July 2019 ‘Atharrach’ (which is Gaelic for change)

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It’s the time of gathering sheep and bringing home peat. Newly washed fleeces, courtesy of Charlie, are drying in the garden and the croft house is filling with the smell of laundered sheep. Preparations are underway for making molagan and packing boxes line the hall.

I’m working on ‘caoran’, a new Hebridean felt product telling the story of the working landscapes of the east side, a place of bog, loch and hills with steep-sided cliffs descending to the Minch. It is an eerie place of ghosts, abandoned settlements and few grazing animals.  Examined more closely you find a hive of current small-scale peat cutting of turfs for the hearth or stove. ‘Caoran’ meaning small peat in Gaelic, celebrates this lesser-known landscape, its ancient and contemporary use by islanders.

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This recent pull east has reset my internal magnets, which swing both east and west and sometimes both directions in one day.  The geography of Uist, as a set of conjoined islands is shaped rather like an egg timer, according to my dear late granny.  I can walk less than 2 miles from the house and lose myself in the isolation of moorland or chose to take Sprout to the Atlantic-side, depending on my mood and the weather.  On Wild West days, I collect sea thrift, lady’s bedstraw and wild carrot for my botanic vessels; a new range  ‘of sheep and shore’ pods.

 

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Enough of the story telling and geography lesson.  This is a difficult entry to write.  I’m looking out onto an early Uist morning fly past of swallows, gulls, collared doves and wrens wriggling in the stone wall. Suddenly there’s a scattering, as the local male hen harrier male in his ghostly summer plumage, glides into view.

I’m leaving Uist for a new job in the western province of Dumfries and Galloway.  I’m returning to work in wildlife and farming, growing organic veg and flowers in a community setting.  It’s been a very painful decision.  The locals here tell me people always come and go from the islands: it’s a natural migration, but it hurts like hell.

I’ve written about ‘hirateth’ and the sense of hefting I feel after living here nine years. This is not a betrayal of all I have endured and believed in, but the fragility of my existence, without a reliable income, the lack of part-time meaningful work available alongside my felt practice, the winter gales which will come all too fast and furious and changing family circumstances, are suggesting a move is required, for now, for a while, forever?  I’m trying to be brave. There are people and animals I love here. My remote life as a ‘hermit’ has its ecstasies and anguishes.

‘Rebecca Cotton Felt’ will stay Hebridean.  It’s part of me now. I’ll keep on making Molagan and caoran and finish MacSprout which will help nurse my Uist-sickness.

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So for a while my blog will be schizophrenic, part based on Uist and part in D & G, as I re-adjust.  One fact offers comfort. This is a return to the Sprout roots.  He hails from close to Springholm, discovered in a barn eleven years ago, the runt of the litter. In this respect I am taking Sprout ‘home’.   Or perhaps he is taking me.

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Cianalas                    May 2019

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I am on the last leg of my journey, taking the ferry to North Uist, exchanging people for birds.   I’m going ‘home’.

After only nine years I’m certain of ‘home’.  This sea change may be due the final parting with my old house in the Shires, which I’ve decided to sell.  Or perhaps it’s a sense of being more settled with the state of self-employment and the reassurance of finding those nuggets of true friendship here.  More likely it’s caused by my finally making peace with ‘Hireath’ as the Welsh call it – the place where my spirit feels most at home.  In Scottish Gaelic, the closest Hebridean word I can find is ‘Cianalas’, which is also a kind of longing, a sense of place, a belonging.

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When Sprout and I return from a visit to ancient woodlands,  I find spring on Uist has been a joy, with weeks of dry, cold and sunny weather, perfect for lambing but going on too long for crofters to feel comfortable about ploughing and sowing corn.   We’ve just had the first rains and the island is greening up.

Our Cuckoo Flowers, Cardamine pratensis, arrive before the cuckoos, which are now calling out from strange places, perched on telegraph wires or on fence posts in the absence of trees.  Eleanor and Glen are precious companions as Sprout and I readjust to island life.

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Molagan have sold out locally, so I’m glued to the kitchen table wrapping my new seaweed soap in nests of soft Blackie and Heb carded fleece, wondering if I have felt on the brain.  I’ve discovered a patch of Scottish Adelweiss, Antannaria dioica on our morning moor walk with its felty stems and leaves, tiny and appropriately also known as, Mountain Everlasting.

The fish boxes filled with Sea Pinks in my ‘yard’ are warming the cockles of my heart.  They’re also thronging with Green-veined White Butterflies.  Their dwarf-like relatives down on the shore carpet pink my re-routed run at Balushare, where I tread lightly to avoid disturbing the nesting arctic terns.

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The Sea Pinks are homage to my past, my own petite, wild ‘Chelsea’ garden out West.  I’ve been watching the Show all week, while making boulder vessels.  I’m glad the presenters keep questioning the importance of gardening, nature in gardens etc, but it all seems rather fundamental, or elemental, like having clean water, food etc. to live.  And of course it’s entirely reciprocal.  I’ve just written ‘Rebecca’ the hedgehog into the ‘Law Society’s Fitting and Contents Form’ for the sale of my house.   We can all do small things…

It’s hard not to reconsider our personal position with the recently-published IPES biodiversity report.  Those headlines, ‘Nature’s dangerous decline’, ‘Unprecedented species extinction rates accelerating’ have provoked me to ask where can I/we best make a difference?  Growing food, making gardens, collecting plastic waste on the shore, writing the Sprout book for small people, creating sustainable craft products like molagan?   There are difficult, uncomfortable decisions to be made and big changes ahead.

But for this week, there is time for jumping into rock pools, fishing for finnocks, researching the bones of my new mobile studio (aka van to be) and exercising the kayak.

And there is always ‘Hiraeth’.   I belong.

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Faoilleach 2019

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This New Year I begin with a new Gaelic word: ‘Faoilleach’ or ‘January’ in modern Scots Gaelic, which originates in the word for ‘wolf’, homage to an older wilder landscape of winter howling wolves.

I have started learning Gaelic, part to respect the ‘borrowing’ of words for my felt pieces and because knowing a native language more intimately allows me to delve into the deeper meanings behind places and people.

I’m hoping uniting language and landscape gives me a better understanding of Uist, revealing the Norse and the Celtic and maybe explaining my own mongrel origins.  I am an incomer.   I am a person from ‘anywhere’ according to those from ‘somewhere’ but the blood of an islander runs thick in my veins and I wonder if the sea is my calling.

Swimming all year round off shore or in lochs and now with a group of other women nutters seems to confirm my ‘theory’.

Appropriately today I am searching for another ancient creature.  There are beavers now living along the River Earn.  They have dammed up the farmers fields beyond Mr Cheese’s village.  The dogs are intrigued. #rubbishdogdays is taking a wee break.  Since July I’ve collected a daily carrot sack of plastic items from the shore and met other inspiring sea wombles.   Tragically I see no end to this supply.  ‘Invisible’ feedbags continue to toss about the adjacent croft.  Plastic blindness is endemic here.

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I was too busy with ‘project molagan’ to fashion a recycled wreath from my shoreline treasures but instead hung a Hebridean wreath of silver-lacquered greylag feathers and Oleria on the gate, hoping to welcome in the spirit of peace and light.  Then the gales came crashing in from the south east so I had to shift it indoors to a sheltered spot where I hope it still works its magic.

IMG_4439My more selfish thoughts for the New Year turn to rug making: using up the increasing mounds of fleece taking over the house and resting my sore fingers from wet felting.   I also resolve to rekindle ‘MacSprout’: a soon to be best-selling children’s book, starring Uist’s favourite spaniel encountering wildlife and crofters.   It may well turn out to be a Lillian Beckwith experience as if we make it into print, I shall probably have to leave Bleak Isle for good.   For those far and dear who have not yet visited, please book your slot and happy 2019 to our many fans 🙂

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Autumn 2018

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Summer has swished through to winter like a theatrical curtain, surprising us all. It’s the season of sand and rain exfoliation. I am burnished clean.

The season of gales and geese sweeps over Uist. Barnacles are coming in for winter and the greylags are in perpetual motion, moved on and off grazing and fleeing the gun.

I search for more familiar autumn comforts, substituting fallen leaves, ripe plum and apple windfalls for golden wrack, rusty gateways and crimson wax caps: jelly fungi to me. The huge ginger hairy fox moth caterpillars lie in ambush on the moors.

Curlews sound extra lonesome at this time of year. I treasure the bubbling call of these increasingly rare, huge, elegant birds  when in flight.

I go to visit my barometer boots : what are they saying? Shall I stay or shall I go I think I am hefted to Uist but nothing is simple when those you love are elsewhere.

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The first dead seal pups wash up on the beaches, casualties from the Monarch Isles huge grey seal clan.

Sprout and I continue collecting daily plastic waste from the shore in old carrot sacks.   There’s another deadly form of pollution out there in the vast Atlantic. Twenty-two beaked whales washed up dead on North and South Uist last month. Is it due to military sonar activity which can give whales the bends?  There is to be an investigation.

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I am sorting fleece outdoors on rare dry days and harvesting thoughts and ideas for making new work.  My St Kilda Challenge Vessels made from the golden and dark resident rare Soay Sheep fleece will hardly sail home! My head is in ‘molagan’: molagan, being the Gaelic for sea pebbles. Up cycled they become baby pods, part of my growing family of vessels and a tiny gesture towards more sustainable living.

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Huge piles of kelp and ruddy pink dulse are building up along the west coast and some crofters are beginning to haul it in, valuable ‘free’ fertilizer for machair corn and potatoes.   I have also become a collector of seaweed and sheep dung, albeit on a far less grand scale. With the addition of machair sand, this concoction was known locally as ‘flagais’, the perfect compost for garden veg, according to Charlie, my go-to-crofter for traditional knowledge. I heed his advice and with the small amount of winter brainpower I have left, devote it to a biodynamic agriculture course on-line.   Weirdly and wonderfully it ties everything together and I feel lighter.

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Making molagan

 

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I’m back on Uist, bringing home a renewed sense of joined up thinking, confidence in working with my fellow beings, gentle gardening techniques with the planets and a plan for making molagan.

The island in June is swathed in sea pinks and the mud in the salt marsh pools is baked red and cracked into fractals. The usual torrent off the bog is trickling old gold in a concentration of iron oxide, dyeing Sprout’s paws ochre.


I’ve been learning to cut and stack sticky toffee peat thanks to Prof Alastair. We debate whether it is ethical or not but whatever I find it deeply satisfying after a frustrating day grappling with setting up a new small business to develop and sell ‘molagan’.

‘Molagan’, (pronounced with a soft ‘g’) is Gaelic for sea pebbles. Molag being the singular (with an ‘ack’ sounding ending)  I have chosen a Gaelic name because my all work as an artist-maker comes from the landscapes and culture of the Hebrides.  I have decided to make a simple felt ‘product’, which I hope will bring cleanliness, pleasure and a closer connection to a plastic-free world!  Molagan is part soap, part craft, part art work.  Oh dear I am wary of grand statements, we can only do small things, but try we must!

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I’m making something functional and sustainable for all who share a love of land and sea, especially where they meet.  Molagan is a felted soap, which acts as a cleansing bar and gentle exfoliator. It’s a kind of soap bar and woolly sponge all in one. I’ve found a traditional Scottish soap maker who has made me several batches of her oatmeal, milk and honey recipe and by covering the soap in a woolly layer and felting it tightly, the bar lasts longer. My hand washed and carded fleece provide the raw materials and wool waste from local weavers, the threaded wave lines.

Vessels and pods remain dear, so when the soap is finished I wash out each test molag, felt the edges, hang up to dry and give the biodegradable woolly case a new life.

There are 3 colours of molgan, which reflect the azure seas of the west coast, the sand and pebbly shores and the wild thyme, which grows above the high tide line.The lines on the pebbles are also found in my drawings and larger felt vessels and pods. The trace lines on the pebbles are individual, so no molag is like another.

My hope is others will catch the spirit of molagan and share their ideas,  via the power of instagram.

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In July Sprout and I go plastic-free along with the rest (?) of the nation and set up #rubbishdogdays.  An absence of plastic soap containers in the house is not enough.  We try to clear the local shore of beach plastic on our daily walks with four-legged companions and Mr Cheese.   A bag a day keeps the plastic away……….if only.

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Setting up a small business is tough ( and maybe even tougher out here?) but I hope freedom and with it, creativity to make other felt, drawing and textile work will return. I find negotiating e commerce platforms mind be-fuddling, so please bear with me while I set up sales on line.   I’ve passed through the EU Cosmetics Regulations Portal, while labelling and eco-packaging design challenges lie ahead and vitally I’m trying to make a living part-time gardening and growing.   Land and felt will come together one day!IMG_2843

Fortunately Uist is the land of the midnight sun when there is much to do: washing and drying new fleeces on the croft, re-acquaintance with my fly rod and close friends, collecting dye plants on the moor, swimming wild and falling in love with the island again. This part at least is not difficult. Roll on molagan.

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Dutch Days ( or Clog Blog)

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I’m now more than half way through my internship with Claudy Jongstra and Farm of the World.  I am in a new place. Perspective is a great thing.

I didn’t expect to be spending so much time in the garden at Huins but I’m really happy there. I think this is my natural habitat.  Claudia has introduced us to the biodynamic agricultural lectures by Rudolph Steiner and while burning slugs and spreading their ashes might previously have seemed bonkers, I am prepared to be open-minded and embrace this new philosophy.

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I go swimming with the ducks in the murky canal at the end of the village where we are staying. I have tried the North Sea and failed. ‘We’ are me, and La France; Louise, a charming young student paysagiste

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The frog song in the village of Wijnaldum is out of control. It competes with the birds. There are many sea and estuary birds here on the claylands. My island sickness is soothed by the familar sight of shell ducks and the sound of argumentative oystercatchers. The local bird of Friesland is a godwit (unsure if bar or black-tailed yet) which spends it day saying ‘witttooo’.

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I am getting my daily sheep fix. There are four nimble ‘Iron Aged’ Drenthe Heathland sheep kept in the garden as conservation lawn mowers. I have debated on Facebook which is the oldest sheep in Europe and declare the Bronze Aged wild Soay back home on Hirta to be the older ‘cousin’.   I wonder what Jimmy would make of his ancestors. For all those other sheep nutters, here is a useful table.

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My initially crucified derriere has now recovered. I am enjoying the cycles to and from work and have grasped some of the local bicycle etiquette (like don’t go round roundabouts on the road: use the pavement.) The problem with my internal navigation has slightly improved now I understand the North Sea is on the WEST.

IMG_0712Local etiquette includes dogs on leads all the time. Sprout would not agree with this rule so at times I am glad he’s not here in a permanent huff.  Drugs and sex are apparently freely available, but I feel Dutch dogs get a raw deal.

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I have not mentioned FELT. This is because it pervades all we do. The garden is part of Farm of the World, a Jongstra-Busson partnership. The felt studio is in another village and we are shared between the two enterprises. At the studio, a posy of bright young interns beaver away on a diversity of design projects and there is a Harry Potter-style dyeing department using plants from the garden.  All in all a very integrated practice, aiming to work in an ecological and sustainable way.  A model for the future, which I hope to learn from.

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Thrawn

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Sprout is developing his ginger bib while falling into rusty bog pools. His eyesight is not what it was.  And he’s stiff in the front quarters. Aren’t we all. But he’s still full of mischief and as thrawn as the owner.

Jimmy is extra grey around the chops this winter. Aged six now, he’s solid, with a back like an ironing board. I better do something special with his fleece to justify keeping him ‘alive’. We’ve had incredible cold, dry spells, with the sea frozen in the estuary, but the absence of rain is easier on livestock.

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Soon I’m off to pastures new to give time and energy to learning more about sheep and felt and biodynamics and creating sustainable communities. Claudy Jongstra  www.claudyjonstra has kindly accepted me for an internship in her studio/farm/garden in Friesland.   Will this be a model for my future? There are lots of unknowns at the moment.

My immediate concerns are packing up the Sprout and I.  Soon we travel south to ‘The Shires’ to see my parents in their new home amid cardboard boxes and conifers (soon to be dispatched) We will be making a new garden together again.

Staying focused on the practical and natural has always been my salvation. Sky and land continue to provide inspiration and comfort. Skylarks are soaring and the greylags are pairing up, even if to us humans on Uist, spring feels far away.

I’m making small, stoney things, possibly to sell. There needs to be a living earned this summer. On return from Holland I hope there will be space for making new work and considering my next steps.   I’m sure there will also be fishing and kayaking, eating cheese and sea swimming….

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