8.10.17

 

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After a day of walking no further than the outside latrine (these days known as a composting loo) yesterday I decided to walk to the pier which has a cafe, shop and Wi-Fi hot spot. There was no point waiting for the weather to improve and so, although I didn’t put on my waterproof trousers, I carefully packed them, along with the Wi-Fi technology, into a small backpack. Usually it’s full of painting materials, with brushes tied to sticks emerging from the top, so on this occasion I felt rather different, like the well-equipped guests we host at home with all the latest textiles and boots made from modern materials which I presume derive from the petrochemical industries. No wool, little if any cotton, just varying degrees of breathable waterproof plastics.

I set off at a brisk pace, having gathered that it took an hour, but if I stuck my thumb out I might get a lift. I was lucky and did, just before the steep assent to get to the middle of the island. It’s funny how you can build things up and an hour each way had felt too much out of my day, despite the fact that actually I have nothing to do! It was also because when here in the past I had a sore hip which got worse as I walked. With two yoga classes a week it is much improved and not a reason to hold me back. When you drop the fear or resentment and accept a thing, it becomes easier to do. I know that but I don’t often remember! My mood lifted as I set off on a little island outing to be amongst people and contact the outside world.

My main encouragement was to try to speak to my son. As it was Saturday there was a chance of speaking to him without risk of him being at work, even if he hadn’t taken my advice and asked for compassionate leave. Although I was getting over the shock, I am still haunted by such an untimely death of one so young and I grieve for the loss for my son of his closest friend. My son knew the password to his friend’s phone and laptop and his parents said he knew more than anyone about their son’s life. The last call on his phone was to my son, they often shared a flat, went on holiday together, shared the same interests and spoke several times a day. ‘Brothers’ is how they described themselves. Every night I am troubled by the thoughts of loss and was relieved to discover the radio here has rechargeable batteries so I can follow the vagaries of the BBC broadcasting schedules although I am now catching up with their repeats. I am aware that it is distraction. The soothing sound of the voice of another, telling me a story.

As my time here moves into the second week, my thoughts are also preoccupied by other concerns. One aspect of working in tourism is that our lives are determined by seasonality. Coming here at the end of the season and after a big change in our lifestyle as we give up cooking breakfast and changing beds every day, I have been very surprised by how much work it still is to divide the house in half and have strangers just through a door. It surprises me that, having given up the daily personal involvement, it has still turned out to be intrusive. Unfortunately, with this new project, we have attracted a different sort of guest and a number have proved too demanding and critical. On two occasions I have been sent a twenty point list of criticisms and it makes one wonder why these people decide to travel? Over the whole season we have had masses of appreciation, so why do I find the few dissatisfied people so troubling?

By October, we are usually exhausted. In other years, we have closed and gone away together, leaving a house-sitter in charge. Because it is the first year of a new project, we were uncertain about its success so decided instead to have a less ambitious break in November. The reason for this long-winded preamble – too much information as Norrie says – is that the question I find myself troubled by, is where has my creativity gone? Empty, depleted, uninspired are all words that describe how I feel.

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Living here in this perfect wooden hut feels like being cradled in a wooden womb. There is everything you need but no extras. Lucy has thought out every concern and still kept it simple and minimal. This is deliberate as she has discovered what gives her visitors the time and space to engage with their creativity and the Bothy Project works with her to provide subsidised residencies. I know all this and last time was on one of them, so why now am I empty of ideas?

Instead, I have decided to engage with the task of simple living; something I yearn for in my everyday. Reading Outrun has helped, as it is a gripping tale of just the same desire. There is an outdoor shower here which frightened me in the past, preferring instead to boil the kettle and strip off. This time I have used the shower and, with the careful management of the wood-burner and rationing of hot water, I have managed to have a great wash in what must be the most spectacular of locations, outside, looking up at the cliffs, with the caw of the ravens overhead, everything swathed in mist.

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You bring your food with you when you come here and I have enjoyed the simple eating and having small meals when I choose. I am even keeping a food diary to try and lose eight pounds. I brought a bottle of white wine which remains unfinished outside, deciding instead that it doesn’t interest me. I have read a lot and listened to the radio, but there is something missing and it is my desire to make work. Perhaps that is why I am writing so much, it feels easier than drawing, I don’t know why.

On the way home from the pier yesterday, I met a man who told there was a whole whale skeleton on the north shore. I long to walk there to see it, but the weather is misty, I am unfit and don’t know the territory. I decide on a less ambitious plan and forgo my yearning to see a whale skeleton outside a museum. Instead I go to the Singing Sands, a famous beach that squeaks as you walk, but not today! Huge forests of kelp lie, ripped out at the roots, looking like extruded car parts or specialised components for a car wash. I pick one up and feel what looks like the root, ripped away from its anchor and am surprised to find how hard it is. I expected it to be soft like a sponge.

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Something changed today apart from the weather and I found some enthusiasm to go out and draw. I remembered some work I did on Harris which I found when packing to come here and thought there might be a thread to pick up.

The geology is the thing that moves me most about being here on Eigg. There are basalt cliffs as on the Sound of Mull, but more dramatic with chimneys and gorges to create a fascinating cliff just above my bed. There is a window next to me and so I am able to lie here watching the cliffs with the moon coming up behind them. Or watch them move in and out of mist reminding me of Faroe.

The beach is made of basalt sand just like at Old Ardtornish, but here it has a white overlay, perhaps of shell. The two layers remain apart, perhaps their weight is different but the result is a surface of intricate patterns like marbled paper, especially where the final length of a burn crosses the sand. I find a discarded plastic bucket amongst the flotsam and jetsam and, knocking out its weight of sand, take it upturned and sit in the middle of the flow, drawing the patterns with pen and ink. It’s very soothing to sit in the middle of such splendour simply making marks as a response. No plans, no destiny just enjoying the engagement of joining the process of intricate pattern making.

 

Muckle Roe

Whist I have been on Shetland the weather has been good. I am told it is not always like this but nearly every day has had some sunshine and so it seems mistaken to spend all day inside, working. Working removed from my subject is something I am never comfortable with and so what better reason than dry weather, to be outside. There is something deep inside that relaxes, feels at home and instantly curious; in some sense it feels like going home when I go out. But I have come here to work and being in this creative space has given me a sense of guilt that I am not justifying my visit with important output! Going for walks, exploring the map and looking at digital images whilst planning where to go next is not the same as making work. However, Shetland is new to me and quite strangely different and I have decided to let it seep into my blood, sit with it and let it take me where it will while I search for the resonance required to make authentic work.

Yesterday I awoke with this dilemma sharply in focus and decided the best way to resolve the conflict was to trust my instinct and draw on the ways I know best and once again, go outside. During the previous day I had been to Lerwick and to their first-rate bookshop “The Shetland Times” to buy another map. In planning my time here I had bought some maps with me but it shows how large Shetland is, that it takes five maps to cover the whole archipelago. Scalloway is in the middle of Shetland Mainland and so I had only expected to explore South Mainland and West Mainland and thought the The North would be too far. But after recommendations, I decided to extend my range to North Mainland and later, next week, with friend C, to go to the North islands of Yell and Unst.

So equipped with picnic, (which I didn’t eat) my new map which is so modern it has an app you can download onto your phone and enough diesel, I went out yet again, this time following the signs to North Islands, heading for Muckle Roe, an island just off the west coast and attached by a short causeway.

As with almost everywhere I have been, to see the best of the landscape involves being prepared for a walk. Little I have seen is easily accessible without being prepared to leave the car which of course, just like on the isle of Eigg, restricts the size of work as everything has to be carried and secured from the wind.

Part of the internal conflict has been about wanting to scale up my work and I have spent a lot of the time trying to devise a work practice that can capture the essence of place with enough information on site to continue when back in the warmth and dry of the studio. This has led me along a tunnel of uncertainty and has produced a pile of rejected work.

To reconnect with my instinct and knowledge of what works best for me (something it is all to easy to lose connection with when swept up in the ways of the world and convention) I had packed a number of small pieces of paper and a minimal set of drawing tools and went exploring. The map had a large blue footprint at the end of the road which had a polite sign saying this is the end of the public road and a rather ad hoc car park. I parked and started to walk and quickly found another sign with map telling me this was a Core Path and I had a choice of a two or four kilometer walk. The shorter route led to a lighthouse along the coast and the other along a track inland passing a series of freshwater lochs. As always, I chose the coastal route and within ten minutes was so struck by the view I was drawing already.

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When working on the structure of a drawing, it is hard not to be seduced by the breadth of the landscape here. Except when looking at detail, there are few verticals. I have been surprised by how much I have enjoyed the panoramic app in my phone camera and have enjoyed the images it has taken. By the end of the walk I had decided to revert to the folded books I often make or perhaps work on a scroll format. I had come to the conclusion that internal conflict was a waste of energy and that if I enjoy working small and portable, I should stop minding, relax and enjoy the things I have seen. The coast here really is breathtaking and is my usual subject but here it is harsh and severe, unrelenting and ferocious. On just a short walk I had crept along the top of a cliff where even the pathbuilders had supplied a hand rail, struggled with my vertigo which was unpleasant and been grateful for my fantastic coat. With the hood up, I was able to turn my back on a severe hailstorm and stand it out, occasionally looking over my shoulder to see how close the blue sky had blown and by keeping my hood up was able to negotiate the more frightening places on my return where I just kept looking at my feet with the hood obscuring the view.

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Before returning to the car I sat in the sun above a sandy bay watching the rabbits and noticing the bonsai heather they have created with the combination of grazing and burrowing. A lunar landscape.

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Words

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Bridge of Walls
Muckle Ward
Mouldy Hill
Johnny Sinclairs Nose
Swabwall
Fitful Head
Blackholes
Cannygates
The Rump
Noup of Noss
Headless Banks
Cauldhame
Trouda
Burra
Whale Wick
Papil
Houss
Toogs
Papa
Hoggs of Hoy
Nesting

Just a few of the names seen on signposts or found on the map as I continue to explore.

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I love this. A hollow dug out to shelter a boat from the howling winds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for a visual language

 

Four days of wet weather produced a different challenge. Instead of overcoming the frustration of the time it took to walk to each location and therefore the size of the work I was able to make, I was faced with the new problem of how to keep the work dry. More importantly, how to get it dry in the first place. My preference has always been to work wet on wet, whether with watercolour, ink or pigment and so I begin by soaking a piece of paper. By the time I have applied coats of water-soluble medium to the surface it is saturated and usually takes ages to dry. As an aside, this means that I need a robust surface to work on and am therefore using 320gm Arches NOT watercolour paper at the moment. The decision is a balance between affordability and strength and I am constantly amazed at the punishment you can give a sheet of Arches and it still doesn’t tear or rub into holes. Spend too much on a sheet of paper and it puts an unseen break on the flow of my creativity.

So here I am with a saturated surface in the unpredictability of heavy snow, hail or rain showers and the challenge becomes how to get the work home. You can imagine, with my impatient nature and a wonky thermostat (which means I am always cold) I soon run out of patience in a climate approaching 98% humidity and so decide to stuff the work into a bag and stomp home. But out of circumstance, happy accidents can happen and on reaching shelter, the image was completely lost but something else appeared.

As I have described elsewhere, Eigg has encouraged me to engage with Geology, at least superficially and given the way that stone was once molten, erosion demolished mountains and lava flows became ridges, I have looked for a visual equivalent with which to describe the process. Molten graphite offers a possibility and so my deconstructed drawings became an opportunity.

 

 

The first week

 

I have been on Eigg for a week and have been extremely lucky that it has been dry, sunny and crisp until yesterday. After a winter of unusually wet weather, even for the west coast of Scotland, it feels as if I have struck gold with the rain stopping and instead, there has been a beautiful golden light that has bathed the island and cast inky black shadows. It is also interesting in different ways. Obviously it has made my visit much more pleasant. I have been able to work outside for several hours at a time and to explore the island on foot without getting too cold or wet. The chill factor in the wind has allowed me about two hours at an exposed site but on Sunday I was able to work outside for six, which is long enough for February. I came home with a bright red face so must have caught the sun; luckily my rosy cheeks have faded! After such a dismal six months of wetwetwet it is amazing how quickly the mind forgets the ordeal once outside, bathed in a stronger light. It’s almost as if the brain plays a trick because along with a change in the light comes total forgetfulness of what we have just had and instead a heartwarming celebration of what we have now, a re remembering of why I live in this part of the world and a re connection with how beautiful it is. A good way to start an intensive period of creativity.

The week has been taken up with feeling my way into a response, seeking a subject and a language with which to describe it.Within the first half day it was obvious that the iconic feature about the physicality of Eigg is its geology. It is clearly not the only feature of importance and must be the obvious response of every casual visitor. However, I am not here for very long and the geology is remarkable. An extension of the Giants Causeway and Fingal’s Cave on the isle of Staffa, it is a geological phenomena. An Sgurr is a crest of a hill made from extraordinarily hard rock, Pitchstone, the broken surface of which looks like glass. From the cursory reading I have done, the stone is younger than others on the island but being so much harder than the surrounding basalt which has been heavily eroded by the ice-age, it has left the Pitchstone ridge standing proud of its surroundings and the iconic feature we all recognise from afar. It is constructed from hexagonal columns, so consistent that it is like looking at an enlarged three-dimensional honeycomb. In the surrounding landscape there are giant boulders more like shattered remnants of a cathedral than a natural creation. The rocks have rolled down towards the sea, and those without sufficient momentum, lie abandoned with their architecture jutting out at unexpected angles. People then settled the land, a brown fertile basalt soil and using fragments of the stone, built simple dwellings amount the giants rubble, joining blocks together with carefully constructed dry stone dykes that sit like delicate necklaces enclosing small yards or fields surrounding the remains of each blackhouse. Sunday was the second visit and my landlord, Eric, was kind enough to give me a lift with all my kit, leaving me only one way to walk home. On closer inspection I noticed the black houses had no chimney at either end unlike the derelict crofts I had explored on Tiree or elsewhere. Maybe the ones on Tiree were later but with no flue it implies that the houses here on Eigg had a fire in the middle of the floor and so no real way of drawing the smoke away from the building and the family that lived within. They must have become kippered and imagine the chest complaints that would have developed in such an atmosphere? There is no doubt that the existence must have been unremittingly hard, scratching a living from the land and sea but it has left a hauntingly beautiful place full of atmosphere and possible ghosts.

I spent the day there alone, saw no one and felt held by the land and reassured by the structures, the ruins of ancient homes.  The only life I witnessed was that of the pregnant sheep to whom I talked and they got used to my presence and grazed quite near. I also listened the conversation of a pair of Ravens who seemed preoccupied with preparing for busy times ahead, and most intriguing of all, witnessed a pair of very large brown birds, (Eric suggests they might have been Golden Eagles,) literally taking to each other in an unrecoginsed call, moving from perch to perch in unison until they took off into the thermals at the cliff edge and moved out of sight. Not before a Hooded Crow became alarmed at their proximity and started bombing them to encourage them to move further on. I wonder if they were Golden Eagles, it was a fascinating sight? I thought at first they must be buzzards but one flew by at the same time and the scale was quite different. The one thing I missed was the Hump Back Whale reported to Eric by a boatman. (I have never seen a Whale and would love to do so) The Whale had been sighted in the sound between Eigg and Muck two days earlier and apparently is easily identifiable because they makes a lot of splashing whilst feeding. Sadly, he was not there for me to see or hear last Sunday.

 

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Wednesday.

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.

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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.
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The Struggle.

The trouble with electing to come away from home to focus exclusively on making work is that you are putting yourself under pressure to produce. It is wonderfully uplifting when all goes well but there is light and dark in every part of life and when an authentic voice is hard to find, you are left in a wilderness. I know this is true of a second novel and have come across a prize especially designed to assist those engaged in that struggle. The experience of going on a creative retreat is that it puts everything on the plate. At home there is so much distraction, the weeding, the leaf sweeping, the henhouse that needs cleaning and oh so much more, that the pendulum swings the other way. Away from it all, you are faced with every creative uncertainty and insecurity you are able to dream up. But I am experienced enough to know that this too is part of the process. Somehow, however, you invent the notion of an audience for whom you are performing and thus you create your own pressure, especially by electing to record the experience as it unfolds, which I am doing here.

Those of you who know me, know too that one of my closest held principles is a determination to uphold the truth, even at the price of discomfort. Of course it then begs the question, whose truth do you seek? The answer has to be that you can only pursue your own truth and it is only you who really knows if you digress. I can almost count on one hand the number of times I have knowingly told a lie and I have instilled this quality into one of my sons who has tried other more socially acceptable forms of being, only to know of himself that he is transparent in his mistruths! Of course if you get good enough at lying, you also lie to yourself but that is the route to self-delusion and eventual mental illness and not one I wish to examine. The world of managing your own PR, to release only the glossy and upbeat is not truthful. Life is not real if only equipped to acknowledge the light. Where have the shadows gone? Oh, but now that is described as Negative. Not negative, just balanced. I include this personal paragraph here in order to create a context to describe my experience of the creative struggle. As a postscript I would also add that a disadvantage of this trait is that you get the reputation of directness which some people find discomforting. But it is not possible to create authentic self-expression if you do not pursue the truth; that is why so much art invites the observer to move into more uncomfortable territory and probably why so much landscape painting results merely in the picturesque.

This island of Tiree has confused me and perhaps I need to stay longer to find a language that speaks of it. I was brought up in East Anglia and disliked the landscape there throughout my childhood. In those days, the sixties, there were still elm trees of cathedral like proportions and the fashion for sweeping away all rural character that was not in production, had not quite wreaked the havoc it has now. In preparing to come here to the isle of Tiree, I read somewhere that it is described as the East Anglia of the Highlands. I must say that sentiment filled me with anxiety. It is true that it is pretty flat and that the skies seem very large. The impression of the landscape is horizontal. However, the similarity to the landlocked part of south Cambridgeshire that I grew up in, ends there.
Much of the interior of this island has given way to deserted fields of rush. There are the remains of abandoned peat cuttings and except for the outcrops of low knobbly rock breaking through the surface, everything at the western end as I am, except for three low hills and the buildings, are in the horizontal plane. In drawing, that is where I started and began by thinking of the stripped landscape of light and dark, water and land. On the coast this translates into sea and sky. So, I have been playing with where to place the horizon. The horizon is the meeting of one form with another, where one element meets another. That has led to the next concern. How to find a path to a form expression that lies between the representational and the expressive. It is too easy and seems irrelevant to set out to draw this landscape in a figurative manner. Perhaps the horizon is best described merely as a line? The meeting, or is it the dividing, of two elements?

In order to find a route into this language I have been playing!

I have supported strips of paper and trickled paint down their length. Laid flat and by turning them ninety degrees they suggest the horizontal elements of sky, land and water.
I have tricked glue and drawn with sand.
I have taken paper and paint out onto a beach in a storm and thrown everything at it only for it to get sand encrusted and then washed off in a shower. Weather Painting, the suggested title!
I have gone out at dusk and traced the horizon so only the outlines are clear.
I have sat on a beach with watercolour and bottles of water, wetting sheet after sheet of paper to create the richness of tone and hue.
I have eaten porridge every morning, gone for long walks and drunk a lot of coffee
And still I don’t know where I am going…
The antidote to the film we often watch, Carl Pressburgers “I Know Where I am Going” set on an island off the west coast of Mull!

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