It has taken this long to find a place, outside, where I feel comfortable and able to paint. With the rhythm of the surf as a pulse to work to, somewhere to leave the car within easy reach if I need to replenish my materials and most importantly, few people about, I set out my equipment and worked for several hours undisturbed.
Unlike my first excursion into the immediate locality, this place appears to be managed by a farmer more in sympathy with the environmental concerns of the western seaboard. There is a map with natural history notes and an endorsement from several national environmental initiatives including SNH and RSPB, no doubt contributing financially to this low impact husbandry. There are few or no fences, cattle roaming in a herd through the dunes and information explaining the land management to enlist your sympathy.
As the light fell, I packed up and went for a walk. Rounding a rocky promontory I discovered an enormous white beach echoing with the eerie call of the Curlew punctuated by the occasional Oystercatcher. I paid little attention until I got too close to a flock of birds on the beach; I assumed they were starlings (if you had asked me) until they flew off. I was amazed to realise that I was watching a flock of curlews, seventy or a hundred, which wheeled away over my head and into the dunes.
At home, as I go to bed, I open the bedroom window next to my side of the bed. I do this to let in the sounds of the shore close to our house and more noticeable after the last ferry crossing. It is always with a thrill that I recognise the voice of the occasional solitary curlew. I assumed they were solitary birds but it appears that I was wrong. On our more inland waterway they must be rare, no doubt in decline and probably on the red list (I must look them up) Tiree may be one of the protected places where they can still thrive without the inevitable intervention that our modern world likes to describe as Progress. Progress to where? is my usual thought; Oblivion seems likely! Extinction of many, many species, a certainty.
Since I arrived on Tiree it has been hard to find a subject and find my groove. Lucky I started a daily practice at home during July and August and so this is the obvious place to start. Although I had been packing for weeks, grabbing the odd moment, I find myself here with very few brushes and those I brought are rather short of bristles! Recently, someone looked at my brushes and said they were well used. I was rather taken aback thinking she meant worn out and when I thought about it, I guess I haven’t bought many for at least twenty years, so yes, I suppose those I have are rather bristle free! Never mind, a feather, a piece of kelp stalk or some plastic detritus from the beach will suffice. However, it is rather irritating to think of two pots full of lovely brushes in my studio at home.
But the SUBJECT is a different matter. It would be churlish to say that when I planned this visit I hadn’t given serious consideration to fine weather. We have had the wettest summer, almost in living memory, in Lochaber. Now, just as people had given up in dismal despair, we have had the most wonderful September. And so here I am with a suitcase of jerseys and waterproofs expecting torrential rain and wind only to be challenged with positively Greek colours, Blue blue sea and a sky to match. Jolomo is not my favourite artist despite his popularity in Scotland and his consequent commercial success (apparently a sign of good painting to some) and I am not going to succumb to painting glistening white croft cottages with indian red tin roofs and turquoise sea. But it is not the pallet I was expecting and how many blue pictures of the seaside does the world need?
None the less, a daily practice has emerged. Equipped with some strips of heavy watercolour paper and having met Jonathan Shearer, a vastly reduced pallet in my first watercolour tin which I have had since my teens, I go out every day and make several wet on wet drawings. Colours of Tiree they are becoming. And eventually I will have over 100 and so 100 Colours of Tiree might be their name.
As I have described before, I was pulled by the sea when on Iona and worked on the beach looking out at the surf. So back to the beach I have gone here too but on Tiree there are about 25 beaches to choose from and with a car they are all within easy reach. I started by exploring those closest to me here and have gradually expanded my reach until today I revisited somewhere we were shown when we came here in February. It couldn’t have looked more different, with almost iridescent green waves with just the right amount of spray being blown back as they broke, reminding me of the depiction of waves as white horses that may be the territory of children’s book illustration. There were two or three surfers there but the beach is huge and anyway I was on a mission to go and explore a ruined chapel further round the rocky coast. In February Norrie and I didn’t make it that far as we were so hypnotised by the rocks and every detail, we got distracted by taking photos and even a little film. Our friends went on and mentioned the chapel on their return so I decided I would go and explore. As I approached, a lone Raven, standing on a rock made his presence known and standing his ground continued to caw until he got a reply. Whenever I see a Raven I think it is my father keeping an eye on me. You can tell with my name that I am rather keen on birds although I know little about them. Ravens pair for life (I am an exception to this habit) and when they established where each other were, they slowly flew off, in no hurry but not wanting my intrusion to come too close.
Today I woke to a dull, drizzly day and so decided to catch up on some admin, photograph the work made so far and spend some time painting as the sun came out. I am scaling up my strips and moving from watercolour to pigment.
There is no internet at Machair Cottage and although I have a smart phone the connection is not reliable enough to send anything more than a short message. Instead, I have been using a wifi hotspot at the rural centre. Today, when I arrived, I was rather surprised to discover the car park full and half a field outside, covered in heavy-duty agricultural vehicles, many with trailers. There were small fields full of sheep and so I soon realised there must be a serious local event, the Mart. Buyers come from the mainland five times a year to bid for cattle and sheep and the final section is reserved for breeding ewes that don’t leave the island so the ferry can work to its timetable without leaving any new acquisitions behind. As I set up my workstation, there was a strong smell of cow dung and lots of rugged men and some women in waterproofs. Every chair had mud on it and so I gave up looking for a clean place to sit and settled down to the background of rapid fire bidding and bacon rolls. The bidding for cattle was so rapid that it got to over a thousand pounds in a few seconds. I didn’t stay long enough to hear the sheep prices which I believe are down on last year. With a new vegan shadow minister of agriculture at Westminster, I wondered what she would make of this economy? There is no doubt that the livestock look well fed and totally free range, so if we are to eat less meat, what would replace livestock for the people of Tiree? It seems extremely unlikely that they will go back to grain. Silage is all I have seen by way of a crop. But I think the new responsibility about land use and animal welfare will not choose Tiree as a place to start. Perhaps that could be factory farming, with chickens as a beginning?