Noel Hawkins lives in a cottage just outside Ullapool in a spot called Leckmelm and works for the Scottish Wildlife Trust. In the first of our series of #SeaHighlandsIslands posts about the coast and seas of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, Noel tells us where his favourite place in the world is, why you should go snorkelling and how he rescued a humpback whale.
I live in a cottage just outside Ullapool in a spot called Leckmelm and work for the Scottish Wildlife Trust work on a project called the Living Seas. This is a three year project funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and looking to try and promote the seas and marine life and engage people with it in all ways – recreationally, education, conservation and work.
I like most things sea and wildlife related. I’ve grown around it and love being by, on and in it. Whenever possible, I try to be doing things that relate to the sea in one way or another – either when working or in my own time.
I live alone in a small cottage just outside Ullapool. Close enough to get in when I want, far enough to be out in the quiet at times too. The cottages were built after the last official clearance in the Highlands – in 1883, and built from the ruins of an old broch still visible in front.
I was born in Ullapool but then spent a lot of my youth moving about between the Highlands and Cornwall due to my parents’ work. Although at either ends of the country, there were similarities in terms of being in small villages on the coast and the connection with the sea and fishing.
I spent a few years fishing and then ended up in London doing a degree in computing and multimedia. By the time I graduated, I realised I missed the countryside and sea too much so eventually headed home.
It wasn’t an easy move as although the Highlands are beautiful, full-time good jobs can be tricky to get. I began working on one of the local tour boats and became involved with local marine life and issues and was lucky to get this position when it came up in 2015.
I love the remote beaches in the Highlands. They don’t need to be sandy, some of the more rugged ones are dramatic and stunning too. The emptiness of them maybe enhances the connection you feel.
However there are some that I love. In Assynt, Clachtoll and Achmelvich are brilliant – and Sandwood Bay further north, a 6 mile walk but worth it. As part of the project, we launched a snorkel trail of nine sites between Gairloch and Assynt, spread over 100 miles, and the choices were based on them being good and safe sites to snorkel but also great places to go. I always love visiting them whether going into the water or not.
In 2016 we worked with the North Harris Trust to launch a second trail on Harris. There are some amazing beaches over there too. Luskentyre is just breath-taking and well worth visiting if out on Harris. I actually found Huisinis lovely – smaller than some of the others but great snorkelling and out on the end of a single track road that makes it quite special. And Gruinard, between Ullapool and Gairloch is great. In fact I’m going to struggle saying one – tour them all.
Marine litter – particularly plastics – is one of the biggest and most horrible issues I see up here and all over the world. It is horrific to go to a remote beautiful beach and find it covered in plastics and even in the sand and soil itself.
In many places, a large part of this comes from the land. In the North West, we see a lot of rubbish from industry, fishing and fish farms along with things that sometimes travel internationally – carried by the Gulf stream and currents in the Atlantic.
The larger stuff is really clear to see but the less obvious and more worrying are the micro plastics – either broken down larger pieces or things like nurdles (small beans of plastic used to mould products but which are lost or washed away – often in their millions). The larger stuff is terrible and not only looks bad but causes a serious threat to wildlife, entangling creatures and choking them in ingested.
The smaller stuff should be concerning everyone. It is getting into the food chain. Tiny particles in plankton then rise up through the food chain and different species until it eventually reaches humans. The health implications are huge and the resilience and long life of plastics means it is here to stay.
We have held a number of beach cleans and removed lots of this from around the coast – on one beach alone we took over 300 bags full. However to really succeed, we need to stop it going into the seas and environment in the first place. Hard when we have become so dependent on plastics in every part of life.
Ullapool recently became the first plastic straw-free village in the UK – thanks to the work and campaigning by primary pupils from Ullapool Primary and Sunnyside Primary’s ‘Ocean Defenders’ in Glasgow. Straws are a perfect examples of single-use plastics, often used for minutes but then can be around for centuries.
This work should be continued by everyone that lives and visits here:
We are testing a beach clean station that allows people to clean up a little bit and drop it in a box that we come and empty. So far it has been really well received and used, taking almost 260kg of rubbish in the first few months. This has been locals and visitors so keep your eyes out for new ones and perhaps give us a few moments help…
Corrieshalloch Gorge, 12 miles south of Ullapool is somewhere I always suggest people stop. The gorge and waterfall are one of the largest in the UK and it is only a short walk from the car park. The trees and surrounding wildlife and plants are great too – it’s a lovely place that I never tire of visiting. Like Dundonnell and Ullapool, a reintroduction of red squirrels in 2008 means you do see them about the gorge walks sometimes too – always great.
I like the end of the summer and going into autumn. It gets quieter but can still be bright weather – we often get a period that is sunny and clear and the colours seem to get so vivid. There’s also no midges – the one thing I really don’t like up here…
I’ll have to say snorkelling. The snorkel trail was set up to introduce first timers and also encourage those who have maybe only tried it abroad. The marine life is great here, the beaches beautiful and the clarity in our seas stunning. A few feet from the shore you will encounter fish, crabs, star fish, urchins and much more.
True, it’s not the Caribbean so you need a good wetsuit – I suggest a 5mm one, along with gloves, boots and ideally a hood, but it is worth it.
So far everyone who has either come out with me or tried the trail themselves has loved it.
If getting into the sea isn’t possible or your thing, then at least get out on it. The coastline and marine life around the Highlands is great – dolphin, seals, whale, porpoise, eagles! The Summer Isles off Ullapool are probably my favourite place in the world. Try and get out to see them – trust me.
Another recommendation is buying a round. If you visit a local bar and want to find out what’s going on and what to do and see, buy a pint or dram for someone – it’s very sociable up here and a wee drink helps make new friends. Especially if you meet me!
I’ve had a lot of encounters that I love – pods of hundreds of dolphin, Icelandic Orca that visited us a few years ago (and we got to name a calf they had with them – ‘Summer’ after the islands), even helping to discover a new nesting pair of White Tailed Sea Eagles out in the loch here – all very special.
One I think probably stands out though most was taking part in the rescue of an entangled Humpback Whale in Durness in 2015. I’m a volunteer with BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue) and member of their disentanglement team. I’ve been out collecting seals and attended a mass stranding of pilot whales, but the humpback was very unique.
The whale was caught up in fishing gear so it was a tricky thing to deal with and quite dangerous. We had to get in close to the animal, grapple onto the ropes then try to cut the ropes free in a way that cleared it before the animal took off. We also had to watch the whale at all times to see whether it was panicking.
During the process the animal came up underneath us and actually carried the small rubber boat with four of us in it for a few seconds. At the time we just got on with it and managed to free the animal which was just amazing and everyone was on a real high. It was only afterwards when we were debriefing, we realised we had actually surfed a humpback. I’m not sure there are many people who can say that. Humpbacks are very special – you can sense the sentience when you are up close and looking them in the eye. We seem to be seeing more in our waters these days – hopefully a sign their numbers are improving and possibly herring and feed fish stocks too.
I love the roads north of Ullapool to Durness. You really get to see such a variety of geology and scenery and all within a few hours. Mountains, glens, cliffs, beaches and glacial valleys. And great wee places to stop and visit on the way.
Also the drive to Achiltibuie and through Coigach is pretty special. There’s a great wee road between Achiltibuie and Lochinver – it’s very small and winds about a lot but is worth the effort.
When you come south from Clachtoll and Achmelvich back to Lochinver, there is a viewing spot that looks out to the Assynt mountain range including some well-known peaks such as Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Cul More and Cul Beag. I always love this spot. You are looking out over millions of years of geology – pretty humbling really. (Worth pointing out the north west is a Geo Park and has some unique and amazing geology throughout – Knockan Crag visitor centre is worth a visit to learn more.)
I’d like to encourage people to take it easy and appreciate it up here. Not only will you get more out of it if you take a few days and stop and discover places properly, but it’s also safer for livestock, wildlife, and people here too. Don’t run things over racing around the Highlands on a weekend break.
Please remember that people do live and work here too. Some of the smaller and single track roads make overtaking impossible and the person behind you may be trying to get to work or even an emergency so please pull over and let them pass when possible. You’ll get a wave of thanks and hopefully everyone will have a great day in a really great place and environment.
The Highlands has some of the best seafood in the world, something I never tire of. Try and find it! Don’t just stock up in the supermarkets, go out and try the small local businesses. All along the North West there are wee places offering what is grown, raised and caught here.
Ullapool has the Seafood Shack which recently won Radio 4’s Food and Farming Awards and is a great seafood takeaway that offers shellfish that is often landed the same morning it is served. Coiagach has Salt Seafood Kitchen. Not only do they both offer locally sourced and sustainably caught produce, but they are also helping the local economy by buying from local fishermen. Plus the business owners are young people who are making a living for themselves and ensuring we retain young people to hopefully keep the community and culture alive here. Something very important if we are to avoid turning into a theme park and stay a living community.
I love spinies – squat lobster, like a prawn but with a wee tail. These aren’t common elsewhere as they don’t keep or travel well but many people consider them better than the more well-known prawns and lobster. The Seafood Shack makes a ‘spiney popcorn’ and also a mouth-watering ‘Haddock wrap’. Again, I can’t decide on my favourite so will have to say visit twice and try both!
Thanks, Noel, for some great tips. We’ve had several holidays in the area around Ullapool and it is a very special place. We were lucky enough to see a humpback from the Ullapool to Stornoway ferry a few years ago. It was quite far away but still incredible! It was really interesting to read about the problems affecting the beautiful coast and seas around Scotland and how we can all do our bit. I also love that you are encouraging people to support local businesses as it’s something we always try to do when we’re on holiday.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust has a section on their website with downloadable guides and information about our snorkel trail: www.scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/snorkeltrail
The Living Seas has an active facebook page that outlines things going on and events people can join in with at https://www.facebook.com/LivingSeasScotland/
You can also follow Noel on Twitter (Noel H @klondyker) for lots of interesting marine and environment news.
We hope you enjoyed the first post in our #SeaHighlandsIslands series. We’d also love to hear your stories too. Use the hashtag to share your favourite beaches, amazing wildlife encounters, boat trips, etc.
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Photos © Noel Hawkins