It was an uneventful month for writing but we had a lovely trip to see our family before the winter set in. We chose Shropshire, a county we knew well from out early days together. Richard’s parents had a tiny 2-roomed cottage near Clungunford. Tucked away up a narrow footpath, it had no electricity. Water was collected from a standpipe at the bottom of the track and we had an Elsan toilet. It was a great base for exploring the county and it was good to make a return trip.
Exchanging our blue/sea/sky view for green and all the shades of autumn gave us a completely different view of the world. We stayed in a beautiful cottage, The Owl’s House, out in the countryside, a couple of miles from the tiny town of Much Wenlock.
With three double bedrooms and a lovely lounge/dining/kitchen it stood in an acre of woodland in a quiet location. We recommend it without reservation, especially for an autumn break when prices are very reasonable and the county is relatively quiet. We were blessed with good weather and, among other outings, we walked along Wenlock Edge and beside the River Teme at Ludlow. Autumn colours were magnificent and we were delighted to find small teasel, spindle in fruit, and Blackstonia - all plants which we hadn't seen for a long time.
Family, all except grandson Josef, were able to meet us. He was busy with orchestra rehearsals so I wasn’t able to congratulate him in person on his unconditional offer of places at both Birmingham and Leicester Universities.
Ashlyn and Olive stayed with us for four nights, Cerys for two and Matthew for one. We had dinner with Caryl and Joe in their camper van prior to their participation in Hell Runner - a gruelling half marathon in Delamere Forest near Chester.
We really liked Much Wenlock with its black and white buildings and relatively narrow streets. In the Priory grounds we found a plaque to Mary Webb, (1881-1927), poet and author of novels including ‘Gone to Earth’ and ‘Precious Bane’.
She won the Prix Femina Vie Hereuse for ‘Precious Bane’ and it has twice been dramatised for television, firstly in 1957 and again in 1989. I suspect that a re-make will appear at some future date, but Janet McTeer’s Prue Sarn and John Bowe’s Kester Woodseaves will be a hard act to follow.
We had an extra night on a Shropshire farm where the owner, having only just met us, banked up the log fire, supplied a tea tray, left us in her living room and went out for the evening.
Arriving home at the end of the month we faced Daylight Saving Time. It’s a hundred years since this practice started and I’ve been trying to get used to it all my life. I find that the sudden change disorientates me. I never manage to sleep for an extra hour and dusk curtails gardening activities before I’m ready to come indoors. Still, once I adjust, I can enjoy long evenings curled up by the fire with a good book and Leo, our Bengal cat.
As I write, he appears perfectly content to be sandwiched between my knee and my lap tray.
Readers of my three children’s books will have the opportunity to engage with Merryn MacQueen and her friends throughout the winter - particularly on Colonsay where I have sold 150 copies; and on Barra where today's parcel to the Community Shop, Buth Bharraigh brings their orders up to ninety.
Anyone wanting a bargain at a special pre-Christmas price (£19.98 - that’s three for the price of two, p&p included) can email me at email@example.com
It’s an offer on the Insights page of this month’s Scottish Islands Explorer magazine, so I’m opening it to everyone for a limited period. Originally intended for 9-12 year olds The Hagstone Chronicles is finding favour as a 'family read' with slightly younger children, and, to my surprise and delight it's also being enjoyed by adults who - as one reader put it - are young at heart.
Last night I re-read the last chapter and Afterword of The Snake Wand and I found myself missing the characters and wanting to engage with them again. Perhaps there will be a fourth book after all.
During September, and in the months leading up to it, I celebrated the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth by joining the 26 Twits project. The members of 26 share a love of words and aim to open hearts and minds to the wonderful diversity of writing, to savour and enjoy words in all their many guises… and to have some fun.
My challenge was to write a 400-word story about my favourite Roald Dahl character. I chose the BFG because of the delightful way he mixes up his words. When I write a story I like to imagine that I am one of the characters in it. So my story became Grandmamma and the BFG. Written in the style of Roald Dahl, it is full of made-up-muddled up words such as tiddly childers for little children and crooks and nannies for nooks and crannies.
Once the story was written I had to find a child illustrator. So, before the summer holidays I read my story to Miss Clark’s class at Port Ellen Primary School. The children drew great pictures of the BFG - there was even one of him wearing a kilt, but the best one came from Bronagh Newman. It stood out from all the rest because she had listened so carefully to my story that she hadn’t missed anything out of her illustration. Bronagh moved to Islay High School after the summer holidays so I had to go and meet her there. I attended an assembly, read my story and returned her picture, now in a smart white frame. I was so delighted with the picture that a framed copy now takes pride of place in our hall. It’s a great reminder of the fun we had in revisiting Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories.
Grandmamma and the BFG
The BFG shook his head so hard that the breeze from his ears sent grandmamma flying.
‘Most totally unpossible,’ he said as he picked her up and popped her into his waistcoat pocket. ‘My dreams is for tiddly childers. They is not for oldy human beans with prunefuls of winkles and goldilocks as grey as bodgers’ bottoms.’
‘Please,’ she coaxed. ‘Just one phizzwizard for a box of peaches and a real live elephant.’
‘You is tempting me,’ said the BFG, ‘but no promises and no kiddling. I wants to see peaches and elefunts before I decides if they’s worth it.
With grandmamma safely inside his waistcoat pocket, he strode across town and hopped over the fence into the zoo.
‘There,’ said grandmamma. ‘There’s your elephant.’
‘That is NOT a elefunt,’ said the BFG. ‘That is a pretend elefunt. I is wanting a truly elefunt that I can ride.’
‘That IS an elephant,’ said grandmamma. ‘It is the biggest animal in the whole world. But you are a giant and there are no animals big enough for giants to ride.’
The BFG stuck out his bottom lip. He scowled and he sniffed and tears of disappointment dripped from the end of his chin.
‘I is discombobulated,’ he said. ‘My hopes is smithered to smashereens.’
He crouched down and peered at the elephant. It rubbed its head against his knuckles, coiled its trunk around his finger and rolled on its back.
‘Coochy, coochy coo,’ chortled the BFG as he tickled its tummy. ‘You is nice and jumbly even though you is titchy as a squip-peak. I is going to be the only ever giant with a pet elefunt.’
He took grandmamma home and popped her through the bedroom window.
‘I is thanking you muchly for my elefunt,’ he said, ‘and I is leaving you a plentiful of goldenmost phizzwizards.’
He tipped thousands of happy dreams into his trumpet and blew them into every corner of grandmamma’s house.
‘One by one they is coming out of crooks and nannies,’ he said, ‘and they is enuff for your whole lifelong.’
With the elephant dangling from his little finger he danced down the road.
‘You forgot the peaches,’ grandmamma called as she waved goodbye.
The BFG waved back. ‘You eatem,’ he said. ‘I is lappy as a hark. I is dappy as a hutcher’s bog. I isn’t needing peaches now I got my ownmost elefunt.’
Later in the month, The BFG was shown in The Screen Machine - the mobile cinema that brings some of the latest films to Port Ellen. Although the story had some unexpected additional twists and turns, I thought The BFG himself was wonderful.
Newly printed copies of ‘Cry at Midnight’ arrived and were sent to Barra where they are beautifully displayed, full sets tied with a purple ribbon.
Others went to Colonsay, Birmingham and to an new outlet in Port Ellen. The Post Office has been taken over by a couple from Northern Ireland. They are busily converting part of it into a gift shop which promises to be an asset to the village.
I haven't written much poetry lately, but one, on the theme of messages was one of ten chosen to appear on the Yorkmix Poetry website.
Sometimes I scratch a message on the shore,
for thoughts, as yet unclear
don’t warrant permanence in black on white,
or tapping out on keys for storing in soulless electronic gadgetry.
Rather I choose to etch a scrawl of words
across the sand’s smooth face,
trusting not to e-mail but to sea-mail,
hoping that waves and wind
will have the wisdom to know what to deliver
and to whom.
The weather has been changeable and as the nights lengthen it’s hard to find days long and dry enough to work in the garden. Although we cut pathways, we don’t mow the majority of the garden until the plants have set seed. With devil’s bit scabious still flowering profusely over much of the area it will be a while before we can really get to grips with what will be an onerous task. We have to remind ourselves that we will be rewarded with an ever-increasing number of wildflowers in 2017.
Our Rosa rugosa hedge has been so laden with hips that some branches have bowed down to the ground. As there were so many I made rose-hip syrup - a reminder of the 1950’s when our school encouraged us to pick rose-hips for their vitamin C content .I think the school was paid 4d per pound while we picked for house points!
Picking for The Botanist gin has just finished for this year although we will be filtering and bottling tinctures over the next couple of months. Samples of fresh plant material for demonstration are getting scarce. Even so, we managed to show examples of most of them to a group of British Brand Ambassadors.
My 2nd Letter from Islay appeared on The Island Review website. The original request was for four articles at two-monthly intervals so I was gratified when the editor asked me to continue into 2017.
My next letter, about otters, will appear in mid-November.
Between now and then we look forward to seeing the family before the winter sets in. We’re renting The Owl’s House, a delightful cottage set in woodland in rural Shropshire.
Without a wave of the sea in sight we will concentrate on trees and hope for some glorious autumn colour.
A month of disruptions
One of our two regular ferries, ‘The Hebridean Isles’ bumped the link-span and was away for repairs for three weeks. Islay was left with only one ferry at the busiest time of year. Island businesses suffered with people stranded on Islay or unable to reach the island for their holidays. Luckily, daughter Caryl, partner Joe and granddaughter Cerys were booked on sailings that weren’t re-scheduled. Grandson Joe came by plane on a day when cross winds were making landing difficult. The plane only carries enough fuel for three attempts at landing so we held our breath as we heard it circling for the third time. Luckily the pilot managed to land, otherwise they would have returned to Glasgow and Joe would have had the problem of finding accommodation and a seat on a different flight.
August weather was poor. We had lots of rain and wind, and there were very few days of sunshine. Barbecues and swimming were curtailed and for one particularly cold, wet spell we even had the central hearing on. Walks required wellingtons and waterproofs but we still enjoyed Ardilistry as this picture of Joe, Caryl, Cerys and Richard shows.
A celebration for Joe's 17th birthday was held at 'Sea Salt' the recently opened Bistro in Port Ellen.The pizzas were excellent but we didn’t indulge in pudding. Instead we went home for a delicious birthday cake topped with cream and white chocolate and decorated with chocolate buttons which Joe made by himself.
Plans for them leaving had to be re-arranged when Cerys’s flight to Glasgow was cancelled. She had to get home in readiness for a camping trip to France. Caryl managed to get the car onto an extra late-night sailing of 'The Finlaggan' so they all left together a couple of days earlier than planned. We booked them into a Motel in Dumbarton so that they could break the journey, but it was 1.30am before they were able to check in. Such are the hazards of island life...
Family visits are a joy. We look forward to them for months but they are over in a flash and end before we have done all the things we planned. Then begins the clearing up, washing, packing away of bedding and getting used to a quiet house again. Richard went off to Colonsay to continue monitoring orchids and I settled down to edit, and write a synopsis of my next children’s book. Now I have the difficult task of finding a publisher.
My previous three books were all set in specific locations. A sense of place is of prime importance in my writing. I need to walk where my characters walk and I need to feel that I am taking part in their adventures.
My new book, The Missing Link, is different. Although it is fiction, much of it is based on experiences gained in twenty-five years of living in the Hebrides. The characters are all fictitious but some of the events really did take place. It wasn’t therefore possible to set the book on a specific island so I had to invent one. I called it Erinsay and I drew a map so that I could visualise the places where the events took place. It is a composite of the many small islands that I've visited over the years - and I feel as if I know it extremely well.
Collecting and processing botanicals took a lot of our time. Picking was hindered by wet weather as it is essential to gather the plants when they are dry. Heather, creeping thistle and sweet gale, picked in quantity, made the house smell wonderful as they dried. Elder, picked earlier in the year and tinctured, was filtered and bottled for future use.
At Bruichladdich Distillery we ran sessions for Brand Ambassadors from China and Germany, demonstrating the twenty-two botanicals that are added to The Botanist gin. Here, the group from Germany are discussing the properties of Creeping Thistle and Richard is explaining that it was chosen for the wonderful honey-like scent of the flowers.
On the poetry front I didn’t find time for any new work but it was good to have an old poem featured at Keep Poems Alive. It is a lovely memory of granddaughter Olive who is now thirteen and taller than me!
'Blue', she said,
as she watched them
on the wild thyme
on the dunes.
we saw hydrangeas,
blue heads heavy
with clustered flowers
‘Look,’ she cried.
Once upon a time I used to be a full-time teacher. I dreamed of all the things I would do when I retired. Writing was at the top of my list and it's great to feel that I have accomplished something in that field. Work with the gin was not on my list. That happened by chance through Richard's skill as a botanist. It has been a new career for us both and through it we have met interesting people from all over the world. It has helped to secure the future of Bruichladdich Distillery and has increased the number of employees, so it's good to know that we are contributing to the viability of our island.
It’s always good to have a day on Colonsay, re-visiting old haunts and enjoying the island’s particular blend of fresh air - a heady mix of seaweed, ozone, clover and ladies bedstraw. William Wordsworth’s words came to mind - ‘remote from every the taint of sordid industry’. He was writing about the River Duddon, before the town of Millom grew up around the iron works – and before Norman Nicholson responded in his poem ‘To the River Duddon’. A very different place fromColonsay, but being able to link landscapes, ideas and poems from different places and different poets is one of the joys of reading widely.
On this visit to Colonsay we were checking our Irish ladies-tresses exclosures, closing the gates against sheep and cattle, hoping to protect these rare August flowering orchids fro grazing. Unfortunately, we have no barriers to rabbits and to slugs, both species that can decimate a plant between one day and the next.
The rest of the month was spent at home, trying to bring the garden into order after our three-week trip away. It was hard going. We had so much rain that it wasn’t until the middle of the month that the ground was dry enough to get the mower out. We leave large areas uncut so that bluebells can set seed, orchids can flower and a whole range of plants can add colour and interest. We cut paths through the knee high grass to give easy access to the shore and to allow me to wander all over the garden without getting wet to the knees.
The flowers have been, and continue to be spectacular. Our total of wild plants has grown to 212 with the arrival of Great Hairy Willowherb - Codlins and Cream of my childhood; and the supremely beautiful Grass of Parnassus. Our Rosa rugosas - red, pink and white attracted bees whenever the sun came out, and their scent met us every time we ventured out of the house. By the end of the month, heather clumps were turning purple and the fuchsia hedge was dripping with tasseled blooms.
Venturing out of the garden I made 2 litres of elderflower and lemon cordial. A refreshing drink for the (hopefully) hot days ahead.
For the last week of the month, daughter Ashlyn, her partner Matthew, our granddaughter Olive and her friend Laura arrived. My cabin became a bedroom again and our normally quiet house was transformed in a matter of minutes!
My second Letter from Islay appeared on The Island Review – http://theislandreview.com/content/letter-from-islay-july-2016
Tending a garden in summer is a seemingly endless task, but rewards are many. Native water mint, along with introduced applemint, spearmint and peppermint are ready for picking so I can enjoy the subtly different flavours of fresh mint teas. Peppermint reminds me that I have cause to be thankful to this herb. As a baby I caught pneumonia. The doctor, quoting bad luck, prepared my mother for the worst. My grandmother, declaring that it wouldn’t be her bad luck, dosed me repeatedly with an infusion of dried peppermint from her garden and dried elderflowers from a hedgerow – and I survived.
Perhaps this accounts for my love of plants. As a child I ate young hawthorn leaves. I enjoyed the sharpness of sorrel and the contrasting sweetness of wild strawberries and brambles. As a teenager I tramped the dew-decked fields at dawn in search of mushrooms, headed to the hills for bilberries and to hedgerows for rose hips. I still suck nectar from the florets of clover and nibble the stems of sweet vernal grass for a taste that is reminiscent of the scent of new-mown hay.
The practice of foraging has gained in popularity to such an extent that books and courses on the subject abound. Chefs and mixologists use foraged plants in culinary creations and cocktails. Experimenting with wild plants at home can be fun too, but here is a word of caution. Laws about foraging vary. Plants shouldn’t be picked on private land without permission and there are points that responsible foragers should keep in mind. Sustainability is of prime importance. Never pick so selfishly that plants are prevented from reproducing themselves, and always leave enough for the creatures that rely on them for survival. Picking adjacent to roadsides and fields that may have been treated with herbicides or pesticides must be avoided - and never eat anything that can’t be identified with absolute certainty.
There are ample opportunities for foraging on Islay, and because of the way we manage our semi-wild garden, we can pick a variety of herbs and flowers without venturing elsewhere. Leaves of wild garlic, dandelion, sorrel and mint brightened by a few flowers of gorse, wild garlic and primrose add interest and a range of tastes to salads.
A nettle patch, kept as a food source for caterpillars of Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Red Admiral butterflies, provides a nutrient-rich addition to soups, fritters and mushroom risotto. Wild garlic makes a tasty pesto and, for change, walnuts can be used instead of pine nuts.
Elderflowers make excellent white wine, but we leave plenty of flowers to mature into berries for red wine and for foraging birds. Elder trees should be approached with respect. Traditionally, one should make a simple request such as - ‘Please may I have some flowers and when I am a tree you may have some of mine.’ This may seem fanciful in our more scientific age, but we take pleasure in keeping such customs alive.
It was through our shared interest in botany, in the uses of plants and the folklore associated with them that I met my husband, Dr Richard Gulliver. News of our interest and expertise spread and in 2006 Bruichladdich Distillery asked us to recommend local plants for use in a new distilled spirit. Ten years on ‘The Botanist Gin’ is a worldwide success. Richard and I collect and prepare the 22 botanicals. Chosen for flavour, abundance and sustainability they include native species together with introduced herbs that have escaped from gardens to establish themselves in the wild. We gather from woods, moors, bogs and grassland so the selection links to the landscape and reflects the varied habitats of Islay.
Collecting birch leaves when the ground is blue with bluebells puts us in touch with nature. Alert for anything of interest we examine a witches’ broom – a nest-like structure caused by the tree’s response to a fungal attack. A hole in its centre is home to a family of blue tits. Butterflies are on the wing and the air is fragrant with the scent of flowers. It is a feast for the senses and hard to imagine a more pleasurable task.
August will bring more visitors and we hope that the changeable weather will become more settled. A few hot days when we can sit on the patio and enjoy the elderflower and lemon cordial - or The Botanist gin will make a welcome change from the frequent showers of July.
Nearly three weeks away from Islay meant that we came back to a waterlogged garden, overgrown paths and over 200 orchids trying valiantly to poke their heads above areas that had remained unmown since the winter. These won’t be mown again until the autumn when all the wildflowers have set seed. A stunning hybrid - Dactylorhiza maculate x D. purpurella stole the show, standing 43 cms high and dwarfing its parents - Northern marsh-orchid and Heath spotted-orchid.
Our Western Isles trip gave us a spell of incredibly hot weather. While on Barra we had a magical trip to Mingulay, which included close encounters with puffins and a sail through the magnificent arch in the 150 metre high cliffs.
Thousands of Sea Pinks above Traigh Varlish on the small island of Vatersay enchanted us so much that we crossed the causeway to visit them three times. The scent was heavenly and there were so many blooms that the grass was barely visible.
On a previous occasion I wrote the following poem about how high winds and rough seas had filled the crevice known as Sloch Varlish with deep foam.
A sea witch cauldron
wedged in walls of rock.
No sign of water flow
just fold and heave
of sea-churned double cream
that lifts and shifts
with each inrushing wave,
splatters the highest reaches
of the cliff
and coats each ledge
as deep as eiderdown.
When ebb and flow collide
it seethes and fumes —
a whirling swirling
bubbling boiling mass
that spits and pops
like porridge in a pot.
When tides are high
it sheets the sandy shore,
lies in flecks across the grass
as if the sheep
have just been sheared
and tufts of fleece
have scattered on the wind.
The poem appears in my ‘Waymarks’ collection and is in marked contrast to this visit’s ripple-free aquamarine sea.
A week on the Uists, allowed us to cross to small islands which, without their causeway access would probably have been depopulated. Eriskay has ferry access from Barra as well as a causeway linking to South Uist. So the Prince’s Strand where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed is easily accessible to both larger islands.
Berneray off the north end of North Uist had more cultivated machair than any of the other islands. Although even here, the main crop was a mixture of oats and barley which will be cut green for silage as winter feed for cattle.
From North Uist we crossed The Minch to Skye and had planned a day\s exploration before sailing to Raasay. The number of tourists shocked us. Arriving at Kilt Rock we found more cars, coaches and people than we'd seen in an entire week on The Uists. So we beat a hasty retreat, took the Raasay ferry five hours earlier than intended and spent a breathtaking afternoon following Calum's Road. Completed over many years by hand, this was Calum MacLeod's attempt to keep the population of Arnish from leaving a place which was accessed only by a two mile walk along a rough footpath. Buy the book, 'Calum's Road' by Roger Hutchinson, see Calum's Road by Mike Molto on YouTube for a video of this astounding achievement - or for the ultimate experience - go and see it for yourself. And if you do plan to visit this enchanting little island, don't watch the video - it will spoil the surprise.
Assignments for Scottish Islands Explorer magazine added interest to the holiday as I researched Raasay House, community shops, postal services, building conversions and the state of the machair. The July/August issue had arrived during our absence and it was good to find my article ‘Inspired by Islands’ which refers to my third novel ‘The Snake Wand’.
In addition to Islay and Colonsay, the three books in 'The Hagstone Chronicles' are now on sale at the lovely Community Shop on Barra – and are selling so well that I have to send more. So now I’m off to the post with parcels for Buth Bharraidh and also for shops on Eriskay and North Uist - a very satisfactory place to end the month.