wasn’t), but you’ll hear the splash even from several hundred yards away.
Elsewhere on the water, I was watching a heron minding its own business when it was mobbed by a couple of common gulls. Despite the size difference, the heron was shooed off its patch and raced past me with a reptilian squawk and a sweep of its vast grey wings.
The Scots Magazine has a photo feature each issue written by a famous Scot about their favourite places in the country. They can be locations with personal memories attached to them or just spots they enjoy visiting. It got me thinking about which places I would choose, so this week’s blog is my ‘My Scotland’.
This narrow village on the Moray Coast, surrounded on almost all sides by ocean, brought about a huge shift in my life. Those who have followed me for a while will know that I grew up in south east England, and once I began exploring Scotland I realised I didn’t belong in my home country anymore.
It was Burghead that introduced me to north east Scotland and this in turn led to my first book, so it will always be a meaningful place for me. I’ve also seen a humpback whale, orcas, basking sharks and the northern lights from its rocky shore, so that scores it plenty of points!
Edinburgh was the first city I visited in Scotland, and every time I go there I’m on holiday so it reminds me of Fringe shows and the Christmas market no matter what time of year it is.
Its centre is old and graceful, with everything you expect to see in a city but with cobbles, narrow closes and plenty of steep staircases. It’s also the home of Hendersons, an amazing vegetarian restaurant where I’ve had my favourite ever meals.
Since moving to Scotland I’ve made a pilgrimage to the west coast every year. Usually this is in autumn to coincide with rutting red deer and leaping salmon, but I’ve also been in summer and seen great northern divers, white tailed eagles and even pine martens in daylight, when it’s not truly dark until nearly midnight.
It’s also where I broke my lifelong curse and got my first otter photos. The wilderness of Assynt has given me countless wildlife memories and as soon as I leave I’m thinking about when to go back.
I’m not much of an urban dweller and much prefer the stillness and seclusion of rural habitats, but I connected to Aberdeen straight away. Scotland’s third largest city is hugely varied and this is perhaps most evident in its architecture, where a single street has large stone block buildings, ornate granite colleges and transparent office blocks.
Despite its size Aberdeen is easily walkable, with museums, gardens, restaurants and artworks in just a couple of miles. It has loads of character.
I love the Cairngorms National Park in general, but this spot in particular had me obsessed from my first visit. I rarely use the word ‘magic’ because there isn’t much that justifies it, but the Uath Lochans do.
Submerged in pine forest not far from Aviemore, these four small lochs sparkle like they emit their own light. On a still day in summer, their surfaces create perfect reflections of the heathery hills beyond, disturbed only by the feet of dragonflies.
My book will be published one month today, and I can’t believe I’m writing this but there are two double page spreads about it in the latest issue of The Scots Magazine!
At the end of last year I was interviewed by journalist and outdoor enthusiast Nick Drainey. Although our main topic was my book, we had a great chat about Scottish walking, nature and travel in general.
I loved having the opportunity to talk about Slow travel and my experience writing the guide, but it was also really special to reflect on where my love of Scotland began. I think Nick’s done a wonderful job and I’m proud to be a small part of such a great Scottish publication.
‘Slow Travel: North East Scotland’ is out 15th May
Snow scuppered my last attempt to photograph my local hares, and I didn’t have an opportunity to try again until this week. The conditions couldn’t have been more different, and I arrived in semi-darkness just as a smudge of yellow was blooming to the east.
In my initial binocular scan, I spotted two hares in the far corner of a stubble field, so I made my long way around, keeping to the edge beside the dry stone wall. At a respectable distance, I settled on the ground and wriggled into the comfiest position I could manage in hard yet soggy mud. Soon after, golden hour struck with heaven-like intensity, turning the grass to flame. The hares were perky, lolloping around with the occasional burst of a chase.
One hare disappeared and the other started foraging far off in the centre of the field. With my camera propped on my knees, I was watching it through the viewfinder when a blurry blob covered my view. The first hare had reappeared some forty feet from my lens, no doubt having watched me with a hare’s version of amusement ever since I’d been willing its companion closer.
Twisting my back in all sorts of wrong ways, I followed the hare as it ambled in a semi-circle around me, sitting for a few moments to have a nosey before disappearing into the long grass.
Light that molten was never going to last, but I was already covered in mud so I hung around after golden hour to see what else might happen. And before long another hare hopped over. The key with any wildlife is to let it come to you, and hares are no exception – I’ve discovered they can be curious to the point of full-out snooping. If you sit still, they often sidle over for a closer look.
My special sunrise with the hares was well-timed for Easter this weekend. Hares are said to be the companion animal of Eostre, or Ostara, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn and spring. The link between eggs and the Easter Bunny doesn’t seem to make much sense at first, but one explanation comes from a bit of lapwing ecology.
Unlike rabbits, hares don’t use burrows but instead lay in scratched-out forms on flat ground. Lapwings are ground-nesting birds and often lay their eggs near a hare’s form or even inside it. Seeing lapwing chicks and baby leverets emerging at the same time could have led people to believe that hares laid eggs.
To be fair, hares are stealthy and mysterious animals, and that’s part of their irresistible charm.