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'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
'He is my rock.’
as if with pride.
You, my love,
are not my rock.
For rocks immovable
smack too much
round my neck.
Nor are you my anchor,
holding so tight
ride with the tide
of my desire.
You are the string
kite-like I fly
and soar to heights
I could not reach alone.
And if I fall,
that you’ll be there,
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
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.
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.
I must admit to facing 2017 with feelings of apprehension and helplessness. I try to be kind, considerate and positive. I sign petitions and do what I can to speak out against the many evils in the world but I fear for the future and wonder what life is going to be like for my grandchildren.
We saw most family members in England before Christmas and were thrilled with two concerts where our grandson Josef played a French horn solo as well as conducting the school orchestra.
We didn’t see daughter Ashlyn and family because they were doing a house swap with friends in New York. It is not a place I would want to visit and seeing all the anti-Trump feeling in the city made me rather anxious. I will be relieved when they’re safely back in London.
My 4th letter from Islay - Otters at the bottom of our Garden appeared in The Island Review. theislandreview.com/content/letter-from-islay-otters
Here is the text with my best photographs of a young otter:
One of the joys of our location on Islay is the ever-present possibility of observing otters. I see them fishing in the bay. I know that they shelter in the low-roofed cave at the foot of our cliff, and I watch them emerging onto half-submerged rocks at the bottom of our garden.
Even when I can’t see them, I find evidence of their feeding in broken crab shells and in Aristotle’s Lanterns - the intricate mouthparts of sea urchins. I watch them devouring lumpfish and an occasional eel; but it is the size of some of their catches that really impresses me. The flat fish caught by this youngster was so huge that it fed for forty minutes before slipping back into the sea.
Otter presence is evident in other signs. A trail of flattened vegetation leads through grass and sea campion to the cave, while spraints at the entrance inform me of recent activities.
Black, tarry spraints with a sweet, fishy smell tell of a recent visit; but as they age, spraints become dry and crumbly. Eventually they disintegrate into a scatter of tiny bones, fish scales and bits of crab. When they reach this stage it is obvious that an otter hasn’t been around for a while. At regular sprainting sites the vegetation becomes scorched so that bare patches are not uncommon.
As winter approaches I hope for snow because it is then that tracks alert me to regular otter routes. In compacted snow, otter footprints with an elongated pad and five toes are distinguishable from the rounded pad and four toes of a dog - even when the smallest toe is less pronounced than the rest.
Snowfalls are rare on Islay, but otter footprints can be found throughout the year on both damp mud and firm sand. Such tracks may link the sea to dunes and burns, and sometimes grooves and low tunnels can be traced through long vegetation. These may lead to freshwater lochs, or even, on occasion to the presence of a holt.
During summer, when Islay’s beaches are busy with visitors, ‘my’ otters retreat to more remote locations. My best chance of seeing them is in the evening just as the light starts to fade. But now the island is quiet and days are short. They are back and can be seen at any time of day.
People often ask where they can see otters. On Islay’s coast, the answer is almost anywhere. It’s a case of watching the sea and knowing the difference between a curling wave, a swirl of seaweed and an otter. When an otter dives it tends to be a rapid movement with the tail being the last part to disappear. This helps to separate otters from seals. Seals, unless suddenly frightened, when they do an impressive backflip, vanish in a slow, smooth curve. And when seals come up to breathe, their domed head usually emerges slowly whereas a hunting otter frequently bobs up like a cork.
The secret of getting close to an otter is to keep still when it is on the surface, to move when it is under water, and to ‘freeze’ again when it reappears. Sometimes an otter is so intent on hunting that it may disregard you, but if it takes exception to your presence, it will dive, swim away and emerge out of sight.
Small prey is eaten in the water. Large prey is carried to the shore, the otter keeping its head above water as it swims directly to a landing place. With care, it is possible to anticipate where it is heading, to get close and to take photographs like the ones above without using a telephoto lens.
Otters always excite me, from my first sighting in 1980 to one I saw yesterday. There have been dozens in between – one so close that its wet fur, clumping in dark peaks, was within touching distance – another that failed to notice me as it slept in a seaweed bed. But the biggest thrill of all is in watching a female with cubs and knowing, with certainty, that there are more sightings to come.
We returned home four days before Christmas, just beating the gales, which, once again, disrupted holiday travel. Richard cut a self-seeded Sitka spruce from our garden and we decorated it and spent a quiet holiday on our own.
A walk on Christmas Day rewarded us with sightings of an otter fishing near the lighthouse in Port Ellen Bay and of a very young feral kid. Unable to follow its mother up the cliff it tucked itself into a corner and we took a quick photo before retreating so that the two could be re-united.
2017 will see many changes in the world and there will be some changes for us too - but more of that later. We can only hope that there will be something positive on the horizon.
The weather has been unseasonably dry and mild so we have spent a great deal of time in the garden. Leaving our wild areas unmown so that plants can set seed has meant an increase in bluebells, primroses, Northern marsh orchids, twayblades, devil’s bit scabious, wild carrot, red clover and golden rod - to name but a few. The price for enjoying these through the summer is paid by the daunting task of cutting everything back in the winter.
Our 1.2 acres are interspersed with outcropping rocks, heather clumps and small gorse bushes so we have to use a hand mower, strimmer and rake. It’s hard work and we’re not as fit as we once were, but the recent good weather has allowed us to make a good start. Even so, at least three quarters of the garden still needs attention. The photograph shows the difference between mown and unmown areas and gives an indication of just how much work is still to be done.
The slope down to the seashore is the most difficult part - but it must be tackled if we want to retain our bluebells. Left alone it would be like the neighbouring gardens - nothing but bracken.
Remembering that in June it will look like this is all the incentive we need.
Some overgrown heather and gorse has been cut back and burned on a bonfire which lasted through all the daylight hours. Starting at 8.30am we finally had to dowse it when darkness fell soon after 4.00pm. More hacking back of overgrown Rosa rugosa, heather and gorse will need at least one more fire. Finding a series of dry days when things to be burnt are reasonably dry, when the wind is in the right direction and neighbours haven’t pegged out their washing is difficult. So we cross our fingers and hope for a wind from the north. I love bonfires and whenever we have one I always think of Ernie Jenkins who, according to Dylan Thomas in ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’, likes fires too.
There hasn’t been any time for writing but book sales, following the special offer in Scottish Islands Explorer magazine, have been good. All three books are still available for the price of two - £19.98 including p & p. Message me if you would like copies - and don’t make the mistake of thinking that the books are only for children.
I’ve had many comments to the contrary. One came from a reader via Sarah at Buth Bharraigh (the Community Shop in Castlebay on Barra) to say that the age range on the books that make up The Hagstone Chronicles should be changed to 9 and over. She thought that age 9-12 was limiting the appeal. I'm sure she's right because lots of my readers are older - even elderly. One middle-aged male reader wrote that they weren't just books for the young - but for the young at heart.
Another message came from a grandfather who bought the three books for his granddaughter. Here’s what he wrote - 'Had a sneak read of ‘Cry at Midnight’ and before I knew it I was into chapter 10 and 1 o-clock in the morning, had to discipline myself to put it down. So far so gripping can't wait to read all three. Congratulations on great writing.'
While most sets have been bought for children, one set went off as a surprise Christmas gift for a husband who loves the Hebrides. A single copy of ‘The Snake Wand’ - Book 3 - went to a young fan in America. Her mother, originally from Tiree had bought ‘Cry at Midnight’ - Book 1 because it is set on Tiree. She went on to buy Clickfinger - Book 2 last year and her daughter has been eagerly awaiting Book 3.
The look on her face when she received it for her November birthday shows her delight.
I love getting such photographs and it’s heartwarming to receive feedback from readers. I always respond to them and never fail to answer questions. These are usually from children asking for tips on writing. I like to think that I’m helping to inspire some future novelists.
Finally, on the last day of the month I filled the house with a glorious scent while making quince jelly and bottling a liqueur made from Rosa rugosa hips. This year they were wonderfully abundant and as I have bushes all down the side of the drive there were plenty left for the birds. Hopefully the liqueur will be nicely matured in time for Christmas.