This was quite a satisfying piece, a commission to paint the eye of a racehorse. I thought it might be interesting to capture the progress as I’ve only started using oil paints again in the last year or so, having abandoned them for acrylic for over a decade. I used to find oils somewhat sluggish and dull, but having developed a lot more patience I am now finding them quite a joy to work with, with many advantages over acrylic.
A few weeks ago I was driving home from a trip to the beach and as I approached the house I came to a halt and saw what I thought was a rock on the road. A moment of uncertainty and a closer look revealed it to be a Sparrowhawk feeding on an unfortunate Red-Legged Partridge. Completely unperturbed by me she carried on feasting for about forty minutes before she flew away into the encroaching dusk. As I was on a quiet country road I was able to stay the entire time, enjoying watching her enjoy her meal.
As I write this there are two lovely Red-Legged Partridges gently foraging in the front garden. I’m enjoying watching them enjoying their meal too. I love moments like these.
Forsinard Flows is a nature reserve run by the RSPB and a place that has come to be very close to my heart. Primarily peatland, Forsinard is a nationally and internationally important habitat for that reason alone. It is also home and breeding habitat for a variety of important, beautiful and endangered species.
I started volunteering at the reserve on and off about three years ago, doing what I can while periodically visiting this very inspiring place. There is, as far as I’m aware, nowhere in the country quite like it. It is so vast, possibly the last remaining true wilderness in mainland Britain. I could walk out into that immense and unforgiving landscape never to return or be found. You feel that, out on the bog, but more than that you feel how rich it is with life.
At the beginning of April I designed and began painting up a mural in the Forsinard visitor centre. It is being painted on the main wall on the right as you walk in and has been attracting the attention of visitors already! The mural aims to highlight as much of the iconic flora and fauna of the Flow Country as possible, providing a visual summery and talking point for the visitor centre. I want to show just how rich with life Forsinard is, as well as hint at the delicate and precious nature that underlies its formidable appearance. For as remote and wild as it seems, humanity has and continues to attempt to do serious damage this place.
I hope to finish the mural by the end of June, so if you want to watch me painting or see the work in progress come on up and pop in. Opening hours are 10am-5pm.
Look out for updates here too.
“Peace be to thee and thy children, O Skye,
Dearest of islands.”
From ‘Song to Skye’ by Alexander Nicolson
So my last day on Skye had finally come. I was a little sad to leave, but decided to make the most of it.
Coral Beach was long believed to be the one and only true coral beach in Britain. It turns out the ‘coral’ that forms its snow white sands may actually be a form of seaweed. Be that as it may, it is a gorgeous place, just a short drive from Dunvegan, along pleasant coastal views. I saw several Kestrel and a whole colony of Harbour Seals hauled out on a nearby island, as well as Whooper Swan in a pool close by. The beach itself is a short walk from a nearby car park.
I had been to the beach before on my previous trip, on that occasion the tide was in and I basked in the sunshine, watching Harbour Seals swim by and gaze at me curiously. This time the tide was out and I was able to walk over to the beach’s tidal island.
The beach itself, as its name suggests, is covered in coral and seashells, including good luck Cowries and highly attractive Top Shells. On my way over the tidal causeway I noticed that the shells out there were much bigger than those on the beach, leading me to suspect that the many visitors to the beach bag the big ones as soon as they reach the shore. I also found a stranded Starfish and some Sea Anemone and returned them to the sea.
It was quite a wonder to stand where just a few hours before the sea had been, where seals and fish would swim and birds would dive after I was gone. Having had a good wander, working up an appetite and gathering some souvenirs, I headed back toward town.
I had heard from numerous people throughout my trip talk about a little shop in Dunvegan that made wonderful food and cakes. I discovered, to my delight, that Jann’s Cakes has a well deserved reputation. Powered by delicious haddock and clam chowder, an enormous and wonderful slice of the most chocolately chocolate cake I have ever eaten and a nice black coffee, I was more than ready for the journey home.
Goodbye for now Skye. I will see you again.
“Still and untroubled sits the Kingly one
Yonder the eagle floats – there sleeps the snow
Against the pale green of the cloudless sky.”
From ‘King Blaabheinn’ by Robert Buchanan
The name Waternish is derived from the Norse vatnenes or “headland of the pond”. Legends and historic tales about this part of Skye are full of horror and gloom, with clan feuds, bloody massacres and de-population during the Highland Clearances, as well as tales of witches and great beasts of land and sea, predominating. It is a beautiful and foreboding place. Well worth visiting, even in foul weather, as it was when I arrived.
I enjoyed the stormy coastal views as I made my way to the ruins of Trumpan Church, site of one of the areas many massacres and also of a certain standing stone. I had come out this way primarily for the wildlife but I have always had a fondness for graveyards and had been entirely ignorant of the presence of a standing stone in this remote place.
The ‘Heaven Stone’ is a monolith with a small round hole in it. It was long believed that anyone led up to the stone with their eyes covered who was able to put a finger through the hole on the first attempt was certain to attain Heaven. Whether that is still held to be true, it seems there is also a tradition of leaving coins in the cracks of the stone, though for this I have yet to find the reason. More fairy trinkets?
In the graveyard I also made a rather gruesome find, a sign of certain things to come: the stripped corpse of a Hare. I wondered what could have done this and the answer seemed as exciting as it did obvious. I soon received confirmation. As I walked along the cliffs I saw a White Tailed Eagle fly up and into view, mobbed by a Peregrine Falcon. I watched the chase for some time before both went their separate ways. Then, a little while later, my White Tail returned. This time I was blessed with a much longer sighting as he swooped and soared, hunting over the sea. What a sight.
I look forward to returning in sunshine. The Stein Inn, Skye’s oldest Inn, proved a cosy retreat before I made my way back to Ullinish.
Next: Coral Beach and Cake
“May the hills lie low| May the sloughs fill up | In thy way.
May all evil sleep | May all good awake | In thy way.”
From ‘Road to the Isles’ by Kenneth Macleod
Apparently the Isle of Skye is covered in fairies. Hoaching with them. Positively teeming. But in Highland superstition it seems that there are two quite different theories about the origin of fairies, from Celtic and Scandinavian sources, and that these have, over the centuries, become confused.
They may well have been the old inhabitants of the land, the little dark Neolithic people, Iberians or older, that were there long before the Celts, but were conquered and show all the traits you would expect of such a people. Dwelling underground in ‘Picts’ Houses’ or ‘fairy mounds’, using the flint arrow-heads that are now said to be ‘fairy arrows’ instead of the iron that they feared and so never owned, and taking every opportunity to annoy those of their conquerors who had failed to befriend them. They would have lived side by side with the other inhabitants of the land, speaking Gaelic as well as their own ‘fairy’ tongue, showing kindness to those who showed them kindness and seeking revenge on those who offended them.
The more Scandinavian theories suggest that they are fallen angels, some having fallen into the sea when the Devil was driven from heaven, becoming ‘Blue Men’. While others fell to earth and became fairies, hiding from God in woods, caves and fairy mounds, great musicians who wielded supernatural powers. Others became the Merry Dancers, or Northern Lights, coming from the myth that the Northern Lights were the Valkyries, these older myths themselves having been Christianised.
It is easy to see how a very real people may have become cloaked in myth, especially as their culture and appearance may have differed enough to make them seem quite alien to their conquerors. We have seen this happen time and again throughout history. It is also easy to see why these myths have persisted; it is that very thirst for the unknown that has driven mankind to explore and overcome, an emotive force that we have yet to comprehend that has become embodied in mythical imagery such as that of the Little People. Further to this, as someone who has had firsthand experience of what has seemed to me to be supernatural phenomena, I would argue that it is a combination of these, and other things we have yet to, or may never understand, that are the makings of fairy lore.
There are many sites on Skye that are linked to the fae, none more so than the Fairy Bridge. Located just outside of Dunvegan by the turnoff to Waternish. It is a place wrapped in story and myth, but these days it has ceased to be used as a crossing point, this and the nearby bus stop seem to have somewhat muted its once formidable reputation.
Still, it was once the entry way to Waternish, a place reputed to be the last stronghold of heathendom on Skye…
“How beautiful they are, the lordly ones
Who dwell in the hills, in the hollow hills.”
From ‘The Faery Song’ by Fiona Macleod
Up a hilly road just outside of Uig is a place known as the Fairy Glen. It is exactly that. I went on a lovely sunny late winter afternoon and felt like I had found home.
I had heard of the Fairy Glen the first time I went to Skye, but failed to find it on that trip. This time I was determined and it transpired that previously I had missed a turn. I guess I had yet to be invited. This time I felt very welcome.
It is claimed that this wonderful miniature landscape of grassy, cone-shaped hills, was formed by a series of landslides (smaller than the landslips that formed the Storr and the Quiraing) that were then smoothed by later glaciation. Obviously that’s nonsense; it was clearly made by fairies.
Taking centre stage is Castle Ewen, a fairy fort. Yes, an actual fairy fort. It is as awesome as it sounds. From the top there are large waterfalls visible in the distance, while a smaller one bubbles away nearby. All around I found offerings of shiny things that had been left for the Little People. Interesting to see that modern people, people who have access to wifi and Nando’s, still feel the need to honour supposedly mythical beings like fairies. Maybe we still need them.
Maybe in spite of society’s desire to cleanse our minds of anything other than the allegedly concrete and control our hearts with meaningless baubles, we will always know there are unknowable things and have a certain love and respect for that which we can never possess.
Next: Fairy Bridge