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.
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 was in Assynt on the west coast again last week to get footage of the red deer rut for my latest Opticron video. If I wasn’t already in the mood for autumn, there’s nothing like roaring stags, soggy fungi and fiery bracken to get me even more excited for the dark half of the year.
I had to battle the weather at times, but I still managed to see some stunning scenery and wildlife in October sunshine. I brought my mum along and it was the furthest north she’d ever been. I couldn’t wait to introduce her to another part of Scotland that I’m growing more and more attached to.
Before we reached Assynt we stopped off at the Falls of Shin in Lairg to watch the salmon leap. I’d seen it once before almost exactly a year ago, but everything was new to Mum and it was so rewarding seeing her amazement at these massive fish launching themselves into the air.
A couple of miles away from our accommodation we saw a couple taking photos of something in a field beside the road. Lucky they were there, as they were pointing their cameras at a stag resting in the grass! I pulled over and recorded my first footage of the week, which included a bonus bellow from the gorgeous stag. I wondered if this was the same male that had visited the chalet garden back in June when his antlers were still in velvet.
The rest of the week was spent dodging the spells of rain and searching the hills for red deer. Once I’d got all the footage I needed we explored elsewhere, climbing up to the Falls of Kirkaig and walking through Celtic rainforest lush from autumn rains. We beach combed along the bay beside the chalet and found handfuls of frosty sea glass and a mermaid’s purse. I popped into the loch for a chilly and very brief swim. We were also visited almost every night by a hungry badger, who ambled right past the door on his way out!
Towards the end of the week we visited Ardvreck Castle, a crumbly ruin on the edge of Loch Assynt. While strolling along the beach Mum spotted a dipper foraging in the seaweed. I was surprised to see a dipper on the beach and it was the closest encounter I’d had with one – usually my only views are brown blurs as they shoot along the river.
I love visiting a place in different seasons. On my summer visit to Assynt there were black-throated divers on the loch and huge golden-ringed dragonflies clinging to the heather. This time we saw badgers at dinner time and heard stags roaring throughout the night. I’m so pleased I could share this special place with Mum – she was a little sad to leave at the end of the week. I’ve stayed in Assynt during summer and autumn so far – the next visit for me would be in winter, when I would search for shed antlers and hopefully photograph deer in the snow. Until then, it was lovely seeing and hearing those huge animals at the peak of their yearly drama.