Today was the first day I’ve missed my woolly hat while out walking. I should have anticipated this from the sound of the moaning wind down the chimney, but I saw diluted sunshine and overestimated its efforts. We’ve hit that indecisive time between summer and autumn, when dressing for a walk becomes a series of deliberations.
This morning I saw a couple of swallows swirling over the shore, still lingering after their long summer holiday. Further out, a couple of white flicks were diving in the choppy swell. Even from an anonymising distance I could tell they were gannets straight away, recognising the stiff beats of their black-tipped wings. As I withdrew further into my coat with hunching shoulders, another flash of white caught my eye. This was the clincher, a sign I’d been waiting for. A flock of eider ducks meant autumn was coming.
Summer isn’t my favourite season by a long way, and this year it was made particularly insufferable by a 40°C heat surge that coincided with my first case of Covid. Still, I can look back and say this summer has been both productive and great fun. Most of it was taken up by research for my book, which is now due in six weeks. I’ve explored Aberdeen, Portsoy, Glenlivet, Ballater, Braemar, Banchory, Dufftown and Carrbridge in the last two months alone, filling the last gaps in my Slow Travel Guide to North East Scotland.
After spending so much time walking outside, I was pleasantly surprised to find tan lines beneath my rings and watch strap. I mostly write at my desk, so I loved having the opportunity to stretch my legs and assure myself that spending days on end walking through forests and wandering around coastal villages was in fact work. Putting this book together has tested my organisation, self-discipline and resolve, but I’ve now emerged with a complete manuscript. All that remains is the entire editing process.
During my research trips I’ve been learning more about butterflies. Birds and mammals have been favourites of mine for years, but insects in general have never been my strong suit. This summer I thought I’d make use of not being able to birdwatch as much, and expand my nature knowledge in another area. I found it fascinating, stopping frequently to crawl on the ground for a closer look at a red admiral, peacock or, on two wonderful occasions, a common blue.
The butterfly I saw most was Scotch argus, which has made my English friends jealous. Many of them have never seen one, let alone several on just a short walk. It’s been a fantastic learning experience and one that I’ll continue next year.
Now, however, as both summer and my time working on my first book draws to an end, I’m looking forward. Fly agarics are popping up in the forest and eiders are rushing past over slate grey waves. I know it won’t be long before some of my favourite birds – fieldfares, redwings and long tailed ducks – make their reappearance. That chill in the air is the sign that autumn is waiting in the wings, and I can’t wait.
I’m currently writing a Slow Travel Guide to North East Scotland, which will be out next spring. The thing about writing this book is I’m spending every working moment on it but won’t have anything to show for my efforts until it’s published. Until then it looks like I’ve fallen off the face of the earth. As we’re almost at the end of spring, I thought I’d finally resurface and reflect on what I’ve been up to over the past couple of months.
At the start of April I travelled down to Fife for a week. This was a particularly special holiday as I returned to the same cottage in the first part of Scotland I ever visited, back when I was eight years old. It was fantastic to be back and I realised just how much my wildlife knowledge has improved since that first visit. During my time in Fife I also visited the Audubon exhibition in Edinburgh, one of my favourite cites, and the incredible Topping bookshop in St Andrews.
On my drive back up from Fife I got into Book Mode again and stopped off in Stonehaven, a beautiful harbour town south of Aberdeen. I walked around the harbour and along the coast path and found a stone igloo decorated with thousands of shells hidden within Dunnottar woods.
At the end of April I was off on another book trip, this time back to the Cairngorms. This has been my favourite section to visit and write about so far. Although I’m very attached to my home in Moray and have been so impressed by Aberdeenshire’s coastline, it’s the ancient Caledonian pine forests of the Cairngorms that have really taken hold of me. During my time in Boat of Garten and Newtonmore I visited the amazing Highland Folk Museum, discovered the Green Lochan – so named because the fairies wash their green clothes in the water – and had an incredible hide encounter with four badgers!
Mindful Creative Retreat
At the start of May I had a brief break from book writing to take on another exciting project. Last summer I co-hosted a Mindful Creative Retreat on the Moray Coast. It was a great success so we held another one this year. The guests really enjoyed unwinding from their own work and commitments and dedicating time to nature writing, mindful photography, breath work and even outdoor yoga each morning. I benefitted from the experience too and found the process of slowing down and being in the present moment so rewarding.
And finally, last week I had another book trip back to Aberdeenshire. My friend Kim, who I co-hosted the retreat with, kindly offered me a place to stay in Peterhead, which was a great base for exploring more of my new favourite coastline. I visited Peterhead Prison Museum and Slains Castle (which was inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula castle), walked barefoot through the wind-sculpted dunes of Forvie and even managed to see a couple of distant puffins.
As we move into summer and I carry on beavering away with my book, I hope I can maintain the mindful practices I explored during the retreat and make them a regular part of my routine.
It was time to go back to Assynt on the west coast this week. Friends of mine own a wood cabin on the edge of aloch – with no phone service and barely anyone else around, it’s one of my favourite places to stay.
The weather has been unpredictable for weeks where I am. One minute we have torrential downpours and the next radiant sunshine. I was a little dubious what I’d be faced with at the chalet, and as my friend Steve and I headed west towards Inverness it soon became apparent that we’d be battling the elements again. The hills were hidden behind mist and the rain was falling sideways.
It turned out that I would only photograph two species during the trip but they were two crackers: red deer and pine martens.
In Inchnadamph, a small hamlet about fifteen miles from the cabin, there were red deer everywhere. The name of the hamlet comes from the Gaelic Innis nan Damh, which means ‘meadow of the stags’. Deer are drawn to this particular area because of the limestone, which makes the grass sweeter.
I was grateful for that sweet grass because I got to see dozens of deer, both stags and hinds, as they foraged with the mountainous Assynt landscape all around them. I also found a fragmented antler in the heather. It’s less than a hand’s length but it’s got the sunflower-shaped face that once attached it to the stag’s skull. I took it as a good luck omen for the week.
When we arrived at the cabin we began setting up for our first night watch. On previous visits we’ve sat in the dark watching pine martens and badgers right outside the window, but the light’s always been too poor for photos. This time we upped our game and brought along two small freestanding lights to point onto a mossy log perch. Once the peanuts had been sprinkled it was time for the long wait to begin.
That first night was probably the most successful wildlife session I’ve ever had. From 9pm until we gave into exhaustion at 4:30am, we were visited seven times by a pine marten and twice from a huge stag, who scared the life out of me when his shining white eyes appeared in the dark. I hoped this was Stig, who often browses in the chalet garden and has been watched by lots of visitors to the chalet.
Stig stayed for half an hour on two separate occasions. Both times he made a beeline for the gorse bush closest to the chalet steps. I couldn’t imagine putting gorse anywhere near my face let alone in my mouth, but the stag couldn’t munch it quick enough.
Although it was great to see a stag so closely, the pine marten was spectacular. Every time it appeared it would pop its head up from behind the square wire fence, then most times after that we would spot its shining eyes and pale bib from the bottom of the gorse bush that the stag had been munching on.
After a brief sniff and glance both ways, it lolloped into the open and leapt straight onto the perch, claiming its prize and gifting us with fantastic views.
For the next three nights we stayed up waiting for the pine martens. We knew there were two because one of them only had one flashing eye on the trail camera footage. We’d already named that individual Misty on our previous visit. Misty was far more elusive than Rex, our other visitor. We’d chosen this name because of the mark on its bib that looked like a T-Rex claw.
Rex came multiple times a night – on the second night we were slightly peeved that we had a tactical nap right when she/he dropped by, so we were fast asleep while a pine marten was munching a metre from our heads… Misty really challenged our nocturnal abilities but Steve managed to see her/him once on the last night.
Pine martens are one of my favourite animals, so to be able to watch them from the comfort of the cabin and at such close range was a real treat.
Once our time on the west coast was over, we passed through Inchnadamph again on our way back east. This time there was some lying snow, which made photographing the deer even more special.
Each time I return from the chalet I’m wondering when I’ll be back. I love living in the northeast and there’s some incredible wildlife here too, but there’s something so addictive about that cabin in Assynt.
I’ve always loved winter the most. It might be because I’m a December baby, or because I love snow, ice and winter wildlife – there’s just something special about the dark half of the year. After a summer slump, my motivation begins to grind again in autumn and by winter I’m raring to go.
Today is the winter solstice, which marks the longest night of the year. From now on the days will start to lengthen. I know a lot of people struggle with these short, darker days, but with the winter solstice come exciting prospects for the new year and a clean slate to begin again. For me this is a time of possibility. There may be darkness now but the light is slowly returning.
I’m interested in the pre-Christian traditions surrounding the winter solstice, or Yule. Many of these old traditions are still familiar to us today, in particular those associated with wild plants.
One of several protective evergreens, hollyhas been a significant part of Yule tradition for thousands of years. The Druids regarded it as the sacred king of winter – while other plants withered during the cold months, holly continued to flourish.
As a result, the prickly plant became a symbol of renewal and rejuvenation, maintaining high spirits through winter. Many ancient Europeans brought holly into the home as protection – its spikes were said to repel unwanted spirits and bring good luck.
The Druids considered ivy to be the queen to holly’s king. Also an evergreen that endures challenging environments and keeps its colour all year, ivy is symbolic of endurance and promise.
Thought to possess magical qualities, it was hung in the home to bring luck in the spring. Ivy is especially significant because it grows in a spiral, reflecting the Wheel of the Year.
This plant is typically hung from the ceiling and its magical properties come from the belief that it exists between two worlds: sky and earth. It is cut carefully to ensure that it doesn’t touch the ground.
Mistletoe has long been regarded as a symbol of freedom. Ancient Europeans believed it was a sign of peace, and any time warring Celtics found it in the forests, they would honour the plant and drop their weapons. Today, mistletoe is less of a white flag of surrender, but we still honour it with compassion by sharing a kiss!
Evergreens such as fir and spruce were seen as signs of eternal prosperity. They were symbols of optimism and freshness even in unforgiving environments. By bringing their branches – and more recently, the whole trees – inside during Yule, it was believed that evergreens could enliven and invigorate the home in preparation for the coming year.
Yule is a time to rest and reflect, which is especially important after a year like this one. I hope you have a warm and restful time with family and friends!
Christmas always ends up being a hectic whirlwind, but this year I think we’re all looking forward to a bit of festive cheer. However, the festive season can get wasteful and very expensive, so I’ve put together a list of tips for making this Christmas a green one.
While I try to limit my online shopping, it’s inevitable that I’ll order something now and then. Luckily, the cardboard packaging is perfect for trimming down and transforming into homemade cards – ready to be decorated with photos and messages.
If you keep your cards dinky, you can make several from one piece of packaging. For even more crafty points, save the Christmas cards you receive this year and cut them out to decorate your homemade cards next year. You can make your own gift tags this way too!
There’s an ongoing debate about whether it’s better to have a real or artificial tree. While there are pros and cons of each, for fresh trees it’s best to find a locally grown one that supports local businesses and reduces the pollution associated with delivery. To find out where the local retailers are near you, check out the British Tree Growers Association.
To prevent your tree from going to landfill after Christmas, look out for tree recycling schemes which are offered by a lot of local councils. It’s also possible to rent a tree! After enjoying your tree over the Christmas period, you return it to the grower who replants it ready for next year.
Once you have your tree, you’re going to want to decorate it. We’ve all seen the countless decorations on display at garden centres but beware: lots of these ornaments are covered in glitter – a harmful microplastic which should be avoided.
For more sustainable decorations, why not make paper chains using brightly coloured cardboard from cereal boxes and other packaging? You could also gather some natural materials such as holly, ivy, pinecones or small pine branches to make your home both festive and wild.
While swapping gifts can be loads of fun, I’m sure we’ve all received some we’d sooner exchange for something else… To avoid any awkwardness on Christmas morning, get your loved ones gifts that are fun and practical – reusable metal straws or plastic-free shampoo bars perhaps.
We’re all guilty of a little overindulgence at Christmas but that’s perfectly acceptable – it’s Christmas after all! Although, we should be aware of how much food we end up throwing away.
To minimise waste, it’s a good idea to eat all your freezer food during December to make room for leftovers. Everyone knows about turkey sandwiches, but there are lots of other good leftover recipes around including vegetable tray bakes, turkey curry and countless soup flavours.
Has anyone ever been pleased by what they’ve won in a cracker? Let’s be honest – it’s all tacky plastic tat! A very refreshing trend that’s growing more popular is homemade crackers – this handy guide is easy to follow and doesn’t require many materials, but you can experiment any way you like. Making your own crackers not only cuts down on single-use plastic but also gives you the freedom to choose the gifts. And maybe find some better jokes too.
Do you have nifty ideas for an eco-conscious Christmas? I’d love to hear them!
I couldn’t help a slight eye roll when I read the shower of adjectives on the cover reviews of this book: “powerful… inspiring… mind-blowing…” But it actually ended up being all of those things for me, even the last one.
If Women Rose Rooted is a combination of three topics I care strongly about: nature, women and Celtic mythology. I’ve been directly involved in the first of those since childhood – the natural world is the basis for everything I do, both professionally and personally. But the other two have slowly gained momentum in my mind since moving to Scotland.
In 2019 I was earning minimum wage in the town I grew up in. It was where I’d gone to school, met my best friends and spent every weekend, but I didn’t belong there anymore. I didn’t realise just how much I didn’t belong there until I stayed with my parents for a week in their new house in Moray, northeast Scotland.
After days spent walking along beaches and through forests, spotting red squirrels, stonechats and grey seals, I returned to England with a crash. Scotland had shone a harsh and revealing light on the current state of my life. My writing had dried up, the camera was gathering dust, and most importantly I wasn’t happy.
One morning before work I sat in my car in a multi-storey car park and cried. Proper ugly sobs. I splashed my face with cold water to stop my eyes puffing up in front of the customers.
I felt a toxic mix of emotions: disappointment about leaving university and returning to the same place I was in before; physical and mental discomfort from spending eight hours a day staring at the same four walls, not making any progress in my career whatsoever; longing for a place currently out of reach; and shame that my situation was a lot better than some and I should be grateful I had work at all.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling of displacement, like I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. Scotland was beckoning and each day the pull grew stronger. I made a playlist of inspiring songs and that worked for a while, but I knew in my gut I had to move.
And the universe, being its freaky-deaky self, confirmed that for me when the shop I was working in closed and we were all let go. Everything in me lifted – I swept up my belongings and bolted north.
The effect was immediate. Words flowed out of me, I took hundreds of photos and I walked for hours through my new home. Now, 21 months later, I feel rooted to land for the first time in my life. I’ve developed a fierce love for the place I’m in and the inspiration I soak up from it. I’ve found my home.
Last month I saw If Women Rose Rooted in the library, its back to the wall so its front cover faced me as I browsed. It had been on my list for a while so I gave it a go. Several pages in I felt the strange sensation of someone I didn’t know seemingly talking about my own life.
“I am sitting in a car,” the author Sharon Blackie writes, “outside an ugly office building in a small town… for which I have absolutely no affection. I have no affinity for this part of the world; my internal compass points north and west, and my feet literally feel as if they are in the wrong place.”
It’s in this moment that Sharon hears the Call. Unfortunately for her it comes in the form of a panic attack, but it was this experience that beckoned her to change her life. A year after that incident, she spent two weeks in Ireland and writes: “For the first time in my life I felt as if my feet were in the right place.” The parallels with my own situation were undeniable.
Memories of my own Call came flooding back. I count myself extremely fortunate that my own experience of what Sharon calls the Wasteland was mild and brief compared to hers. I’m grateful that I recognised what I needed to do and was able to do it a lot sooner.
So my new roots continued to grow in Scotland. I was in a place I felt I belonged to – one that resonated with me. After walking the same trails over and over, I picked up on seasonal changes happening around me. I followed the rhythm of the tides and learned where yellowhammers might be and what time of year to expect long-tailed ducks. I tuned into this amazing new place, and that is the essence of Sharon’s book.
“Once up a time,” she writes, “the people of our Celtic nations knew that our fate is inseparable from the fate of the land we live on… There is a Gaelic word for it. In Irish, the word is dúchas; in Scottish Gaelic, dùthchas. It expresses a sense of belonging to a place, to a certain area of land; it expresses a sense of rootedness, by ancient lineage and ancestry, in the community which has responsibility for that place.”
I was born and raised in England but I have both Irish and Scottish lineage and feel drawn to wild Celtic places. I was pulled north to the windswept coast of Moray and I already feel fiercely protective of it. I spend every day working on something to do with nature, whether it’s writing, photography or filmmaking, but I still feel a sense of helplessness that I’m not doing enough. Our planet is sick and I want to do more, but I don’t know what.
Once again, Sharon Blackie leaned out of her book and seemed to speak directly to me. One of the many incredible women she interviews is Scilla Elworthy, who founded an NGO to initiate effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers, and co-founded Rising Women, Rising World – an international community intent on building a world that works for everyone. She’s been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
When speaking to Sharon about her work with Rising Women, Rising World, Scilla says this: “Investigate what breaks your heart. Then ask yourself whether that is where your passion lies, think about what your key skills are, marry the two – then you have your initiative.”
When hearing the Call, leaving the Wasteland and restoring balance to your work, health and daily life, it’s important to find the unique part of yourself that you can bring back to the world.
“It is easy to get disheartened,” Sharon says. “So many of us go through stages of feeling helpless, or believing there’s nothing that can be done. But there’s always something that can be done, no matter how small… The Journey is about accepting that we each have a responsibility for the way we live our lives, for our footprint on the planet.”
Reading that was another comfort, especially as COP26 is still present in my mind. No single person can save the world, but we can all make small changes and inspire others to do the same.
Author and needleworker Alice Starmore, another of the women Sharon talks to, says: “It’s hard to care for what you don’t know.” I aspire to educate and inspire people through words and images, and I will continue to use them to celebrate and encourage the protection of nature.
And even though I’ve been watching and studying wildlife in some form for most of my life, there are obviously still things I don’t know as well. The world of plants and trees is still largely a mystery to me, as are moon cycles, stars and geology. To set my new roots even firmer in the ground, I need to continue learning about the land I belong to and share it with others.
In all the Celtic myths and legends Sharon shares in If Women Rose Rooted, the women knew the land and were deeply connected to it. In our pursuit of progress, we’ve forgotten the importance of being rooted and we’ve lost touch with our heritage.
There are many cyclical elements to Celtic tradition and these circles still surround us today – day and night, the lunar cycle, seasons and tides. Instead of a circle, we’re currently living on a straight line which cannot be maintained. Rediscovering our history and stories will help curve that line back into a circle.
I didn’t expect so much to come pouring out of me when I started writing this. It’s rare for a book to affect me so deeply, but with so many parallels between Sharon Blackie’s Calling and my own, I found myself stunned at many moments while reading this book. I would recommend it to any woman who has lost her way or recently found where she needs to be. We all have work to do, but with each small step we can make change.
Painting always takes a backseat for me. Writing and photography take up all of my creative time and energy, and as a result I barely ever get round to painting even though I love it. The second I actually set out my equipment and get started, I spend hours doing it!
The other obstacle is the fact I’m a raging perfectionist. I aspire for photorealism on every piece and it just doesn’t happen. What I should be more concerned with is that my worrying is stopping me from doing what I love.
So, determined not to get bogged down by perfection, I painted a few sketches with my usual combination of watercolour and fineliner pens recently. Sure they’re a little rough round the edges but isn’t creative expression what art is all about? If we could all paint a bird to look like a photo, every piece of artwork would look identical. Naturally this is just me making an excuse for my lack of technical skill, but joking aside I think art should be about having fun no matter what the end result looks like. And everyone knows practice makes perfect.
I’ve been loving my wintery walks recently and don’t actually want spring to come just yet. We don’t often get snow by the coast but it was finally cold enough for a spell of it this week. When I’m out and about I’m usually peering up and searching for birds or squirrels in the trees. But when the snow came I found myself watching my feet a little more, mostly to avoid patches of ice that would send me flying but also to admire some of nature’s art. By doing this I also discovered some special secrets.
Frost and ice have always fascinated me. They can transform everyday objects into magical ones by covering them in the most exquisite artwork. Puddles and windshields are given new textures and patterns. Depending on where you find frost, the shapes can vary significantly. The two images below are both of puddles but one is out in the open and exposed to sea breezes while the other is tucked low in a muddy trail, sheltered on both sides by tangles of gorse. The results are two complete contrasts of smooth swirls and sharp shards.
The snow also reveals the goings on of our more secretive neighbours, preserving snapshots of where different feet have trodden. This was excellent news for me as I have outrageously bad luck when it comes to seeing deer. While the majority of Scotland seems to be plagued by deer and has grown so accustomed to them that they’ve become a bore or even a nuisance, I’m absolutely enchanted by deer but see one every few months if I’m lucky. So the other morning I was thrilled to see that I’d crossed paths with a roe deer, even if I was there several hours later. There in the snow were the most perfect roe tracks I’d seen, and the sporadic placement suggested that the deer had been browsing in one place. How lovely it would have been to see it! I shall continue to look for them.
Elsewhere I made more discoveries. Beneath a clump of Sitka spruce was a large muddled patch of pheasant prints with several tracks spreading outwards like starfish arms. Each print was placed exactly in front of the previous one – I can just imagine the pheasant putting each foot down slowly and methodically before shifting its weight. Beside these thick prints were the scratches of much daintier ones that I guessed belonged to a blackbird, which often forage on the ground while smaller birds flutter above.
I left the most exciting find until last. Crossing a main path into a small grassy tunnel in the verge were several pairs of paw prints. I knew the square shape of badger prints but these were much smaller. I consulted my new indulgence purchase (Tracks and Signs of the Animals and Birds of Britain and Europe by Lars-Henrik Olsen) and checked first for pine marten. Although these were a similar shape, they were bulkier and didn’t seem right. The pictures of the stoat prints, however, looked much more like it: arranged in pairs like mine were on the trail and a better size match (3.5-4cm hind print). Again I wished I could have been a fly on the leaf when the stoat dashed across the path. Who knows what time it was, but one of the many beauties of snow is it can freeze time and preserve nature’s wonders just a little longer.
For the past few weeks I’ve fallen in love with photography even more than I was before. My new camera has now arrived but the adapter I need to attach it to my lens has been out of stock for weeks, so the camera’s still in the box for now!
Luckily for me I’m still borrowing my friend’s camera and I’ve had it slung across my back on every one of my walks. Winter is my favourite season – wildlife is still abundant in the colder months and there are some particularly special overwintering birds to enjoy.
A prime example of a stunning winter bird is the brambling, and I was absolutely thrilled to see one this week! As I scanned a crowd of coal tits, robins and chaffinches my eyes casually brushed past this special winter visitor minding its own business. This resulted in a comedy double take from me. I only had time for a couple of shots before the brambling hopped off the branch. I scanned around but didn’t see it again, although I was more than happy to get even a brief glimpse.
Soon after that the light started to fade and it was nearly time to turn the camera off for the day. I was making my way back to the car when I spotted a last minute red squirrel bounding across the clearing. Luckily despite the gloom of late afternoon there were some lovely sunset colours behind it which complemented its fiery fur.
It’s easy to get a bit jealous of all the snowy wildlife photos buzzing about social media at the moment. I’ve had a few dustings but nothing like the drifts that have settled further south.
But even these light snowfalls are stunning to see and still manage to transform the landscape with both sight and sound. The pristine white is the most obvious change but there’s also a very specific silence that accompanies snow, as if nature is pausing to admire it too.
Over the past week or so, long tailed tits have suddenly become one of my favourite birds. They’re ridiculously photogenic and for such tiny fluffballs they have so much character! I usually hear long tailed tits before I see them.
After a combination of high pitched squeaks and cheeky raspberries from above they suddenly all appear at once, barrelling around in one group. The other day I saw a group of twenty individuals in the same tree and they made an absolute racket!
And most recently, I had a fantastic sunrise walk down to the harbour to see some overwintering ducks. Sunrise wasn’t until 8:45 (another excellent thing about winter) so I could saunter down to the harbour in time for golden hour.
Waves were crashing against the sea wall so all the gulls and ducks had come in to shelter in the calmer water. As well as a very vocal heron and a gang of eiders there was this beautiful pair of long tailed ducks, which only visit Britain during winter.
I lay down on my front – no doubt getting funny looks from the fishermen – so I could get almost eye level with the long tails. I’d seen a couple of distant males before but never a female so it was fantastic to see them both so closely.
Isn’t winter just the most magical season? For me this is the highlight of the wild year, where walks are filled with crunchy frost, golden leaves and with a bit of luck, some snow. Even without snow though, there are some stunning birds to see during winter and I can’t wait to see what the next few weeks bring.