It was grey and wet. Fog had blanketed the tops of the hills, obscuring their shapes, obliterating their identities. Driving north along the Trotternish Ridge towards Staffin, the mists thickened. The map told me that all sorts of wonders lay to my left, I trusted that it was as it said and that one day I might evidence this for myself. Pretty much every other island (with the exception of Tiree) I had visited had times of rough weather. It so rarely dents my enjoyment of a place, providing I have enough layers on and am never more than 2 miles from a scone. However, the distinct silhouettes of the Quiraing and The Needle, among other unique formations, was something I was keen to capture.
Visiting Kilt Rock was impressive. To be fair, if you stick a
waterfall at anything, I’m chuffed. Colossal columns took root
into the sea below, unmoved by the elements and solid
through time. The reminders of dinosaur footprints all along
the coast are given some weight by the geology of the place. Seeing some sort of prehistoric creature peeking out from
behind a stack of rock, does not sound so bizarre if you have
ever seen this landscape. Moving on to find Staffin Bay, my
wee car dodged and bumped its way through a series of
horrific potholes (or possibly dinosaur footprints,
how inconsiderate!). Following the road until there was no
more road, I found myself at a little jetty. Where was Staffin Bay? Driving back and keeping a keen eye out for anything
that resembled a beach, I was reminded of a trip to Cuba
(I should point out, it was not the weather that reminded me).
A friend and I had researched a number of places we wanted
to visit. A “bespoke” bus tour kindly factored in
these destinations. We visited various Che Guevara sites
and were due to hit Revolution Square. Next thing we knew,
we were at Trinidad. When we asked when we were going
to Revolution Square, our driver pointed out that we had been. What we thought was simply the drivers extended cigarette break, was actually our stop at one of the most historic sites in Cuban politics. Anyway, Staffin Bay was much the same. Raved about by many, but possibly found by few (if my efforts were anything to go by).
Skye is huge. I underestimated how huge. After the first couple of days of my residency at The Admiral’s House (Wasps Studio), I learned that a fortnight was not long enough to get to grips with the identity of this place. Lochs, waterfalls, jetties, forests, farms, cliffs, villages and mountains. So many mountains. They dominated the landscape, towering over everything. My notion of “nipping up one of the Cuillins” was quickly flattened when I stood at the bottom looking up.
The diversity of Skye meant that finding my groove with an artistic response, was tricky. When there is so much to capture, how do you narrow it down? You don’t. The sketchbooks came everywhere, capturing sea stacks and castles, birds and beaches. In fact I found it bizarre that this island had so few beaches….for an island. It was mostly cliffs that divided land from sea, not so many little sandy coves. However, there was one cove that I had read about and had heard of, thanks to one of the shop keepers in Portree. It was a wee hidden bay. It promised not to be filled with campervans and tourists (yes, I know….I am effectively also a tourist). It was best reached by kayak. I now realise why. I drove as far as I could and abandoned the car. Following a path down past a farm and ending up at a large house where the road ended, I realised I had forgotten the little guidebook. In essence, I knew where I was trying to get to. However, seeing a route in proved difficult. I wandered about outside the house, hoping someone would come out and tell me to get lost. Then I could have kindly asked them for directions. This did not happen. I had a vague idea where I wanted to go. I had seen it from the angle of looking across at Portree. How wrong could I go? Friends who know me well, will know the answer to this. I made a vertical ascent through a thick forest of silver birches. Up until this point, silver birches were my favourite tree. I thought they were the friendliest looking. Anyway, their branches and twigs grabbed at me as I lost footing amongst the bog land.
At this point, I realised I still had my garden trainers on. These were only
meant for driving. I had forgotten to put my boots on. I had committed
now though. No sense in going all the way back. Once bog has seeped into
your socks, your feet cant get much wetter surely? I then came to a high
barbed wire fence where the tree branches thickened and gorse bushes sat
on top of the bog. A small but deep stream looked like the easier crossing point. You know what happened next.
With heavy wet feet, a sore hunched back from stooping under branches and a scratched face resembling a Blair Witch character, I followed another barbed wire fence until I reached the corner post. The fence was very effective at fencing me in and keeping me out of whatever lay behind. I was hoping it was my hidden beach. I told myself that it should lie just up and over that bump. I had to get over the fence. Placing some rocks at the base of the fence post I stretched my leg over the wire, channelling my inner Catherine Zeta Jones in that film with the lasers. I would like to point out that Catherine did not have wet slippery trainers. I slipped. My inner thigh ripped down the barbed wire as my foot struggled for placement on the other side. The pain was real. However, I was most concerned about my merino ski leggings. I got them in sale at Sweaty Betty. I would almost certainly never be able to get another pair. It was traumatic. I later discovered that my legs came off worse than the leggings. A good example of getting what you pay for.
The bog land opened up with only large flat boulders as certainty underfoot. Trying to skip between these was a huge challenge. At this point, I was flagging. Light would be changing very soon and the milky ways I had packed were eaten before I left the car. I managed to reach a higher bump in the land. At this point I could see where the cove was. I had overshot it by a country mile. I began the descent towards it. However, there were several concealed bumps that were to be ascended and descended before the cove could be reached. With soggy feet, a scratched face, hungry stomach and bleeding thighs, I admitted defeat and headed home. Frustratingly when at the top of this bump, I could see my car. It was right there. All I had to do was go through a little gate.
I spent the next day recovering at the Admirals House. With my studio overlooking Ben Tianavaig and the Isle of Raasay, a cup of tea firmly in hand, I was safe. My efforts to find somewhere that was “hidden” were perhaps a little extreme. I’m sure if you are a local then it is much easier to find these unpopulated spots. I was so aware of wanting to discover the true identity of Skye, not the tourist spots, lined with cars and tour buses. However, I was also becoming aware that this landscape was not to be messed with. This island should not be underestimated. It is beautiful and dramatic, but it is very real and very dangerous for numpties such as myself.
So, from this point, I more or less stuck to the hot spots of Skye. Neist Point, Talisker Beach, Loch Coruisk. However I captured them in my own way. I decided to leave the iconic lighthouse out of my paining of Neist Point. Kilt Rock was a distant shape with my focus staying on the waterfall, Raasay was recorded through slices of colour and shape.
I came across a wee book at the shop in Portree. It changed the way I worked in my sketchbooks. A Hebridean Notebook by printmaker Norman Ackroyd inspired me to loosen up my own studies. His work in a sketchbook, en plein-air, was immediate and energetic. It was impacted by the elements and not trying to push against them. Looking at the work of Ackroyd and the Admiral himself (Vice Admiral Roddy Macdonald) gave me the courage to work in new ways. I think there is so often that control that kicks in. It tells us what we are trying to create. Tells us what we want. It takes some conscious re-programming of the mind to shelf that way of operating, to let the process dictate the outcome and not the other way around.
In the final weekend of my residency, I hosted an open studio event. The public were invited to see an outsiders response to their island. When hung against the crisp white walls of the lovely studio, I was surprised at how the works resembled a collection. In my mind, I had created a rather disparate bunch of sketches and paintings. I had spent my initial days worrying about finding the identity of Skye. By the end of my residency, an identity emerged all on its own. My residency in Skye was productive. Stealing a fortnight to myself to explore, to have adventures and to reflect and respond creatively in a beautiful space, feels like a luxury. It's one I would recommend to anyone.
As a New Year opens out before us, I naturally find myself reflecting on the past 12 months. So much can happen in a year, so much ground covered and coast explored. In fairness, I am not a big New Year celebrator. I like to think that New Year starts when you wake each morning. You can decide where your 365 days begin from. However, January seems as good a place as any.
When wondering why Harris and Lewis was so quiet in January, I was answered by hailstones the size of golf balls. As they bounced off the windscreen, snow blizzards swept across the road. January was a scary and beautiful time to explore the coast of this amazing place. The winter light clung to the soft mists, casting fuzzy pastel tones over the seas and sands. I learned to work fast on this trip, stealing precious moments of shelter amongst rocks of bothy walls. I would steal brief colours and compositions, mapping them out on paper in a decisive way. I would then soak up what was important to me and quickly add these touches in later. This kind of subconscious editing process was exciting.
By the time May arrived, I was twitching to get back out to sea. Tiree was an entirely different experience from Harris and Lewis. For starters, it was sunny. The colours were jewel-like. Vast flat expanses of violet and teal swept out in front of me. It was so quiet. No wind or hail stones, just birds twittering. Creating art that was true to the vibrancy of Tiree required strong colours and bold application of paint, usually with a palette knife.
The desire to mess about with a painting and define areas or add detail is something I fought against for these works. The punchiness of colour was the element my memory held on to and so I wanted to give it the full stage of the canvas. When surfing at Balevullin beach, I was enveloped by enormous turquoise waves. I feel like everything I looked at in Tiree was seen through this kind of natural filter.
Returning to the city, made for a pretty grey existence after
my time on Tiree. It was like being in a black in white film once you had already discovered technicolour. A couple of trips to the coast managed to keep the blues at bay. With East Lothian as a favourite haunt, jaunts were within spitting distance.
North Berwick and the surrounding coast is a happy place for me. My dear friend, the late Nick Keir, helped to instil a soft spot for the likes of Gullane and Yellow Craigs. He was a wonderful musician and natural story teller, imparting enthusiasm to explore this beautiful country. Without him in my life, I never would have visited half of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to see. He would paint beauty with words, a true gift. I still recall a boat trip we took around the Bass Rock with some pals. With rosy wind beaten cheeks and smiles stretched across our faces, we ducked the swooping gannets and laughed with a freedom I will never forget. Yes, East Lothian is a special place for me. I sometimes feel that to be near the sea, is to be near to him.
And so in October, I took up my post as artist in residence at Sumburgh lighthouse on Shetland. This month of dedication to developing a body of work and exploring a new landscape, was a unique experience. One that I am so privileged to have had. Living in a lighthouse atop a cliff in the storms of winter made for a really special month. Working through doubt, fear and isolation, I learned what it meant to hit a creative block. I learned how to dig my way out of it. And most importantly, I learned to give myself a break. Trying to force art to happen because you think it is meant to, does not mean that it will. Sometimes, just sometimes you have to stop thinking about creating and soak up what has already been created for you. It really is that simple.
People express their feelings and experiences in different ways. Some people use words, poetry or song. Some use music or movement. Some use paint. What I saw and what I felt during that month is in every brushstroke. It is in each swipe of pastel and every dribble of ink. My home does not display any of my own art work. I know that if I look at my own work for too long then I will want to tweak something, attempt to improve it. Indeed, should anyone decide to take the old x-ray machine to my works, they will see that many have ghosts. The work I created in Shetland is complete. It says what I saw, it says what I felt. And I am content with it.
No, really, she does! Oh alright, you've got me. It was me. I'm the woman who walked into a bar. Joke's over. During my recent residency on Shetland, I went to a bar by myself. I went to a few gigs...by myself. I went for a steak...by myself. Doing all of these things unaccompanied, took guts. I'm no shrinking violet, I like a chat as much as the next person. However, it takes a certain amount of bravery for me to walk into some situations without a wingman/woman. I don't believe I am a shy person so don't think that is what causes the dread. I'm a woman.
After an early start and a lot of exploring and hiking around the north coast of Shetland, I was ravenous!! I mean, I could have gnawed my own arm off, kind of ravenous. I was also knackered. The sea air takes it out of you (I had no sleep due to inconsiderate hurricanes whirring around the lighthouse through the night). I needed food....and caffeine. Didn't care about the order, I just needed them and fast. I finally reached civilisation at Scalloway and visited an establishment there. The hunger meant my eyes moved over the words on the menu but took nothing in. I ordered a cheeseburger and a latte and a water. Sat in the corner by the window of this empty pub in the early afternoon, I was caught in a hallucination. A mirage, if you will. Chicken legs and potatoes floated around my brain as I willed the chef to move quicker. This day dream was broken by the noise of 3 guys who came in and stood at the bar. They stared. For a split second I wondered if they could see the chicken legs too. They stared some more. It turns out they were staring at me. Their eyes followed me as they took a seat at the opposite end of the pub. This was awkward. I really did not want an audience for the devouring that was about to take place. Who does?!! I knew the hair was in a bad way, I knew there was mud spattered up my boots and legs, I knew that my mascara was smudged from the elements. This was not why they were staring though. If I was a guy sat there alone eating a burger in the corner of a pub, would it have warranted this level of intrigue? I didn't even have the sketchbook out at this stage. It bothered me a little. This is why I am apprehensive about going to certain places by myself. I don't want to be looked at...particularly while ramming a quarter pounder into my face. I felt flustered and sick. The latte was like an espresso and it turns out they don't go so well with burgers. I left, walking past, feeling paranoid. I wanted to go back in and say something witty....but I didn't.
To be fair, I should mention that I encountered some truly welcoming and kind spirited people. The guy at the shop was lovely. He also served at the Sunday cream tea and gave me a piece of his home baked carrot cake. He was a legend. My bravery to attend the Sunday Cream Tea and muscle my way in at the end of a long busy table, was rewarded by some lovely conversations. My knocking on the door at Bressay Lighthouse was rewarded by meeting the fellow artist in residence and we had a nice blether. Generally I found that if you felt the fear and did it anyway, I was compensated with memorable connections.
While I love the idea of being independent and not relying on anyone else to "chum" me to places, there is such a fine balance. Throughout this residency I pushed myself into situations I felt uncomfortable with, in terms of being alone. I don't want to miss out on amazing things because I am waiting for someone to come and hold my hand. It made me think.
Whenever I meet my mother somewhere, she has this odd thing where she has to meet you outside. Even if it is raining, snowing, windy, you name it. Outside, at the entrance. Not inside where it is warm and you can get a seat. In fact, she has a knack of turning up early. The funny thing is, that she is annoyed if you are not early. She could tell you to meet at 2pm and you turn up at 1.55pm feeling smug. She will have been there since 1.45pm and feel miffed that she has been stood there on her own. Purposeless. This thing of being alone and being seen to be alone and without purpose or safety blanket, is fascinating to me. The mobile phone has become the number one safety blanket. My sketchbook became mine. On Shetland, I went for coffee by myself. I went to an open mic night, by myself. I saw Blade Runner at the cinema, by myself. However, I must confess that I often had my sketchbook there as a safety blanket. As a purpose.
And I am proud of myself for getting out there and not hiding in a cupboard. When you are on your own, you are an awkward balance of independence and vulnerability.
Perhaps this feeling is a generational thing. I think it is something we are getting better at (as women). It is something I want to get better at. This year I have tried surfing, I have hiked Munro's, I have wallpapered my own bedroom, I have spent time on Tiree, I have trained for a half marathon (and wrecked my knee). These are small achievements in the grand scheme of things...but each has enriched my life, contributed to my skills and improved my health. When I was hiking up Ben Lomond, a woman in her 60's (maybe she was older), ran past me. RAN!!! Up a mountain!!! I pretended to take photos every 100 yards just to catch my breath and this woman just leapt up like a mountain goat. I remember thinking "Wow, she is my hero!" She still is. This stranger modelled to me something important. Ladies, if there is something you want, go get it. At least try. At least don't be put off because no one is holding your hand. And guys, don't be that guy. Be a gentleman. Be an equal. Support your fellow man/woman to fullfill whatever noble cause they are trying to pursue...whether it is running up a mountain or ramming a burger into their face.
How many of you have seen the northern lights? How many times have you seen them? How many of you wish you could see the northern lights? I think everybody has at least a slight fascination for this natural phenomena. A combination of its rarity and beauty fills me with excitement. The potential for the sky, that vast, open, ever present space above us, to put on a remarkable and unique show is something that turns me into a giddy child.
You can imagine how I felt when I spent a month in Shetland and saw nothing. My eyes tried to convince my brain a couple of times that they saw something of note, but the reality is that I missed them. All of them. In fact the Aurora Shetland social media page was kind enough to show me how close they were happening but a tiny screen is no match for the sky above. I signed up to a special app on my phone to give me updates about when they were likely to appear. I got the odd buzz that sent me running to the windows. Pressing my nose up against the cold glass and holding my breath to stop it fogging up, I would gaze out. Without blinking, I stared, my eyes fixed on the moving light! It’s not as green as I imagined but then again everyone says it’s the camera that exaggerates the saturation. Actually….nope. That is in fact the beam from the lighthouse. Nothing. The next day, the laptop would be filled with glorious displays of brilliance, the Mirrie Dancers. This was to my frustration and everyone else’s joy. During my time there, I travelled up to spend a night on Unst. You don’t get much more north for northern lights surely?! Nothing. I saw nothing. The next day, the laptop was filled with the boast posts of photo enthusiasts. It became like a joke. At least I told myself it was funny to try and cheat my brain out of the disappointment.
It’s not the first time I have gone to great lengths in the hope of stealing a special and unique glimmer of beauty. A couple of years ago, on a whim, two pals and I went on a wee adventure. Three different characters joined by our Thursday night activity and a desire to see something magical in the sky. Throwing caution to the wind we high tailed it down to Yellowcraigs beach, trying to rid ourselves of the city lights that clung to us for the length of the bypass. Given that it was last minute, we had the essentials. This included a chippie, a kettle (good job Catherine!) some exquisite cupcakes and a torch. Leaving the car we climbed over a stile in complete darkness, feeling our way to the clearing through the trees. The darkness magnified every sound, it fed every childhood fear. Creaking of branches and the rustling in leaves, swaying shadows and creatures of the night. The scene was effectively set for a horror film. I was starting to imagine the worst, that someone might leap out and prevent me from eating my chippie while it was still warm. Needless to say, it was a fruitless effort and Aurora did not grace us with her presence, sadly.
Tonight I went for a walk. I do love clear autumn evenings. The stars were out. They waved at me, twinkling. Remember us?! I had taken them for granted. They had been there all along and were generally visible most nights. Guilt washed over me. Here I was, wishing for brighter, better, bolder more memorable, spectacular swirls of green rippling through the nights’ sky. I was dismissing the nights without this display and all along the little guys were doing their best to impress. And you find that don’t you? When you catch sight of one star you all of a sudden see the one beside it and then the one beside that and the next and so on until you are gazing at a blanket of stars in an arrangement of patterns and prominence. And as with the stars, I am guilty of doing that in my own life. I look for, hope for, wait for something big to happen. Something good. A win. Something worthy of praise and adoration. And the whole time, small yet beautiful things have been going on in the background. The kindness of others. An encouragement when you needed it. A banana peel comedy moment when you’re down. These little things keep us afloat when we feel weary from treading water. They maybe don't give us all that we want, but we are given what we need. So while it’s okay to run to that window and hope for something spectacular, I’m learning that sometimes it’s okay to settle for stars.
As the wind whips its way around the solid stone keepers’ cottage, I start to think about the mainland. Does Edinburgh experience gale force storms in the same way? In all my years of living there, I have to say no. Apparently it is only 60mph gusts, feels like more.
Why did I come to Shetland for a month? Why did I choose October to visit? The short answer would be “I was granted artist in residence” and “I wanted to see how the late autumn light would affect my work.” This is the kind of application worthy spiel that started this journey but certainly not what drove it. I had lost my energy. In working hard and loving the purpose and passion behind my day to day job, I was empty. I had no energy or creativity left for me at the end of the week. This has never happened before, if anything creating art usually tops up the reserves.
I would be lying if I said that was it. Truth is that I have been in need of an adventure, a pilgrimage if you will. I don’t think I am alone in this. Taking a block of time out to go find something, not being altogether sure what. There is no way this was a bad idea, right? As it happens, I was not keen on what I found in week one. Complete block. And not just block but complete and utter crisis of confidence. Who did I think I was? Sailing off to Shetland to play at being “artist” for a month. This kind of thing was for “proper” artists.
Immersing myself in island life, I went to a gig at the arts centre. As the young girl sang and played fiddle with such ease, I was filled with a combination of awe, jealousy, fear and doubt. She was spectacular to listen to and no doubt had worked hard to get to this place, however it seemed effortless. She had this magical substance called “talent”. It reminded me that I have not possessed such a thing. I liked art at school. I had ideas that my skills could never live up to. I spent 4 years at art school learning how to change that and now have adequate technique. If someone asked me to draw a cat, you could tell it was a cat (however I am still shockingly bad at Pictionary). Driving back to my lighthouse with the CD playing as a reminder of my lack of “talent”, I continued to feel completely deflated. I came all this way to find something lovely and fulfilling, a spiritual revelation! Here I was, feeling like a fraud. I don’t know if this experience is unique to me, maybe others have been there too. Arriving home that night, I prayed about it. My prayers are something of a Dear John letter. Dear God, why am I here? Why am I here on this earth and why am I here in this place? Please give me some talent or help me to create it for myself. As with so many of my prayers, I felt nothing afterwards. A silence as response. Unpacking some art materials in the studio I started to rearrange the space. On the bookshelf sat umpteen copies of Ann Cleeves crime novels, a thick hardback on lighthouses of the Atlantic and this-
Talent is Overrated. An answer to prayer. For those who wonder about God having a sense of humour, I can confirm that he does. In fact it gets even better when you see who the quote of recommendation is from on the front cover. Bloody Trump!!
The next day I took a long drive to North Mavine. Multiple people had recommended seeing Eshaness. For pretty much all of my travels, I relied on the opinions of the people. Books and internet info is a bit thin on the ground anyway. I reached Eshaness. Enormous rusty pink cliffs plummeted into turquoise froth. Amazing. That combination of fear and awe returned. As I clung to the coast I looked down into whirl pools and vast chasms cut into the rock, I was lost for words. BOOM!! The sound of a gun or car door slamming came from the caves. I later discovered that this was the Canon. It was a blowhole that bellows out the water, aptly named I would say.
Anyway, after many hours of cliff side adventures, I headed home. I began to draw. I then drew some more and some more. I churned out 3 drawings in a oner. A couple of things I should mention. 1) I rarely draw. I prefer paint, it covers a multitude of sins and I am more confident at manipulating it. 2) I knew when each one was finished, no dithering. I just knew. 3) I did not imagine them beforehand, I just let them happen in the moment.
After this, I felt better. After this, I stopped caring about what kind of artist I could be classed as. After this I was knackered and needed to sleep.
The remainder of my time on Shetland was spent being greedy to see and experience as much as possible. Grabbing pockets of safe weather and maps, I covered a lot of ground. I sketched as I went. Sketchbooks have never been my thing. I would buy many sketchbooks and do one picture per page. I have cupboards filled with half completed sketchbooks. From this one month, I have one completed sketchbook and another half filled.
Once I stopped worrying about not being productive on this trip, I became productive. I have produced several canvases and multiple large scale pastel drawings (I should also mention that pastel is my least favourite medium) as well as a completed sketchbook and additional studies. Even at art school, I struggled to produce this amount of work, always apprehensive of the “theme” or “story” that would tenuously link it altogether. This body of work has grown out of a lived experience over a short period of time. I have created it without caring about giving it a purpose. In my head, its purpose to exist. To have been created. That's good enough for me.
Some of the attendees at the small exhibition I held in the lighthouse inquired about its purpose. Where will you exhibit this body of work next? Will you make a book of it? Is it for sale, can I buy one today? Do you have prints of them? While all of these suggestions and questions are valid and something I may explore down the line, I am happy just to say “I spent a month in Shetland and I made art.” That is enough for me. For now.
After a terrible nights’ sleep, I got up at 8am. The sun was flooding the room, with no dark corners to be found. There was also a bird who sounded like he was sitting right beside my head screeching. However, after breakfast and some chat with fellow hostelers, I headed out to explore. I drove to Gott Bay and began to paint. Soft purples and blues, interrupted by flashes of green. The bay stretched for ages, I could see the Calmac ferry at the end, by the pier. A woman passed by with her dogs and she said how lovely it was to see someone painting outdoors en plein air. And watercolour!!! She was a fellow artist, from Edinburgh of all places. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I sometimes use photos too. I shoved my camera under my spare sketchbook and nodded in agreement. I also didn't mention that I'm not a watercolour purist. I am greedy with media and fling in everything that describes how I see things. A scribble of pencil, some crosshatching of fine liner, a smear of pastel here and there. This fellow artist kept a studio on Tiree and visited a few times a year for weeks on end. At that point I wanted us to be best friends forever. She invited me to her studio, said to pop in during my stay on the island. I nodded enthusiastically as I watched her dogs disappear into the distance. It didn't occur to me to ask her where the studio was.
Driving around for a while, I began to get my bearings. Although there are really only a couple of roads (no traffic lights or roundabouts), I had a knack for going down the wrong ones. I ended up at Caolas. I abandoned the car at a farm gate and trundled down a cow pat ridden field to the bay. It was utterly breathtaking and looked over the Sound of Gunna. It was incredible. Deep purples and vibrant turquoises shimmering together under the sun. I did a wee painting which will never do the scenery justice. There were more beaches in that area however, I needed the loo and food.
I headed homeward where a hosteler recommended Port Snoig by Hynish. I grabbed a bag of Revels and headed there. There was a wee museum in dedication to the Skerryvore lighthouse and a closed cafe. I walked up past farm houses and through fields with livestock, sticking to the coast and climbed up a nub to get a view. Trying to find where I was on the map was not easy as there were no real points of interest, just the sea. However, coming down I realised that the "remains of a fort" the map promised was what I had been sitting on. There was a gorgeous wee bay, quite different from the almost tropical stretches I had experienced earlier that day. Happy Valley, the locals call it.
As the light changed and evening came in I began my journey back to the main road. I was set upon by a gang...of vicious birds. They squawked and squealed and began to dive bomb me...with admirable precision. I knew they must have had nests somewhere close by. Trying to avoid the wrath of mama birds, I changed direction. They dive bombed again, clipping my shoulder. In panic, I picked up the pace, not wanting to upset them any further or incur injury. I ended up in a swamp. The goo sucked my feet in until ankle deep, seeping over the tops of my boots and into my socks. The birds continued their protest as I flapped my arms around, trying to shoo them away and also trying to balance. To a stranger it may have looked like a signal for help. In fairness, it was. Across the fields and over the style, I escaped the angry mob and made it to safety. An eventful day to say the least.
So perhaps January is not the most popular month to take a holiday. And perhaps the Isles of Harris and Lewis are not the first places to come to mind. However, my newly found love of the islands has clearly affected my ability to make sane decisions. As I look forward to this year and all the new art work I plan on creating, I should share with you that I am pretty excited!! I have some wonderful things planned, new exhibitions and galleries, new products and more island adventures. Why waste a single second?! Life is precious.
Never do you realise this more than when your car is being pelted with rocks of ice and the edges of the single track road dots in and out of sight. This trip to Harris took in the sights of Hushinish Bay and the coast down to Rodel. I have seen countless images of Hushinish and each one has inspired me to get there and create my own. Here is what I got on my visit-
Although the colours were muted through a haze of weather, there were pockets of light that transformed the environment. All of a sudden, mountains appeared and even little houses pushed through the grey with their distinctive white washed stone. I found that the back of an Amazon packet was hardy enough to take the materials and conditions. Even in such murky weather the beauty is there, the colours are there and the desire to be dry and have a cup of tea is there.
The coast to Rodel took in Seilebost, Horgabost and probably a couple of other bosts. All of which were equally glorious. Did I sink my toes into the sand? No. Did I attempt some wild swimming? No. Did I compare the scenes to my visit last year where the weather was utterly stunning? A wee bit. However I like to think that it has been the catalyst for a different approach to my work. I attempted several studies en plein air. Many of these were further developed with supporting photos (including smeary lens shots). My camera will show you an image for 20 seconds or so. I would look at what I had started, look at the image, hold this in memory and then create it. The haste and sense of urgency remains as the memory morphs and slips into something else. However, the paper and materials stay dry enough not to disintegrate in your backpack.
This was a technique that I used in Lewis also. Capturing the snowy conditions in Blackhouse Village and Dalmore Bay was near on impossible to do in situ. I have painted in snow before, I have painted in wind and rain. The islands take no prisoners though. Looking out across the sea, it was easy to spot the next band of hailstones making it's way in to shore. I did not pay for acupuncture however, I consoled myself with the thought that other suckers did. Surely my skin would look positively radiant after this battering of pins and needles.
What did I take away from this trip that I had not previously come across? My love of the sea remains, my respect for the sea grows. Watching it curve and splash and roar and push and pull instilled a slight horror of what it's capable of. Beautiful, unpredictable and a demonstration of nature's power. I reminded myself of this when my text from Calmac Ferries came through in a reception sweet spot. CANCELLED!
Earlier this year I visited the Outer Hebrides, island hopping through Harris, Lewis, Berneray, the Uists, Eriskay and Barra. Being amazed by the colours and distinct character of each place, I wanted to explore more Scottish islands (thankfully there is quite a list). Last week I went to the Isle of Mull and also spent some time on Iona and Ulva.
Visiting at this time of year allowed me to not only have the beaches to myself, but produced some interesting light. As always when working outdoors, my work takes on a looser style in the race against weather and fading light.
Staying in the north of the island made for amazing views out to sea towards Coll and Tiree. And from Ulva, the views out to Staffa, Little Colonsay and the Treshnish Isles were astounding. As far as the south of the island goes, places like Uisken Bay made for peaceful views across to the Paps of Jura, with peaches and purples forming my staple palette.
Sheep and deer and the odd eagle made for good company, often interrupting the horizon lines with impressive silhouettes.
On a ramble around the Glengorm estate I came across the Dun Ara fort, boasting views to distant islands as well as across to the distinct landscape of Ardnamurchan. The sea smashed off the surrounding rocks, dragging the smoothed pebbles to and fro, leaving a patterned froth on the surface for just a moment. Sometimes this is difficult to capture, in fact it is always difficult to capture. However what starts as a simple watercolour, turns into mixed media as ink, graphite and wax are thrown into the pot. Before you know it, the tide is coming in and washing away your pastels.....
Over the past couple of weeks I have worked on a painting of the Pentland Hills in the snow. It got me thinking about what it takes to call a painting "finished". What goes into a painting/piece of art? It is something that I have always been very conscious of and yet all anyone else gets to see is the product. Of course when you look at a piece of art, you can imagine the paint being sloshed around and have an idea of the process. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg.
I have some amazing patrons out there who have supported my work in a number of ways. They have bought cards, mugs, original works, they have shared my website with friends, recommended me for commissions and liked the Facebook page (Macleod Art by the way). They are the financial fuel that keeps the work flowing, the mental encouragement telling me that art connects with hearts, whether through memories or hopes, beauty or atmosphere. So to those of you out there who have supported in this way (or those wishing to), let me tell you that your investment is greater than some oil on canvas.
This is just a snap shot of the person behind the painting. Some folk chuck paint at paper on the floor whilst listening to jazz, others sit in their dressing gowns, talk to the house rabbit and dither about how white the white paint is.