Monday, June 18, 2018

Weathering the storm.

When starting a new large piece of needlework I still retain that na├»ve 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.