A very mixed March

My activities in March changed almost as often as the weather so I spent the month wearing a number of different ‘hats’.

My writer’s ‘hat’ found me returning to Port Ellen Primary School. On my last visit I’d given the children a starting point for a story. This was a line taken from my book, ‘Clickfinger’.

‘The witch pointed her long black fingernail at…’

The stories had been written, cat pictures had been drawn and a bundle of these had been delivered to me. I’d promised prizes but, because there were so many great ideas, deciding winners was difficult. I solved the problem by choosing the two that, after putting them aside for a couple of weeks, had remained most vividly in my memory. I added written comments to every piece of work and read some of the stories to the class. I gave two copies of ‘Clickfinger’ as prizes for the most original ideas, activity books for the two best cat pictures – and a Gold bar to everyone as a reward for their efforts.

As a member of 26 – a group devoted to the love of words – I was selected to take part in the forthcoming Roald Dahl celebrations. I had great fun writing a story about my favourite Dahl character – The BFG – and will be taking it into schools in the search for someone to illustrate it.

Our botanist’s ‘hats’ led to Richard and I providing two more sessions on botanicals. The first was for Japanese people from the various aspects of the drinks industry. Working with an interpreter for the first time was interesting, but we missed having informal conversations with members of the group. This wasn’t the case with the second group from Belgium as they all spoke perfect English.

 

In my photographer’s ‘hat’ I rose to a Facebook challenge when asked to post seven successive wildlife photographs. My favourite was the eider duck on her nest, but the beautiful patterns made by goose barnacles on a washed-up log generated the most ‘likes’

In my gardener’s ‘hat’ I had a busy weekend potting dozens of small juniper plants that we’d grown from cuttings. Destined for re-planting in the wild we are hopeful that these will help to secure the future of this charismatic species.

By the end of the month we could hear three song thrushes singing and we counted twenty different wild flowers in bloom.

Finally, we paid a visit to Islay’s Toothie Stane.

Embedded in the rock’s crevices were 70 nails and 3 coins. Some time in the past they had been hammered into the stone in the belief that they would cure toothache. As all the objects are extremely old and rusty it appears that the belief has finally died out.

The grass in the garden is growing so April will see the mower at work. We don’t have lawns, but have to cut a complicated path that winds its way between the wildflower areas of our 1.2 ace garden. The whole area is still very wet so we are hoping for some dry weather.

February 2016

My London holiday with my daughter’s family ended with a wet but wonderful birthday treat. We went to the Chinese Lantern Festival in Chiswick House Gardens and were enchanted by the life size lanterns of animals such as elephants, pandas and giraffes – and by larger than life size flowers. The jellyfish cleverly draped over trees were my favourites. Reflected in the lake and with added sparkle from raindrops it was a magical experience.

I had intended to return to poetry this month, but fiction once again got in the way. I had written a story for 8-12 year olds a few years ago and abandoned it because I was unhappy with some aspects of the plot. So I re-read the manuscript and decided to embark on a re-write. Once I’d worked out a new plot I spent most of the month in my cabin, cutting out passages and adding new ones. I now have 53,000 words and have to decide what to do with them.

Leaving magic behind, my story is set on a Scottish island and is partly drawn from my experiences as a teacher in a small island school.

A sense of place is very important to me, but I felt in this instance that it would be unwise to set my story on a known island where everyone knows everyone else. In order to create a ‘new’ and different island I designed a map. It is unlike any of the real islands, but shares its features with most of them. Named Erinsay, it is surprising how real it has become to me. I have a clear picture of it and can imagine myself wandering along the tracks and beaches with my characters.

My last three books were all under contract to the Welsh-based Cinnamon Press. This book, I think, needs a Scottish publisher. However, it’s never good practice to rush into sending out a newly completed manuscript. So I shall let it lie for a month or two before returning to re-read and edit it. Then I will decide where to send it. Of course, getting published is not easy, so it could be a long haul before it sees the light of day – if ever.

Taking a published book into a school is always a a pleasurable experience. On this occasion I introduced ‘Clickfinger’ to the pupils of Keills Primary School. As a taster I read the first chapters of Part One and Part Two – hopefully this is enough to make the children want to read the rest for themselves. They enjoyed handling some of the objects that appear in the book. The sea-bean and hag-stone necklace is always a favourite, and everyone wanted to feel the contrasting textures of the horse’s head that is carved from a burr on a piece of wood.

 

Scottish Islands Explorer published my article ‘Island Orchids’ with photographs by Richard. Appearing in advance of the orchid season, it gives people a chance to brush up their knowledge, before these enigmatic blooms appear.

It is always good to hear from readers and I make a point of answering their letters. One lovely letter and photo came from a snowbound fan in Pennsylvania. I have had to replace some of her words with **** because I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who has yet to read it.

Dear Mavis,
I absolutely love Cry at Midnight! My favourite character is Merryn. I like her because she is very brave, and she believes in herself. If I were to become part of the book I would want to be her character.
My favourite part of the book is when Kester turned into a ****! It was my favourite part because it was very shocking. It was shocking to me because I had no idea that he was going to transform into a ****. Merryn and Hamish probably had the same feeling I had too.
I know one thing for sure, if I ever become an author I would want to be just like you!
Sincerely,
McKenna

I wondered how people in America had found out about my books, but discovered that McKenna’s mum has links with Tiree. The story is set on Tiree and is on sale in the shop ‘Chocolates and Charms’ – so word has got around. Now, a copy of ‘Clickfinger’ is on its way across the Atlantic because McKenna can’t wait to read it.

January 2016

It is hard to believe that the first month of 2016 is already over. It began with a visit to Port Ellen Primary School to read from, and talk about, ‘Clickfinger’, Book Two of ‘The Hagstone Chronicles’. As always, the children loved handling the objects that are mentioned in the book, The Clickfinger Locket being a particular favourite.

A final successful check up following my eye operations meant a trip to Glasgow. From there I went to my daughter’s house in Birmingham where I celebrated my 75th birthday in their newly extended and refurbished kitchen/diner.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve lived through 75 years of unprecedented changes in the world. Life for my grandchildren with their mastery of technology is so very different from the joy I recall at receiving a 4-in-one propelling pencil for my 6th birthday – long before the advent of felt pens. Grandson Josef made my birthday cake – a delicious concoction topped with melted white chocolate and whipped cream

And here are 3 generations of girls – me with my daughter Caryl and granddaughter Cerys.

Proofs of Book Three of The Hagstone Chronicles, ‘The Snake Wand’ arrived – and being paranoid about typos and other errors I spent three days of my ‘holiday’ in reading and re-reading in the hopes of producing a perfect manuscript. Fingers crossed…

From Birmingham I visited my sister in Guildford and enjoyed a fascinating day at Butser Ancient Farm. The buildings there are reconstructions of dwellings from the Stone Age through to Roman times. It was particularly interesting to see the coracles, having written a poem that mentions these small craft. This excerpt from ‘Finlaggan’ appears in my collection ‘Waymarks’ (Cinnamon Press, 2015).

‘men stepping gently
into coracles –
a weave of split willow
lashings of hazel
thin skins of hide –’

My final destination was my daughter Ashlyn’s house in London where it was inspiring to see the results of a year’s re-building and renovation. This former warehouse now features reclaimed and natural materials. Internal shutters look down from the bedrooms into a large open-plan living area giving me this intriguing view of a corner of a Saturday night party.

Needless to say there has been little time for new writing, although a poem about Meta menardii, the Cave Spider was accepted for the Fair Acre Press Maligned Species Project.

A fitting end to the month came on the 31st when Ashlyn attended a CWB (Children’s Wear Buyer) event at ‘Bubble London’ where she received the Independent Retail Award for the Best Established Store.

December 2015 – Christmas and New Year Greetings

December was a wild wet month with only a few mild days. Lots of ferries were cancelled but things were not as bad as for people in flooded areas farther south. For me, it was a strange month, one in which I’d been looking forward to a quiet Christmas with time to do some serious, uninterrupted writing. It wasn’t to be. I must have had a premonition that something would go wrong, because I asked Richard to bring in a self-seeded Norway Spruce on December 13th – a whole week earlier than our usual date. I enjoyed an afternoon of decorating it with baubles, toys and trinkets collected over a lifetime and have gained a lot of pleasure from its sparkle on a series of dreich days.

Reflected in our large French window it’s been a double pleasure, especially when raindrops reacted with the light to give a magical impression of movement.

Bringing out a wall-hanging, embroidered and appliqued by my sister in the 1960’s was also a lovely reminder of Christmas days of the past. My daughters Caryl and Ashlyn are depicted in the clothes they were wearing at the time, and she has caught their likeness amazingly well. Ashlyn on the left is wearing a blue snow suit while Caryl on the right has a Ladybird duffle coat.

On the 14th I went for a flu jab and was advised to also have one for pneumonia. Within four hours my arm had swelled and turned scarlet. I was unable to move it and when the doctor checked we discovered that I had experienced every side-effect and adverse reaction in the book. I couldn’t sleep at night, but slept for hours and days in the chair – with my cat, Leo, for company – and it was 10 days before I felt completely better. By then it was Christmas and I was glad that we’d planned a quiet one at home. I certainly had no desire to travel.

On Christmas Eve we viewed the full moon – the first one to occur at Christmas since 1977. Also known as The Long Night Moon or The Cold Moon, the full moon nearest the winter solstice travels a high path across the sky and stays in the sky for a longer time than usual. It shone all night long and was still visible in the west at 9.00am in the morning when the sun was rising above Kintyre in the east.

We had a few shorter-than-usual walks to favourite places on Islay. Ardtalla on the east coast was our choice for Christmas Day.

Very little writing was done – but lots of reading. Richard and I enjoyed reading aloud to one another from some of our favourite books about Christmas days of the past. Dylan Thomas, John Clare, Frances Kilvert and Alison Uttley among others. So much joy from simple pleasures serves to emphasise the commercialisation, expectations and extravagance of the festival today. I can’t help feeling a sense of nostalgia for simpler times.

On the last day of the year, Scottish Islands Explorer arrived with my article about Bernera. As there are three Scottish islands sharing the name, and a further two named Berneray, I had to explain that I was writing about the tiny uninhabited Bernera that lies in Loch Linnhe off the coast of Lismore.

A walk down to Singing Sands (in between showers) gave me the chance to write a message on the beach alongside some otter footprints. So I will end with that.

May 2016 be healthy, happy and fruitful for you all; and may those of you who write, be filled with inspiration.

November 2015 – more Cinnamon Press launches and a holiday.

The first part of the month was taken up with preparations for yet another trip. On the 19th we headed to Glasgow for the first of three Cinnamon Press launches by five poets from Scotland. AC Clark, Jane McKie, David Mark Williams, Robin Lindsay Wilson and I read from our newly published collections at The Project Café.

I only know two people in Glasgow so was delighted to have the support of Emma, the Global Brand Manager for The Botanist, and Phil who I knew in London, but hadn’t seen since last century! Since then, Phil has had great success with his book ‘Orphan Boys’.

On Saturday four of the five poets met again in Castle Douglas where we read to a very welcoming audience in the Gordon Memorial Hall at St Ninian’s Church.

Left to right – David Mark Williams with ‘The Odd Sock Exchange’, Jane Mackie with ‘Kitsune, me with ‘Waymarks’ and Robin Lindsay Wilson with ‘Myself and Other Strangers.’

From Castle Douglas, Richard and I travelled to St Monans on the Fife coast where we were blessed with good weather and enjoyed exploring an area that was new to us. We can highly recommend The Old Post Office – the one with the blue door – where we enjoyed a very comfortable week. It’s right on the edge of the harbor and the views of lights reflected in the changing tides are spectacular.

A day in Dundee while the car was being serviced was our only wet day and was largely spent on ‘The Discovery’ and in the excellent adjoining Museum.

The fateful ‘Terra Nova’ expedition was explained in detail and included the harrowing and poignant last entry in Captain Scott’s diary.

Other days found us wandering round the fishing villages and walking sections of the coast path between Elie and Craill. Redshanks, Turnstones and Oyster Catchers were busy rootling through seaweed and feeding along the edges of the outgoing tide, while flocks of eiders were crooning in several of the harbours. Despite the lateness of the year we counted thirty wild flowers in bloom and were impressed by the sculptural aspect of seed heads of teazel, hemlock and alexanders silhouetted against sea and sky.

St Monans

The drying ground at Cellardyke.

After leaving Fife we went to The Poetry Library in Edinburgh for our final reading. The newly refurbished premises were an ideal venue and there was a good audience. After the reading, time was spent in chatting, buying books and enjoying The Botanist Gin and Islay Barley Whisky – courtesy of Bruichladdich Distillery.

Rosslyn Chapel was the destination for the last day of our holiday. Photography isn’t allowed in this truly magnificent building, but I got round the problem by photographing one of the official posters.There were lost of visitors but few of them stayed very long. As usual, we were first to arrive when it opened at 12.00 – and last to leave when they closed at 4.45. This is something that frequently happens when we visit places which have so much to engage our interest.

Our journey home found us pausing for a chilly picnic lunch at Rest and Be Thankful.  Snow lay on the ground and the surrounding hills were looking very wintry indeed. Thankfully the ferry was on time, but we arrived home to discover a waterlogged island with flooded roads. Being in the east meant we had missed the worst of high winds and extremely wet weather. Now we wonder what December is going to throw at us.

October 2015 – Busy – busy – busy.

The month began in Northampton at the Cinnamon Press 10th Anniversary Weekend where I re-connected with old friends and met people I had previously only known through their writing.

On Friday evening I was pleased to read from ‘Finding My Place’ at the launch of the anthology ‘Meet Me There’. Here are seven of the ten authors who each wrote a chapter on the importance of place in their writing. From left to right – Mark Charlton, Hazel Manuel, Susan Richardson, Gail Ashton, Jan Fortune – and me.

On Saturday I gave a brief introduction to ‘Slate Voices: Cwmorthin and Islands of Netherlorn’; and also joined Joy Howard of ‘Grey Hen Press’ to read some of my poems from her publications. On Sunday I gave a short reading from ‘Cry at Midnight’; and in between my readings I enjoyed hearing the work of other writers. I also picked up some tips from several excellent workshops.

It was a stimulating weekend – and a far cry from my isolated existence on the Isle of Islay. Here are some more Cinnamon Writers –

A bonus was being handed a copy of my 2nd poetry collection – ‘Waymarks’  which had been published earlier than expected. The cover is  taken from my photograph of bluebells around the Punishment Stone on the island of Canna.

After Northampton I spent a week with my daughter in Birmingham and managed to fit in a ‘Cry at Midnight’ session at Abbey Junior School near her home. The children drew pictures from my description of Aunt Aggie and one, in particular, was far more accomplished than one would expect from a ten year old. Just take a close look at the detail of face and hands in Emily’s picture – top left.

I also asked the children to write down the names of their favourite books and authors. Most were familiar names of current writers, but it was good to see that two of my personal favourites are still being read – ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett and ‘Silver on the Tree’, Book 5 of ‘The Dark is Rising’ by Susan Cooper.

However, I couldn’t resist giving pride of place to this lovely tribute to me and to ‘Cry at Midnight’. Oh! if only it were true.

A trip to London gave me the chance to see the ‘shell’ of my daughter’s new shop – ‘Olive Loves Alfie East’. Situated in East Village, it is in a complex of housing, retail outlets, eating places, gardens, ponds and the Olympic Swimming Pool. Developed on the site of The London Olympic Village, once it’s fully open, it’s set to become a popular destination for visitors.

Following this marathon trip there were a few days at home before heading to Glasgow for a 2nd cataract operation and yet another ‘Cry at Midnight’ session. This was held at  ‘The Language Hub’, a community interest company that combines a bookshop with classes for both adults and children. Situated in Keith Court in Partick, it caters for a wide range of different languages.

After the session the children enjoyed taking turns to impersonate the witch of Tiree and to act out some aspects of the story.

Although ‘Clickfinger’  – Book Two of ‘The Hagstone Chronicles’ has been published I prefer to introduce ‘Cry at Midnight’ – Book One of ‘The Hagstone Chronicles’ whenever I go to a new venue. This gives me the chance to make a second visit, and I’ve already been invited to do follow-on sessions of Book Two next time I’m in Birmingham and Glasgow.

It’s been a beautifully mild month with glorious sunny days, brilliant autumn colour and good crops of berries. Lovely weather for relaxing after lots of travelling and for recovering after the successful cataract operation. I would love to be gardening but am not allowed to embark on that for another month.

However, I have to shout Yippee! Although I still need glasses for reading and writing I can now see to walk about without them. After 30+ years of wearing them continuously, it’s a fantastic result!

September 2015

Where did September go? After a rather poor summer the weather improved and I spent a lot of time gardening and enjoying the late summer blooms.

Butterflies were still scarce, just single sightings of a painted lady, a peacock and a small tortoiseshell, but we followed the progress of an elephant hawk moth caterpillar which grew noticeably larger as it munched the rose bay willow herb leaves.

Long days of grass cutting and tackling brambles left me too tired to make any progress with writing. On the other hand I did lots of reading. After watching TV adaptations of ‘An Inspector Calls’, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, ‘The Go Between’ and ‘Cider with Rosie’ I re-read the books and then did a fair amount of grumbling about the bits they’d omitted – and about the additions of things that weren’t in the original texts. ‘An Inspector Calls’ was, in my view, by far the best of the four and compared favourably with the original version in which Alastair Sim played the inspector. That reminded me of the TV adaptation of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ which also starred Alastair Sim – so I read that too.

We spent the last day of the month heading south for the Cinnamon Press 10thAnniversary Weekend. We stayed overnight near Richmond and had a lovely walk in Swaledale before making our way to Rutland Water. There, the Guelder Rose was in spectacular bloom and, unlike the blackthorn on Islay, sloes were ripening.

I arrived in Northampton, and as I met up with Jan Fortune and put faces to names of Cinnamon Press authors I knew that October was off to an exceptionally good start.

August 2015

Summer finally arrived after the wettest period we’ve known since moving to The Hebrides in 1991. Rain continued to fall, but with many sunny days in between. When our visitors arrived they had the best fortnight of the year so far.

Daughter Ashlyn, Matthew and grand-daughters Olive and her cousin Cerys ventured into the sea on several days and enjoyed kayaking across Port Ellen Bay and beyond Singing Sands.

Writing was put on hold because of trips around Islay and to Jura and Colonsay. More botanicals were picked and processed and we had meetings with ‘The Botanist’ Brand Ambassadors from the UK, America and Canada.

A second order of 100 copies of Clickfinger arrived, the first 100 having been sold.

Cry at Midnight sold out of its first printing so another 100 are on order and awaiting delivery.

I had a lovely unsolicited letter – part of it here –

I have just finished reading ‘Cry at Midnight’ with my 7 year old daughter Eliza and we loved it. It reminded me of the Susan Cooper books I read in my youth. The mix of mystery, some scares and brave children in ancient places that really existed really gripped us both. We picked the book up at the Bruichladdich distillery. My wife bought a bottle of the botanicals gin and I see from your website we have to thank you for some of the flavours of that too!
We are going to start ’Clickfinger’ on our holiday.

To be mentioned alongside Susan Cooper is a thrill indeed. I was not familiar with her books as they appeared when my daughters were already in their late teens. My publisher mentioned them to me when I had written both ‘Cry at Midnight’ and ‘Clickfinger’. Richard bought the lovely Folio set of ‘The Dark is Rising’ for me. I found the stories to be so enchanting that I read them all and went straight back to the beginning and read them again.

My only new writing was in Scottish Islands Explorer when they published my article – Alien Invaders of the Plant World.

Among other photographs, the one above is of a limekiln on Lismore. The trees are sycamores and there is a luxurious growth of cotoneaster on the stonework. Both of these plants are aliens, although rather less aggressive than some of the other plants featured – notably rhododendron and Japanese knotweed.

Below we have the unwelcome face of Rhododendron. Here, flowering is over and dense thickets of old specimens block access to woods and prevent regeneration of native trees.

And here, overlooking Islay’s Kilnaughton Bay, the less common Giant Knotweed towers above the native vegetation.

September looks like being another busy month. There is much to do in the garden and I am still waiting for inspiration to set me off on another story – or another poem – or something completely new and exciting.

July 2015

Website glitches made a frustrating start to the month because I was unable to access and update my blog until the 7th of August.

I’ve been finding it hard to let go of ‘The Snake Wand’. I thought I was doing a final edit but found there were things I still wanted to change. So more days were spent in going through it in detail. As Book Three of The Hagstone Chronicles I think it’s probably the last and I guess I’m feeling rather lost at the prospect of saying farewell to the children I’ve been working with for the past four years. Somehow, they feel very real to me. I shall have to force myself to let them go in August, but I won’t be at all surprised if they pop back into my head and make suggestions for another book.

I was pleased when the cover arrived with its stylized view of McCaig’s Tower and the head of the dreaded Snake Wand. Having all three books with the same full moon as background emphasizes the fact that they are a set.

I probably feel the loss even more now that the manuscript of ‘Waymarks’, my poetry collection, is also out of my hands. After having contracts for five books I’m suddenly left with all my obligations filled and I’m not quite sure what to do next.

Luckily I have other things to do. I’ve been ‘wearing my other hat’ rather a lot as summer is the peak time for collecting and processing the botanicals for Bruichladdich Distillery. Poor weather has hindered the picking somewhat but Richard and I have struggled on with the help of grandson Joe who spent a week with us when he’d finished his GCSE exams. Here he is picking Water Mint in the bog behind Singing Sands.

Now that ‘The Botanist’ Gin is selling across the world there are Brand Ambassadors and we have been making tinctures for them to use in demonstrations on their travels. It has been interesting to meet groups of these, to tell them about our involvement and to show them the range of the plants we use.

News of further readings in Glasgow and Castle Douglas means that we will spend 10 days on the mainland in November. So we’ve booked a cottage on the sea front at St Monan’s and are looking forward to getting to know a part of Scotland that has so far eluded us.

June 2015

My first outing with ‘Clickfinger’ was to Port Charlotte School. Following last term’s session on ‘Cry at Midnight’, the children had read that book and used my characters to write their own adventure stories. They had lots of questions about the writing process and I ended the session by reading the first two chapters of ‘Clickfinger’. Being able to pass round objects that appear in the book really added to the children’s interest. They loved handling the crystal spheres of rose quartz, citrine and amethyst; and I let them glimpse The Clickfinger Locket which plays such an important part in Book 3, ‘The Snake Wand’.

Here they are, passing the crystals around.

Scottish Islands Explorer published my article, ‘Inspired by Kerrera’ which describes the island and how it inspired me to write ‘Clickfinger’. I included information about The Kerrera Tea Garden and Bunk House where copies of ‘Clickfinger’ are now for sale.

The Kerrera Tea Garden is in a lovely setting and has a great reputation for excellent food. Tea is perhaps a bit of a misnomer as the menu is wide and varied and includes far more than tea-time treats.

There were lots of copies of ‘Clickfinger’ to sign for Kerrera, for Roy’s Celtic House on Islay and for The Colonsay Bookshop. Leo, who loves sitting on my knee insisted on watching.

‘Cry at Midnight ‘ isn’t to be forgotten. It’s still available – and I must give a huge thank you to lovescottishislands.com  for posting a link to my website.

Just before the end of the month, the proofs for my forthcoming poetry collection, ‘Waymarks’ arrived from Cinnamon Press. An exciting moment and a chance to check that everything is in order before it goes to print. Finally, I heard that Jane McKie, Mark Williams and I will be launching our Cinnamon collections at The Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh on the afternoon of Saturday 28th November – definitely something to look forward to.