Hello! We are Stuart and Stuart, SF+SH for short! We are a design partnership based in the central belt and are delighted to be working with RSPB Scotland over the next year or so to co-design an exhibition for the Corncrake Calling project, which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The exhibition will be co-designed in partnership with a number of Scottish schools, will launch next summer and will tour Scotland until autumn 2024. Corncrake Calling aims to save Scotland’s corncrakes through advocacy, land management and education. The exhibition will help to raise awareness about this special bird by bringing a multitude of fun, educational exhibition elements (co-designed through education workshops with school children) to the general public across Scotland.

With the project just beginning, Stuart and I needed to do some research, so we set off for the islands. Our crusade was to take us to Skye and Uist on a mission to find out as much about corncrakes and crofting/farming as we could. We were of course be playing bird bingo as we went! 

Day 1 

Sunday 0600 hours 

A sharp rise and a quick Covid-19 test paves the way for a beautiful drive up north. A bag of goodies, a very 80’s soundtrack and away we go! 

Sunday 1000 hours 

The drive is taking a good deal longer than planned as there are multiple stops off points to just gawk at the scenery. Built a quick carin (the tallest there, no big deal!), Sun beating down, a solitary swan floats by, back on the road! 

Sunday 1400 hours 

Arrived at our base in Skye. After a wee walk along the beach, ticking off oystercatchers and little stints  (possibly, very many amateurs here) on our bird bingo cards, we checked into the Riverdale Lodge where we were greeted by the lovely Emile. Back on the road to visit a Skye must see, the Fairy Pools, heard it's quite good... 

Sunday 2300 hours 

Wow. The Fairy pools were incredible. Absolutely stunning day (sun cream a must at this point!), we joined the pilgrimage of people from the car park all the way down and all the way back up and into the pools.  A collection of crystal-clear ponds, trickling waterfalls and rocky outcroppings intermingled along the mountain fed steam. Busy, but not overly so. The ice-cold water fends off the brilliant heat of the Sun immensely. After returning to our digs, even the midges couldn’t put a dampener on the evening.  Busy day tomorrow so goodnight!

Day 2  

Monday 0900 

Another bright and early start, fantastic breakfast in the belly (thanks Emile!) and we are off to meet with Dr Alison MacLennan and Natasha Howard of RSPB Scotland at their outpost just down the road.  

Monday 1100 

After being greeted by the wonderfully excited Oli (gorgeous border collie pup) we spoke with Ali and Tash about their role within the RSPB. Ali spoke a good deal about the great work done with Sea Eagles and their population growth over the last few years, we wonder if parallels can be drawn with the Corncrake? We spoke at length about the legislation that surrounds crofting, the benefits but also the hurdles to taking up Corncrake Friendly Farming initiatives.

We had to rush away to another meeting, but we left with a good knowledge base that hopefully benefits us when we start to speak with crofters later in the trip! Must dash, we are on our way up to Waternish Farm to speak with Robert Montgomery, apparently, he is thee guy to speak to about effective farming practices... 

Monday 1300 

Oh, wow. He really was. We could have spoken with Robert all day! A wealth of knowledge, experience and passion for conservation has absolutely made him the guy to talk to. Robert has been at his farm on  Waternish for around 12 years and currently has over 140 bird species living within the farmland. He took us through the 5 main issues facing the Corncrake (Cover, Food, Climate, Habitat, Raptors), the risks that they face during their migration to and from the Congo and the changes he has made to his farming practises over his time at Waternish Farm to encourage the population growth of the Corncrake. He has seen an increase to 2 or 3 mating pairs per year from 0 10 years ago. Progress! Again, we had to rush away but we will definitely be keeping in touch!  

Lunchtime now so off to the beautiful Portree for a bite to eat. 

Monday 1700 

Fish and chips by the harbour down the hatch, sun beating down. Spectacular. So Spectacular in fact that whilst we waited for our next cohort to arrive, we parked up in a nice shady spot for a bit of a kip. Once we awoke, we had our first encounter with the Corncrake expert herself, Shelagh Parlane! She quickly suggests we head up to visit Anne Martin and John White who run a croft up in Trotternish. Back in the car and off we go! 

Monday 2000 

I am not sure if Shelagh could have recommended better people to speak to about the subject of crofting.  Anne has just completed a thesis on the subject ‘What does crofting mean to you?’. Little did we know when we sat on Anne’s balcony that we would be getting the opinion on crofting from her as well as 82 other crofters! Anne’s thesis is in Gaelic, but she kindly took us through the main points and in the midst of scribbling it all down, we were stopped in our tracks. The unmistakable ‘Crex Crex’ echoing across the nettle beds. Our first Corncrake! Bizarrely and excitedly, Shelagh runs off to grab a colander (henceforth known as the ‘Corncrake Calling-der’). Pretty sure all that is missing from this image is a tinfoil hat.  Amazingly it does work as a recording device. Not to be totally outdone by Anne, John produced a wonderful article he has written for the local newspaper about crofting. 

Monday 2300 

Back to our Broadford base camp to reflect on an information packed day. Tomorrow we have 1 more meeting in Skye before we depart. Uist has quite a lot to live up to! Quick bite to eat on the beach and off for a well-earned kip.

Day 3 

Tuesday 1000 

Our final day on Skye has us packing up and bidding farewell to our host Emile and heading up towards Kingsburgh for one last conversation with Yvonne White of the Scottish Crofting Federation. The weather has turned a good deal cooler and we arrive slightly early (a first?) for our meeting, so we decided to do a bit of photography slightly further up by Uig. 

Tuesday 1300

Another terrific person to speak to about crofting. Yvonne has her own crofts and participates in many of the committees for her community. She had a great wealth of knowledge and is truly embedded in that way of life. A special highlight was meeting her herd of Highland cows, gorgeous big beasties and she explained why they are better for the land up here but not as popular due to slow growth. I’d have one any day! As we await our ferry in Uig our thoughts turn to the schools that we will be working with on this project and, more specifically, about our time at school. What was good, what was not so good and how we want to create a programme of work that will not only teach pupils about nature and biodiversity  (things that are going to be ever more important for the next generation) but about creativity, industry and bringing the best out of a subject through design. 

The ferry is finally here, and our journey is about to continue in Uist...

Stuart Fraser

Day three

Check back soon to find out how the Stuart's get on in their corncrake quest. Don’t forget to check out how you can help corncrakes and/or sign up as a Corncrake Champion.