Tag Archives: Scotland

Art in a Native Land

Northumbria Landscape

“Breathes there the man with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land.”  Sir Walter Scott

Before we left Scotland I was determined to see the famous stone circles of Kilmartin.  For some perverse reason our sat nav decided to ignore the obvious route of the A816 and instead took us on a panic attack-inducing, twisting, narrow lane towards the village of Kilmore – aptly named, we thought, especially after we encountered a full size bus hurtling towards us, the driver of which had more faith in his braking ability than our nerves could cope with.  Eventually we got back to the main road and as Kilmartin Glen opened up, we stopped at Carnasserie Castle.

Kilmartin GlenFrom the bottom of the hill, it looks like one of the ubiquitous stone towers that scatter the Scottish landscape but as you climb the slope, it becomes clear that whoever built this was sending a very serious message about power, ownership and the consequences of threatening either.  The tower is five storeys high and can be climbed.  If listening to the sat nav had been our first mistake of the day then deciding to take the spiral, unlit, un-handrailed, slippery-with-age stone staircase to the top of Carnasserie Castle – while carrying an acrophobic Jack Russell terrier –  was our second.  The views across the vast expanse of the glen were magnificent and certainly gave an indication as to why this landscape attracted the attention of stone circle builders.  Once we’d recovered from the climb, however, there was the terrible realisation that what had come up, had to go down.

stones at carnasserie castleThere are few better ways to calm jangling nerves than doing a bit of watercolour painting.  Once on terra firma I tried to capture the colour of the castle stones which from the bottom of the hill look a dour grey but up close are the most delicate pink – quite lovely if you are in a post-traumatic state.

Stone circle

Kilmartin was everything I had hoped to see in terms of landscape archaeology.  There are standing stones, stone circles and burial chambers everywhere.  Probably the biggest disappointment was that we arrived shortly after a coach load of American tourists, many of whom were of the opinion that the best way to appreciate the work of neolithic man was to lie on their backs with their legs stretched up on the sides of the monoliths.  Whilst I don’t have a problem if this is done out of spiritual necessity, it did mean that photo opportunities were limited.

Rear view of Rosslyn Chapel

More history lay in wait at our next destination as we briefly visited Rosslyn Chapel, rightly feted because of its stupendous carving but disappointingly famous because of its involvement with the plot and film of The Da Vinci Code.  We made the mistake of being there on a weekend in the school holidays.  If you’ve never been, Roslin (the village) is about 10 miles south of Edinburgh and you should make it your life’s ambition to get there.  Definitely a place for the bucket list but don’t stop at just seeing the chapel – there’s a lovely castle and some terrific walks through historical battlefields around the village too.

silhouette of bamburgh castle

Next day we drove to Bamburgh where the massive castle overlooks the wide, golden-sanded beach and from there we headed to Gilsland, once the outer limit of the Roman Empire.   It was here that I intended to make my next piece of Unlost Places art.  The idea came in two parts:  the first is captured in the photograph at the very top of the blog.  Nailed to the fence to the left of the tree was a dead crow.  Doing this is an old farming way of warning other crows to stay away from the field.

Chained stone The second part of the idea came when I saw this stone.  Here in Wales we chain standing stones too.  It is said that doing so stops the stone from wandering off and taking the path with it.

water colour of stone

This was the first time that I had done performance art as part of Unlost Places and my recitation of a poetic tercet whilst standing in the middle of a Northumbrian lane probably frightened off more crows that the old farming way.  Being so close to Hadrian’s Wall meant I was spoilt for choice when it came to making a larger piece of artwork.  Until, that is, we passed the Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh.

knitting

 

Creative Knitting is always a bit fiddly and you can never be sure it’s going to work out until the very last bead is attached or French Knot stitched.  And to those who think that maps are drawn with lines on paper all I can say is that for me, on a damp Tuesday afternoon in May, standing in the Temple of Mithras in the bleak landscape of Carrawburgh, this is how I understood my native land.

wall hanging

 

 

A Walk Through Dalriada

 

“Sow an act, and you reap a habit.  Sow a habit, and you reap a character.  Sow a character and you reap a destiny.”              Charles Reade

Oban

The historical kingdom of Dalriada was first settled by Irish raiders and eventually came to include much of what is now known as Argyll.  You can’t walk far in the area around Oban without coming across reminders of a past which sowed the seeds of Scotland and Scottish character.  This 11 mile walk from Oban to Sutherland’s Grove Forest (near Barcaldine) followed part of the Caledonian Way cycle route, most of which is traffic free or on quiet lanes.  If, like me, you start by going down the old carriage road towards Dunollie Castle, you’ll pass Fingal’s Stone.  Legend has it that that Bran used to tie his faithful hunting dog, Fingal, to this piece of volcanic rock.  It was just starting to rain when I got there so rather than get the paints out, I came up with a tercet.

Fingals stone Dunollie

“From the west he will call through

time.  Scenting the air, Fingal

waits – still, listening, ready.”

Beach

The weather was improving as I left Dunollie Castle and turned north.  By the time I reached Ganavan Sands with it’s wide sandy beach, the clouds were lifting with the sky promising a weak sunshine for the rest of the day .  I’d wanted to visit Ganavan Sands because it hosts a parkrun .  I wasn’t going to be in the area at 9.30am on a Saturday to do the whole 5K so I followed part of the route across the dunes and heath towards Dunbeg.

Dunbeg sketch

I’ll confess that cycling doesn’t hold much in the way of attraction for me but if I’d had a bike on this stretch of the Caledonian Way, I’d probably have ended up walking anyway – there were some seriously steep slopes!  Having made the summit, the track wound downhill through a magical woodland.  The hillsides were covered in ancient oaks that clustered and curled together, gossiping secrets as the light breeze filtered through their drapes of lichen.  Occasionally a hidden crow splintered the silence with a loud C-a-a-a-r-k!  Field sketching and walking always combine to make wobbly paintings but I think it’s a great way to capture a mystical atmosphere of place.

Dunstaffnage

I diverted from the path at Dunstaffnage, home to many of the ancient kings of Scotland and where in the past the iconic Stone of Destiny was kept.  This was the place which was once the centre of Dalriada and for many people, it is where the ideal of a nation called Scotland was born.

Dunstaffnage bluebells

Wandering through the bee-humming woods and past the ruins of a stone built chapel, was like walking through a lake of bluebells.

Pebble painting

I came to a pebbly cove which is now home to a piece of Unlost Places art.  I drew the image with a waterproof feltpen so the sea shouldn’t damage it too much – for a while, at least.  I don’t suppose my pebble will ever be found on a beach where they are not only in infinite supply but constantly moving in and out with the tide but I like to think that it was my gift to Dalriada.

Caledonia Way

The Caledonian Way goes past some magnificent lochside scenery and walking is a wonderful way to appreciate the landscape.  I took this photograph when the Caledonian Way had curved behind some trees and away from the road.  I could hear cars hurtling along, their drivers having no idea of what they were missing.  From Benderloch I walked on quiet lanes towards Barcaldine where I encountered the first of the day’s midgies.

Orienteering course

Not even midgies could stop my heart from lifting when I realised that Sutherland’s Grove Forestry was home to an orienteering course.  My joy was complete when I found a map that someone had left on a bench rather than taking it home or putting it in a rubbish bin.  Following the orienteering course took me through some of the most picturesque parts of the woodland but even if it hadn’t, I loved chasing through the trees looking for controls and when I couldn’t find them, remembering that I’d always had a tendency to overshoot my intended location by misjudging my stride length.  Some habits die hard!

Wood carvingIn some of the glades, there were creatures sculpted in dead wood that could have inspired (or been inspired by) The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.  A  troll – presumably caught out by the May sunshine – was lurking close to a bridge over a narrow gorge.

Sutherlands Grove

Higher up the slopes the scenery was even more dramatic.  It’s an area associated with the Celtic legend of Deirdre who escaped from Ulster to this part of Dalriada with her lover, Naoise of the Red Branch.  This photograph is looking towards Beinn Lora which translates to Deirdre’s Hill.

woven tree hanging

In Wales, we call the gathering of wool tufts from hedges and fences gwlana.  I used gwlana and pickings of forest litter to create this piece of weaving which I left hanging from a tree in Sutherland’s Grove.

Dalriada

Unlost Places is a project about mapping the metaphysical features of landscape, using art to express what it feels like to be a certain place.  Just before I started this walk through Dalriada I’d stopped off in a shop in Oban and bought a pack of textured threads.  Since then, I’ve worked with my poetic tercets, field sketches and stitched samples to create this map of my walk using Free Form Knitting, Crochet and Weaving.

 

Unlost Places – Moffat to Mull

“There is a silent eloquence in every wild bluebell that fills my softened heart with bliss that words could never tell.”           Anne Brontë

Our journey from Wales to Scotland tracked the flowering of bluebells; they had the appearance of waterfalls on the harsh hillsides of Snowdonia, nestled in the meadows of Lancashire and were cushioned in the leaf litter of Scottish woods.  As we travelled north their hue changed from an almost ephemeral delicacy to the most intense hyacinth blue.  Whilst the sight of them is arresting enough, they also drown the air with a heady perfume – reason enough for anyone to want to walk amongst them.  Scotland in May is a pretty good where and when to do so.

MOFFAT

In front of moss-fringed stones ramsons,violets,campions dance; Jack waits his turn by the hedge.

I love walking and now that I’ve given up painting in favour of field sketching and poetic tercets, I find more and more textures that I want to try and capture.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

The area around Moffat is ideal for the Unlost Places project: twisting lanes enfolded by steep sided hills and the sense that everywhere is a landscape that belongs to a moment in history.   I marked my passage through place and time by building a small sculpture on the walls of an ancient bridge.

I use what are euphemistically called ‘indigenous dyes’ to colour material for stitchery.  This is done by rubbing fabric against wood, metal or stone surfaces to stain the background surface.  It’s an example of how an art map becomes much more the visual representation of a place that I spoke about in last month’s blog.

THE ISLE OF MULL

A visit to the Isle of Mull (http://www.isle-of-mull.net/) had long been on my to-do list.  We crossed from Oban to Craignure then headed to the beautiful and isolated bay of Lochbuie.  Apart from a couple of houses, an honesty shop (a well-stocked general store where you chose what goods you wanted and were trusted to leave the appropriate amount of money behind – how refreshing is that as a concept?) and the ubiquitous ruined castle, Lochbuie is also home to the tiny St Kilda’s church.

Unlost Places is all about using art and poetry to reflect features which are in some way transcendent.  In the porch of St Kilda’s is an engraved Celtic Cross, tentatively dated to the 8th Century.  This is a project that finds creativity in unexpected places.

It’s also a project that leaves creativity in unexpected places.  An hour spent beach-combing yielded driftwood, shells and old fishing line – enough raw materials for some weaving to be left hanging from a tree.  Hopefully proving that it’s not just bluebells which are silently eloquent.

Speed, Bonnie Boat

“Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,

Say, could that lad be I?

Merry of soul, he sailed on a day

Over the sea to Skye.”

Robert Louis Stevenson.

For many people in the world the coast is a distant place to visit or to dream about visiting.  Those of us who count the sea as a neighbour, whether we are islanders or live along the edges of land, delight in its wide horizon, fickle mood swings and soul-lifting plays of light.

Coastal life

In Wales, 2018 has been dubbed “The Year of the Sea” and this title is also the theme of the poetry competition at this year’s Penfro Book Festival so if you fancy a bit of composing, you’ve got until the 15th August to get your entry in.

Back in June, when Cal and I crossed the Skye Bridge, we found a campsite right next to the sea and spent the evening walking with Mr MacGregor along the low paths of the Cuillins.

The Cuillins

The variety of scenery in the British Isles never ceases to amaze me.  I am used to the battered and scarred cliffs of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast  that dance in and out of the sea mists of the Bristol Channel.  In Scotland there was something almost brooding and defiant about the way the blackened rocks of Skye leaned towards the shore, standing their ground against the pounding waves of the Atlantic.

Mr MacGregor on Skye

As we sat outside a pub and I contemplated whether landscape features affect the character of indigenous peoples and vice versa, Cal slapped her neck and announced “Midge!”  We had until this point not seen a single one of the “Wee Highland Beasties” and hoped that our visit to Scotland was early enough in the summer to avoid them.  We were wrong.  Thanks to Cal deciding to leave Roxy’s back window open overnight we awoke at about 5am to find we were sharing the campervan with an advance party of midges scouting for breakfast.   Outside clouds of insects swooped and swarmed in a scene reminiscent of a 1950s doomsday film.   Ours was the fastest decampment ever seen and Roxy hurtled up the road, windows open wide in a desperate attempt to encourage the midges inside the van to leave.  Cal made an executive decision to aim across the island in the hope that this phenomenon was limited by location.  Eventually we swung into the car park at Dunvegan Castle – 2 hours before opening time – and assessed the state of play.

Insect repellent Dunvegan style

I had dead, dying and soon to be squashed midges in my hair, around my eyes and behind my ears; Cal had despatched any insect which had landed on her face with a self-administered open-handed smack which had left her cheeks red, shiny and covered with splatters of blood and bits of black carcasses.   I’m not sure if Dunvegan Castle Car Park had CCTV but if it did the sight of two women jumping about slapping themselves and each other as well as a Jack Russell joining in the jumping about and barking excitedly because he thought it was a new game, must have made for an interesting watch.

Eventually some semblance of calm was restored, breakfast was had and as soon as the gates opened we made our way into Dunvegan Castle grounds.  Cal and Mac toured the gardens whilst I went into the castle to fulfil two ambitions.  Firstly to see a Pictish stone close up

Pictish Stone

and secondly to stand in front of a fairy flag.

The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan

Both experiences were amazing and if you should ever find yourself on Skye, I highly recommend a visit to Dunvegan.  Perhaps not in June though because it became clear over lunch that the midges had followed us.  Cal decided that the best option was to make for the ferry port at Armadale and from there to Mallaig, Fort William and eventually the midge-less lands of England.

Silver Sands Beach between Mallaig and Fort William

We travelled through some of the best scenery the world has got to offer.  Longtown sits at the western edge of Hadrian’s Wall.  Fallow deers roam the woodlands and time stands still to watch dappled sunlight.

Longtown in Cumbria

Finally we got back to Wales; more specifically we reached the Welsh coast and the beautiful beaches around Harlech.  I’m going to leave it to Robert Louis Stevenson and Mr MacGregor to sum up this year’s tour because I think they both do it more eloquently and with more joi de vivre than me.

“Billow and breeze, islands and sea,

Mountains of rain and sun,

All that was good, all that was fair,

All that was me is gone.”

 

 

I have no destination

“It is a grand thing, to get leave to live.”     Nan Shepherd

I blame Mrs B in the Hills   for diverting me from my safe, successful yet predictable existence as a Textile Artist and setting me on a journey along unknown paths towards the undiscovered destinations of Cultural Geography.  Indeed I didn’t even know that there was such a subject until someone visiting the MA in Contemporary Crafts final exhibition at Hereford College of Arts  regarded my final work and said, “Do you realise that what you’re doing is Cultural Geography?”  I didn’t because I didn’t know what Cultural Geography was.  As it happens, it’s one of those areas of study where no-one can quite agree on a definition and in particular what the parameters for the word culture should be in this context.  A general – but often disputed rule of thumb – is that Cultural Geography looks at the interaction of humans and landscape in cultural rather than environmental terms.  Lingering Fragments (my MA work) centred on shared cultural legacy interpreted through a creative expression of landscape, so I’m happy to agree that it was Cultural Geography (and poetry and mixed media art).

Lingering Fragments. November 2017

Long before reaching this conclusion however, I’d had messages from Mrs B suggesting that I should read some of Robert McFarlane’s books as he seemed to like landscape-y type stuff and share our love of obscure words and endangered definitions.  Far be it from me to not take advice so it is thanks to Mrs B’s recommendation and Mr McFarlane’s knowledge that I can now describe myself as a solivagant – a lone wanderer; more importantly it is through reading Mr McFarlane’s book Landmarks that I discovered a field of Cultural Geography known as Geopoetics and the writer whose work best exemplifies it, Nan Shepherd.

Solivagant with self timer on camera

Since finishing my MA I’ve been concentrating on writing my own book about Ethos Bound Creativity but took a break from this in early June to go on a touring holiday with my friend Cal.  We loaded up Roxy, her little camper van, with all manner of necessities – liquorice allsorts and a bottle of brandy for her, jelly babies and field sketching kit for me, carton of cocktail sausages and chewy toy for Mr MacGregor, Cal’s Jack Russell terrier – and set off, heading in a roundabout way for Scotland.  Things got off to a good start in the first couple of days when I saw a red squirrel in the wild, visited the lovely 6th Century St Tudno’s church and bagged the trig point on Gogarth before driving through the Mersey Tunnel and then seeing places whose names I only knew from the birth, death and marriage certificates of my grandfather’s family.

Mr MacGregor in St Tudno’s Church

Cal is Liverpudlian by birth and nature so as we travelled through the dock area of Liverpool, I found that she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the pubs we drove past – I particularly liked the one called The Sick Parrot but can’t imagine ever wanting to go there for a drink and a packet of crisps.  Eventually she brought Roxy to a halt and gave me my birthday present two months early: a visit to Antony Gormley’s Another Place  on Crosby Sands.

Another Place

The next day brought a wander around Windermere, lunch at the Kirkstone Pass and a paddle in Ullswater

Kirkstone Pass

before we headed for Scotland and more specifically, Braemar –  one of Nan Shepherd’s preferred stomping grounds.  If you’ve never heard of Nan Shepherd, she wrote several works of fiction but is best known for The Living Mountain – a reflection in poetic prose about hill walking in the Cairngorms.  It is difficult to read Nan’s books and not accept the existence of Geopoetics which is defined by some as a “geographical consciousness”.  My own feeling is that, as a concept, Geopoetics is an attempt to describe a personal and individual transcendence by physical landscape but is limited by words in the same way as the Welsh concept of hiraeth is much more than the homesickness it is sometimes translated as.

The River Dee at Braemar

Philosophical semantics aside, we stayed in Braemar for two nights which meant we had time to explore the village including the ruins of Kindrochit Castle (built by the wonderfully named King Malcolm Big Head in 1059), the Invercauld Hotel (site of the Raising of the Standard of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715) and the Queen’s Drive (route of a carriage ride taken by John Brown and Queen Victoria when she used to visit his relatives, taking tea and tobacco as gifts).

Kindrochit Castle

I was determined to get in a bit of hill-walking so on Wednesday, no sooner had the words “I think I’m going to sit down and relax for a bit” left Cal’s mouth then I was pulling on my walking boots and packing my rucsac for an attempt to follow one of Nan’s routes.  Mount Morrone (895 metres) is small fry to committed Munro baggers but it was going to be the highest peak I’d ever attempted.  As Braemar is about 395m above sea level, the trail would have an assent of 500m in 5k.  This can also be described as steep.  I made it to the summit in 1 hour 20 minutes because luckily, the path was sound and well-marked.  Even better, the weather was good and the insect life was quiescent.  Just for good measure there was another trig point at the summit to bag.

View from Morrone over the Cairngorms

Best of all, the track passed Tomintoul, Nan Shepherd’s howff (cottage) on the lower slopes of the mountain so I really was in her footsteps.  Having read The Living Mountain as research for our trip, being on Morrone for a few hours made me realise that Geopoetics is not about the landscape or even about the human reaction to time spent in the landscape; it’s about becoming one with the landscape and that’s not something that can be achieved in a single afternoon.  For Nan Shepherd, it was a relationship that lasted a lifetime.

Tomintoul

Nan’s work is full of the sense of togetherness that she had developed with the Cairngorms and having wandered in just a small part of them, I think that she must have felt really frustrated at the inadequacy of words as she strove to explain what being in and with them meant to her.

“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”        The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd.

On my way back through Braemar, I called into the tourist information office to pick up some leaflets about Skye – our next stopping point.  That evening, jelly babies to hand, I read something that made me forget all about Geopoetics and dragged me back firmly into Cultural Geography and my own work researching limnal features of landscape.

Dunvegan Castle, said the guide, is home to the legendary Fairy Flag of Dunvegan.  When unfurled in battle it summons spirits to aid Clan MacLeod, snatching victory from certain defeat.

As Cal considered which route would take in the most picturesque scenery that Skye had to offer – which seemed to be on the north of the island – I tried to concoct a sneaky plan which would get us to Dunvegan in the south.  There was no way I could be so close to a remnant of the faerie folk and not get to see it.  In the event however, my scheming was not needed because Skye itself determined where we should go and what we should visit.  It all started so well, with no hint of the trauma to come: we crossed Skye Bridge, found a campsite at the foot of the Cuillins and I remembered what it is I love about limnal landscapes – it’s the feeling that you’ve wandered through another reality; that other folk are having conversations that you will never be party to and if you were, you wouldn’t have the vocabulary to understand.

 

Stone Sculptures in The Cuillins

Which makes me think that maybe it’s better not to have a destination.

Maybe it’s better to just follow the unknown paths.