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.       

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pig production.

I was born on a small pig farm in the Cotswolds but left for the Mull of Kintyre at barely two years of age. When just a toddler my brother and myself managed to open all the doors to the pig stys, not satisfied with allowing all the Wessex saddle back sows and their piglets to mingle in the outer yard we then let out the boar. When we were discovered my father dragged us back to the house and in the kitchen declared to my mother that “Your children have let all the pigs out”. Given that the pigs were seriously large beasts our safety might have been called into question but with my father the farm animals took priority.

Forty years on I painted his prize winning Wessex saddleback pig that took first in 1955 Smithfield show. Shortly afterwards a series of pigs followed during the preparation for a primitive farm animal exhibition.
Now my attention has once again been drawn back to pigs with a commission to stitch a pig. Commissions are something that in the past I have fought shy of since the requests are seldom of interest but a pig that’s different. I decided on a large white boar and to treat the subject very much as a naïve 19th century animal portrait.


The Large White originates from Yorkshire and played an important part as a crossing pig in today’s bacon production having characteristics of long and deep sides of good quality as well as deep wide hams. It has a slightly dished face with broad snout; the long ears are thin, slightly inclined forward and fringed with fine hair.   
Having completed the Large White Boar I wanted to see what effect a stump work pig on tweed would make and so started stitching a Gloucester Old Spot sow. I then read that this breed did not just come in black spots on a white ground. 
The Gloucester Old Spots throughout its long history has been bred on utility lines with the sole idea of producing the finest quality bacon in the most profitable manner. The pig proved a particular favourite with bacon curers, mainly owing to the large amount of lean meat in comparison to fat; the bacon is streaky and of first rate quality. By the beginning of the twentieth century its fame had spread throughout the world and in 1919 at the Royal Agricultural Show in Cardiff a boar was sold for 600 guineas. The characteristics of a champion is to have a medium length head; wide between the ears, a wide but medium sized nose with rather long and drooping ears; the neck fairly long and muscular with the sides very deep and presenting a rather drooping bottom line; the belly and flank, full and thick with the tail set high of moderate size and carrying a strong brush. The skin colour should be white spots on black ground, or black spots on white ground with hair long and silky with an absence of mane bristles.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

“Good art should be disturbing”.

I heard this said recently by an award winning author and found myself pondering the statement. In the past my art has at times been described as disturbing in that it left people feeling uncomfortable or at least my intention was that it should be so, but as to whether it was fit to be described as good I prefer to leave to others. I see very little in my artwork now that could be described as disturbing and yet I see it not as bad art but rather comfortable art. In fact there is much today that I would describe as being bad art and that at times disturbs me intensely if only for the fact that it is taking up valuable exhibition space and hard to come by funding. So can good art be something other than disturbing and what relevance does art therapy figure in all of this? Obviously art can impart the full breakfast of reactions from sheer joy, through rage to total depression but then perhaps I am reading the idea of disturbing wrongly, for disturbing read reaction, any reaction. Does my reaction to bad art as being disturbing now make it good art? To clarify my own idea of bad art maybe I should categorise anything that doesn’t draw my attention in any way and that I don’t even notice as bad art. Since my eye picks up on most things this would mean that there isn’t much out there in our world that is “bad”. Then how can that be true when I am so eager at times to criticise what I see as unsightly, an abomination, disgusting, horrific, a tragic waste of good materials. Ah! That must be my own personal taste kicking in and that along with all forms of criticism has no place in art, for even if only one person reacts in any way shape or form to that art then it must be good art. No? And if they find my art comfortable is that sufficient reaction to then say even if only in their eyes that it could be considered good?