October – and it’s farewell to Islay

Twenty seven years, almost a third of our lives was spent in the Hebrides. The tiny island of Colonsay was our first Hebridean home and the larger island of Islay our last. From those bases we had holidays on almost every inhabited Hebridean island and we have memories and photographs aplenty. The islands inspired my three children’s novels as well as the poems in my two poetry collections. And, through Richard’s botanical knowledge, it brought us work with Bruichladdich Distillery in the development and production of The Botanist Islay Dry Gin.

Our last visit to the distillery was full of surprises as we were presented with a special bottling of The Botanist, and a Quaich engraved with – In gratitude of everything you have done for The Botanist and Bruichladdich Distillery.

Colleagues gathered to wish us well in our new venture and to share the most delicious cake decorated with a life-size bottle of The Botanist.

And an article about our involvement appeared on The Botanist website along with several photographs.

https://www.thebotanist.com/articles/richard-and-mavis-retire

We enjoyed a very splendid cake last week, beautifully baked by Katie to mark the retirement of our botanical scientists Dr Richard and Mavis Gulliver. Richard and Mavis have been an integral part of The Botanist story since the inception and creation of our first, and still only, Islay Dry Gin. They started working with Jim McEwan over a decade ago, when the husband and wife team introduced our then master distiller to a range of local botanicals which they had hand-picked from the woods, marshes, hills and hedgerows of our remote Hebridean island home. Jim was then able to systematically assess them for flavour and aroma before selecting the iconic 22 which would go on to provide the floral ‘top notes’, the island melody that overlays The Botanist’s rhythm section of nine core berries, barks, seeds and peels.

Their involvement did not stop there of course. Richard and Mavis then went on to shoulder the very considerable responsibility of ensuring that we had the botanicals available for ongoing distillations. This required enormous dedication coupled with a high level of organisation and local knowledge, because suitable quantities of the 22 need to be collected over an entire growing season. This can start in late March/April if gorse flowers earlier than May/ June when it is more usually at its spectacular best. Honeyed heather and aromatic bog myrtle complete the picking process in August and September.

Picking the botanicals is only part of the story however, because the whole process is both involved and time consuming. Following their collection, in the correct proportions and with due regard to obtaining them in optimum condition, the delicate plants have to be carefully dried, or tinctured in some cases, to preserve their individual characters.

Richard and Mavis have a profound love of the countryside and the diverse community of wild plants that form such an integral part of it. Conservation and the principles of sustainability are central to everything they do – and this is of course reflected in their responsible foraging of our botanicals. They ensured that none of the 22 we use are threatened in any way, with most being positively abundant here on Islay. The one exception is Islay juniper, a small, prostrate shrub which is quite rare. Only symbolic amounts of this are used in The Botanist and, instigated by Richard and Mavis, a re-introduction scheme has been under way which has seen planting of young junipers in suitable locations on Islay. This will continue into the future as we are preparing to introduce juniper plants grown from cuttings, propagated by the botanists, into what we hope will prove to be suitable locations on distillery ground.

Richard and Mavis were also directors and guiding lights of The Botanist Foundation, the Community Interest Company set up to ensure that the harvest of Islay botanicals continues in a sustainable way – and also that the wider community should be able to benefit from it. The Foundation supports a number of conservation organisations including the local Islay Natural History Trust with its biological records database, and the national charity Plantlife. It is also supporting a survey of insect pollinators on Islay which we hope will one day help with the reintroduction of native wild Black Bees to the island. The Foundation is also particularly pleased to be able to provide a bursary to assist young people who wish to pursue further education on the mainland. Richard and Mavis’ guidance and practical assistance with this work will be sorely missed.

The couple moved permanently to Islay 23 years ago, after having spent a number of years living on Colonsay, an Inner Hebridean island that is even more remote and difficult to access than our own. Richard was conducting his environmental consultancy work from there while Mavis was teaching at the tiny local school. One legacy of their time on Colonsay was an important long-term study of a rare wild orchid, the beautiful Irish Lady’s-tresses, which occurs sporadically in the west of Scotland, often in short-lived populations.

On Islay, and when not out picking botanicals, Mavis was able to devote a little more time to her writing and poetry. You can find out more here or follow her blog chronicling their move and changes in the natural history of her surroundings. Their new home will be in Shropshire in an idyllic rural location with the Reabrook meandering through the garden which contrasts markedly with their seaside location on Islay. Gardening is a big part of Richard and Mavis’ life, and the space they leave behind on Islay is a wonder to behold, with over 200 species of plant making it their home. Their new garden in Shropshire will be a softer, but no less interesting environment and Mavis freely admits that she will not miss the endless battles with wind driven salt spray that can be heart breaking for Hebridean horticulturists.

Our new botanist here at the distillery is James Donaldson who joined us in the spring and has been working with Richard and Mavis for a whole foraging season. Originally from Muirdrum in Angus, James has a degree in botany and a lively interest in all things botanical. He really appreciates Richard and Mavis’ “Generous and gracious provision of time and knowledge” while they have been working together. This has made the transition as smooth as possible.

May we add our own sincere thanks and very best wishes for a long and fulfilling ‘retirement’ if that be the right word in these circumstances. It is hard to think of Richard and Mavis slowing down much, let alone stopping. In any event, we hope they will now find more time to spend with family and grandchildren, and we feel sure that their new location will be both inspirational and rewarding. Slainte!

It was with mixed feelings that we boarded the ferry for the last time.  Eight trips with the car loaded to the roof meant that the final move was less onerous than it could have been. Bringing Leo, our cat, on the final 14-hour journey was a concern but he behaved perfectly and has adapted to his new home with surprising speed. He spends more time out of doors, climbs trees and sits on the terrace apparently engrossed in the view of our sloping garden.

So, we are settling into a new life and making the most of all the opportunities that present themselves. We’ve already been to Theatre Severn and to the local Drama Group productions and Mavis has joined the WI, U3A and Shropshire Poets. We’ve both joined the Shropshire Badger Group, Horticultural Society and the Mary Webb Society.

The garden outbuildings need replacing but the surrounding trees and large variety of shrubs are a delight. We brought lots of plants with us and are hoping that snowdrops brought from Carraig Mhor will soon make an appearance. Grey squirrels occasionally venture into the garden but we’ve installed several squirrel-proof bird feeders in addition to one which they can access. Already we are having regular visits from nuthatches as well as blue and coal tits. The brook at the bottom of the garden is a constant source of delight. The oak trees are laden with acorns and  and the hedgerows are bright with the berries of Black Bryony.

September 2017 – Our last full month on Islay

On our last return journey from Shropshire we spent a couple of hours at The House of an Art Lover in Helensburgh. Working from John Rennie Mackintosh’s drawings the architects had done an impressive job; but somehow, for us, the overall impression was disappointing. The music room was the best part, but we felt the house lacked the very personal touches and subtle colour schemes of The Hill House. Having said all that it is still definitely worth a visit, and it was a treat to see Mackintosh’s original plans.

Our twenty-seven years in the Hebrides are rapidly drawing to a close. It has been a hectic month trying to thin out our belongings and pack the things we want to keep. The lounge is a clutter of boxes in readiness for a local Islay firm to pack two vans on Monday 2nd October. So there is only one more day to complete what is still a very daunting task.

We will travel to Shropshire to supervise the unpacking and return to Islay on the 9th October. In one final week we will set the house in order and say farewell to our island friends before leaving on the 17th.. This will be our 9th and last journey but the first one with Leo. It is with some trepidation that we contemplate a ten hour ordeal for him as he cries when we take him on a half hour trip to the vet. He has got used to his new carry case and now sleeps in it although he’s never been shut inside. I hope that cat-mint and Feliway Calming Spray will help him to settle. We wonder, when we finally let him out, how he will feel when he can no longer wander about on the rocks by the sea at the bottom of the garden.

Our penultimate session at The Botanist Academy was the best one we’ve ever had. This group, a mixture of employees from America and Singapore, were the most appreciative and most interested of the many groups we’ve worked with. I don’t think we will miss the prickly business of gathering gorse blooms and creeping thistle heads but we will miss explaining about our involvement in The Botanist Gin. It’s hard to believe that our first experiments with Jim McEwan were way back in 2007 and that the first distillation in 2010 not only led to world-wide success but created employment for many people on Islay and for Brand Ambassadors all over the world.

Jim McEWan, the mastermind behind The Botanist 9, sent this message to acknowledge the part we played in suggesting, gathering and preparing the 22 Islay botanicals for the first and every subsequent distillation.

Every time I have a Gin and Tonic the memories will return of the fun we had and the success we created. What a team we made! As an Ileach I can say without doubt you have been an asset to the island and will be remembered fondly by all the Bruichladdich crew. We created something wonderful and rare and the future of many is now secure so I thank you for the legacy you leave behind.

It’s a heart-warming message which reminds us of the day this photo was taken – the day the first distillation was completed – the day we knew for certain that three years of preparation had culminated in success.

My final ‘Letter from Islay’ is on line in the webzine ‘The Island Review.’ I’ve enjoyed writing it over the last two years and wonder if I’ll be able to find a similar outlet when we are settled in Shropshire. Even if I don’t, I plan to find inspiration for my writing in a new and different landscape.

See The Island Review –http://theislandreview.com/content/farewell-to-islay-mavis-gulliver

Apart from the natural history snippets in this last letter I have had little time to engage in wildlife observations on Islay, but Shropshire is proving every bit as exciting as The Hebrides. We chose Hanwood for our new home because we felt that there was something special about the location. In order to leave Islay we had to find a place with a little bit of magic. We lost a seashore but gained a river garden and thought that would be enough. We will miss moonlight on the sea but the early morning sun sparkles on the brook and we can see it from our dining room window.

I then found more magic in an extensive and very active badger sett. As badgers don’t occur on Islay it was exciting to discover this on the very first walk from our new home.

Finally, on our last visit we found signs of the ultimate magic beneath the footbridge adjacent to our river garden. I hope the poor photograph is excused because i had to hang over the bridge at a very awkward angle in order to take it.

I don’t suppose many people get excited at the sight of otter droppings, but they gave me a thrill. I knew that leaving otters at the bottom of our Islay garden would be a wrench, but now I know that they frequent the brook that runs through our river garden I am content. I don’t mind if I never actually see them. Over our island years I have seen enough otters to last a lifetime. They are easy to see when they hunt for food in the sea and I know they will be harder to spot in a narrow brook with densely vegetated banks. But the signs are there. That is magic enough as we head for a new life, a new location and new adventures.

August 2017 – still tending two gardens

August was a hectic month and September promises to be the same. We made two trips to our new house, mainly in order to transport another load of books and papers, but also for me to spend more time in the garden. On our way back from the first trip we stayed overnight with friends in the Lake District, and on the second trip stayed near Helensburgh and visited The Hill House of Rennie Mackintosh fame.

Early in the month, the star of our Shropshire garden was undoubtedly the wonderful Yucca. Its beautiful blooms towered above my head and I was delighted to see that four younger plants are thriving around the base.

Our late August visit coincided with a heat-wave. We had our French windows open from 7am until 9pm so it was quite a shock to arrive back in Scotland to pouring rain and low temperatures. The view is delightful especially when a family of long-tailed tits flit from tree to tree and a treecreeper can be heard tapping on the field maple.

On Islay it is the mingling of shades of lilac and purple that dominate the garden. Heather, Calluna vulgaris and Bell heather Erica cinerea are flourishing, and where I removed older plants a couple of years ago, the new growth is blooming too.

The highlight of the month was the long-awaited news that we have found a buyer for the Islay house. We received three offers on the closing date of August 17th and accepted one from a couple who are keen to maintain the garden as a wildlife reserve. After 25 years of careful management it would have been hard to hand over to people who were less interested in all that we have achieved.

Besides mowing the grass I have been busy collecting seed from bluebells, vetches, red campion and wild carrot in the hopes that I can introduce them successfully into our new garden.

The new owners will take over on the 19th October so we have time to make another couple of trips to number 46. In between packing and travelling we still have commitments to Bruichladdich Distillery and we held two more sessions for The Botanist Brand Ambassadors. The group from Japan insisted on having a photo taken with us.

I have had little time for writing but my article on the Raasay Hotel appeared in Scottish Islands Explorer and I am, with some sadness, working on my last Letter from Islay for The Island Review webzine.

July2017 – a mixed month

The July weather was changeable. On Islay a few hot, sunny days were interspersed with showers and occasional heavy downpours. In Shropshire it was noticeably warmer. The wonderful Oak trees were showing Lammas shoots – so called because they appear around the time of Lammas, the Celtic Harvest Festival on the 1st of August. Possibly an evolutionary strategy to compensate for insect damage, they were early this year, appearing fully-grown in the middle of July.

Ten days in our new home allowed us to make progress on both house and garden. Further bookshelves were fitted and filled and, more importantly, the central heating boiler was replaced. But on each visit we find something else that needs attention. The huge Bay Willow in the river garden had split and its branches are now covering a quarter of the garden.

Its base is on the boundary of a narrow strip of land that leads to the river and we are trying to find out if we are responsible for felling it and making it safe.

Banded Agrion damselflies settled on the Iris leaves in even greater numbers but larger dragonflies moved too quickly for us to identify. Many Small White butterflies flitted about the garden along with Meadow Browns, Ringlets, an occasional Comma and one Skipper. Bees were still busy on the Lavender and the Yucca continued to look spectacular. Two wildlife sightings were added to our growing total – hedgehog and frog. Both of which were welcome.

Back on Islay for the last half of the month meant more grass cutting and an attempt to keep house and gardens tidy between packing boxes which seem to multiply every day. Viewings of the house started and we have set 17th August as the closing date for offers. We have several expressions of interest but it’s now a waiting game. Our fingers are well and truly crossed as we hope for a satisfactory and speedy outcome.

The garden is at its bonnie best. Heather and Bell Heather in bloom contrast with Honeysuckle and the white of Moon Daisies and Wild Carrot.

 

The orchids are over but the Elecampane, Inula helenium is in bloom. We rescued several plants from an area of Kilnaughton Bay when building work threatened to decimate them. We transplanted some to an adjacent area on the bay and after about 6 years of growing vegetatively they are thriving too.

Also known as Horse-heal and Elfdock or Elfwort the plant was sacred to the ancient Celts. It has numerous medicinal uses and can also be used as a condiment. Our biggest specimen is nearly 2 metres tall and I am planning to take one or two of the smaller ones to Shropshire.

The last few days of the month were taken up with sorting paperwork and loading the car so that we can head to Shropshire on August 7th. It will be a quick trip this time as we have to be back on Islay for The Botanist Academy sessions – and for the closing date for offers on the house.

 

June 2017 – Another month of to-ing and fro-ing.

While we were suffering rain and cool weather on Islay, England was experiencing a heat-wave. We drove south with the windscreen wipers set at fast but before we got to Shropshire we were experiencing a different world. Desperately in need of rain, lawns were yellowing, cracks were opening in the grain fields and the golden barley was giving off a rich, nutty scent.

Despite the drought, most plants were coping well although some that I planted on our last visit had died. By the 28th we had rain – warm, gentle rain scenting the air and giving the daisies in the lawn a sudden boost. Water in the brook was low but plants were flourishing in our river garden and our plan is to introduce more wild plants by collecting seed from the locality. Alien species will be banished. So the abundant growth of Himalayan Balsam, despite its pleasant scent, attractive flowers and seeds that are such fun to pop, has been uprooted.

Although we’ve only been resident for four separate weeks, we’ve now owned our Shropshire house for three months. So what do I now feel about our choice? Delighted. That’s the word that comes to mind, the word I find myself using again and again. I don’t intend to detract from the Hebrides. I have loved the wildness, the vagaries of weather, the vast open vistas and the familiarity of otters. For twenty-five years I’ve reveled in walks by the sea, frequently having an entire beach to myself, but I am no longer the person who chose to head to the islands all those years ago. A lot of ageing comes with the passage of a quarter of a century. Solitary walks over rough moorland and scrambles over bouldered shores are no longer sensible options. A large, carefully managed wildlife garden, while a pleasure to walk in and a pleasure to look at, is now far too time-consuming and back-breaking.

It is a stunning location but it no longer provides the wholehearted enjoyment of earlier days. So, rather unexpectedly I found myself yearning for gentler options.

That is what I have found in Shropshire. Yes, the county can be busy, but our bungalow is on the edge of a village and can’t be overlooked because of its proximity to the Reabrook and the lie of the land beyond. I can take solitary early morning walks and between bursts of bird song there is often silence. Infrequent trains to Shrewsbury sound their whistle briefly and an occasional helicopter passes over, but traffic noise is no more than a distant hum on still days. Surprisingly, the nights are darker than on Islay where lights from the ferry terminal, the streets and distant lighthouses are magnified by reflection from the sea. The only light I will miss will be that of the full moon sending a silver pathway across the bay.

In this new location there is the constant excitement of discovering new or unusual things. A range of habitats fosters a more diverse flora and fauna than that on the islands. We are reacquainting ourselves with former favourites and encountering unfamiliar ones. Most fascinating this month have been the Banded Agrion, Agrion splendens, – iridescent damselflies that flit about in a whir of wings and settle on the iris leaves in our river garden. Unfortunately, a still photograph gives no hint of their mobile beauty.

Hive or Honey bees and five different species of bumblebee gather nectar and pollen from the Lavender in the main garden. On our next visit we will bring our bee book and try to identify them. In the meantime I can enjoy the sound of buzzing and the heady scent of flowers.

Islay otters have been replaced by Shropshire badgers and I love searching for signs of their presence in the surrounding fields. I haven’t yet tried to watch them, but there is definite satisfaction in recognising  their activities. Finding dung pits on the edges of the fields and seeing heaps of discarded bedding outside their setts gives me a thrill. I love following their narrow tracks through long grasses until they squeeze through hedgerows where I am unable to follow.

Abundant in our Islay garden but lacking in our Shropshire garden are orchids. We left over 200 in bloom when we headed south. Among them was a spectacular hybrid – Heath Spotted-orchid x Northern Marsh-orchidDactylorhiza maculata x Dactylorhiza purpurella. At 50cms tall it dwarfs both of its parents and would grace any garden.

We are returning to Islay at the end of this month. Our house – Carraig Mhor, Emerivale, Port Ellen, Isle of Islay will soon be for sale with Stewart, Balfour and Sutherland, rightmove and OnTheMarket. It has been a wonderful place to live and whoever moves in is in for a treat. The Home Report has given us Category 1 for every aspect of the property which means that no immediate work is needed – and the view is spectacular.

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/

Savant

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,

everywhere

together.

He does not kno

that the fact he states

repeatedly

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.

https://angelatopping.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/call-for-submissions-hygge-poems-for-january-and-february-2017/

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

inflexible

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.

See

https://angelatopping.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/hygge-feature-15-snuggles-with-babies/

and

https://keeppoemsalive.com/

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.

http://theislandreview.com/content/letter-from-islay-midwinter

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.