I visited the RSPB nature reserve at Troup Head the other day. I had not planned to visit, but was in Portsoy and spied the cliffs to the east, from my vantage point above the harbour. I recalled a friend telling me it was the place to go to see the gannets. I saw many gannets on the Bass Rock while in North Berwick a couple of months ago, and more recently a few solitary ones, diving for fish off the coast at Gairloch in Wester Ross.
Following my trusty Google maps, I drove along the tiny road to the headland, hesitating slightly when it came to driving through a farmyard (by that time there were reassuring RSPB signs) and finally reached the tiny car park. Avoiding puddles, I had a look at the map indicating the path(s) to the cliffs. I regretted not putting my walking shoes or boots in the car. Luckily I was wearing reasonably sensible footwear, but would advise on non-slip soles at a minimum.
After a false start (my memory of the map was not great), I followed the straight path through a goldening field of barley towards the headland. It is a while since I walked that distance in a straight line. Two parallel tracks through the crop. I met one couple and a woman; they traversed to the other furrow. Coming to the edge of the field, the path turned to the left, leading upwards across grassland. Ahead lay a gorse covered mound, through which another path (the red one) travelled. I chose the blue (shorter) path, mindful of my less than ideal footwear.
Through the barley field, the sound had been the swishing of heads and beards. As I approached the crest of the slope, the sounds of bird cries began to reach me in the wind. On the ground, on the trodden grass, were occasional wisps of downy white. Some small, some larger. As I started going downhill, the frequency of downy wisps became greater. There were occasional small white feathers. And the unmistakeable smell of fish. The bird calls became louder. Through the kissing gate, I passed a couple of photographers with tripods and huge lenses, eyeing my small bridge camera with what seemed like amusement. Turning left, past the sign which indicated the way back to the car park (should my nerve fail me) or onward to the viewpoint.
I walked along the path. Slowly, not wanting to miss anything. A few birds could be seen on the grassy cliff tops. Further on, I could see down to the turquoise depths below; the waves crashing on the rocks. Birds perched on the cliffs; on turf beds with their babies. I did not see the young ones at the time; my eyes were glued to the swooping and soaring display taking place in the sky right in front of me. I have always thought that gannets were graceful birds. My mind has been changed. Laughter spilled out of me - their movements were comical, ungainly, yet amazing. A gannet would storm up from the left of me (with the wind) - up - up - up and then turn to fly back, swooping down with great speed. Or come in to land on the cliff, big black webbed feet akimbo and wobbling like a novice on a high wire. I watched and watched; tried to take some photographs which captured their fantastic flying feats. And then I watched some more. It really was an thrilling and enchanting experience. Magical.
Quite often, I find that I do not end up doing what I set out to do. That doesn't mean that I don't achieve my goal, I just do it a different way. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
It's a bit like going to the shops to buy bread and milk. Yes, just bread and milk, that's all I need. But do I come home with only bread and milk? Of course not. I'll pick up cheese and avocadoes (if they are on offer), maybe a mango (ditto). And then of course we might be out of oatcakes and pasta and rice. Better pop some in the trolley. And plenty of other unhealthy options which I won't mention here, for fear of giving the wrong impression (moi?).
Or, if I go for a walk in the woods, I won't intend to take photos, but something will catch my eye. Some bright green moss, yellow lichen on a rock, feathery lichen hanging from a branch. So I come home with more than I intended. More images to save and look at again and take pleasure from. I might even pick something up along the way - an interesting twig, some larch cones or a fern frond. A feather.
So it was when I went to art class over on south Deeside the other week. I was planning to paint some landscapes; had printed out photos in my bag to use for inspiration. As I went to load my art kit into the car, I noticed the dead head of a hydrangea (from my neighbour's garden) lying on our drive. Of course I picked it up. It was one of those lacewing ones, with a few lifeless petals clinging on at the edges. It sat on the passenger seat as I drove to my class. When I got there, I could see the remnants of rosebay willowherb beside the track where I park each week. I picked some. I couldn't not pick some. I had always wanted to paint this transitory plant, with its bright pink flowers which turn to bean-like seed pods and then fluffy floatingness. Today was the day. I'd missed the flowers, of course - I'll have to wait a while for those to appear again. What a joy it was to paint these - of course I did a few sketches of the serendipitous Hydrangea head as well.
I spent last week on my beloved west coast. Last year, I did not take enough holiday; this year I am determined to do better. We were lucky with the weather, as often happens at this time of year. It is too cold for the midges and it was dry, bright and sunny with the occasional April shower. Cold, too - there were wild hail-storms in the night at the end of the week and a few in the daytime too.
Time was spent outside, as far as possible. Walking the beaches, scouring the high tide line for driftwood and shells; looking out to sea at the distant Cuillins of Skye and then back at the near things - the textures of the ancient rocks and lichens, seaweed patterns, fishing nets lying on the harbour. I absorbed the images like a sponge; my camera is a very useful tool. My well was refilled.
All the time I was there, my focus kept shifting. From a big seascape, with a tiny boat on the horizon, to the shapes of the cracks in the tops of the huge wooden posts which hold up the harbour. From gulls wheeling above us in the bitter breeze, to the shadow shapes formed by a rope lying across a beached dinghy.
It's all there.
And now for something slightly different. I don't always manage to find instant inspiration for my blog, so sometimes I go for a trawl through things I have written earlier. There is plenty of it around, I can assure you. This is not strictly-speaking a poem, it's more a "real-time" stream of observations from a train. That's how it was written. It's almost a series or collection of haiku, which could stand on their own. As you can see from the date, it was written seven years ago.
(Aberdeen to Inverness, by train, 14/3/08)
three sheep, side by side
bask in spring sunshine
on a sloping field
tops of trees
cluttered with crows
and their half-made nests
already wearing ear-tags
lie beside their mothers
to burst into life
train track runs
beside the burn
we go up as it goes down
than the sky
smoothness hides its urgent flow
with a bucket by
the open door
ancient crumbled walls
of ruined house
two old trees – who lived there once?
alongside the track
frog spawn possibilities
last year’s heather
the colours of tweed
horses with their coats on
etched on the hillside
ridged with sheep tracks
along its length
in the perfect lawn
around the whisky store
fluffy white sheep
still wearing their
brown winter coats
in lichen beards
no pollution here
take off in unison
startled by the train
the gorse blooming
by the track –
does it ever not?
piglets scamper in the mud
round their little nissen huts
scars the landscape
- distracts me from the kestrel
we can see
where the mole has been
- does he have any idea?
the edges of the town
spreading into a
with smart fences
- sore thumbs
It's that time of year again, when my thoughts turn to putting together a calendar for next year. This year seems to have flown by. My age is creeping up on me, I suppose, and while it feels like it must only be about March-time, it's nearly the end of October and the clocks change tonight.
I had a sift through the photographs I've taken over the past year (and a few from the tail end of last year) and have been pleasantly surprised by what I have found. I tend to take a lot of photographs if I'm out and about somewhere - at the beach (any beach), out in the woods for a walk, down at Stonehaven for an afternoon, over on the west coast for a long weekend. It's easier to take pictures when you're on your own, I find. It takes more concentration than I used to imagine, to capture images that are worth looking at again later. And one tends to walk very slowly, looking at things along the way. Up through the trees, down at the shells in the sand at your feet, over at the rock formations of the cliffs or the rocky shore. The bit of the whole process I love most is the looking through the images afterwards. It's like opening presents - free ones, ones from myself to me. Gifts of memories, instants in time. The slope of a roof, the brilliant colour of flowers or leaves against an azure sky, the patterns made by lichens on old wood. With the help of friends and followers on Facebook, I've whittled the images down to twelve, for inclusion in next year's calendar. It was tempting to put two together, one of abstract images and one of purely flora, but I managed to resist. Time to get on and finalise the order - I'll let you know when they arrive! There is already a watercolour paintings calendar available for 2015, on the Store page.
Spring is finally here. Daffodils and tulips are blooming. And Forsythia and flowering currants, as shown in this photograph. There are tiny fresh green leaves appearing on the trees and the birds around in the woods are very active and vocal. It feels as if it has been a long winter, despite the fact that it was not very cold. We had a few snaps of frost and flurries of snow, but that was it. Today there was a lot of sunshine. Pigeons were frolicking on the rooftops. And now, funnily enough, we have chosen to travel abroad for some Mediterranean sunshine. There will be sketching, photography and plenty of book reading, I hope. I will be keeping an eye open for the flowers that are blooming there just now.
I have been asked a few times recently, what I paint. I have happily told the questioners that boats feature a lot in my paintings at the moment; ones from both the east and west coasts of Scotland. And then I mention the sheds, and they look slightly bemused and I feel rather apologetic. I'm not sure why this is, so I have spent some time thinking about it, as I suppose there really should be some underlying reason as to why I feel drawn to sheds, particularly ones with corrugated iron roofs.
This is the conclusion I have drawn. It all goes back to summer holidays spent in Lochcarron, in Wester Ross, in what had been my paternal granny's house. Not just summer holidays, when we would spend hours on the shore turning over rocks looking for butterfish and crabs, or digging very fast to try and outwit clams which scooted down into the sand, or for lugworms, beneath their telltale casts, to use as bait on fishing expeditions. No, we were often there at Easter too, and in the winter as well. There are diaries of those holidays somewhere. One day I'll look them out.
At the back of my granny's house were a couple of wooden sheds, where the garden tools and coal (I think) were kept. They were quite well-maintained, these sheds; wooden slats with sloping corrugated iron roofs. They were of no particular interest to me. It was my job in the summertime to clip the long grass away from the outer walls of the shed, so the wood would not become damp and rot. This job was done with an old pair of sheep-shearing shears. I loved using them. I learned to scythe in those summers too, when the grass was thigh-high when we arrived, and had to be cut down before it got trampled flat. There is a rhythm required for scything - enough speed is required to cut the tough grass stalks, but go too fast and you get tired very quickly and the grass is not be properly cut.
But the shed I liked best was the one away up at the back of the plot or land (part of a croft at some time, I suppose). It had no door, but the doorway faced away from the prevailing wind, so it was always sheltered and warm. I think it even had a little window, grimy and cobwebbed. I set up a wooden table and a stool, made from logs and planks of wood that I found. It was my den. I swept it, tidied it, put a jam jar filled with wild flowers on the table. And then I had a visitor. I think he lived in the shed next door, or under a nearby pile of branches. A hedgehog. I provided a saucer of milk, sat in the corner, barely breathing, watching, listening, drinking him in. I was in love. In my shed.