Friday, August 30, 2019


I certainly had never imagined when embroidering an image of Adam and Eve that it could be deemed offensive to anyone. I was however taken aback somewhat by the comment from my aunt, one of the first people to see the finished image. “Oh Tom it’s horrible” she exclaimed.
To have solicited such a strong reaction made me look at it in a slightly different light, and I soon realised that stump work if executed in the sumptuous 17th century fashion could indeed be bordering on the grotesque. Throughout the 18th and 19th century young girls stitched na├»ve samplers often depicting Adam and Eve either side of the tree bearing the forbidden fruit, with the serpent coiled around its trunk. I don’t suppose for one minute those young girls thought that their delicate work could be seen as offensive but to our strict Scottish Presbyterians there are no such acceptable illustrations of bible stories. As a child who did not start to read until 9 years old illustrations were my only hope of finding faith. Now I am thankful for the failure of those picture less pages.
When I was sent a copy of the intended poster for the “All that I do” exhibition I was delighted to see that they had chosen the image of Adam and Eve, even though it had been sold back in 2017 and would not be on display it remained a strong eye-catching image. The first inkling that there might be a problem came when I asked one of the shops in Stornoway if they could display a poster. They were quite happy to do so but on seeing the poster they thought there shop assistant might not be so keen. I advised the young assistant to stay well clear of the exhibition as there were other images that I considered could be even more offensive such as the naked baby Jesus, shock horror!

I was keen to get a poster up in North Tolsta village shop and post office but by now had serious doubts. Sure enough it was given the thumbs down so I have selected a more neutral image to entice them through the doors of the gallery and then hit them with some hard biblical porn. So far there has been only positive admiration for what those visiting rightly see as extra ordinary work.

I have never been too sure exactly what the roll of a minister is but certainly one of the results of their ministration on these islands is to use the so called word of God to strike fear within his flock so as to exert total control. My ideal God would be one who requires no ministers and I suppose my own belief is one that is self-administered and as such benign. I believe in this living world and the record of time held within our earth’s crust. Sooner or later time will get the better of the human race and we also will join the growing list of fossilized dinosaurs. The evidence is non-existent for God having created our universe, and while a believer is willing to accept all other discoveries and advancements of science, Darwin and the theory of evolution is a no go area.
 Maybe Adam did name the animals that he discovered around him but surely we are doing that today. Just as some life forms becoming extinct others are being discovered. Does that unshakable faith render us so arrogant that we think extinction is only for lesser forms of life than ourselves? There have been times when walking in remote regions I’ve stumbled on a quiet dell where crystal clear waters cascade over moss covered rocks and the sun finger through a fresh green canopy into cool rippling pools, a Disney World image of heaven that requires no God. Unfortunately with the present population levels there seems to be an ever increasing need of Gods to offer a different form of control beyond that of governmental.  
So what does this God look like, surely nothing like the kindly old white haired gentleman in my needle work who holds out a python for Adam to name? He would be only too easy for children to confuse with the gift bearing St Nick. And which God should I chose, there are so many on offer. I’ve learnt from experience that it’s not always advisable to pick the cheapest and I think I’ve left it too late to become a follower of football, so maybe a smartphone is the answer to my prayers.
Here ends the second lesson according to doubting Thomas.            

Monday, August 19, 2019


Detail from Adam naming the animals.

Those of us who stitch will know that one of its more convenient sides is that it is transportable and in many cases can be done anytime anywhere. Having grown used to people seeing me stitch in public and on public transport it felt only natural to continue creating during an exhibition of my stump work embroidery (Feb 2017) at the Victoria Gallery in Bath. I spoke with a wide variety of people but it was a London taxi driver who simply could not believe that I was without faith and yet produced such work. To him God’s hand had to be guiding me at some level. I explained that not being a believer in God did not render me helpless and on the contrary it left me free to colour my own world, even on a Sunday.
Detail from Adam and Eve.
I never questioned the logic of adding stump work embroidery to the growing list of my skills, thinking only of all the creative possibilities that would open up. I stitched my first stump work sampler as my own way of celebrating sixty years on earth. The depiction of a Hebridean crofter’s paradise surrounded by Scottish thistles. I continued the sampler theme with the very traditional subject of Adam and Eve and found myself reveling in the insect and animal life. My method of working is heavily influenced from years spent painting in oils to now drawing and painting in wool where often little more than a rudimentary composition forms the starting point. The rhythmical nature of the work is not only therapeutic but allows me to surrender myself into a world that is focused in and around the point of the needle, there is no preformed pattern, no question of getting it wrong, simply a question of following the thread.
Detail from Noah's ark.

Having started on a biblical theme I then looked for more images within the bible that contained animals and so started the series of six stump work embroideries. Each images took a minimum of three months to complete. Much of Noah’s ark was stitched in Western Australia even during the flight home and as I sat on the cool marble floor of Doha airport the entire cabin crew looked on with admiration and almost disbelief that such a thing could be done by the human hand. My persistence rather than patience saw me continued stitching through a Hebridean summer and into the darker winter months with power cuts and no prayers offered I remained close to the wood burning stove in Brittany. It is often said that an artist must suffer for his or her art and in sitting down for that length of time certainly aggravated my back problem to the point or having a second MRI scan. Now I have learnt to vary my work pattern and make sure I move from studio to garden, get out to the peat bank or walk up onto the moor or down to the sea.
Detail from Daniel in the lions den. 

My first encounter with stump work was at Cotehele House in Cornwall where in a bedroom whose sumptuous walls hung heavy with tapestries and an oak four poster draped with crewelwork seemed the most deliciously peaceful place to slumber. There opposite the bed hung a 17th century stump work decorated mirror with impossibly fine stitching. Later during my years as an art and antique dealer I lusted over the possibility of acquiring a casket the mecca in terms of stump work but none came remotely near to my price range. So now, having perfected my own technique seemed the right time to produce my own stump work casket. This project took an entire year to complete and by then stitching had become such a way of life and a means or relaxation that I continued for a further six months to produce a second casket.
Detail from The peaceable kingdom. 

One of the most often asked question is where did you learn to do this work and so I felt I should at least look at a book or these days a U-tube video of how to do stump work. I was transfixed by the beautiful demonstrations, “So that’s how it’s done”. Oh well if I’d know that I doubt I would’ve even attempted such intricacy and I don’t suppose I would have ever discovered my own method of working. Discovery, often through play is an important part of creativity, the odd suggestion from those more knowledgeable can provoke further inspiration but I have always felt that to read the instructions should carry a spoiler alert. I work from observation followed by trial and error, where the errors can often prove equally interesting. So I encourage all those who find themselves laboriously working their way through a cross stitch kitten kit to put it away, buy some canvas and start playing. Putting it simply stitching is all a question of up and down, and the rest depends on what you do between that action, be it moving the needle or twiddling the thread. There may be skill to be admired in that faithful complex copy but time spent in playing someone else’s repetitive games will never see your unique soul step into the light and find the freedom of creativity. 
Detail from The birth of Christ.

Saturday, August 17, 2019


After an exceptionally dry spring and a warmer than usual summer the peat dried quickly and by mid-July was ready to bring in. A working peat bank should be kept in order even during the drying months when there is seemingly nothing to do. The peat is thrown from the cutting face onto the upper and lower level to dry but being more exposed to the breeze the upper level is preferable. So once sufficient on the upper level are dry I raise them into hollow cones. I first noticed this method on a friends peat banks and he said it was traditional when they used to cut peat on the Somerset levels. Although this is not traditional getting the peat up into the air with as few making contact with the ground is the most efficient method of drying. It also has the added bonus of creating more space to bring all the peat onto the higher level ready for transporting. A few in the village had already brought in the peat and proudly displayed their skill in traditional stacking, while others had simply tipped them into the dry of the byre.

As usual the weather broke before I got the peat home but once dry the odd days of rain, even intense doesn’t cause problems as when hard it remains dry. I’d spoken with Murry and due to a wedding on the mainland it wouldn’t be fixing the double tyres on the tractor until early August. We made a provisional date of this Saturday but when the forecast wasn’t that good he popped by again on Thursday morning when the skies were blue and a stiff breeze meant no midges. We would go for it later that afternoon. I picked George up at five and as we rounded the corner on the coast road we could see the tractor and trailer already in place. The three of us worked well together with no great rush and as the peat rose above the trailer sides the wall building was better than the previous year when two up top had a job keeping pace with the arrival of peat. Between the two loads George and I remained at the peat bank and I was thankful of the light breeze to keep the midges at bay. The second load was half bags of crumbling peat and by half seven all was safely gather in.

I’ve been cutting peat for ten years now and although the work stretches me to the limit I still see it as an important part of the rhythm of Hebridean life. My next art project will be to bring people into my landscapes, not as tourist but as people working and having a reason for being there. There are few points of contact today that don’t involve some massive piece of machinery so cutting peat on the moor and working with sheep on the croft are the areas I have already started looking at.