Monday, May 14, 2018


I arrived back in New Tolsta a little over a week ago and as usual my feet have hardly touched the ground with all that I want to see and need to get on with. There is rhubarb to pick and chutney to make, soil to be dug and shrubs that need pruning, turf to remove and peat to cut, fires to light and back doors to unjam. I looked for damage from winter storms and was relieved to discover nothing serious. The rabbits have been in nibbling and digging so this time I decided to install a rabbit proof fence around the perimeter. Shrubs and tree (small trees) are beginning to sprout as the days become seriously long and I try to contain my child-like excitement for the plant kingdom. This is the time of year when change in growth is visible on a daily basis.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a project in hand and having already done the design work for a cruel-work mirror frame while in Western Australia I was keen to get started. The background is once again untreated French linen but the tight weave is already proving punishing on the needle and my fingers.  
 A dull start to Sunday morning saw me in the studio continuing stitching the mirror frame but as mid-day arrived and a large sea eagle cruised along the ridge I realised the sun had broken through and a walk was in order. Down in the dunes behind Traigh Mhor beach the scent of primroses greeted me and a surprise on the beach to see a change in the course of the river. 
Winter had pushed up a lot of sand and blocked its normal direct pathway to the sea so that now it turned sharply southward eventually finding its new exit several hundred yards down the beach. Making my way back up across the machair I heard the familiar mewing of a buzzard overhead, a call that I associated with its nest being close by and sure enough there above the burn was a small mass of dry sticks. I climbed round to  get a closer view from above and saw two eggs, one much lighter but both of characteristically round form. So it has been a change of nesting site this year having perhaps been pestered by the sea eagles in previous summers when they nested up on the ridge or by wind farm machinery when nesting in the quarry.

Much of this week has been spent sorting out the house and garden, having brought some of my favorite pictures to hang plus my French walnut bed for the second bedroom, assembled just in time for the first guest. In the garden I’ve planted potatoes, peas, carrots, lettuce, kale and broccoli and the gooseberries and blackcurrants are in full flower. The strawberries will require some protection but are already showing more promise than last year and so the unchanged rhythm of my Hebridean life resumes.          

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


When my “Gallery Open” sign flew past the kitchen window heading for the Minch I took it to mean that the season was over and time to close my studio. We’ve been having our first real autumn breeze and while the last three cabbages are still firmly in the ground the wind has the effect of transforming walking into staggering, whereby both drinkers and non-drinkers look like they might have been at the whiskey. October heralds the drama of darkening skies with spectacular sunrises and brooding sunsets, days filled with fast moving rain soaked clouds splashed across with vivid rainbows and sudden shaft of sunlight, nights where the massive almost full moon plays hide and seek low in the southern sky.

People become talkative drawn closer by the prospect of shorter days while visitors dwindle and the camper vans return south to their period of hibernation. Many of the Greylag geese no longer bother to migrate preferring to sit it out overwintering on the crofts. There are complaints that they ruin the grazing but just as with the rabbits nobody thinks to eat them. Up at the sheep fank there’s dipping in progress and the best of the lambs have already gone to market. Birds take shelter from the high winds and larger birds are often hurled across the sky at alarming speeds. Buzzards no longer mew from on high but fly low across the fenced croft strips.
I am hustled from the back door with teapot in hand by the funnelled wind that passes down the back of the house and am thankful that I put no door on the entrance lobby to the studio so can leap in without fuss. Since the studio is rated as non-domestic it has come to the attention of business water rates and I have elected to forgo their services and extra ordinary expense for a rarely used cold water tap and toilet. These things are sent to try us and often the perceived convenience is when closely examined no real hardship to live without.

Last night the roof groaned with strong gusts from the North West and when twice some loose concrete fragment rattled its way down the roof I began to wonder if this wasn’t a little more than a stiff breeze. This morning’s inspection revealed nothing from the ground and the wind is still too strong for me to risk a ladder, whatever it was its evidently not structural. 
This summer I’ve made good progress on the interior with the second bedroom insulated and painted. The landing and stair-well ceiling is plaster boarded and sports a small classic ceiling rose. I love the delusions of grandeur that are so easily reproduced in a simple crofter’s cottage from the faux marble parlour mantle-piece and its painted Dutch delft tiled surround to the half-landing window where I’ve hung a pair of shabby though splendidly opulent curtains by W. Turner Lord & Co of 20 Mount St, Grosvenor Square, dating from around 1890 and according to the stitched on label were for the library window of Rylu House wherever that might have been. In the other bedroom I’m in the process of renovating a large mahogany half tester bed and reusing the red velvet curtains that sixty years ago hung in the bay window of our home on the Mull of Kintyre. I feel it is important in this era of the throwaway society that the old island traditions of reuse, or make do and mend are respected, if only by me alone. 
On the ground floor I’ve installed shutters that I enjoy closing each evening, imagining that like throwing an extra tweed blanket on the bed they will provide a further layer of comfort against the lashing elements outside.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Digging for treasure

No longer New Tolsta rather Old Tolsta
Treasure hunting played a significant role during my childhood and from the moment I first started gardening. My father would allocate my brother and me a small area of the garden where we could dig and grow whatever we liked. This more often than not totally abandoned area was a challenge to clear and cultivate but it in no way put us off the idea of gardening, rather it instilled in us the sense of achievement in bringing a small patch back into production. Scratching away at the surface and removing overgrowth followed by digging and with the digging came treasure hunting.
For the most part this treasure took the form of broken china; shards that turned out to be 19th century blue and white transfer ware, the ever present DNA that runs through all British gardens. Sixty years on from my first garden and I’m still digging for treasure. Out on the moor when digging peat I still hope that one day I will find proof of human habitation, some discarded relic, a hollowed out wooden dish, a pottery fragment. Likewise in the garden around the house every turn of the spade is checked. The midden material at No 17 New Tolsta seems to have been scattered in gay abandon and the site also seems to have been inhabited for a considerable length of time. When digging below the old blackhouse to create my vegetable garden I discover an area of stones very evidently laid flat and wondered if this was a place for threshing or the floor of an even earlier settlement. At the back of the 19th century farm barn there was a hollow on slightly higher ground and some very large stones which seemed to have nothing to do with the remains of the nearby stone shed. During the excavation of this area for my new studio it proved to be mainly a rich black soil and after it had rained the ground was littered with slipware pottery fragments. There were other low fired shards which although ancient looking proved also to be 19th century.
This weekend while digging on the bank above the studio I discovered a small clay pipe impressed A COGHILL, Glasgow (Alexander Coghill 1826- 1904) which fitted well into the 19th century time frame. As I dug up several lumps of rock I realised that these seemed to have been placed there in line, remains of an old wall perhaps….. and then I saw it. Brought to the surface by our excavations and my subsequent clearing lay a perfect Neolithic axe head. We are talking 5000 years plus old and the strangest thing was that as I picked it up I was sure I’d not only seen it before but had handled it.
During Neolithic times the islands would have been a very different place unencumbered by today’s thick layer of peat bog. The shoreline was further out to sea and behind the dunes was a deep sandy soil with extensive scrub woodland and reedy pools. Further inland was an area of rolling boggy ground with bare outcrops and heavy damp soil, supporting more scrub interspersed with grassland. Between the lochs and low hills the small deep valleys were wooded and in the rivers salmon and trout swam. It was a rich land which Celtic mythology describes as Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever-Young.
The Mesolithic period of seasonal hunter gather gave way to the very earliest form of farming around 3600 BC. But apart from burial cairns and standing stones, few sites dating from before the Iron Age give any clear insight into the domestic life. The sandy western coastal areas were favoured settlement locations but here in Tolsta we also have dunes and a large area of sandy soil sloping down to a smaller area of machair. It seems likely that there is a great deal of buried evidence of former inhabits of these isles and when not under deep peat is surprisingly close to the surface. Today I took the axe head into Stornoway Museum and amid excitement for the find it was to be declared treasure trove. Forms were signed and with luck this fine axe head will remain in our local museum.

It would now seem as though my studio is built on top of a Neolithic site, unfortunately in doing so any archaeological worth of the site has been removed but at least I can safely say that New Tolsta should strictly be renamed as Old Tolsta.             

Monday, August 21, 2017

Tourists go home

Having spent the day moving furniture back into the newly decorated bedroom it was late afternoon before I finally set off on my Sunday walk to Garry beach. Normally I would head up onto the ridge and stick to the high-ground, swinging inland before descending via the bridge to nowhere and the beach. However given the hour I decided to stick to the road and easier walking. In delaying my walk I had certainly profited from the best part of the day and when the cloudbank rolled back westward across the moor the sky remained cloudless. My eye caught the flash of a brilliantly coloured caterpillar; the Broom, another species in decline although I had several adults found their way into my kitchen last month. This is the brown variety as it also occurs in green with yellow stripes and enjoys clover and peas. Here it is seen on Goat’s beard the root of which is edible much like carrot.
The car park at Traigh Mhor looked busy with ten cars parked and as I wandered on I noticed cars that had passed me were now returning having been the end of the road, ticked the box in the “I spy book of beautiful beaches” and without even getting out of the car they head on to the next. Why do able bodied people do that? It’s not just a local thing they do it all over the world, they’ll travel for an hour or more to reach a stunningly beautiful spot and when they get there they simply turn round, perhaps taking a snap shot as proof and leave. 
As I round the bend passing Donald’s freshly clipped sheep another car passes and I give them a suitably blank look of disgust. By now I have decided I will have to return via the road in order to pick up the discarded litter. I walk on up the track beyond Garry beach to the “Bridge to nowhere” stopping to talk to an elderly couple from Germany who had so enjoyed their walk. I was explaining how many never get out of their cars as a car passed us and headed on up to the bridge where they promptly hopped out of the car took their photo and turned round. Even the elderly walkers looked shocked, and I realised that this stunning natural beauty is wasted on the Pokémon mentality. I wanted to shout “Tourist go home” but realised I might offend the charming elderly walkers so wrote it large in a cursed thought across the back windscreen of the departing car. I hate being irritated by such things but calm had returned as I crossed the bridge to take a closer look at a mountain ash cloaked in brilliant red berries.
After a quick inspection of my peaty bank and the now very dry cut peat that needs bringing in I ambled down across the purple heather to the beach. The tide was full in and everyone had gone, cars in the car park and I wondered had those tourists heard my curse. My studio has been open for close on two months and during that time I have had six people come in, and of those four have purchased a picture. The Studio 17 sign on the roadside is large and very visible but from the many hundreds that head to the beaches there would seem to be few that have carry with them the “I spy book of Galleries” and for that perhaps I should be thankful.

On the walk back I start picking up the litter and realise the bitter irony is that every last bit of it is recyclable. Climbing back up the hill with home in sight my eye catches something at the edge of the burn; a council road sign warning of loose chippings and a 20 mile an hour maximum speed. I pull it from the burn knowing that I have the ideal spot for that next to my freshly laid gravel path at the back of the house.       

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pig production.

I was born on a small pig farm in the Cotswolds but left for the Mull of Kintyre at barely two years of age. When just a toddler my brother and myself managed to open all the doors to the pig stys, not satisfied with allowing all the Wessex saddle back sows and their piglets to mingle in the outer yard we then let out the boar. When we were discovered my father dragged us back to the house and in the kitchen declared to my mother that “Your children have let all the pigs out”. Given that the pigs were seriously large beasts our safety might have been called into question but with my father the farm animals took priority.

Forty years on I painted his prize winning Wessex saddleback pig that took first in 1955 Smithfield show. Shortly afterwards a series of pigs followed during the preparation for a primitive farm animal exhibition.
Now my attention has once again been drawn back to pigs with a commission to stitch a pig. Commissions are something that in the past I have fought shy of since the requests are seldom of interest but a pig that’s different. I decided on a large white boar and to treat the subject very much as a naïve 19th century animal portrait.


The Large White originates from Yorkshire and played an important part as a crossing pig in today’s bacon production having characteristics of long and deep sides of good quality as well as deep wide hams. It has a slightly dished face with broad snout; the long ears are thin, slightly inclined forward and fringed with fine hair.   
Having completed the Large White Boar I wanted to see what effect a stump work pig on tweed would make and so started stitching a Gloucester Old Spot sow. I then read that this breed did not just come in black spots on a white ground. 
The Gloucester Old Spots throughout its long history has been bred on utility lines with the sole idea of producing the finest quality bacon in the most profitable manner. The pig proved a particular favourite with bacon curers, mainly owing to the large amount of lean meat in comparison to fat; the bacon is streaky and of first rate quality. By the beginning of the twentieth century its fame had spread throughout the world and in 1919 at the Royal Agricultural Show in Cardiff a boar was sold for 600 guineas. The characteristics of a champion is to have a medium length head; wide between the ears, a wide but medium sized nose with rather long and drooping ears; the neck fairly long and muscular with the sides very deep and presenting a rather drooping bottom line; the belly and flank, full and thick with the tail set high of moderate size and carrying a strong brush. The skin colour should be white spots on black ground, or black spots on white ground with hair long and silky with an absence of mane bristles.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

“Good art should be disturbing”.

I heard this said recently by an award winning author and found myself pondering the statement. In the past my art has at times been described as disturbing in that it left people feeling uncomfortable or at least my intention was that it should be so, but as to whether it was fit to be described as good I prefer to leave to others. I see very little in my artwork now that could be described as disturbing and yet I see it not as bad art but rather comfortable art. In fact there is much today that I would describe as being bad art and that at times disturbs me intensely if only for the fact that it is taking up valuable exhibition space and hard to come by funding. So can good art be something other than disturbing and what relevance does art therapy figure in all of this? Obviously art can impart the full breakfast of reactions from sheer joy, through rage to total depression but then perhaps I am reading the idea of disturbing wrongly, for disturbing read reaction, any reaction. Does my reaction to bad art as being disturbing now make it good art? To clarify my own idea of bad art maybe I should categorise anything that doesn’t draw my attention in any way and that I don’t even notice as bad art. Since my eye picks up on most things this would mean that there isn’t much out there in our world that is “bad”. Then how can that be true when I am so eager at times to criticise what I see as unsightly, an abomination, disgusting, horrific, a tragic waste of good materials. Ah! That must be my own personal taste kicking in and that along with all forms of criticism has no place in art, for even if only one person reacts in any way shape or form to that art then it must be good art. No? And if they find my art comfortable is that sufficient reaction to then say even if only in their eyes that it could be considered good? 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Build it and they will come, maybe!

The building of Studio 17. 
It was nearly ten years ago that I realised my need for a studio but my life at that period was in a state of flux and some would say it still is. However after many years of considering that wherever I happened to be was my studio I began to feel with age that not only merited but required the comfort of a purpose built space. Since my art work had become very diverse this space would require four significantly different work areas. The main studio space would still be my painting and for this I required both height for the easel and room to manoeuvre large canvases as well as be able to step back a good distance from them. This had always been the problem with my studio in Brittany in that I had to physically step out of it and look back in from the adjoining room to obtain the require separation. 

The second space was for my needlework and although I hadn’t been doing it that long I recognised that stitching would always be a significant part of my creativity. For this more sedentary work I would require a heat source as well as good light. The third section would be more multipurpose but would cover my feather and shell work as well as storage area, while the fourth and final area would be a woodworking space where framing, furniture making and upholstery was possible. This I decided could be housed in the existing barn and would not be require in the new build.  
To simplify planning as well as construction I decided to go for a separate studio building which meant that as long as I stayed under four meters in overall height no planning was needed. Building regulations would still apply but I had no interest in constructing anything that wouldn’t withstand the harsh Hebridean winters. The project would not have taken place without the dedication from conception to completion of Steve Adams a friend and local builder living in the village. We worked well together but beyond this I recognised Steve was someone I could have completed confidence in.

In the autumn of 2015 I had Alex Mackay in to dig out and prepare the site at the back of the old barn. My one fear was that we would hit rock but luck was on our side and the bulk of what we had to remove turned out to be rich black soil. The flattened area would now have a good nine months to settle before foundations were dug. In July 2016 with the insulated and reinforced concrete pad poured we were ready to come out of the ground with the timber construction. All the wall panels, roof trusses and A frames we made and assembled in the nearby large tin crofters shed which was a great help in speeding the process up as well as staying out of the weather. Each section was mounted on two small axels and wheeled around the back of the house and into place and my long awaited studio suddenly took shape. There always seemed to be extra pair of helping hands when we needed them and what often seemed daunting to me turned out to be remarkably simple in Steve’s capable hands. As the roof took shape my ability to clamber around in awkward spaced saw me doing all the plating of the roof truss joints with nearly 25kl of nails. The timber cladding firmed everything up and was quickly followed by the waterproof breathable membrane, battening and corrugated tin. By mid-October we were water proof with just one section of ridge left to seal everything off. During the long winter months while stitched away for my stump work exhibition in Bath, Steve carried on with the interior and by the time I returned in late May the studio was insulated, electrified, plaster boarded, plumbed and painted. All that remained for me to do was move in.

I had arrived at the end of May with my van packed exceedingly tight with a good quantity of my creativity kit plus extra house furnishings. Believe it or not I’m in a process of scaling down but thinning or throwing out has never been one of my strong points so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m spreading things about in the hopes that thirty years of accumulation doesn’t look quite so daunting. When a George III red walnut circular pad foot drop leaf table turned up in a local down-cycling shop for £90 I couldn’t resist it reasoning that it would be ideal for display as well as working on.

Today Steve was back to put in the wood (or in my case peat) burning stove and it turned out to be one of the worst midge day this year with light rain and no breeze. Keep calm and carry on seems to be Steve’s way of dealing with them while I burka up, pulling down my woolly hat and zipping my top up to nose leaving only eyes exposed to the midge savagery. Completed by late afternoon I light the first fire and now as the sun dips over the ridge I sit, T-shirt toasty warm in my studio while outside the window two goldfinches forage in the swaying seed heads of sorrel and bumble bees still busy attending the foxgloves. It looks like the heating will be very economical with three small peats enough to heat the entire studio. I have exactly the same stove to install in the parlour which will mean comfortable winter evenings with a whiskey and a good read. I noticed in the mirror another facial wrinkle today running out and down from the corner of my eyes, smile lines of contentment.
So with the naive notion that, if you build it they will come I set the official opening day for last Saturday; in hindsight possibly the worst day of the week to open being change-over day for tourists while shopping, sheep shearing and TV sport takes precedence for most locals. Let’s face it, there are very few people make it up this far and even fewer who have any interest in purchasing art. Several people have suggested I should be serving teas, coffee and cakes to which I reply “you know where the kettle is and the cake tin, I take it black no sugar”.  Studio 17 is a dream of a place for me to paint and create in but it is yet to be seen if it will also work as a place to display and sell free from gallery commission.