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.

9.10.17

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.

 

A View from Eigg.

The view of the mainland fades in and out. The hills merge and emerge. Sadness washes in and out like the tide; like the waves as with the mist. Showers of fat rain soaking me to the skin in minutes as I struggle to find a signal to the outside world.

 As darkness falls, a waxing moon reflects on water, seawater, water between islands, lochs and closer to home, even puddles. Like burnished silver, a trail of light leads across the land and sea. With the rumble of the gathering wind, I am here two days early to escape the anticipated storm. As with every out-of-season visit, I remember that the ferry service is not a tourist attraction for which I spend the summer months assisting guests to navigate the pitfalls of the Calmac timetable, but its real purpose is as an essential service to serve the island populations who rely on boats to bring food, fuel and parcels.

There is another light pulsing in the dark. A stronger, man made light that marks a headland of the smaller island, off this island, that makes the harbour here on Eigg. After the shock of hearing of an untimely death yesterday, I have pulled my bed to the window and am looking out over the panoramic view, back towards the mainland and find the strength and reliable intervals as the light turns round, enormously reassuring. There is a gentle creak of the metal chimney of the Hobbit wood burner and the occasional flex of the French doors as the wind gusts. I am cosy and warm in bed looking out through a crack in the curtains that I have swathed around the head of the camp bed to create a vista and lie on my stomach watching the night.

Over the last few years, I have used these outings to learn about our Hebridean and northern islands and have experienced an uplifting intensity as if the scale of a small place concentrates their essence. Each island is very different and distilled into a strong sense of place, but islands also have a reputation as suitable for people who wish to own their own small kingdom. Connected to that reputation is the fact that they also change hands frequently. The Isle of Eigg is no exception and in fact leads the way in this debate. As those of you who read The Guardian will know, there was an interesting article about Eigg last week. Amongst all the islands, Eigg is famous for its community land buyout. (In contrast, the iconic St Kilda is largely known for the evacuation in 1930). Eigg has a growing population which now stands at 105.

There is another aspect to being on an island. It can make you feel trapped. On my first morning here I received some devastating news about the untimely death of someone extremely close to my eldest son, his best friend and, in his words, more of a brother than a friend. I have spent the few days since then, preoccupied with an inner struggle, part of me longing to rush to my sons side and support the small child I gave birth to, who is now thirty-two. In fact, his mother is likely to be last person he would turn to or indeed, want, as he moves further and further into adult life and his parents become an irrelevance if not an embarrassment. That brings up more feelings of the emptiness a mother feels after the endless years of offering protection and support as one’s child learns to navigate the world and to accept that the world they choose is not the one you know or live in.

 It is now a challenge to be remote, cut off by a slice of sea, high winds and the constraints of the ferry timetable with no phone or email, intensifying the sense that there is nothing I can do which can easily flip into frustration and the sadness into depression. It is good for me to work through these internal conflicts. I haven’t gone so far as to decide to leave early but instead to observe the emotions as they pour through me. 

 

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A tea party, the finished work.

For my last day on Iona, John Maclean suggested that he gave a tea party with scones and hot chocolate for those who were interested to come and see what I had done throughout the month. It was a good way for him to promote the residencies and introduce me to some of the islanders.

It also gave me the chance to look at the body of work together and in an informal way to present it to an audience.

Here are some photos of the finished work.

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