Monday, June 18, 2018

Weathering the storm.

When starting a new large piece of needlework I still retain that naïve hope that it will all come together in no time at all. That was my thought when first the idea of a blanket map came to mind. It was whilst in Australia when I had just completed a group of sheep on tweed, the fleeces of which had been achieved by stitching on part of a white woollen scarf given to me by a dear friend who had since departed this life. I had imagined this grouping of sheep framed in patchwork quilting and beneath them would be the croft map for New Tolsta also done in tweed. For simplicity I would stitch the entire thing directly onto a blanket. Sounds simple but in reality it turn out to be a real fiddle right from the start. Never having been one to fall at the first fence I persisted sure that at some point it would all start to make sense. It wasn’t long before I realised that this was going to entail a serious amount of stitching and my mind raced ahead to all the possible things I would be embroidering onto the tweed over and above the map details.
Each of the crofts would be represented in a different tweed and where fences existed on some of these they would be subdivided either with the tweed running in a different direction or an entirely different tweed. Apart from ditches rock out crops and ancient lazy bed patterns there would feature the flora and fauna of the crofts and the machair beyond continuing down to the dunes, the beach and the sea. Out in the studio I hung a blanket 190x190cm on some carpet gripper that I’d secured to one of the A frames and started pining on the sheep along the top. Then came the scaling up of the map which I had adapted from a Google Earth image. I stood back with horror at the complexity of the work I wondered just how I hoped to achieve anywhere near what for now remained in my head. Keep calm and carry on came to mind, no dead-line no rush just tackle one portion at a time much as I’d done the stump work biblical images.
The studio is now cushioned on a mound brilliant yellow buttercups and having it open to the public might be seen as a brave or even foolhardy thing to do by some artists, but I have always been used to working in public. While I could look at the interruptions as disruptive I find they often help me to step back from whatever I’m working on and permit reflection.
When painting it is rare for me to have more than one canvas on the go but with needlework I often have more than one piece on the go. So along with the NewTolsta blanket map I continue to stitch the crewel work surround for the mirror. Over half way now and its really taking shape with the exotic tree of life theme proving perfect subject material for the border design. I enjoy smaller pieces that I can transport easily and during wild and windy evenings when I can’t be bothered to light a fire I take my stitching to bed. Last week saw the first rain for over a month and it came in horizontally form the south west on a howling gale. As I ran from studio to house it stopped me in my tracks whirling about and whipping the tightly fitting hat from my head. That night I pulled the heavy lined curtains of the half tester over the bed for added insulation as the wind threw rain like gravel at the rattling sash windows. By morning it was still with us although the rain had eased. During an afternoons walk I was buffeted along as I made my way round on the short circuit up to the post box and back by the lower road. I recovered the gallery open sign from the ditch across the road and attempted a more secure fixing. I hadn’t expected any visitors on a day like this however I was pleased later that afternoon to welcome one intrepid fellow stitcher into the studio.
A tour of the garden revealed some seriously battered plants with new growth already browning and in some cases entirely stripped. Due to the placement of buildings there are always a few sheltered spots and so my floral display was not totally ruined as the first poppy burst open. The young greens however had lost the protective fleece and most were partially uprooted. I gather up what looked like half of the gooseberry crop that lay scattered beneath the bushes, bitter little green bullets that I’ll try to make use of. I wouldn’t have been surprised to have discovered the goldfinches nest ripped from the bushes however they had survived the thrashing, the young being just visible as a tightly packed mass of feathers and fluff.
Out on the moor I have just about completed this year’s cutting of peat with a much welcomed helping hand from Swedish friend Mats. Most of what I cut in early May is now dry enough to make mini pinnacle stacks which helped to create space for throw the remaining freshly cut peat. Hopefully I will be able to get them bagged and transported home by trailer this year rather than wheel-barrowing them up to the van on the track as was the case last year.   
Early this morning I was awoken by the raucous cackling of ravens in the neighbouring croft and when I ventured out six of these magnificent glossy black winged thugs flew off perching on the fence post further down the croft and audibly angry at the interruption in their proceedings. I discovered my snare had caught the first rabbit of the year, but no Sunday bunny stew for me as the birds had done a truly professional job. I unravelled the cadaver throwing it towards the birds but having had their fill they declined the offering and left it to the next in line, the hoody crows. In nature nothing is wasted.           

Friday, June 1, 2018

The right choice.

I’m spoilt for choice in New Tolsta when it comes to walking but last Sunday I was pleased to have made an early start so that by seven thirty I’d reached the end of the tract out to Loch Diridean. Keeping the far hill of Muirneag dead ahead I would be sure to arrive at the centre of the two bodies of water that go up to make Loch Cloich, (Loch of the stones). The day was set fair with clear blue sky and a pleasant easterly breeze to guarantee a midge free walk. For once I was walking in light shoes rather than wellington boots and so it was important that I watched where my feet might land. Keeping to higher ground does not automatically mean drier ground out here on the great expanse of Lewis moorland. Within the first few minutes of walking I’d put up a pair of red grouse, while the call of the cuckoo back at New Tolsta was still audible on the easterly breeze the bird life out here seemed quiet, perhaps busy sitting on eggs.

When faced with the enormous scale of these moors my attention is often drawn to the small details of life in such a seemingly inhospitable place. The colour of the moor at this time of year can seem somewhat drab, dead and bleached vegetation in what has been a rather unseasonably dry spring. This made for relatively easy walking which reminded me of snow in that your foot falls through the crisp topping to find the firmer ground beneath. The sphagnum moss has yet to green up but the brilliance of certain growth was reminiscent of those vibrant flecks of colour in the weave of Harris Tweed. There can few places on this earth where the locally produced cloth echoes so closely the landscape from where it originates.
Arriving at the narrow strip of land that divides the two halves of Loch Cloich I noted the alignment of stone outcrops in the water and the reason for its name while other placement of rocks indicated obvious signs of historic human presence, one to form what could be a fish trap and the other a simple walkway over to a tiny island. Skirting the west side of the loch I then headed due north for Loch Scarasdail.
 It had been a few years since I’d been out here to sketch the old shieling. The rusty tin roof was still in place and amongst the signature on the inside I found my own which confirmed five years had passed since last I was here. The day was shaping up to be a scorcher and I was glad I’d decided to head for the moors and not the beach which being a Sunday I was sure would be heaving with people.       
Trudging back eastward to higher ground once again brought the Minch onto the horizon and a clear view all the way to the mainland and the familiar outline of the mountains north of Ullapool. As I made my way homeward I noted the almost constant stream of car heading for the beaches and knew I’d made the right choice.

Monday, May 28, 2018


Two days after I arrived back in New Tolsta the east end of my peat stack fell out and revealing the remains of a birds nest. As I bagged up the peat I discovered one light blue starling’s egg amongst the dried grass and the parent birds watched from the ridge of the barn roof mimicking perfectly the clucking of chickens, the mewing of the buzzards and the chatter of sparrows.
 For the second year running the gold finches have nested in the New Zealand holly. There is always an added sense of pride when birds choose to nest in shrubs that I have planted, particularly when those shrubs have taken ten years to get to bird nesting proportions. In late September last year I saw the entire family of finches perched on my washing line. There has been a program of eradicating mink on the island due to the devastating effect on ground nesting birds and to a large extent this has been successful. If mink are considered vermin then the same classification must be afforded all feral cats and pet cats that are allowed to roam and hunt. Twice in the past week I’ve chased off a rather mangy looking cat that has ambled up the croft into my garden. I have no problem with it hunting rabbits but I fear for the ground nesting birds on the machair. Cats have more freedom than any other living animal on this planet. My half-brother’s three cats from Florida were allowed into the country but his wife was not, even though she receives an English pension. Cats have the right to roam anywhere, can scrape up your newly planted seeds and use your garden as a latrine, while their owners consider this amusing. High on my bucket list is to own a Davy Crocket hat made from a nice fluffy moggy with the grinning face out front and tail swinging at the rear, so much more than simply a fashion statement.    
 During mid-May the cuckoo is in fine voice from dawn to dusk and due to the lack of trees is very visible perched on the fence posts or atop the peat stack. It’s the male that gives the familiar call and I have often wondered why it needs to cuckoo quite so much. The other day it flew past whilst calling and behind it was a tiny bird flapping furiously trying to chase the much larger bird away. It crossed my mind that this might just be a decoying tactic by the male bird so that the female can sneak in and lay her egg in that little birds nest. Opposite my house is an abandoned plant nursery area and with its dense small tree growth it has become a haven for birds, hence the cuckoos.
This week I retrieved two large bags from my neighbour’s freezer containing my collection of feathers. I’d put them there as a precaution against any mites before starting work on a new series of feather bird pictures. While in Western Australia last winter I painted twenty water colour botanical backgrounds that now await the addition of the birds. This is a fiddly business requiring to be carried out in draft free conditions. As the feathers are trimmed ready for gluing into place there is fluff everywhere and sneezing must be avoided at all costs. Whistling along to Strauss’s Blue Danube can prove fatal and while a stiff breeze blows in from the east all windows and doors are closed in the studio.     

Monday, May 14, 2018


I arrived back in New Tolsta a little over a week ago and as usual my feet have hardly touched the ground with all that I want to see and need to get on with. There is rhubarb to pick and chutney to make, soil to be dug and shrubs that need pruning, turf to remove and peat to cut, fires to light and back doors to unjam. I looked for damage from winter storms and was relieved to discover nothing serious. The rabbits have been in nibbling and digging so this time I decided to install a rabbit proof fence around the perimeter. Shrubs and tree (small trees) are beginning to sprout as the days become seriously long and I try to contain my child-like excitement for the plant kingdom. This is the time of year when change in growth is visible on a daily basis.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a project in hand and having already done the design work for a cruel-work mirror frame while in Western Australia I was keen to get started. The background is once again untreated French linen but the tight weave is already proving punishing on the needle and my fingers.  
 A dull start to Sunday morning saw me in the studio continuing stitching the mirror frame but as mid-day arrived and a large sea eagle cruised along the ridge I realised the sun had broken through and a walk was in order. Down in the dunes behind Traigh Mhor beach the scent of primroses greeted me and a surprise on the beach to see a change in the course of the river. 
Winter had pushed up a lot of sand and blocked its normal direct pathway to the sea so that now it turned sharply southward eventually finding its new exit several hundred yards down the beach. Making my way back up across the machair I heard the familiar mewing of a buzzard overhead, a call that I associated with its nest being close by and sure enough there above the burn was a small mass of dry sticks. I climbed round to  get a closer view from above and saw two eggs, one much lighter but both of characteristically round form. So it has been a change of nesting site this year having perhaps been pestered by the sea eagles in previous summers when they nested up on the ridge or by wind farm machinery when nesting in the quarry.

Much of this week has been spent sorting out the house and garden, having brought some of my favorite pictures to hang plus my French walnut bed for the second bedroom, assembled just in time for the first guest. In the garden I’ve planted potatoes, peas, carrots, lettuce, kale and broccoli and the gooseberries and blackcurrants are in full flower. The strawberries will require some protection but are already showing more promise than last year and so the unchanged rhythm of my Hebridean life resumes.          

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


When my “Gallery Open” sign flew past the kitchen window heading for the Minch I took it to mean that the season was over and time to close my studio. We’ve been having our first real autumn breeze and while the last three cabbages are still firmly in the ground the wind has the effect of transforming walking into staggering, whereby both drinkers and non-drinkers look like they might have been at the whiskey. October heralds the drama of darkening skies with spectacular sunrises and brooding sunsets, days filled with fast moving rain soaked clouds splashed across with vivid rainbows and sudden shaft of sunlight, nights where the massive almost full moon plays hide and seek low in the southern sky.

People become talkative drawn closer by the prospect of shorter days while visitors dwindle and the camper vans return south to their period of hibernation. Many of the Greylag geese no longer bother to migrate preferring to sit it out overwintering on the crofts. There are complaints that they ruin the grazing but just as with the rabbits nobody thinks to eat them. Up at the sheep fank there’s dipping in progress and the best of the lambs have already gone to market. Birds take shelter from the high winds and larger birds are often hurled across the sky at alarming speeds. Buzzards no longer mew from on high but fly low across the fenced croft strips.
I am hustled from the back door with teapot in hand by the funnelled wind that passes down the back of the house and am thankful that I put no door on the entrance lobby to the studio so can leap in without fuss. Since the studio is rated as non-domestic it has come to the attention of business water rates and I have elected to forgo their services and extra ordinary expense for a rarely used cold water tap and toilet. These things are sent to try us and often the perceived convenience is when closely examined no real hardship to live without.

Last night the roof groaned with strong gusts from the North West and when twice some loose concrete fragment rattled its way down the roof I began to wonder if this wasn’t a little more than a stiff breeze. This morning’s inspection revealed nothing from the ground and the wind is still too strong for me to risk a ladder, whatever it was its evidently not structural. 
This summer I’ve made good progress on the interior with the second bedroom insulated and painted. The landing and stair-well ceiling is plaster boarded and sports a small classic ceiling rose. I love the delusions of grandeur that are so easily reproduced in a simple crofter’s cottage from the faux marble parlour mantle-piece and its painted Dutch delft tiled surround to the half-landing window where I’ve hung a pair of shabby though splendidly opulent curtains by W. Turner Lord & Co of 20 Mount St, Grosvenor Square, dating from around 1890 and according to the stitched on label were for the library window of Rylu House wherever that might have been. In the other bedroom I’m in the process of renovating a large mahogany half tester bed and reusing the red velvet curtains that sixty years ago hung in the bay window of our home on the Mull of Kintyre. I feel it is important in this era of the throwaway society that the old island traditions of reuse, or make do and mend are respected, if only by me alone. 
On the ground floor I’ve installed shutters that I enjoy closing each evening, imagining that like throwing an extra tweed blanket on the bed they will provide a further layer of comfort against the lashing elements outside.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Digging for treasure

No longer New Tolsta rather Old Tolsta
Treasure hunting played a significant role during my childhood and from the moment I first started gardening. My father would allocate my brother and me a small area of the garden where we could dig and grow whatever we liked. This more often than not totally abandoned area was a challenge to clear and cultivate but it in no way put us off the idea of gardening, rather it instilled in us the sense of achievement in bringing a small patch back into production. Scratching away at the surface and removing overgrowth followed by digging and with the digging came treasure hunting.
For the most part this treasure took the form of broken china; shards that turned out to be 19th century blue and white transfer ware, the ever present DNA that runs through all British gardens. Sixty years on from my first garden and I’m still digging for treasure. Out on the moor when digging peat I still hope that one day I will find proof of human habitation, some discarded relic, a hollowed out wooden dish, a pottery fragment. Likewise in the garden around the house every turn of the spade is checked. The midden material at No 17 New Tolsta seems to have been scattered in gay abandon and the site also seems to have been inhabited for a considerable length of time. When digging below the old blackhouse to create my vegetable garden I discover an area of stones very evidently laid flat and wondered if this was a place for threshing or the floor of an even earlier settlement. At the back of the 19th century farm barn there was a hollow on slightly higher ground and some very large stones which seemed to have nothing to do with the remains of the nearby stone shed. During the excavation of this area for my new studio it proved to be mainly a rich black soil and after it had rained the ground was littered with slipware pottery fragments. There were other low fired shards which although ancient looking proved also to be 19th century.
This weekend while digging on the bank above the studio I discovered a small clay pipe impressed A COGHILL, Glasgow (Alexander Coghill 1826- 1904) which fitted well into the 19th century time frame. As I dug up several lumps of rock I realised that these seemed to have been placed there in line, remains of an old wall perhaps….. and then I saw it. Brought to the surface by our excavations and my subsequent clearing lay a perfect Neolithic axe head. We are talking 5000 years plus old and the strangest thing was that as I picked it up I was sure I’d not only seen it before but had handled it.
During Neolithic times the islands would have been a very different place unencumbered by today’s thick layer of peat bog. The shoreline was further out to sea and behind the dunes was a deep sandy soil with extensive scrub woodland and reedy pools. Further inland was an area of rolling boggy ground with bare outcrops and heavy damp soil, supporting more scrub interspersed with grassland. Between the lochs and low hills the small deep valleys were wooded and in the rivers salmon and trout swam. It was a rich land which Celtic mythology describes as Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever-Young.
The Mesolithic period of seasonal hunter gather gave way to the very earliest form of farming around 3600 BC. But apart from burial cairns and standing stones, few sites dating from before the Iron Age give any clear insight into the domestic life. The sandy western coastal areas were favoured settlement locations but here in Tolsta we also have dunes and a large area of sandy soil sloping down to a smaller area of machair. It seems likely that there is a great deal of buried evidence of former inhabits of these isles and when not under deep peat is surprisingly close to the surface. Today I took the axe head into Stornoway Museum and amid excitement for the find it was to be declared treasure trove. Forms were signed and with luck this fine axe head will remain in our local museum.

It would now seem as though my studio is built on top of a Neolithic site, unfortunately in doing so any archaeological worth of the site has been removed but at least I can safely say that New Tolsta should strictly be renamed as Old Tolsta.             

Monday, August 21, 2017

Tourists go home

Having spent the day moving furniture back into the newly decorated bedroom it was late afternoon before I finally set off on my Sunday walk to Garry beach. Normally I would head up onto the ridge and stick to the high-ground, swinging inland before descending via the bridge to nowhere and the beach. However given the hour I decided to stick to the road and easier walking. In delaying my walk I had certainly profited from the best part of the day and when the cloudbank rolled back westward across the moor the sky remained cloudless. My eye caught the flash of a brilliantly coloured caterpillar; the Broom, another species in decline although I had several adults found their way into my kitchen last month. This is the brown variety as it also occurs in green with yellow stripes and enjoys clover and peas. Here it is seen on Goat’s beard the root of which is edible much like carrot.
The car park at Traigh Mhor looked busy with ten cars parked and as I wandered on I noticed cars that had passed me were now returning having been the end of the road, ticked the box in the “I spy book of beautiful beaches” and without even getting out of the car they head on to the next. Why do able bodied people do that? It’s not just a local thing they do it all over the world, they’ll travel for an hour or more to reach a stunningly beautiful spot and when they get there they simply turn round, perhaps taking a snap shot as proof and leave. 
As I round the bend passing Donald’s freshly clipped sheep another car passes and I give them a suitably blank look of disgust. By now I have decided I will have to return via the road in order to pick up the discarded litter. I walk on up the track beyond Garry beach to the “Bridge to nowhere” stopping to talk to an elderly couple from Germany who had so enjoyed their walk. I was explaining how many never get out of their cars as a car passed us and headed on up to the bridge where they promptly hopped out of the car took their photo and turned round. Even the elderly walkers looked shocked, and I realised that this stunning natural beauty is wasted on the Pokémon mentality. I wanted to shout “Tourist go home” but realised I might offend the charming elderly walkers so wrote it large in a cursed thought across the back windscreen of the departing car. I hate being irritated by such things but calm had returned as I crossed the bridge to take a closer look at a mountain ash cloaked in brilliant red berries.
After a quick inspection of my peaty bank and the now very dry cut peat that needs bringing in I ambled down across the purple heather to the beach. The tide was full in and everyone had gone, cars in the car park and I wondered had those tourists heard my curse. My studio has been open for close on two months and during that time I have had six people come in, and of those four have purchased a picture. The Studio 17 sign on the roadside is large and very visible but from the many hundreds that head to the beaches there would seem to be few that have carry with them the “I spy book of Galleries” and for that perhaps I should be thankful.

On the walk back I start picking up the litter and realise the bitter irony is that every last bit of it is recyclable. Climbing back up the hill with home in sight my eye catches something at the edge of the burn; a council road sign warning of loose chippings and a 20 mile an hour maximum speed. I pull it from the burn knowing that I have the ideal spot for that next to my freshly laid gravel path at the back of the house.