It was grey and wet. Fog had blanketed the tops of the hills, obscuring their shapes, obliterating their identities. Driving north along the Trotternish Ridge towards Staffin, the mists thickened. The map told me that all sorts of wonders lay to my left, I trusted that it was as it said and that one day I might evidence this for myself. Pretty much every other island (with the exception of Tiree) I had visited had times of rough weather. It so rarely dents my enjoyment of a place, providing I have enough layers on and am never more than 2 miles from a scone. However, the distinct silhouettes of the Quiraing and The Needle, among other unique formations, was something I was keen to capture.
Visiting Kilt Rock was impressive. To be fair, if you stick a
waterfall at anything, I’m chuffed. Colossal columns took root
into the sea below, unmoved by the elements and solid
through time. The reminders of dinosaur footprints all along
the coast are given some weight by the geology of the place. Seeing some sort of prehistoric creature peeking out from
behind a stack of rock, does not sound so bizarre if you have
ever seen this landscape. Moving on to find Staffin Bay, my
wee car dodged and bumped its way through a series of
horrific potholes (or possibly dinosaur footprints,
how inconsiderate!). Following the road until there was no
more road, I found myself at a little jetty. Where was Staffin Bay? Driving back and keeping a keen eye out for anything
that resembled a beach, I was reminded of a trip to Cuba
(I should point out, it was not the weather that reminded me).
A friend and I had researched a number of places we wanted
to visit. A “bespoke” bus tour kindly factored in
these destinations. We visited various Che Guevara sites
and were due to hit Revolution Square. Next thing we knew,
we were at Trinidad. When we asked when we were going
to Revolution Square, our driver pointed out that we had been. What we thought was simply the drivers extended cigarette break, was actually our stop at one of the most historic sites in Cuban politics. Anyway, Staffin Bay was much the same. Raved about by many, but possibly found by few (if my efforts were anything to go by).
Skye is huge. I underestimated how huge. After the first couple of days of my residency at The Admiral’s House (Wasps Studio), I learned that a fortnight was not long enough to get to grips with the identity of this place. Lochs, waterfalls, jetties, forests, farms, cliffs, villages and mountains. So many mountains. They dominated the landscape, towering over everything. My notion of “nipping up one of the Cuillins” was quickly flattened when I stood at the bottom looking up.
The diversity of Skye meant that finding my groove with an artistic response, was tricky. When there is so much to capture, how do you narrow it down? You don’t. The sketchbooks came everywhere, capturing sea stacks and castles, birds and beaches. In fact I found it bizarre that this island had so few beaches….for an island. It was mostly cliffs that divided land from sea, not so many little sandy coves. However, there was one cove that I had read about and had heard of, thanks to one of the shop keepers in Portree. It was a wee hidden bay. It promised not to be filled with campervans and tourists (yes, I know….I am effectively also a tourist). It was best reached by kayak. I now realise why. I drove as far as I could and abandoned the car. Following a path down past a farm and ending up at a large house where the road ended, I realised I had forgotten the little guidebook. In essence, I knew where I was trying to get to. However, seeing a route in proved difficult. I wandered about outside the house, hoping someone would come out and tell me to get lost. Then I could have kindly asked them for directions. This did not happen. I had a vague idea where I wanted to go. I had seen it from the angle of looking across at Portree. How wrong could I go? Friends who know me well, will know the answer to this. I made a vertical ascent through a thick forest of silver birches. Up until this point, silver birches were my favourite tree. I thought they were the friendliest looking. Anyway, their branches and twigs grabbed at me as I lost footing amongst the bog land.
At this point, I realised I still had my garden trainers on. These were only
meant for driving. I had forgotten to put my boots on. I had committed
now though. No sense in going all the way back. Once bog has seeped into
your socks, your feet cant get much wetter surely? I then came to a high
barbed wire fence where the tree branches thickened and gorse bushes sat
on top of the bog. A small but deep stream looked like the easier crossing point. You know what happened next.
With heavy wet feet, a sore hunched back from stooping under branches and a scratched face resembling a Blair Witch character, I followed another barbed wire fence until I reached the corner post. The fence was very effective at fencing me in and keeping me out of whatever lay behind. I was hoping it was my hidden beach. I told myself that it should lie just up and over that bump. I had to get over the fence. Placing some rocks at the base of the fence post I stretched my leg over the wire, channelling my inner Catherine Zeta Jones in that film with the lasers. I would like to point out that Catherine did not have wet slippery trainers. I slipped. My inner thigh ripped down the barbed wire as my foot struggled for placement on the other side. The pain was real. However, I was most concerned about my merino ski leggings. I got them in sale at Sweaty Betty. I would almost certainly never be able to get another pair. It was traumatic. I later discovered that my legs came off worse than the leggings. A good example of getting what you pay for.
The bog land opened up with only large flat boulders as certainty underfoot. Trying to skip between these was a huge challenge. At this point, I was flagging. Light would be changing very soon and the milky ways I had packed were eaten before I left the car. I managed to reach a higher bump in the land. At this point I could see where the cove was. I had overshot it by a country mile. I began the descent towards it. However, there were several concealed bumps that were to be ascended and descended before the cove could be reached. With soggy feet, a scratched face, hungry stomach and bleeding thighs, I admitted defeat and headed home. Frustratingly when at the top of this bump, I could see my car. It was right there. All I had to do was go through a little gate.
I spent the next day recovering at the Admirals House. With my studio overlooking Ben Tianavaig and the Isle of Raasay, a cup of tea firmly in hand, I was safe. My efforts to find somewhere that was “hidden” were perhaps a little extreme. I’m sure if you are a local then it is much easier to find these unpopulated spots. I was so aware of wanting to discover the true identity of Skye, not the tourist spots, lined with cars and tour buses. However, I was also becoming aware that this landscape was not to be messed with. This island should not be underestimated. It is beautiful and dramatic, but it is very real and very dangerous for numpties such as myself.
So, from this point, I more or less stuck to the hot spots of Skye. Neist Point, Talisker Beach, Loch Coruisk. However I captured them in my own way. I decided to leave the iconic lighthouse out of my paining of Neist Point. Kilt Rock was a distant shape with my focus staying on the waterfall, Raasay was recorded through slices of colour and shape.
I came across a wee book at the shop in Portree. It changed the way I worked in my sketchbooks. A Hebridean Notebook by printmaker Norman Ackroyd inspired me to loosen up my own studies. His work in a sketchbook, en plein-air, was immediate and energetic. It was impacted by the elements and not trying to push against them. Looking at the work of Ackroyd and the Admiral himself (Vice Admiral Roddy Macdonald) gave me the courage to work in new ways. I think there is so often that control that kicks in. It tells us what we are trying to create. Tells us what we want. It takes some conscious re-programming of the mind to shelf that way of operating, to let the process dictate the outcome and not the other way around.
In the final weekend of my residency, I hosted an open studio event. The public were invited to see an outsiders response to their island. When hung against the crisp white walls of the lovely studio, I was surprised at how the works resembled a collection. In my mind, I had created a rather disparate bunch of sketches and paintings. I had spent my initial days worrying about finding the identity of Skye. By the end of my residency, an identity emerged all on its own. My residency in Skye was productive. Stealing a fortnight to myself to explore, to have adventures and to reflect and respond creatively in a beautiful space, feels like a luxury. It's one I would recommend to anyone.