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 can’t believe we’re almost halfway through the year already! June has flown by…
I spent the whole of last week on the west coast of Scotland for an MA assignment. I had to organise a self-led trip and two of my previous plans had already been cancelled, so it was a relief to finally go!
And what a week it was. I stayed in a chalet belonging to friends of mine, which stands on stilts at the edge of a loch. I woke up to ravens outside the front door and on two occasions an otter swam past! It was so refreshing to have a change of scenery and spend time with different wildlife.
One of my highlights has to be the divers. On the first day I spotted a distant red throated diver, but the great northern and black throated divers were particularly photogenic and wandered close to shore. Before my trip I hadn’t seen any divers in breeding plumage so struggled to tell them apart, but after watching them daily at the chalet I soon learnt which was which. And what stunners they were in their monochrome harlequin costumes! On several occasions I saw five black throated divers at once, and even across the loch I could make out their gorgeous barcode plumage.
The bird excitement continued even closer to the chalet. Visitors to the feeder included goldfinches, greenfinches, siskins and lesser redpolls. I’d never seen such a glittering display of birds while sat on a sofa before! I’d also never seen a feeder being emptied quite so quickly…
I really was surrounded by wildlife. One evening as I was getting ready for bed, I peered out the window and saw a stag munching on bracken right next to the washing line! Worried he’d bolt if he saw me, I crept outside and peered round the corner. He glanced up briefly mid-chew but continued browsing almost straight away. I’d forgotten he wasn’t a camera-shy roe deer that scarpers as soon as it senses me. This was a bolshy red deer, and he let me watch him munching his way through the garden for half an hour.
And speaking of munching, I was thrilled to also be visited by a pine marten! The little scamp came almost every night and I had no trouble recording its visits on my trail camera, but seeing it in the flesh was a lot trickier. Despite staying up until 2am on some occasions I didn’t manage to see it, but on the fifth night at 11pm I was watching a field mouse on the decking when the marten appeared, still in moderate daylight! The mouse was just as shocked as I was and sat frozen for several hairy moments before racing for cover. The marten didn’t even look up – obviously peanut butter was more enticing!
Although the wildlife was incredible, the weather left a little to be desired. Streaming rain blurred the loch some days, and there was a determined wind that kept the midges away but prevented me from ticking a particularly exciting task off my bucket list: wild swimming. I’d brought my wetsuit and was really looking forward to going for a dip, but the wind was chilling and I wasn’t feeling up to it. Before long it was my penultimate day in Assynt and I was disappointed that I might not be able to get in the water.
I went for a walk along the beach, scavenging for sea glass and other treasures. Almost next to the road was a tiny tube with a clear orange tint, looking to the untrained eye like a bit of plastic. But I lunged to pick it up because it was a mermaid’s purse! These extraordinary objects are the egg cases of sharks and after asking around on Instagram I was told that this one belonged to a dogfish.
I’ll admit, I saw this as a sign. Especially when the sun broke out and I felt a smidge warmer. I’d found a mermaid’s purse and I was going to swim. The water temperature was 14° and with my wetsuit on I was just fine. It was my first time swimming in Scottish waters and I fell completely in love. Watching the waves from wave-level is quite a surreal experience, and I loved that I was right where the otter had been just the night before.
It was the perfect way to end a trip full of wildness and nature. I was really quite sorry to leave, but I had over 1000 photos to edit and dozens of note pages to go through…
For years it’s been a dream of mine to watch Scottish red deer in the autumn so last week my boyfriend Steve and I journeyed to the west coast to find some. We saw deer every day but they were often on the peaks of the hills and too far away for photos. Even if the sights weren’t great, the sounds were fantastic. At night in the chalet I’d pause during dinner after hearing a faint mooing sound from outside. It wasn’t cows but the bellowing of breeding stags on the hill across the loch, working hard to protect their own harems of hinds or attempting to steal someone else’s. They bellowed long into the early hours and several times I woke up disorientated, wondering if I had dreamt it.
On the last full day of the trip after yet more distant silhouettes on the horizon we turned around and started driving back to the house, just about ready to accept defeat. In an almost cliched “nick of time” moment Steve suddenly spotted a stag with his harem in a field not far from the road. Naturally there was nowhere to pull over so we ditched the car in a layby, walked back up the road and crawled the last few metres on our bellies to avoid scaring the deer.
After several minutes of crawling I discovered that my hands were covered in roughly a dozen ticks, all tiny and luckily unattached. However, the ticks, mud and poo were all worth it for the views. The stag in the field below was in full rut mode, bellowing every minute or so and chasing the hinds around. None succumbed to his advances but he persevered, even jumping the hilariously named “deer proof fence” with ease. As well as the larger stag, there were also several younger stags feeding on the hill at eye level with us. They stared us down every time we shifted position but seemed content to carry on as normal and let us watch.
After several days of hearing deer without seeing many, getting to spend a couple of hours being completely surrounded by them was the perfect way to end our trip. Deer are one of those Marmite animals for some people, but I think they’re exceptionally special and I relish every encounter I have with them.