FORAGING ON SKYE
In August 2017 I found myself driving to a beautiful Western Isle on the coast of Scotland for a day visit. To this day, this location continues to be a popular tourist destination, and is well known for its dramatic cliffs, its infamous lookout bothies and its unpredictable weather. Over the last couple of years, I’ve attempted to return to Skye for a longer stay. Unfortunately, something has always happened to cancel the trip i.e an allergic reaction and then Storm Ali.
When I was approached by Scottish Sporting Journal to visit this place in a slightly different way, I jumped at the opportunity. This was a dream pitch for me, aligning with my exploration into Rural Life photojournalism perfectly. The brief was as follows:
To shoot and write the Skye foraging feature with Mitchell Partridge of Skye Ghillie, capturing the beauty of the island and this ethical, back-to-nature practice.
You can order the full first edition online here.
Please note that the above double page layouts were designed by me, and aren’t the official pages used by Scottish Sporting Journal.
It was clear that spring was well on its way, blossom trees glistened with white flower and golden light stretched out to the horizon as I drove towards the sunset. The drive across the Highlands had been breathtaking, and I marvelled out of my open window, gazing at the rivers and streams that weaved through the landscape. As I finally crossed over the Skye Bridge, the sky itself was dancing in soft pastels of pink and purple, candyfloss clouds glowing over the setting sun. I turned off at Sligachan to join a smaller road and drove through blue hour with fjords by my side. The track became narrower, with cars few and far between as I made my way to my coastal home for the night.
I awoke early the next morning, prepping all of my equipment and packing for the day ahead. Mitchell, owner of Skye Ghillie, an outdoor company that specialises in fishing, deer stalking, and wilderness exploration, was to pick me up soon and we’d head down to forage for mussels, clams and cockles at the beach. As I sat by the bay window eating breakfast, I looked out across the blue water glistening white in the glare of the sun. I sighed at the harsh light and then smiled to myself, aware of never being content with the weather. It was too warm to hike, or too rainy to shoot, or too hazy and too bright. I now try to actively choose to view it as another part of the documentary process, another aspect of the experience that needs to be captured truthfully. A white Defender emerged up the bank, stopping right by the house. Mitch jumped out, introducing himself and asking if I was ready to forage for some breakfast.
Ground crunched underfoot, black rock covered in years worth of barnacles grating against black sand that ran down into the open ocean. Seaweed littered the floor, big chunks drying out in the heat of the sun, slowly dehydrating and shrivelling up. The call of oyster catchers could be heard and we scanned the shoreline to see them picking out their breakfast in the small waves that lulled into the shore. I’ve always found that texture fills me with curiosity and an urge to touch everything I see. Today was no different, and I was drawn to look closer. Life could be found everywhere you looked, small rock pools were home to tiny shrimp and snails slowly slimed away into the damp, wet shadows, searching for refuge from the heat of the sun.
Mitchell found some chunky driftwood and began to dig and scrape at the sand. Empty shells were scattered around the beach and we struggled to find anything that was ready to be eaten. Mitch put most of our findings back, explaining that they had years of growth ahead of them before they’d be worth eating. I found myself fascinated by the different types of seaweed as we wandered around, and asked him what they were all called. One of my favourites was Guiry's Wrack which apparently had edible pods that were supposed to be ready to eat in the late summer. Mitchell told me they were delicious in August, and I was curious about trying them until he told me they were full of sperm and eggs, the texture full and gelatinous. Somehow, my enthusiasm for eating them wavered and I settled for snapping a few photos before moving on. Yellow, purple and brown seaweed dried along the high shoreline, reminding me of those root vegetable crisps you can buy, made of parsnip, beetroot and sweet potato.
The tide had quickly become more invasive, stopping both the seabirds’ search for shellfish and ours. The oyster catchers had moved across to a small stream that ran down the sand and we followed suit. Mitchell told me that if we watch the wildlife, we’ll often find food, which makes a lot of sense but had never crossed my mind before. He scavenged carefully, lifting tufts of seaweed up, checking underneath them and then placing them back down again after collecting a couple snails. The main thing I absorbed from the ghillie was the mindfulness around not disturbing the habitat too much, and not to take the things we didn’t need. I asked him when he learned all of these skills and he responded with,
“I think the question is ‘when did we forget how to do this?’” which made me smile. Mitch had grown up in the midlands, learning how to fish with his father when he was just 10 years old, his first salmon had been caught at aged 12, and he continued to embrace his passion for outdoor knowledge all the way through adolescence and his time serving in the military. Constantly inspired by Skye brought him to eventually settle in this rural Scottish Isle. Skye Ghillie was then founded in 2001, driven by a passion to explore and educate those who were interested in connecting to the outdoors again.
We wandered off to new terrain, passing a fresh water stream, woodland and lots of grass. I spotted an old ruin that nature had claimed, with moss hugging the fallen walls and weeds sprouting between cracks. The cliffside held clusters of dry heather that would be perfect for fire starting and plenty of dry twigs lay around for kindling. We were clambering up and over some big rocks in search for sorrel and other edible plants when I held Mitch yell that there were some gannets flying by. Big white birds with yellow heads and black wing tips flew up and quickly dived down into the ocean, catching food with more success than we had had. It was rare to see this happen, especially because they were coming mainland earlier than normal. It was a sure sign that fishing pods were on their way, and we’d soon see local fishing boats out to catch some.
Gathering all of the plants we needed, we searched for shelter from the wind to light a fire and start cooking. Wandering back over to the ruins, Mitch persuaded me to try a nettle, wrapping it up tightly in layers of sorrel leaves. I blinked hard, tastebuds responding to the unexpectedly sharp flavour. My apprehension at eating a stinging nettle overpowered by the lemon zinging in my mouth. A strong smell of garlic flew up my nostrils as we crossed the stream, finding hundreds, if not thousands, of garlic leaves in a little woodland area. It smelt delicious and I plucked a leaf, surprised by the strength it packed. I picked a couple more leaves to add in with the cockles and mussels we’d gathered throughout the morning, and Mitch grabbed more kindling and started to prepare a fire. Sparks flickered off flint, catching quickly with a well-practiced technique. He slowly eased the kindling into the fire hole of the kelly kettle and blew long, even breaths into the flame. The water quickly came to the boil, smoke and steam rising together into the cool air. Food simmered away, and we spoke about camping trips, travel and anything else that came to mind. The smell of seafood warmed our noses and I was honoured to try the first bite, tender and full of wild garlic flavour. Mitch found a couple of tiny pearls as he ate the blue mussels, and I heard several loud crunches as his teeth accidentally bit down on the pretty stones. My favourite part was the soft garlic leaves, and I wish I’d picked some to cook with throughout the rest of my journey.
Tidying up after our freshly-caught meal, I had the chance to try and light a king alfred's cake mushroom; a commonly used fire starter out in the wilderness. The flint sparked easily but getting the mushroom to take proved much more difficult than I’d originally thought. With as much patience as I could muster, I began to strike the flint in a steady rhythm, creating a crackle with each sparkle of light. My hands were starting to seize up as an ember took, and I quickly wrapped some dry kindling around the mushroom and blew gently. Unfortunately, my gentle was not gentle enough and the ember died. A bit more practice and the technique would come, Mitch reassured me as we made our way back to the truck. He told me that Skye is home to hundreds of miles of coastal areas, and it may be worth exploring a bit more. It’s no surprise that people used to forage and gather food this way for centuries. In fact, it’s likely that everyone has ancestors who lived this highly connected way of life, in-tune with nature and other species.