Review: ‘The Stranding’

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.


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A Breath of Icy Air


I’m currently writing my first book. It’s a Slow Travel Guide to northeast Scotland, which will be published in spring 2023. The book covers Aberdeenshire, Moray and the Cairngorms National Park, so basically a huge chunk of the country! My daily routine has become a contrasting blend of emailing accommodation providers, walking, writing copious notes and staring at maps until my head swims.

This is the biggest project I’ve undertaken so far and it’s very easy to get lost in the Big Picture. I’m learning the key is to break it down into chunks. Each field research trip is a week long and during those weeks I have a list of castles, stone circles, museums and reserves to visit.

I need to be as thorough and detailed as possible, so when the book is written it will read as though I’m giving a guided tour to someone wearing a blindfold. I’ve never written in this much meticulous depth before and it’s a rewarding challenge. During my master’s degree I was told to ‘show don’t tell’. With a Slow guide, it’s a case of including heaps of both.

Looking towards Crovie, Aberdeenshire

Because the project is all-encompassing, other things have slipped into the background, including this blog. When I was studying for my undergraduate degree I had a delicious amount of time on my hands. My blog was abuzz with updates because it’s all I had going on outside of my assignments. What simpler days they were! Now everything I write has a destination – nothing is free just to keep the blog ticking over.

I’ve struggled with work/life balance for years. For me work has a nasty habit of becoming life. If I go for a walk I’m thinking about new places I could include in the book or looking for new photos to share to Instagram. Last year this took me close to burnout. Wildlife was everywhere I looked and for a while it lost its charm. Something I had grown so attached to had become almost a chore and I hated that I’d let that happen.

I think this is something all freelancers have to deal with. Working from home has lots of benefits but it also means your office is your home, and switching off takes real effort.

Sunrise on the road to Pennan, Aberdeenshire

Recently I’ve taken up ice skating again. I used to love skating when I was younger but because I didn’t know anyone else who could do it, I eventually stopped going. Luckily I had yeti feet as a child and they haven’t changed in the last ten years so my old ice skates still fit me.

There’s a rink in my local town that I didn’t even know about so I had a go. Obviously I was rusty at first, and the fear of falling on my tailbone (here I speak from painful experience) held me back. But with each visit I got comfortable quicker and now it’s become a passion again.

I’m by no means an expert – I skate for the sensation, which is the closest to flying I’ll get with my feet still on the ground. I find it so therapeutic, almost meditative, and better yet it doesn’t require any screens. My dry eyes get a break and I get lost in my thoughts, gliding weightlessly in repetitive circles.

I realised it’s the first true hobby I’ve had in years – something completely unrelated to work that lets me switch off and be in the current moment for a change.

When the weather warms up I’ll return to sea swimming too. I started this last year and experienced similar benefits to skating – no screens, no social media, just my own thoughts and a sensation of floating. Maybe it’s significant that my two forms of escape are different states of water.

I’m hugely proud of this book commission and I know that the moment I hold the finished product in my hands, every minute of stress and fatigue will be worth it. However, to reach that point I need to care for myself. I haven’t been very good at that in the past, but I’m learning.     

Harbour Happenings

Last week on one of my many coastal walks I glanced down to see a pair of fulmars perched on an earthy shelf on the headland. Fulmars are one of my favourite seabirds so I was delighted that there was a possible mating pair setting up shop on my daily walking route. They were cackling to each other and looking like adorable mini albatrosses. I got a couple of shots but the light was fading so I decided to return when I had a little more sun.

The next day I wandered back to the spot but they were gone, perhaps on a fishing trip or maybe they’d decided on another nesting spot. Not wanting to waste the trip out, I scanned the water for dolphins and birds. Just at the mouth of the harbour was a group of dots too small for herring gulls. On closer inspection through the binos I discovered they were long tailed ducks – another favourite of mine!

I hurried down from the headland and made a hasty loop around the harbour, peeping over the wall to see where they’d got to. I’d never seen more than a pair together before, and now I was out of the wind I realised they were making an absolute racket! There was a single female among all the males and she was flapping her wings and whipping the males into a frenzy. All the while a constant stream of three-note quack calls overlapped each other as the males jostled and squabbled around this one female.   

The long tailed ducks near me are usually shy little cuties, but today there really was something in the water. By the looks of the female’s upturned bill and the twinkle in her eye it seemed as though she was egging the boys on! Well, we all need to let our hair down every now and then, and at least the long tails are allowed to have a party right now…

Elsewhere in the harbour there was more activity. Up until very recently the only redshanks I’d seen were far out and nearly impossible to photograph without the risk of breaking my leg on the slippy rocks – something I actually saw happen last year! I noticed a gathering of both redshanks and turnstones hanging out on top of the sea wall. Knowing they could be skittish, I stayed still and watched.

After a while another redshank popped up from behind the wall, surprising both me and the gang already stood on the edge. There was a great flurry of wings and I had the camera pointed at just the right spot to capture the near collision!

My intention had been to look for fulmars and I’d nearly headed in the other direction to walk further along the coast path, but after such a dramatic (and noisy) display I was relieved I’d stayed where I was! I love those surprises in nature.


Back to the Sea


I go through phases when it comes to wildlife watching. For the past couple of months, I’ve been deep in a forest phase and all I’ve wanted to do is wander through trees and look for birds and red squirrels. My Instagram was full of greens and the first hints of autumn oranges.

But then the ocean started pulling me back. After a few weeks with no sightings, bottlenose dolphins started to make appearances along the Moray Firth again. It was looking unlikely that I’d see my first orcas this summer, but I was still looking forward to getting dolphin photos that showed slightly more than the departing splash. I was back in an ocean phase.

Earlier this month, on a particularly choppy morning, I found myself running full pelt along Burghead harbour to reach the end of the sea wall that juts out conveniently into the sea. From there, I could watch three different pods of bottlenoses as they caught fish. With so many breaking waves and white peaks, I didn’t know what I’d managed to capture until I returned home and uploaded the photos. I was thrilled to discover I’d caught a little face just as it breached the surface.

A few weeks later, I received a text alert from the local shore watchers saying there were bottlenoses heading west around the headland. Snatching up my camera, I made a beeline for my favourite vantage point at the end of the harbour. Unlike last time, the water was completely flat and every flash of fin caught my eye. Unfortunately all the feeding action happened far out, way past the range of my lens, but I did have an unexpected visitor pass close by.

The action continued the next week. Another text alert had me hiking up to the Burghead Visitor Centre at sunset and before long I had my lens pointed at a small pod who were following a jet ski and giving the driver some sensational views! As well as belly flops and tail waves, there were plenty of breaches. It was amazing to see the dolphins so active.

In the last of a flurry of excellent dolphin sightings, I paid Chanonry Point on the Black Isle another visit: one of the prime dolphin watching spots. Within moments of arriving – being sure to time my visit with the rising tide – a pod cruised straight past. Although there were no breaches this time, one particular dolphin dived three times directly in front of the crowd, revealing a distinctive notch in its tail fluke. I was also delighted to see a newborn calf among the adults, sticking closely to Mum as they passed by.    

As summer blends into autumn, the dramatic display of emerging fungi will undoubtedly draw me into another forest phase, but I’ve loved having so many marine wildlife encounters this month. I’ve now got plenty more dolphin photos to add to my portfolio too!

Troup Head


I had seen gannets a few times before; on a trip to the Isles of Scilly they had flown over the boat, and more recently I’d enjoyed watching them dive for fish near where I live in Moray. However, nothing could have prepared me for Troup Head. This RSPB site in Banff, about an hour’s drive from Aberdeen, provides nesting grounds for two thousand pairs of gannets, as well as thousands of other seabirds. During the short walk from the car park to the cliffs, both sounds and smells intensified until they reached a crescendo of squawks and guano pongs.

There were gannets everywhere. Without wanting to make them sound like flies, they swarmed around the cliff, gliding in deep circles as they came into land on the rocks. Many of them had chicks – currently clouds of white down with black reptilian heads. Dotted among them were the auks: guillemots, razorbills and the occasional puffin all grappling for a bit of wing room in the tight squeeze. Peering carefully down, I noticed just how high up we were. The swan-sized gannets – Britain’s largest seabird – looked like sparrows at sea level. Even the coastguard helicopter that passed by was below us. Troup Head really was a bird’s eye view.

The site became a significant birdwatching spot when gannets began to colonise it in 1988. Troup Head is now Scotland’s largest mainland gannet colony. We spent seven hours wandering along the track, shuffling across the tussocks to get the right vantage point for photos. Gannets came sweeping in to land in an endless queue, many suspended in mid-air and bobbing in the wind. There was something very duck-like about the way their webbed feet stuck out to the sides, and more than once a bird would crash-land quite unceremoniously with a ruffle of the feathers.

It was interesting to see lots of gannet behaviours up close. The birds pair for life and return to the same nest site each year with the same partner. To cement their pair bond, males and females will ‘fence’ together, clicking their bills from side to side and mutually grooming one another.

‘Fencing’

To ensure that one parent remains on the nest at all times, a gannet will stretch its neck and stare straight upwards in a pose called ‘sky pointing’, which signals to its mate that it is about to take off.

‘Sky Pointing’

With so many birds on one cliff, it’s inevitable that there will be disputes over space. If a gannet gets too close to a neighbour’s nest, there is a display called ‘menacing’, where the birds will open their bills and lock them together in an attempt to jostle each other off the cliff.

‘Menacing’

While some quarrels are short-lived, others develop into full-blown fights, and with such formidable bills these can be aggressive.  

Gannets have been a favourite of mine for many years, so to see such a vast colony so full of activity was a real treat. I was even more impressed that I didn’t get pooed on once!

Splash of Sunset


I had just finished dinner after a fairly uneventful day when I received a tip off from Steve – wildlife photographer, skipper and all-round marine mammal wizard – who told me there were bottlenoses on the way. I jumped into a down jacket and grabbed my camera. Luckily my daily walk can include a long stretch of rocky shoreline, which is infamous for its wildlife including the Moray Firth dolphins. Half a minute later I was slammed by an unexpected wind and I regretted not grabbing a hat on my way out. Although, I wasn’t sure how fast the dolphins were going and another half minute could be the make or break.

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Keeping my two metre distance from Steve, we started scanning the water. He spied them far out, almost level with the next town, but we stayed put. If they didn’t turn north and swim further away, they would follow the coast and come straight past us. There was still lots to photograph while we waited. Groups of gannets – easily one of my favourite birds – were diving just offshore and a grey heron was settled hunch-shouldered on the rocks, surrounded by the usual mob of herring gulls and oystercatchers.

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Suddenly the dolphins appeared again, much closer this time. They began to breach, leaping one, two or even three at a time. Photographing them felt a bit like playing Whack-a-mole – just when I thought I’d caught one, it had already landed with a splash and another had sprung up somewhere else. Once, two jumped together in perfect synchronicity, and no sooner had they landed than another pair took their place in the air. As so often happens, I was trying so hard to get the shot that I occasionally missed some of the action. But, when animals bigger than most grown humans are flinging themselves out of the water and performing acrobatic stunts, it’s almost impossible not to lift the camera and watch through the viewfinder. I find there’s nothing more enjoyable about wildlife photography than the unpredictability.

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The cold was nibbling my face but there was no way I’d go home for my hat now. Dolphins were jumping in multiple directions, and all of them heading towards the sunset. We hiked up to the headland for a higher vantage point. As the dolphins got closer to the sun, the water streaming from their bellies mid-leap turned golden. Even with the naked eye you could spot them between waves from the clouds of shimmery spray erupting from their blow holes. Every so often there’d be a breach, but they were gradually heading further out. Still, Steve had never known them to linger for so long in one place. I was pleased not just to watch them but to know there was plenty of food to keep them there.

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The sun finally set, casting a bright orange glow over the water. It was moments like that when I knew I’d made the right decision to move to Scotland. Sitting on the grass, shivering in the cold and watching dolphins breaching out at sea.

New Visitors

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Although I’m naturally quite an introverted person and love having time to myself, I’ve still struggled to adapt to the lockdown routine. I like to potter around outside for hours while I write or just watch the world go by, so it goes without saying that I’ve missed wildlife far more than the pub. Alerts have hit my local Facebook groups about ospreys just a few miles away from me and orcas (orcas!) further along the coast, but lockdown measures have kept me stuck in one spot.

Still, it’s a beautiful spot to be stuck in, and there have been some new visitors to my local patch over the past few weeks. Before the clocks went forward, the daily sightings always included goldeneyes, long-tailed ducks and red-breasted mergansers. Now, as the spring wildflowers emerge and the days grow longer, I’m seeing some new faces on the backshore.

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Willow Warbler

When I arrived in Scotland I was told that May was the true start of the bottlenose dolphin season, but I’ve already been spotting dorsal fins on the water. I’ve had three different sightings so far, and on the second I managed to photograph some for the first time. Even from a distance and with most of their bodies submerged, it’s easy to see just how large these marine mammals are. In fact, the bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth are the largest and most northerly in the world.

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Bottlenose Dolphin

As well as cetaceans, there’s been some avian excitement too. My absolute favourite birds have arrived in my patch: gannets! I glimpsed a white wingspan last week but wasn’t sure if it was just another herring gull, but since then I’ve had indisputable views of these vast and beautiful seabirds. As well as flyovers, I had the privilege of watching a dozen gannets diving for fish just offshore – twisting their bodies and tucking in their wings at the last moment before hitting the water like feathered torpedoes. I’ve always been drawn to gannets’ subtle plumage and dramatic facial markings and it’s been such a treat to watch them in my patch.

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Gannet

As I walk along the shore, I have the option of looking left to the ocean or right to dense clouds of gorse. As well as infusing the air with a beautiful coconut smell, the gorse provides excellent shelter for lots of different birds. Over the last week I’ve seen willow warblers, stonechats, linnets, skylarks, hooded crows, swallows, swifts and yellowhammers in just a small area. The charm of the gorse forest is that you never know what you’re going to spot and I’m almost always surprised by something.

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Yellowhammer (male)
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Stonechat (male)

Although I’m usually drawn towards birds and mammals, I can’t help but notice emerging insects as the temperature climbs. Just along from the town allotments I’ve seen bees, peacock and red admiral butterflies and green foliage that’s speckled with ladybirds.

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It’s been difficult for us all to stay connected to the natural world during the lockdown, but seeing snippets of spring visitors on my daily walks has really lifted my mood. Nature never fails to make me feel better, and it’s during these challenging times that our time spent outdoors is the most important. Stay safe and stay wild everyone.

My Top Wildlife Sites 2

After sharing four of my top wildlife sites in the UK I began to think of more and more, so here are another set of places that everyone should visit. Read on for dwarf pansies, red squirrels, white-tailed eagles and a particularly spectacular murmuration.

 

  1. Isles of Scilly

It sounds like an exaggeration but the Isles of Scilly really are incredible. I chose Scilly as the location for my final major project during my undergraduate degree and spent six days wandering through remote and near-tropical landscapes. Despite only being 28 miles from Cornwall, Scilly is so separate from mainland life that many of its species have evolved differently. The blackbirds have blood orange bills instead of their usual tangerine, wrens sing different songs and some plants are found nowhere else in the UK but on those few scattered islands.

I was there to try and find the dwarf pansy, a flower so tiny that the petals barely cover a little fingernail. By some miracle I found it, but Scilly also surprised me with its dramatic geology, impressive bird life and scorching temperatures. I didn’t have time to visit all the islands, but Bryher was by far my favourite. As well as the dwarf pansy, I found the furious waves of Hell Bay (the name is no coincidence), swarms of dog violet blooms and beaches impossible to describe without using clichés. I’ve promised myself I’ll go back to Scilly, not only to tick off the other islands but to just spend time in a place with barely any roads, air so clean that lichens bloom on almost every tree, and plants so special that crazy students travel hundreds of miles to find them.

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Dwarf pansy

 

 

  1. Eskrigg Nature Reserve

My mum had never seen a red squirrel before I took her to Eskrigg Nature Reserve. I’d been spoilt rotten there; after only two visits I’d seen about ten squirrels foraging six feet in front of me. Eskrigg is an exceptionally special place, managed by an exceptionally special person. I made a short documentary about Jim Rae for a university assignment and learnt just how much he has done not only for the reserve but also the community in Lockerbie.

As well as red squirrels, I have spent hours watching bramblings, great-spotted woodpeckers, siskins and even a female mandarin duck on a rare visit. When my parents came to see me I took them straight to Eskrigg. While Dad occupied the dog, I sat with Mum outside the hide (no need to sit inside with such laid-back wildlife) and waited less than twenty minutes before squirrels were bounding and chasing right under our boots. My mum had the same look of complete adoration on her face that I did the first time I saw them. There are certain animals that make a person’s mouth fall open and demands all their attention. Red squirrels do this effortlessly.

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  1. Isle of Carna

I could write pages about Carna. I went there in 2016 on an expedition with Wild Intrigue to leave technology behind and rewild myself. Carna is situated in Loch Sunart on the west coast of Scotland. We spent five days staying in one of two cottages on the entire island, which is let out to people looking for a break in complete seclusion. Even the deer have to swim to get there, which is certainly an unusual sight.

This was my first real foray into Scottish wilderness, and I couldn’t have asked for better guides. I didn’t know Heather and Cain well then, but they have since become good friends who have not only taught me most of what I know about wildlife, but have given me amazing opportunities, not least a year long internship as their Creative Content Developer.

During my stay on Carna I saw my first otter, cuckoo, golden eagle and white-tailed eagles. You know you’re in a truly wild place when white-tailed eagles become a regular occurrence after the first couple of days. We found common blennies, butterfish and dog whelks in rock pools, caught a female wood mouse in a live-capture Longworth trap and recorded foxes, roe deer and voles on trail cameras. It was a crash course in wildlife fieldcraft that showed me just how diverse Scotland is, and will always be remembered fondly as my first true wildlife trip.

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Butterfish

 

  1. Avalon Marshes

Before our trip to Avalon Marshes, my time in Somerset had been windy, soggy and cold, so I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired when we arrived just as more rain was spotting my face. We headed along the river and took our position looking out over a reed bed. Forty minutes later, I was trying not to fall backwards as I watched 250,000 starlings swirling over my head. I’d never seen a starling murmuration before, and I was being thoroughly spoilt with my first experience. Not only starlings but a merlin, marsh harrier and peregrine falcon trying to snatch a meal, as well as a grey heron that chose the wrong time to take flight and found itself in a starling storm.

As majestic as murmurations look on TV, they are nothing compared to the real thing. The sound of that many starlings flying over your head is like soft rain, which is amplified by cupping a hand around your ear. I had my mouth hanging open like a cartoon character the entire time, scarcely believing the swarming shapes I was seeing. It was like a static screen come alive. Eventually, the starlings swooped down to roost, almost at the same time. The reed bed became a seething frenzy of voices and the sky was empty again.

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Vitamin Sea

Last week there was a film screening event at the Scottish Dolphin Centre in Spey Bay. I didn’t know anyone there but soon found myself chatting to an elderly couple whose fierce pride of Scotland was immediately clear. We chatted about the Moray dolphins and the house that they planned to build with a view out to sea. It was the sort of life I was looking for myself.

The film was “Vitamin Sea”: an hour long documentary that followed ocean advocate and veterinary surgeon Cal Major as she attempted to be the first person to journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats by Stand Up Paddleboard. Cal was raising money for Samaritans and Vet Life in memory of her best friend who lost her battle with depression. I didn’t realise there is a high suicide rate among vets and not enough is currently being done to support them. Cal was also raising awareness of plastic pollution – scooping up hundreds of plastic bottles along the way – and showing how beneficial nature, and the ocean in particular, can be for our emotional wellbeing. If we spend time in an environment and form a relationship with it, Cal says, then people will want to protect it.

What I love about Cal is her positivity. While topics such as plastic and climate change can often bring doom and gloom, she discusses positive solutions and encourages us all to do little things that bring great benefits. Throughout her 900 mile journey Cal meets countless people who donate to her cause, help out with litter picks and show their support in so many other ways. Even in places like Manchester, where plastic pollution was at its worst along Cal’s route, spirits were high and people clearly showed their passion for protecting their natural environment.

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At times the film was very moving. Cal revisited a place where she spent a holiday with her lost friend, and at times broke down from the combination of finding so much litter and experiencing sheer exhaustion. The constant struggles and exertions only made reaching the finishing line more emotional. After two months on the water with a sole purpose, it seemed almost anti-climactic when Cal touched land at the end of her journey. Overwhelmed with emotion, she debated staying with nature at sea and letting it continue to “heal” and “wow” her.

What resonated with me was the “profound sense of joy” that comes with being on the ocean surrounded by natural beauty. Many of us feel an undeniable pull to the ocean – that beautiful, unpredictable element of nature that compels our love and respect. Seeing so much litter clogging beaches where seals and birds roamed was difficult, but knowing that people like Cal are raising awareness with a positive message is so refreshing.

As we watched a drone’s eye view over mountains and stretching ocean at the end of the film, the man beside me leant over and asked, “Do you think you’ll go back again?”

I really don’t think so.