May 2017 - Two gardens to tend.

If there were nothing else to do this would be fun. As it is, gardening is being fitted in between journeys from one house to the other, decorating both, picking and processing plants for The Botanist, packing on Islay, unpacking in Shropshire, making arrangements for selling our Islay home and organising repairs and renovations for our Shropshire house. For the second time the car was filled to the roof and we reckon that books alone will need another three journeys.

There was little time for writing but my Letter from Islay can be found at http://theislandreview.com/content/letter-from-islay-spring-moves-on-apace-mavis-gulliver and an old poem had a new airing on https://keeppoemsalive.com/


His world is literal.

Metaphors a mystery

he cannot comprehend.

Facts flood

from his wrongly wired brain.

Ten thousand books,

each read in an hour,

imprinted on his memory

are placed upside down to show

he has no further need of them.

Zip codes, dates and places

fill his head.

He can tell you the route

to almost anywhere

but cannot go alone

to the end of the street.

He recalls every tune

he ever heard, can pick them out

on the piano with fingers limited

in their flexibility.

Simple tasks elue him.

His father cleans his teeth

buttons his shirt

links his arm as they walk,



He does not kno

that the fact he states


is pure poetry.

‘We share the same shadow.’

Before we headed south I spent two days in cutting paths through the areas of wild flowers although I knew that another cut would be needed as soon as we returned.

The two gardens are very different. Our Islay garden, a semi-wild stretch of 1.2 acres, encompasses cliffs and an expanse of shore that is subject to wind and salt spray.The view is extensive, taking in Northern Ireland in the south-west and Kintyre in the south-east. At night, four lighthouses warn of danger - Rathlin East and Rathlin West off Antrim’s northern coast, Mull of Kintyre and, close to home, Carraig Fhada across the bay from our house. A few trees survive, notably Aspen which we introduced 25 years ago, but self-seeded Rowans and Willows frequently suffer from wind-damaged branches.

Our wealth of wildflowers, introduced via seed collected locally, has increased from an expanse of bracken and bramble to include 212 different species. Some have taken years to establish to the point of setting their own seeds. Ironically, it is just as we are about to leave, that some of my favourites have really taken hold. Among others, Bush Vetch, Meadow Vetchling, Great Hairy Willow herb, Red Campion, Bloody Cranesbill and Wild Carrot appear in unexpected places - and the twin leaves of Common Twayblade, which has steadily advanced across the front lawn, are almost too numerous to count. A ten year old Guelder Rose is flowering for the first time and the Clematis montana has finally formed a complete barrier between our house and the one next door.

Our Shropshire garden, small in comparison, is a greenery of trees. Long established Ash, Hawthorn, Field Maple and Cherry border the lower lawn where there are younger specimens of Rowan, Apple, Liquidamber, Whitebeam, Japanese Maple, Silver Birch and others yet to be identified. Between the trees are glimpses of the Reabrook with a hillside beyond where huge, mature Oaks punctuate hedges of Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Holly and Yew.

Higher up the garden are hedges which include Forsythia, Weigela and Cherry Laurel and there are borders between paths which run up and down and from side to side. A variety of small shrubs chosen for their foliage rather than flowers dominate the borders but many need pruning and several need removing altogether. Perennials grow between the shrubs and I spent many hours on my knees removing a ground cover of weeds and a profusion of Lesser Celandine and Ivy-leaved Speedwell.

A trip to Shrewsburys Recycling Centre (a revelation after our tiny tip on Islay) enabled us to get rid of all the debris which the previous owners had left behind. Instead of clean boxes of books the car was loaded with dirty items such as rotting wood, dead shrubs, broken plant pots and lumps of concrete.

The highlight of our trip was going to our daughter’s for a day and hearing our grandson Josef playing his French Horn in The Birmingham Symphony Hall. The Birmingham City Choir joined the Birmingham Schools Orchestra for an excellent performance of Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton. It was wonderful to experience such talent and to feel proud of Joe who will start his studies at the Birmingham Conservatoire in September.

We had a brief treat on the way home, spending a night at The Inveraray Hotel and exploring the area around Poltalloch House, a wonderfully overgrown ruin with an approach that reminded me of Manderley. During our visit, a raven, on the topmost tip of a tree, complained bitterly at our presence. We soon discovered the reason when we caught sight of three youngsters in a nest on one of the house windowsills.

When we returned to Islay the bluebells in the garden were reaching the end of their flowering but everything else had flourished and the neatly cut paths were white with daisies. I was reluctant to mow them as they looked beautiful, but another trip is pending and if I had left them the grass would be knee high when we return. We have a busy time ahead but I know that we are incredibly lucky to have two houses at present. It doesn't seem right when so many people are homeless but it is enabling us to continue work on Islay while preparing our Shropshire house for the final move. Indeed, so much work is needed there, and so much has to be packed and transported that it would have been impossible to move in one single trip.


April 2017 - back on Islay

We left our new home in Shropshire with blossom everywhere. Cherry trees were blooming in gardens and blackthorn was covering hedgerows in a froth of white.

Back on Islay I felt that I’d stepped back a month. Blackthorn was still in the grip of winter and our garden trees had yet to break their buds. 

As the days passed growth accelerated. By the end of the month we were surrounded by leafing trees and a ground cover of bluebells and wild garlic.

In addition to the glorious sight, a good handful of wild garlic leaves thrown into the food processor with olive oil, walnuts and Parmesan cheese brought the taste of spring into the house.

Gorse had an early flowering. Often at its best in late May, this year it s bright blooms were evident all over the island at the beginning of April. We had to embark on picking for The Botanist gin as we couldn’t risk missing this important part of the recipe. It’s an unenviable task as each small flower has to be grasped between finger and thumb and it is all too easy to suffer pricks and scratches. After several days of picking my hands were very sore indeed.

Primroses dotted both cliffs and woodlands and there were so many self-seeded in our lawn that I put a couple of dozen into pots to take to Shropshire. They grow in the wooded valley close to the house but I plan to put them under the trees to follow the snowdrops which I planted on our last visit.

During that visit we had to cut the grass but back on Islay there was little evidence of growth. It was the third week of the month when we finally got out the mower to cut the paths which allow us to walk round the garden without getting wet feet. In between the paths, the bluebells leaves are growing, but in this exposed situation it will be a few weeks before we have our last experience of their glorious scent and colour.

For the moment we can enjoy the delicate pale lilac flowers of Lady’s Smock which have self-seeded all over the garden. Also known as Cuckoo Flower or Milkmaids it is the most delicate member of the Cabbage Family. Shakespeare, in Love’s Labors Lost, wrote of lady-smocks all silver white painting the meadows with delight. This puzzled me for years until I saw a swathe of blooms by moonlight when they did indeed acquire a pale silvery glow.

The pattern of the next few months will be keeping up with the garden in between packing books, removing bookshelves and decorating walls which have been hidden for a good number of years. There will be many trips to the tip and to Re-jig, our island re-cycling store, as we try to weed through the accumulation of a lifetime. It’s a daunting task, but a necessary one because we have less space for storage in our new home. 

As we grow older I think it’s vital to consider our children. They lead busy lives and it is unfair to leave them with the task of clearing out our belongings. Besides, I have reached the stage where I want to enjoy the present instead of hanging on to things from the past.


March 2017 - and a change of direction.

March 2017 - and a change of direction.

My Letter from Islay appeared in The Island Review http://theislandreview.com/features/

- an account of spring on the island, but I am away from Islay at the moment.

After many months of searching for a house in rural Shropshire we finally took possession of our new abode on 27th March. Needless to say there has been little time to think of anything else.

With an obligation to remain on Islay until our work for The Botanist Gin is completed we only had 10 days to settle in and explore the immediate area. Between now and the end of the gathering season we will make short visits, each one with a car laden with books and other necessities. Until the final move we will be camping out inside. Richard has been erecting bookshelves and I have been planting hundreds of snowdrops in drifts under the small trees. I am hoping that they will love this garden as much as the Islay one. When we moved there 21 years ago there were no snowdrops in the garden and they have multiplied so much that even though I have dug up about a thousand, there don’t appear to be any less.

Islay has been wonderful but we feel the need to be closer to the rest of our family. It is time for new places, new people and new experiences while we are still reasonably fit and well. We knew Shropshire many years ago when our first holidays together were spent in this lovely county. The bungalow is not perfect but we will adjust to it, and as with our Islay home, it is chosen for its location above all other considerations. It is at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac so there is no passing traffic. We have an open aspect and access to many footpaths from the bottom of our garden. We have exchanged our sea view for one of trees and our own small section of river bank.

We even own the fishing rights, but will not be using them. We are more than happy to give our share of small fry to the pair of goosanders which parade up and downstream several times a day.

A bridge over the Raebrook leads to a kissing gate and from there we can walk in several directions. There is no traffic sound to drown out the plentiful birdsong. There are mature trees and hedges of blooming blackthorn, hawthorn in leaf and evergreen holly and yew.

On my first early morning walk I was delighted to hear a great spotted woodpecker drumming, to find a cherry tree in bloom on our riverbank and, just up the hill, to find the most extensive badger sett that I’ve ever seen. Heaped earth covered in discarded bedding and upwards of a dozen entrances indicate that there is quite a family.

As I write, the French windows are open and a green woodpecker is yaffling. It is tempting to venture out to catch a glimpse of him, but today we are steam cleaning the carpets and Richard has just returned with the hired machinery - so it’s back to work as we strive to turn number 46 into our future home.


February 2017 - Signs of spring compete with more wintry weather.

February's earlier dawns and later dusks show us that the year has really turned towards spring. Daily walks are even more pleasurable now that flowers are budding and birds are increasingly active.

There are thousands of snowdrops in the woods and in our garden - and Lesser Celandines are brightening the south-facing roadside banks.

Mild weather and higher than average temperatures allowed me to make progress in the garden. Strimming last year’s long grass where wild flowers have been left to set seed is a long and tiring job. It means bending low under bushes and clumps of heather; negotiating steep banks and getting in between outcropping rocks. It is a case of a seemingly endless repetition of strimming and raking, but it's good exercise and lovely to be out of doors.

The main part of the garden is now looking good with hundreds of bluebell spikes breaking the surface and new young heather appearing where I had removed the old overgrown plants. But the slopes down to the sea, although strimmed once, still need raking, a prickly task because it is here that we allow brambles to flourish for food, nesting sites and shelter for birds -

and as Kipling stated in his poem The Glory of the Garden,

there’s always a ‘needful job that’s crying to be done’.

Yet again, I found little time for writing but was pleased to have my Valentine’s Day poem on Angela Topping’s Hygge blog.

Although our Wedding Anniversaries tend to be forgotten, Richard and I have always celebrated Valentine’s Day and we have a collection of cards, many of them home-made, that stretch over forty years.


To quote from Angela's blog -

Hygge, the Danish term for cosiness, intimacy and taking pleasure from simple things. It’s about candlelight and cosy throws, knitting, sharing comfort food with good friends, reading, country walks, and enjoying everything in the present moment. It’s a hug for the soul.’

You Help Me Fly

For Richard

'He is my rock.’

she said,

as if with pride.

You, my love,

are not my rock.

For rocks immovable


smack too much

of millstones

round my neck.

Nor are you my anchor,

holding so tight

I cannot

ride with the tide

of my desire.

You are the string

on which,

kite-like I fly

and soar to heights

I could not reach alone.

And if I fall,

I know

that you’ll be there,

to catch

and hold me close.

Sadly this lovely venture has come to a close and I can’t help thinking that it would be wonderful if this collection of Hygge poems could be gathered together in a printed version.

The 21st February brought warnings of severe weather as Storm Doris headed our way. Overnight on the 22nd it brought torrential rain to Islay although we fared better than most of the UK. Even so, the burn that flows into Kilnaughton Bay burst its banks and yet more of the track to the fording place was washed away. Water drained from the hill, gushed down through the wood and turned the path into a miniature rushing river.

The dune crumbled, bed rock on the beach was exposed and the remaining sand was covered with pebbles from the burn. As if to emphasise the vagaries of Hebridean weather the following daybreak brought a calm, sunlit sea and my dawn walk was enhanced by the liquid notes of song thrushes.

Becoming increasingly rare in many places, these birds are my namesake, although many people, especially those south of the border, don’t know that the traditional name for a song thrush in Scotland is a Mavis.

Robert Burns, in his moving poem to Bonnie Mary of Argyll wrote

I have heard the mavis singing,
His love song to the morn,
I have seen the dew drop clinging
To the rose just newly born.

The Coltsfoot flowers which had been in bloom for a week or two were left bedraggled by the storm, Some of their petals had turned a pale orange which I had never seen before.

On the last day of the month it was good to get an email from The Language Hub in Glasgow to say that they have sold out of The Hagstone Chronicles and that they want more copies. So, within an hour they were parcelled up and on their way. If you’re in Glasgow and want Cry at Midnight, Clickfinger or The Snake Wand, The Language Hub is the place to go.

Here is the address.


January 2017

In the new year I had a little success on the poetry front, albeit with three previously published poems, two on the Hygge section of Angela Topping’s lovely blog and one on Sally Evans’, equally lovely Keep Poems Alive. There are some super poems on both sites so it's well worth taking a look.





On The Island Review, my letter from Islay included, among other things, an account of the supposed relationship between barnacle geese and goose barnacles.

These unusual crustaceans, related to prawns and lobsters are at the mercy of wind and tide. Each 4 cm individual attaches itself to a floating object by way of a long stalk or peduncle. Discovering a colony of thousands was an unexpected bonus to a walk along Laggan Bay.

In 1633, John Gerard, botanist and author of ‘Gerard’s Herbal’, wrote:- ‘There are found in the north parts of Scotland, and the islands adjacent, certain trees whereon do grow certain shells of a white colour tending to russet wherein are contained little living creatures, out of them grow those little living things, which falling into water, do become fowles, which we call Barnakles’.

This myth arose from the fact that Barnacle Geese, Branta leucopsis, were only observed in Britain during the winter months. There was no evidence of their breeding and it was concluded that barnacles were a kind of fruit, which, when ripe gave birth to geese. Hence the linking of the names - the geese becoming known as Barnacle Geese and the barnacles becoming known as Goose Barnacles.

It was later discovered that Barnacle Geese breed in Iceland and Greenland and that at least 45% of those from Greenland visit Islay’s RSPB Gruinart Reserve. Not restricted to the Reserve, they are a familiar sight around Islay, whether drawing distinctive v shapes across the sky or scattered on grassland, merse and shore like the members of a smartly dressed black and white army.


A trip to the mainland allowed us to spend a morning among the magnificent trees at Ardkinglass on the shores of Loch Fyne where the incredible size of the European Silver Fir impressed us once again. This 250 year old specimen is 50 metres tall and has a 10 metre girth. It was an absolute joy to stand - and sit beside this wonderful specimen.

At home the snowdrops are out in Bridgend Woods and the numbers in our garden increase year on year. The first one to come out appeared on the First of January and others followed throughout the month. Lesser Celandines are appearing too and there are always a few dandelions and daisies braving whatever the weather throws at them. Hazel catkins are fully out in the woods and tree buds are starting to swell despite the chilly winds. It's good to see that the days are starting to lengthen although I suspect there is more wintry weather ahead.