Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Another mobile phone free retreat for Alex Salmond at 17 New Tolsta

For the past four years I’ve attempted to let out the croft house at 17 New Tolsta and certainly during that first year I had hopes that this might just work as far as paying for its upkeep. The house was very basic but there were annual improvements and several people rebooked which was the best possible indication that they enjoyed the house and the location. However each year the number of weeks rented out declined to the point that this past season there has been not a single enquiry. Selfishly I have enjoyed having the house to myself and with friends over from Australia it has been far from a solitary time.
The season started with an extra ordinary display of soft white cotton grass out on the moor as if winter had returned to carpet the moors again and was a direct result of last years fire and the subsequent re-growth. The long days of June saw the growth in the vegetable garden pick up after a slow start. July was holiday month the dawn’s golden glow gilded everything including the lilies, late evening walks and wild camping with plenty of opportunities to swim before the jelly fish peeked.

Having no holiday bookings I was free to open the parlour and hall as a summer art gallery but despite having put a sign out on the beach road only a hand full of people have bother to call in. There has been no shortage of traffic particularly at the weekend, people making their way down to our two magnificent beaches and certainly no decline in the number of camper vans bristling with bikes and surf boards filling the car park and tents pitched out on the machair or sheltering in the dunes.
 The latest trend when decamping is to burn the tent leaving scorched grass and a few charred metal posts. This year there have been three such incidents and this week I found two abandoned tents blown beyond the dunes flapping manically in the breeze hooked on the barbed wire fence. The camper vans have over the years got a bad name as they come fully equipped from the mainland and are of little benefit to the local community. At most beaches there are large wheelie bins which often in high summer struggle to contain the quantity of rubbish generated by visitors. I observed a camper van driver a few weeks ago while down on the island of Berneray having used the facilities at the ferry terminal to dispose of his chemical toilet he then headed across the car park with a large plastic bag of rubbish for the bin that was situated at the top of the slipway. On finding the bin full to overflowing he spotted that some idiot had dumped a bag alongside which had been subsequently ripped apart by seagulls. So instead of hanging on to his bag until he found another bin he took a furtive look around and dropped his bag along with the growing mess. Disposal of garbage is a costly business as tourist numbers increase year on year so the least visitors can do is keep their rubbish in their vans until they find a bin that isn’t brim full. It is not difficult to fathom out why my own self catering holiday Croft House seems to be of no interest. Certainly it can’t be the price as it is one of the cheapest on the island and the end of the road location with the two wonderful beaches of Traigh Mhor and Garry make it an exceptional place to stay. Looking around at successful self catering places it would seem that what they offer is total luxury; new kitchens and en-suite bathrooms, television and internet connection and it goes without saying guaranteed mobile phone reception. Well we have none of these, this is a traditional croft house with its stack of peat out front that fires the old Rayburn stove and as for the technology there is simply no need for it, the location is more than enough and surely a true holiday must mean freedom from a logged on world. Alex Salmond when asked this week where he would go to wind down after the referendum said the Island of Colonsay as he thought it still had no mobile phone connection. Here in the coastal wilderness of the Isle of Lewis you can remake contact with nature, watch Minkie Whales out in the Minch or Sea Eagles along the cliffs or simply lie down on a bed of orchids and breathe in the perfume of the machair, maybe rediscover your partner, your children or even yourself. No 17 New Tolsta is a refuge from the hustle of modern life where I can guarantee wonderful solitude and yes, no mobile phone reception or internet connection, no land line or television but a chance to truly relax discover the rugged calm of the vast moors roam along the dramatic cliff coastline or walk bare foot along our beaches. Well that’s my every day existence and yes it is a tough call.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hebridean Dreaming: What to do with two large sacks of Harris Tweed sa...

Hebridean Dreaming: What to do with two large sacks of Harris Tweed sa...: Stay long enough on the isle of Lewis and you’ll find yourself either cutting peat, working with sheep or weaving, I’ve already ticke...

What to do with two large sacks of Harris Tweed salve edge.

Stay long enough on the isle of Lewis and you’ll find yourself either cutting peat, working with sheep or weaving, I’ve already ticked the boxes on the first two so last week I was not at all surprised to find myself building a loom. An old black an white photo of an islander at his loom looked inspiring and like a true naïve I thought if I kept it simple warp and weft surely couldn’t be all that difficult. Well after a couple of false starts I borrowed a book from a friend and discovered all about headers sheds and shuttles.
A few weeks ago a neighbour asked me if I wanted any off cut wool from his Harris Tweed weaving and so already having completed one needlework picture and always willing to accept any raw materials I said yes thank you thinking this would surely come in useful at some point. When two enormous bags stuffed full with salve-edge arrived on my doorstep I realised this was going to be a larger scale project. I’d seen a friend’s work with salve edging where she knitted it into hearth rugs and bath mats but having seen an illustration of a Navaho Indian loom I felt this might be an ideal and relatively simple way to start weaving. The natural dyed wools of Harris Tweed evoke every colour of the Western Isles and so I felt whatever I did with the wool would be bound to represent the surrounding landscape. There is something wonderful about launching into a new method of creation, and through play finding out just what is possible. Within half a day of starting the floor of the studio was covered almost knee deep with mounds of wool and the process started to make sense. It was also obvious that this process allowed for much in the way of versatility as I thought of all the different things I could incorporate within the weave and my mind raced on creating extravagant finished hangings within my head. Having started weaving one evening I dreamed of the repetitive process for most of the night so keen was I to press ahead. With visitors gone and the days proving far too damp and midgey to continue painting the roof I pressed ahead with childlike enthusiasm for the magic of seeing my first woven hanging appear before my eyes. My thoughts drifted back to Shill School in Burford and my very first close up encounter with a loom when on Wednesday afternoons we (all 18 of us boys) would march single file over the bridge that crossed the river Windrush to the Mouse house. We would rip up old sheets into thin strips, boil onion skins to make dyes and learn about keeping bees such were the joys of a small weekly boarding school in the early sixties. I raised my eyes hearing feet crunching on the gravel outside the studio window. I’d left the open sign up for days now in the forlorn hope that people might just happen by and was this at last someone come to look, if so the colourfully clothed couple were walking in the wrong direction. By the time I stuck my head out the door of the studio they had made the road walking heads down with a brisk purposeful pace outrider sticks tapping out a rhythmical stride. How strange I thought to have walked up across the dunes through the croft then climbed the boundary fence as well as that of my vegetable garden and not to have even glanced sideways at the pictures in the window. Evidently not everybody is interested in art but I felt I had just cause in feeling slightly miffed. The walkers had stretched the idea of the right to roam to the full so while traversing my garden they might have at least made some pretence at looking at my art. Later that afternoon they came back and I was full of smiles and ready to show them around but they only wanted to enquire what time the bus came past. Being polite can at times be such an effort. I’m often told I must have tremendous patients to create such complex works but I tell you now opening your doors to the public so they might see those creations requires infinitely more.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Bargin


I could never afford stump work, or at least that’s what I always found during the years when I was dealing in antiques and today you rarely see examples outside museums. “Stump” or “stamp” work refers to high relief embroidery popularly supposed to have been invented by the nuns of Little Gidding and appears almost invariably to have been worked separately stretched within a frame, and applied when complete. While hair or wool was used as a stuffing foundation sometimes hands and heads of figures were in carved wood covered with satin or silk on which the features were either painted or embroidered. My version of stump work was to be entirely in wool on a piece of finely woven 19th century French linen. The raised portions of the embroidery were indeed worked on a separate and lighter cloth before stitching them into place onto the canvas making sure to leave a section open for stuffing with cotton wool. Having already worked a similar sized naïve rendition of Hebridean crofting I wanted this time to try for a slightly more realistic impression. That first attempt had already been described by a friend as painting with wool so once again I allowed the image to grow with very little preparatory drawing of the initial idea pencilling out the central scene within its intertwined oval border. Beyond this the idea of thistles was there from the start but exactly what form they would take was unknown. The two animals in the lower corners is an echo back to the 17th century stump work embroidery where the inclusion of such animals was common. The thatched “White house” not to be confused with the earlier “Black house” which had no visible chimney or windows sits central on the ridge above a Hebridean black sheep and a Scottish blackface sheep.
 The horns of these sheep were the final part being worked on copper wire and standing proud of the embroidery. I have noticed that while I am out sketching people passing by will often approach to see how I am representing the landscape before me however if they see a man sat stitching with needle a thread they keep at a safe distance much as they do when I’m plucking dead birds for making of feather bird pictures. I started stitching on June the 20th and spent on average a minimum of 3 hours a day until finishing on Sunday the 27th July, a full five weeks. So if I was to conservatively count my time it took just over one hundred hours. The needlework will now be stretched mounted and correctly contained within a deep box glazed frame which will not come cheap. It is important for me to execute such pieces of creative artwork for my own pleasure and so time and money do not come into it. An artist who perfects his or her craft will be able to produce artwork but if the technique is altered or debased in any way either to mass produce or to speed up production then the result must be categorised as craft. Today people are encouraged to buy cheap crap preferably made from recyclable materials since it will not be long before it’s broken and deposited in that correctly sorted bin. While this might make economic sense I find it difficult to understand why when money is so difficult to come by that so many fritter it away on cuddly key ring junk. Today’s world wide tourist industry is a particularly bad offender in this area offering a remarkable selection of poorly made and dull mass produced trinkets in the name of local crafts. Some well known artists have also been tempted to join the throng and debase there work reproducing it on everything from book markers to fridge magnets. Since the general public will part relatively easily with a few quid it is hardly surprising that less skilled craft workers are drawn towards this market which will pay while those producing fine work will quite often obtain a far lower hourly rate of pay. So what would you expect to see as a price tag on this embroidery, £60…. £600? The correct price with frame and given that many galleries now take 50% is nearer £6000, which puts it way beyond the reach of most people. So you can’t afford it now but wait a few years when someone removes my creations and possessions to the local hospice charity shop and it’ll be £6, a bargin.