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.

May 2015 – The Hagstone Chronicles continues…

May brought a huge box full of copies of the newly published ‘Clickfinger’ – Book 2 of ‘The Hagstone Chronicles’ – an exciting moment and a reminder to get on with editing Book 3, ‘The Snake Wand.’

On reading through ‘The Snake Wand’ I felt the need to add a new chapter and so began a search for a different ‘magical being’. I was delighted to discover the Shellycoat, a strange creature that is associated with the Liddel Water on the border between Scotland and England. Without giving too much of the story away, he is reputed to enjoy teasing people by pretending that he is drowning.

Writing accurately about places is very important to me so I visited the Liddel Water so that my mind’s eye could see the children interacting with the Shellycoat on the bridge and banks of the river.

On the 14th we travelled down to England for a variety of reasons and stayed for a week in a cottage near Ironbridge.

It was a strange experience for me as I had been looking forward to exploring a new area. But it was half-term and the place was so busy that I spent most of the week working on the book. The only distractions were welcome ones. Two birds we don’t have on Islay – great spotted woodpeckers and magpies visited the garden several times a day. Unfortunately they were camera-shy, flying off the moment that I raised my camera.

Another piece of writing that I have enjoyed tremendously was a 7000 word chapter for a new Cinnamon book entitled ‘Meet Me There’. It is an anthology of 10 chapters describing what ‘place’ means to the 10 individual authors. Edited by Gail Ashton, details can be found at www.cinnamonpress.com

It is now with the printer and will be ready for a launch in the first weekend of October.

April 2015 – Clickfinger is on its way.

April found us doing a lot of work in the garden. There was the first cut of grass, the removal of old heather bushes and lots of pruning. The best part was having bonfires, an activity which always makes us think of Dylan Thomas’s ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales.’ The oft repeated quote, after ‘Let’s call the fire brigade’ being ‘and Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires.’

More importantly, a great deal of time was spent on writing my next book – ‘The Snake Wand’. I’m really enjoying the challenges that the children face in Book Three of ‘The Hagstone Chronicles, and am almost at the end of my first major draft.

There were two lovely positive responses to‘Cry at Midnight,’ one from an eleven year old boy who took it into his bedroom after breakfast and didn’t come out until he’d finished it. Well, that’s what I was told, although I can’t quite believe that a boy would forego his meals. Anyway he said, ‘It’s brilliant!’ and proceeded to relate the entire story in great detail to his mum. The other was from a twelve year old girl who was reading it for the fourth time!

My second book, ‘Clickfinger’, was published at the end of the month. It hasn’t arrived on Islay yet, but I’ve seen the cover. It shows stylised silhouettes against a full moon and features Gylen Castle and Spitfire, the witch’s cat. Set on The Isle of Kerrera, the story is a continuation of the adventures of Merryn and Hamish MacQueen in their fight against Malevolent Witchcraft.

There were some beautifully sunny days when writing in my cabin was a joy. On the other hand there was cold, wet, windy weather that beheaded all my tulips, breaking them neatly on inch-long stems. They had survived for ten years so it was an indication of how wild the weather had been. Needless to say, the central heating had to be switched on – a stark contrast to the days when the French windows were open from morning until early evening.

A pair of Great Northern Divers holding a magical conversation just off our shore was the month’s wildlife highlight. We often see them, but had never heard their distinctive calls from the house before. A close observation from last year, when he’d failed to call, led to this poem.

Great Northern Diver

In brief respite from flight
he settles, feeds and preens.
Soon he’ll thrash his wings,
rise and fly a thousand miles
to where his wailing notes
and clanging calls
will sound
along some lonely Greenland shore.
Here he is a silent presence.
Oblivious to the toss
of the grey waves wash
he rolls to reach
the white down of his breast.
A study in monochrome
save for his jewelled eyes
red as rubies.

Other birds were on my mind when Scottish Islands Explore published my article entitled Ravens, Hooded Crows and Chough. It was illustrated with my own photographs, taken on Islay, Colonsay and, perhaps surprisingly, one of the raven shots was taken in The Tower of London.

Although it’s not yet ready for publication, I was delighted with the cover of ‘Waymarks’ my forthcoming poetry collection.

I took the photo of The Punishment Stone surrounded by bluebells, on The Isle of Canna.

March at home on Islay

March was a wild wet month on Islay. We had lots of wind, rain and cancelled ferries, but also a few gloriously sunny days. The first day of spring lived up to its name and was warm enough to have the French windows open all day. Now, at the end of the month, the daffodils are in full bloom and snowdrops are reduced to clumps of leaves. If I can find the time I’m going to split the larger clumps to help their spread across the garden.

A clear night on the 17th gave the UK its best sighting of the Aurora borealis since 2004. We failed to see the wonderful array of colours that appear on some of the Islay photographs, but apparently the camera is able to detect far more than the naked eye. Even so, we were delighted to watch bands of white light, flickering and shimmering all around us.

Instead of school visits I did a ‘Slate Voices’ session for a group of retired people at the Port Mor Lunch Club – I concentrated on Belnahua, illustrating poems with a video presentation. Some of the audience had memories of the slate quarrying on Islay and I sold 6 copies of the book.

I wasn’t able to attend the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, but was delighted to have one of my poems featured there. ‘The Postie’s Washing Line’ written on Eigg appeared on one of eight postcards produced for the Festival. It was also included in a digital installation and in a shop window in the town.

It is one of the poems due to feature in ‘Waymarks’, my forthcoming collection from Cinnamon Press.

https://stanzapoetry.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/an-a…

 

Visitors, including a 4-year old, made for a lively week that ran over into April. Cancelled ferries made their arrival uncertain, but they appeared on time, although somewhat shaken by a very rough crossing. However, the wildlife put on a special show for them. We had gannets, dolphins and a Great Northern diver in the bay, red deer by the roadside, and an otter demonstrating its diving technique in the sea outside our cabin.

Doreen, who I first met on an Arvon Course told us about their trip to follow the migration of the Grey Wales. The details of this amazing adventure, undertaken with a 2 year old, from Baja in Mexico to the Arctic can be found on The Huffington Post –

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/doreen-walton/?m=true

Work on ‘The Snake Wand’ continues. Becky, from ‘Chocolates and Charms’, the lovely gift shop on Tiree, ordered another 15 copies of ‘Cry at Midnight’, their first 15 having been sold. I am now eagerly awaiting the arrival of ‘Clickfinger’ in a couple of month’s time.

February 2015

The month started well with visits to Port Ellen Primary School, here on Islay.

The P7 class had access to notebooks during my reading of the first three chapters of ‘Cry at Midnight’. These were for two purposes – firstly to note down interesting words and secondly to draw a character from the book. A few words were new to some of the children –e.g. tantalizing, tuft (of hair), tentative and bristling (with indignation), but the meanings became clear through context and discussion, with the bonus of adding to their vocabulary. Almost without exception the drawings  were very accurate depictions of Aunt Aggie.

For P5 and 6 I read extracts from the first six chapters and introduced the sea-bean and hag-stone necklace, the broomstick and the witch’s hat. And we also acted out some of the conversations and body language for  the characters.

‘Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn’, featured in a review on www.lovescottishislands.com where Lee Allen, who runs this wonderful site ended with the following words. ‘Any visit to the Slate Islands is incomplete without this book. Even without visiting them. This book is essential reading. It is easy to read, but difficult to forget…’

Other writing successes came in the form of my poem ‘Island White’ appearing in a lovely little Grey Hen publication, ‘Shades of Meaning’ – Poems about Colours.

Island White

White in the Hebrides is seldom snow
unless it tops the highest of the hills,
more like to be an early morning frost,
hailstones windswept banked against a wall,
sandy beaches born of cockle shells,
marshy hollows filled with cotton grass,
swans and eider drakes, a wheatear’s rump,
spring lambs or new shorn ewes,
daisy pathways cutting through the dunes,
water tumbling down a stone strewn burn,
crests of waves, gale-lashed flecks of foam,
blackthorn blossom, quartz veins through a rock,
a single white bell in among the blue,
dandelion clocks, bleached bones,
mushrooms, dog whelks, cuckoo spit,
water lilies on a peat dark loch.

I was also delighted to hear that my ‘Fairy Tale for Mothers’ is to be included in the New Voices Anthology, due to be published by The Federation of Writers (Scotland).

The proofs for ‘Clickfinger’ arrived for checking so I went through these twice which meant that for nearly three days I couldn’t get on with ‘my third book in ‘The Hagstone Chronicles’.

However ‘The Snake Wand’ is going well. I’m up to Chapter 21 which means I’ll soon be halfway. As always I’ve been delighted and intrigued by the way the characters continue to lead the story in quite unexpected directions.

The end of the month found us with chaos at home as Richard is decorating living room, hall, stairs, landing and shower room. However, outside, despite continuing blustery weather, our tiny wild daffodils are joining the snowdrops that have been blooming since early January. There are  a few lesser celandines on the south facing bank and a song thrush has chosen our roof for his song post. So Spring is not too far away.

2015 January

A month at home has allowed me to concentrate on ‘The Snake Wand’ – Book Three of ‘The Hagstone Chronicles’. As with my first two books it is set in real places – McCaig’s Tower in Oban and on the island of Kerrera. Other islands will feature too but I haven’t yet decided which ones. Knowing a location allows me to see the action unfolding as I write. Another important aspect for me is to weave real objects into my stories. These inspire me, and when I do readings, the children are fascinated to see and handle them. I needed a locket for Ammonia B Clickfinger, the witch who came to a bad end in Book Two. By searching the Internet I found exactly what I was seeking.

January also brought my 74th birthday. Last year, aged 73, I had my first two books published. These go to show that one is never too old to realise a dream. As long as one is prepared to work with determination and enthusiasm, life can continue to hold excitement and adventure. And even if it doesn’t lead to a published book or some other visible achievement, I believe it keeps ‘old age’ at bay. And, as if to prove the point, there have been some heartwarming acknowledgements for my work.

An unexpected email came from Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University. I had met Alan, very briefly at the Lismore Book Week and we had exchanged our recent publications. Here is a little of what he wrote about ‘Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn’.

I enjoyed the whole sequence and was moved by what you depicted and revealed – and I thought ‘The Night of 21-22 November, 1881’ was stunning – a terrific poem, sustained, perfectly structured and balanced, and terribly affecting. Elsewhere too, it was great to meet the people you evoke so well and the lives the poems present so unsentimentally and precisely – and the desperate anger and sorrow of Catherine McPhail and your uncovering and covering the grave of her daughter, visiting Belnahua – and taking our time with each island separately. I’m very grateful.

Becky Gethin, another Cinnamon author and poet featured ‘Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn’ on her excellent blog https://rebeccagethin.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/ma…

Then, almost in time for my birthday, a lovely card and letter came from a reader of ‘Cry at Midnight’ who wants to meet me next time she comes to Islay –

A little note to say how much I enjoyed your book ‘Cry at Midnight’. We came to Islay a few weeks ago and whilst there I bought, and read your book. Of course, now I want to go to Tiree. Next time we come to Islay I will try to seek you out to say ‘hello’. Looking forward to the next book

And another 5 star review on Amazon made me smile too.

I would recommend this book to all ages for its adventure, excitement and powerful story. Full of magical beings or are they? Symbols, stones and gems whose meanings go back through the ages. Fantastic.

A poetry success came on the 28th of the month when one of my poems appeared on The Stare’s Nest. It is a a poem that relates, the agony, and subsequent relief of my daughter’s battle with breast cancer. See http://thestaresnest.com

CANCER

A black box  bottomless
contents and sender unknown
shattered the frenzied pattern of our days
stopped  the afternoon  the week  the year
a stone to our hearts      it stole our breath
froze our words      our thoughts     our tears.
Spared the final grief
we grasped the gift it offered
stepped back from blinkered busyness
to s l o w  the p a t t e r n  of   o u r  l i v e s
learn to say no
make time for one another
find something to rejoice in
every day.

The weather has been rather wild. We have had days of wind, rain, hail and snow. The sea has thrown pebbles and surprisingly large stones across the grassy part of our shore. Thankfully, the highest tide stopped about three metres short of my cabin. But there have also been spells of brilliant sunshine. The snowdrops were starting to come out in the first week of the month and before February arrived they were carpeting the woods and blooming in ever-increasing clumps in the garden.

December 2014 – Christmas and More

Finishing ‘Waymarks’ kept me busy for most of the month. I was mainly concerned with putting the poems in order although I also made a few slight changes. The main problem was struggling through about twenty versions of my new title poem. I still found time for Christmas though – a quiet one with a self-seeded, home-grown Christmas Tree, some good walks, otter sightings and lots of time for reading.

A surprise order for ‘Cry at Midnight’ came from the USA. This followed an earlier order from Canada. It was duly dispatched at horrendous postage cost, but it’s good to know that somehow, word has spread beyond our shores.

‘Slate Voices: Cwmorthin and Islands of Netherlorn’ also crossed the pond when a very positive and lengthy review appeared in ‘Galatea’, an American magazine. This can be found at http://galatearesurrection23.blogspot.com

It begins with –

It is rare that one has the opportunity to compare and contrast the work of two poets addressing the same subject, albeit from a slightly different perspective, on such an extended scale but this is what is offered here. The subject is slate. The slate of Scotland and the slate of Wales: “two for the price of one.”

And after comments and several quoted passages, the review ends with-

In both sections, evocative black and white photographs enhance the text. The title of each photograph has been taken from the text itself. In this way the photographs become an integral part of the book. Close collaboration between the two poets has helped to make this a seamless collection whose strength and power amounts to more than the sum of its two parts.

An article on shells appeared in Scottish Islands Explorer magazine. I solved the problem of having sufficient illustrations by creating a card showing a typical shell collection. Intended as a holiday game for children, the shells are kept in a box for matching with the photographs.

I completed the article, Ravens, Hooded Crows and Chough which will feature in the March/April issue. Other articles are booked for the following five issues, there’s no hurry for these but it means that I have plenty to keep me writing. Although once 2015 begins I shall be concentrating on The Snake Wand, Book Three of The Hagstone Chronicles.

Finally, we viewed a number of spectacular sunrises from the house. This one was the most vivid.