As habitats go, a river is a particular favourite of mine. Not only does it make one of nature’s most soothing sounds, but it’s usually a hub of wildlife activity.
When I arrived, the first bird to catch my eye was a blue tit, which was loudly serenading everyone around it with its ‘tea-tea-lily-lily-lily’ call. Beneath it, flickering from rock to rock, was a grey wagtail. Similar to other river-dwelling birds, grey wagtails have a high-pitched call that cuts through even the chattiest of rivers.
On the calm pond beside the stream, a pair of mallards swept around in slow circles. Surely one of our most under-appreciated beauties, the male mallard shimmers in direct sunlight.
I’d come to the river especially for dippers. This patch has a Rocky Road structure of stones, logs and twigs jutting out of the water, providing countless opportunities for perching and dipping.
On some occasions, I’ve had to settle on the bank and wait a while for the flash of brown and thrum of stumpy wings as a dipper zoomed by, but today I timed my visit perfectly. Just as I was peering along the water channel for a white bib, a dipper came zipping past me and landed several feet away.
I crept closer and watched as it ducked down behind its perch until only the top of its head was visible. It emerged holding an enormous clump of moss in its bill. With another dip, it sped back downstream, returning minutes later without its foraged cache.
For the next hour I watched a pair of dippers gather moss almost continuously. I’m always heartened and impressed by the diligence of some bird parents. Chicks were obviously on the way, and they would have a luxuriously cosy nest ready for them when they arrived.
My plan had been to photograph boxing hares. According to the (notoriously unreliable) forecast, it was going to be a cloudless sunrise, so you can imagine how nettled I was to find myself in a mild blizzard at 5:30am, barely able to see 100 yards past my nose.
And of course, that’s when four hares appear out of nowhere and start boxing, just as I’m pawing great hunks of snow out of my eyes. By the time the snowfall subsided the boxing match was over, but a solitary hare was still loitering in the open, just as crazy as I was.
Determined to have more luck elsewhere, I ventured into the forest and found long-tailed tits and goldcrests. These tiny scamps really tested my reflexes, barely pausing for a second before flitting off to another branch.
A few hours later my feet were sufficiently numb so I headed back home. I passed the beach on the way, which was just as white as everything else.
Nature is unpredictable at the best of times, let alone when snow is involved. I ended up really pleased with what I managed to photograph though, despite the shaky start to the day. Still, I’ll be back for those mad March hares soon…
My Slow Travel Guide to North East Scotland will be published exactly two months today! To celebrate what I’m considering to be the start of The Final Countdown (cue Europe), here’s an exclusive sample from the book about the town of Banchory, 18 miles west of Aberdeen.
Banchory is the last major town before you move across the boundary into Aberdeen City, hanging in a hammock of the River Dee as it flows east. Close to neighbouring villages and with the granite torr-topped hill of Clachnaben nearby, Banchory is a handy base for exploring this part of Aberdeenshire. It’s also your best bet for shopping, with a range of gift shops lining High and Dee Streets.
By happy accident, I found my favourite part of Banchory while tracking down the library, located within the pedestrianised Scott Skinner Square. Named after one of the greats of Scottish fiddle music, James Scott Skinner, the square contains a selection of small businesses arranged around a mini amphitheatre of steps.
James Scott Skinner was born in Banchory in 1843. By the time he was eight years old, he was playing the cello at dances across Deeside. Cello playing wasn’t the only string to Skinner’s bow though (pun unashamedly intended). He also trained as a dance teacher and was even invited by Queen Victoria to teach the children of Balmoral Estate in 1868.
In the square is a tiny garden with woven sculptures of a fiddle and treble clef musical note, created by Ayrshire-based willow and steel artist David Powell. One of Skinner’s most famous pieces, ‘Bonnie Banchory’, inspired the creation of three abstract columns around the square’s amphitheatre. On the top of each is a stack of different-sized rods, representing the sound waves of this song.
If you walk south on Dee Street you’ll soon cross the river. Half a mile further along is a T-junction, where the left branch passes over the Water of Feugh. Running parallel to the stone road bridge is a newer footbridge where you can peer down at the Falls of Feugh below. The water surges in two channels around rocky contours before crashing into a slower pool and continuing under the bridges. In autumn, this is a good spot to look for leaping salmon.
Five miles south of Banchory is Nine Stanes Stone Circle, conveniently close to an unnamed road passing through a Sitka spruce plantation. There are six standing stones, a chunky horizontal recumbent and two wonky flankers, making up the nine stones in its name.
When I visited, I’d just experienced an assorted delight of road closures, cafés shut when they shouldn’t have been and insufferable August heat (I have about the same heat tolerance as a Mars bar). I arrived at Nine Stanes a sweaty, irritable mess and, although sitting in the middle of the circle with grasshoppers boinging around my feet didn’t make me any less sweaty, it was a serene way to end the day. Stone circles are good at that.
This one was arranged some 4,000 years ago, used as a burial place and to mark the movement of the moon throughout the year. Its stones now have mossy beards and grassy feet, but after all that time they’re still standing.
As you can see from this sample, Slow guides are just that: leisurely, and written as if the author is walking around with a person wearing a blindfold. I’ve loved writing in such immersive detail, as it’s given me the opportunity to really dive into the nuances of each location I’ve featured in the book. There’s a lot of nature and wildlife, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, but this particular entry gives you an idea of the variety of other things I explore too.
I’m so excited to share the biggest project of my career so far with you all. I’m currently working through the proofs and seeing the pages take shape, so it won’t be long until I can finally hold my first book in my hands.
Extending from Moray’s western border near Nairn, along the Moray Firth and all the way around the right-angled wedge of Aberdeenshire, the North East coast of Scotland covers over 200 miles of coastline. Read on for my top five beaches along this stretch, from west to east, where you can spend the day foraging for shells, watching wildlife or just soaking it all in.
Findhorn has a beach of two halves. Surf down a steep shingle bank onto an expanse of fine sand, revealed at low tide. The bay here is known for its seals – depending on the tide they might be hauled out on the beach (if so then keep your distance) or bobbing in the shallows.
At the foot of Covesea Lighthouse is another sandy beach, running to nearby Lossiemouth. As the tide recedes on quiet winter days, you might see sanderlings feeding here. They move in sudden bursts like a breeze has swept them up.
A lesser-known spot, Sunnyside is close to the ruin of Findlater Castle. Perch on the hip-high bank or roll your trousers up and explore the rockpools that collect among the geometric rock formations.
The fishing village of St Combs, five miles southeast of Fraserburgh, has a curved beach facing east, making it a good sunrise location. The sand is the colour of Biscoff even on an overcast day, threaded with narrow water channels trickling into the bay.
Forvie National Nature Reserve is 13 miles north of Aberdeen and famous for its magnificent shifting sand dunes. Watch seals and a variety of birds on the River Ythan or venture north along the beach and join walking trails through mixed heather and marram grass.
Yesterday I attended a conference in Kingussie, down in the Cairngorms National Park, about Scottish community tourism. It was hosted by SCOTO, a collaborative group of community tourism enterprises from all over Scotland.
One of my favourite speakers was Calum Maclean – a presenter, writer and Gaelic language activist who’s probably best known for his wild swimming. He’s just been voted the most influential Scot on TikTok, surpassing the likes of Lewis Capaldi.
What resonated with me about Calum was his enthusiasm. He spoke about ‘the power of localness’ and exploring past the obvious to get a deeper understanding of the places we visit. He also said to go ‘beyond the guidebooks’ that tend to gloss over the juicy, undiscovered places you’d only know about if you were a local, in favour of overpopulated tourist hotspots.
After his talk, I chatted with Calum about my Slow guide and how it was important to me to write a guidebook that included some of those undiscovered locations. I had the privilege of meeting lots of local people during my research and travels, and their contributions have made my book far richer. To reinforce the importance of this kind of immersive travel even more, Slow Travel is the theme for May in VisitScotland’s 2023 marketing calendar – impeccable timing for the release of my book that same month!
Recently, there’s been a surge in awareness of ‘sustainable tourism’. Initially that might make you think of the environment, and how visitors should respect wildlife and wild places while travelling. This is essential of course, but the sustainable mindset also relates to people. Supporting independent businesses instead of big chains, and making an effort to learn the heritage of new places as well as appreciate their beauty, are just as important as being mindful of campfires and taking your litter home.
Again, these are things that a good Slow guide should cover, and I consciously shopped small while I was travelling for my book, discovering fantastic small businesses that gave the places I visited even more colour.
Another excellent speaker at the conference was Scotland blogger, itinerary consultant and podcast host Kathi Kamleitner. Like Calum, Kathi’s passion was infectious and she spoke about connection as an emotional benefit of tourism. This connection can be with those you travel with, those you meet while travelling, and also with yourself.
Currently, one of the biggest travel trends is an interest in ‘localism and authentic experiences’. This links to the ‘staycation’ idea, which became even more prevalent during the pandemic. It was reassuring to see that my book links to this trend – I’ve highlighted many local people and hopefully conveyed enough immersive detail in my descriptions of lochs, forests, castles and distilleries to inspire these memorable and authentic experiences that visitors are looking for.
I’m a huge advocate of Scotland as a travel destination and clearly so is Kathi, who launched her business Watch Me See to help other people discover and fall in love with Scotland just like we both did. I’m always looking to connect with other solo female travellers and it was so lovely to hear Kathi’s perspective.
March is Scottish Tourism Month, so the conference was well-timed. It was a whirlwind of conversations and ideas, not to mention a shock to my system after several years of professional interaction exclusively via Zoom! I left feeling inspired and even more excited about the release of my book, having reaffirmed my belief that Slow is the way to go.
I moved to Scotland three years ago today. It’s not that long really, but both my world and the actual world have changed a huge amount in that time. Nonetheless, my local patch has stayed exactly the same.
If you’ve been following my updates for a while, you’ll know that I grew up in southeast England and went to university in Cumbria, where I lived just a few miles from the Scottish border. While my fellow students spent their weekends in the Lake District, I was pulled north instead. During my degree, my interest in nature became a passion and it took on a decidedly Scottish flavour.
After graduation, I had the unpleasant ‘oh god what now’ realisation and returned home, hoping to figure out what to do with the very expensive piece of paper I’d worked so hard for. Less than a year later, it was apparent that I didn’t belong in southeast England anymore. Having experienced what Scotland had to offer a bird nerd like me, I needed to be back there. On 22nd February 2020 I drove 546 miles to my new home on the Moray Coast.
Of course I had no idea what would happen to us all some three weeks later, but even after the first lockdown hit I was fortunate enough to have wildness literally on the doorstep. When restrictions were at their tightest, I walked the same mile of coast path every day.
Because it followed a stretch of rocky shore, no two walks were the same. Sometimes the tide was out, revealing boulders both slick with kelp and crusty with barnacles. They were crowded with oystercatchers, redshanks, turnstones, ringed plovers, rock pipits, herons and bar-tailed godwits – I’d only seen most of these in books before that point. At high tide, deeper waves brought a legion of ducks closer to land including eider, goldeneye and long-tailed ducks, as well as cormorants, red-breasted mergansers and fulmars.
This was all going on in just one direction. If I swivelled to face south instead, my binoculars were full of yellowhammers, linnets, stonechats, dunnocks, wrens, goldfinches, reed buntings and song thrushes, all attracted by the dense shelter of gorse bushes and the stubble field beyond.
As my first spring in Moray became summer, these resident birds were joined by migrating visitors: whitethroats, willow warblers and chiffchaffs perched on the gorse while gannets, swallows and sandwich terns swooped over the water. I’d never seen so much birdlife in one small area, and the coast path remained my regular local patch even after restrictions eased.
However, my eyes naturally wandered and I ventured east into Aberdeenshire and south into the Cairngorms National Park. One thing led to another and less than eight months after moving to North East Scotland I secured a commission to write a book about it which, as you’ll probably know (because I never shut up about it), is what I’ve been grafting away on ever since.
While I was gallivanting all over the place researching my book, I neglected my little patch of coast path. I still walked the dog that way occasionally, but I couldn’t dedicate the same amount of time to watching the birds there as I could when I first moved.
My book will be sent off to the typesetter in just over a week’s time, so aside from proofreads and final adjustments, this monumental task I’ve taken on is almost complete. Today, on my third anniversary in my new home, I walked the coast path again, dedicating a whole morning to wandering and watching.
Although I couldn’t spot them all, I knew yellowhammers were everywhere because their distinctive song – ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese!’ – was bouncing around like a bullet in a cave. You wouldn’t think a luminous yellow bird could blend in, but when they’re perched on gorse flowers of a similar shade, they camouflage remarkably well.
Elsewhere I saw a pair of stonechats on the tallest sprigs of a particular gorse bush, regarding me with a cock of the head and a bob of the tail. It’s fanciful thinking, but seeing as stonechats can live for a handful of years it’s possible that they’re the same ones, occupying the same territory, that I saw on my first forays in 2020.
In three hours, I spotted 33 different bird species – not bad for one mile of coastline before spring has even got going. Of that list, it was the yellowhammers and stonechats that I most enjoyed watching. They were two of the first birds I ever saw in my new home, so they’ve become familiar and even nostalgic – especially when I think back to the surreal times of only being allowed an hour’s outdoor time each day. Luckily for me, that one mile is as bursting with life now as it was back then.
Monday was the perfect combination of winter chill and dazzling sunshine, so I decided to take my mum and the dog to two of my favourite wild spots down in the Cairngorms.
Looking like a blue pawprint when seen on a map, the Uath (pronounced ‘wah’) Lochans are four small pools bordered by pines. Their surfaces are sometimes wobbled by goldeneye ducks but they mostly stay mirror-steady, reflecting the trunks standing around them.
There are two short waymarked trails that can easily be combined into a meandering loop. One threads between the lochans, following compacted earth paths and sections of boardwalk over boggy pools. The other climbs a brief incline, offering an eagle’s eye view over carpets of pine and further into the mountains.
Less than three miles north, the Frank Bruce Sculpture Collection is a series of artworks that have been carved into wood and stone, destined to eventually rot and fade back into their woodland surroundings.
Because the carvings are natural, they have excellent camouflage and some are trickier to find than others. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust before you can pick out sculpted faces and hands among all the other trunks. A needle in haystack situation!
It’s possible to walk a small loop here too, following a stretch of the River Feshie as it tumbles over pale shingle. The river sparkled and the trees beyond shimmered in the winter sunlight.
Although the sun was boiling as it streamed through the car windows, outside was a different matter, so once the chill began to seep through our clothes we returned home. The winter light persisted until the very last moment and I wandered up to the headland to watch the sun set. It’s not often I spend a day without looking at screens, so it was a welcome treat.
We’re told not to judge a book by its cover but we all do it, at least in the literal sense. Why else is Waterstones full of vibrant, juicy covers begging to be picked up and admired? So, when I saw a whale on the front of this book, it enticed me enough to read the blurb. And what a hook: “Far from home and with no real hope of survival, Ruth finds herself climbing into the mouth of a beached whale alongside a stranger.” Without wanting to sound like a T-Bird, tell me more.
Ruth’s life has become a hamster wheel of alcohol, bed hopping and a sense of something missing. When her latest relationship becomes claustrophobic, she decides to break the monotonous cycle she’s found herself in and travel to New Zealand. Here she hopes to fulfil a childhood dream of working with whales, but apocalypse strikes as soon as she arrives – don’t you hate it when well-laid plans get disrupted? Together with a stranger she meets on the beach, Ruth climbs into the mouth of a beached whale just before the blast hits. This saves her life, but now she has to figure out how to continue living.
This is only half the book, though. Alternating between chapters set in post-apocalyptic New Zealand are fragments of Ruth’s old life and the events that led to her trip. Somehow, there were close parallels between a dystopian world and the everyday routine of a young woman living in London, made sharper by the interwoven timelines. Like all good protagonists, Ruth has many flaws, and this makes her feel real. She makes human mistakes, and despite also building a shelter from whale ribs and making clothes from dried deer hides, her story resonates.
For me, part of this connection came from the book’s setting. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but “the breeze from across the water” and pulling “the salt-stiffened collar of the fleece towards her ears” were familiar sensations. Rather than obvious seaside description, Kate Sawyer uses thoughtful observations of a coastal landscape that essentially apply to any sandy beach in the world. Although my life in England wasn’t nearly so troubled as Ruth’s, I know exactly how being pulled somewhere feels; in her case it was to the whales she’d studied as a child in London’s Natural History Museum. The wonder of that place is something I can definitely relate to.
Dystopian stories have never interested me much, but I loved The Stranding because it was so much more than that. In fact, the apocalypse element was a back-seat theme for me. I felt that the backbone of the story was a woman’s pursuit of happiness and finding the courage to break a cycle and start a better life. And in Ruth’s case, it’s a life she could never have predicted.
Good weather may not be as forthcoming during winter, but I’d argue that winter light is the best of the year, if you can find a break in the clouds.
I checked the forecast and saw a long line of sun symbols, so I donned my thermals and headed out to see what wildlife I could photograph. First I tried for hares at sunrise, but they were otherwise engaged. Frustratingly, golden hour was flaring bright and I was itching to get photos of something, anything, in those syrupy hues.
After several hours with a numb bum, looking at diddly squat, I visited the library to return a book and warm up. When I came out, a flock of tufted ducks were bobbing in the city pond. The light was still fantastic, so I lay on the ground and got snapping. Like mallards, tufties have stunning iridescence if you catch them in direct light. I hadn’t set out for ducks, but it was a happy accident and I loved photographing something so closely for a change.
Rejuvenated by my unexpected success with the ducks, I moved on to one of my local lochs, where there’s always some sort of activity. As usual, the feeders were swept up in a feather storm: chaffinches, dunnocks, robins, great tits, long-tailed tits, blackbirds, woodpeckers and song thrushes all muscled in in for a mid-morning snack.
As my eyes snagged on each passing bird, I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I photographed a blue tit. I’m always looking for rarities and don’t appreciate common birds as much as I should. When I actually paid attention to the blue tits that were zinging in the bright sunshine, I appreciated just how multi-coloured they are. A British bird of paradise!
The sunlight may look warm in my photos but it didn’t feel it, and after a while I was ready to retreat for tea. Before I headed home, a small gaggle of greylag geese swept over the loch, dipping in flight until they skidded to a halt on the surface. Luckily for me they were facing the sun, so I caught some high-contrast shots of their smooth landing.
After an uncertain start, my trip became a common bird appreciation day, which I probably needed. I get blinkered looking for the rare and exotic, but with winter light as special as this, every bird looks superb.