Wednesday, November 25, 2020



It would seem strange at this time of year, already late November, to start walking in the dark. Surely it would be better to take a walk during daylight hours, and preferably during those precious all too brief moments when the sun is out. Well yes, that also. I had already taken a stroll over the hill to the village shop for parcel tape and more ibuprofen. Dorothy advised me behind her mask not to get them muddled.  Dusk shortly after four and dark by five, the moon two thirds full, the wind has dropped an intermittent showers hopefully passed. Wrapped up warm and weather proof I step outside, heading up to the road junction and the two brilliantly blinding orange street lamps. I turn right and head downhill, pausing just beyond Roddy’s bungalow and the orange glow I shut my eyes and count to thirty. The full night walking team would normally be Kate and her border terrier Rusty, and Donald with his young collie sheep dog Laddie. Tonight it’s just me, no torch, no chat, no barking. Opening my eyes I can now make out the horizon, the high ridge and buzzards eyrie, and all importantly the road. The cattle grid is another thirty yards on and I search the ground before me. It’s only half seven but my eyes are quickly becoming accustomed to the dark. The edge of the road is indicated by the puddled water and soon the damp bitumen shows lighter. The moon is behind me, my own massive head torch. The evening mild, only a slight breeze and I lower my hood so as to hear the water running in the ditches, which give way to the rowdy burn running under the road.  Winding and descending I make my way past the Traigh Mhor turning. The noise level increases as I pass over the crashing cascades of a larger burn then stride out along the straight stretch above the inlet. The moon has cleared no longer veiled by low wispy cloud and the below me the crashing of the luminous waves indicate the tide is well out. Rounding the corner there is a light up ahead. At first I think it might be Donald’s head torch but quickly realise it’s far too bright for that. Beyond the dazzle I see more lights and the form becomes clear. A parked up camper van, and once again I hold my hand up to the inquisitive glare of the light aimed at me. I plod on and offer a polite good evening in passing, wondering what they must things of the mysterious night walker. Reaching the high ground above Garry beach I would normally swing my legs over the fence and head down along the cliff tops, perhaps on a clear full moon evening but definitely not now as a large raven’s head of a cloud slips briskly across the face of the moon creating beyond a precipitous dark gulf. I lean against the fence and search the sky. Mars, tinged pink and un-twinkling is due south but the night sky is confusingly overcast the constellations buried in scud-clouds. Time to head back as more clouds approach. Silvered insulating privacy on the camper vans windscreen and time for bed. The road home is clear as the moon slips once more from the gathering clouds. My pace doesn’t alter on the uphill section, the night removing all sense of its steepness. The final stretch is more like entering the outskirts of a street lit town as my night vision is blinded by artificial light. Beneath the lamps all is a warm glow but beyond my house is invisible and once again I wonder what purpose there is in street lighting when people already have their own outside lights if they really feel it’s needed. So who decided it was necessary for a hand full of houses way out here in New Tolsta, and what was their reasoning? Do we need to think it through again and if it is indeed not needed how can we get it removed? Only having passed the glare can I once again see the familiar chimney outline of croft 17. As I open the door the last bus passes, lit up like a fairground stall, and empty.         

Thursday, November 12, 2020



Today’s protracted autumn sunrise starts noticeably further south. Just as in the summer the sun’s journey begins and ends further north so now with the approach of winter it slips south, the original snow flake.

I sense the night releasing its grip and by six there is light squeezing it way past the bedroom curtains. This is the waking hour. It has taken me years to appreciate this part of the recovery process, wandering aimlessly through the tail end of dreams into consciousness. Gone are the days when in my thirties I would leap from bed the instant my eyes opened, impatient to get started, the early bird determined to catch the worm. Contentment has dowsed the eager flames of haste and I now have time to savor the moment and choose what I would like to achieve in the approaching daylight hours.

By seven and without switching on a light I can see my way down stairs. Outside no a breath of wind, silent apart from the rhythmical roar of waves drifting up across machair and crofts. The narrow band of dawn glows orange sandwiched between the silhouetted land and sober sky, Sunrise will be a brief affair.

Taking out warm riddled ashes, embers glowing, revived in the cool fresh air. Beneath the muscular underbelly of clouds the colour has drained from the horizon. Returning outside to refill the coal scuttle and heave in a sack of peat the sky has split ragged with hope that the sun will indeed make an early appearance. The friendly robin chirps its greeting, impatient that I start my day in the garden, disturbing ground and insect life.

Just before eight the school bus passes and shortly after the light begins to soften the cloud cover. Today will be a good day.


Monday, November 2, 2020



It’s important to get out, I told myself, even on days like this. Important for both physical and mental health. I’d missed the brief fifteen minutes of sun around two o’clock and the approaching storm was surely not far off, so it was now or never. Donning full wet weather gear and a woolly bonnet of my father’s I ventured forth. I’d adapted the hat specifically for this sort of blustery conditions by knitting extra ear flaps and securing straps and with the water proof hood strings tied tightly under my chin I was ready for whatever the remainder of the day had to throw at me.

Walks are not planned, they just happen and my trajectory today would be dictated by the south-south-westerly wind. So shutting and locking the door behind me I stepped out. I would not normally lock the door but with the wind face on to the front of the house I felt uneasy relying solely on the latch. There is a knack to closing it and if someone came calling in my absence I didn’t want to risk the door not being securely closed. Head down I made my way up to the T junction and turned right, downhill towards the beach. The ditches were full to brimming with peat stained water and at the culvert it gurgled and thrashed impatient to reach its destiny. Like a reluctant child I was being nudged forward by the wind’s parental guidance. Two cars passed as I stood to one side and decided it would be safer to cross burn and fence for the softer ground. I watched as both dog-less cars carried on along the dead end coast road to Garry and wondered if they would quit the comfort of their vehicles for the beach. I followed the mill stream transformed into an angry torrent, churning and cleaving the land, spilling voluptuous over the granite boulders, forming newly found falls. Staying to the sheep tracks high above the car park I discovered a moment’s calm and ewes grazing contentedly on whatever tasty growth the machair had to offer in late autumn. Down on the dunes it was a different matter as the coarse grass bent seaward and wet sand drifted low across Traigh Mhor beach. Three people and a leash straining dog made their way back to the car as I turned and headed into the wind. Here it had the uninterrupted mile and a half of beach to show its full force, whipping arches of celebratory spray from foaming white crests. Hungrily the towering waves devoured brown peaty moorland waters. The riot of noise from my flapping hood deafening. The painful sting of fine rain on my face, plodding on, head down seaweed at my feet interred beneath the shifting sands. Leaning into the wind I staggered forward at times halting as the wind held me in its grip. Barely quarter of the way along I gave up the struggle and made for the relative calm of the dunes. There along with the sheep, beneath the steep slopes of the machair I found a moment rest bite. But this is a walk and must be continued if the circuit is to be completed, and a cup of hot tea and cake the reward. It’s uphill and thankfully more sheltered but I zigzag none the less along sheep trod terracing. At the brow I take the final step up, headlong into the gale-force wind.  If I am to make the gate and track home there is no alternative. I totter drunkenly on, deafened by the din of the flapping waterproof hood. A brief look up for direction, I locate the gate and press on leaning forward, crazily determined. I find myself singing or more accurately shouting defiant nothingness, roaring in the face of this wonderful force of nature. I’m here, part of it, alive.

Making the gate I clamber through the gap at the hinged end and turn sideways now up the track. This is a different sort of stagger, a different sort of intoxication, an old persons teetering wobbly advancement but what am I at 67 if not advancing in years. Passing George’s house I raise a hand as I catch sight of him at the kitchen window. He at least won’t think I’m mad. He’d understand that need to be out in it, feeling everything, all cobwebs removed. On the road again the wind is at my back pushing and shoving me relentlessly homeward. Walking is not the usual left right rhythm as I lurch irregularly forward trying not to trip over my own feet or to end up sprawled on the tarmac. A brief interlude of calm as I pass the treed hollow before croft thirteen to fifteen and ahead my own front door awaits, within the centrally heated warmth of my new peat fired Rayburn. The old £60 faithful of the past twelve years, finally rusting and leaking, confined only two days ago to the back yard. The new bright and shiny but decidedly more efficient arrived, equally efficiently a day early from Gloucestershire and with help from neighbours was installed and running by mid-afternoon.              

Tuesday, October 20, 2020



I’ve been right up close to the painting this past fortnight with reading glasses on and small brushes for detailed work. The subject is inspired by those wonderful 17th century botanical Dutch masterpieces that became popular around the time of tulip mania. No flower has carried more political, social, economic, religious, intellectual and cultural influence. The tulip reigned supreme throughout Europe during the extra ordinary events of the 17th century.

I once hoped to buy a pair of these botanical painting at a house sale down in Cornwall. I was encouraged by the auctioneer’s estimate of £500-£1000, but could see there would be competition. I looked at my bank account and decided I could go to £9000. On the day of the auction, the price rose quickly to £3000, and then stopped, so I prepared to raise my hand. Someone else joined in and off it went again, faltering at £7500. Still I could not raise my hand as yet another continued the bidding. It passed my limit but I wasn’t taking any notice of that and at £12000 was prepared to take a chance. Thankfully it took off once more and didn’t stop till they were finally sold for £23000, a bargain for the person who had the funds and satisfying well beyond my resources. So, having an aversion to anything other than the original, I must now paint my own in homage to what I could never have afforded. I’ve incorporated all manner of bulbs that includes corms such as cyclamen and anemones and will add some insect life before completion.

Although I admire such detailed work this is not at the exclusion of more abstract and loose brush work. A point in question is a large oil that I have known since childhood by Thomas Hunt.

It always took pride of place in my parent’s house and now it graces mu parlour wall. A suitably romantic vision of a highland glen with cattle it also displays a wonderful technic in foreground work which I like to call clean off the brush, and here close in you find the painterly abstract quality of the piece. Just as much a joy as the fine controlled illustrative brushwork of the 17th century.

Thursday, October 15, 2020



I left the studio late the other night. On moon-lit evenings there is no problem in negotiating the fifteen meters walk along the back of the barn to the back door. However this night it was pitch black so I was relying on familiarity to guide my passage. It led me to turn one step to soon and collide with the granite corner. No harm done but thought it about time I add a torch to my shopping list. Just as I did this the following morning I immediately crossed it off. Why was I contemplating buying a battery operated plastic light when I already had a perfectly good lantern.

I came across the lantern some thirty years ago on the west coast of Ireland, when as an antique dealer I was buying furniture. When I asked Simon Quilligan how much he wanted for it he looked perplexed. I’d already spent several thousand pounds with him and a broken box lantern had no real value. “Sure you can take that as a present” he said and for the next twenty five years it hung from a wooden peg in the stairwell of my house in Brittany, complete with candle but never lit. I had repaired the tin funnel and made a door for the back but this summer I decided it needed a further going over, so replaced the broken glass and added a reflecting mirror on the inside of the door. It was packed into the van for my return to Lewis and now, at last it could be put into service. My perfect pre-electric torch, that has the added benefit of warming your hands as you carry it.    

Saturday, September 5, 2020



For the first time in over a decade I have spent the summer months in Brittany remaking acquaintance with my sorely neglected garden. Years of abandon had seen a serious reserve of weed seed build up plus some sort of pernicious creeping sow thistle that would regrow from the smallest section of root. During the lockdown period I devoted at least part of each day to clearing, digging and manuring and was pleasantly surprise just what can be achieved by methodical persistence. Perhaps that should really come as any great revelation since my work with embroidery entails a similar mind set. Unable to travel back north to the Hebrides it seemed logical to start growing as much food as I could and by late June the freezer was three quarters full and trips to the supermarkets were considerably reduced.

Then restrictions reduced and the holiday period was in full swing. Never have we seen so many people in Finistere, presumably they decided to come to Brittany because we were clean and to all practical purposes free from covid. Not for long though and so I returned to my garden and studio. It wasn’t until early August that I realised that in living alone I had made no physical contact with another human since mid-March. My home and studio in New Tolsta was calling; with that panoramic view down the croft to the Minch and the north east coast of Lewis, so I booked my ticket for the day after a dental appointment on the 8th September in the hopes that I would be able before then to have harvested the bulk of the fruit and vegetables. The seasons are definitely changing and everything seems almost a month in advance which has meant that the apples are picked and stored, the slow gin is made and the hazel nuts are drying. Unfortunately the walnuts will not be ready before I leave so I’ve asked a friend to collect them in a few weeks’ time. Similarly the bumper crop of quince and meddlers will not be ready, but those will be harder to find anyone to gather as the former requires work to prepare jelly, and the later rotting fruit few people, apart from myself and Henry VIII seem to like or know what to do with.

My embroidery project over the summer months has been a stitched book and to that end I have completed over half. The wooden framed pages are hinged together using a boxwood mechanism which to my delight has worked out perfectly despite not first making a trial prototype. There was no fixed theme for the pages and I have stitched very much according to what came to mind.

There is a wide range of stitching and technics used to create each page, and while some derive influence from 18th century samplers others are very contemporary using the attestation we required here whenever we left the house during the covid lock-down period. Other pages use a mixture of technics with appliqué and embroidery as in the two pages of the bear trap (a view of man’s extra ordinary ability to constantly create traps for himself). I estimate that by the end of the year the project should be nearing completion.

Meanwhile I prepare for the journey north and the knowledge that I have a further two weeks quarantine to complete on arrival and a second and very different garden that requires my attention.    

Friday, August 7, 2020

Stitched by Tom Hickman


A book can take many forms, not simply a printed text and illustrations but something that in itself is a work of art. Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth century embroidered stitchery was often employed on book covers. I took this as my point of inspiration and during last winter while still in Western Australia I started my stitched book. Since then I have concentrated my creative needlework entirely to the pages of this book and estimate it will take the rest of 2020 to complete. Each panel or page measure 30cm x 40cm, while the book itself has a concertina form, standing on bun feet and when open is self-supporting. I had given little thought to how these needlework panels could be bound. It was only after several months of stitching that the idea of framing each one in wood and incorporating a wooden hinged mechanism evolved. To execute this I called on my furniture making friend Simon Tyler. Over the years I have worked with him on various projects and he has made not only furniture for me but all the oak windows of my Breton farm house. Like myself Simon did not stop work on reaching retirement age but now tends to concentrate on what gives him pleasure. At the moment that as playing his banjo as well as making himself a new banjo. It sounded as if my concertina book was going to be equally complicated to construct as that banjo.
There is something very special in a friendship that allows you to work in someone else’s studio or workshop and Simon’s is a space that has seen an exceptional creative output over the past twenty years.

Most people would have made a scale model in order to see if worked but I moved straight on to the finished item confident that it would work. I have as yet only assembles three of the double sided pages but already I can see the finished book will look impressive. It was back in April during the period of covid confinement when we were required to carry an attestation with us every time we left the house, which stated by way of box ticking one of the valid reasons for being out. If when inspected by the Gendarmes it was discovered to be incorrectly filled out on inspection an on the spot 130 euro fine could be imposed. Walks of up to one kilometre from the house and for one hour were permitted but I found myself on more than one occasion crouching behind a talus (stone and earth field hedge similar to those found in Cornwall), just in case the sound of that rare approaching car turned out to be the Gendarmes. Those printed attestations became the inspiration for another page.

Brittany was almost clear of covid during that period but now that the government has decided that everyone requires a period of regeneration (would that because people’s work or the stress of being confined was degenerating, or was it referring to those businesses relying on tourism). Tourists flocked here bringing the virus with them and a corresponding “R” rate of 2.5 around the coast. I have twice seen couples thumbing a lift on the outskirts of local towns and although the main music festival in Carhaix was cancelled this summer there are plenty of smaller uncontrolled events. During that blessedly peaceful period of confinement one of my walks took me past a remarkable oak tree that has little changed during the thirty years I have known it, and so before it came into leaf I captured its form in tweed wools.

Including both front and back cover there will be in total 24 pages to the book which will require in order to be opened out and read a good size farmhouse kitchen table.