Iquitos and the Travel curse

Looking forward to the follow up parts of Mikes trip in the Amazon.

mikewebsterdop

My trip has been delayed. Stupid travel curse.

wp-image-2103974636 Sunrise over the east of scotland.

I’ve had alot of bad luck over the years with travel. Delays, cancellations, storms, strikes and broken limbs have all affected travel plans, so naturally I was terrified that there was going to be a flight delay on one of the four flights from Inverness to Iquitos. My layovers in Amsterdam, Panama and Lima were between four and five hours long each, so I used that to put my mind at ease, despite hurricane Irma looking to interrupt my flight plans. My only minor panic I had was wether my bag would arrive in Lima as promised after 3 flights from Inverness. All was fine.

The plan is to shoot an art film for 3 weeks on the amazon river, canoeing for two weeks and working with local communities, before a week back on another boat…

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………geek out on Highland Weather.

Plan your tour of the famous NC500 with a little forewarning of the weather, and top tips on how to deal with what the weather might do to your vehicle.

The Highlands – notorious for changeability making it a photographers dream. You don’t like the weather now? Wait 10 mins!
The ever changing light makes the same hill look like a whole new landscape multiple times in a day. It means that everyone’s experience is incredibly unique and incomparable, and that’s what keeps everyone coming back for more.

There’s another phenomenal thing about the Highlands; micro-climates. You might only need to drive over a hill to find a completely different day taking place so even if the weather is awful it’s not likely to the theme of your tour.

But what if this is your first trip? How do you plan to get what you want in such a fluid environment?
Below is a description of what the NC500 weather year is like here in the Kyle of Sutherland on the East Coast of the NC500.

Make sure you read my TOP TIPS on what to keep in the car for touring emergencies with bad weather in mind.

January
Awful, really bad, just nasty. Ice definitely, snow maybe – but it will most likely be that it snows and melts three times a day, high winds daily – that means anything from a “put the washing out” 35mph gust to an actual 149mph hurricane that blows the windometer away (true story). Daylight about 9am to 4pm.
Best you can expect? For photography, that ever changing light, and the dusting of snow on hill tops, means January is an awesome month. For sight seeing it really isn’t the best. Temps vary madly, but it’s not likely to even get as high as 6c. Rogart recorded the lowest ever temp one year at -32C, back in the 90’s. The coldest that I have recorded it on the actual coast in the last 10yrs was -18C. The Kyle of Sutherland froze over and looked INCREDIBLE….buuuut…..at that temp so will your diesel start to freeze and you definitely can’t use your skooshers to clean your windscreen and the engine heat may never thaw it. You might be lucky enough to experience something called Snow Thunder – an electric storm whilst it’s snowing.

February
See January, except there can be about four days of good weather ranging with temps from 2C to 20C around about the 19th. I remember about 5 years ago chatting to a friend whilst it snowed on us in Feb. Both of us had sun burnt noses because the day before it had been 22C; so when I say changeable, I mean extremely so. If you get the good weather it’s an excellent opportunity to see the Northern Lights.

March
Some improvement, but now you are going to get lambing snows. Again it’s almost 10yrs since we had a 3ft+ dump (that gives you 5ft drifts on the A9) which means it’s overdue or never happening again. It’s most likely going to be 3-6 repeatedly melting snow showers a day on bad days, but towards the end of the month you can get Summer for a week or so.  Best part is that you’re about 6 weeks away from any leaves appearing on trees so the views from the car are fab and you don’t need to get out a lot!
Daylight extends to 6.30pm after which it will be Baltic. Sunrises on the East are magnificent. The earliest of the oil seed rape is flowering with intense yellow all over the Black Isle and up the A9. It’s the most uplifting thing to see after long dark nights for the past 6 months. Some patches won’t have seen sun since October so could still be icy on the roads.

April
See March, but you are more likely to encounter the Highland Summer. It will have more dry and sunny days towards the end of the month, but will still have a nip in the wind, yet the wind is less likely to be over 30mph. Not impossible, but less likely. There is still not a lot of leaves on the trees so views are great, but there’s some obvious signs that the frozen North is thawing back to life. Great month for spotting wildlife as everything goes looking for a mate, and lambs are bouncing round the fields.

May
This is the only month I would happily guarantee you will see Summer! Day light is stretching incredibly, the leaves are coming out, there’s no midgies yet (well only a couple and they’re not very well practiced, a squirt of smidge should do the trick), and those stormy winds have died down. This is when you can get 28C weather and very sunburnt.  It is still possible to get snow and Summer in the same day. I’ve regularly had snow here in late May and you can still expect morning frosts and icy patches. If it is very warm and dry we have huge risks of wild fire. This year May and June saw 4 wild fires in the Highlands that went on for multiple days and would have been devastating to wildlife as this is when everything is having a baby.

June
Is all about the midnight sun. At 11pm you will have enough daylight to see the place like it’s daytime, sit outside and read a book, or go for a long hike. The sun will really only go low for a few hours and you can’t really consider it pitch dark at any point. It will be warmer at roughly mid to high teens. It will be changeable and very probably wet, but not likely to last all day. The Scottish schools go on holiday for the summer at the end of this month, and this is the month that we start heading back into Winter. Everything is very green and lush and we are finally free of frosty mornings.

July
Early July is when we have the driest spells this month. It can be so changeable temp wise it’s nuts – I’ve had it snow here in July, I’ve also had it 28C here in July. July is a real pot luck month, but over the past 2 years it’s been the best I’ve known. You may encounter amazing electric storms, small tornado’s (very rare – only one that I have encountered on the NC500 was about 13 years ago near Elphin and it tipped my car on a 45 degree angle and made a water spout as it went over the burn next to me. Terrifyingly amazing. I have encountered worse ones elsewhere in the Highlands), flash floods and diversions which could potentially be hours long, but you still have that night time daylight so going off piste for a bit is just part of the adventure. The barley for the Whisky is starting to ripen, but it’s almost 6 weeks away from being able to be harvested. Bring Smidge.

August
Early August is very often rubbish. It rains a lot and gets cold and windy– under 10C. I know this because I am a temperature nerd being a musher; I can’t work my sled dogs in harness at temps over 10C and I have had many years here where it was cold enough to run them in Aug, but not November. Fact.
This month you may encounter electric storms, flash floods, and diversions.
Mid Aug the kids will go back to school and you can guarantee as soon as their behinds hit a seat in the classroom the sun comes back out. The barley will begin to dry off, and if the weather holds dry long enough for the fields to drain the combines will get out and harvest everything in about 15mins before it rains again. You’ll see them working 24hrs round the clock, and it can cause the odd hold up on the A9 getting them to fields and the grain to the dryers at the plant and store at Tore. It is our biggest export so just try to enjoy your part in the process and seeing it going on around you. On the East Coast there are very many distilleries to enjoy.
The best bit of August is the evening. It’s getting dark about 10.30 now, but as the sun goes down the colour of the light across the stubble fields and the sea is exquisite. The heather is blooming and the North turns purple.

September
Normally this is my second month for good weather. We usually have a fab month in September, and again temps up in the late teens to early twenties are not uncommon. Everything is still pretty leafy, but the view is now what those leaves are doing. The colours of September are out of this world – russets, purples, greens, browns, and truly jaw dropping bursting orange sunsets at about 9.30pm. Harvest will still be over now in most places. The first morning frosts will appear and you might get the first of the “put the washing out” winds. The midgies are almost completely gone.

October
Now we’re approaching tattie harvest and the Tattie Holidays for kids, so named because they were traditionally given 2 weeks off school to help their families harvest this very important staple. It used to be when you could guarantee the first snows when I was a kid, but this is getting rarer. Again it would be flurries that quickly melt if it did, but it would be wise to expect a bit of ice afterwards, especially if it melts late in the day before 6.30pm sunsets. Towards the very end of the month (once the kids are back at school of course) you can get a few great days like Feb. It won’t be very warm with low teen temps, but it will be sunny and dry, and that light is exquisite for sight-seeing. The Hills go red as the sun sets on them.
You’ll start to get the first proper high winds too, but their exact arrival is unpredictable.

November
Is either a joy or a curse. It can be 17C in November, it can be dry, it can feel like a bonus month to get the hatches battened before midwinter; or it can be wet, cold, windy and generally very like January. It’s usually not quite as bad – if I had to choose between them it would be November every time. If you get good, hard, frost, it can be STUNNINGLY beautiful with too many photo ops to fit into a month. But it has to be consistently below zero for a few days to get that. Ice is likely, snow is possible, and camping or MCing will be pretty miserable. You may be forgiven for thinking the sun isn’t rising at all if it’s the bad kind of November.

December
see November, although if we are going to get proper snow it is usually just before Christmas. Three times I have gone to bed on Christmas eve with cold, wet, weather and woken to a white winter wonderland – magical stuff!
The snow increases the daylight substantially, and walks on snow rather than mud are far preferable, but please dress properly. It is possible to get hypothermia very quickly even in the centre of town when it’s cold – I found this out to my detriment once when I went out for a “quick run” with my dogs in jeans instead of a snow suit. If you have room for lined waterproof trousers bring them. If you don’t, then make room. If you don’t use them you can ebay them afterwards. Wellies are not footwear for snow – you’ll lose toes and probably slip. Wellie’s are not footwear for hill walking either whilst we’re on the subject.
Shortest day without snow lying will be 9am to about 3.30pm of daylight, and the day after that, Summer begins!

So to recap:

Good weather months = a few days of Feb(if you’re lucky), end of march, end of April, May, beginning of June, beginning of July, end of August, most of September, end of October, a few days of Nov (if you’re lucky), a few days of Dec (if you’re lucky).

Snowable months = Jan, Feb, March, April, May, June, July – yes July, Oct, Nov, Dec.

Flash Flood months = end of July, beginning of Aug.

Icy and Windy months = Oct – April.

Midnight sun = May , June and July.

Northern Lights = September – April, but go for those times when you are most likely to get a clear sky. Ideally you want those 4 amazing days in November and February.

WINTER TOURING KIT:
Firstly get all terrain tyres on your car, and get a spare wheel and tyre because a repair kit isn’t going to be a lot of use up here. Make sure you know how to use your jack and where you can put it on your car. Make sure you know where your towing points are. Replace all your coolant with antifreeze and make sure your skooshers for cleaning the windscreen contain a HEAVY dose of antifreeze too.  Take out roadside recovery. The two companies that operate up here on behalf of Green Flag, AA and RAC, are fabulous and if you do have a break down will take exceptional care of you.

5 gallon container with emergency fuel.
Flask of hot drinks/Jet boil and drink making stuff, and lighter.
Thick wool blankets.
Road Map.
Torch.
If you are worried about getting help after dark in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal check out GPS devices you can text message from.
Ice scraper.
Fold up snow shovel.
Small bag of rock salt – so if you find yourself spinning on snow you can melt it.
Strong string or twine – a good few meters. (For tying up bumpers and exhausts when you take them off avoiding traffic or skidding).
Small tool kit with sockets and screw drivers is never a bad idea – even if you think you would never know how to fix a problem a passer by very well
may.

Things that freeze that you might not expect to;

Locks – both the bit the key goes in and the actual mechanism itself. Always double check the door is closed properly and the grease in the mechanism hasn’t started to solidify making it stick or doors will pop open round corners. Same goes for the boot. Always use defrost spray on keyholes, never hot water.

Skooshers – always run your engine for a while and heat it up if it’s been really cold to help it to thaw. Check it is thawed before you set off. If it is frozen and you use your wipers to get rid of salt and grit from cars in front, you can quickly scratch the windscreen permanently. I’ve had to replace windscreens after driving in conditions that caught me out.

Wiper Blades themselves – often freeze, not just to the bonnet, but the rubber freezes, and spray on anti freeze won’t do much about that. What happens is they don’t make proper contact with the screen and might affect your visibility, and lead to permanent damage of the screen, as above, or even tear off. When frozen to the bonnet don’t use the motor to move them, run your engine and fan and once the ice is off the screen they will usually move. To thaw the blade use warm, not hot, water just before you get on the road.

Radiator coolant – coming to the Highlands in January with a low amount of antifreeze in your radiator will kill your car. I never put water, only antifreeze, in my radiators.

Diesel – OK it’s been a lot of years since this has happened to me, and it’s only happened a few times, but just good to know it CAN happen I think. If you have a diesel vehicle and you are worried about it freezing you can put additive in the fuel tank to stop that. If you get caught out, you can heat the tank for a while with a blow torch, drive a bit until all that fuel is used, and repeat. Tedious in anything other than an emergency – then it’s still tedious (if not actually upsetting) but what else you gonna do?

Wing mirrors – in very cold weather they will keep freezing if not heated. Not difficult to sort and I recommend a heavy spray with defrosting spray.

If the Police start to recommend that you don’t drive – don’t drive. It’s probably because the council are not sending out gritters. On a Sunday only A roads are gritted. Tune into MFR, local radio, 97.5fm for road and weather updates. On the East there are lots of parts of the A9 and bridges that get closed in high winds and floods. Diversions are always in place.
If you hit a massive pothole and damage a wheel or tyre, make sure you can pull over safely and are not at risk in live traffic, get the depth of it measured and get a picture of it.  Send it to Highland Regional Council and they may give you the damages. Do not expect that to be a speedy process! At least a 6 month turn around.
I’m sure lots of other locals will have other information, some of it may contradict what I have written here, but remember this is for MY microclimate at the Kyle of Sutherland on the East Coast. I’ve spent many years of outdoor hobbies and businesses being a weather nerd so I am fairly confident in my predictions. If you find otherwise, or likewise comment and let me know, and if you are local and can think of anything else to share then also please add it in the comments.

FAIL to PLAN and you PLAN to FAIL ……and all that jazz 😉

…..fall for such a Pig?

Pig tales chapter one

When I was a kid I spent the first part of my childhood chasing peat bog faeries (real ones not musical ones) around my family’s hill sheep estate in Lochaber.

Wellies on, and my hair tied in “bunches”, I used to hang upside down from a 5 bar gate by my feet; spotting fairies was easier upside down because they live in a topsy turvy world.

I grew up before nursery school existed, and so when you went to school you just went to school. Ripped from the bosom of my tiny, isolated family, I left the cottage and was put into school with no acclimatisation. Me and my school friends had to just adapt and survive like the little animals we were.
There were only a few faeries in the school garden so I had to make friends with the kids. That’s when I made my oldest friend, and she told me that my hair was not tied in bunches they were actually called pig’s tails. At the time I thought it was a horrible name for my bouncy appendages, but now I have met pigs I would wear them like a crown.

In January 2017 I fulfilled a 13year old task on the “to do” list and got pigs. I wanted them to plough up the croft. We have a very impressive amount of peat here (it’s what attracted me to the place – all those faeries for my children to chase) so you can’t get machinery on much of our land.
Lots of people had told me how intelligent pigs are, and therefore tiresome to keep. One neighbour had found his had not just disconnected the electric fence from the battery, but then carried the battery off and buried it!

I had little experience of pigs, but my parents had some and all of it sounded scary – escaping and taking the back door of the house off its hinges, or attacking people and putting them in hospital.
I started with two weaners that we could raise to be boars. If they were that smart then they would surely build a good relationship with us if raised fairly?

Soon followed two sows, both called Peppa, and then we needed a boar to cover them, who was of course called George. I was a bit scared of George because I had been warned about boars tusks so often, but on my first dealings with him he seemed very clever, and listened to what you said. He was obviously a character – Peppa I didn’t like him so he locked her in her ark and moved in with Peppa II.
That worked well until the other night when I looked out to see him in the chicken pen and trying to get into Peppa I. I raced out to get him before something got injured, with a bucket of feed.
“GEORGE” I called in a friendly way. He looked up and ran at me with an expression that said nothing but “BUCKET!!“.
He’s a large pig, with that prehistoric boar shape, big upright ears, and the markings of a saddle back but in a beautiful red roan and white. He probably weighs about the same as my smallest horse. I’m not going to lie, as he charged over for the bucket, leaping up the steep slope into the garden, I was a bit intimidated.

I quickly sealed him into the garden and went inside. With no one to help me and Amelie to get ready for bed I decided to leave him there until Amelie was out of the shower and before it got dark so I could safely take chicken feed from the barn to the hen house without getting molested when I put Bob, Curly Sue and Jersey (chickens) to bed.

After a short heated discussion with Amelie about getting out of the bath I left her to put her PJ’s on grabbed a bucket and went to the barn. George heard me getting feed and was there in a shot.

Is that bucket for me?
Yes George, but don’t come in here.
Why?
There’s 10 dogs in this barn and they WILL try and bite you.
Not scared of dogs or bites.
You should be
I bite back.
Now I’m scared. Please don’t come in.
OK

And he sauntered off, but by the time I was at the gate to the car park where I intended to lure him back to his pen, he was beside me with a sense of urgency that unnerved me again.

Is that bucket for me?
Hi George, yes, your bucket and one for Peppa II too. Can you follow me nicely?
He looked up at me and I could hear him thinking “she’s still scared“. I was still scared.
Do I have to be scared of you
Do I have to be scared of you?
No
Then no.
I gave him a scratch to show that I’d rather be affectionate than scared and he politely followed me out to the gate to the field.

Can I have the bucket now?
He appeared very excited, and I felt scared I was going to get mugged.
Why are you scared?
Are you going to mug me?
Why would you say such a thing ? he whispered and sauntered off up the road.
George where are you going?
I don’t think I can stay here and put up with this sort of rudeness.
I’m sorry George, I didn’t mean it, come back. I said to his rear as it trotted off up the main road.
GEORGE!
LOOK I have a BUCKET
I know, but I have had enough.
What do you mean you have had enough – enough food?
No enough of this suspicion that I am going to hurt you. I know where I am not appreciated.
George you are wrong, I like you very much.
Too late, I’ve got the notion now.
Notion of WHAT?!
Adventure. You know sometimes a pig just needs to feel the wind in his ears.

I was distracted from the conversation by a wet haired Amelie on the decking, naked from the waist up, yelling at me that “George is leaving” as if I hadn’t noticed. I tried to run after him, but he just started to run too. I stopped and called him again, but he was acting on his adventurous senses. Now Amelie was having a very loud nervous break down about the fact I had left the pen open and Peppa II was going to escape. Cringingly I raced back to secure the pen knowing that the pod guests must be able to hear all of this. I suspected they were trying to enjoy an evening by the fire pit and we were ruining it.

I popped indoors to explain to Amelie that had she got dressed as I asked this would be less stressful, but as she wasn’t I’d have to leave her in the house whilst I took the car up the road to find George. For once in her tiny life she seemed to appreciate the severity of the situation. She definitely wanted George back.
I headed up the road and as I rounded the corner at the pod one of the guests was standing beside her car pointing up the hill with a look of confusion on her face. I tried to do sign language for “yes I know, it’s my loose pig, I’ll get him back, nothing to worry about”.
I quickly found him; he hadn’t been in any sort of a hurry. I stopped the car and jumped out with the bucket.

George come on darling; this isn’t a great plan.
No I think you’re right, I was thinking this too.
You can’t leave the sows unattended.
Never mind the sows I’m not fit to climb these hills.
He trotted back to me.

We made a pit stop at the pod for him to meet the guests who tentatively stroked his wiry back. He was very accommodating, but his sights were set on home. One of the guests said she’d come down to the house with me and get her phone that was charging, so the three of us set off and she asked “so is this a standard way to spend your Thursday night then?”
“What, casually walking my pig, you mean?”
“Yes I guess that’s what I mean”
“Would you believe me if I said this has never happened to me before?”
I could tell she didn’t.

I decided George would be best in the stable and put him in with a hurdle tied across the door so he couldn’t get out ( I hoped), but left the gate from the stables to the garden open just in case.
It was perhaps an hour later when the German Shepherd started shouting “Schwein! Schwein!” loudly and I realised George was out.
I decided I’d have to just keep him in the garden until morning, and closed him in – except I couldn’t find him.

“George?” I called into the darkness, and tip toed up to the panel fence at the end of the house.
“Geeeooorrrge” I called again as I rounded the corner to be confronted with his big prehistoric front quarters.
AAAARRRGGGHHH!!!
GRUUUUUNNNT!!!
Jesus George you made me S H I T myself!
Stace you scared me.
Sorry George.
You said you wouldn’t scare me.
I really didn’t mean to, it was an accident. OK you are going to have to stay in the garden tonight.
Can’t I come in there with you? He mounted the back door step sideways under the hand rail.
George you’ll get stuck! And no, you have to sleep in the garden.
Where?
Wherever you like pet.
But there’s no ark, and no Peppa to cuddle.
Well you should have thought of that before you left your ark and your favourite Peppa behind.
oooooohhhh this step fence is great for itching the top of my back.
George don’t break the hand rail they only got put on a week ago.
OK.
Now off you go.
You sure I can’t come in there with you?
Yes. Night George.
Night.

A short time later I heard the Great Dane come home from work and went to meet him; it would be a huge surprise for him to be met by George, but George was nowhere in sight. I was worried he had escaped again until the dogs went crazy;
“Schwein” shouted the GSD.
“Svin’ya” shouted the huskies.
“Filthy pig!” shouted the Pointer
“Get tae fuck” shouted the Jack Russell Terrier.

I opened the door and George was trying to get into the barn.

Smells good in there.
George don’t go in there. Please stay away from the dogs – the poor pod guests are probably trying to sleep.
OK. I’m just looking for a bed….whats up here? he said as he ran up the ramp onto the decking.
No George you can’t sleep there either.
He walked back towards me.
I have to be honest Stace your hospitality is not all I hoped for tonight.
Well you didn’t give me time to prepare, get the things necessary, or help to get you home. You can’t just turn up unannounced and think it’s all going to he OK, OK?
OK.
I gave him a big cuddle and scratched behind his ears. He smiled and relaxed and I left him to look for a place to sleep.

At 2 in the morning I was woken by crunching and crashing, and more swearing dogs.
As I opened the back door George ran at me.

Stace I really need to come in there with you.
No George you can’t it’s just not the place for pigs. The Great Dane would never allow me to have a boar stay in the house and to be honest I couldn’t face it.
Just one night! he insisted and leapt up the step, face palming my hand with his snout and pushing determinedly against it.
No George!
Just…..let me ……squeeeeeeeze…. in and you won’t even know I’m there. He said with his head wedged in the door.
No George, I’m really sorry, but no. We just can’t.

OK. He muttered from the other side of a closed door. I felt awful as I stood there staring at the closed door wondering if I’d hurt his feeling too badly? I guessed I could make it up to him with a special breakfast.
I heard him slowly back down the steps and step off into the night.

In the morning Bob the Cock awoke me at 6am. I hadn’t managed to close them in or feed them with George in the garden. If he’d known there was food in the hen house I had no doubt he’d have tried just as hard, and likely with greater success, to spend the night in there too.
I went outside to see if George was OK.

There was no George.
Bleary eyed I checked all the gates – still closed. The stable – empty and the hurdle still in place meaning he’d show jumped out of it; such a talented pig.
A sick feeling started in my stomach – where was he? Was he OK?  Would I find him before trouble did? What if he’d sunk in the bog or broken his legs in a cattle grid? Who else had pigs he might be impregnating?
Would he want to come home again?
It was eerily quiet, not a sign of a pig anywhere. I wondered if there’d been a midnight mutiny and they had all left…..
I started double checking where he could have got out – definitely not over the 7ft front gates – not without wings. All other fences and gates were as I’d left them. I double checked he was really gone, and he really was. He must’ve got a notion again, and now with the wind in his ears he could be anywhere on the hill between us and the village. I hoped no one was out for an early morning dog walk. That could get messy, and that kind of mess is always difficult to explain.

I grabbed the car keys and was about to get hiking over the hill from the car park on top, but the stillness and quiet unnerved me. Something wasn’t right. I wondered if he’d broken Peppa II out and they’d gone together? He might follow her following a bucket back home if so, otherwise I wasn’t sure how I was going to get him back. I decided to check she was in her ark. As I went into her field there was no obvious signs of her having escaped anywhere, so I was pretty sure I’d find her inside. I called to her, and heard a grunt, and as I peered inside, there, miraculously, was George!
Tucked up and cuddled in with his favourite Peppa, and with no obvious way he got out of the garden OR into the paddock, I figured he must’ve flown.

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……would want to be a fast jet pilot?

When I was 19 I was almost successful in joining the RAF to become a fast jet pilot. Actually I wanted to be a navigator, but they wanted me to try out as a pilot. I think it was because there was only one other female pilot at the time, who flew Tornado F3s. Sadly my health held me back. I still can’t watch a jet pass without wondering what life I would have led if I had….

Walter “Jesse” James Hibbert is on the left in the picture above. My Grandfather. In his photo album he wrote the following caption under a picture of his own Father ;

“The cause of it all”.

February 2015.
Today is Monday, and the weather is a typical Highland February day. It is wet, and cold, and snowing, but it doesn’t lie, and the mud is coming up over your boots, and even stepping out to the bin brings back in enough of the croft to make the house floors look filthier than the barns. It’s the kind of day that really doesn’t help my mood, doesn’t motivate me or inspire me to adventure. It doesn’t inspire me to clean my over cluttered house, or go and cuddle my soggy horses. It doesn’t inspire me to smile at other parents on the school run, or make the important phone calls I need to. It doesn’t make me want to do much more that seek the comfort of clacking keys on the laptop as I write this. Writing is a very great comfort – spilling out my thoughts and emotions, my fingers moving quickly as my mind, but my body slouched still and quiet. I’m in a complete “funk” and have been since Saturday morning. I’m not even trying to pull myself out of it: I am all too aware that I can’t and only time will do that. This is the introverted side of my personality at play now – the part of me that is like a Highland Pony and wants to keep her feet still and move her mind. My mind is moving so far and fast. It’s racing through decades of memories and imaginings and has been since Friday.
Friday was not a typical February Highland day. The weather was all four seasons in one day, but just the best bits and all perfectly timed to provide perfect extra emphasis to the order of proceedings. Friday was not a typical day at all because it was the funeral of my Grandfather.

The day began with burning bright sunshine from dawn onwards. The sunrise at Rhinamain was more awesome and bright and full of energy than any other day so far this winter. It was as if the sun wasn’t just rising, but more rising to the occasion. It continued on so bright and beautiful all morning that it kept me focused and helped me to concentrate on getting my family organised and out the door in time.
As we came over the top of Tulloch Hill and looked over to the mountains to the south, they were perfectly sugar dusted with snow at the tops, and the sky was so pale blue, the sunlight so yellow that it was a picture postcard day and I found myself thinking “Poul should have taken his camera for this” and then realised that it was probably inappropriate to be taking pictures on the day of a funeral, wasn’t it?  We drove over the Struie which was still almost as icy as when Poul and I had skidded and spun off the road as we crossed it at 1am on the way back from work the night before. As I saw in daylight the spot we had finally come to rest at was but a couple of meters from a very steep and long drop into an old dry loch bed, I realised we had been extremely lucky. It also reminded me of the last car accident I had been in, on January 14th 1997, when I had spun and flipped my mothers car and crashed it spectacularly on it’s roof right next to a Loch and the church the funeral service would be held in at 1pm today.  Outside the temperature was just three degrees so was only one degree warmer than it had been when we hit the black ice last night, even though that sun had blazed down for several hours now. We drove carefully.

As we got closer to Cannich the sky grew darker. Heavy clouds burdened the sky over Strathglass and reminded me the solemnity that brought us together. As we entered the house snow began to fall.

My Grandfather had been a WWII Air Ace. The RAF had already put two Eurofighters over his house that morning before we arrived, and weather permitting they would put another over the church as he arrived at 12.50pm. We looked dismally up at the low dark grey sky knowing that even if they still sent the aircraft , we wouldn’t see it in this weather.
“It’s burning bright sunshine at home” I kept telling everyone, and they assured me that the day had started that way in Cannich too.
We gathered in my Grandmothers house with other close family members. It was bittersweet to see relatives from far flung places because of the reason we were together, but it was so very touching that they had made the journeys from Yorkshire, Surrey, and even Lake Geneva to be with us. There were many mutterings about the weather, and the fly past.
“Surely these fast jets are up to a bit of snow?!”
“But we won’t see it”
“We’ll hear it, we’ll know it was there”
“It could be completely different in an hours time, it might clear”
“Absolutely, who knows what it will be like by 12.50, this is the Highlands after all”
“Look it’s brightening, it’s looking good up there now” said my Uncle John pointing to a beautiful blue patch with just a few flakes falling away from it.

Mere minutes later the sky had completely cleared and the burning sunshine was back. Grandpa was taken from the house to the hearse in warm, crisp sunlight, and a very small icy breeze. I turned and pointed to the house sign for Poul to read “Thor House” it says and has a spitfire carved into it. Poul bought me a silver Thors Hammer when we first met. I wear it all the time, but today I and both my sisters (without conferring) were wearing the pearl necklaces we had been given by our Grandparents, so I had asked him to wear it and he hadn’t understood why perhaps until then. My grandfather had been one of two people, the other presumably being the Prime Minister, with a launch key to the Thor missiles, Britains first nukes.
I had heard funny tales of drunken dinner parties and invitations to see his “large erection” . He would take the guests to the air field and use his key to start the launch process. Without the other key it could never launch, but it would allow the hanger over the missile to slide back and for the missile to be moved into launch position, erect and pointing to the sky. The use of such deadly weapons as a dinner party trick was a perfect example of my Grandfathers sense of humour and also a wonderful reminder of the different times he served and lived in. Not a chance of any large erections being revealed in modern times with Health and Safety. The idea of a couple of men with keys being all that stood between normality and mass destruction is almost incredible by today’s standards, but then everything he and his peers did is incredible by today’s standards. These kind of men, in the forces of those times, will never be seen again. They were the real deal, actual heroes. No war will ever be fought in the same way as it was back then. Now launches require keyboards not keys, and no close proximity. Aircraft that drop devastation are unmanned drones. It’s unlikely there’s ever going to be any generation of pilot who has to do the kind of dog fighting that Grandpa and his peers did. Engaging the enemy in a far more gritty and personal way. Knowing  being shot down, escaping from behind enemy lines if you survived just as my Grandfather had, without GPS to give your team your location, no medicines to deal with wounds like today’s, no surgical techniques to repair or replace what you lost. Flippant erections of nuclear missiles may sound ridiculous or dangerous, or even a gross misappropriation of WMD, but when you think about the kind of war that these men were involved in then you can understand the dark humour that grew out from it. Grandpa was an exceptionally humorous man, it was inevitable it would have a darkened edge to it by the end of the war.

I took Poul, Chloe, one sister and two cousins and we followed directly behind the funeral cars. We had a little giggle that the initials of the undertaker on the car number plates were “WTF” but that soon gave over to emotion as the undertaker  walking in front of the cars, down the drive and onto the road stopped at the end, removed his top hat and bowed to the coffin before alighting. It was so terribly moving to see our little Grandfather given the respect he was due.
Throughout the past years and his recent decline we had worked hard to preserve his dignity and ensure he received the respect he was due as a man who had sacrificed a lot of himself for his country. The care he had received privately and from the NHS had been varied. It could be expected that over such a long time as Grandpa had kept going, we would experience both the best and the worst of all situations. 5 weeks previously he had been admitted to hospital with pneumonia and we had gathered, clan style, in the hospital to provide the show of support we hoped would keep the little man first and foremost in the minds of those around him. We also wanted to be there for my Grandmother who, after more than 67yrs of marriage to him, never left his side in the hospital. On more than one occasion she witnessed equipment failure of his oxygen supply or drip and was able to get the staff to come and fix it. For almost two weeks she never left his side, until finally they decided no more could be done, and they would send him home to die – the day before her 88th birthday. At this point he hadn’t eaten in roughly 3 weeks and was being kept alive by glucose. He had almost halved the infection in his lungs and was fighting hard for a man that my Mother had given CPR to and brought back to life after 4 dead minutes. They had said he wouldn’t last that first night, and perhaps it was a gross underestimation of his will power, or maybe it was just the way things worked out, but had they managed to get him feeding sooner I think we may have toasted him at his 95th birthday.
Perhaps if they had known this man, who had got Polio whilst serving in Malta and had been the only one on the ward not to die, they’d have got on board the fight with him. Perhaps if they’d known he had been paralysed completely by Polio with the exception of a single toe, and in “Kill Bill” style he worked that one toe until it became his whole body he could use again, and got right back to work leading squadrons of aircraft.
Perhaps if they had understood his mental fortitude then they would have given him more of a chance and a feeding tube.
Sadly, when the end finally came for him, at home in his bed,  his diligent and devoted wife had been admitted to hospital with suspected pneumonia herself and angina. Her heart was literally breaking, and she had completely wiped herself out making sure he got everything he needed. This, for me, is the saddest part of his passing that after all those nights by his bedside she wasn’t there when he finally left. After more than 67 years together, they weren’t together to say goodbye. He’d told me years previously when we thought he was on his way out “I’m not worried about dying, I am just worried about leaving my wife”.

The sun lasted all the way to Loch Miekle. Many were waiting to pay their respects and show support to the family. Outside was a Squadron Leader, highly decorated, that the RAF had sent to represent his other family. We gathered outside and my Grandmother spoke to him, he said to my Mother that the little (tiny) church was beautiful. She replied that one of her granddaughters had been christened here and another two had crashed a car here “so it was special to the family”. We had a little laugh at that, it lightened the tension that was building quietly as the mourners stood waiting to see if we would receive the Flypast.
Of course the RAF did not disappoint, and at 12.50 on the dot, the roar of that incredible engine could be heard swinging into the glen from the west. As it approached and was lining up perfectly over the church it roared louder; a symphony of highly tuned perfection. Finally it came into view and charged over the top of us all and into the distance of the east. I lost sight of it through the tears I could no longer control. It was such a beautiful tribute to him, and so good of the service and country he had devoted himself to, to repay some of the debt. In the stiff upper lip of British service life, there is still affection.  Anywhere I meet an RAF serviceman who speaks to me about Grandpa they talk of him and the Air Aces with huge respect and reverence. The contribution is not whittled away by time, and although there’s no one serving now who could have known my Grandfather, they will always see him as one of “theirs”. It was a great comfort to us, as well as very moving, to see such huge physical representation of what he meant to Queen and Country and the RAF. He had led the flypast for her coronation so it could be argued it was only fair she returned the favour.

It showed it wasn’t just us that thought he was special.

….make someone stay in a horse trailer?

The Pod Part III

Today is late April and the we are 1 month in to our first proper season. HMRC have been informed, I have registered self employed – now the croft has a chance of being a business not a hobby.

Typical of this time of year, by 9.45am we have already had a spring sunrise, summer dawn, autumnal school run, and now rather predictably the snow has just started to fall. The bed sheets with a picture of a galloping horse, and extra blankets are drying all over the house ready for the next guests. We have now added in a movable fire pit and BBQ; we are just keeping the extras free and the price at Hostel rate and flat across the year. It helps us work out different aspects of the market better if we know that choices haven’t been made around pricing.

So has it been successful?

Yes. Yes it has.

In fact I am blown away by how successful it is – not as much as The Great Dane, he’s genuinely impressed with me right now and I am basking in the “know it all glow” it allows me.

My target for bookings was to have it available from end of March until end of October. We had opened it at the end of last year for about 5 or 6 weeks and we had someone in it every weekend, even though we’d done zero marketing and it was completely out of season. We just bunged it on a couple of OTA’s and went for it.
This led me to believe that I should aim to have it let at least one night per weekend in our first season. Then I got cold feet and opted for 25 nights in our first season, 75 in our second as I hoped by then I would have the time to really push the marketing, and finally by the time we were in year 3 I hoped to top out and maintain with 100 nights a year.
I didn’t have a lot to base these targets on in terms of expectations or market research. Since I last worked in this sector there had been incredible changes, like the internet – that wasn’t a thing back then let alone Glamping. No one would pay you to stay in a horse trailer the last time I let out or dealt with self catering. The Great Dane had no conviction that anyone ever would.

It appears that I was probably way out with those targets. One month in and yesterday was the first time that we didn’t have someone staying in it, meaning we have blown the first years target out of the water in the first month. In fact we are not far off our second years target already, so I am confident we can meet our year 3 target in this season.

However the true mark of success is how people enjoy it, and so far it has been only 5 star reviews. The real proof being with guests reporting it’s the best place they have stayed, and saying they want to return next year. Long term stays are being enjoyed as much as one night “experience” stays. Hardcore campers are enjoying a shower bag under a sky roof, and absolutely everyone is getting a lot out of cutting up wood and having fun with the stove and the fire pit.

On a totally personal level it has done more than that though – it has given us hope.

I said in my other posts this was about finding a way to live where we love with enough time left over to love it. However since I last posted about the pod our personal situation changed a lot. In October I woke at 4.30am in agony in my hips, and from there progressed a winter of troubling symptoms, a loss of mobility, no real answers from the NHS so far, terrifyingly the loss of two jobs and finally becoming registered as disabled.
Our position changed from wanting to live where we love to wanting to keep any kind of roof over our heads. We looked at moving but nothing that was available was going to make us better off. We were going to end up with less space and a larger mortgage.
I couldn’t afford to keep my beloved Muscle Man on the road, and I had to give up breeding our gorgeous cobs because I could no longer handle the youngstock.
My lowest point was when my eldest daughter had to leave school to care for me. We went into a freefall of bewildered panic, and I couldn’t understand what was happening far less how to fix it.

In all honesty I had lost my enthusiasm for everything – I didn’t know if I would do any of my hobbies (rock climbing, riding and mushing) ever again and with 10 dogs and 10 horses to care for that was going to be a problem. I had bred the dogs, or owned them for 14yrs, I had bred the horses and some I had rescued from abuse or neglect and I had a one off bond with them. Being so specialist in terms of their needs there was nowhere for them to go except a large hole in the ground and I couldn’t consider that as an option. I couldn’t see the answer, I couldn’t see where the money for their feed was coming from, where the help with their care was coming from. I knew every penny would count in 2017 and if the pod could make enough to pay the bill for the feed they’d eaten over winter I would have one less stress.

We started to get ready for the opening, and hauled the mattress out of the hallway. We’d stored it there in its bag to stop it going damp and mouldy over winter in the empty pod. However it was up against the glass pane by the unused front door and condensation had run down and pooled on the top of the bag, eventually making its way inside. As my daughter went to take it from the bag I saw it was soaking wet and very mouldy. In a panic I started looking for a replacement – we had only a couple of weeks until opening and I knew deliveries to the North can take that long on large items. One company sold a cheap replacement but it wouldn’t deliver for less than £70, another guaranteed to be in your home in 5 days for £15 but it was twice the price. To have peace of mind I had it in time I went for the expensive one, which actually arrived 17 days later, just 2hrs before our first guest checked in. Our first guest was staying 5 days, and the weather was rough – I anticipated a poor review…..

Thankfully she loved it, and I felt like I could exhale a deep sigh of relief. From then on the bookings came thick and fast and The Great Dane and I began to worry less and smile more.
We realised that this daft wee idea I had last year, and the last bit of cash and mobility I had, had been very well used. This pod was going to get us out of some very tough times, and if we could make another we’d be able to actually make this croft work and stop worrying about losing our home – a place we love. Thanks to this pod, and the fact I am not able to reliably work elsewhere any longer, I finally have the time to enjoy it.

We have started work on the next pod, which is a horse lorry this time. It’s going to accommodate up to 5 people and will be on grid so if some of those people are kids you can look after them easily with electric showers and gas hobs, running water and an electric stove you don’t have to cut wood for. Now we have to start branding, websites, paper based advertising and so on. After all those years running all those businesses and working all those crazy jobs with crazy hours it looks like we might finally have got it right.

Thanks to all our guests so far for their lovely reviews – If we keep getting guests like this we’re going to be blessed.
Big thanks to friends, family, children and partner who sponsored this event with their enormous hearts.

……go East?

NC500 East v’s West Part 1
(There really are too many advantages to put in a single post).

I recently started a group on Facebook for the NC500 to allow those of us living up here to give tourers tips on accommodation and events as well as promote our own little independent businesses. Once you’ve done the NC500 it’s pretty obvious how difficult it is to make a living up here, and how dependent on agriculture and tourism we are. There are no big companies to work for with the exception of supermarket chains, and there aren’t even many of those on the West. Traveling to work can involve hundreds of miles a week if you don’t work from home. Of course this scarcity of people (Sutherland is the largest county in Scotland and has the smallest population of any county in Britain at just 12,000 people) is why you want to come visit, it’s part of the attraction, but it was important that those of us living here had a platform to inform visitors that we exist without looking like we’re just trying to ‘milk it’. The group is really popular, with around 4000 people joining in the first six months, and it was through moderating this group I saw that the general advice handed out to people planning their first trip was do it anticlockwise and save the best to last because ‘West is Best’.

Undeniable – the West has got some amazing scenery. There’s no two ways about it, no one can deny it, or challenge it; it’s breath taking.
BUT to say ‘West is Best’ is only true if you are doing the NC500 purely for mountainous scenery. If you get a day of thick set, low cloud or mist then oftentimes those mountains aren’t viewable, or safe. All coasts can boast the same opportunities to eat great food,  stay in wonderful accommodation, go to gala’s, music festivals, Highland Games and rub shoulders with interesting locals, and wildlife. Yet each has it’s own very distinctive culture, accent, and quirks – you can only “go up E road” if “E road” heads to or along the North Coast for instance, and even I have only just found out what a “Tina Bowlie” is!
The diversity of microculture is one of the things that makes the NC500 such an interesting route. If your plan is to just go get miles under your belt by doing it like a race, you’re actually missing the point of it. It would be like going to the Tower of London and saving time by cutting out the room with the crown jewels. People always come back for another go, no matter how much time they take on the NC500, and one of the parts that they NEVER planned well for was exploration.

I love all of the Highlands. I was the first “Stacie” born in Dingwall, raised in Lochaber  and Inverness Shire. I did what most Northern Highlanders do and tried out a couple of places south and some city dwelling, but it wasn’t for me so I decided to settle in the Kyle of Sutherland. I chose my croft here because I have all the very many benefits of easier East Coast living with more amenities and faster roads for ferrying my kids about, but I am only 45 minutes from Assynt  (North West ).  My favourite hill, Suilven, is over in Assynt which I can see from the top of the hill above my house – in fact I can see seven counties, two coasts and the Cairngorms from the hill above my house.
When I came here I worked as a self catering property inspector for Scotland’s largest independent agency and covered an area including the NC500. There were always far less properties for rent on the North East as it was less popular, but as I have explored it further over the past 13 years I have come to realise that it caters for a different type of tourist – one that’s getting more and more interested in the NC500. If you are into agriculture, adventure activities, gin, beer, whisky, golf, archaeology, or are taking a young family with you then the North  and East is where you will spend most of your time. If you have hired a motorhome then going Anti Clockwise and taking it up the A9 before trying out the twistier single track West might be a better way to acclimatise to your new abode. It’s not a characterless drive though as Berriedale Braes have steep drops and hairpins to rival Bealach na Ba.
So before you go away believing that the route is really all about the West, and the rest are just miles making up the numbers,  lets have a look at some of the delights the East and North Coasts have to offer.

“Go oan, take a drink…..”
If you are a fan of the alcoholic beverage then these are the coasts for you. Starting with the Black Isle Brewery just North of Inverness, and then Cromarty Brewery also on the Black Isle (try their coffee infused stout making good use of the grounds from a local artisan coffee shop – best kind of recycling you can get in my book!), you can progress onto whisky at Teanninich and Dalmore at Alness, then onto the very famous Glenmorangie at Tain complete with its seafood restaurant, if you take a detour over the Struie you can come out at Edderton and Balblair distillery which was made famous by the film “The Angels Share”. Continue on to Clynelish at beautiful Brora, and make sure you go to Old Pultney and Wolfburn ( a new distillery offering a 3yr old Malt) as the most northerly distilleries. Then finish the whole thing off with a botanical Gin at Rock Rose in Dunnet Bay. All the while you drive between these distilleries you’ll be watching the barley that makes the Whisky ripen in the fields that line the A9. There is no better ground, and no better sight, than the patchwork of crops planted on the Black Isle viewed from the other side of the Cromarty Firth.

A good walk spoiled
The East Coast has long had an affiliation with Golf. Last year Royal Dornoch celebrated 400years of world class golfing – it is ranked Number 1 in Scotland and Number 6 in the world. Dinner from the conservatory restaurant of the Royal Golf Hotel looks over the First Tee, Dornoch Beach and the Firth right out to the Light House at Tarbat Ness. At night the towns of Portmahomack, Inver and Tain’s lights blinking over the waters at you are beautiful.
Across the Dornoch Firth at Tain, is another wonderful links course. Across two Firths is Castle Stuart near Inverness where the Scottish Open was held last year.  In Bonar Bridge is a wonderful little 9 hole course looking down over the ancient woodland of Loch Migdale, that would have been saplings at the time it’s sister course was being created. Further North are Golspie and Brora with well regarded courses and incredible views from every Tee.

Piles of old rubbish.
If you get your rocks off looking at heaps of rocks you’re going to love the Viking long houses, forts, cairn, brochs and crannog found on the East and North East coasts. About 5000 years ago the area surrounding the Dornoch Firth was the most populated part of Britain making it the equivalent of London today. Hut circles and chambered cairns litter the common grazing above Loch Migdale. At the closest end of the Loch is a Crannog ( a man made island that would have had a round house on it accessed by a hidden trail of stepping stones) and in a field nearby is an Amphitheatre. It was also here that ancient jewellery was discovered in a crack in one of the rock faces, known as “The Migdale Hoard” and can now be viewed in the National Museum Scotland. They include an axe head, bangles and anklets, carved buttons, hair ornaments and fragments of an elaborate head dress. On the top of the hill above where this was found was the very recent discovery of a Viking long house when a survey was done before building the second largest sub station in Europe next to Loch Buie.
There are many Brochs, some of the best are at Hope, but the ruins of one sits right next to the A9 between Dunrobin and Brora.
The ancient people of the North East were the Picts, meaning “painted” because they were thought to be fairly fond of getting inked. The Pictish Trail takes you from monument to monument up the coasts to see the incredible intricate designs they carved honouring life, wildlife, and Vikings who eventually conquered them, who were then conquered by the Gaels, who were then conquered by sheep and all of this has left its mark on the land.

Macabre Monuments
There are five that immediately spring to mind, the first is not really associated with death, but it certainly is an example of a long gone era. There are many examples of Victorian “Over the Top” in Scotland, but none are as in your face as the Folly on top of Fyrish above the Cromarty Firth. If you want to go see it, its a couple of hours of steep walking, and surprisingly bad midgies at the top. However it is SO impressive. You can not find a better way to frame the view out to Nigg and the Oil Rigs parked up waiting for refurbishment in the Cromarty Firth, than through those arches. Until you have stood next to them you can never realise how mammoth they are. I always thought they were about the height of a tall man until I walked up there. Nope. MUCH bigger. They are almost as big as the issue of getting parked up there, so week days are best. And if there’s no space don’t be tempted to park in the passing places and on the verge like the other numpties who keep blocking the locals every weekend.

If you come down from Fyrish and take the B9176 over the Struie Hill you can start to see the next monument on top of Ben Bhraggie above Golspie much further up the coast. The Duke of Sutherland Monument on the top of the hill is a shorter walk than Fyrish. Many believe that monument should be removed because it is a giant statue of the man responsible for clearing the surrounding areas during the Highland Clearances. The great forest covering Caledonia – the Rainforest of the UK – was cut down almost completely, save a few acres, to make way for sheep. The crofters were as much a hindrance as the trees were to the progress sought by the upper classes so they were ruthlessly turfed out.  Their homes burnt, taken down, and made uninhabitable there were tens of thousands of homeless men, women and children suffering throughout winter without proper accommodation before walking west to the boats that took them to Canada.
Which brings me to the next monument – Croik Church. Take the B9176 until it intersects with the road between Tain and Ardgay. Turn left for Ardgay and then head up Strath Carron towards Alladale Estate, famous in recent times for trying to reintroduce Elk, Boar, Wolves, Lynx, and Bear. The Elk and the Boar are now gone, none of the rest ever made an appearance, but they are involved in reintroducing Scottish Wild Cat instead (and last year, for some reason, a Racoon was photographed loose on the Estate!). Take the road to Croik, you can’t miss the church. Here you can walk by trail straight across Scotland to the West Coast and Ullapool which is only 24 miles away. When the Duke kicked families out, many of them took refuge in the grave yard around the church. Believing it was blasphemous to stay inside the church itself they camped for NINE SOLID MONTHS in the graveyard. Some of them carved their names into the window panes of the church and they can still be read today.

Heading back out onto the NC500 and a short trip North you can find the next monument in the garden of a house on Carnaig street in Dornoch. It commemorates the last time in Scotland that a witch was burnt at the stake. As if getting kicked off your croft and sent on a ship to Canada wasn’t bad enough, women had to endure this awful way to die up until 1727 (the date on the stone is apparently incorrect) when Janet Home was the last to be dealt with this way. If you go for tea in the Court House Tea Room in the town, see if you can spot her in the mural on the wall.

Further North again, and just before Helmsdale is a wee place called Loth. There’s a long layby there and in the middle, and easy to miss, is a stone commemorating the last Wolf shot in Sutherland “by the hunter Polson” about 200yds from the layby around 1700. It certainly seems like losing the wolf was the start of dreadful things to come that century….

Silly names
It is claimed that Berriedale and Helmsdale were the inspiration for Helms Deep in Lord of the Rings where Aragorn wakes the dead army. With so many Viking place names up the East Coast it’s easy to see where Tolkien got the idea for that army from. As soon as you come over the Dornoch Firth and see the sign for the River Evelix you start to feel like you might be in a different country. With towns like Dingwall (meaning Parliament) and Thurso (Thors town), you can tell that this area was popular among the Scandinavians sailing over the North Sea and looking for farmable land. Some of my favourite ones are “Portmahomack” which is a gorgeous fishing village with harbour, beach and excellent restaurant,  all looking over towards the hills of Sutherland, “The Mound” an area near Loch Fleet, an RSPB and seal spotting haven, where you can climb approximately 32 sports climbing routes from grade 4-7 on the conglomerate crags that stick out of the rounded humps obvious on the skyline from as far away as the coast of Aberdeenshire. Pretty much anything with “ster” in it, especially “Lybster” where you can eat in a restaurant at the Portland Arms that has an aga in it giving a real homely feel.
Castles that you can stay in.
If you want to Lord it up on your trip then the only Castles you can stay in are on the East Coast and start at just £54 per night. Starting in Dingwall you can stay in Tulloch Castle, well known for it’s great food. Then after that is Kincraig Castle which has a great collection of Wendy Reeves Pastel artwork of the Highlands and does excellent food at very reasonable prices. Mansfield Castle in Tain is next, and then technically it’s Skibo Castle – but that’s out of the budget of the majority of tourers I would guess. It’s a Private Membership club, and includes amongst it’s members many of the richest and most famous people in the world (Madonna and Guy Ritchie got married here which is why Madonna is in the mural in the Court House too). Tom Jones was recently spotted driving around Ross Shire and Sutherland in a Bentley; he was staying at Skibo.

Whilst you can’t stay in it, you’d be mad not to go and see Dunrobin Castle just North of Golspie on the A9. It’s the largest castle in the Northern Highlands, with 189 rooms, and remodelled in the late 1800’s to Scottish Baronial Style it’s very impressive with 135 ft towers, beautiful French formal style gardens and even a 92ft draw well in the courtyard. It’s got a real Fairytale feel to it and can be seen from quite some distance as you drive up the A9 nestled into the hillside right on the shore. I feel it’s best approached from the sea, and then a picnic on the beach below it gives you time to take in the well crafted architecture untypical of the rugged North, but if you aren’t seaworthy then going in by the road to the rear is still quite a sight. Inside is full of quirks, ideal for something to do on a rainy day.

Family friendly Small hill climbs
 Struie Hill, Fyrish and Ben Bragghie are easily accessible in short amounts of time and have stunning views. They all have that feel of a big hill without the time or effort so if you are travelling with kids and need a leg stretch and a hill walking experience that doesn’t turn to tears and carrying them home, these are the choices for you. Struie Hill especially is good for this as it has good parking and a road to within very close range of the summit. Then the view right across Scotland from North sea to the West Coast hills will knock your socks off.  There’s even a little trad climbing on the crag.

“….pod like that?”

The Tiny House Saga so far….

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Day 1 on Trailer Transformation – quick inspection.

I emptied out the trailer of the various rubbish and equipment that had ended up dumped inside it – traffic cones, old tyres, electric fence poles, popping paper, old horse rugs and a giant gym ball 44inches in diameter – the usual horse toys.
I had thought the floor would be unquestionably rotten and need replacing, but was pleasantly surprised to see that a good power hose is probably all it needs. The ceiling was peeling paint off the fibreglass hull at the front leaving huge bubbles and hollows. I started to peel it off; it barely needed me to poke at it and the paint fell off in huge flakes. I was astonished to find that a large hole in the paintwork just above the front window where a flake had come off partially leaving a big bubble had been made the home of a small bird. It’s droppings were in the bubble and feathers were stuck to the fibreglass – amazing that it weighed so little it didn’t break the flake!
The front end is in remarkably good condition. The top door of the front ramp is made of ply that’s beginning to split apart, and the OSB lining it is completely rotten.
The side walls have ironmongery for attaching the breast bars to that have to come off first, then the rubber matting which goes to within a couple of feet of the floor, then the aluminium that goes from the rubber to the floor, and behind that is the OSB.
The back ramp is going to go up and stay up, and at any rate is never going to take the weight of horses again so I am pretty certain it won’t need much attention to the hinges. The front unloading ramp however can’t stay on so it will have a door fitted in the whole space – I contemplated stable door style but I think that’s actually quite impractical with wind/midgies and the fact the rear doors are a bit like stable doors anyway. I will remove the ramp and use it as access to the decking that will surround the trailer once it’s parked in position, and fit the stable door to open outwards.

Looking at the available space inside the futon bed is going to have to go along the end wall. This also means that it might be easier to fit storage shelves to the wall without encroaching on the living space. I am acutely aware that pretty much all of my plans for how to furnish this are unrealistic. It’s going to be completely different to what I had envisaged and I’m still not sure how that’s going to look…..

Day 2
Looking at mattress options nothing foldaway, inflatable or thin is going to cut the mustard. A plinth is going to be obtrusive space wise. A pallet futon is probably not going to be sturdy enough for 150 days use a year or easy to put up and down in the available space. Going to go for a metal futon which means that the bed is not going to be made from anything recycled, but I think comfort is very important, as is ease of use if you don’t want things broken.

Enquiries about replacing the back axle have been made, but right now I don’t think it’s worth it. It’s not going to carry weight like horses again and as the only real issue is that it’s been pulled off (and may be slightly bent) I think we’ll try a friends recommendation of ratchet strapping it onto the body using the tie ups for the horses on the outside, and pray. What’s the worst that could happen….?!?!?

Stove selected – found the perfect one with great angle for the chimney, good weight, etc
Tomorrow Poul and I are going to plod away at stripping. Looking forward to that 😉

Day 30 or something – Wow so much has been going on!

Just before I started this project I went for a tarot reading. It was ridiculously positive, and everything in it so far appears to have come true, including the prediction that the pod was going to be a community project.  A community of my friends have been involved full force and work sped along. The Great Dane has been much more involved than I think he wanted, and I suspect enjoyed it more than I think he thought he would. We’ve worked pretty well together. The ENORMOUS list of jobs from stripping and refitting, rubbing down, repainting, fitting stoves, dealing with the axle, finding furniture to fit, researching the industry and what people will expect, exploring toilet and shower options, and trying to get hot water and lighting solutions has been time consuming but SO MUCH FUN!

So far we have an interior on the trailer that is very close to being ready to furnish, with the OSB on the walls replaced and repainted and a ceiling mural started. We’ve made a front door with a combination bolt for security (saves people going home with keys) and replaced the back doors that we have glazed to let more light in. We’ve decided to definitely try strapping the axle up and hoping for the best to move it, and we have very rough plans (and no real idea how to do it) for the toilet and shower block. The stove is in place but not fitted and we plan to make use of chimney heat to warm the toilet and shower cubicle as well as heat water on a gravity fed rainwater capture system. The furniture is bought or ready to be upcycled.

We’ve had lots of obstacles – the unconventional  hinging of the door leaving large gaps midgies will come in, what to put on the floor for easy cleaning that’s within budget, how to glaze windows of unconventional shape and size, where to position the stove, how to heat water for the shower when we don’t get enough solar energy in a Highland wood, and many more small, specific to our particular trailer, type problems.

We’ve made lots of mistakes – not checking all the door hinges were identical before drilling holes. Not checking the rear doors were the right way round before painting the inside a different colour to the outside, not being more accurate with cutting the window perspex, not remembering a curved bead will need to be scribed when mitred, and more we won’t have realised yet.

We need to get the pod moved onto the site before we can progress. The only problem is that Muscle Man is unwell once again and it looks like major surgery so he’ll be unavailable to tow. Towing is going to be awkward until we see if we can get away with either strapping up the axle or removing the rear wheels. We have about 10 days until our deadline and it’s looking unlikely. In the meantime there’s interior painting to be done finishing the mural, seals around all exits to stop rain and draughts getting in, and a boot rack and shelves to be made from pallets as well as an old toy chest from my childhood to paint and use as a coffee table and blanket storage. The gaps are really oversized due to the hinging angles or the way the box was made so that urine would drain out so normal self adhesive door seals are not going to do it. Thankfully the rubber matting that we took off the sides is easy to cut and glue onto the metal frames with a strong glue. The rest of it I hope to reuse in the shower.

I have The Great Dane here to help me for about 3 days in the next 10, and I will need him to help me build all of the toilet and shower cubicle, the kitchen unit, and the decking, and bike parking. I don’t want to be a wimp and move the date back any further. Not only because it means losing income – much needed income – but because I feel like it’s admitting defeat and the project is too big for us. It has been a MUCH bigger project than I expected.
Are we on budget I hear you ask? Well I haven’t added it all up yet – but I am willing to go on a limb and say no. The only reason we have not gone over further than we have is because of the kindness of friends giving up their time and skills for nothing more than a BBQ at the end of the day.

At this point my biggest pointer for anyone wanting to try this is to make sure you have plenty of help. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have skills – many of us learnt to use a jigsaw, grinder and sander for the first time on this project! Most of this I only knew the theory on (thank the gods for YouTube!), but having friends to help hold, climb, paint, grind, sand, saw, drill, and even babysit has made it all possible for me to have a try, and stay close to target – weather and waiting for items to arrive in the post have held us up by about a week.
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Ok it’s now 12th July, and I have lost count of how long we’ve been at this, and how many obstacles – injury, illness, mechanical break down, other engagements etc

Don’t misunderstand – it will still definitely be cheaper to do it this way than buy a generic, characterless, prefabbed pod in, BUT if it isn’t finished in the next 10-14 days I’m going to tow it to Dornoch and throw it in the sea because I’m getting sick of it hanging over me as an unfinished project. We’ve not postponed anything, we’ve just worked it round all the other projects and events because I couldn’t face seeing the “to do list” get longer and miss out on fun like the family holiday and birthday parties etc (although mine was scaled down somewhat as I was just plain exhausted). It’s cost maybe twice what I thought it would now.

So where exactly are we at? Still need to get the outhouse done, but the plans for it are in place at least. All the bits except some more hammerite, some silver VHT paint and a sky light for the roof of the outhouse are paid for and bought – I should probably have my fire extinguisher from the horse lorry serviced as well. Muscle Man did manage to get day release from the garage to move the pod to the woods. The plans for the hot water fell through because the parts will take a month to order in and I can’t wait that long.

I still need to paint the mural, and ceiling and some wood work and furniture – in fact I still need to build some furniture….Oh and the ENTIRE out house.

August 8th
I thought we would have been finished roughly two months ago and right now I can still see at least two weeks of work left. I may as well have ordered those bloody bits for the hot water system. Reading back over the last entry – I was in absolute denial about what still needed to be bought. I’ve probably spent at least another £700 on the outhouse and I’m not done yet.
I still haven’t done the flipping murals or finished the ceiling – sigh.

The weather has not been kind to us. The recent 60mph winds really got in the way of roofing the outhouse – or “The Stall” as I have now decided to call it. Until the roof is on I can’t install the shower, or toilet, or the kitchen sink my daughter clevely made. We’ve had all kinds to deal with including the rear diff going on Muscle Man. He needed new shock, bushes and springs, a steering damper, whole rear axle and was garage bound for six weeks. When we went to the Scottish Land Rover show we had to take the Subaru. It didn’t feel right – it felt like cheating on Muscle Man and like being a total fraud/wannabe amongst the Landy owning crew in the campsite. The reason this was a pod problem though, was because it meant I couldn’t collect things we needed, and paying Highland delivery charges on each individual thing (generally £30 a pop starting price for delivery, needed about 100 things – no joke) bought online was not within budget at all. I needed the car to do the 100 mile round trip to Inverness and go get EVERYTHING I needed in one day – that just never happened. Little by little, as we were near places that were closer to home for various reasons, we managed to collect a lot of what we needed, and some is still to get. Also I had nothing to tow it to Dornoch and toss it in the sea with – which is probably the only reason we kept working on it. My back played up badly for a while too, and Poul did masses of overtime to pay for the extra expenses so momentum slowed to a couple of half days work on it a week.
Did I mention that the weather was S H I T…..?

Today I took on the corner of The Stall that I have been blithely ignoring thus far. It’s such a complicated place, and I think I was hoping fairies would come out and make it all perfect for me it at night if I kept pretending it wasn’t there. Strangely it was nowhere near as complicated to deal with as some of the things I thought would be easy. The Great Dane warned me again about that word I use so often “just”. The whole thing has been built with a an attitude of “just” rather than a just attiutde; “Just do it like this” , “just put it there”, “just bang it in – it’s too late to worry about things being level” are now my stock podding phrases. It was while I was being warned about the danger of a “just” containing sentence that I realised that this project has been completed with absolute attention to ignoring the details.

To be fair to us we’ve been up against it. Both the hammers we own are bent, REALLY badly, and one has no rubber handle on the end anymore so you have to hold it too high up or it will cut your palm. We have a rubbish saw and a 75% more rubbish saw – hand saws. The generator won’t work so no power tools, and the tape measure can’t be put fully away inside it’s housing or it gets stuck and can’t be got out without serious frustration and all of your coffee break. Also, the button for holding it out in place doesn’t work so after a meter or so it really needs two of you to work it. The screw gun is my hero – 12 well used years old and not got the best of bits because the screws easily eat them, so we take it really easy – it basically just saves me turning my wrist and there’s no other benefits. Sometimes I think doing it by hand would be easier as a screwdriver wouldn’t strain my arms so much when I’m working at funny angles.

That’s the whole problem really – the funny angles. That’s what I have been ignoring. I just bartered one of our foals for 7 bundles of prefab panels for sheds. I hope they’ll make 5 pods, an office, a reception/shop, and potentially a field shelter too. The greatest joy of these projects will be working with squares and rectangles (excepting roofs), because the pod is anything but, and even those that are, aren’t level. The trailer is a bizarre pointy arch along the top of the main part and then tapers into a nose. It’s also a mix of metal, and fibre glass. The Stall is wood and metal and PVC sheeting and joins on at the awkward nose where the teeny jockey door will give people a chance to get to the toilet without getting rained on or midged. The corner here where metal corrugated sheeting meets fibre glass at a strange angle, and wood has to be attached to aluminium that has the chimney for the stove coming through it, as well as managing to floor over the tow bar and scribe around the brake and jockey wheel, whilst keeping the angle for run off of rain, and incorporate a second valley to join the gutter, made me realise that this project had given us a really hellish learning curve. Surely the following pods will not be this hard to build?!

Last week I had the help of my friend who came up to stay for a week or so to give us a hand, for about the third time I think. She’s a good egg. She’s got a list of back and joint problems that mirrors and surpasses mine. We tend to find the weather effects us both badly and while she was up we had a couple of electric storms and an arctic blast. Bad enough in winter but aggravating at this time of year to our spirits as much as out joints. She helped me with many parts of it, and nearly put herself in hospital filling in the soak away with rocks three times the size of her own head. We even managed to figure out the trusses together. That felt good – it felt like we’d gained more adult points that day. On the very many times we sat back and admired our handiwork and it’s rough edges, I kept saying that I might put a reminder to guests before they review us, that this was built by a bunch of disabled women, kids, and a foreigner. None of us  with previous experience or qualification to do so. Just a mad idea on how to solve the eternal problem of making a living in a place you love with enough time left over to love it.

We’ve slogged at this, there’s been weather, sickness, injury, 6 weeks of car break down, many unmissable family events, small children, unworkable ideas, unbuyable materials, unaffordable delivery charges all in our way. Yet we have kept plodding at it – every day moving something forward a bit. As I type the partially painted top for the toilet takes up the middle of the living room floor, the room is to the rafters in pots, pans, towels, and furniture for this damn pod ( I really didn’t realise how much the interior was going to cost – we’re probably close to 2.5 times the budget now), so whether I have shopped, or researched, or just written the plan for the week repeatedly around the weather – I have always been chipping away at it. This week I am going to sacrifice the 3 days we had booked off to go away as a couple to celebrate our anniversary (a year since our engagement) but instead we are going to batter in to getting this finished ASAP. Ironically my first night in the pod may have to be my anniversary trip – that’s if I am lucky!

So what have I learnt so far?
Triple the budget
Double the time
If being on time matters, don’t work with funny angles.
Get better tools.13754425_1220539697970948_2205027196663780649_n