Monday, June 25, 2018


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.                


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.