On the Otter Trail

Susanne

Susanne Southall
Harlosh | Isle of Skye

Skye Otter

During time out around the south end of the island, Susie shares what she learned on a visit to the Bright Water Centre, about history and geology as well as the story behind writer Gavin Maxwell’s connections to Skye and Lochalsh. And in a bid to find the enigmatic little beasts, she took the road over to Kylerhea to spend some time at the otter hide.

Skye’s mammalian wildlife is shy. It thrives in the more unassailable spaces, less visited by hu-mans. It would prefer you weren’t around and if it doesn’t want to be seen, it won’t. On a visit during May, some friends were desperate to see otters but try as we might, they were a no show. It was a big ask, herding three small children and a dog, to achieve the kind of quiet and patience required for a successful encounter and not surprisingly, we failed though I’ve been lucky enough to see them several times both here on Skye and further south in Argyll. But never when I was looking for them.

Otter

Skye is a natural home to otters and its association has a solid literary foundation, thanks to writer Gavin Maxwell, who came to Kyle after making his home at Camusfearna on Sandaig and wrote Ring of Bright Water, recounting his experience with these beautiful wild animals. I read it as a teenager and it left me with a lasting impression, a curiosity for Skye & Lochalsh and a leaning towards nature writing as a genre.

Maxwell Writing

The Bright Water Centre on the Pier in Kyleakin, celebrates the life and work of Gavin Maxwell, documents his time at Eilean Ban which was his last home beside the lighthouse, today beneath the Skye Bridge.

Bright Water Centre

The centre operates visits to Eilean Ban where you can go up to the Lighthouse and spend time in the wildlife hide. It is all about discovery-learning and interaction, full of models and images with a sensory and creative area for children to spend more time.

Gavin Maxwell

Film and framed images share moments of Maxwell’s life at Sandaig and Eilean Ban and an ex-tensive archive shows photos of the Lighthouse before he came and of the extensive refurbish-ments that later took place, to create the space as it is today. Virginia McKenna, of the Born Free Foundation, took time to carefully recreate the Long Room where Maxwell lived and wrote, sourcing just the right pieces to furnish it. In the 1990s, The Born Free Foundation together with the local community formed the Eilean Ban Trust, who care for it today.

The Bright Water Centre displays exhibits of the region’s geology with samples of all the rock types found here, as well as sandstone which is found below the lighthouse and is thought to be part of Applecross and Torridon, dated at around 1000 million years old. The local History Socie-ty also have a presence and there are photographs and documents about the lighthouse since it’s erection in 1857 to its automation in 1960 and finally, its decommissioning in 1993 when a new navigation light was mounted on the new Skye Bridge. Touch displays include the impact of plastics on the marine environment and the history of Herring in these waters.

Sea Litter

The Centre looks across the marina to Castle Maol, an ancient MacKinnon fortress, which is cur-rently under scaffold for repair works after a lightening strike during winter!

Eagle Hide

After a visit to the Bright Water Centre I drove over to Kylerhea to visit the Eagle and Otter Hides and walked the trail through the woods above the shoreline. It was the middle of the day when I arrived so I wasn’t too confident of seeing otters but I could hear the seals long before I could see them!

Hide View

The Kylerhea Hide must be among the most beautiful anywhere - make sure to bring binoculars and zoom lenses for your camera - overlooking the Glenelg Ferry with Grey and Common seals, porpoise, heron, otters (if you’re lucky) bobbing and diving in the tidal waters.

The friendly RSPB guide stationed in the Eagle Hide told me that Victor would be there around 3.00pm - Victor is the male Sea Eagle, currently taking care of two fledglings in a nest above the shore further south. He comes to work the tidal advantage that brings mackerel and other prey through the pinch point at Kylerhea. I’ve been through on a boat, I know how lively it gets and it’s the best time to see the sea and wildlife in hunting mode.

Otter Hide

It’s lovely just being in the otter hide, hunkered down in the bracken with rowan and birch all around and woodland birdsong and breeze playing in the canopy, while mournful seal-song ech-oes up from the shore below me. I looked to find the source of the sound, turning my ear away from the breeze and saw a shining, marbled heap of mammal, half in, half out of the water be-yond the lighthouse on the shoreline. It sounded so sad, is it a grump or a love song? I found out later it’s the Grey Seal locating call, just letting other beasts know that they’re there.

Inside Otter Hide

I could happily spend the entire day in the hide, watching and listening. The ever-changing wa-terline, the energy in the constant eddies and the abundant bird and sea life. The Visitor Log recorded otter sightings that morning, I think an early or late visit would greatly increase the chance to see them. I was delighted with singing seals, the trilling of oyster-catchers, squabbling siskins, a grumpy heron and some lesser-spotted kayakers.

As reported in this week’s Free Press, The Bright Water Centre is holding events every Saturday in July for families, including nature drawing workshops, animal tracking, seashore beastie hunt-ing and storytelling.

The RSPB and Otter hides at Kylerhea are free with free parking. There are lots of BBQ-ready tables with spectacular views - take a picnic and make a day of it!