After the wettest winter we can remember, spring arrived and the last half of the month saw high temperatures and continuous dawn to dusk sunshine. Gorse bloomed all over the island – splashes of yellow brightening entire hillsides and filling the air with a rich coconut scent.
Picking for The Botanist Gin began with gathering the flowers from between the sharp spines – a prickly business indeed. Birch leaves followed and the month ended with collecting leaves of Sweet Cicely and the newly opened flowers of hawthorn, white clover and red clover. With more and more plants coming into leaf we were able to add fresh samples to the dried and tinctured botanicals for our sessions with Brand Ambassadors from Canada and Switzerland.
At Bruichladdich Distillery, the raised bed is under construction and will eventually be used for training purposes. So we will be planting examples of some of the 22 Islay botanicals.
On many islands, trees are scarce, or even absent. We are lucky on Islay in that we have woodlands where bluebells carpet the ground. They remind me of a phrase I’d read as a teenager. I can’t quote exactly but the gist of Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald’s comment was that nothing on earth could rival the heaven of colour in an English bluebell wood. I didn’t balk at the reference to England until I moved to Scotland where bluebell woods are every bit as colourful as the Hodder Valley woods of my Lancashire childhood.
Here they are in Bridgend Woods on Islay.
Joining The Deadline Poets’ Society on Facebook made me start to submit poems after a very long break. Several are awaiting a response but it was good to get two speedy acceptances. One, is awaiting publication in the webzine https://silverbirchpress.wordpress.com/ .
The one below has already appeared on https://keeppoemsalive.com
Sally Evans, of Poetry Scotland, who edits this site says it’s for poems that won’t lie down and die, that haven’t been seen for a while, that say something worth saying and are still saying it. This is an excellent opportunity for re-visiting poems that were published ages ago in magazines that are no longer in circulation.
Looking for Words
If you leave the road in winter wet
there’s always bog
and the place you want to go.
But if you want it bad enough
you’ll carry on,
squelching through water, oozing mud,
gauging distances between tussocks
and exposed stones,
hoping to come away with something special,
like Bob Dylan, who, eager
for the gift of Woody Guthrie’s notes
took the cut across the bog,
arrived wet to the knees,
found no-one home,
returned without Woody’s words,
wrote his own instead.
A particular treat for me was an evening of poetry with a group from north-east Scotland. Every year they visit a different island and Knotbrook Taylor, a friend on Facebook, had told me about their visit. Richard and I were delighted to welcome them to our home where we shared our work, swapped poetry collections and enjoyed The Botanist. It was interesting to see that several of us had written poems about lighthouses. With such a shared love of islands it was definitely a meeting of like minds. We were enjoying ourselves so much that I completely forgot to take a photograph.
We had a day trip to Colonsay so that I could deliver copies of The Snake Wand to the Colonsay Bookshop. For a small island it’s interesting that this small shop has sold more copies of my books than any other outlet. This is thanks to Christa Byrne for placing my books in the middle of the counter and for encouraging reviews which she pins to the shelves.
Marketing is obviously extremely important and it is disappointing that other shops don’t even display the covers of my books. Tucked between other titles, with only the spines showing, they fail to attract much attention.
Spreading the word about our wonderful island is always a pleasure so I was delighted, on the 30th of the month, when my first LETTER FROM ISLAY appeared in The Island Review.
LETTER FROM ISLAY
I sit in the cabin on the shore of my south-facing garden. Here, I can concentrate on my writing. Or can I? When writing fiction, the story grabs me and I can sit for hours without an upward glance; but if I am writing poetry, searching for the right word to fit the right place, I look up and am captivated by all that lies before me.
In the narrow stretch between the cabin and the sea the first signs of spring appear in clumps of Scurvy Grass. Yellow Iris and Marsh Marigold follow while high summer brings Meadowsweet and Purple Loosestrife. The autumn equinox marks a change. Undulating lines of seaweed creep closer to the cabin and after winter storms the grass is peppered with shingle and the unwelcome blight of plastic flotsam.
To the south-west, thirty miles of sea separate Scotland from Ireland. Rathlin Island lies even closer. Evening sunlight accentuates its coastal cliffs and at night, the East and West lighthouses warn of treacherous seas. Farther west, car headlights define the roads along the Antrim coast.
To the south-east lies the peninsula of Kintyre. Attached to mainland Scotland at Tarbert it was claimed as an island in 1089 when Magnus Barefoot’s boat was dragged across the isthmus from the West Loch to the East Loch. From my home on the edge of Port Ellen Bay it is a dark, rugged outline. The only visible light is the flash of The Mull of Kintyre lighthouse.
I am not an Ileach. I am not even a Scot, but loving a place does not always relate to the location of one’s birth. To live on an island was my goal from the age of four when Robert Louis Stevenson’s words caught my imagination- ‘where below another sky, parrot islands anchored lie.’ I had already seen the sea, but had no concept of anything lying beyond it. I was intrigued, not by parrots, but by places surrounded by sea and open to different skies.
In my teens I read about the islands that lay around the coasts of the British Isles. At fifteen I walked the coast of the Isle of Man, but seeking greater wilderness I headed to Scotland’s Isle of Skye. From the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, the highest peak of the Cuillins, I saw a sea dotted with islands and I resolved to visit them all.
Holidays took me to Orkney, to the Western Isles from the Butt of Lewis to Vatersay, to the Small Isles, the Clyde islands and most of the islands of the Inner Hebrides. For many years, my husband and I dreamed of living and working on an island. It seemed impossible, but on arriving on Colonsay we found that the school needed a headteacher. Here was our chance. I applied, was interviewed and offered the post.
Colleagues in England wondered why I was leaving the picturesque village of Robin Hood’s Bay. There was much scepticism – talk of long, dark winters, bad weather, poor facilities, the senselessness of leaving the headship of a large school in Scarborough for a tiny island school. Most of my acquaintances shuddered at the thought, but a few hardy friends wished they had the confidence to follow suit. Just in time for Christmas we moved into the schoolhouse and our island life began.
For seven years most of my time was spent in the company of children ranging in age from four to twelve. It was one of the most rewarding periods of my life, but eventually retirement loomed and we had to vacate the schoolhouse. Return to the mainland was unthinkable. Because of family ties in England we sought an island with convenient links to the mainland. Islay with daily flights and two or three ferries each day seemed ideal.
On our first search we found a neglected house in 1.2 acres of unkempt land. As a holiday home it had been on the market for some time. Seduced by the magnificent view and the secluded shore we gave no thought to the work that lay ahead.
Fast forward several years and the bracken is conquered. Brambles are reduced to slopes where birds feed and nest. Our mowing regime allows plants to set seed and 209 different species grace our semi-wild garden. Bird species seen in or from the garden total 83, and seals, otters, and occasional dolphins appear to delight us. Most of my writing focuses on landscape and wildlife so it would be hard to find a more favourable location.
As we prepare to head for Barra, the Uists, Skye and Raasay we realise that our garden is at its best. One of these years we really ought to spend June at home.