Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A new herd of folk art sheep coming onto the market in 2019.

It was during the winter of 2014/15 when out in Western Australia that I stitched the first small flock of sheep on tweed. Between the soaking windswept crofts of Lewis and the parched stubble outback of south west Australia there would seem to be no possible connection and yet sheep manage to thrive in these most extremes of climate. In the extreme heat of the day and in what seem like impossibly dry conditions sheep gather beneath a lonesome gum tree with heads bowed close to the ground, while out on the Hebrides the Scottish black face sit tight up against whatever shelter they can find as the prevailing north westerly storms bring lashing rain. The oldest recorded sheep in the world was in Australia and at 23 years of age it died of heat stroke. On the Isle of Lewis in the village of New Tolsta John A Maciver discovered one of his sheep bore an ear tag which indicated it was 24 years old. The ewe had gone missing out on the moors for several years and had become wild and very weary of humans. She was accepted back into the fold still with a good set of teeth but during handling lost one of her rather fragile horns. During a violent winters storm while grazing near the cliff edge she was blown into the sea which seemed as fitting an end as heat stroke was in Australia.
I started stitching on the long haul flight to WA and completed a small flock during my three month stay and the reaction from friends was so positive that I was encouraged to frame them up for sale.
During an exhibition in 2017 in the Victoria Gallery in Bath the small flock of twelve all sold and since then these folk art textile images have continued to sell. As with all forms of artwork each unique rendition continues to evolve with additions of flowers, crofts houses, light houses, ships and even wind turbines. The images have also become more complex with more than one sheep or a lamb and ewe and with the additional work comes an increase in price. Down south in galleries they were retailing framed at £265 while from my studio I can sell them without commission for £185.
Next year’s flock of sheep on tweed are taking shape. It is rare for me to follow a line of creative production for long but in the case of the sheep on tweed they have proven amusing as well as saleable.
 Being stitched entirely by hand means each sheep is unique and while I give little thought to the complexity of any particular image I am now compelled to start pricing them on an individual basis which takes account of the hours entailed in their production. Up to now they have been set at a uniform £185 each but next year I expect there will be some around £250 plus. Time is always a sensitive point when dealing with labour intensive work and while I consider myself to be a more than competent embroiderer I am not prepared to debase that work simply to produce a more affordable object or to accept less than the minimum hourly rate. Each images is crafted to the best of my ability and many contain an element of experimentation and discovery which give them their folk art charm.     
The sheep in this latest series are contained within a landscape that evokes island life whether that be simply the proximity to the sea with boats and light houses, the traditional shielings and habitation, or the more recent visual impact of the wind turbines. Thanks to the very generous donations of tweed off-cuts by local weavers the backgrounds have become an equally important part of the finished product. Over the next couple of months I will turn to making the frames and hope by lambing time to have a further 20 for sale.


There are times when having read some consider wise word from the past that they strike home and clarify my own present day visions. Such was the case when Simon handed me the short volume “Living Traditions of Scotland” by his father George Scott-Moncrieff a slim booklet published by His Majesty’s stationary office in 1951.
The booklet encompasses all Scottish traditional crafts throughout the ages from the perspective of architecture which was George’s life-long preoccupation. When considering ornamentation he states that simple “functional” objects can be more pleasing for their line and shape than the over ornate. I was reminded of some equally wise words of advice having planted a rambling rose on the front of my studio here in Brittany: A good architectural façade requires no embellishment, use the climber to hide the hideous. George goes on to state that due value is given to an object through the proper use of material and their associated qualities, be it stone or wood or metal, wool or straw or linen. Concerning the traditional Highland “black house” while acknowledging that modern improvements are possible, it is always foolish to assume that any old tradition was pursued merely because our forefathers did not know any better. The ruined remnants of such houses will still be standing long after today’s kit home constructions have blown from their concrete foundation slab.
“In Scotland, as elsewhere, what is remarkable is the quality of design and workmanship shown in very early times, as through man’s innate sense of, and desire for, beauty could inspire him to remarkable heights even against a comparatively slight background from which to draw; a tradition established, maintained, and developed right up to the limitations of its materials and techniques.” We would do well to reflect on that the next time our gaze falls on a selection on key rings or fridge magnets in the local tourist shop. “It is difficult fully to account for the general deterioration of design during the nineteenth century. Certainly much of the blame must lie with the development of the machine, with its divorce between the designer and his materials, and its too great emphasis upon facility of production and cheapness of cost”. He emphasises that machine goods need not be ugly but warns against the tendency to be over-concerned with production and profit to the detriment of design and functional beauty. In looking at the fine things that men and women have made and that they still strive to make we may feel that they stand for the control of mind and hand, for a generosity of labour, for a search for perfection within the bounds imposed by the immediate object. When the work is done with intimate care then the craftsperson impresses their own spirit upon it. “By sympathetic use of the tools in their hands they can interpret their life and build and maintain their tradition”. So the computer generated image stitched onto tweed by an installed program has no soul and without that important human element also has no intrinsic value. Our highly skilled crafts people are being asked to debase their ability in order to produce work that is cheap enough to market for the masses, which in turn only increases the amount of produce that ends up in the rubbish bin. It is bad enough sitting through a slideshow of friends latest holiday without having to say thank you for some ghastly bauble from the Bahamas. I gave up buying gifts many years ago and instead treat myself to something special approximately every five years and this will have absolutely nothing to do with key rings of fridge magnets.   
The second half of this 1951 booklet is concerned with advertising where Reid and Taylor Ltd of Langholm Dumfriesshire boast of being makers of the world’s most expensive Twist Cheviot Cloths suitable for town and country. Nicoll Brothers of Bankfoot, Perth makers of sporrans since 1834 emphasise wholesale enquiries only, while Bailey’s Edinburgh branch offer Chateau Moulion Rose Medoc at 8/6 per bottle or a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild at 10/6.

Saturday, November 24, 2018


On arriving back at my old farm house in Central Finistere I wondered if during the drive south and the many stop offs to see friends along the way I had not somehow slipped into a deep slumber for several years. For how could such an explosion of growth within my once tidy garden be explained? I was sure I’d left it back in the spring clipped, pruned and weeded, with gravel paths raked and fruit garden dug over. I could just about make out the path but now a healthy mix of shrubs and brambles hindered my progress as I elbowed my way down to the washing line and the shed at the far end. I had assumed the summer drought would have slowed things but here in valley of the Ellez the rain during May followed by exceptional heat had produced prolific growth. In the furthest corner under the peach tree I noted the sad rotting evidence of what must have been a bumper harvest and wondered having told my immediate neighbours before I left to pick them why they hadn’t. It took a couple of hours to hack back the tangled mass of wisteria that had managed to climb the gable wall shrouding both the bedroom window and the external electric meter. Around the far side of the kitchen the evergreen climbing hydrangea had made it up onto the roof as well as spreading across the back door and bathroom window, while the hydrangea petiolaris had managed even greater heights reaching the chimney on the north gable. These I would have to tackle with a ladder over the following week but the main body of the garden was going to be a much longer project. I always assumed that shrubs would mean relatively low maintenance but without the simplicity of the bitter easterly sea breeze of the Outer Hebrides to perform its annual trimming the work here was going to be considerable. Six months growth in Brittany would equate to six year growth in Tolsta but in relaxing on the manicured garden front at least the hedgehogs have flourished.
During my journey south from Lewis I had slept in three different beds, two nights on a settee and the back of the van plus a further two on Sam’s narrow boat. Now it was time to light the fire, crawl into the old box bed, close the sliding door on the world outside and enjoy the familiarity of its firm comfort. That first night back in Brittany brought high winds and rain which revealed two leaks in the roof. One I could hardly miss as it trickled onto the slate work surface alongside the cooker and the other I heard dripping a steady rhythm on the bedroom floor. I chose to ignore both placing a bowl under each until the morning.  I dreamed of a world where the remnants of man’s ancient endeavours were barely discernable beneath aerial roots and dense verdant growth, a world where below in the dark depths sleeping beauty still slumbered and life was only possible in the uppermost moss cover branches of towering trees.
After a week of hacking back undergrowth and the accompanying bay scented bonfires the house had lost its fairy-tale abandoned look, and I had decided to rip out both fig trees and the wisteria. The sober granite façade of this Breton farmhouse requires no floral embellishment. Finding a balance between artwork and the physical efforts of gardening is not always easy as the fine weather meant I should do as much as I could while the sun shined. Often by mid-afternoon I’d had enough, so stuffing apples in my pockets I would head off for a walk up the valley to call in on friends and return with a bag of blewit mushrooms and sweet chestnuts.
There are now nine houses in and around the hamlet of Lezele occupied by English people and none of them speak to me for fear I might turn out to be French. All so very different to that adventurous spirit of thirty years ago when the few intrepid English people who ventured across the channel made an effort to learn the language. We were seen as a novelty and the Bretons were fascinated to have a foreigner in the village. Back then many villages were deserted with the roof timbers of houses and sheds protruding from rampant ivy. Today as I walk through those same villages although restored and re-inhabited they seem quieter than ever, devoid of life as adults and children alike remain indoors glued firmly to their tablets no doubt. The Pied Piper of progress has removed more than just the rats.                     

Friday, October 26, 2018

Encounters with nature.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is a rapture on the lonely shore;
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more……
(Lord Byron)
These words seem to imply that even Byron in his time had trouble with mankind and today they unsurprisingly reflect closely my own outlook. That strange longing to head off with those eight favourite discs to some deserted island. Most would imagine that to be an idyllic tropical paradise but perhaps with the frequency of hurricanes and rising sea levels something further from the equator and with a few hills to climb would be more in order.
 I remember vividly the woodland of my childhood where I could traverse ape like great distances swinging from tree to tree without touching the ground. Today I love nothing better than to leave the path alone and enter the world of discovery. It’s not unusual for me to return from a walk scratched and bleeding, or at least clothing torn from my exploits having taken the direct route up the rock face or ploughed my way through dense undergrowth and brambles. As a child in Oxfordshire I would try and follow the local hunt on foot but soon fell behind, however it was a total delight when I came face to face with the fox who had doubled back along the river. In Western Australia and parts of the Hebrides my great joy is to set off along some rocky coastline discovering hidden coves beyond the far side of the headland and to be observed by the beady eyes of dolphins or the bobbing head of a seal. Those unexpected encounters when nature accepts you back into a far greater society.

 At the far end of the beach at Point Ann in the Fitzgerald National Park, Western Australia I swam with a pod of around fifteen dolphins. On my return I took another dip and discovered a massive sting ray gliding around me in the shallows. Then on my way back up the beach I walked within a few feet of the largest tiger snake I’ve ever seen that had remained partially hidden in the vehicle tyre tracks. A great start to the day.
 I learnt one summer in France not to leave any cake out on the kitchen table if the door to the garden was open since the robin would be in for a feast. Over the winter I encouraged him with porridge oats and after a few weeks he was hopping onto my hand to eat. Now here in my nearly new studio I have a wren who has taken up residence between the outer larch cladding and the inner insulated walls. For me nature has always been a case of love and understanding while man remains a laughable mystery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Jacob's chair of many colours.


A.R.Hope Moncieff described the Hebrides as having hardly tree to shiver, where docken, broom, or thistle may be the best substitute for a switch, and every drifting log or plank of shipwreck washed up from the Atlantic is treasured to make the rafters of a human nest. A woman brought to the mainland had no concept for trees but giant cabbages; and when a basket of tomatoes came on shore an old Highlander was excited to see “apples” for once in his life.
Even as a child sixty years ago on the Mull of Kintyre our neighbour had never seen runner beans or a real pineapple. Today things have changed and if it’s not available in the supermarkets or shops then you can order it on line. Those who were once human have been relabelled and branded as consumers and behave accordingly creating a hitherto unheard of refuse disposal industry. I do my level best not to support this industry and try to reuse as much as I can even within my own field of creativity. So scraps of tweed reused produce a bag of even smaller scraps. Often during the makeover of an old kitchen to an all-electric showpiece that would see little actual cooking the old wooden chairs that had done good service for decades must now be chucked for something more stylish in chrome and plastic. Combining my small scraps of tweed with one such old kitchen chair and in the best island tradition I produced a colourful and amusing alternative maybe more suited in retirement to that of life in a quiet bedroom.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Stripping the willow.

The willow has been stripped by recent high winds and the mantel of late autumn lays over the hillside, a glorious bronzing of heather and bracken. The sunrises shortly before eight gilding the underside of the low cloud coverage. This is the most important part of the day for if you miss the sunrise you risk not seeing it at all. Half an hour earlier I stepped out into a barely discernible dawn to pick a sprig of mint for my tea and shortly after Donald passed silent as a shadow walking the dog. The first thing to register is the wind direction, very important when it comes to taking out the ashes. Whether scattering those from the crematorium or the Rayburn a blow back is never pleasant. Stepping into the dawn I note the reflection in the porch window that sees my neighbour’s house floating impossibly above the sunrise.
As I look to the north I see a lone sea eagle making its dawn tour of inspection along the ridge pestered by two angry mewing buzzards, timing their attack together and causing the eagle to momentarily tumble and redress its vast wings. The close combat mobbing gives scale and indicates just how vast these birds are. 
Tea made and I move out to the sun filled studio glowing with the early morning tainting light, no good for painting just yet but it will soon lift and give me the require even defuse light for working. For now I content myself with my coastal view and try not to think about heading south before the month is out.

Allte na Muilne

The valley of the mills contains the burn that flows from a five square kilometre area of moorland between the high ground of Muirneag in the west to the beach of Traigh Mhor on the far north east coast of Lewis. Ten or more lochs reside within this collection area but the river can vary from a mid-summer trickle through an autumnal steady flow to a flash flood torrent at almost any time of year. Along the final kilometre beyond New Tolsta these churning peat stained waters fall rapidly through the valley towards the beach where it does salty battle with the incoming tide. For those who know how to read this landscape there are still the remains of two so called Nordic mills along this final stretch of the burn. This east facing seaward valley drops away from the northerly extremities of the New Tolsta crofts and is the view I look out on each day from my studio.
This valley could equally well be called the valley of rainbows for as I sit painting in my studio, outside all manner of intensely coloured rainbows form during days when the shallow autumnal sun highlights sharp showers arriving on blustery westerly winds. The Richard of York seductive arch tempting me in and daring me to render such fleeting marvels in paint.
Even Constable seemed only to include rainbows when they obtained the intensity of doubling as in his water colour of Stonehenge where two seemingly colourless rainbow forms dramatically dominate the sky.
 A slightly more colourful rendition appears in London from Hampstead, with a Double Rainbow, but here we see two very small sections of the arch within a shaft of sunlight.
 Only in Constables studio set-piece of Salisbury Cathedral from the meadows in 1831 does he attempt a high vault over the spire that is achieved by using the paint at the opposite end of impasto like water colour thinned to a soft veil. JMW Turner was in my mind the greatest master of dramatic lighting but even he seemed to side step the rainbow rather than fight battles in vain. 
   One of my own water colour attempts. 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Giving it the red carpet treatment.

Having just finished brushing down the stairs carpet I asked myself why I should find this particular part of house cleaning so satisfying. The answer was staring me in the face, (no pun intended) and it was the carpet itself that was the source of my pleasure. The deep poppy red short pile from the iron oxide end of the spectrum rather than a carmine or crimson cochineal red has been familiar to me throughout my life. It was there in dining room of my parents 1926 Lorimer arts and craft house on the Mull of Kintyre and when we moved south in 1961 it found a place in six out of the eight houses they lived in. It had been made in a narrow weave for stairs or corridors but later my father had joined it together with a backing of copydex and webbing. It failed to find a place in their final home but was rolled up safely in the barn where I rediscovered it. My croft house in Tolsta needed stairs carpet but these strips were too wide. Having looked at the price of new carpet I got out the Stanley knife trimming it to size and gluing the cut edge. It’s now been down for ten years and shows no sign of wear. The satisfaction I get is in seeing that my red carpet has already seen 90 years of service and will probably do as many years again. So what modern carpet could be expected to do such service? By equal good fortune I also have some of the old red velvet curtains from that Kintyre home and one pair now graces the parlour window. I still recall the Christmas of 1958 when these curtains were used to dramatic effect. We were ushered into the sitting room where the fire had been lit and the curtains across the bay window remained closed. My brother and I were told to go and draw the red curtains and there we discovered an entire farmyard of grey buildings with green roofs that my father and half-brother Bill had made in secret.  Another pair of these curtains I used to cover an easy chair in my bedroom, a chair that came originally from the croft house but was destined for the local skip. While my wonderfully over the top mahogany half tester bed (somebody else’s throw out) received a refurbished and relined pair of red velvet drapes. It is important not to confuse reuse with that of up-cycling. Reuse implies using some creative skill to bring back into service some tired and seemingly useless item, while up-cycling is the painting of old mahogany, oak, ash, chestnut, cherry, walnut, rosewood or elm furniture an off white, pink or lavender in the hopes that it will look less conspicuous alongside the flat-pack items.       

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Crewelwork embroidered mirror.

The inspiration for a crewel work embroidered mirror came from a fine 17th century fragment of bed hanging that I discovered behind later coverings on a Victorian fourfold screen. The embroidery takes the form of a tree of life with wonderfully exotic flowers and leaves and now forms the central part of my mass hung stair well display. Having been shut away from the light for many years the colours remain vivid and when comparing this to another fabulous fragment of similar size in the V&A museum I preferred mine.  During last winter’s trip to Western Australia I spent a couple of days working out the design. Some years ago I had discovered out in the loft space of my father's barn a 17th century carved pine frame that would now be perfect size wise as well as date wise for the mirror. The needlework was to be a 12cm strip between the outer frame and the finer new inner frame.
 I had discovered on scraping back the layers of paint that the original colour of the outer carved frame had been black and decided that would be ideal as a clean contrast to the background linen. The stitching work began on my arrival back in Brittany and continued during the journey north to the Isle of Lewis. As with all these stitching project it is simply a question of time and now five months on and the stitching finished, all the elements have fallen into place and the mirror is complete, another (price on request) item to be shown throughout September 2019 in a major exhibition of my work over the past quarter of a century at An Lanntair, the Stornoway art centre.

Monday, September 10, 2018


Summer has passed with the last bottle of elderflower champagne drunk and condensation appearing on the inside of the single pane sash windows the morning chill of autumn is upon us, my favourite time of year. The heather is a deeper purple on the hillside, the bracken turned bronze and the swedes are sweet and full. Supermarket shopping is less frequent and spending reduced with potatoes to lift and plenty of green kale. Having chased the last persistent bunny from the property I now discover I have another visitor. The mink are back which may explain why the rabbit no longer calls. I’ve set two traps in the hopes of catching a fur hat for the winter. In the studio lighting of the fire has become the morning routine and it has been a productive time with long term stitching projects completed and painting in full swing. There has also been time for the frivolous thinking and the using up of scrap tweed on the kitchen chair. Remember just like the tweed coat hangers you saw it here first. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2018


The term chocolate box when referring to a painting is perhaps the harshest of all critical put downs. However even Van Goff’s work has appeared on confectionary box covers as well as being transformed into jigsaw puzzles and deformed into paint by number kits. I somehow think those who pay tens of millions of pounds for his work would not appreciate their prized possession being referred to as chocolate boxy.
Thirty years ago my first exhibition proved a sell-out show featuring mainly Breton dairy cows. I made up my mind there and then to stop painting cows fearing I might become known simply as a cow painter. Twenty years on people continued to ask me was I still painting cows, so now I figure if you can’t beat them then you might as well give them what they want. Last summer I was intrigued to see in a Scottish Art Gallery window a large painting of a highland cows head. The poor beast had been coiffured about the fringe so as to reveal two sad staring eyes. In reality this never happens unless a sudden gust of wind flicks the facial top not to one side. Then on looking further into the gallery I spotted another head or rather half a head, which had the added bonus that the artist did not need to reproduce a perfect matching pair of horns. As well as varying in colour from black to blond the most common being ginger, highland cows horns can also vary considerably from horizontal when young to a magnificent handlebar pair. 
This unfortunate deformed beast with one horn growing up while the other turns down was spotted on North Uist and as such would not have passed the beauty criteria for being a suitable artist model. I ventured into the gallery for a closer look and overheard the gallery attendant on the phone clinching the deal for the head in the window at £900 to a German tourist. Wow I thought, I must get me some of that chocolate.
And so over the next few summers I stopped whenever possible to study the great lumbering beast. Either they are incredibly dim in their slow trudging gait and reluctance to stray from their intended pathway along single track roads and oncoming traffic, or they house some serious intelligence within that shaggy head as they turn slowly knowing that their plodding pace of life holds far more depth than the scurrying humans intent on getting a photo from the car window. As the summer season drew to a close I returned to the easel with my sketches and found enjoyment in giving life to some fine specimens.    

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Hebridean Dreaming: STUDIO PAINTING

Hebridean Dreaming: STUDIO PAINTING: During the past fortnight I’ve returned more towards the paintbrush than needle. The major project to embroider flora and fauna on the N...


During the past fortnight I’ve returned more towards the paintbrush than needle. The major project to embroider flora and fauna on the New Tolsta map quilt has seemed such an open ended task that some light relief of painting where I can complete a picture in a matter of days was a welcome bonus. Even when I’m not painting the process still goes on in my head as I imagine various subjects and compositions. There are some that are as well to rest in my head and never to emerge but there are others that I am itching to get onto canvas, and when they do eventually come into the light of day there is a great sense of joy with just how quick that image arrives. Painting should never be difficult or laboured as it will always show in the unsatisfactory end result. If during the painting process I find myself struggling with the image then I take a tea-break or a walk and usually on returning the problem is resolved. However there are times when the problem remains and the picture must be abandoned. This is rare and usually only happens after a sustained period of studio painting when all I need to do is get back out there and reconnect with the subject matter; a walk down to the beach or a trudge out onto the moor whatever the weather. It is hardly surprising that the subject of Garry beach figure often in my pictures as I not only walk there but work there when cutting peat. Familiarity with this delightful east facing beach and the history of past human habitation and activities are intriguing but the play of light during changing weather conditions make it endlessly fascinating. Being a popular place for camper van tourists and dog walking locals it is important for me that I don’t simply reproduce the classic snap shot image that everyone will recognise. I have sketchpads full of drawing of Garry to accompany a large folder of photographs and I often find myself working from several different images. My latest studio painting was executed using three sketches and two photographs with an element of artistic licence to create the required composition.
 The painting of the castle stack taken from the far cliffs demanded a similar mix of sketches and photos and the more restricted square format meant that the subject matter remains very much about the elevated perspective of the stack and its relationship to the silhouette of Seabhal beyond.
 The slightly smaller square painting looking up to Seabhal from the beach is more about the patterns formed by the burn running across the sand from the loch.
Another favourite with all visitors is the “bridge to nowhere” although being an entire bridge it does in fact go somewhere as it spans the deep granite gorge. 
To obtain the impressive dominance that Lord Leverhume intended when choosing this site for the cast concrete bridge one needs to view it from down in the gorge at river level which means a scramble and then locating a comfortable rock to perch and sketch from. This is not a suitable place from which to set up an easel so the subject seen from this angle requires it to be a studio painting.         


Sunday, August 19, 2018


Back in the summer of 1987 my father bought an oil painting by the Cornish artist Billie Waters and it was quite obvious even without reading the auctioneer’s description that it depicted Hayle harbour. Although somewhat stylised it showed clearly the old factory buildings and storehouses plus the distinctive row of houses that still stand above the inner harbour. The style is typical of between the world wars and I could immediately see how the deceptively simple almost child-like image had caught my father’s eye. The subtle soft pallet of colours indicated the brushwork of a female hand and it soon found a home on the upstairs landing. On the reverse of the canvas was another abandoned oil sketch of a harbour and what I took to be a view of Hayle harbour from a different view point. The rather heavy half round moulded frame did not please my father and it was changed for something lighter, while making sure that the original was stored safely away.
Thirty years on and the painting hung in my brother house having been reunited with its original frame and I was once again intrigued by the abandoned sketch. As I was going to St Ives the following day I took a photograph and when stopping off in Hayle to buy a vegetarian pasty would take a wander around the harbour area. With pasty in hand I walked in and around the harbour taking in all the most likely spots but nothing fell into place and it became obvious that the sketch was not of Hayle. Cornwall is well off for harbours and I began to think it was an impossible task to now make any sense of the sketch, so I logged the image away in my head and thought no more about it.
A full year passed and on a stormy winters day I was invited with my brother down to Porth Leaven for lunch with a friend. After a delicious lasagna lunch we battle against the wind down to the harbour front and as we arrived alongside the outer entrance it all slipped into place. That logged Billie Waters sketch came back to me and I rushed up the side street with camera in hand to take some shots of where thought it might have been drawn from. My memory had not failed me and it was obvious that the sketch was indeed of Porth Leaven harbour. It took another visit to locate more exactly the original observation point as close to the old war memorial and at that point I knew that I had to complete the painting.
 I took a tracing of the sketch as a guide and tried to interoperate every possible relevant brush stroke and with the aid of my present day photographs I completed the image. One thing still puzzled me with the south facing façade of the central foreground building in that in the sketch it was painted white and there were only three windows on each floor. On examining the building it was obvious that two larger windows had been added on each floor, but was it ever white? Researching some old black and white photos indicated that at one point the building had indeed been painted white. So this modern trend to paint everything white including natural stone is not an entirely recent thing.
Billie Waters had abandoned that sketch probably eighty years ago and it was now my task to complete the picture. After three days I felt I had arrived at a passable effort that would sit comfortably alongside the original making a pair to Hayle harbour.
The story however is not entirely over because while the oil sketch of Porth Leaven was clear enough there also remains another partial sketch beneath this. The most obvious part of the second sketch is a large blue oval body of what looks like water to the left with three black splodges. There are other indications of brushwork that have been whited over and bare no relation to the harbour sketch but I can as yet make little sense of these other than it could be an attempt from closer quarters to capture the flow of water out of through the inner habour wall. Could this yet turn out to be three for the price of one?              

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Cooking on a quiet Sunday.

I try to make it a rule to always cook something when the Rayburn is lit. Even on a cold wet miserable day when it would seem enough effort simply to allow it to heat the water and radiators I like to get something in the oven. On inspecting the larder there was ample cake on the shelf, the biscuit tin was full and below the jam and preserves looked healthy.
 Then as I admired the wonderful sponge mincer that I’d picked up for a pound years ago an idea sprang to mind. I’d make kale and potato cakes as I had both in the garden and maybe I could try mincing the blanched curly kale and brown bread. It worked a dream and I have enough for the rest of the week.
 Don't you just hate people who take photos of food! Traditionally they are served with cold gammon, or with bacon or grilled sausages but unless some road-kill turns up I’ll be sticking to the staple vegetarian mushroom and cheese omelette. I had the remaining mushroom soup at lunchtime, made with field mushrooms that I’d filled my bonnet with when down sketching on Garry beach. I can guarantee here in New Tolsta that any fresh mushrooms are mine by rights or more accurately because I’m the only one who would dare eat anything that didn’t come in a plastic supermarket wrapper. “I’ve only poisoned myself once” I say with gay abandon and see them determined to politely decline any invite to dine at Tom’s house. This year with the dry summer I gave up bothering with growing lettuce as I now prefer the lemon tang of wild sorrel that grows here in abundance. I’m also celebrating not buying any jam having been self-sufficient on that front for the past thirty years.
Having finished cooking I put the scrubbed deer’s head on the Rayburn to dry. A neighbour had found it on the moor and brought it round for me in the week. Wonderful that the sight of a dead skull should immediately make people think of me.       

Sunday, July 22, 2018


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


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.