Skye Gold

Not far past the Cluanie Inn the A87 begins a long, winding decent down Glen Shiel past foaming burns, shiny wet crags, the Five Sisters of Kintail, and the lingering ghosts of Spanish, Jacobean, and British soldiers. At the bottom is where Loch Duich gently nuzzles a rather vague boundary between land and sea, giving northbound travellers their first glimpse of the coastline that they will follow all the way around to Kyle. It’s a lovely route, and I don’t mean to disrespect it in any way, but if you’re headed for Skye, stop.

Just past the little shop and fuel station as you enter Shiel Bridge, before you can even see the sea, there is one of those brown signs intended just for you, the traveller. It boldly points you to “The Glenelg Scenic Route”. And it is what it says. It’s accomplice is a sign with the black outline of a ship containing 2 cars below decks and pointing the 9 miles to Glenelg with the tempting words “Glenelg-Kylerhea”, “6 car”, and “Easter to October”.

Have you stopped? Good. Now take a left and follow the steep, twisting single-track road over the Bealach Ratangan and down towards Glenelg, bearing right at the weathered caravans and the sign that points assertively to the “FERRY”. 

The ferry is the MV Glenachulish and it’s unique in 2 ways: not only is it the last manual turntable ferry in Scotland (I guess there were once many more), but it is believed to be the only ferry crewed predominantly by border collies. They are, however, ably assisted by a small group of fairly able human deckhands.

The Glenachulish and its crew shuttle cars, bikes, and people back and forth across the 600 metres of the Kylerhea Narrows which separate the Isle of Skye from the mainland and through which lumpy, excitable water races up and down with the rising and falling of the tides at a swift and clearly visible 8 knots. Once the cars have been carefully squeezed on to the flat deck, instructions are barked, the human crew members jump to it and heave the turntable deck into line, and the dogs oversee the loosening of the ropes, thereafter assuming roles of wildlife spotters, calling out every curious seal on the short voyage.

Our destination was not far. Up the slipway on the Skye side, turn right at the top, stop after about 5 metres and wave-off the other 5 cars that are now heading up the road over Bealach Udal and on, no doubt, to Broadford and beyond. We have stopped, finally, at Tigh na Cidhe. The “House on the Slip”.

Kylerhea is a small, scattered community in a Special Area of Conservation. Perched on rocks at the feet of Beinn Bhuide and Beinne na Caillich, the house sits just 10 metres above the rocky high tide line and has sumptuous coastal views to the north and east across the narrows. The slopes above the house are wooded – thinly in places, quite dense in others, and host Forestry and Land Scotland’s fantastic otter haven, complete with a fully accessible hide from which to spot said otters as well as seals on the shoreline below.

At around 6pm each evening the ferry makes its last trip across the narrows back to the Glenelg side and an exhilarating quiet descends on Kylerhea. The next house along is a few hundred metres away up and around a bend. Apart from the occasional soul taking an evening stroll down to the slip, we are alone. On a sharp blue evening in mid-April, can there be a better place to start a week of intensive relaxing?

The visitors’ book is full of promise. The previous guests have reported seeing otters, dolphins, eagles, and after staking out the gravel area in front of the patio doors all week, a brief glimpse at around midnight on their final night of a pine marten. My hopes are raised. I’ve always been lucky with wildlife, especially otters, whales, and, oddly, moose. But a marten? I’ve seen martens frequently in France and Germany, specifically beech martens, but in the UK they are rare, nocturnal, and notoriously hard to spot. The note in the book offers a snippet of wisdom, however – peanut butter. It’s a golden temptation to many a shy denizen of the woods.

Wandering onto the slip at high tide the narrows are at their calmest and least stressed, being fully gorged to the brim as the waters pause and prepare for the about-turn that follows the brief period of slack. Although the day is waning, the sky is still a royal, vivid blue, untroubled by any atmospheric haze. The sinking sun is carelessly casting a golden tint and the water is sparkling its appreciation. I can hear no human sounds. There is a lone gannet patrolling the narrows. Apart from its black wing tips and creamy head, it’s a far cleaner, crisper white than the various gulls, herring, great black backed, and black headed, that are pottering about in the small bay below the house or just nonchalantly adorning various prominent rocks along the shoreline. A couple of hooded crows further along the shore are pulling apart something they’ve found discarded on the rocks, and to the south where the narrows open out into the Sound of Sleat, I can see little rafts of seabirds, probably guillemots and razorbills, and there are small squadrons of what I think are little auks whirring along with great purpose just above the surface of the water. A call, almost a parody of soundtracks from movies set in the remote wooded lake country of North America, betrays a diver, or loon. I cannot immediately see it, but it’s most likely the black throated species. A curlew is lamenting its own melancholia from somewhere along the shoreline, and a rowdy party of oystercatchers is piping loudly as they cross the narrows and come in to land close by.

As I turn back up the slip a short, loud hiss, as if a tyre valve has just allowed a brief escape of air as the pump is removed, interjects the quiet of the moment. I hear a couple more blows and then see them – a small group of bottlenose dolphins is gently heading up the Sound into the narrows. There are perhaps 5 of them and they seem to be really close to the shore and although not racing along, they do look purposeful like they are on a mission.

As a cooler feel to the evening descends, I have a sense that I may have spent all my wildlife sighting credits in the first 30 minutes of our week-long stay. I head back up to the house to pick up this intensive activity, a glass of Isle of Skye Brewing Company’s Skye Gold ale in hand, from the sofa that we’ve cunningly moved across the lounge to take full advantage of the floor-to-ceiling patio doors. Scanning the rocks along the shoreline with the field glasses, it doesn’t take long to spot seals both hauled out on the rocks and bobbing in the water, almost looking like they might be calling their friends to “come on into the water, the temperature’s just right”. They are just too far away to tell which species they are, but I suspect we’ll see plenty more of them and at much closer quarters as the week goes on.

I’m convinced that my wife has a built-in otter sensor. Within 10 minutes of settling in for the evening shift, she spots 2 otters silhouetted on a particularly prominent rock just along from the house. They are tearing a crab to pieces, and we are pretty sure that it’s a female with last year’s cub. In the increasingly golden evening, there are regular forays into the water to hunt.

About 2 metres in front of the patio doors is a suspiciously convenient, large, flat, tree-stump of a rock that sits like an island in the middle of the gravel area. We have already smothered it with peanut butter and a liberal scattering of peanuts, as advised by our kindly predecessors. Well, with only a week in hand, you’ve got to do everything feasible to boost the chances.

To ensure our eyes remain adjusted to looking beyond the indoor domain, the lights are off. The bedroom above has a full-length gable-end window and we’ve turned the bedside lights on which subtly flood the gravel area with just enough light to see to the edges where vegetation and darkness take over, and a slope leads down onto the rocky shore. Centre stage is Mount Peanut Butter.

It’s a still evening. There is no breeze to ruffle the gorse flowers or the still-leafless young birches, willows, and alders that are centrifuged around the edge of the garden. The only movement is a poor, wee timorous peanut butter thief. The mouse has either struck it lucky, or else has high expectations that each week brings new residents and a new jar of Magic Spread for Mice. With lightning efficiency, it zips straight out from somewhere below the patio doors, scales the rock, steals a lick and a peanut, and retreats. Over and over again.

Our expectations of marten success are low. But we’ve got beer, chocolate, and a background mix of Runrig, Capercaille, and The Waterboys. Hardly the ingredients of a testing experience.

After about 2 hours, just beyond the pool of visibility where the dark defends its front line against the light, a shadow zips up from the shore and stops, before disappearing down the side of the house. Was it a..? We’re not convinced what it was. It could just have been a brief wisp of wind ruffling the plants, a trick of light and shadow fooling the mind’s eye.

The shadow clearly has a well-rehearsed strategy. As we continue to scan the route the shadow took, it enters stage left. Being highly unlikely to have commando-crawled below the patio doors, it must have gone completely around the house.

We daren’t so much as breathe, let alone move a single muscle, as it bounds with unexpected confidence to the nut platter. Dark brown, with even browner paws, a dark and brushy tail, a very dog-like nose, erect teddy bear ears, and a signature creamy chest and throat. It is definitely, absolutely, no question, a pine marten. And it’s in no rush – this does not appear to be a grab-and-go sort of a marten. As the minutes pass, it becomes apparent that this is clearly a clean-your-plate sort of a marten. The mouse has, rather wisely, decided that there is a health and safety issue and is lying low somewhere. The marten spends around 15 minutes licking the stone clean, raises its head and has a good look all around before bounding off into the night.


Buzzing from the experience, I’m on my feet and up to the patio door, specifically the one that opens. As we all chat, whispered words and slow, careful movements thoroughly abandoned because that surely was it, experience over, the marten must have had the thought that it may have missed a morsel, perhaps tucked into a crack in the rock. It’s back and it really doesn’t seem to care that a whole family of 5 of the most dangerous beasts on the planet are squished up against a thin glass boundary a mere couple of metres away. I chance sliding the door open to share the same night air as our mustelid friend. The latch clicks painfully loudly, and I freeze. Marten does not. He, or perhaps she as I cannot tell, shows no concern. The patio door, perhaps the loudest in Scotland, swishes open with a “flee whilst you can” warning. Our friend pauses but measures the threat level as low and is soon back to licking his, or hers, seaside rock. I slowly, tentatively step outside. I am being watched, but there’s no apparent urgency to vacate the area. I am either misjudging the timidity of the species or underestimating the value of peanut butter. We are permitted to take a few snaps on cameras wholly inadequate for night time photography. Our friend’s comfort distance is about 2 metres, retreating a little if we step into the comfort zone, but quick to return if we step back out.

Our nocturnal diner returns every night of our stay, arriving earlier each night, not long after sunset, even cheekily spread-eagling against the patio door one evening as if to see if the wonder stuff is bulk-stored within. And word gets out, as later in the week there are 2 martens dining at the same time. A discussion around size and creamy chests leads us to suspect a third individual is also visiting. Our ethical, low salt, organic brand of the golden, nutty, spready stuff is clearly of a rare and fine vintage.

Each day, the MV Glenachulish glides back and forth across the narrows, casting 6-packs of cars and groups of cyclists onto each shore. As they head off up the road, I feel we are guardians of a secret. Of a little house at the end of a road, at the top of a slip, where human sounds and activities end at 6pm, 7pm in June, July, and August.

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To summon a moment

Late August in northern England often has more of a feel of Autumn about it than any sense of the often misremembered endless, hot summer days of school holidays of a childhood long gone. Fluffy clouds scud along on freshening breezes against a deeper, more chromatic blue than that of the hazier dog days of only a couple of short weeks ago. Blizzards of willowherb seeds dance and swirl to the whims and eddies of the wind. The swifts have departed, the family summer holiday has already shapeshifted into little more than a folder of photos, and household activity has turned towards the rapidly approaching return to school.

But if I close my eyes and rummage around a bit in my thoughts, I can imagine my way back to a moment I prepared earlier; a moment that I suspected I would want to summon again…

It’s a little after 7am. The sun is battling its way through the orchard across the road, gradually lighting up the garden as if a duvet of shadow was gradually being pulled back. It has already drenched the field, scrub, and woods on the hillside opposite with a golden cast and a more vivid palette of green and blue than the stronger, harsher light that will touch this scene later as the day progresses.

At home in North Yorkshire just days earlier I could sense nature rapidly quieting as breeding seasons draw to a close and moults get underway, driving birds to skulk in the undergrowth. Here, however, whilst breeding may also be over, the rabble-rousers of summer are still noisily calling and bickering their way through these earlier hours before the sun drives everyone to shade and inactivity.

The meadow on the other side of the wall from the garden has at least two green woodpeckers loudly mocking each other from respectable distances as they search through the grass and the thyme. There is a tapping from the orchard behind me, the instigator occasionally pausing from its carpentry and shouting a single sharp note to announce itself as a greater spotted woodpecker. In the line of trees on the far edge of the meadow, a group of magpies are arguing with each other in what look like Cyprus trees, and there are frequent harsh, hoarse admonishments from jays as they busy themselves in the oak trees either side. Wood pigeons clatter noisily amongst the branches and collared doves mourn in the day.

Atop the dry stone wall of the garden, and flitting between various shrubs and emitting sharp and repetitive agitations reminiscent of marbles clacking together, are a number of black redstarts; as common here as chaffinches are in my own garden. In the big pine tree in the garden’s centre there are a number of dull looking, busy little finches rummaging, squeaking, and jingling their way through the branches. Although not entirely sure, I’m guessing they are serins.

From the meadow and all across the lawn a symphony of stridulation and chirping is well underway as countless grasshoppers and crickets celebrate summer, whilst swallows and martins swoop, swirl, and twitter just metres above.

In the hillside field opposite a herd of heavy, white cattle is ambling along parallel contours, constantly pausing to tug and munch at clumps of vegetation in what looks to be a rather lovely, messy, and species rich meadow. They are Charolais and they are the signature breed of the region; the rolling landscape being liberally scattered with small herds of them, and only them. As I watch, they disturb four medium sized birds that suddenly fly up and make for the beech woodland just beyond the field. They have pinkish heads and shoulders, and rounded black wings with rather theatrical white stripes, giving an impression of somewhat flamboyant caped crusaders. They don’t call out and I’m not close enough to see much detail, but I know they are hoopoes and am thrilled to have seen what I would never expect to see back home.

I suddenly recoil as something rather large hums past my ear and heads straight for the purple buddleia at the edge of the flagged terrace on which I’m sitting sipping strong coffee. It’s the first of the day’s hummingbird hawk moths. Whilst a wonderfully descriptive name, I can’t help wondering what we called them before we discovered hummingbirds in the New World and then thought to make the comparison with a moth back home. Perhaps it was originally just a humming hawk moth, given the constant tone from its blurred and beating wings. I’ve occasionally seen them at home, but here they are in abundance. It won’t be long before there are four or five whirring away as they probe for nectar.

Another regular at the buddleia also turns up as the warming rays hit the side of the house against which it is growing. With patterning reminiscent of a zebra, it’s a rather misleadingly named pale yellow and black-striped scarce swallowtail butterfly. I suspect its English name hints at its rarity on our island, but here there are numerous individuals fluttering through the garden.

A rustling in last year’s dead and dried leaves that lie along the foot of the garden wall alerts me to one of the many wall lizards that spend much of their days chasing each other across the terrace and, perplexingly seeming to defy the downward pull of gravity, across the entire sun soaked and very vertical side of the cottage.

In one of the shrubs, a large and striking wasp spider is waiting for her breakfast to arrive. When it does, it can be guided in along a zip-zag landing strip.

I walk out onto the patch of lawn immediately adjacent to the terrace to get a better view of the sky and check out who’s up and riding the earliest thermals of the day. There are wafts of thyme and pine resin on a very slight morning breeze, and some very thin hints of cloud looking a bit too apathetic to form anything more substantial before the sun burns them off.  There is a kite. It’s much darker than the red kites that I see daily over my own house, and the forked tail seems, well, less forked. I’m sure it’s a black kite.

As I’m on my feet, I might as well investigate the cracking and popping sounds I’ve heard coming from the hazel tree. As I approach, a rather agitated chuntering comes from somewhere amongst the foliage. I creep slowly closer. A movement high up betrays a squirrel. It’s a red squirrel and its flicking its tail in annoyance at me. I’ve interrupted his breakfast. It reminds me of autumn days watching the fast and furious antics of a group of red squirrels at the top of a larch tree in the wood opposite my childhood bedroom in Northumberland. I wonder if the larch tree is still there. I strongly suspect that the squirrels are not. Not the reds, anyway.

As I turn to wander back to head in for a coffee refill, I hear a rowdy party in full swing in the tall poplar trees that are shimmering and glittering in a breeze that looks a little stronger up there than it is down here at ground level. I don’t recognise them by their calls and enthusiastic squabbling, but then they take to the air and vivid yellow and contrasting black wings immediately identify them as golden orioles. A first for me, given they are vanishingly scarce in the UK and constrained to a very small patch of the wrong part of England.

It’s only a moment, a brief window of time from a calm and quiet summer’s morning that’s since passed on. But to close my eyes and summon it now is to wander through the moment, to smell the thyme and the pine, to feel the first warmth of the coming day, and to hear, see, and be amongst the rich diversity of the southern Burgundy hills, just west of Cluny.

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