December 2016 - The End of the Year

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.


November 2016 - a month at home

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.


October 2016 - where did the month go?

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 mavisgulliver@googlemail.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.


September 2016 - Autumn is here.

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.


Sea Mail

Sometimes I scratch a message on the shore,

for thoughts, as yet unclear

don’t warrant
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.


August 2016

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,

'Blue butterflies'

as she watched them


and settle,


and settle

on the wild thyme

on the dunes.


we saw hydrangeas,

blue heads heavy

with clustered flowers

‘Look,’ she cried.

‘A bunch

of butterflies.

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.