Some of you will know that I have a passion for sheds and this leads me to suffer from shed envy of anyone who is lucky enough to have one! I have spent years wandering round the garden at Ard Daraich dreaming of building a shed! I want to sleep in it on light summer nights, watch the dusk at eleven pm and the dawn at two. I want to be away from phone or internet and just be in the present, uninterrupted, to think and work.
Henry has restored a derelict stone shed, Littlure Bothy, a fisherman’s bothy, overlooking the most beautiful inlet, a Geo as they are called in Shetland. Having found me painting on the hill, he offered to lend it to me as a studio for the rest of my visit. I was thrilled as I had heard about it when here in April and had spotted it in the far distance when on another walk. I knew, therefore, that it was not a very long walk but it was not next door. I was assured that it took twenty minutes and on the first day I was taken by surprise as, striding across the prostrate heather, I was interrupted by a phone call (mostly there is no signal) I sat in a dip, a rabbit warren, out of the wind and talked to a friend a world away and so when I resumed my walk and reached the hut it had taken me forty minutes. I guess I stop a lot and look at things, views and details. The most memorable pause was finding an inlet, protected from a boiling sea by a row of ferocious teeth or rocks, protecting a calm circular cove. As I appeared, a row of heads appeared as well. I don’t know the collective noun for seals but I now term them “a parliament of seals”. They were so friendly, so curious and seemed blissfully at home in their natural element with surf crashing round them but basking in the still water and sunshine. Seals appear to sunbathe, lying on their back, star gazing and apparently just enjoying the elements, the sun, water and movement. A mammal clearly enjoying itself. I am told there is a more scientific reason, the sun helps manage the parasites they host on their skin.
Each time I walk to the Bothy I notice something different. It’s as if the walk here has become part of the daily practice and is like a meditation before beginning to work. Working from home as I do, I haven’t experienced the separation from work and life since I left day-school at the age of sixteen so unlike the majority, this is a new opportunity for me. I am quite sure a commute on the tube would not feel the same but it is a time to gather your thoughts and leave the concerns of domesticity behind and empty yourself for the new things ahead. I remember someone telling me they saw a man remove his wedding ring on his way to work in London. All sorts of new opportunities lie ahead, obviously!
The wind has dropped and whilst yesterday was swathed in fog, today is bright, calm and soft. A glorious day. I decided to alter my route this morning and walk on the other side of the inland loch. Two days ago when passing this place, I was fascinated by a group of large birds having a bath. They were a small group of large brown birds on the shore preening themselves in the sun with one afloat on the water, involved in a lot of dunking and diving. On being disturbed they inevitably changed their behaviour and a pair took off wheeling round in an elaborate dance. The silhouette was reminiscent of a bird of prey, dark chocolate brown with a white tip to each wing, not a seabird I thought but maybe some sort of goose? Later it was suggested they were Bonxie or Great Skua, an aggressive sea bird that I hadn’t come across until on Fair isle for my birthday.
Today had a different surprise, three large white swans, Whooper Swans, again on the shore preening until disturbed when they took to the water. A sign of the beginning of the winter migration? We get lots of these swans on a freshwater loch in Ardgour but usually as a mark to the end of winter. These are marking the other end of the breeding season and the summer.
Continuing to skirt the edge where beautifully constructed dry stone dykes disappear under the water, I was delighted to see another three swans appear and quickly come into land on the water too. Two groups of three, sizing each other up just like young men out for an evening or Italian families strutting their stuff after work. They swam towards each other and like men preparing to joist, rose up, almost vertical as if the water was solid and could take their weight, flapping their wings at one another. It made a great noise; slapping feathers on water. Posturing. Was it the behaviour of the males? Some swans didn’t react, leaving their friend to defend them. Were they the females? Having grouped together, too friendly, too soon, they burst apart like billiard balls, scattered across the surface.
I left the loch and continued down to the shore and the fishermans bothy. There was a seal outside in the bay sunbathing as usual with his nose in the air looking like a stout Italian wine bottle, afloat.
Someone found a message in a bottle. It had been put into a bottle somewhere north of here by a boy on holiday. I hope he was excited to get a message back with a map showing where his bottle was found. Maybe he had hoped for the Caribbean or Canada but in a week it had traveled the length of Shetland.
A pair of Otters
All wildlife went to ground
Resented sharing bay with others then realised they were fishermen having their breakfast, hooted and waved on departure. Felt selfish that I had distrusted them.
If writing a wildlife blog I would be scoring high with my sightings so far.
My living bottle resurfaced, sunbathing! Amazing how long he just lies there floating. I can hear his snuffles when he drops to0 low and water goes up his nose!
Hovering, like a semi-detached sibling, on the horizon, is the island of Foula. From the bothy it comes in and out of view depending on the weather. When first here I didn’t see her at all but then one day I arrived and there she was, sitting on her line between the sea and the sky often with a cloud on her head by way of hair.
Interesting how, when the weather is calm and the sea swills about following its own internal force pulled by the moon but no longer whipped by the wind, the connection that I come to rely on in order to work is weakened and requires much more teasing to find a thread. At the moment my work feels best when responding to the forces of nature in their extremes. No doubt a psychoanalyst would say that was because the external forces more closely mirror my internal ones. That may be true and it shows my passionate nature, something British society doesn’t know how to respond to, especially in women. But it explains why I am so excited by the forces of nature, my subject. There is a challenge in how to respond in quieter times. More careful observation is an opportunity but I am then drawn back into the same debate about the reason to make work and for me that is not about recording, it is about responding. A circle emerges in my internal debate and I have a bad habit of getting on the hamster wheel.
Of course another reason for responding to the drama of wild places in bad weather is that it mirrors the world I was brought up in. When raised in an atmosphere of continual conflict in which there is no hiding place, your emotional hard wiring become trained to expect drama and conflict as normality. As my life has moved into more tranquil times with the life I have constructed for myself as an adult, my dna still feels at home when the drama continues. Perhaps that is why so many people who move to the highlands feel at home here. This is not my culture but it is my home. It is a pity, in these difficult political times, that I don’t feel more welcome.
Something to learn is how to observe the cycles of your own creativity. It too seems to mirror the weather in its cyclical nature. Flurries of ideas like a blizzard of snow engage you in the process of making. And afterwards the calm of a quieter day. And then there are the days when nothing goes right, when you cling to the life raft knowing this is part of the process, painful though it may be. My belief is that it is a connection with these emotions that allow one to be creative. As if your own internal rhythms are pulled to and fro like the sea by the moon. There are those who believe the moon acts on us too. How strange it is that humans spend so long disguising these forces with a man-made world, one disconnected from the nature of life. But now there are too many of us and so I should be satisfied that I have this cove to myself while so many are busy elsewhere.
Littlure Bothy, Near Walls, West Mainland, Shetland Islands.
All photos taken with my i phone.