September 17

 

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Is it currently in vogue to wild swim? Last month I couldn’t get away from hearing about women in the water. I am not an ex high-flyer from London, nor an amazonian alcoholic (yet), but I swim regularly and quietly among the cuddy ducks off the back of the croft where I live. Some of these publicly-swimming women have written inspiring and beautifully straight-forward books about living on the edge. I feel in good company.

Most definitely, I am not a swimwear model. I recommend well-worn merino underwear plus cut-off neoprene shorts and a Reed Chillcheater vest and balaclava. I don woolly hat and gloves immediately on exit.  My Mum thinks wild swimming is skinny dipping. It generally isn’t up here. I go swimming whatever the weather and nearly all year round. I think this mad practice has miraculous benefits. It keeps me sane, fit and resistant to much of life’s wobbly bits.

Now is the changeover to porridge time. Looks like I am facing another autumn on bleak isle. I thought I would be long gone. How much I love these wild, wild places, but oh dear what about the future? I’m not sure I can face life on the edge much longer without Mr Cheese.
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Last month’s memorial for my friend Michael at Cally, triggered long-buried feelings about making gardens. Ornamental planting does not do it for me anymore, although my affair with perennials goes on, so long as they are put together in the most natural way. Harvesting of most of the vegetables for the day job is thankfully almost complete. Winter planting plans commence.

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This is the time of cobwebs and jelly fungi, blackberries spurting from old blackhouse walls and cries of wild geese. They leave feathers trapped in ragwort and the ground is littered with devil’s–bit scabious . Such an unfortunate name for such a beautiful flower, once used to treat scabies.

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The road to Caranish point is permanently flooded. Oily sheens from vehicles and burnished reeds make for acid colour trips on our early morning walks.

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My fish pal and I are now undertaking daily sea trout expeditions to the local estuary pools. So far no fish, but a good haul on the fly last week from a day on Loch Obisarry.  It must be my lucky Leicester hat.

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Felt projects and intended workshops keep the spirits up and the Sprout book (recently renamed MacSprout) needs be completed (and hopefully published) this winter.  I will be brave.

 

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Dog days

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This morning I went sketching with Sprout dog along the Caranish shoreline. It’s our regular haunt. We rarely meet a soul. Short-eared owls follow us at dusk and cuddy ducks whooh whooh us in the day. Caranish flora is mainly ‘east side’ with rich grassland meadows full of ragged robin and moorland boggy and upland bits filled with swathes of ghostly cotton grass.

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Sprout celebrates nine years next week. We’ve been pretty much inseparable since he arrived at four weeks old and as my friend Hector says, anything after ten is a bonus, so this entry is devoted to Sprout.

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Dog sceptics don’t stop reading! I’m not keen on people obsessing about their dogs (or children) and recoil from being called the Sprout Mum. I am ‘the boss’ ! But I’m so not. Springer spaniels are willful creatures and He is no exception.

Sprout is a bear of a dog and I would not survive here in the Hebrides without him. He has made my time living on the edge possible, wonderful, deeper even. Home is where the Sprout is.

He’s a dog that likes to be comfortable. He’s calm for a Springer ( really Dad) He always finds a good spot, rests his chin on the arm rest, travels up front, enjoys a bit of sofa. He’s a people dog, lies at their feet, on their feet, looks deeply into their eyes, a soulful dog. (He’s probably thinking how can he extract a biscuit or empty the bin when you’re not quite looking ).

Last week he costs me £30 after stealing a large packet of fresh filleted fish off the bus. The driver went inside to get a mop and Sprout saw his moment. I think he plots. My neighbours have all been victims of his raids.

We’ve had some fine moments. He upended himself in a dead whale in front of the Duke of Argyll, has a penchant for eau de seal or d’otter, stole baby Jesus from my mother’s crochet nativity crib scene, ruining one Christmas. He’s had a strict gun dog training back in the Shires and he’s a goose master. He still works to hand signals, drops to the whistle and brings back the dummy when he feels like it.  He’s a fisherman’s friend.

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I’ve written a children’s book about him, ‘Sprout in the Outer Hebrides’ known as SITH to friends, which lies unpublished, on the to-do list.   The things I can’t do: travel to China or Tibet and leave him, but honestly do I want to? ( and think of all those carbon miles)  Adventures out here with Sprout are enough for my small brain these days.

He snuggles into me of an evening. He sleeps a lot and I don’t like his lumps and bumps, but I monitor them carefully. I remember the exact time and place when the vet in Kirkcudbright called to tell me there was a runt of the litter needing a home. Was it madness (magic?) made me take him? It’s hard work rearing a tiny puppy and for five years he led me a merry old dance.

I love that dog dearly, would probably give my life for him. He’s part of my weird family along with Mr Cheese, Uisge and Jimmy. Long may our Uist dog days continue. Happy Birthday Sprout.

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Blog June 17      A new beginning

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I’m on the ferry back from Inverness, wrapped in woollies and sitting on my dog’s sheepskin. Not a bad commute. We are skimming past the Shiants in the near distance and fulmars are wheeling in the wake.

The election results rolled in last night. I feel a bit sick.

I recently made a pledge to myself and my mentors at Emergents, to keep on making and bear witness to the things I see/feel/hear/understand living out here in the ‘utter isles’. This means more regular writings.

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I live on Uist, one of the Outer Hebridean Islands. I call it ‘living on the edge’, but we are far from left behind. I used to have a ‘proper’ job as a landscape architect and while this background informs my working life, I’m now a vegetable grower, felt maker, cleaner of hen houses, winkle picker, carer and sometimes shearer of sheep. I moved out here six years ago to work for an RSPB crofting project, and stayed on. Two years ago I started experimenting with wool/fleece/ felt. The blog is an extension of my making.

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It’s a beautiful day and I’m happy to be returning to Sprout, my delinquent Springer Spaniel. I’ve sold two pieces of work at the Museum and Art Gallery and one at the show on Uist, but there are things on my mind about sheep.  The work comes from the land and I’m wondering about my incomer values?

For example, dare I speak about no 14, lying dead on the shore at the end of the croft next door? One of several lambs left out for a sky burial. Rocky shores are notoriously hard to dig holes in. Losses are to be expected but  I seem to be the only daily explorer of the shore and I’m trying to better understand the place in which I live. Most makers (and most crofters) care about their raw materials.  I’m saddened if these are unnecessary endings.

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These quiet moments of reflection are precious, before I go back to the day job, growing vegetables for the community (which is far from paradise.) While I love this harsh place, full of challenge, I sometimes wonder why I continue to live here and make things? I think wool is my language. I can speak best in wool.

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May 2017

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Six whooper swans flew over my car last week whilst awaiting the Hebridean AA. The birds were gently whooping (or more like gently snorting) unlike their silent mute cousins whose wing beats echo in their slip stream. Thank you Brian for explaining the difference.

Signs of spring are quiet out here. I chat with my Dad down south in the Shires about ‘his’ robins, which have nested behind ancient nail packets on the shelves in the garage. He’s put down an old mac as the fledglings are preparing to launch. On Uist the snipe are drumming and the lapwings are dive bombing in and out of the croft. The grass remains dull and it’s snowing horizontal today. Poor wee lambs.

Crofters have started the muir burn. It’s rather controversial and alarming to see shark fin mountain on fire but I try to respect the old ways.

Sprout is on greylag alert, busy finding nests and I am awaiting scrambled eggs. (under licence of course)

Recently on my Balushare beach run, I came across a young Risso Dolphin washed up on the shore. Its eyes still glossy. I wanted to curl up with it. The vet has been to do an autopsy with inconclusive results. While military manoevres underwater have been going on, these cetacean deaths often remain unexplained.

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We’ve had a decaying and rather ripe immature sperm whale wash up on Benbecula at Stinky Bay. I tried to keep Sprout well away but he still managed a snout wipe. The b.

At the day job in the greenhouse we have created our own spring chorus. Young vegetable seedlings cover every surface. Brassicas have taken over the world! Bill and I are rowing over why I insist on growing flowers. I still can’t live without tulips. It is only 2 degrees some nights, so we delay our planting out.

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The new collection of felted hebridean and blackface vessels is finally complete and will show in an exhibition shared with fellow craft mentees in Inverness Museum and Art Gallery then come home to Uist to spend a few weeks in the new exhibition space at uist wool. Just been for a try out.

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New work involves experimentation with moss, grass, reed and carded fleece and trying to avoid the dream catcher look. There is a way to go. A recent course with artist Caroline Dear and Dawn Susan, Hebridean basket maker, has inspired new ways of working with local plant materials. Caroline’s beautiful shawl in hair moss at the Naked Craft exhibition in Stornaway and Dawn’s marram coil pot for Scottish Woven Communities Project use traditional rural skills, so easily and sadly lost.

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Next stop: off to London Craft Week and a reunion with old pals.

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March 2017

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We have just had a week of sunshine, frostiness and no wind. Snow grains in the dunes are a strange sight.

In the greenhouse, made of super bubble wrap (or ‘Bubble Keder Polydress 9 Laminate Plastic System’, for any technipots) where I work for the Local Food Project, our young seedlings are germinating fast. I’ve just planted out last September’s Brassica transplants under netted hoops and old fish farm nets. Fingers crossed for their protection.

It’s a relief to feel winter is behind us. Gales will come and go, but the days are lengthening fast.   Hoorah. Despite weathering my fifth winter on Uist, I find the long dark hours tricky. Perhaps it’s the lack of other creature comforts, Mr Cheese and close family faraway… all needed to cosset my ‘southern’ upbringing.  I’m a Northern lass, but life this far up is still a challenge.

Painting a picture of bleak isolation for 21st Century island life is unfair and inaccurate.   We have fibre optic cables going down for what will possibly be revolutionary internet access. I can fly to Glasgow in 40 minutes from Benbeculair airport, fog permitting. Ferries in winter remain ‘elusive’ heading south from the tip of Uist, but onto Skye it’s not a bad service. And as travel goes, what could be better than a sheltered spot on deck with views to an uninterrupted horizon?

But isolation is more than accessibility. I’m thinking about snow grains and my rusty kayak this morning. Without the ‘enchantments’ that Amy Liptrot mentions in her moving book ‘The Outrun’, I agree with her, that island life would be unpromising and bleak.

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The trout fishing season began last week. Last month, I was touched to receive a set of instructions and hand tied flies in the post from the maestro of tying, John Sinclair after my performance (?) in North Uist Fishing Club last season.   What a fix of joy and colour. I hope I can do justice to them.

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Sprout has a new pal, Glen the Beardie, belonging to Crofter Charlie up the road. Together we explore Caranish estuary. I’m trying to turn daily dog walks back into drawing practice. I have a commission: to draw a ‘difficult’ crofter’s Shorthorn-Highland-cross bull. It’s not going well. I am very out of practice and neither of us is impressed.

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In the felt department I’ve made more slippers in Heb fleece and the odd bottom warmer. Feedback from the mentors about the way I work suggests I might start writing a book connecting land and my practice. However I’m a learner, a beginner, an incomer and we are all on the cusp of change. I am fearful for the crofting system and wildlife it supports. I do have an insight from my RSPB years with machair LIFE+, but I need to join it all up.

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I finally made a memorial vessel for my friend, outstanding conservationist and biologist, Barbara Knowles. I make these pieces intuitively and hope they celebrate a huge life not loss. Barbara made the trip to the Shiants three summers ago, displaying her usual courage at overcoming motor neurone disease. I’m so glad to have shared my first experience of puffin ‘flocks’ with her.

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Right off to the beach and into the sunshine. Here’s hoping for no Sprout rolling in dead grey seals or bits of washed-up fin whales.

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December 2016

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Since September’s epic hand washing and drying of 40kgs fleeces, I’ve been doing more thinking than making.  I tell myself this research is important, when starting out. A degree in textile art would be helpful but I read and read about ancient textiles, especially prehistoric ‘snippets’. Felting is an ancient craft. Respect!

Thanks to Doctor Mary Macleod, I find the earliest piece of Scottish textile comes from the Isle of Lewis, up the road. It’s called the ‘Sheshader Thing’. And it is pretty much felt!!   It’s a pad of compressed (nearly felted) cattle hairs, with cords made from twisted strands of wool and from plaited horsehair. It dates from the Bronze Age and survived in a peat bog. http://www.scottishheritagehub.com/content/44-organics .

Following the history of felt, I find myself tracing the story of sheep, their domestication and early felt relics found on the Central Steppes of Asia, the ways of nomadism, how felt making reached and emerged in other nations and continents and the role of women in society and the textile industry.  Sometimes up here, on the edge of the Atlantic, I feel a tiny part of this story.

A real sense of history lies close by. I am living with the ruins of a 13th Century church and seminary at the back door. This is definitely influencing my making.  Out on Uist, it is easy to bump into megalithic monuments and other Neolithic or Bronze Age features on a daily basis as well as the ‘rarities’ of otters, sea eagles and storm abandoned seal pups at this time of year.

The felting tradition has strong Scandinavian connections. The Norsemen most probably brought felt to the Hebrides on board their fierce boats. It therefore feels entirely right that if need to buy any pre carded truly Hebridean fleece, it comes the Birlinn Yarn Company, up the road on Berneray. http://www.birlinnyarn.co.uk/about

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I have started making much ‘harder’ and robust felt vessels adopting some of the techniques learned from sculptor Claudia Gemein at the 2016 Felt Forum in Fife. This means less water and soap and a new efficient felt ‘yoga’ moves. So efficient, I managed to give myself bursitis of the elbow using a rolling pin.

A recent foray into slippers is the result of a day’s course run by Ellie Langley www.ellielangley.com who works mainly with fine wool fleeces. Next up is to make them in Hebridean and Cheviot/Blackface fleece. I like the idea of making something useful with a long lineage.

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Other times, my making is a response to a strong feeling, like loss.  Michael’s memorial vessel is made in Cheviot x BFL carded fleece with bog cotton fibres I collected in August and naturally dyed raw silk. Michael was a good friend, fellow gardener, mentor and formidable campaigner against plant breeders’ rights. He died suddenly and recently in Burma, while plant collecting with the help of the mountain people he cared deeply about. A brave and pioneering man who loved the land.

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What of my other life? My ‘proper’ job helping to grow veg at the Local Food Project is supposed to support my felt making, but the truth is it has taken over. Working with wild and domesticated plants in a landscape context has been the focus of all my working life, so it is part of me. But how best to bring felt making and ‘gardening’ together? My dilemma for 2017….

Finally a quick end of year thank you to Emergents for their support, to all local crofters who kindly donated their fleeces and to friends and family for encouraging my new venture. I’m still on Facebook on a more regular basis at Rebecca Cotton Felt.   Jimmy One Horn, my flock of one ( now aged 4 and as big as Bruno the ram) continues to inspire.

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September 16

 

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In Memoriam Pierre le Fort 1936-2016

My number one blog fan, Uncle Peter, has passed over to another place. Let us hope it has snowy mountains and oceans of blue and whoever is in charge has given him a pair of carve skis and a couple of dingies. Peter fought the effects of a serious stroke and cancer for the last three years.   Not for nothing was he known as ‘Pierre le Fort’.

My own Dear Dad has not made a huge improvement but has a good suntan and has caught plenty fish this summer. These are vital Cotton life landmarks.

Home. Unbelievably in June I moved into a solid croft house with insulation and central heating and a decent landlord, who is putting up with fleece snow in his garden. I have a dedicated wool room, bookshelves and friends can stay in relative luxury. The question is will I miss that all-pervading smell of peat and fixing rotten smoke boxes?

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In the last two weeks I washed twenty fleeces by hand in two old lobster and crab tanks. (That’s about 40 kilos of wool) It looks primitive but it works. As it is all seasons in one day here on Uist, it’s maddening drying weather.

There’s a large blip in this blog over the summer months. The Cowshed exhibition went well in terms of learning and has no doubt helped to secure a mentorship with Emergents.  This is good news for Cotton Felt.  I have also caught several wild brownies and suffered serious wind burn.

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On the earnings front, the local food project, at the cutting edge of sustainable living, climate change and local community empowerment is keeping the wolf from the door. My diet has become even more localised. It’s a relief to be back growing and I love cooking for volunteers and small visitors.

The Sprout turned eight and remains woman’s best friend. Mr Cheese and Uisge are fortunately still part of our lives.

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