May 2018 – and suddenly the garden is blooming.

I’m finding so much pleasure in my garden. There seems to be a surprise round every corner as I discover what was left behind by the previous owners. Most are welcome but I have been waging war on a forest of Euphorbias which have seeded profusely and concern me with their copious amounts of irritating sap. The Rhododendron bloomed well but I think it was a case of making one last effort before it began to die – so out it came.

Now that the weather is warming up we are seeing more signs of wildlife. Two female goosanders appeared with eleven goslings in tow and they stayed  in the vicinity for several days. It was lovely to watch them from our dining room window.

While I was moving a heap of stones from a border I found a toad. It seemed unconcerned and I was able to re-instate its hiding place. It’s good to know that we have both frogs and toads making their homes in our garden.

The bird feeders are not used so much now and when they are empty I will disinfect them and put them away for the summer. However, an unexpected visitor came in the form of a long-tailed field mouse (sometimes known as a woodmouse). It made several forays to collect seeds before scurrying away under the decking.

Butterflies are visiting in larger numbers and it’s interesting to have species which didn’t occur on Islay. Holly Blues like the Ceanothus and a pair of mating Gatekeepers made use of the Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ leaves.

April 2018 – and spring is truly here.

The water level finally fell, the sun came out and the cherry tree in our river garden came into bloom.

A pair of goosanders frequented the Raebrook – providing an interesting contrast with the red-breasted mergansers which we often saw on the sea at the bottom of our Islay garden.

As her birthday fell in the Easter holidays  our daughter Caryl was able to come over for tea and her favourite chocolate orange cake birthday cake.  As you can see I had trouble with the icing. Luckily the wonky finish didn’t affect the taste.

Signs of spring come in the form of lambs in the fields opposite the house. We  hear the constant contact calls between ewes and their offspring although these twins seem happy enough to snuggle up together under an old tree trunk.

And this view of one of the entrances to the badger sett reminded me that spring is a time for spring-cleaning. Old bedding is scattered across the spoil heaps. Perhaps I should follow suit!


March 2018 – and the usual mix of mad March weather.

A little snow at the beginning of the month enhanced our river garden but soon turned to rain. Water crushed  down from the Welsh hills to flood the Raebrook – and our garden.

When the floodwater receded a moorhen ventured under the footbridge to forage among the debris. We often see them on the brook and in the river garden but this was a first for the main garden.

Winter visitors were still around – especially redwing and fieldfare. They’re easy to distinguish when you get views as good as these.

I’m sure that some of the nine blackbirds were visitors too as we don’t normally see so many together.  They feasted on the fat balls which they could reach from the terrace balustrade.

We had a  great treat when we went to a Youth Orchestra concert in the Birmingham Symphony Hall. Granddaughter Cerys played several percussion instruments. She even played the big bass drum which was quite a feat as she’s only just tall enough to see over the top.

Richard celebrated his birthday and, as always, I made his favourite cake – toffee walnut with a vanilla fudge topping.

So, Spring is officially here. Lesser celandines are popping up all over the garden. Blackthorn is in flower and soon there will be blossom on the trees in the garden.

February 2018 – and more snowdrops

On the 2nd of February we woke to a heavy frost, a little more snow and the Raebrook covered in a thick layer of ice. A cormorant was a welcome but unexpected visitor to our river garden.

Unable to keep away from snowdrops, we made three more visits to the valley of the Cound Brook. Each time there were more flowers in bloom and we both took dozens of photographs.

Neither of us had ever seen such a wonderful display over such a wide area.Then it was time to make a start on renovating the garden. It had been badly neglected and we knew there was a lot of work to do because the borders were slipping into the paths and the paths were slipping into the borders. Richard started to edge the borders with timber in readiness for laying landscape fabric and gravel on the paths. I suspect it will be a long hard job as there are lots of paths and little available time.

The bird feeders continue to be busy with a steady stream of blue, coal, great and long-tailed tits, nuthatches, robins, and even a goldcrest. Blackbirds and house sparrows, dunnocks, starlings and a jackdaw are frequent visitors too. Song thrushes seem to be very scarce. We miss them because there were lots on Islay, so many that I once counted seven singing in the short distance between our house and Kilnaughton Wood.

Wanting to get back into a writing routine I had offered to co-ordinate a new U3A Writing Group and we had our first meeting in the Pontesbury Community Library. The intention is to meet on the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of each month and to develop our writing skills though prompts and discussion.


2018 – a new year dawns

Morning walks are a joy – and this one in the fields above the house agave me a lovely view of the valley pooled in mist. Another great joy came from feeding the birds, especially the daily visits from a flock of long-tailed tits.

Ben of ‘Wood Matters’ came with his team to chop up the fallen willow and remove a decaying branch.

But the exciting part was the removal of the fifty foot Leylandii which, if it had ever fallen, would have demolished the house. The skill involved was fascinating to behold. And what a difference it has made to the garden! We now benefit from an extra hour of sunshine.

My birthday arrived on the 22nd January and it was lovely to have a visit from Caryl, Joe and Cerys – something that never happened on Islay. It’s hard to believe I’m 77! When I was younger I thought old people felt old. Thankfully I don’t – well, not most of the time. It’s just when I look in the mirror that I get a reminder!

When I was a little girl I had a distant relation who was a nun at Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire. Every year, for my birthday, she used to send a few snowdrops from the abbey gardens.  On Islay, over the years, the ones I introduced into the garden multiplied into hundreds and I always had a few in bloom on my birthday. I knew I’d miss them when we moved so as soon as we bought number 46 in 2017 I brought some and planted them around the trees. There was no sign of them on my birthday, so Richard  was determined to find some for me. He checked the Flora of Shropshire and took me for a walk along the Cound Brook where we found the first ones coming into bloom. It was such a lovely walk that we went back a week later when we found them all along the brook.

By the end of the month the ones in the garden were beginning to push their tiny green spears through the grass. Hopefully they’ll soon start to multiply and with a bit of luck will bloom for my next birthday.

December 2017 – another year draws to a close.

Snow snow snow – In the Hebrides snow was such a rarity that my eldest pupil made her first snowman at the age of eleven!  We abandoned school for the day and made footprints and snow angels and we had the inevitable snowball fights.

Here, the first fall came on the eighth and continued until the eleventh. It wasn’t much fun for people who had to go out to work but we were able to enjoy the garden and walks into the nearby fields. I took dozens of photographs and here are three of the best.

We loved everything about it but he best part was being able to follow badger footprints and to know for certain that they were safe inside their sett. 

On the 14th, no doubt brought down by the weight of snow, one of the willows in the river garden lost a branch and as the snow melted the river flooded

We made our first visit to Attingham Park where we enjoyed the display of decorated Christmas trees. There was one in every room and they were all splendid but my favourite was the one decorated in white origami peace doves.

For the first time in years we were able to have all our family together at Christmas. On New Year’s Eve we woke to an unusual  stripey sunrise – and a hope that 2018 will be a good year for us all.

November 2017 – the first full month in our new home.

It’s lovely to be here at last and to know that we don’t have to face another long journey up the motorway and across the sea to Islay.  Winter jasmine in bloom around the front door seemed to welcome us to our new home.

We are surrounded by boxes and will be for a very long time but we are making progress with essentials – mainly erecting bookshelves. A very expensive set back came from problems with the central heating boiler . On inspection it was condemned but  we were able to get it replaced surprisingly quickly.

The garden is going to need a vast amount of work but there are still flowers in bloom and the Liquidamber is showing that autumn is here

The Bramley apple tree is bearing well and it was lovely to have our grandchildren helping with the last of the apple picking. Now that they are only an hour away we are looking forward to seeing a lot more of them.

We have joined the Shropshire Badger Group and are learning more about these lovely creatures.  Across the Raebrook, the badger sett is in use and there are ample signs of tracks and footprints across the fields. The hedgerows are heavy with sloes and it was lovely to find a spindle in berry not far from the house.

Determined to make time to explore we had a walk from the house, across the fields to Bayston Hill where we had a meal in the local chippy before walking back. Another walk took us beside the old ill-fated Potts Line that ran between Shrewsbury and Llanymynech. A view from one of the bridges provided some lovely reflections.

We are enjoying leaving by the garden gate and crossing the little footbridge into open fields. Although much of the area is under arable, there are sheep in the field nearest the house. And in between the cultivated fields there are wide hedgerows with mature trees and a good range of shrubs. We are looking forward to familiarising ourselves with very different habitats from the ones we knew on Islay. No doubt this picture of Richard will be one of many in which he records the wildlife and scenery of our new location in Shropshire.

October 2017 – 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.

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 and have plans to join 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 –

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.