Female Soloists: Meet Katie Tunn, the off-grid explorer who’s getting back to nature
Katie Tunn has had a busy day. The artist, adventurer and marine conservationist has just got back from a seal pup rescue mission and her car alarm is going off because of a wayward sea gull. “Never a dull moment living on Skye,” she jokes.
Katie moved to the largest island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides nine years ago. “I’d just finished art school in London and I came to Skye for a six-month break. I basically never left,” she says.
Despite growing up in an urban environment, the 37-year-old says she’s always been fascinated by nature. “There is always something new to see if you look close enough,” she says. “I love being on Skye because I’ll be off to the Post Office and spot an otter, or I’’ll be out for a stroll and see whales, dolphins or eagles. It feels like I’m living in an Attenborough documentary. When you live somewhere like this, you really notice the colours changing every day, from the sea and sky to the mountains.”
The TV show didn’t dent my love of going off-grid
In 2016, Katie was working in an art gallery on Skye when she heard about a Channel 4 reality show called Eden. She was chosen to be one of 23 men and women sent to live in a remote isolated corner of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula in Scotland, to see if they could build a society from scratch. Only ten people stuck it out for the entire year, as social dynamics descended into what was dubbed ‘Lord of the Flies’-style bullying.
“I had some of my best times and worst times over that year,” says Katie. “The winter was the hardest. Our clothes would be hard from the ice and we had to bash them on the floor to put them on in the morning. I certainly learned resilience, and that you don’t know what you’re capable of until you do it.”
However, Eden didn’t dent Katie’s love of going off-grid and getting away from it all. She now regularly swims and kayaks out to small islands, sleeping in a bivvy and foraging for seaweed, nettles and herbs. “I spend so much of my working life looking at screens so I just love that feeling of switching off and resetting everything,” she says. “It really puts things in perspective.”
I spent weeks alone on the uninhabited Shiant islands
“I always pack a sketch book, some books to read, a hammer, nails and wire to make a basic shelter from what I find washed up on the beach, as well as a hot water bottle and a bottle of whiskey ‘for a treat’. And my literal ‘desert island dish’ is foraged seaweed with miso paste and noodles,” she says.
In 2018, Katie planned to spent 40 days completely alone on the remote and uninhabited Shiant islands. “It was amazing,” she says. “Every day I saw something new, whether it was a puffin nesting or a shrew coming to say hello. I didn’t feel lonely once. I think it’s because I enjoy my own company but also my thoughts were full of my friends and family. I’d think ‘Oh my mum would love that bird’.”
But on the 38th day, Katie fell over on some rocks, hit her head and gave herself concussion. “I woke up with a lump and I felt dizzy so I knew I had to get a boat to come and pick me up. I spent a night in hospital and then I was back out there.”
The hardest part of island life is being away from family and friends
Injuries aside, Katie says she feels completely safe when wild camping alone. “Of course you have to keep your wits about you, but I feel much safer here than I would in the city,” she says. “I always tell people where I’m going and keep a phone for emergencies.”
Katie says the hardest thing about island life is being so far away from her family and friends, and her late-night cravings for a pizza or a bar of chocolate. “The nearest supermarket is an hour’s drive so you can’t really pop out,” she says. “And in the winter the weather can be very challenging. It is so dark that I really have to make sure I get enough daylight for my mental health.”
She says that Skye is paradise to visit, particularly in the autumn. “The well-known spots like the Fairy Pools and The Old Man of Storr pinnacle are beautiful but they can get busy. My favourite thing to do is just wander down a random coastal path and get off the beaten track,” she says. “And dawn and dusk are the most beautiful times for a walk. It’s so peaceful and solitary.”
There’s a clarity of thought you get from being on your own
One of her favourite places to stay on Skye is a bothy called The Lookout in Rubha Hunish. It’s a former coastguard’s station on the top of a cliff, with a couple of bunks, some wooden chairs and a pair of binoculars for spotting whales and dolphins. “There’s no fire and it’s pretty basic but the views are unbeatable.”
For Katie, travelling solo is the ultimate way to relax. “There’s a clarity of thought you get from being completely on your own without any interruptions from phones or screens,” she says. “It’s like a precious little bubble of peace.”
Katie Tunn spoke to Kate Wills, author of A Trip of One’s Own, for Female SOLOists – a monthly column for SOLO on women exploring the world their own way. Catch up on the other interviews with Rahel Stephanie, Jessica Nabongo, Cecilie Skog and Leilani McGonagle now.
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Images: courtesy of Keo Films Ltd and Katie Tunn