The Secret Lives of Midges.

We are on holiday in Italy as those of you who follow me on Instagram will know. I hadn’t intended to add anything to my blog whilst away, after all we are meant to be on holiday.
However, I have been persuaded otherwise in order to share with you something of another passion I have, the conservation and respect for Wild Places. As you will all realise, I am not a signed up believer in development necessarily meaning progress. In fact, where we live it is most often landscape degradation on an industrial scale, presumably in the belief that there is so much land, a little intervention wont hurt. But it only takes a very small alteration by man to have a disproportionate effect and unfortunately the pursuit of profit overrides all.
So it was with considerable amazement that I received a number of messages whilst away, telling of my appearance first on a trailer, broadcast on Farming Today and then on BBC Scotland giving an interview about midges; the bane of our lives especially as gardeners but an inherent part of living on the west coast. I still have to hear this interview, as i player is not available outside the United Kingdom so await my return with interest! Listening to the trailer makes me sound like the midges only and best friend but I will wait and see. What I do know is that as we live in a temperate rain forest, one almost unique to the world, I am sure the midge must fit there somewhere, perhaps quite near the bottom of the food chain. My view is therefore that we must put up with them as we live in such a rare and special place and we need to regard and respect the natural resource we are so lucky to have.

Home again.

Six entries are quite enough for three weeks! You have witnessed my creative struggle, which precipitated some difficult moments about family and friends. Whilst here, I have heard that my oldest, dearest friend has a life threatening condition and those of you who know me, know too that my nights are frequently punctured by nightmares about those closer to home. The one thing I have learnt over a life of challenges, is that if you hold tight, the storm will subside.

After twenty four hours of wet weather, I wanted to do a last day of painting and so between bouts of cleaning and packing (I managed to lock myself out of the large boot, which was a big reason for taking the pickup in the first place) and so packing became the art of the possible and drawing boards, large flat boxes of paper, food and far too many woolly jerseys became like shuffling a pack of cards. In between shuffling cards, I mean boxes, I managed to pull together all the thinking I had done and go down to the shore and produce some new work.


On getting home to Ard Daraich, I put everything away with the intention of gaining some distance from it all. Not before I showed it to Norrie and asking him to record it. In a few weeks I will get it out again and look with fresh eyes. It may become clearer if there is progress and if I am any nearer the Pressburger adage “I know where I’m Going.”


Throughout my time away there was one person to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. Day in, day out, sometimes more than once a day, Norrie has always been there on the end of the phone, remaining supportive. He is a great believer in the ups and downs of the creative process and the places it takes you.

The connectivity at Machair Cottage is very variable and often my conversations took place whilst sitting in a sandpit, on a little ridge just past an upturned bath and next to a large patch of flowering camomile. In walking across to my rural wifi hotspot I might disturb a hare or two who did one of two things and I was never sure which it would be. I didn’t know that hares liked pretending to be stones. If caught unawares, they hunker down, drawing in their legs and ears until they look round and brown just like a stone and sit and sit, hoping that if they remain still enough, they might become invisible. The other, more predictable reaction was to run away at great speed and then you would notice they had unsettled hares all over the place and there was a mad dash from every direction. If the lapwing were on the ground they would flap away with a variety of calls or a flock of starling would take off in unison. In the mornings, skeins of geese would fly overhead and with the sand dunes rolling down to the shore, I could see and feel that I was on the edge of the world, our world of Western Europe where it meets the great ocean of the North Atlantic.



You could see that too by the amount of plastic rubbish washed up on almost every beach. On my last day I took this photo; three shoes that someone had arranged on a rock, next to an otherwise perfect white beach, washed across the Atlantic. I like to think as sandals, they came from the Caribbean, but look at the plastic breaking down and along with all the nets, fishing gear and other rubbish, it was shocking to think of it floating across an ocean and slowly working its way into the food chain.


The strength to continue.

On deciding to use my time to relax as well as work, I have been faced with other interesting concerns. One observation is how much of my time I fill with activity and conversely, how ill prepared I am if not fully occupied. I have known for years that activity can help with suspending cerebral activity and at times of stress I can make important decisions by spending a day in the garden, realising at the end the days work that I now know what I need to do without consciously making the decision at all. This must be why horticultural therapy is so effective with rehabilitation but it also teaches me something about the role of activity in both physical as well as mental wellbeing. I have always preferred a country life where exercise is part of life rather than a gym membership but when you strip all that away, the sound and feel of having nothing to do is a challenge. There is also the problem of lethargy, which must be the converse of anxiety driven activity. But being as old as I am, (60 next birthday!) at least I have acquired skills and understanding of where this comes from and how to manage the emotions. Perhaps the reason I found painting in a storm last year on Iona so enlivening was the easy connection into the world of emotion. The Deep Blue Blue of the sea sky and sand that this week has so unexpectedly brought us after the wettest summer memory can recall, has been much harder to access with a visual vocabulary.


I have a complaint to make. I have told you of the wonderful bird life here. Made even richer by the landscape and the big skies. Last night I watched a murmuration of starlings (I think that is the collective noun? Better than the collective noun for ravens; an Unkindness of Ravens so my aunt always emphasised; very apt in my family’s’ case.) Anyway, throughout my stay, I have been mildly disconcerted by the occasional sighting of a group of men dressed in camouflaged fatigues of the modern sort, the photographic printing of a whole forest on their back, legs, arms and head! What happened to tweed? I have noticed this group of men sneaking about in the undergrowth of the wilder places and they make a marked contrast to those equipped with lurid florescent fitness clothing who has every sort of outdoor kit. In fact it all seems very tribal.
Outside Machair Cottage, across a field and the road, is a large rushy bog and a freshwater loch. There have been summer grazing cattle on the marsh and many many water birds as well as incessant windsurfers sailing up and down with remarkable persistence. This morning however the camouflaged tribe are there in strength and I thought perhaps Tiree was practicing for Syria with the tribes having declared war. But no, I was wrong. There is no wind and so the sailing tribe are grounded today. The poor unsuspecting enemy is the bird life. When so much of the world is open warfare for wildlife in our modern age, why do these men have to come here to what must be one of the last refuges for these wonderful creatures who have the sky as their universe? I have had this argument before and unfortunately much closer to home, and the tired old argument is that bird life can thrive and prosper if someone is paid to manage biodiversity to enrich the countryside to create the killing fields for those who think it smart to kill. The change I yearn for is when managers realise that there is a much more enlightened approach, which would use the wildlife as the attraction and teach those who understand land management that wildlife and its care is the way to go. Have you heard the statistic that British birdlife is changing and that the Blackcap, once a rare sighting, is now flourishing due to the number of gardens that provide bird food? Surely there is ample evidence that wildlife does engage the public and if funds are needed to maintain these places, then the obvious answer is to market the enjoyment of the biodiversity, not market the permission to kill it?


Indirectly, this concern for conservation and the role art has to play within it, is the reason I am here on Tiree. As you know, I have been invited to do this self funded residency by Nick Turner and Mary Ann Kennedy of Watercolour Music. The Kennedy family come from Tiree and this is their family croft. A couple of years ago Nick and I made separate applications to Creative Scotland to work on a collaboration between science and art. Mine was about botany and painting, based at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Rahoy Hills Reserve and was made in conjunction with someone with whom I went to art school and who is now a botanist with a speciality in bryophytes. Nicks application was about the marine soundscape. At that time neither of us were successful but Nick has since developed his idea and has been given seed funding to develop a more detailed proposal. He has bought himself a little boat and is to be seen trailing a microphone underwater in all sorts of places round our way. It coincides with a more national concern of the Scottish Government with the development of fish farming. Outside Oban there is a fish research centre that is doing work on noise pollution underwater and its effect on our sea creatures including the whales and dolphins we are lucky enough to have on the West Coast. Did you know that a blue whale in the western Atlantic used to be able to hear another one swimming off the east cost of America? Those of you who know Ardgour may also know that we have a fish farm in the village, so mechanised that you hear the rattle of the fish food being pumped down tubes, which continues all day and I expect all night, although I haven’t been to listen. Son John worked there for a summer at the weekends before the mechanisation and a round of redundancies and has never eaten salmon again! In testing his sound equipment, Nick took his boat several miles up Loch Linnhe to opposite the isle of Lismore to see if he could start his recording. You may be surprised to gather that the only sound he could detect was the underwater seal alarms from the Ardgour fish farm. The seals are so adept at stealing salmon through the nets that they eviscerate the fish by sucking and at the end of the growing cycle the nastiest job of all is that described as Deading or the removal of body-parts of decomposed salmon from inside the nets, the bits the seals don’t eat.
The conversation Nick and I are having is what role art has to play within this debate? It is clear to me that you cannot make painting about conservation, that would either be propaganda or the job of a graphic designer. I think my role is to continue to engage with the places that are so fragile and on the edge of the recent waves of development and finding the poetry within the subject, try and engage the participation of an audience to prevent further corruption of our natural world. There are several places up and down the west coast asking the same question but many have moved away from painting and into conceptual and community art. Perhaps that is seen as less elitist but I am of a generation who still likes making painterly images.
Two other friends are also engaged in this dilemma, this time as aerial photographers. Pat and Angus MacDonald use their backgrounds as academics at Edinburgh University and the ownership of a light aircraft, to photograph much of Scotland from the air. During this summer they took me to a glen in the Grampian, where Pat had worked with my brother Andrew, on a large deer cull in order to enable the afforestation of the old Caledonian forest. Pat showed me with total glee, how the granny pines, as she called them, in fact had no children but after the deer cull under Andrew’s leadership, now had hundreds of grandchildren, great grandchildren and subsequent generations. Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of my brother’s untimely death and so my visit with Pat and Angus to Glenfeshie was on my mind. The question Pat wished to discuss was how her photographs from the air of what is known as a braided river, could be used visually to describe the process of soil erosion and landscape degradation which occurs through deforestation without the work becoming propaganda. She had taken some photographs twenty or thirty years ago of the river and everyone responded to the beauty of her images. With her understanding of what it shows about degradation, she wanted to discuss how to use this work in a more fine art context. Pat knows how to give a scientific lecture…. what she muses over now, is how to use this knowledge to make art.


As well as working out and about as I usually prefer, I am also working in a small byre next to the house. It is rather spartan as studios go but with a plastic garden table, which I have shrouded in an old sheet and several deck chairs adapted with drawing boards into side tables, I have established a good work place. After each outing, I return to the byre and look at what I have achieved, seal the work with a stinking fixative, so best kept out of the house and then mix colours. I have remained totally alone whilst doing all this and am accompanied by the gentle soundtrack of bird life. With my Heath Robinson bird table, I have been putting out scraps and even forget to eat a bag of pears which became over ripe and mushy. I don’t think starlings had ever seen pears before but the fruit slowly disappeared throughout the day. Starlings are very conversational with a broader vocal range than most of the garden birds we have at home. I often sit outside at home and try to identify birdcalls and although I don’t know more than three or four, have noticed many are repetitive. Not so with Starlings. They even have a bigger range than our hens, one of whose charms is how chatty they are. Perhaps starlings need a broad range, given the size of the flock? As the time passes the number of starlings seem to have increased, not because of my measly offerings; it seems more likely that it is the time of year. As I worked after lunch this afternoon I heard the loud rustle of silk like a grand lady making an important entrance. It was an entrance but that of hundreds of starlings coming into land on the field next door.

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On being Alone.

Today is Sunday and for me, someone who doesn’t go to church or in fact go out much at all, it makes little difference. The only thing I have to consider is that I can’t buy any milk until tomorrow. However I feel as if Sunday represents something significant today. I have been following the progress of the Pope in America and Jeremy Corbin at the Labour party conference with half an ear and am delighted and relieved that a more reasonable and liberal way of looking at the world seems to be on the increase but it is not that which has affected me, at least not directly.
As the struggle continues and I still have to find a way of describing the landscape of Tiree that works for me, I have had a novel thought!
Why not relax and treat the rest of my time here as a holiday!
It speaks reams about my work ethic and level of anxiety and seriousness that this had not occurred to me until today. When I woke, the sun was shining and being the conventional day of rest I made a decision that I was not going to be so serious about the rest of my time here and now plan to relax and enjoy the island and the time away from other commitments. Knowing me, I will revert to wondering how to find the right language to describe this place but I will also walk, read and sit by the fire.

Tuesday 29th September.
The process of having a daily practice is a good discipline even if that is all you do but in fact I have been working on some drawings too. I remembered, rather late in the day, the exercise of drawing with your marker tied to the end of a stick. I have also decided that as the emphasis here is in the horizontal plane, I would divide a sheet of paper equally into strips, either with a view to reassembling them to their original proportion or into a long, long drawing.
So, equipped with two pieces of twig charcoal tied to two pieces of bamboo, one thicker than the other so it enables a firmer mark, I ventured out.


By way of an interlude, I want to tell you a little about what it is like being here alone. I am quite self sufficient and so except for my husband, I haven’t really missed being in company. I have had four conversations with four very different women during the time I have been here. But there are things you have to consider when alone. Two moments come to mind which brought into sharp focus my personal safty. The first, on returning from the magnificent beach of Balephuil and walking to Patricks Chapel, I found myself driving behind another pickup (the chosen vehicle it appears on Tiree) and the farmer got out to open a gate in front of both vehicles. Obviously as he drove through, it was my job to shut it behind me and so he drove off. I got out of the car and shut the gate only to fall through, with both feet, a cattle grid, landing just below the knees, legs between different bars and with the gate violently swinging in the not insubstantial breeze, flapping around my head! Luckily nothing was hurt but I realised how easy it would be to sustain an injury and knowing no one would have no one to contact. It has made me slightly more cautious than usual. This was reinforced by an extended visit to another beach where I parked the car and made three expeditions taking different materials each time. On the third excursion I decided to take another route and instead of walking along the shore as I had done before, I saw a sheep track through the sand dunes and took a short cut. All went well and I was even not displeased with some of the results, until I returned. My car was surrounded by a large herd of cattle, a very large bull and an extremely frisky black heifer amongst their number. On seeing me, the heifer made towards me with great curiosity and I realised that I wasn’t really sure what to do. I stood my ground, flapped by drawing board a bit and talked to her, suggesting that I was not really the interesting individual she thought I was. She was not to be discouraged and having taken a few strides I decided I had to stop and rethink the solution. The black heifer was making such a fuss that I noticed cows moving from miles around across the dunes all converging on the apparent interest. There were calves amongst the throng and I knew you must not get between a mother and her calf. What to do? I was terrified! There were more cows on the beach cutting off a detour to the car but I noticed they were drinking seawater and were not very interested in me. I struck out, cutting the herd in half, round the dunes and made it to the other side of my car where there was a frisky bullock calf. I thought I might end up on the roof but with car keys in hand, managed to take a flying leap at the door and throwing it open, jumped in. The drawing had become of very insignificant importance and needless to say was not longer very clean but I was at least inside a metal box. I think the cattle must have thought I was the farmer as the bull emerged from the feed pens dug in between the dunes and I had obviously given the wrong impression that I had come bearing silage and that the cattle too thought I was their keeper being in the statutory pickup truck. The beaches here all look so innocent and perfect but I now realise that every one with no fencing in fact has a free range herd of semi wild cows and it has completely un nerved me. I have stayed very close to the house since then!




Equipped with my stick and long strips of paper I have been out every day but now am including a reasonable walk between the work times. The weather has been spectacular; everything blue and this morning with mist rising in every hollow made the island look like a vision. I missed the red super moon despite getting up at 3.29am. I ventured out and was aware that the moon was shining brightly but there was an obscurity preventing the light showing. Perhaps that was the eclipse? By 4.30am it had cleared and the bright moonlight was back. But there has been a red moon every night at moonrise, which closely follows the most spectacular sunsets. Last night was the best of all.


Last year, when on Iona, I remember meeting a man who runs a gallery there who said of my work that it was not specifically Ionian. We discussed this and it emerged that what he meant was that there was no specific landmark to define the work as being located there. This is the audience who walk the beaches of Iona, working out the exact rock that was or was not included in one of the Scottish Colourists descriptions of the island. As I am sure you are aware, I am not specifically interested in geographical accuracy although I realise from that conversation that perhaps it would make my work more saleable. As you know, we eventually curated the exhibition under the title The Beaufort Scale making the theme more about the weather than the geography. I am now having the same internal debate about Tiree. To counter the continual horizontal emphasis, I have now started introducing small vertical accents and looking at the articulation of the marks across the page as something of a musical score. There is a drawing board in the van whenever I venture out and so when the moment arrives I am equipped to make a response. How important is it that these reactions are located within an accurate map? I don’t believe they it is…it is the body of work that should describe the experience of a month on Tiree, not which rock is where.