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.
Winter is the time to reflect. I love looking back on what I’ve done over the year, and once again I’ve put a summary of my work projects into my own mini magazine. I did this for the first time during lockdown when I was painfully idle and needed a project to distract me. It turned into something I was proud to share and this is now my third issue.
Between research trips for my book, I’ve been busy working on other projects including another mindful creative retreat at home on the Moray Coast, a design commission inspired by Thumbnail Nature, and my second wildlife calendar.
After 1145 hours of travelling, researching, writing and proofreading (yes I counted), I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve submitted my book!
I could have tinkered and tweaked until the end of time so I’m relieved it’s finally out of my hands. It’ll now be edited by the fab team at Bradt and after I’ve answered all the queries and questions it’ll be published in April. There’s still a way to go but I’m so proud of myself for reaching this milestone. I started working on this book almost three years ago and I’m so excited for everyone to see it.
Last month I managed to squeeze in a trip to the west coast to see the red deer rut. Stags wait for no deadline! For four days I fell asleep to the sound of bellowing and it was the perfect calm before the book submission storm.
The deer were mostly up in the hills this year, but I did find a small herd beside the road. It was perfect, as I could stay in my car and take photos through the open window. The stag and his hinds foraged and rested just a few metres away, and it was a privilege to watch their natural behaviour.
However, the highlight of this particular trip was an otter that dropped by several times each day. Otters have been my nemesis animal for years, so it was fantastic to finally get some decent views. One morning I spent hours looking through my scope, hoping to spot it taking one of the loch’s huge crabs onto a kelp island to munch, but everything was still. The moment I sat down to a bowl of soup, a dark flick caught my eye and I saw the otter swimming straight towards the cabin.
Soup forgotten, I lunged into coat and shoes and crept outside. The otter was eating on the rocks right beneath the decking. It glanced up at me but continued its meal, chewing noisily. It was one of those encounters that’s so special I start shaking, but luckily I managed to keep my camera still.
And for the feathery cherry on the heathery cake, a white tailed eagle soared overhead on the last day. I can never be sure what I’m going to see on the west coast and this trip was a triumph.
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.
This summer is zooming by! I’ve been spending the past few months travelling and writing my book, which is now due in three months. That’s quite a terrifying thought actually…
My research trips have involved stomping through Caledonian pinewood, sampling local whiskies and searching for hidden stone circles. I’m absolutely loving this challenging yet rewarding project and can’t wait to see the finished product on the shelves. Here’s a sneak preview of the front cover.
As well as book writing, I’ve been putting together my 2023 calendar. Like last time, it features a range of Scottish birds and mammals that I’ve photographed this year including snow buntings, badgers and even a goshawk!
And finally, I took some time away from the north east recently and headed down to Perthshire to photograph beavers. These incredible animals completely transform their surroundings and it was a privilege to spend so much time with them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’re one month into the year already! As usual I’ve been beavering away and forgetting to update my blog, so here’s a summary of what I’ve been up to in January.
My 2022 started with my best mate Luke coming to visit for the first time since I’ve moved to Scotland. This year we celebrate our 20th anniversary of being friends – we’ve known each so long I can’t remember a time without him!
I took Luke to many of my favourite wildlife haunts. It’s funny how seeing familiar places with someone who’s never visited them before makes them fresh all over again. Although he’s definitely not a birder, I pestered Luke into looking through binoculars at eider ducks in the harbour and a dipper hunting on the river. I actually think some of my enthusiasm rubbed off on him.
Burning of the Clavie
By happy coincidence, my friend was here when the annual Burning of the Clavie festival took place in Burghead. Although usually held on the 11th January, this year the festival was delayed a week because of changing Covid crowd rules. The festival was cancelled in 2020 and I missed it by a week the year before, so I was relieved to finally be able to experience it for myself. And it was totally worth the wait – the sights, sounds and intense feel of the mighty Clavie fire were extraordinary. It really has to be seen to be believed!
I’m currently hard at work writing my Slow Travel Guide to Northeast Scotland, which will be published by Bradt in 2023. Although some places on my list are closed until spring, there’s lots to enjoy in winter too. This month I spent a long morning in the village of Carrbridge, seven miles north of Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park.
I didn’t know much about Carrbridge except the Old Pack Horse Bridge – the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands – and the annual Porridge Making Championships. After some Slow exploration the other day I discovered that Carrbridge also has a yearly wood carving competition every September. I’ll definitely be returning this autumn to see it for myself, but in the meantime I enjoyed spotting sculptures from previous competitions dotted all over Carrbridge.
Another day trip for my book this month was to Loch Garten, also in the Cairngorms. I much prefer visiting this loch in winter. Historically it’s known for ospreys that have nested here, but in winter you can actually hand feed the birds. Coal tits are the bravest, but the other day I also fed a dozen great tits and a blue tit.
There’s nothing quite like the feel of a tiny wild bird gripping your palm, trusting you enough to take a seed right in front of you. I could have stood there with my hand in the air all day, but I tore myself away to walk down the west side of Loch Garten to the tip of the smaller Loch Mallachie, then back through the ancient pinewood of Abernethy Forest.
Woodland locations are lovely and quiet in the Cairngorms at the moment and I relished the subtle sounds of water lapping the bank and pine trunks creaking in the wind. And all those birds’ wings of course.
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.