Escaping to Skye: leaving urban life behind

Inspired by the wild landscape and yearning for a lifestyle closer to nature, artist and marine conservationist Katie Tunn moved from London to Skye. After spending a year taking part in Channel 4's social experiment Eden, Katie has returned to Skye. In her new blog series she shares tales of island life

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After my first visit to Skye, I returned to my busy London life, but increasingly found my thoughts turning, like a compass, to Skye’s icy crystal waters and wild velvety green hills. I couldn’t forget the remote landscape, incredible wildlife or rich colour of heather on the hills. 

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Katie Tunn during a walk of Coire Laggan, Skye

And so it was, a year after my first visit I arrived back on Skye with a car jammed with belongings, feeling slightly daunted but ready for an adventure. The only link I had to the island was a hastily internet-arranged couple of days’ work at a lovely bakery-based gallery in Portree called Skyeworks – and as yet nowhere to live.

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The dramatic Eilean Donan castle, Skye

I appreciate I was in a fortunate position; not everyone has the freedom to simply move almost 700 miles North. However, the timing was perfect as I had no major ties or responsibilities, and was successfully working from home as an artist. I didn’t know if I’d get this opportunity again, and told myself I’d just see what one winter on Skye was like…

Within a month I had found a new home and started to meet the local community. My old, three-bed croft house in North Skye can be cold and draughty, but the views across the sea are spectacular and I could sit for hours watching the changing weather and birds swooping and soaring. While I’m not earning as much as I did in London, my living expenses are far less, allowing me greater freedom to pursue other interests and live a simpler life.

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Katie Tunn during whale rescue training 

Nature and wildlife were my main draw to Skye as I’ve long been interested in marine conservation; I’m a Regional Rep for Surfers Against Sewage and I founded a project called Art for Oceans, which aims to highlight issues facing the marine environment through creativity. In London, we held beach cleans, protested, curated exhibitions and created petitions, but it doesn’t compare to being in the wild and experiencing it for yourself. Seeing my first humpback whale and my first basking shark just off the coast of Skye was such a joyful and emotional experience.

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Volunteers durig the Staffin whale rescue/Photo by Sam Nicolson

It wasn’t all wonderful wildlife sightings though, as not long after I had moved to the island, there was the mass stranding of 19 pilot whales. I’d already organised a handful of community beach cleans on Skye, but this was my first experience with frontline whale and dolphin conservation. I joined the skilled team from British Divers Marine Life Rescue as they worked for hours to return these gentle giants from the rocky shore back into the water. The entire community of Staffin turned out, bringing hot soup or towels and offering accommodation. About half of the whales were saved, but it was a heart-breaking incident to be involved in and it fuelled my determination to train and be more involved in hands-on conservation.

I’m now a marine mammal medic, but luckily callouts are rare and my main conservation focus is on plastic pollution. Sadly, even in remote, supposedly unspoilt areas there is still a massive issue with rubbish washing up on the beaches. From picking plastic bottle caps up off the tideline to making people aware of whale entanglement, there’s a lot to be done.

My more relaxed outdoorsy lifestyle has also seen my artwork follow suit. The rigid military portraits I was working on previously don’t quite fit the landscape of Skye. As I spent more time out on the coast, like many of Skye’s artistic community, I began to take inspiration from the wild surroundings, with my artistic focus evolving to abstract paintings created to reflect the depth of the ocean and sky.

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Katie’s new ocean inspired artwork

Though we may have been drawn to Skye for the landscape, one of the best things about living here is the strong sense of community. It certainly wasn’t the remote and lonely wilderness I’d been expecting. Coming from London, it took some time to get used to the lack of anonymity here but the warmth and generosity of the Skye community is something truly special. My time here has been filled with people surprising me with little random acts of kindness. Only last week there was a gentle knock at the door and Donnie, my landlord (who also happens to be a creel pot fisherman), presented me with two buckets: one filled with freshly-dug tatties from the croft and another with lobsters.

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A gift of potatoes and lobsters from landlord Donnie

There’s also the Attenborough-worthy wildlife. Recently, I saw my first hen harrier in the field in front of my house. A couple of days before a sparrow hawk landed on the porch windowsill less than a metre in front of me, and I’m often distracted from my work by the repeated swish, swoop of the resident buzzard as it chases rabbits. At the weekend, we walked the cliffs to find the remains of a basking shark and enjoy frequent sightings of otters, wagtails, seals, weasels, geese, minke whales, wheatears and red deer.

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Local wildlife in Skye includes red deer, hen harriers, otters, species of whales among other

There are of course, a couple of downsides to living on Skye; the notorious Scottish rain at times can be bleak, and increasing tourist numbers in the summer make the quiet roads and beauty-spots seem crowded. However, the hardest part is the distance from family but for now this is home.

I’d originally planned to stay on Skye for six months, with the aim of spending a winter hibernating near a log fire and writing. When winter passed, I wanted to stay longer, to see what summer was like. A year passed, then another and I’m still here.

Actually, to be more precise, I’m back here after a year away. Last year, I took part in Channel 4’s experimental community/reality project, Eden. The location was on the mainland, not too far away – I could even see the Cuillin mountain range from there. More on this to follow…

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Katie embracing the great outdoors and wild weather of Skye

After Eden, I returned to Skye in March with my new vet boyfriend in tow. Rob soon found work and I was able to experience my first hands-on experience of lambing season.

When I first arrived on Skye it felt wild and remote, but now it feels like home. The wild winter winds that once knocked me off my feet are now a welcome blast rivalling any alarm clock or caffeine hit. At night, they become a reassuring whoosh around the eaves that emphasises just how cosy I am, tucked up inside by the fire. In fact, the weather is a character in itself here and you soon learn his tricks, such as: ‘Don’t park facing away from the wind, your door will get blown off’!

If I ever have to leave Skye, I know memories of my time of the island will always raise a smile. 

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All images: Katie Tunn