Sunday, July 22, 2018

ALL IS SAFELY GATHERED IN>



It’s been a record breaking year on so many front and many experienced peat cutters say they’ve never known a year so dry. Back at the beginning of May while others were sweating it out jogging along the track from the bridge to nowhere I was hard at work at my peat banks. De-turfing is perhaps the most detested job as there is nothing to show for the effort but once the top layer of peat is revealed I get a genuine sense of excitement for the work that is to follow. The first cut with the tairsgeir (peat iron)     and the season starts. Count up to 30 as I cut, then I stop and throw that batch. The process is repeated ten times and then I’m done for the day. Anymore and I risk getting into serious trouble with my back. Throwing is a real art and when done correctly with skill so that each peat fly throw the air several meters to land perfectly alongside its neighbour takes years of practice that I don’t have. Most of the time I have to double handle in order to get the first cut thrown well out and afford room for the next two or sometimes three layers. After two hours I’ve had enough and return to continue another less strenuous form of creative work in the calm of my studio.
After two weeks of lying flat the cut peat should be ready to lift and set up on edge. There many methods to achieve this but I prefer the herringbone form with a roof capping which allows the maximum expose surface to both sun and wind as the drying continues. This year I was lifting after just a few days and within six weeks most were ready to bring home. So it was time to call on Murry with his tractor already fitted with the double wheels and a large peat stack piled high outside the back of his house. All fit for Monday evening so get a team together. George, Donald, Norman, Mats and myself should be fine. Murry was already parked up at the banks and loading as we arrived and everyone stepped easily into the rhythm of work.
 There is something very special about working as a team that I think everyone can recognise and so the conversation and banter flow easily. With the first tailor full Murry heads back up across rough ground that’s a fine test of our skill in building a load. As we wait there is time to chat, reminisce and catch up on village news and as the chill of the evening breeze starts to bite the tractor returns and it all hands for the second load. This time it’s topped off with a few bags of caorans (smaller pieces of the best black but crumbling peat). Job done and back at the house the fruits of all that labour lie awaiting to be neatly stacked. I’ve changed the position this year having chopped up and removed a pile of old timber from the back I now have room for a slightly more sheltered placement.
 I plan to incorporate the bags of caorans into the centre of the stack so returned to the moor with my van and the wheelbarrow. Having wheeled up 20 bags there now remains only a further 16 but they will have to wait as my back has finally stopped me in my tracks and is demanding rest.

Monday, July 9, 2018

THE STORY BEHIND THE DOOR.


I have with age become a creature of habit at least for the start of each day. There is something very reassuring and comforting in a routine whereby I can break my fast without having to put my brain in gear at this early hour. Like millions of others I fill the kettle and turn it on without a moment’s thought as to where the power is coming from to make it boil. Then I step outside to greet the day which in recent weeks has been glorious and walking across the gravel I pluck a sprig of fresh mint to throw in the pot of green tea. Back inside I open the corner cupboard door and remove a late 18th century blue and white transfer printed bowl and from the hook below a heavy Irish potato print mug. Tea and muesli gets me through to mid-morning but today my mind went back to that blue painted corner cupboard door and the story behind it.
This door like most of the objects in my house has history. It came into my possession some thirty odd years ago when I purchased a small 18th century full standing pine corner cupboard painted in drab brown. From the start it seemed to me that the door was not original and on carefully scraping away several layers of paint from the body of the cupboard the original blue colour was revealed. However the door showed no trace of blue and proved to be a later addition. The cupboard was sold on with a handsome profit while the door was consigned to my wood store along with other scraps that I was sure would one day come in handy.
When in 1912 I moved to Brittany there was some serious sorting out but somehow the door still with its original glass survived the skip and moved with me. For several years it remained stacked away with lumps of heavy Breton chestnut and oak until the day I decided to construct a cold frame to bring on seedlings; the door would, face down make an ideal lid. Over the next few years it withstood the elements reasonably well but the paint became flaked under a baking sun and the damp had penetrated the animal glued joints and puttied glazing. I decided its days where over and so dismantled it and retrieved the glass. Once again it was placed back in the wood store but this time tied up with string in a flat pack condition and there it remained for ten years.
It has always surprised me that in our square cornered homes there are so few corners that will take a corner cupboard and the kitchen here in New Tolsta is no exception with three of the corners being taken up by doors and the forth has the hot and cold water pipes running down on the surface of the V lining boards. However there was enough room to build a cupboard and perhaps the old flat packed door would prove useful. I retrieved it from the wood store and even managed to find the six original panes of glass. That summer in Scotland I reassembled it and built it into the kitchen giving it that coat of blue paint it had always lacked. The most extra ordinary thing, after a chequered history of almost 200 years is that it still retained its original lock and key. Eat your heart out IKEA.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Moorland trudging from Tolsta to Muirneag.


During my moorland tramping west of New Tolsta the distant silhouette of Muirneag has for the most part been simply a directional guide looming on the horizon. One day I’ll head out there, one day. Well today was that day as the skies clouded over and a gentle breeze picked up which meant I would neither get over heated or troubled by horse flies or midges. The first part of the walk was over familiar ground as shortly after 8.30 I crossed the road and joined the track leading up to Loch Diridean. At the end my goal sat far off 248m above sea level and only four little squares away on the Ordnance Survey map that is 4 kilometre as the crow flies. There are those who would be thinking quad bike but for me that’s way too noisy and my back wouldn’t stand the shaking up, so trudging it is, one foot in front of the other. I took a direct line across the divide of upper and lower Loch na Cloich and noted a distinct drop in water levels since my last time here.
 Even more rocks protruding from the water and here I stopped for water and a slice of homemade ginger and walnut flap jack. Like the carrot dangling before the donkey I find promising myself something to eat when I reach certain points does help and the next would be on reaching the summit. The middle section of the walk across A’ Chleith Mhor is about 2 kilometres and as I tend to look down as Muirneag seems still depressingly far off.
 And there I almost trod on it is the large vivid green caterpillar of The Emperor moth way out in the middle of the moor. I would have expected it more likely to be on willow or birch but my book tells me it does live on heather and at low levels it shows less tendency to melanise so less black than green. Later it will spin a pear shaped brown silk cocoon in which the large violet-brown pupa will lay dormant for two or more winters before the moth finally emerges.
Now at the foot of Muirneag and with a last look up I start the slow climb resisting the temptation to lift my gaze further than a few yards in front. One foot in front of the other and slowly the world beyond the great moor opens up to the south as far as Skye. Slight moisture on the air but nothing that will bring rain as I plod onwards and upwards.
 And there it is the rounded summit with its trig point surrounded by a circle of rocks and I’ve made it. As I make the slow circuit from the hills of Harris up the west coast to the Butt, eastward to the mainland and south back down to Stornoway I feel the joy of elevation. Being alone and accompanied only by a stiff breeze I have the eye of the eagle. If I could simple unfold those wings and glide high over the conceal Celtic mythological Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever-Young. A land very different than that before me now. One reason for climbing so high was to see the Isle of Lewis before any more wind turbines arrive, raw as nature intended. Up here even the heather grows in a miniaturised form but Muirneag has been violated like so many other remote places throughout the world by the quad bike and just below the trig point the fragile vegetative surface has been churned up to expose sun bleached rocks. There must be an easier route to the summit from the west since I saw no evidence of bike tracks as I climbed the east slope. 
At 65 years old I find it sad that those who are often younger and more physically able than myself choose the motor driven group ascent. I told nobody where I was heading and left no messages, no insurance, simply know my limits and trust in luck. The journey back would at least start with a downhill section but as I descended to 120 metres above sea level all points of reference had gone, now I must simply keep Muirneag at my back and trust the rising ground to bring the North Tolsta turbine into view. Keeping this 30 degrees to my right would lead me home. Insect life is plentiful out here and while the small heath butterfly makes its uncertain airborne progress so I trudge on. I would never normally attempt this walk with such light footwear but my trainers have remained dry as the moor is baked to a crisp with no rain for two months. Around the reduced lochs and lochans the undercut blanket peat shrinks and crumbles away in great slabs and the sphagnum mossy hollows once lush green have dried a crisp sun-bleached ochre.

 Long-leaved Sundews flower in profusion lending a crimson sparkle to the purple of bell heather against the soft opaque green of lichen. This is the land of tweed and as I crunch my way back to my studio I wonder just how long the round trip will have been. As usual I discover that all this has not taken as long as I thought, just four and a half hours and so my sights are now set on the Heritage trail up the coast to Ness.

Monday, June 25, 2018

FROM MOOR TO MACHAIR.



Across the road the old peat track winds its way out onto the moor and as I trudge this now familiar route I try unsuccessfully not to allow my mind to imagine the devastating changes that are coming. The two and a half meter track will expand to double that to allow heavy machinery to pass. The hillside on my right will disappear totally to become the first borrow pit and the second will gouge away the granite outcrops nearer the summit. Looking west and south from here the fourteen 140 meter high wind turbines will miniaturise our existing village turbine. The Hebrides are renowned for their high winds and when the interconnector cable joins us to the mainland Lewis will be seen as an energy production plant. After a village meeting this week I was left with the feeling that Tolsta is in no way prepared for what is about to befall it. For some it was the first they had heard of the wind farm and I wondered just what plant they had been living on. Although the meeting was for Tolsta well attended and made the front page of the Stornoway Gazette most people did not attend, either having not been informed or possibly feeling powerless to change what is now the inevitable with planning having been granted on smaller turbines three years ago.
I follow a smaller indistinct track off to the left heading east passed old peat cutting bank to a lochan were my eye catches the turquoise flash of dragon flies at the water’s edge. Further on along the ridge I rest at my favourite spot to look down on New Tolsta and out beyond to the pinnacles and the cliffs of Tolsta Head. From here my world looks perfect a domain of dunlins, lapwing, plovers, grouse, merlin, buzzards and eagles most of which will simply move aside and have little problem in adapting to the coming changes.
Descending through the heather and the still parched bog I follow Allt na Muilne the burn that meanders down past the remains of two Nordic mills to Traigh Mhor beach. I make my way passed the primrose carpeted inner dunes crossing the fence to the steep gradient of bunny-ville where rabbits stretch out relaxed lounging outside their warrens. As I climb the slope rabbits of every size scatter in all directions the picture of a healthy community. Further across the machair where Cleite Beag, the stream from New Tolsta reaches the sea I note that above perched on the normally dripping clay cliffs the buzzard has abandoned its nest.
 Below where the stream makes its way through a host of golden iris I spot in the water what looks like some strange form of after birth. Strange plastic all the way from Barcelona. With my hand now full of recovered plastic for my recycling bin I make my way home passed the soft purple of orchids on the neighbours’ croft to the riot of yellow buttercups that form a cushion below my studio and the young pine trees that shelter beneath them a Twite’s well-concealed grassy cup of a nest, invisibly to all but me.                


BUMPING INTO THINGS.


During my first trip over to the Hebrides the first fellow traveller I met told me we were sure to come across each other again. By the time I had made my way up through the islands to Dal Mhor beach on the west coast of Lewis I’d begun to think he might be following me when he pulled up into the car park for our forth encounter. Since living here I’ve taken little note when bumping into people but I had not realised this could also apply to objects. I don’t mean in the painful sense when you crack your shin on a wooden stool that somebody left sticking out from under the table, as if place specifically like some sort of trap just for you. No I mean an object that takes your eye and then reappears somewhere else. One such object was an old spinning wheel in the window of Lewis Revivals on Cromwell road in Stornoway. I’d missed one the previous year but this was just what I was looking for and I could easily replace the missing treadle. Too late it was sold and I suppressed a little grunt of frustration as I tried to imagine someone else on the island who could make use of a non-working spinning wheel.  
My neighbour Roddy is famed locally for the collection of objects out in his garden; he acquires all manner of things, an old plough shear or a ships wheel, a pair of deer antlers or a butter churn, all are sanded down and lagged in paint. He has a job lot of brown but that is reserved mainly for the fencing post and rails while the collection is picked out in red white and blue. I’d seen Roddy earlier in the day when he told me if I wanted fish to help myself to a haddock from the freezer in his garage. Returning from one of the local Tolsta weavers with a bundle of tweed offcuts I saw Roddy out front busy watering his hard landscape garden. I parked the van and walked round and we stood admiring the new and startling realistic miniaturised plastic stag tacking pride of place on its concrete plinth just inside the entrance. As we walked toward the garage he told me to help myself to fish but my eye had caught sight of a new spinning wheel and I asked Roddy if he was taking up spinning. No that was for his daughter but he’d got another one he was going to start work on to paint and put in the garden. It was like encountering an old friend again as there at the back of the garage stood the spinning wheel from the shop window. “You can put that outside” I exclaimed, “it’s an antique.” After I explained how I’d seen in it in Stornoway and that I was looking for one to use he said then I must have it and we agreed on a exchange of artwork. I hurried home happy with the wheel tucked under my arm and a carrier bag containing a large frozen haddock in the other hand.      

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

BIRDS OF A FEATHER.


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

CHANGED AND UNCHANGED


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.