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I’ve been back in Ayrshire, where I grew up, for Christmas and New Year. It has been great to catch up with family and friends and I feel lucky to have reconnected with some people who I have not spoken to since leaving school.

Although I tend to have failed with my New Year’s resolutions come the end of January, I love the process of self-reflection and dreaming that help to construct the goals in the first place. 2012 was a really wonderful year and I feel like it has provided a strong platform for me to pursue my dreams in 2013. So with the aim of firming up my resolutions I set off on a well trodden path from my family home just outside Maybole to Culzean.

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This is a walk that I have taken many times and I feel like I could trace each burn and hedge along the way. Despite this familiarity I walked slowly and full of wonder the whole way. I’ll remember 2012 as the year I began to feel each moment and became hyper-aware of the input from each sense. It may not sound like much but this awareness makes even the most mundane times magical and helps to remind me of how lucky I am throughout the day. The only way I can describe it would be to liken the feeling to one where I am constantly experiencing things for the first time; the tone and shape of a cloud, the crash of a wave, seeing new life grow.

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If the aim of setting New Year resolutions is to help you move closer to your dreams then I can’t think of a better companion than I had today. Nature moves me away from measuring my success by what I ‘do’ and instead speaks to me about journeys…my journey to here and the journeys that lie ahead.

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Most of all I love the way nature helps me move beyond limits, whether imposed by myself or society more widely. As an example, while I was walking back a clearing in the woods appeared revealing the subtle outline of Arran with the Holy Isle more clearly visible just in front. The sea reflected the colours that had brought the sky to life. The view was breathtaking and I felt like nothing could have enhanced it. Just as that thought crystallised in my mind a buzzard that had until that point been hidden behind a bush 20 meters in front of me majestically spread its wings and soared into the sky. The silhouette of the buzzard against the oranges and purples of the sky was beyond what I could have imagined, an utterly perfect moment. It was like nature had seen the look of wonder in my eyes and said ‘Oh, that? You ain’t seen nothing yet!’

So with the wonderful 12 months that I have passed, that is the sentiment I take with me to 2013.

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When I talk to people about the Western Isles (or Outer Hebrides) most will identify Lewis and Harris as constituent Island and a smaller number will then go on to mention ‘the Uists’, Benbecula and Barra. There are however about 60 significant Islands that make up the Western Isles with about 15 of them inhabited year round. This weekend saw a visit to several of the smaller Islands as part of a trip across the Sound of Harris.

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The trip left from the Harbour at Leverburgh following a night in am bothan bunkhouse.

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The route weaved through the skerries between Leverburgh and the first Island of note- Killegray.

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At this point we stopped for lunch and met up with two paddlers who had joined us from North Lewis.

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By this point in the trip we had seen a fish eagle perched on a rock on Ensay as well as porpoises playing in the bay that Killegray overlooked. The crossing from Killegray to Berneray was made all the more enjoyable by a chance to play about on the surf.

This was the first time I had visited Berneray and arriving at the bunkhouse was incredible. It lies at the tail end of a beautiful sandy beach and looks just like you would imagine a Hebridean bunkhouse would…with thatched otter embellishment!

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I think my love of the outdoors can be explained almost entirely by the shared interest in eating extremely well which appears to be a common characteristic of lovers of the outdoors. Even by the high standards I have come to expect after my time with the PMC and CCCC the meal we had in the bunkhouse at Berneray was really special with everyone contributing something delicious- baked ham and pickled oranges, chili-blackened salmon, trifle, sticky toffee pudding, sangria, dhal…yum! My own contribution? The butternut bulgar wheat salad…

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It is utterly enchanting up here, which partly explains my lack of posts recently. As my friends who know me well would testify I am a geek…and quite comfortable with that. But I find more and more that I use magical metaphors to try and understand and assimilate the sense of wonder and awe I feel everyday here. I have lived and looked all over the world and nothing comes close to the natural beauty of these Islands. It is firstly apparent in the obvious places; the beaches, hills, forests and lochs. However I am now struck by a beauty that is on the one hand basic and elementary but at the same time subtle and hidden; colours that have labels but are impossible to communicate, sounds that feel like they resonate perfectly with each sinew in my body and simple shapes that seem impossibly natural.

I am not adverse to the mystical narratives I use when trying to comprehend what I see but I realise that they reflect a lack of genuine knowledge and understanding and come a poor second to the science behind my experiences up here. This feeling that science simply enhances the aesthetic experience has been articulated a number of times, but my favourite example is this clip of Richard Feynman.

I think what appeals to me most about the scientific method is that through my natural curiosity it leads me in so many different and unexpected directions, with each question elaborated on revealing a greater number of even more fascinating and awe inspiring questions.

I have also damaged my shoulder. This had lead to lots of introspection (as the preamble to this post demonstrates) and a reduction in engaging with the outdoors in many of the ways I would like. Another reason I have not posted recently.

There have been two very positive consequences of this minor injury.

The first is that I have spent more time socially with the folks up here instead of lying in a Bivvy Bag or Hammock waiting for the first rays of sun to signal that it’s time to turn on the stove. This has been with the Islanders ‘at large’ so to speak, dancing at ceilidhs or looking round the wares of the local artists in search of Christmas inspiration. But also I have been able to spend time getting to know some of the people that make these Islands so unique on a more personal level. For example this weekend I sat beside a fire in a cottage in a quiet bay of a sea loch with friends, ate well and then played guitar alongside a pianist, flautist and man of many instruments (none of which I could name!) to the local Strathspeys and Jigs. Nothing could have improved that night.

The second is that I am reminded of my first love which is to walk amongst quiet glens, alongside bubbling brooks and onto the peaks that dominate the landscape. Since arriving, the Horseshoe capped by Clisham has left me breathless every time I have gazed at it from the road between Harris and Lewis. With the Island having just experienced some of the first snows of the Winter, I made the drive to the valley that leads to the beginning of the Horseshoe at the weekend.

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What made the walk up the valley so appealing (apart from the magnificent vistas of the white ridge I was aiming for) was the varying flow of the river.

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Although there was no snow or ice on the first few miles of the walk I soon began to feel the satisfying crunch under foot which allowed me to make steady progress to the beginning of the horseshoe ridge- Mullach an Langa.

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The journey to the base of Mullach an Langa was very gradual, generally following Abhainn Sgaladail. The accent however was steep and the going difficult due to the covering of wet snow. As I looked ahead trying to figure out the easiest accent I startled an Arctic Hare which shot off up the hill in front of me. They are beautiful creatures and although well camouflaged against the snowy hillside, I was able to watch its effortless progress to the top. As I made my way up the path I had chosen would often meet with the hare’s and for the last 20 meters I followed it directly to the summit cairn.

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Staring out over the magnificent views from the summit of Mullach an Langa, it was difficult not to romanticise the journey up, and I found myself smiling that an Arctic Hare had been my guide to the top.

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I am now convinced that the tidings of horrendous weather that have become the standard reply to me raving about the Islands are designed to keep the picture perfect landscape here free from tourists. My last trip took me back to Tolsta beach where I have posted about on athomeinthehebrides previously. Once again I had the place to myself for most of the day.

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Tolsta is a great place to come as the car park is right on the beach and has facilities that makes sure the dunes and beach are kept pristine.

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When I arrived I bought a secondhand surfboard and I am still not convinced by it. That being said, as a beginner the majority of boards I have surfed on so far have been foam meaning that they are really easy to get up on and are less likely to hurt if you wipe out…which still happens a lot!

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I also brought my fins and snorkel so that I could have a look sub surface. During this time I managed to get a few of the waves and water…

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Despite the fact my wetsuit is only 3mm the water wasn’t unpleasantly cold and every time I go in up here I resolve to do it more often. Another source of inspiration to swim more in the open water comes from my friend Ella the Mermaid who is currently blogging about her preparation for her channel crossing which she is doing in aid of Cancer Research UK.…I’m not sure I could match her hours in the water but I’d sure like to swim in the sea up here a bit more regularly.

After drying off I headed out to the lighthouse at Arnish for a walk round the cliffs.

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The walk I go is fairly short (3 miles) but it usually takes me about 2 hours to do because I can’t help but stop to watch the waves crash on to the rocks or the different sea birds that inhabit the steep faces.

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Bernera paddle

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While it is true the chain of Islands that make up the Outer Hebrides share some fairly obvious commons features, it is amazing the different character available on each. My latest trip took me out to Great Bernera which until 1953 was only accessible by boat.

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The paddle itself took in a calm sea loch and then some open but sheltered sea.

I couldn’t believe how clear the water was and how full of life the bottom was. Perhaps my favourite part of the trip was seeing the tiny orange star fish that lined the bank of the sea loch.

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During our time in the sea loch we also saw otters and a Slavonian Grebe.

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Mike managed to get a little bit of film footage of the trip…

Conditions changed slightly in the open water and as the sun came down the paddling was simply magical!

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Austria and Slovakia

It has been quiet on athomeinthehebrides for a couple of weeks as I had my parents up and then spent a bit of time in Austria and Slovakia.

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The Uig-Tarbert ferry bringing my folks across.

Although offset slightly by the mountains of debt, my globe-trotting youth has left me with a stack of travel related books which means that when I do leave for a new destination I usually have a guidebook to cover it…

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On the Stornoway-Glasgow plane

The picture above makes me happy not just because of the frugality it encapsulates (free refreshments, re-used guidebook, reduced fare courtesy of the Air Discount Scheme for rural folk like me) but because I am so often tormented on the shorter flights to Barra and Benbecula where no refreshments are served. This is not a diva-esque complaint; I would be quiet fine to sit on a plane for 30 minutes without refreshment but for the fact that shortly after breaking the news there will be no refreshments the air hostess promptly makes herself a brew with enough time to dunk two packets of biscuits in!

The trip to Austria and Slovakia was for an Uncle’s birthday and it brought together family and friends from New Zealand, North America, UAE, South Africa, Sweden and other parts of the UK. Given the relative proximity of Austria to the Outer Hebrides I was a little surprised my total travel time was one of the longest.

Vienna was stunning…and although I don’t think I could go back to living in a big city full-time, I certainly enjoy being able to walk round them, stopping off for local tastes along the way…

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The place where I stayed in Vienna was also home to one of my favourite writers for a period too…

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While I am not a huge fiction reader his books about youthful adventure hold great appeal. I also find the various quotes attributed to him amongst my favourites…

Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.

It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not to deserve them.

Slovakia was a quite incredible experience that was heightened by the extravagant accommodation at Chateaux Bela ( not featured in my guide to Europe on a Shoestring!).

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While the fairytale surroundings and good living in Slovakia was ideal given the long hours I have been putting in a work since arriving up here, I did return to the Stornoway with a renewed vigour for exercise and healthy grub!

Lucky I have some of the most beautiful runs literally on my doorstep…better go!

Beautiful bothy

My mum is a tremendous cook and so when a request for baking came round for Breast Cancer Awareness month she was my first port of call.

“They are complicated!” mum warned when I asked for her famed Mallow Fridge Cake recipe.

“But there’s only four ingredients and no baking?” I urged.

I am still cleaning up after putting a batch together!

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Much less hassle was the caramel coconut slice…

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Both were gratefully received and sold alongside other donated goodies to raise money for a great cause.

I was also able to get a day’s fishing on the Garynahine Estate waters. The river was stunning with great pools holding a large number of wonderfully conditioned Salmon. I went with Mike Sullivan who basically does everything I love doing only exponentially better! Not only does he like canoe and kayaking but has written the definitive guide to the Outer Hebrides along with two friends. Like me Mike also climbs, unlike me his first accents can be found in national climbing guides. While in the tackle shop hopefully searching for a fly to help pull in a good-sized trout from the lochs I have visited I noticed a picture of Mike holding a cracking fish of several pounds that won him ‘fish of the month’.. What makes it worse is that he is also a really nice guy who has helped keep me right since arriving on the Island and managed to sort the fishing at Garynahine Estate for us. I’m sure you can imagine how the day turned out for Mike and I!

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The weekend itself has been fantastic…certainly one of the best since arriving on the Island. I met a writer on Friday night who had recently moved from England which led to an opportunity to explore some of his work on the Saturday morning. The writing was very good and was interspersed with small Polaroids from his travels, great stuff!

After that I met up with a few other members of the Canoe club and paddled out towards the mouth of the Creed from Cuddy point.

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Fortunately we had been practicing assisted rescue earlier in the week as a wave caught me off balance and before I knew it I was swimming.

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I also managed to do a bit more cooking outdoors which is something I’ve been able to do a lot more of since arriving here (see langoustines on the beach and the hammock trip for example)

My love for the outdoors is matched only by my love for food. Although I am happy to do the austere outdoor trips where I survive on thin shavings of leather from my hiking boots in order to stay light (well almost), I like where possible to dine just as well as I would indoors. And because this is the setting…

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…you end up eating meals which can’t be beat!

What made it more special was the opportunity to use the most beautiful bothy as a base.

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The starter was vegetable pakora with a light raita. I was aware that hot oil might not be an aroma to everyone’s taste and so these were prepared on the cliff just below the bothy.

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The main event was a butternut squash risotto with sage and pine nuts. Unfortunately the camera’s battery died before I could plate it up but the preparation was almost as wonderful as the finished dish.

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I’m not sure if you’ve seen the original Total Recall (I haven’t yet seen the remake)? Well I feel a little bit like Arnie in the sense that this life I am currently living is one I dreamt about for so long and a few extremely specific elements of ‘the dream’ may still come to pass (things that I have yearned for since a wee boy) and it does make me wonder if it is really happening or just something I may wake up from at any time.

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