The Old Man and the Sea

Reproduction of Norman Acroyd's by Alexander Gannet.
My study of Norman Ackroyd’s work. Mingulay Bay 2015

After a day, sheltering for the endless rain, we decide to explore the town a bit further and find ourselves a nice dinner. Dressed in our dark green rain ponchos we wander around Castlebay. We are desperate for a hot and spicy meal and walk into the Kisimul café, a small Indian restaurant with views over the castle. Unfortunately, all the empty tables are reserved for the night and we leave disappointed.

We ramble on, looking for an alternative restaurant. The choice is limited, in a tiny town like this. The desolate streets end quickly into the hills, so we return and climb the stairs to the Craigard Hotel. Hotels are not really our thing, especially after four weeks of peddling, a handful of showers in a cold creek, some crusty streaks of seaweed on the bottom of your trouser legs and wearing our most elegant rain gear. Indecisive, if we would like to eat there, we loiter around. Looking for a menu and some glimpses of the food being served.

“The food is good”, a smoky voice declares. We turn around and in a cloud of smoke we see an elderly chap wearing a shabby blue sweater and jeans, he is standing on his socks just inside the hotel door. With his friendly, but glassy blue eyes it’s hard to tell if the man is tired or just enjoyed a whiskey or two. We start chatting and learn that he rented the “Boy James”. For two weeks he makes boat trips around the Barra head isles with his family and friends. So we tell him that he must have passed us this morning while we were getting on the water near the deserted village on Vatersay with our kayaks.

This triggers his interest, he used to kayak himself when he was young. Now he is still fascinated by the outer edges of the British Isles formed by this chain of rocks, skerries and little islands. He has been close to a lot of them. For every remote island, we mention there appears a new twinkle in his eyes. The more we exchange about our sea journeys, the more exuberance and vitality inhabits the man. It’s funny how a love of remote little islands, the sea and an obsession for the ever-changing light, can turn a meeting into an instant connection. A connection based on shared experience of the solitude shared in the screaming of the seabirds, of this deep longing for this aesthetic enchantment in the architecture of the land and the isolation of being on the edge of everything. We enter the building together, and while we wait for a table we chat about our kayak trip. He is clearly impressed, telling his companions enthusiastically about what we talked about outside.

When the waitress comes, to tells us that our table is ready, we say goodbye. For starters, we choose the local cockles, harvested on the Barra beach that doubles as an airfield. We really enjoy the seafood. One of the fears of eating in hotels is that I’m still hungry after the last bite. Fortunately, this is definitely not the case today. By the time we are on our last few bits, the man and his entourage are seated by the waitress at a table close to ours. We recommend the cockles. When I spot a sort of sketchbook in the man’s hands. It showed signs ruffled pages like it is used for watercolours.

View on the cuillins, skye in magical hebridean atmosfeer refelected by a calm sea
Magical light in a mesmerizing Hebridean landscape

As the main course, we are served on a large and full plate and the salmon comes with a good dose of potatoes. A habitual smoker, as the man is, he walks to the hotel doorway again for a quick cigarette.
The conversation starts going back and forth again. I become more and more intrigued and curious by the big stack of paper he is carrying around. It looks like a home-made holy book, a precious volume that needs to be guarded. Being an enthusiastic watercolourist myself, I recognise that behaviour and bluntly ask if he is drawing and painting. He confirms my question, but the stack of drawings stays firmly by his side. I do not push on, understanding that it can be quite difficult to show someone else your fresh work. Only at the end of our dinner, when we leave and say goodbye I ask if I can find his work on the World Wide Web. One of the men in the group quickly respond and writes a name down followed by “.com”. I read slowly, “normanackroyd.com”, it does ring a bell, but I can not remember where I have seen it before.

Only a couple of days later, on the ferry back to Mallaig, I can use my phone to access the Wi-Fi and check out his website. I am very surprised, the watercolours are familiar. Half a dozen of his paintings are already on my phone. I had downloaded them a long time ago. I studied them, to learn from his incredible capacity to capture this beautiful Hebridean sea light in watercolour. And there I was thinking this man was a fisherman when we met at the doorway of a Castlebay hotel.

Later, at home, I learn that Norman Ackroyd is a very accomplished artist, his work in the collection of the Tate Gallery. I copied some of his watercolours to acquire a bit of his skill. If you would like to see some of his work check out the Eames Fine Art Gallery.

At the time of our meeting, he is 78 years old. But with this vitality, both in his work and life, the sea must be his elixir of life.

Alexander Gannet

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The zombie apocalypse.

Have you ever thought about what to do when zombies take over the world?

Arisaig beach with our kayaks on it.

Arisaig beach.

Neither did I until I met James on a beach in Arisaig.

We land our kayaks on that lovely beach on a glorious day, fully expecting not to have this gorgeous beach for our own. It is relatively close to the road and with this fine weather people will walk up to this white sandy beach with azure blue water. Just to get a Caribbean feel to your Scottish holiday.

We carry our kayaks above the tideline and change our outfit. Ready to meet the neighbours.
I found a lovely little green sea urchin and offered it to James. You know those people that you instantly connect with at first glance? It was like that with James and his girlfriend. You just know you can talk to each other for weeks without it getting boring.
James is a musician and Jen works as an architect in Edinburgh. We talk about holidays and how to spend it. He wants to know everything about kayaking and how we survive at sea, what we do for food.
When I find out that James is a blogger as well as a musician, I want to know everything about that. My secret ambition at that time is to start a blog. But I do not know how to start and to be honest, I find it all a bit daunting, I’ve never written before so properly am carp at it. My idea of social media is A-social media. So I’m not going to use it.
James encourages me by telling me he learned to write better during the years. And if I did not enjoy it I can quit any time. He has a point there. It got me thinking again. I do want to share my Scottish stories….

Fried seaweed on our stainless steal plate

A selection of fried seaweeds.

We gathered some varieties of seaweeds to experiment with earlier that day. And caught some fish. After cooking food we asked them over to join us in the seaweed tasting adventure. We put some coconut oil in the baking pan and fry the various seaweeds in it until crunchy.
The Dulse is a definite winner, fried until crunchy, it’s like a salty crisp and melted on the tongue. Surprisingly, Jap weed tastes like fatty mackerel, a bit smokey and oily and with its fine texture, a bit spaghetti-like. The larger leaves of the sugar kelp need some handing, it almost seemed to be afraid of the frying pan. It curls up when it comes in contact with the heat and the hot coconut oil. It results in some bits were nice and crispy while other bits are chewy. The Irish moss isn’t that big of a success, very chewy and tough. We knew it was supposed to be better in a bouillon but we gave it a try anyway.

It is lovely, sharing a whole new experiment, learning stuff.
But Scotland would not be Scotland if the weather didn’t spoil the party. Huge big drops of rain pour down on us and we rush into our separate tents but with new ideas and possibilities. The world has just grown a bit.

The next day when we pack our stuff and say goodbye to James and Jen. James tells us that he’s been thinking about our way of travel last night. And his conclusion was, ‘Now I know what to do when the zombie apocalypse comes, I just get into a sea kayak, do some fishing and gather seaweed.’

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If you squint real hard you just might see zombies marching onto the beach, a few beers might help aswell.

Charlotte Gannet

Dae ye ivver hiv days when – as hid draas tae a close- ye lukk back an realise ye’ve aachieeved absoluutly nutheen?

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Jimmy’s harbour as it looks in 2018

Don’t you just love Google Maps? It is a very useful tool to study the coastline of the Scottish Islands before visiting them. Dreaming away behind your computer before actually being there.
Based on the aerial pictures we look for suitable beaches to land the kayaks safely and avoid being trapped by slippery weed covered rocks when getting in at low tide. We judge the beaches on not being too close to houses or roads, a good escape at low tide and campground options. But beware, the beach can look good on the picture but can be rubbish in reality.

After studying the coastline of the island of Hoy at home we found out there were not many beaches suitable for landing our kayaks. But we found a little beach on the east side overlooking Graemsay and landed our kayaks on that beach at high water. In reality, it seemed to be some sort of harbour for small boats, something we missed while checking it out on Google Maps. The boats could only leave the harbour when the tide was in. There we met Jimmy and his best buddy Franky. Two nice elderly men who lived their entire life on the island. I and my friend started a conversation with him.

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This little bench is a good refelction of Jimmy himself.

A bit shabby looking in his unbuttoned checkered shirt over faded blue overalls and high waders covering his legs. He was leaning on his shovel, squinting his eyes to the late sunshine he took his time to talk to us in his thick Orcadian accent. Taking his time while Franky was labouring on.
I don’t think Jimmy had any teeth left in his mouth and the sounds he produced were recognisable as some sort of language. But he was very expressive with his wrinkled facial expressions and wide gestures. It turned out that he and his pal was digging out a harbour for their own benefit and for the local fisherman. Visiting sailors would have to pay for the privilege of using the slipway.

Jimmy would work twice a day at low tide to dig out the harbour. Rain or shine, at any time of the day/night, midge or no midge, with buckets and spades. He said had some bigger equipment coming to dig out the harbour a bit faster. At the same time, the contractors would do some construction work.
He was paying for this project out of his own pocket and with a lot of elbow grease. And he had his trusted friend Franky helping him.
I knew exactly what his wife thought of the entire enterprise. Totally bonkers. But the work would keep him occupied and out of the house.

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In 2012 the digging of the harbour is was in full swing.

My friend never knew what the man was talking about and left the conversation early. Me, on the other hand, fell a bit in love with the elderly chap. He was so passionate about his project. Committed to his job, going on against the odds. You got to admire that kind of tenacity.

Now read the title of this story again. Read it slowly and out loud as it is written. Now you have a taste of the Orcadian accent. What I have learned from talking to this toothless elderly chap is that in order to understand what he is saying, you got to listen to the words you do understand. But the most important thing to do is watch the gestures and body language and expressions on the face. Most of the time that will help you to fill in the gaps of bits you missed in the conversation. However, the most important thing is to listen with your heart without any judgement and the intention of really wanting to understand the other.

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The harbour in 2018, the boys have realized their ambition.

Charlotte Gannet

 

The man with bad make up.

This story is a followup on ‘I’m a weirdo and I know it’

‘Lets camp over there, at the blue car’,
‘What blue car?’ I haven’t got my glasses on so any detail in the landscape is a blur to me.
With a deep sigh, Alexander starts a description of the landscape. As always, I just don’t see it, even if I had my glasses on.
‘How did a blue car end up there, is there a road going there?’
‘No. Must be washed up there by the sea.’

As we paddle closer the picture changes. It is like looking at clouds and see what kind of shapes they make. Could it be blue plastic barrels? No, washed up plastic sheets?

The closer we come the odder the scene becomes, the heather and the Rowantree, the grass, it looks a bit unnatural. And suddenly we see a head of a man looking over one of the walls, looking angry at us. Is he going to throw rocks at us? And why is he wearing makeup?

‘What do you want!’

‘I am sorry,’ Alexander answered, ‘We were looking for a place to put up our tent for the night. But we will find another beach. Sorry for bothering you.’
This seems to be the right password. The man comes from behind the wall. I expected a big bloke, but this small man appears. He is wearing an interesting combination of a blue T-shirt and skinny orange spotted legs in big yellow wellies.
‘No, it is fine. Hi, my name is Tom. I apologize for my rudeness just now. A few nights ago I had some intruders who also came by kayak, they ignored me completely. I don’t want that to happen again.’

I get out of the kayak and shake his hand. On closer observation, he has blue eyes tattooed on his eyelids and black spots on his face. This is not a young man, he must be close to 60. I’m bursting with curiosity, but it seems inappropriate to ask a question about it just now. Alexander and Tom are chatting and I am can’t help just looking at the man. What, how, when, WHY…?

‘When you are ready, pop over to the house for tea. I will put the kettle on.’
And he walks away. What house? The derelict bothy could hardly qualify as a house.
‘Wow’, I say to Alex when he left, ‘What a character. He sounds so English, did you see his legs?’
Alexander and I change into dry clothes, put the kayaks above the high tide line and have lunch. We want to know everything about this man. How did he end up on this east coast beach on Skye?

A derelict bothy, the kind that Tom Leppard used to convert to a shelter

A ruined bothy, the kind that Tom had converted to a shelter where he could live in.

We walk over the carefully laid out narrow pebble paths in the same direction as Tom had disappeared. The blue plastic we saw from the water, turns out to be the roof cover for a low shelter made from the leftovers of the old bothy. A strong incense smell comes from a doorway.
‘That is for keeping the midgies at bay’, Tom explains.

We enter the narrow doorway and walk in a narrow room which looks like a kitchen. There is a rough wooden work surface covert with a heavy plastic sheet. Some creative use of wooden crates and stones make shelving to put his food supply in. He has a gas burner and several plastic wash basins and a colourful mix of plastic fisherman gloves. A small opening in the wall shows us another narrow room which acts as a bedroom just big enough to stretch out in. More wooden fish crates used as shelving, a black sleeping bag on a mattress. Several books and knick-knacks on the shelves and no pictures.
I am soaking up the entire scene before me. It strikes me how clean and organised the place is.

‘Coffee or tea? Tom asks. ‘Or would you rather have a beer, I also have a white Chardonnay.’
We squeeze ourselves on some improvised seats in the cramped kitchen. On the gas burner, he cooks water for coffee.
‘I’m ex-military, I served in Zaire, now called Congo, Rhodesia and South Africa. I got out in the 80ies when Maggy was in charge. I could not find a job and found civilian life difficult, so I thought “If I look like a freak and live like a freak, people will want to pay money to take pictures of me or to write about me”. So I got tattooed as a leopard.’
‘Why a leopard print?’ I ask curiously while looking at a long orange spotted arm passing me on eye level as he pours the water on the instant coffee.
‘It is the thing that the guy holding the tattoo machine could do best. And I was fine with that. But the whole thing did not go according to plan. Those management guys in London did not care about me and sent no-one to meet me.’
Really, is that the whole reason behind the choice of tattoo? So, he could have been covered with butterflies? At the same time I feel sorry for him about his big plan falling through.

‘What brought you to this east facing beach with the only sun in the morning?’ Alexander asks.
‘This had a town nearby, this bothy and fresh water, looked like I could live here, so I stayed. Twenty years now this summer.’ He avoids looking at us and stares at the 2 steaming coffee mugs. I quickly glance at Alexander and see the amazement I feel, reflected in his eyes.

‘What do you do for food?’ This I really want to know. For me, good food is important to keep up moral. I sip my coffee and look at Tom expectantly.
Well, I paddle across to town with my two kayaks. I paddle in one and fill the other up with stuff. I tow it behind my back to my beach. I shop when I need to.’
He starts to chuckle: ‘Once I had to go across and on my way back the sea was too rough. The ferry scooped me right out of the water and brought me to my beach. With kayaks and all!’
The smile revealed surprisingly healthy looking teeth, only one tooth is missing but the face relaxes a bit.
‘But what do you eat?’ I try again. I’m so full of questions but don’t want to overwhelm him.
‘I have a can of vegetable at seven o’clock in the evening. I drink two pints of beer in the morning, two pints at 12, and a rum at four o’ clock. I do buy cheese and corned beef to feed my gul.’
‘Don’t you eat bread or pasta, potatoes perhaps?’ I ask in wonder.
‘Carbohydrates will make me fat!’ he answers with conviction in his voice.
He did not have much meat on his bones. In fact, he is a tiny little man. This food regime must be working. But what about that amount of alcohol? Is he an alcoholic trying to forget certain things? But I don’t dare to ask him, he looks so fragile. How far can I push him with my questions?

‘But there is a whole sea with fish, don’t you fish? Alexander asks in amazement.
‘Cleaning fish is very messy, I don’t like messy, so I don’t eat fish.’ Tom answers practically.
‘And what about a fire?
‘I heat my can of veg on my gas burner, I’m perfectly happy with that.’
‘Not even for warmth?’ Alexander tries again.
‘If I am cold I go and lay down in my sleeping bag, but it doesn’t get very cold up here. Besides, making fires is always very messy.’

‘I’m sorry for not talking very clearly, my tongue is quite out of practice. I don’t get a lot of people around to talk to,’ Tom apologises. ‘Besides, I already talked enough for a lifetime while I was in the army, I don’t want to talk much anymore with people.’

‘Don’t you get lonely here, all on your own?’ I ask carefully.
‘No,’ He reply fiercely. ‘I used to have a job in the youth hostel in Kyle of Lochalsh but I gave that up. You know, I attract the wrong kind of attention with my looks. I’ve been beaten up on a few occasions. I don’t want that to happen anymore.’

A combination foto of the elderly Tom Leppard and an insert of his younger self

A combined photo of the elderly Tom Leppard with and insert of his younger self.

We visited him whenever we were in the neighbourhood. He would recognise us and called us “The Dutch”, but never remembered our names. There were some topics of conversation he did not like to talk about. Religion and a certain meeting he had with a German girl. There were things that were bothering him but we did not dare to ask him about. He looked so sad when the conversation went that way.
At 60 he was still looking good and was strong enough to keep the lifestyle going. Going towards his 70 he could not keep it up. He could not manage the boats to get his shopping so he went more often. The guys from the nearby fish farm were keeping an eye on him as well as the people in Kyle of Lochalsh. It was touching to see how a community takes care of someone who has chosen to live in isolation. Not the odd one out but the odd one in.
Eventually, he was offered a flat in Bradford, a small town just over the Skye bridge on Skye. We wondered how he would adapt to living in a house and all its comforts.

We found out that Tom died of old age in June 2016 at the age of 80.

P.s. Slow traveling is meeting people in their own environment. It is not always fitting to ask for a picture in that situation and we did not feel the need for it at that moment. Tom Leppard is in our memory but now, with people reading this story they can hardly believe or imagine how he would look like, is he real?

If you like to check real images, checkout the video https://youtu.be/g8-cbPLEZ58
or google images (tom leppard skye)

https://www.google.nl/search?q=tom+leppard+skye&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi828G4pYLbAhUBzqQKHfOgBa4Q_AUICigB&biw=1536&bih=760

‘Do you know where the shipwreck is?’

View over Calvary island where the SS Politician's bow should lay

View over the Sound of Eriskay and Calvary island.

Asked a woman when Alexander was just standing outside the tent. He turned around to see a family consisting of mum, dad, two dogs, a son and a daughter wearing purple wellies and a pink raincoat. I peeked through the tent-opening and saw the girl hopefully looking up to Alexander, smiling, showing teeth too big for her small face. The long blond hair peeking out from under the rain hoody.

How on earth got this little girl, with her family, in the rain on this outcrop of the island? And I in my mindeye I began to see the story that brought her to this spot.

I Imagined how she went with mum and dad to the pub for lunch yesterday. It was alright, fish and chips and her favourite soft drink, which she drank slowly with a straw while watching the raindrops trickling down the windows of the pub. The island Eriskay is boring for a girl like her at that age, the pub is boring, her brother definitely was boring.
While mum and dad were having coffee she looked at the black and white pictures on the wall. A boat with a load of people around it.
There was an elderly man in the pub with a few stories to tell.
‘You know what that is?’ Asked the elderly man with a pint of beer sitting next to the picture.
She shook her blond head with the straw still in her mouth.
‘Well, it’s the SS Politician, she was on her way to Kingston in Jamaica with a shipload of whiskey on board when she came in a pretty bad storm. In the early hours of Thursday, 5th of February 1941, just of Roshinish point, 150 yards from Calvary island. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was just a wee lad of 8 years old…

ss politician in full glory

The SS Politician in better days.

Mesmerized she must have been listening to the man, was it the soft Gaelic accent or the tone of his voice? It was as if she was there in 1941. The Islanders opening their houses for the shipwrecked crew. How the islanders smuggled the bottles of whiskey from the shipwreck. How they played tricks on the customs men and the police when they were hiding the whiskey and other stuff they looted from the ship. How everyone on the island was drunk for a month…. Her little-girl world suddenly became adventurous and exciting.
And as a proud Eriskay islander he ended his story with:
‘If you are very lucky you might find a whiskey bottle somewhere on the island. Not all were found again, you know, after hiding them,’ he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
‘You can still see the shipwreck today, just on the northeasterly tip of the island at low tide.’
The man looked around with a knowing smile and taped with his wrinkled finger under his eye. The entire pub was silent. The girl snapped out of the enchantment when everyone started clapping and thanking the man for the story.

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Islanders with their little boats full of goodies

‘Mum’, she asked as they were driving home to the self-catering cottage, ‘can we go and see the shipwreck tomorrow?’
‘Well, I don’t know. Let’s see what the weather is like. I thought we were going to Kildonan museum’
‘But I want to see the shipwreck’, she whined pouting her lip.
‘We will see tomorrow morning.’

That evening she was drawing pictures of the sea and a purple boat with smoke, a big rock and small boats and a rainbow with ‘Whisky Galore’ written in it. I imagine mum had to help with the writing.

Early that morning when some daylight was hesitantly poking through the curtains, she heard the soft rain on the roof. She tiptoed barefoot in her pink pyjamas through the house to her parent’s bedroom and slipped into the bed, to snuggled up against to her mother’s warm body as little girls do.
‘Can we go to see the shipwreck today’, she asked softly.
Her mother moaned and stirred a little.
‘Talk about…breakfast’, mum said in half sleep and sighed deeply.

‘What are we going to do today?’ her brother asked while having breakfast
‘Well, your sister wants to see the shipwreck.’
‘But it’s raining and I thought we were going to the Kildonan museum. She always gets her way, it is unfair.’
‘We might be able to combine the two, besides, we will have to walk the dogs’
‘I don’t want to see a stupid shipwreck’, her brother said and folded his arms over his chest.
‘Too bad, you don’t have to look at it, you can do the dog walking while we go and see the wreck. Deal?’

She did not care about the rain and put on her purple wellies and pink raincoat. She skipped and hoped from stone to stone. Flew up and down the hill, running after the dogs, while mum and dad walked with bend head against the wind and rain in their wellies. The north-east side of the island was in view, almost there!

On her way to the the remote landpoint there was a tent, a man standing outside of it and a woman peeking her head out the small opening.
‘Do you know where the shipwreck is?’ asked mum. ‘It should be around here somewhere.’
‘Well, I haven’t seen one’, said the man,‘and we came from South Uist yesterday by kayak.’
‘Oh, I see.’ She looked at her daughter from whom face the expectant smile was dripping off. Shoulders sagging down with disappointment.
‘Is it low water yet?’ Mum asked.
‘Yes, thereabouts. It still has 1 hour to go.’

She walked onto the beach. It must be there, it must be! That old man said so.’ Her little wellies were slowly sinking in the soft sand, the rain drizzled down on her raincoat. Was the water still going down? There were no big waves, the wreck should be visible any minute now.
‘Mummy, what time is it?’
‘We still have 15 minutes to low tide.’
‘There is no shipwreck, is there?’ she said staring at the water with tears in her eyes.
‘I don’t think so, honey’ her mum said softly.
She wiggled her wellies out of the sand, turned around resolutely. And walked away with angry steps. On her way she passed 2 kayaks, one was purple, her favourite colour, but she did not take a second glance at the bloody stupid plastic things.

View over Calvary island with the kayaks

View over the Sound of Eriskay with kayaks.

Without waiting for her parents and brother she walked back in de direction where she came from, yelling over her shoulder, ‘I never want to go to back to that pub, again!’

Her words echoed over the water, reaching the two kayakers at the tent, who simultaneously looked up, where they saw the little girl running over the hills and yelling to the big, big sea.

I’m a weirdo and I know it

Self made dwelling of Tom Leppard, leopard men of Skye, on a remote shore of Skye

Visiting Tom Leppard on Skye

What is that? Two kayaks are approaching the beach? Oh no, not today. He thinks back to an evening three nights ago when a couple in kayaks landed on his cleared beach. He had totally been ignored then. He’s not going to have that again! He’s going to scare them off by looking angry behind a wall.

That morning he stretched, touching the rough dry stone wall with his feet and hands, as he does every morning. The light was flowing through the blue plastic tarp used as roof coverage. He doesn’t know what time it is and he doesn’t care, when daylight comes it is time to get up.He pulled his knees up and swung his body towards the narrow entrance to the small kitchen area. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he reached for the neatly folded clean clothes on the shelf and got dressed. Turning around he made his bed in the tiny bedroom. To call this a bedroom was an overstatement, the space hardly fit his mattress.
The book, that he is rereading for the tenth time, went back on the shelf above the bed. In its right place in alphabetical order.

In his tiny kitchen, he reached for a half pint of lager. Grolsch nowadays, a Dutch brand, he had gotten fed up with cider. He learned that beer roughly has the same nutritional value as bread. Both carbohydrates. Bread doesn’t keep as well as beer and he likes the taste of beer better, so the choice was easily made. He opened another can of beer while he walked out through the plastic flap which acts as a door. The early sunshine tickled his face. It was so relaxing to feel the warmth on his body. He’d better make the most of it, the sun would be behind the hill at noon. He crumpled his beer cans into neat little packages and stowed them in the designated trash bags.

He walked back into the kitchen of his shelter, rough cut planks formed a narrow kitchen counter covered in plastic.On wooden shelves and in cupboards were all his meager possessions stored. Satisfied that everything was organized and clean, he sat down on the edge of the bed and scratched his chin.
He knew he was getting older. Things were taking more of an effort nowadays. He wondered how long he could keep up this lifestyle. But he had no regrets. Not about his tattoo, nor about living out here alone. He still held the Guinness Book of Records title for being the most tattooed senior citizen. He had the full body tattoo that transformed him into a leopard, done in the eighties when he came out of the military service. It had cost him 5.500 pounds, an investment in the idea that ‘If I live like a freak and look like a freak, people will want to pay money to take pictures of me and write about my life’. But it did not work out that way. No, he was not sorry about that. He didn’t want too many people around anyway.

He felt the stubble under his fingers and reached up to his scalp. A shave was in order. With a bowl under his arm, he walked out his shelter to get some fresh water from the stream a few meters away.
Carefully he walked back. In front of the mirror, he lathered the shaving cream with a brush on his chin. He looked at his reflection while he scraped off the foam and stubble from his face with a cheap disposable razor while making funny faces.
On closer inspection he saw that the leopard spots were fading, every day a bit less vibrant, although the black and blue are still clearly visible, the orange was getting less and less visible.
He put the shaving foam on the top of his head and shaved that stubble off too. He knew his hairline is receding, but the black spots and dots made that barely noticeable.
With the last two strokes, he shaved off his eyebrows, bringing out the black tattooed ones.

watercolour painting made by Alexander Gannet of Tom leppard

Tom Leppard watching 2 kayakkers approaching.   (watercolour by Alexander Gannet)

He walked along the shoreline. There was nothing much on the beach except some plastic bottles. After a storm, he usually found good timber, which he could use to improve his shelter, and sometimes valuable things, like big plastic crates lost by fishing boats or ropes and strings. During the years that he lived here, he has cleared the big boulders from the beach to below the low water line. He enjoyed the sight of the clean small red pebble beach and on the practical side, it made an easy landing for his shopping laden kayaks.
He walked back to the shelter via his manicured garden through a labyrinth of small red pebbled paths, passed sculpted heather plants and pruned Rowan trees. The grass looked a bit too wild and needed some clipping. So he decided to do a bit of gardening in the afternoon.

It was Wednesday, washing day according to his activity planner. Not to get too wet, he changed into a short-sleeved shirt and tiny aqua blue thong and slipped into his big yellow wellies. The combination with his skinny spotted orange legs was striking. It was like he was wearing a leopard print leotard, but this one never came off.
The freshwater stream near his shelter ended in a small waterfall before it flowed into the sea. He got the fish crate from the top step of the waterfall and with his huge big hands, too big in comparison to his small body, he started to wring out the washing. He hung the wet washing outside in the sun and checked the clothes on the indoor washing line. Dry enough, he folded it, stuck it into a plastic bag and stored it.
He put yesterday’s clothes into the free fish crate, replaced the fish crates and put today’s crate on the bottom of the waterfall.

The sun passed behind the hill. Lunchtime, two pints of lager again. He sat outside staring over the water to the town of Kyle of Lochalsh. Tomorrow he would need to paddle over with his kayak to town, to do some shopping, his supplies are getting low. He needs food for a couple of weeks again.
There was that bloody gull again. It was like the bird had a watch. It was always there at the same time. He shuffled into the shelter and got a can of corned beef, opened it, cut it into pieces, fed the bird, while he drunk his beer. He watched the bird gobbling down the meat before another gull came to steal it away. For ten minutes he enjoyed the company of the bird and then it flew off.
He sat there staring over the water for another hour, it was a quiet time, almost meditative.

Standing behind the washing wall, he watched a man and a woman landing their kayaks on the beach. What is that language? It sounds familiar. South African or Dutch?
‘Hello’, the man said, Do you live there? Shall we move on and leave you in peace?’
‘No, no’, he hears himself say, ‘It is fine. Hi! My name is Tom.’
To be continued…..

Charlotte Gannet

P.s. Slow traveling is meeting people in there own environment. It is not always fitting to ask for a picture in that situation and we did not feel the need for it at that moment. Tom Leppard is in our memory but now, with people reading this story they can hardly believe or imagine how he would look like, is he real?

If you like to check real images, checkout the video

or google images (tom leppard skye)

How to improve your mermaid spotting skills.

One of the seven metal gates closing the former salt cellars at Wick Harbour depicting a mermaid based on childrens pictures

One of the seven metal gates closing the former salt cellars at Wick Harbour

Paddling around this enchanting landscape of the Scottish coastline, illusions of magical creatures under the waves start floating around in my head. It is almost tangible that there must be mermaids around.
Mermaids, sirens and selkies are all part of the seafaring folklore. They have been depicted at maps of the world from the middle ages. Shakespeare wrote about them in a midsummer night’s dream. Columbus reports having seen mermaids in the Caribbean. Although he thought the mermaids he saw, were ugly, mermaids are usually considered as gorgeous and seductive creatures. Nowadays the coffee brand Starbucks has a mermaid logo. So I’m not the only one with this fascination for these lovely half humans. I definitely want to find one and ask if she wants to go on a selfie with me.

But where to look for those shapely, long-haired, fishtailed women with enchanting singing voices of the deep in real life?

To find an answer to that question I start a scientific investigation to find mermaids in Scottish waters. What comes close to a woman’s figure? A dolphin or an otter?
The only creature that I can think of is a seal. Especially the harbour seal with its lovely round face and big dark eyes, though I’m not sure about the cubby body and bald head.
They love to sunbathe on the rocks and stones near the sea and curl their body, tail up, in a banana-shaped form just to have a good look at the approaching boats.
They swim close to the shore and are very interested in humans, they pop up right behind our kayaks just to have a curious look at us. But they are quite shy and when I look around, they quickly dive underwater. Very mermaidish behaviour if you ask me…

Sunbathing seals on a rock acting mermaidish

If you  use your imagination and squinted realy hard….

Perhaps I am looking at the wrong time of day, maybe I should look for mermaids at twilight or in semi-sleep moments.
The only sound I hear are the cries of the seals, which is similar to a howling dog, not very attractive to listen to. But no beautiful singing women’s voices.

Perhaps I’m in the wrong state of mind.
So I sat on the beach and try to find the 14th-century person in me and be more superstitious and open up my vivid imagination. Every unexplainable thing that is happening I will contribute to ghosts, monsters or gods. Expectantly I pear over the water and beaches, will I see a mermaid? One night does not yield any result, the mermaids are elusive, I sit there for 14 nights…
Alas, too much education I’m afraid. Science in that sense killed off all the monsters of the past.

Perhaps I’m not tired or hungry enough.
‘No’ I said to Alexander. ‘No food today, I want to see mermaids! This is a scientific investigation, very serious’.
He looks at me amused. ‘Have it your way’ he replied.
During the day I felt my energy dwindling. Yes, it is working. I should be seeing mermaids this evening’ I thought delighted.
I was getting behind and paddling slowly and in no fit state to pull the kayak above the tideline.
‘How is the experiment going?’ Alexander asked interestedly.
‘Brilliantly, I’m getting in the right state of tiredness and hunger.’ I answered enthusiastically but feeling absolutely lousy.
It all went downhill when Alexander started cooking. The smell of the food was too much for me. I could not resist and wolfed down the entire pot of pasta, only leaving scraps for Alex.
No backbone to endure the hunger experiment. And no mermaids.

Perhaps I need to be ill.
The perfect opportunity came when I had a blister gone bad and needed antibiotics badly. In a stupor of fever and medicine, we went out for a paddle. The only thing that happened is I tumbled over out of my kayak and no bloody mermaid came to rescue me.

Perhaps I’m not drunk enough.
Sitting on the beach with a bottle of whiskey I try to get drunk. I’m not a practised drinker so a few sips will make me completely lala. A perfect state of mind to see mermaids. The world went woozy, I saw a lot of falling stars and then passed out on the beach. Damn, I just need to practise more….

Perhaps I’m not desperate enough.
An abstinence of sex must be sufficient for me to see mermaids, shouldn’t it? I mean, all those 14th-century guys didn’t see a woman for months. They must have been pretty desperate and crave sex. They would jump everything that looked remotely female, desire makes everything look good even bald, chubby seals with moustaches on their faces.
Five weeks, I think, is not sufficient time to try this one in order to see mermaids. And I’ve got a man lying next to me in a tent. Too much temptation, I think I pass this one in my investigation.

Watersplash, just missed the mermaid

Was it really there!?

To wrap up my personal research I must conclude that having a vivid imagination, or being hungry, tired, ill, or drunk in itself is not a sufficient condition for seeing a mermaid. We have not ruled out however, that they might be a necessary condition for seeing a mermaid.
Therefore my recommendation for further research is to test whether a combination of these factors might bring flocks of mermaids to life. For the single traveller, the abstinence of sex could be a very promising field of further investigation. So many sailormen and fisherman can not have been wrong in the past for seeing mermaids, can they?

Charlotte Gannet

Foraging companionship and the taste of seaweed

Crispy seaweed, baked in the fryingpan by Charlotte Gannet

“Do you know the different types of seaweed?” the guy asks, he’s one of the 14 nephews and cousins we just met. They stay in the large house for the yearly work party on the currently unpopulated island of Ensay or Easaigh in Gaelic. Standing side by side, the house and chapel shape the deep sandy bay on the east side of the island surrounded by the fast flowing water of the Sound of Harris. He is lucky, this year I had decided to learn the names of the seaweeds we normally encounter and brought an identification guide to the most common seaweeds. Brian, the guy just asking about the seaweed is interested in eating them.

I know my seaweeds in a way. I know the different species by their toughness because I like to tie my kayaks to them. I also recognise them by their slipperiness by just carrying heavy boats over them. Especially Charlotte is very good in the sliding bit. But most importantly I used them as my watch. Each seaweed species identifies a period in the rise and fall of the water and by knowing the high and low water times of the tide it easy to derive the time from them. This year their names interested me and during the trip, I took little expeditions with my identification chart to name some of the seaweeds. I had hopes that with the names I could find recipes to cook them in the future.

View over Ensay house, chapel and standing stone taken by Alexander Gannet

So I said “yes” to Brian “I know some seaweeds” and we decided on a foraging trip at low tide the next day. One of the other nephews joins; he wants to find razor clams. We had heard about the trick of sprinkling salt around the holes that appear in the sand at low water. For us, this is normally a problem, because salt is a commodity that we don’t carry in a quantity that is useful for hunting razor clams. They have plenty of salt in the house so we give it a try. We are not very successful and with hindsight, I think we didn’t find the right holes. Apparently, you have to look for keyhole like shapes in the sand to find your meal of razor clams and we only found round ones.

After a while, we started going through the seaweeds on the rocks left and right of the beach. Not only collecting the Sea Lettuce (Ulva lactuca) and Dulse (Rhodymenia palmata) but also Common periwinkles from between the different types of Wrack. He returns the favour by inviting us into the large kitchen. There is a nice atmosphere in the house. The large group of people, mostly in their 20s hanging relaxed and loose on chairs and in couches. They join in small groups for all kinds of activities. Some fanatically play games on the table beside the window and others sing accompanied by the sound of a guitar, a nephew takes his fishing rods and goes out for some rock fishing. Brian is joined by one of his nieces and starts experimenting with cooking and frying the seaweeds. He goes around like a chef, tasting and then trying something else. This is the part we never tried, afraid that we would burn the non-stick coating of our frying pan. When he is happy with the results he prepares the whole bunch of seaweeds. The blanched Sea lettuce radiates a bright green colour while the Dulse is a crispy snack fried in very hot oil.

At dinner time everybody joins around the long table in the kitchen. Our bounty of the foraging trip proudly presented as the appetiser before dinner. Everybody agrees on the fried Dulse, it tastes delicious. I judge the Sea lettuce as okay but not so special as the Dulse. Eating periwinkles, however, is for some a little bit too much, the idea of eating snails turns their smiles into expressions of disgust.

This problem is quickly solved by those who like them. It involves some work to gather around 70 periwinkles on Ensay. Usually, it is not a big problem to collect them and it is the amount Charlotte and I normally would eat together with a glass of cider. With 14 people, however, this only accounts for five periwinkles per person. The leftover periwinkles are quickly gathered and redistributed to the people who enjoy their flavour.

Charlotte Gannet picks out a cooked periwinkle out of its shell

After dinner and some tea, we leave the group and head back to our tent. What a wonderful day, just sharing and learning with a person you’ve never met before and meet on an “uninhabited” island. We should add seaweeds to our diet because we now experienced how delicious they taste.

If you look for a simple seaweeds identification chart you can use one from the Field Studies Council (FSC). This is an environmental education charity providing informative and enjoyable opportunities for people to discover, explore, and understand the environment.

http://www.field-studies-council.org/publications/pubs/seaweeds-identification-chart.aspx

Alexander Gannet

Alexander’s boat

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It was the most dreich of dreich days. In the fifty shades of rain common to Scotland, this rain curtain had droplets thicker than mist but with the same density of mist. Weather to stay in the tent for a day.

‘Hello, good morning.’ We hear someone say.

Alexander opened up the tent. Outside our tent stands a friendly old man, a teenaged boy and an energetic dog.

‘I saw your tent yesterday evening, but it was already late. I thought it was better to greet you this morning.’ the old man starts.

We get out of the tent in full rain gear and start chatting. The old man, not wearing any rain gear and also called Alexander, told us how he took over the fishing shack and boat from his elder brother. Fishing for lobster to supplement his pension. At times he will fish for Pollock and bring some of the catch to the elderly in the community up the road. The twelve-year-old boy is helping him, just to have some entertainment in the summer holiday.

‘Are you going out today, fishing for the lobsters?’ I ask.

‘Yes, there are a few pods in the bay that need emptying but the tide is going out and I’ve got to fix the boat. The engine is not running great.’ He answered.

‘I love to see how it works, can we join you on your boat, this afternoon?’ I ask expectantly. ‘Och aye, if I get the old girl fixed.’ He said, pointing to the boat.

Patiently we wait in the shack, the boat is apparently not easily fixed. Time enough to make some good pictures of Alexander’s boat. The boat lies on its side most of the afternoon, waiting for high water. Just when we expect that it will not happen and start planning dinner, the old Alexander is ready to go out.

It is great, we haul some creels like a real fisherman at work on a lobster boat. Four of the lobster and two crabs are kept aside, they are missing some legs or claws.

‘They are dinner.’ The old Alexander decides. The rest of the lobsters are stored in the holding cages close to the shack.

We return after 22.00 o’clock. Back in the shack, Alexander cooks the lobsters and the crabs. We are provided with an old rusty hammer and two lobsters each. We crack this luxurious food on the dirty wooden floor. The funny thing is that Alexander does not join in this lobsters eating feast. He prefers his dinner with white bread and baked beans. We end the evening at midnight with a wee dram of whisky.

It was a great day, meeting people, learn something new, share a meal in the most dreadful weather ever.

As a tribute to this lovely elderly chap, my younger Alexander made a watercolour of his boat.

Charlotte Gannet

High water at home

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This week, in the Rhine close to home, water did rise to 12.40m NAP (approx. sea level). To give you a reference to my floor in the living room is at 10.60m NAP. Don’t worry, we are still dry behind the dykes This water level, which is a once in every five-year event, only flows over the summer dykes. The winter dykes can keep on other 3 m of water at bay.

For us, kayakers, it gives a nice expanse of water and a whole new territory to explore. Today was beautiful, the light was changing constantly. I explored the nature area Meinderswijk, close to Arnhem.

So, just to share this enjoyable moment, an extra blog post with some photos and a small video of the Beaver that passed by.

Enjoy Alexander.

 

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