March at home on Islay

March was a wild wet month on Islay. We had lots of wind, rain and cancelled ferries, but also a few gloriously sunny days. The first day of spring lived up to its name and was warm enough to have the French windows open all day. Now, at the end of the month, the daffodils are in full bloom and snowdrops are reduced to clumps of leaves. If I can find the time I’m going to split the larger clumps to help their spread across the garden.

A clear night on the 17th gave the UK its best sighting of the Aurora borealis since 2004. We failed to see the wonderful array of colours that appear on some of the Islay photographs, but apparently the camera is able to detect far more than the naked eye. Even so, we were delighted to watch bands of white light, flickering and shimmering all around us.

Instead of school visits I did a ‘Slate Voices’ session for a group of retired people at the Port Mor Lunch Club – I concentrated on Belnahua, illustrating poems with a video presentation. Some of the audience had memories of the slate quarrying on Islay and I sold 6 copies of the book.

I wasn’t able to attend the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, but was delighted to have one of my poems featured there. ‘The Postie’s Washing Line’ written on Eigg appeared on one of eight postcards produced for the Festival. It was also included in a digital installation and in a shop window in the town.

It is one of the poems due to feature in ‘Waymarks’, my forthcoming collection from Cinnamon Press.

https://stanzapoetry.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/an-a…

 

Visitors, including a 4-year old, made for a lively week that ran over into April. Cancelled ferries made their arrival uncertain, but they appeared on time, although somewhat shaken by a very rough crossing. However, the wildlife put on a special show for them. We had gannets, dolphins and a Great Northern diver in the bay, red deer by the roadside, and an otter demonstrating its diving technique in the sea outside our cabin.

Doreen, who I first met on an Arvon Course told us about their trip to follow the migration of the Grey Wales. The details of this amazing adventure, undertaken with a 2 year old, from Baja in Mexico to the Arctic can be found on The Huffington Post –

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/doreen-walton/?m=true

Work on ‘The Snake Wand’ continues. Becky, from ‘Chocolates and Charms’, the lovely gift shop on Tiree, ordered another 15 copies of ‘Cry at Midnight’, their first 15 having been sold. I am now eagerly awaiting the arrival of ‘Clickfinger’ in a couple of month’s time.

February 2015

The month started well with visits to Port Ellen Primary School, here on Islay.

The P7 class had access to notebooks during my reading of the first three chapters of ‘Cry at Midnight’. These were for two purposes – firstly to note down interesting words and secondly to draw a character from the book. A few words were new to some of the children –e.g. tantalizing, tuft (of hair), tentative and bristling (with indignation), but the meanings became clear through context and discussion, with the bonus of adding to their vocabulary. Almost without exception the drawings  were very accurate depictions of Aunt Aggie.

For P5 and 6 I read extracts from the first six chapters and introduced the sea-bean and hag-stone necklace, the broomstick and the witch’s hat. And we also acted out some of the conversations and body language for  the characters.

‘Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn’, featured in a review on www.lovescottishislands.com where Lee Allen, who runs this wonderful site ended with the following words. ‘Any visit to the Slate Islands is incomplete without this book. Even without visiting them. This book is essential reading. It is easy to read, but difficult to forget…’

Other writing successes came in the form of my poem ‘Island White’ appearing in a lovely little Grey Hen publication, ‘Shades of Meaning’ – Poems about Colours.

Island White

White in the Hebrides is seldom snow
unless it tops the highest of the hills,
more like to be an early morning frost,
hailstones windswept banked against a wall,
sandy beaches born of cockle shells,
marshy hollows filled with cotton grass,
swans and eider drakes, a wheatear’s rump,
spring lambs or new shorn ewes,
daisy pathways cutting through the dunes,
water tumbling down a stone strewn burn,
crests of waves, gale-lashed flecks of foam,
blackthorn blossom, quartz veins through a rock,
a single white bell in among the blue,
dandelion clocks, bleached bones,
mushrooms, dog whelks, cuckoo spit,
water lilies on a peat dark loch.

I was also delighted to hear that my ‘Fairy Tale for Mothers’ is to be included in the New Voices Anthology, due to be published by The Federation of Writers (Scotland).

The proofs for ‘Clickfinger’ arrived for checking so I went through these twice which meant that for nearly three days I couldn’t get on with ‘my third book in ‘The Hagstone Chronicles’.

However ‘The Snake Wand’ is going well. I’m up to Chapter 21 which means I’ll soon be halfway. As always I’ve been delighted and intrigued by the way the characters continue to lead the story in quite unexpected directions.

The end of the month found us with chaos at home as Richard is decorating living room, hall, stairs, landing and shower room. However, outside, despite continuing blustery weather, our tiny wild daffodils are joining the snowdrops that have been blooming since early January. There are  a few lesser celandines on the south facing bank and a song thrush has chosen our roof for his song post. So Spring is not too far away.

2015 January

A month at home has allowed me to concentrate on ‘The Snake Wand’ – Book Three of ‘The Hagstone Chronicles’. As with my first two books it is set in real places – McCaig’s Tower in Oban and on the island of Kerrera. Other islands will feature too but I haven’t yet decided which ones. Knowing a location allows me to see the action unfolding as I write. Another important aspect for me is to weave real objects into my stories. These inspire me, and when I do readings, the children are fascinated to see and handle them. I needed a locket for Ammonia B Clickfinger, the witch who came to a bad end in Book Two. By searching the Internet I found exactly what I was seeking.

January also brought my 74th birthday. Last year, aged 73, I had my first two books published. These go to show that one is never too old to realise a dream. As long as one is prepared to work with determination and enthusiasm, life can continue to hold excitement and adventure. And even if it doesn’t lead to a published book or some other visible achievement, I believe it keeps ‘old age’ at bay. And, as if to prove the point, there have been some heartwarming acknowledgements for my work.

An unexpected email came from Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University. I had met Alan, very briefly at the Lismore Book Week and we had exchanged our recent publications. Here is a little of what he wrote about ‘Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn’.

I enjoyed the whole sequence and was moved by what you depicted and revealed – and I thought ‘The Night of 21-22 November, 1881’ was stunning – a terrific poem, sustained, perfectly structured and balanced, and terribly affecting. Elsewhere too, it was great to meet the people you evoke so well and the lives the poems present so unsentimentally and precisely – and the desperate anger and sorrow of Catherine McPhail and your uncovering and covering the grave of her daughter, visiting Belnahua – and taking our time with each island separately. I’m very grateful.

Becky Gethin, another Cinnamon author and poet featured ‘Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn’ on her excellent blog https://rebeccagethin.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/ma…

Then, almost in time for my birthday, a lovely card and letter came from a reader of ‘Cry at Midnight’ who wants to meet me next time she comes to Islay –

A little note to say how much I enjoyed your book ‘Cry at Midnight’. We came to Islay a few weeks ago and whilst there I bought, and read your book. Of course, now I want to go to Tiree. Next time we come to Islay I will try to seek you out to say ‘hello’. Looking forward to the next book

And another 5 star review on Amazon made me smile too.

I would recommend this book to all ages for its adventure, excitement and powerful story. Full of magical beings or are they? Symbols, stones and gems whose meanings go back through the ages. Fantastic.

A poetry success came on the 28th of the month when one of my poems appeared on The Stare’s Nest. It is a a poem that relates, the agony, and subsequent relief of my daughter’s battle with breast cancer. See http://thestaresnest.com

CANCER

A black box  bottomless
contents and sender unknown
shattered the frenzied pattern of our days
stopped  the afternoon  the week  the year
a stone to our hearts      it stole our breath
froze our words      our thoughts     our tears.
Spared the final grief
we grasped the gift it offered
stepped back from blinkered busyness
to s l o w  the p a t t e r n  of   o u r  l i v e s
learn to say no
make time for one another
find something to rejoice in
every day.

The weather has been rather wild. We have had days of wind, rain, hail and snow. The sea has thrown pebbles and surprisingly large stones across the grassy part of our shore. Thankfully, the highest tide stopped about three metres short of my cabin. But there have also been spells of brilliant sunshine. The snowdrops were starting to come out in the first week of the month and before February arrived they were carpeting the woods and blooming in ever-increasing clumps in the garden.

December 2014 – Christmas and More

Finishing ‘Waymarks’ kept me busy for most of the month. I was mainly concerned with putting the poems in order although I also made a few slight changes. The main problem was struggling through about twenty versions of my new title poem. I still found time for Christmas though – a quiet one with a self-seeded, home-grown Christmas Tree, some good walks, otter sightings and lots of time for reading.

A surprise order for ‘Cry at Midnight’ came from the USA. This followed an earlier order from Canada. It was duly dispatched at horrendous postage cost, but it’s good to know that somehow, word has spread beyond our shores.

‘Slate Voices: Cwmorthin and Islands of Netherlorn’ also crossed the pond when a very positive and lengthy review appeared in ‘Galatea’, an American magazine. This can be found at http://galatearesurrection23.blogspot.com

It begins with –

It is rare that one has the opportunity to compare and contrast the work of two poets addressing the same subject, albeit from a slightly different perspective, on such an extended scale but this is what is offered here. The subject is slate. The slate of Scotland and the slate of Wales: “two for the price of one.”

And after comments and several quoted passages, the review ends with-

In both sections, evocative black and white photographs enhance the text. The title of each photograph has been taken from the text itself. In this way the photographs become an integral part of the book. Close collaboration between the two poets has helped to make this a seamless collection whose strength and power amounts to more than the sum of its two parts.

An article on shells appeared in Scottish Islands Explorer magazine. I solved the problem of having sufficient illustrations by creating a card showing a typical shell collection. Intended as a holiday game for children, the shells are kept in a box for matching with the photographs.

I completed the article, Ravens, Hooded Crows and Chough which will feature in the March/April issue. Other articles are booked for the following five issues, there’s no hurry for these but it means that I have plenty to keep me writing. Although once 2015 begins I shall be concentrating on The Snake Wand, Book Three of The Hagstone Chronicles.

Finally, we viewed a number of spectacular sunrises from the house. This one was the most vivid.

November 2014 – ‘Cry at Midnight’ goes to England

My first stop was London for Hallowe’en book signings in ‘Olive Loves Alfie’, a children’s lifestyle shop in Stoke Newington. There I sat, wearing my witch’s hat among beautiful fair trade clothes and carefully chosen toys and books. Hallowe’en is a big affair in London. The streets were busy with parents and children in fancy dress, all intent on filling bags and buckets with treats.

       

I also led an afternoon workshop for 11-13 year olds along with some of their parents. After reading from ‘Cry at Midnight’ I set a writing task. Everyone, even the adults, wrote about their names and read their writing to the group. I think the children particularly enjoyed hearing what their parents had to say. It made me realise that it isn’t necessary to have separate writing workshops for children and adults. In fact I think both groups gained from the experience, and it is certainly something I intend to do again.

Second stop was Kidderminster where I did two ‘Cry at Midnight’ sessions with First Year pupils at Baxter College. I turned up wearing purple to find that purple is the school colour. So I was very much at home among purple carpets and purple ties. It was my first session in a Secondary School so I was a little apprehensive, but it went down well and I had positive feedback from both boys and girls. Most comments indicated that they particularly appreciated seeing the photo of the fence post, handling the necklace and discovering what had inspired me to write the story.

Besides writing there is a need to promote my books, so I set up a ‘Cry at Midnight’ Facebook page and have picked up 46 ‘likes’ which isn’t bad considering that my main readers are too young to join Facebook. Reviews in Amazon are all five star and a recommendation from a reader resulted in ‘Chocolates and Charms’, a lovely gift shop on Tiree stocking ‘Cry at Midnight.’ It was also good to see ‘Slate Voices’ for sale in Waterstones in Oban.

On returning to Islay it was time to settle down to writing. A deadline for the ‘Waymarks’ Poetry collection was drawing close and there were poems to redraft and put in order. Three of the poems destined for ‘Waymarks’ appeared in ‘Poetry Saltzberg’ and one will go into a ‘Grey Hen’ pamphlet before the end of the year. I worked hard on the collection, but in the back of my mind, ‘The Snake Wand’ was beginning to make its presence felt. Initially I had no idea how to start the book, but writing a sequel means that I know my characters well. They are very real to me and I trust them to come up with ideas. Once I sat down at my laptop Hamish took over, leading me in quite unexpected directions. When characters come alive like this it is the most exciting thing that can happen to a writer.

August 2014 – A Month at Home

August’s hot sunny weather was interspersed with days of drizzle and spells of heavy rain. Despite this, my daughter Caryl and grandchildren Joe and Cerys enjoyed their stay. Caryl achieved a personal best time in the Islay Half-Marathon, but the highlight was kayaking round Kilnaughton Bay with www.kayakwildislay.co.uk This was an energetic afternoon during which they landed at the bottom of our garden for a snack.

While she was here, my daughter proofread Clickfinger, Book Two of The Hagstone Chronicles. That was extremely helpful and I was delighted that she found only two typos and no more than three points needing clarification. I did one more careful read through and sent it off to my publisher. www.cinnamonpress.com

On a trip to Colonsay to deliver more copies of ‘Cry at Midnight’ I was joined by John Humphries, Editor of Scottish Islands Explorer. As I’ve been writing for the magazine since 2009 it was good to finally meet him for a face-to-face chat. My article – Inspired by Tiree, about the writing of Cry at Midnight, appeared in the new issue with the added bonus of my photo of Dun Mor Vaul on the back cover.

Colonsay Bookshop again sold out of ‘Cry at Midnight’ so I went up to Port Askaig to see if I could find someone to take a parcel of 12 copies over for me. I approached one car and the four people inside looked aghast. It turned out they were from the US where one never accepts a parcel from anyone. Luckily, we got talking and I discovered that the driver was an author too. Even so, he wouldn’t agree to take the parcel until he’d checked with a Calmac official that it was OK. I suppose I could have been smuggling drugs or guns, or wanting him to plant a bomb on board; but regarding people with such suspicion struck me as a sad reflection on the state of the world. I’m so glad I live in the Hebrides.

A week later I had to repeat the process with another twelve copies, but this time without difficulty. Sales are doing well on Islay too. Bruichladdich Distillery shop have sold twelve copies and ordered another twenty.

The first review of ‘Cry at Midnight’ appeared on the Friends of Colonsay Facebook page – a glowing report from eleven year old Amelia Neilson who bought the book while on holiday.Since then, further reviews have appeared on Amazon where the book is now available on Kindle.

The garden has been a joy, the heather has come into bloom and the fuchsia is heavy with its tasseled blooms; but nothing gives me more pleasure than the wildflowers that arrive of their own accord. Spear thistles are attracting goldfinches in search of seeds and sea aster is growing among the rocks at the bottom of the garden. This is especially welcome as few plants can survive the endless spray from salt-laden waves.

The end of the month sees us packing for a brief holiday at Callander before taking part in The Callander Poetry Weekend where I will be reading from ‘Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn’.

July 2014 – “Cry at Midnight” arrives

The wait between completing the manuscript and opening a box of 100 copies of my book seemed interminable. Now it’s here and the joy of reading it in book form is indescribable. I am thrilled with the cover. It’s exactly as requested – with the bonus of a perfect font that adds to the magic.

I recall the Arvon Course at Moniack Mhor where I discussed my ideas with tutors Cathy MacPhail and Linda Strachan.

Authors Linda Strachan and Catherine MacPhail were outstanding tutors on a Course entitled ‘Writing for Children’.

When I attended the Course I had just returned from Tiree with the germ of an idea. Over the week with Cathy and Linda it began to grow into a novel. At the end of every day we had to say, out loud, ‘I am a writer.’ I was desperate to be a writer, but at that stage it was still a dream. Now, with a published children’s novel I’m beginning to believe that it’s true.

Of course, that week was only the beginning. The really hard work started when I returned home. As a first venture into children’s fiction it was daunting and I was so lacking in confidence that even when I’d completed the first draft I let it lie for almost two years. When I returned to it I re-wrote whole sections but the basic story remained the same. I spent hours in re-reading, cutting back surplus words and adjusting the pace. I immersed myself in the story, felt the emotions of Merryn, my heroine, and allowed those feelings to lead the story into quite unexpected places. I grew so attached to the characters that I had to leave a ‘hook’ for another book. Thus Cry at Midnight became the first of The Hagstone Chronicles.

Over the last few days I’ve been busy signing copies for mail orders, but the biggest buzz came from the Colonsay Bookshop. They had almost sold out and I went over on the ferry to deliver more. As I went into the shop two children were buying the last copy. I signed if for them and I think I was even more delighted than they were.

Signing copies of “Cry at Midnight”.

Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn featured this month too. My daughter and my grandchildren, Joe and Cerys were with us for a fortnight so I did a reading for them together with a small group of friends. It was a lovely evening as can be seen from the view through my living room window.

Reading from “Slate Voices”.

June 2014 – Back to the Slate Islands

Twelve days were spent at home during which, in between gardening and writing I worked on my website with Lesley Lutomski of islaywebdesign.co.uk

Friday 13th saw Richard and I heading, once again for the slate islands. Together with co-writer Jan Fortune, her partner Adam Craig and her son, Rowan Fortune we rented Creagard, a cottage on the Isle of Luing. The weather was glorious, there wasn’t a drop of rain, and sun hats and sunscreen were necessary before venturing out.

We had Slate Voices launches in Luing ‘s Cullipool Village Hall and in Seil’s Village Hall at Ellenabeich. Bruichladdich Distillery Islay generously provided us with bottles of The Botanist Gin and Islay Barley Whisky. The addition of wine, soft drinks, dips and savoury biscuits made for a very pleasant interval. But the highlight of the week for me was reading the poems in the places that had inspired them. We shared cars on Luing, visiting Cullipool, Toberonochy and the graveside of Janet MacPhail in Kilchattan Kirkyard. On Seil we walked round Ellenabeich village and on Easdale our walk took us round the entire island.

From Luing, Richard and I drove to Oban and crossed over to the Isle of Lismore. This limestone island has a rich and interesting flora. The orchids were spectacular – Common Spotted being the most frequent but with Fragrant, Northern Marsh, Twayblade, Lesser Butterfly and a few Heath Spotted and Early Marsh Orchids as well. At low tide we walked over to the tiny island of Bernera, a wonderful day, undoubtedly the best of a very enjoyable week.

The crossing from Lismore to Bernera.

Pebbles collect in hollows in the limestone rock on Bernera’s shore.

Weed covered boulders at low tide on Bernera.

Before reaching Lismore I had offered to go into the school to talk about Cry at Midnight. It was the last week of term and the school timetable was filled with events. However, I was asked to return from 18th to 24th October for the Lismore Book Week, not just to do children’s sessions but to be involved in writing workshops. The same cottage will be made available for us and I’m greatly looking forward to interacting with other writers.

Castle Coefin, Lismore.

Achaduin Castle, Lismore.

By the time we returned to Islay there were only two days of June left. These were spent in cutting the grass, dealing with a backlog of mail, and a fortnight’s washing which consisted mainly of dirty socks. Trying to find time to write was almost impossible. This will have to be a priority in July.

May 2014 – My First Book Launch

With Jan Fortune at the London Launch of Slate Voices: Cwmorthin and Islands of Netherlorn.

May was an extra special month. It saw the publication, by Cinnamon Press, ofSlate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Cwmorthin. Holding the book in my hand was the culmination of an exciting and invigorating collaboration with Jan Fortune. It represented over three years work, seven week-long visits to the slate islands, one visit to Cwmorthin in North Wales, and hours of research and writing.

At the same time, Scottish Explorer Magazine published my article Inspired by the Slate Islands which explained how Slate Voices came to be written.

Launching Slate Voices in London was a wonderful celebration with a party-like atmosphere – thanks to our hosts Ashlyn and Matthew at The Clapton Laundry. Then followed readings in friendly independent bookshops in Bangor, Machynnleth and Blaenau Ffestiniog.

On our journey home we spent three nights on the Isle of Bute. So much of our time away from home is taken up with travelling on motorways, that whenever possible we make a detour to a different area. Apart from enjoying the scenery and wildlife, I am always hopeful that a scene or incident will prove useful in future writing. Bute had an air of ‘faded glory’ but we enjoyed the break and were intrigued by The Serpentine, a road with thirteen hairpin bends created by the passage of cattle in the days of droving. Hopefully I will be able to capture it in a poem for my on-going collection of island poems.

The Serpentine at Rothesay on The Isle of Bute

Only eleven days were spent at home on Islay, and most of those were taken up with cutting pathways through the garden, carefully avoiding spikes of Twayblade, Heath Spotted and Northern Marsh orchids that had appeared in profusion. May is such a wonderful month for flowers, the garden is at its best and the weather is usually good. In future years we must try to spend more of it at home.