Wednesday, May 8, 2019


              On the Islands May is considered the month for peat cutting. Although it is often possible to cut earlier if those peats cut in April do not dry enough to be set vertical and instead receive a lot of rain while lying flat then they will be the poorer for it. So when fine weather arrived in mid-April I put the tarasgeir to soak and head out to my banks above Traigh Ghearadha.
              The east facing cut already looked dry and as I started the de-turfing I could feel the spade slice into a sod far less saturated than normal. This is the worst and heaviest part of cutting ask any local, and although it reveals the fresh peat beneath it adds nothing to the actual peat stack for burning. I have made many mistakes over a dozen years of cutting and number one is not to have attempted a too wider strip only to discover that space to throw the cut peat onto becomes a real problem. I usually stick to between six or seven wide as most of the bank is three cuts deep with a short forth level section. Traditionally the harvest of peat is a collective activity; family, neighbours, children young and old alike would lend a hand to the work that would provide fuel for the hearth about which their lives revolved. Only one during my years of cutting was that team work there although often there have been friends visiting who are more than happy to help out or simply sample the experience. It is in any event a two person job with one cutting while the other throws. This usually meant that the men cut while the women did the more strenuous job of throwing. You may say typical for the men to get the easy part but in my experience women are simple better at this job having a lower centre of gravity. An Amazonian of a woman was much admired in times past but today the lack of physical exercise does little for the figure of men or women.
              Having removed a section of sod that is placed down in the gap left by the previous year I set myself a maximum limit of cutting no more than 300 peats at any one time which in turn meant counting as I cut and also keep a running total. From previous years this should run out at around 2000 peats to complete the cut. Within the first week I was a good third of the way down and with a strong drying easterly was able to set up the first batch, which in turn created more throwing space. By the end of the second week I was on the homeward stretch. I normally get visitors in May and June and can count on their help but this year it looked like I would achieve a solo cut and be done and dusted well before their arrival.
              Last year I was the only one cutting from New Tolsta and it looks like being the same this year. From the track beyond “The Bridge to Nowhere” people walk their dogs and occasionally they will look seaward to see me labouring 100 yards below, but never do they venture closer. On occasions I have heard it said “Oh that must be wonderful to get free fuel. There is nothing free about it simply a back breaking slog that only old fools like me still persist in doing. I have often thought that a notice up in the Stornoway hostel promoting a peat cutting experience in exchange for board and lodging might be interesting but I fear there would be very few if any takers.
Tuesday 7th of May and the cutting is complete apart from some tidying up with the spade. My body aches, left hip twinging and right wrist very painful but at least I know the reason why. There is no question that when younger this would have seemed a lot easier but now having reached retirement age there is a stubborn power of persistence in me to see it through. This work is not for the impatient young or faint hearted, and while millions are happy to watch a ball being repeatedly kicked into a net I prefer to slice away with the peat iron knowing at the end I will have something to show for it. The saying, “he who chops the wood gets warm twice” works equally well for peat cutting but today most are content to stay at home and switch on the heating of whatever form with the flick of a switch. The electric home is with us and for many that may well be a clean source of energy but few would think to reduce that consumption. I pay £11 per month. I can see in years to come that burning any form of fuel within the home will be outlawed. The traditional cutting of peat will end and the smell of peat fires remain a distant childhood memory while the peat banks degrade into the lazy-beds of tomorrow; more strange ruled lines crumbling beneath heather, proof of man’s existence and the passing of times.      

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Looking from a safe distance.

Such is the clarity of a beautiful sun filled day out on the Hebrides that I feel the veiled cataracts of any normal day have been lifted to reveal a sharper in focus world. Today with the arrival and constant calling of the cuckoo since dawn a walk and the peace of the moor seemed in order. I threw fruit and a cheese sandwich in the back pack along with binoculars, camera and sketch pad. There is so much choice in walking that I try not to give too much thought as to what direction I will take. Today I wanted both moor and beach so I turned right at the gate setting off past the quarry and up the track. Taking what was an old peat exploitation path I gained the high ground able to look north across the vast expanse of moor still clothed in the dead bleached grass of winter. 
To the east the mainland was shrouded in hazy cloud while to the west the familiar mound of Muirneag seemed deceptively close to the human eye but not the camera. The trudge north gave a good indication of just how dry the moor was, unusually so for this time of year. Lichen white and moss black with the only sign of fresh growth the flash of King cup yellow in the trickling burn. The pessimists amongst us now worrying that this might be it for our summer and that bad weather will surely follow.
From high up above Traigh Ghearadha beach I stopped to eat and watch the comings and goings of the tiny people below. It feels so easy to cut yourself off form humanity and observe as if an alien. Homo sapiens appear to be a decidedly odd species with little or no rational reasoning to their behaviour. The extra ordinary reliance on the four wheel vehicles is remarkable and while some use this as a convenient means of transport others never actually leave the vehicle, driving until the road runs out beyond the “Bridge to nowhere” at which point they do a three point turn and head back the way they came. Some will stand several meter apart on the sand and repeatedly throw a ball to each other, which they apparently find enjoyable, while others will throw a blanket on the ground and lie out flat as if pretending to be dead. Many are accompanied by a dog and when this animal defecates the human picks it up in a small plastic bag. One might be forgiven for thinking that the human thinks this dog excrement has some intrinsic value perhaps for drying as with peat for fuel but no, the bag is either removed to a larger plastic container or simply abandoned in its wrapped and preserved state. The dogs themselves seem to take no interest in this strange human ritual of pooh preservation.
I descend down past my peat bank where things are crisping up at a record rate and then on down across the beach to the loch where for a second year a single Bewick Swan has decided to stay awhile. Mating for life it seems likely that this sad sole has lost its partner. On the machair there is no subtlety of natural colour in the family who have chosen to spread themselves out for a Sunday afternoon snooze. 
I wonder if they know or even care that the mound behind which they shelter was once an Iron Age habitation and what would those distant ancestors think of these strange aliens. Why do people drive all the way to the end of the road and finding themselves in such beautiful surroundings simply choose to close their eyes? It is a depressing walk back along the road as I pick up litter and note that out of the ten cars that pass three managed their visit in under five minutes. I imagine in the future legs will become little more than another shriveled vestige of an unused appendage along with the human brain.            

Sunday, April 21, 2019

To print or not to print?

To print or not to print, that is a question.

20 years ago I made the mistake of allowing my art to be used on a calendar to raise money for a millennium project in Central Finistere. The project was a great success but while the calendars sold well and I became a well-known name locally I discovered that many potential customers had cut the images out and framed them. In this way they believed they were supporting me as an artist perhaps falsely assuming that I had already been paid for the use of those images. It took me fifteen years to sell nine of the originals and I still have the remaining three, but since that time my sales fell dramatically and for several years I held no exhibitions and sold nothing. Far from doing nothing I continued to paint through a period that I like to call my stock piling years. After 30 years of painting I know of no other professional artist who is selling his work for the same price and often for no more than a ghastly mass produced photo on canvas. Maybe it is time for me to add some initials of royalty to my signature and add another zero to my prices. Or should I start producing more calendars, prints, key rings, jigsaw puzzles, fridge magnets, cards, book markers and place mats to be considered a success? No. Consumers the world over have enough rubbish to choose from without me adding to it. The millennium project was a success in my eyes even if there was no official word of thanks from the local community. The statues can are displayed permanently in the Chapel of St Salomon in the commune of Plouye in Central Finistere. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Back on the Isle of Lewis.

Passengers raised their mobile phones to record our arrival and who could blame them for wanting to capture an apparently perfect summer sunset as the evening ferry from Ullapool sailed into Stornoway harbour. An oversized orange orb seen through the sullen heat haze of spring or was it something else smokier, more sinister.
Driving through the town I caught site of a familiar face and waved but Michael in a daze standing at the kerbside outside the supermarket showed no sign of recognition. It was only then that it dawned on me that there were no street lights at dusk and that no sign of life emanated from any home. That could only mean one thing, a power cut. As I drove north through the villages to Tolsta I was surprised to see people still outside, the old walking dogs while the youngsters just hung out driven outside by lack of power to capture what remained of the evening light. I was glad to have candles readily available on my arrival but hadn’t counted on the matches being damp. The following day I learnt that there had been a serious heath fire down on Harris close to the power lines and so the entire island had been shut down. That morning I had questioned why the power cut remained until it dawned on me that the electric in the house was still turned off. Time to trip the switches, light the fires and air the place through. The swollen back doors of both house and barn would remain jammed shut for a while yet.
I return to an island dominated by the Vandyke brown and Burnt Umbers of winter’s heath. The dead wind-blown ochre grasses hug the landscape, sponge soft mounds of bleached moss interlace with pale green lichen and although the fresh growth of grass is showing on the crofts the lush greens of spring are yet to surface. Even within the relative shelter of Stornoway those tree buds although swollen with potential remain firmly enclosed. April will however bring with it miraculous changes as the earth seems to slow to allow the sun to linger longer and higher on its daily arch. Hibernation is well and truly over and lambing is in full swing. There is soil to turn, seed potatoes to plant, and while a bitter east winds bring a dry spell there is a spades depth of turf to remove before the peat cutting can start.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Apt to be deemed asocial.

In an age when regimentation seems increasingly necessary in order to make life possible in those large conurbations seething with people I revel in my simple solitude. During my ramblings in the valley of the Ellez, Central Finistere can at times feels like a landlocked island where complexities of the city or urban existence have little relevance. A heady scent of primroses hangs in the lane while the glossy yellow carpet of celandines at my feet, before returning I will gather fresh sheep’s sorrel for salad. Such ethereal ramblings may sound idyllic but while the wren busies itself around root stump and leaf litter all is not well on the other side of the hedge. Out of the valleys the easily cultivatable land has for decades now been transformed by monstrous machines into a production area that specialises in monoculture. The early spring stubble growth that would once have been grazed by sheep before cultivation commenced is now turned orange with Round Up ahead of the plough. Maize, cereal and oil seed rape are the favoured rotation and at times living in the countryside can become dangerous with the amount of chemical treatment being sprayed. Bacon said that man conquers Nature only by obeying her, and to that end our arrogance is leading in a merry dance of disaster.
While some find truth within the embracing hug of humanity I find it in wilderness. A solitary existence is not for everyone and I feel humanity spoils when in compression and it is then that I find myself moving to the fringes searching a simplicity that brings me freedom. Today that very freedom seems to be playing a losing battle and one must be vigilant on all fronts for there is much that would seduce us to sign up to an alternative virtual world.
Once again I pack the van tightly with my winter’s artwork, starting the long journey northward to the Isle of Lewis ahead of the swallows and a second chance at spring. You may be forgiven for thinking it is frustration with the noise of modern existence that makes me seek the silence of an island life but I see it as a refusal to be frustrated. Where I am heading there is seldom silence but at least it can be said to be natural with the rhythmic crashing of waves down on Traigh Mhor beach accompanied by the constant island breeze, mewing of buzzards and the melody of bird’s song. 
You’ve been lucky I hear it said, I should like to live on an island free from all care as you seem to be. It is possible that I didn’t arrived at this point simply by saying I would like to. As F. Fraser Darling says in his Island Years, “minds that neither seeks nor finds solitude soon becomes afraid of it”.             

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Returning to Pont Morvan

Pont Morvan and its mill became a favourite spot for me to paint during the early 1990’s. No matter what the season the old double arched bridge always presented a rustic charm along with the mill which at that time was still in working condition although no longer used. I only saw its massive mechanism in action once and there was a brief period when we hoped that an English enthusiastic might purchase it and start up a milling business. Then an expert pronounced the bridge unsafe and a vast amount of European funds were secured to totally rebuild it. As always with these things it lost all charm; the stone vaulting was replaced with cast concrete and the contrast of local schist stone and granite was replaced with a uniform modern cut granite, while the road over was flattened out and a cumbersome slab topped parapet wall was added. The only thing left of the old bridge was the original granite buttresses. I stopped drawing the bridge and when the mill was eventually sold its workings were promptly gutted and abandoned. The old weir was removed apparently to prevent flooding and the deeper waters beyond where locals had once learnt to swim became shallows.

Quarter of a century has passed and my eye has once again been taken by the old Pont Morvan mill but this time I’ve stayed away from the river finding a spot further on where from beneath the roadside trees the mill buildings are seen nestling within the winter woods. The sun streams across the shadow filled field while a lone Normandy house cow looks on. Now a rarity these cows have been replaced by the standard black and white Friesians.
There is one further thing that has changed and that is my prices. While those early pictures sold from between £250 to £450 this latest and larger work 92cm x 64cm is for sale at £2250. During all these years I have somehow managed to survive as an artist never having sold a picture from my website or even had an inquiry to buy on line. I don’t expect that to change any time soon.    

Monday, February 18, 2019


From left to right; Madame Salaun, Marrie L’hours, Niroko Rosineux, Loisique, Madame Sisan, Tom Hickman, Monsieur Le Lay, Monsieur Lostanlen, Pierre Louis Cleran plus Din Din the collie dog.
While browsing through some press cuttings I came across this one from the late nineties concerning the restoration of our village well. What struck me first was how naturally the group divided into men and women, without the slightest prompting from the journalist. It has to be said that although there are three who are married none of them appear with their respective partner. During an interval of twenty three years all but three of those villagers remain including myself.  All the men are dead. Monsieur Le Lay a devout man died on the church doorstep having attended morning mass while Monsieur Lostanlen after a lifelong battle eventually succumbed to the demon drink. It was extra ordinary to think he’d lasted so long having never managed to secure an employment other than to drink his way through the fortnightly deliver that arrived on alternate Thursdays by lorry. As a local resistance leader during the war Pierre Louis was considered the unofficial mayor of the village and as such was first in line for the fish van that also called on Thursdays. My mind slipped easily back to that damp afternoon where for the first time I felt accepted in village and was impressed by the fact that out of the nine houses then occupied in the village all but one had its representative in the photo.
The old slate front was all that had been partially visible to indicate that buried in the earth bank was a well, and it irritated me that it had at some point been put back upside down. One summer I noticed that a hole had appeared above the slate and on investigation I discovered the old planks covering the well had rotted making it potentially very dangerous for any inquisitive children. Before I made any attempt to restore the well I had first to prove that it was the village well and as such belonged to everyone. Monsieur Lostanlen was sure it belonged to him as it abutted his father in-law’s old house however consulting the 1836 maps it showed the well pre-existing outside the limits of the later house. The well is situated half way between the two oldest houses in the village and on the same spring line as two other later wells. Our first job was to empty the well and during a period of rare sobriety Monsieur Lostanlen loaned his pump. The next step was to climb down the well using the foot holds conveniently provided by the original constructors. I am more comfortable climbing above ground but at six meters down I found only one lump of wood and surprisingly little mud. The spring source was easily identifiable already clear and strong in the front right hand corner. The large arched cut granite was most likely a recuperation from Manoir de Keryvon and would have been one of a pair that served as a well head being placed flat. However since now only a single stone had been reused I felt it more appropriate to raise it vertically so as to form a well entrance. Pierre Louis was pleased to have found and adapted an old winder and the required length of chain. The well would have probably been originally covered by a single massive slate but since that was no longer at hand I made do with a selection of smaller rustic slates, surmounting them with a line of interlocking lignolets slates ornamented with a date of 1692 the same age as my own house. The only thing missing now was the original granite trough that had been removed by Monsieur Lostanlen’s father in-law. Since mains water had arrived the well remained unused and so when Monsieur Jaffrey removed it when enlarging the entrance to his house nobody complained, but now his son in-law was more than happy that it be returned to its original emplacement and could regain its original purpose of holding water rather than soil and some annual bedding plants.
On the death of her husband Madame Lostanlen was not slow in getting one of the local farmer to take back the trough and despite a visit from Plouye mayor plus a professional arbitrator the forlorn trough remains stranded and empty in the centre of her lawn. So the family tradition of steeling the trough is maintained. Her father in-law’s house has since been sold and she made sure that the notaire included the well in the sale so that now the present owner retired from the south of France thinks the well is his. Such is life but it won’t stop me parking my van alongside to wash it.