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 a loch – 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.