Tuesday, July 27, 2021

RETURNING TO GLASGOW


My first impressions of Glasgow during the taxi ride from the airport into the city centre, was where did it go, that black beauty from my childhood memories. It had been over sixty years since I’d last been here. A bus full of children on a five day trip to Glasgow, picked up along the way from Campbeltown to Lochgilphead to have their tonsils removed. Back in the late 50’s this was seen as quite normal, a simple operation to eliminate any chance of tonsillitis in future years. In my case it wasn’t simple. I’d had a haemorrhages and grew progressively weaker. On my arrival back in Campbeltown I collapsed and mother took me immediately to the cottage hospital. There they stuck a pin in my thumb and tried to get blood. I could hear from along the corridor Dr MacPhail shouting down the phone, “How dare you send a child home in such a condition, he’s got no blood in him!” There followed a month’s recuperation, much of it spent in a cot out in the back court yard of our fine Arts and Craft home of Kildalloig. The estate ran to 1000 acres plus the island of Davaar, and it seemed punishment indeed to be pending so much of that summer in bed. Now, I could only hope that my visit would be one with a happier outcome.

As we pulled up at the IWC Offices I was already in a state of shock reeling at the Disney World tragedy that modern architecture had become. This first stop was for a covid test. Whisked upstairs and before I knew it a charming clinician was probing the inner passages of my sinuses in an attempt at a

 frontal lobotomy. I felt totally lop sided for the rest of the day and wished she’d reamed out the other side while she was at it. No amount of nose blowing seemed to have the desired effect.


The early morning flight times from Stornoway meant I now had 5 hours to kill before I could gain access to my hotel room. I left my back pack at the check in desk and headed off in search of Glasgow, I was sure I could see it somewhere around Limington Park. A stroll across the footbridge to the north side of the Clyde revealed the brutal architecture that was BBC Scotland, and it seemed a concerted effort had been made during the redevelopment to design buildings that would echo the harshness of the old dockyard area. The planting of trees had gone a long way to making the dockside walk a reasonably pleasant experience and popular with more cyclists than pedestrians. 


Weaving my way north I encountered some impressive street art between freeway and railway, art to rival any Banksi. It wasn’t long before the first glimpses of what Glasgow had been started to emerge. 


A fine red brick buildings on the corner of Stoke Hill Street, and another domed proclaiming the Messiah has come to Baitur Rahman Mosque at the corner of Haugh road. 


The facade of this Glasgow was a lot cleaner than the Glasgow of my childhood. That black Glasgow had no traffic light crossings and policemen directed traffic and busy junctions. My father would panic and desperately ask my mother “What’s he want me to do?” When we stopped at one such junction I remember seeing a heavily whiskered gentleman of the road digging deep into a waste bin. He came up with a big grin on his brown face and a cream bun in his hand. He took a big mouthful and cream spilled out into his whiskered jowls. I was pleased for him and wished mother would buy such delicious looking buns as a change from drop scones. I discovered later what these synthetic cream filled delights taste like, and a better appreciation of my mother’s cooking.I soon discovered that this brighter Glasgow was still dirty, not from the burning of coal but from discarded tin cans and plastic trash, and although easily removed the inability of humans to dispose of their rubbish responsibly is baffling to me.


 I eventually made it to Kelvingrove and the park, climbing over the iron fencing through the woods and understory of giant hog weed to the Kelvin River. Although water levels were obviously down it made a pleasant change to hear rushing water when back on Lewis most of the loch fed burns had dries up. What a delight, and a discovery I could have almost believed was mine alone if it wasn’t for the profusion of drinks cans. I was once again reminded of Lord Byron’s words.

 There is a pleasure in the pathless woods

There is a rapture on the lonely shore

There is society where none intrude

By the deep sea, and beauty in its roar:

I love not man the less but beauty more.

 Making my way back up to the towpath I passed over a bridge bedecked with fine bronze sculptures depicting bygone arts and crafts. The air was heady with the smell of lime blossom and I realised my arrival in Glasgow was perfectly timed for harvesting. I managed to acquire a paper bag from a young woman and started plucking, wondering why nobody else was partaking of such a bounteous harvest. It would seem city dwellers of today have no knowledge of lime blossom infusions, but would quite likely purchase the tea bag equivalent.

On retracing my way back to the hotel I was shocked to see an entire wall of spray paint art had now disappeared under a fresh coat of black paint. I could only hope that it was the artist him, or herself who had organised this in preparation for another masterpiece. Perhaps a sign of our times and the thirst for change, while in Leonardo’s days, payment meant appreciation and preservation of The Last Supper. 


                    

By the following morning as I looked out from my bedroom window across the docks to a crisp clear sunrise I felt I had arrived even if I was still undecided as to what could be going on inside such peculiar forms as the Armadillo building directly opposite the Premier Inn.


 I hadn’t managed to find the Glasgow of my childhood, the coal black grime of yesteryears has gone, but beyond the fabulously ornate veneer of past wealth and modern opulence lies the problematic Scotch glue of shame. I had discovered a changed and changing 21st century Glasgow that had managed to retain in the face of brutal progress its former glory. During my return trip to the airport the taxi driver made sure to take me via the vast red brick mecca of Ibrox stadium. I was lost for words. Many words did spring to mind, but for once I managed to keep my trap shut. I might yet want to return.                           

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

STUDIOS OPEN TO VISITORS.

 



From Thursday 22nd July to Saturday 24th and again the following 29th to 31st my studio along with others from Tong to Tolsta will be open to the public. For me this will be the first time in approaching two years that Studio 17 has been open to all. Close observers will have noticed that the open sign has already been up for the past six weeks but beneath this is written “by appointment”. I figured if the world had changed then I might as well change along with it. So while people take it as read that one must make an appointment before seeing the doctor, dentist, solicitor, and many other professionals, I saw little harm in adding myself to that list. The only difference being that there is no obvious way of making an appointment since I have no phone line, mobile phone or internet connection. 


This is where a creative mind is required. For those in no rush there is the good old written request by Royal Mail, and for those who do not have the luxury of time and are simply passing through, then I do have a front door. On this door is a box containing brochures indicating what can be seen within the studio, and if this is indeed seen as interesting then there is a door bell to ring, which can lead to an on the spot viewing. 


The B895 road from Stornoway continues another mile and a half beyond the cattle grid at New Tolsta turning to a rough track beyond Garry Bridge for a further mile along the coast and the beginning of the heritage moorland walk to Ness. The beaches of Traigh Mhor and Traigh Ghearadha are great attractions and see their car parks full to overflowing on sunny days throughout the summer. Visitors start arriving from first light, often there to exercise both themselves and their dogs, and even late into the evening cars and camper van make the pilgrimage. The vans to park up overnight and recently with the finer weather many have been braving the midges and camping. However there are those who simply go to the end of the road and turn round; no getting out for a stroll along the beach, no stopping to take in the view, simply turn around in the car park and head back. It seems the idea of going for a spin in the car (something my parents’ generation did on Sundays when fuel was cheap and motoring on the open road could be regarded as a pleasure), is still something that even the younger generation contemplate. Whether young or old most have been to the end of the B895 before, and now take such beauty in their stride. Like a familiar picture on the wall that has ceased to register as it once did. They would notice immediately if it had gone, but not if someone had added an extra signature. 


 These recognised beauty spots we locals often take for granted, while many visitors can only look on in envy at how lucky anyone could be to live in such a place. I have noticed on my evening walk there are fewer energy and alcohol drinks cans discarded during the summer months, which tells me that those who chuck litter from their cars are in fact local people. I imagine these people assume that nature deals with this sort of recyclable rubbish since it seems to disappear. Over the past nine months it’s been me who has religiously cleared the verges and ditches of this trash, and in doing so have noticed a definite reduction in litter. There are other visitors however who are on the “I spy a beach” trip. For those younger reader this is harping back to the sixties and seventies when children were encouraged to tick off various things seen and illustrated in small “I spy books”, which would hopefully keep them from asking, are we there yet, on long car journeys. This “I spy with my little eye” type of entertainment was at least encouraging children to look at their surrounding and not into a tiny smart phone game. The bean their seen that attitude still persists and I often see visitors who must be on a very tight schedule, who do the box-ticking turn around, not even bothering with a selfy photo.

These people I would never expect to be interested in looking at art or anything else not on the ittinery. However there are those who travel at a pace so slow that they are looking for things to fill their time. Galleries and tearooms are certainly on their list of things to do, and what better way to while away the hours, if it’s turned out to be a dull day and the midges are out. These are the people my by appointment is aimed at, just sufficient to prevent them from wasting my time. The sign has been most effective and in during the past weeks I have only had one customer out of the many thousands that have passed, which has enabled me to be productive both in the studio and garden.


    

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

SUMMER SOLSTICE AT THE CONES

 

SUMMER SOLSTICE AT THE CONES.


There has been reason to celebrate this week as my digging of peat finally came to an end. That’s not to say the peat season is over, since they are still out there on the moor drying nicely and awaiting the home coming sometime in August. During a week of perfect drying weather the last few peat to be cut crisped up enough to be lifted and benefit from the westerly breeze. Most of the first cut are now dry and standing on the top side, a little regiment of cones silhouetted against the evening summer solstice sun.


Back in the garden the burst of summer colour has arrived, the vegetable garden looking productive and from under the plastic cover, a picking of four small strawberries to go with my breakfast muesli. It’s at times like this that I’m thankful I don’t have to share those hard won fruits of my labours.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

THE PERSISTANCE OF THE PERENIAL PEAT DIGGER

 



On my first visit to Tolsta in 2005 one of the first things to hit me was the smell of peat fires. Since then many people have ceased to cut peat, having opted for the simplicity of oil-fired heating in old age. They used to say one needed to cut a volume of peat equivalent to the room you wanted to heat for the year. Today with better insulation and heating system I manage with a fraction of that. It is however my only source of heat and serves for hot water and cooking. My electricity bill is a shocking £10/month, but for it to remain so low requires some seriously hard work that today few would be willing to do. The older local population hold nostalgic childhood memories of the peat cutting tradition, while the younger generation have other priorities. Children seem to be otherwise occupied, contented and connected within their hermetically sealed homes.

 Every spring for the past twelve years I’ve been cutting peat above Garry beach on the Isle of Lewis. I had heard that it was hard work and although people would say its free fuel, the labour involved made it anything but free. The position of the peat banks I was allocated was idyllic, across the Garry bridge and down off the track at the first left hand bend it commanded a view out across the Minch. On clear days the mainland coast was visible from north of Ullapool to Cape Wrath, but I wasn’t here to stand staring at the view.

The old peat iron for my croft house was so worn out that it could only be considered a museum piece so that first year I had a go with a spade. The result was some peats but they did not come up to scratch as far as the locals were concerned, and so I was taken in hand and shown, where and how to cut with a tarasgeir. Calum Stealag Macleod, the celebrated Stornoway blacksmith made me an iron and told me how his father had made my old tarasgeir as well as the branding irons that had burnt in the 17NT and JML on the handle.



The following year I set to christening my new tarasgeir and cut a full length of the bank. Restarting to cut a bank that has been left for years is never simple since the face will have dried out and the heather will have grown on top making the de-turfing an arduous task. I was pleased to have some help that year from Mats, a friend from Sweden who continued to visit each summer on his cycling tours of Scotland. Leaving his bike overwinter at No 15 he made New Tolsta his base until his sudden and untimely death last November. This upliftingly active spring period has been tinged this year with the sadness of not having his companionship.


There are machines that will cut peat, removing the top turf and raising the subsequent layer of peat in convenient blocks, but this requires level ground. My banks are on a south facing slope. I was unable to cut last year having been stuck in Brittany during the period of covid restrictions and was worried just how my old back would cope with the effort. A few fine days at the end of March saw me make a start. I de-turfed a five meter section and gave up. However, if I was to continue heating with peat it was simply going to have to be a question of persistence.

Back on the banks during mid-April there were days of good progress followed by days of pain and anti-inflammatory pills, but by limiting myself to a maximum of 200 peats cut I found the rhythm of my old work pattern. Luckily I have a habit of counting as I cut and the total soon approached a thousand being by then half way down the bank. Working alone it is a process of cutting twenty or thirty, then throwing them. Throwing is an art in itself, and in the past, when I’ve had local help, I’ve marveled at the accuracy achieved when hurling a weighty peat several meter to land perfectly alongside the previous one. Today, alone I carry this process out in stages, finding an often inelegant method to get them well away from the bank, then having to sort out those that have overlapped so that crisping up of the topside can commence. The top layer is not the best, being rather spongy and fibrous. They take longer to dry and so it is as well that they come out first. The drying process relies not only on the wind and lack of heavy rain, but also on the condition of the moor. If the ground is wet then crisping up takes longer. I avoid at all cost throwing onto sodden mossy ground. Despite getting the peat thrown out several meters from the bank, both on the top and lower side, there is often an issue with space, especially if cutting more than three deep and seven wide. Thankfully this year in mid-April we had ideal conditions and so the setting up could start and doing so space created for the final and best layer of peat. If space becomes a problem I continue to cut, but create a wall of peat on the top side. Here it will continue to dry although if left too long will tend to stick. There are also areas that produce crumbly peat and can’t be cut with the tarasgeir. In these circumstances its back to the spade to cut smaller chunks which dry fast and tend to crack up and require bagging. Once dry nothing is wasted and by the end of summer the banks should be left clear from even the smallest pieces of dry peat.



Getting the dry peat back to the house is another operation that is good to do as a team, but there have been years when I’ve bagged it all up, wheeled it up to the track and loaded it into my car. Now if all has gone according to plan and Murray has the tractor and trailer available in late August then it’s time to ask neighbours if they can lend a hand. It’s a good humoured time and a reminder of what communal working was like in bygone days. For now though with the last layer cut and thrown everything is either crisping up or set up. There’s a feeling of relief that the hardest of jobs is over for another year.          



Friday, April 16, 2021

STITCHING TAILS ON TIGERS.


My winter whiskers are gone under the clean shaven razor of a longed for spring. Only a week ago we were in a cold spell more brutal than we had experienced all winter. What remain of the daffodils are now struggling to put on a show, but in parts of the garden the combination of freezing temperatures and gale force winds has left them ragged and shabby. The first leaves and shoots of cotoneaster, fuchsia, rhubarb, gooseberries and currents are now crisp and brown. Nature will now sulk in recovery for a week or so before attempting any regrowth.

It hardly seemed possible that during those arctic days of Easter week that the MacTV crew were filming. The timing seemed perfect for a disaster epic or survival film, but not really what was expected for a children’s fantasy. At the beginning of the week they put a brave face on it telling me that when filming in the Hebrides they were used to such conditions. They were to be using my kitchen and the bedroom over, and fortunately for them with the Rayburn lit these were the two warmest rooms in the house.  Meanwhile I retreated to the stove in the studio, and stitched away while trying to ignore the drifting snow and howling winds. It was not all grey skies and typical of these western isles the elements managed to chuck everything at us including sun during the course of the day. Continuity was going to be tricky with snow that arrived overnight lingering unusually for most of the day, while storm clouds circled between violent hail storms and sun.


 The view from the studio was in constant flux, but a brief few hours of sun allowed the crew to film a short scene in the shelter of the old byre below. And if the weather wasn’t challenging enough there was all the covid restrictions and regulation to respect. Mid-week I had my second vaccination and once again marvelled at the slick organisation involved. I could now get on with some serious antibody production, as well as stitching tails on tigers.  

It really isn’t as difficult, or dangerous as it might seem. The secret is pipe clearer, and what would we creative people do without those multi-coloured sturdy flexible friends. This is the only purchase that I require since over the years I’ve accumulated an extensive collection of Harris Tweed yarn in all there myriad of tones and colours. Since the decline in tobacconists and pipe smokers I imagine there must be more customers using them these days for craft work.


The starting point of any stump work embroidery always begins on a smaller round frame, with the stitching of all raised areas. For some unknown reason, and despite these images taking months to complete, I’d started work on two large cats, a tiger and a leopard. One ear of each large cat was completed, cut out and attached before the remainder of the head was embroidered. Although this work is for the moment in two dimensions, there is a need to think ahead of what the animal will look like once padded out. The same goes for the tails as they are stitched separately from the bodies. Once cut out they are then attached around the pipe cleaner and any uncovered areas overstitched to disguise the join. The wire of the pipe cleaner is then fed through and attached to the embroidered animal in the appropriate place.

 


Meanwhile the base fabric is stretched on the stand and a rough placement decided on. The animal is then sewn to this support starting with the head stuffing out with cotton wool as you go. To get a good sculptural quality this is done in small section to obtain muscular and limb form. After a week of stitching, I find this one of the most exciting points, seeing the two dimensional transformed into relief. Having done a very rough preparatory sketch, this is now transferred to the backing canvas and those foreground areas that require padding are now stitched as with the animals on a separate thinner support. This support fabric is thinner simply to make it easier to manipulate and obtain a good form when padding out. The leopard is destined to be high on a rock outcrop with distant views while the tiger will be in dense jungle. There has been progress on both images. Some may even recall I was working on a panther and lion two years ago, the result of which inspired me to continue the big cat collection.

There now follows a few months of embroidery to discover the full image. I often hear the comment that I must have tremendous patients, but this part is constantly fascinating as each small group of stitches begin to reveal another part of the picture that up to this point has not existed beyond that vague colourless sketch in my head.



It is important to me to hold no fixed idea of the end result, since this could only serve to dampen the sense of discovery. There are no mistakes to be made, when embroidering freestyle, rather than copying a kit form image. I don’t have the patience for that.           

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

I'M DREAMING OF A WHITE EASTER.

 



There’s a special light beyond the curtains, an impossible radiant light that from such a small aperture should not be filling the bedroom in such a way. And I know it’s been snowing. A childish excitement urging me to be up and out. There is no time for a sneak-peak, the room too cold and I pull on layer after haphazard layer of clothing, with total disregard as to what I might look like. With the curtains drawn I see that for once the forecast was not wrong. Easter Monday had been the start of filming and in blizzard conditions I had marveled at how they had managed to get all the interior shots they required and only eight minutes behind schedule. Timing is everything along with good planning, and they assured me they were used to this sort of thing when filming in the Outer Hebrides. But blizzards at Easter, surely not. When they’d been to do a reconnoiter of the house in mid-March it was fine, and I had imagined by early April with the daffodils out it would be looking perfect for a children’s fantasy film. When they came to do the set preparation the sun was out to the point that they sat outside for a picnic lunch. It seemed impossible that in three days there would be snow, surely not, the forecast must have got it wrong again. On Sunday the wind came belting in bitter from the north, north west snapping and I was thankful that spring in the form of tender new shoots had for the most part not yet arrived. My walk out onto the moor had been a determined stagger, headlong into the wind rather than the usual stroll up the quarry track.


After a morning of lashing horizontal rain the afternoon brought a change with clearing skies and the temptation of sun. I’d already been blown up to the top of the hill to post two letters and doubted if I’d manage to battle my way back, so instead I completed the New Tolsta loop on the lower road. Back in my studio I wondered if Donald and the dogs would be venturing out, and by three o’clock could wait no longer. This might turn out to be the only dry point of the day, and with that snow forecast it was now or never. So, fully waterproofed I headed of on the quarry track to the moor. I got no further than the quarry when a light shower stinging my face forced me to seek shelter behind Mackay’s digger. It passed quickly and I continued head down, resolutely determined, plodding my way up the track. At the first bend the blustering wind increased as I proceed my random staggering into the north westerly. There is nothing better than experiencing the full force head on, however I wasn’t prepared for the blast at the final bend that brings Loch Diridean and the distant high ground of Muirneag into view. It hit me sideways and nearly had me off the track into the adjacent peat bog. The end of the track, and my goal was in site and I wasn’t turning back till I’d reached it. At the end I sat watching the surface of the loch turn from ripples to waves, and far out across the moor towards Barbhas darker clouds approached. No lingering today, and so I turned to be unceremoniously nudged back along the track, feeling like a child being less than politely ushered from a room where his presence was not required. The forceful and random hand of nature encouraging me towards the door. As I staggered back down the track the wind abated until at the mill burn there was barely a breath of wind. How could there be such a difference, or was this the storm over. One glance at the scudding clouds told me otherwise and reaching home a final gust hurled me towards my front door. I could feel the air pressure from within as I pushed it open and it closed firmly behind me. Time for tea and toast well earned. Even then I doubted that snow would be here in 24 hours, maybe on the mainland, but not here.


The gritter was round early on Easter Monday, but today no sign of any vehicles. There would be no film crew today as they were scheduled to shoot within the comfort of Stornoway Arts Centre. Here those daffodils that showed above the snow looked as if they've had enough, defeated by the wind chill factor. I would have a calm days stitching with no need for chocolate eggs or any other light than that which came from the window. A whiter than white, blue bright snow light.       

 

         



Saturday, February 20, 2021

WHITTLING MY WAY THROUGH THE MONTHS OF HIBERNATION

 



What do you do through those dark months when we are told that depression is at its highest? When we are also told to stay at home because the bogie man pandemic is on the loose, that having friends round is simply not allowed, and your only choices seem to be between Netflix and Facebook. Thankfully I don’t have that particular choice having neither Television nor an Internet connection. There are times when the latter would be practical and negate having to log-on via the village shop Wi-Fi to read emails or upload this blog. It is a personal choice, which is easier to make when one lives alone. So what do I do during those dark months? It’s simple, I create. If it’s good enough for God then it’s good enough for me. When he found himself going through a dark patch the first thing he did was to create a bit of light. Well barring power cuts, and I do have plenty of candles, light is easier to come by these days. Warmth in which to work is a little more time consuming than the flick of a switch. The elements must be braved and peat brought in from the stack, as well as kindling chopped. If I’ve put a shovel full of smokeless coal on the previous evening then wood may not be needed. The studio soon became yet another fire to light and space to heat, so the kitchen being the warmest place seemed the logical choice. Choosing what to do in this restricted space was evidently going to have to be small, and what better than something miniature. Luckily I’ve already been through this thinking process in previous winters, so have two doll’s houses to play with. If grown men can play with model trains then I can play with my houses. The original house I bought from a friend when I was in my late twenties and had already added a considerable amount of furnishings. The second house is one of my own making which required a total internal makeover. Here I added a moulded ceiling upstairs and beamed below, and altered fire places as well as widening a chimneybreast. All materials are reused or reclaimed so small offcuts of wood that would have normally gone as fire lighting are now whittled, sanded, painted and polished. My croft house kitchen is not a large one and the table measures 78x144cm so the cabinet equivalent of window box gardening. I also manage to find a little space to chop vegetables, roll out pastry and eat.


A list of furniture produced over the past six weeks would include; mahogany dining table and bookcase, two mahogany pot cupboards, a wall hanging food cupboard, a bed, two side tables, cloths horse and ironing board, three upholstered easy chairs, a tripod wine table, a cricket table plus the framing of several miniature water colours. Having made a bookcase I realised that the only tiny books I had where both religious so set about making some miniature bound books. My fingers are getting less sensitive these days and so handling such small objects can be tricky at times. I often looked on with envy at young people texting on their phones with such extra ordinary finger coordination, but more importantly, can they whittle. If I keep my hands occupied I am less likely to get into trouble, and although some would not agree, it does, at least in my eyes, help to keep me sane. This work for the most part is done in silence since my only form of entertainment, the radio seems to have become contaminated with a virus, and uninfected programs are increasingly difficult to find. Whoever said ignorance is bliss must have first acquired considerable knowledge.