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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May Day 2016

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Had to leave the windy house on the hill as yet another landlord wants to capitalize on high summer tourist rents….

So we are on the move, currently part-living out of the car. Sprout is bearing up well.

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Hopefully by the next entry, we will have moved into a ‘real’ house with insulation and central heating. What’s that? Will I miss the all-pervading smell of peat smoke (my own ‘eau de peat’) and living with constant black facial smudging?

‘Traumas are Us’ this spring. My beloved Dad has been very ill with heart problems, so I went home to Englandshire for several weeks. Poorly family has provoked deep feelings of unrest about island life and increased my sense of isolation. I am too far away. My nieces and nephew are growing up too fast and I have begun to feel a bit slow and cut off from modern life, hitherto things, which have not really bothered me. However I am not yet holding my trousers up with binder twine.

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While back at the family home in the gentle, green midlands, I was welcomed into the bosom of the Family Genever.   One daughter, my friend Kate, is an artist I much admire http://www.kategenever.com Two weeks lambing on her family farm just outside Stamford helped put me right. Four strong farming women and another generation are coming through. Farmer Genever is still holding his own amongst the oestrogen

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With Dad on the on the mend, so it was back to Uist and the dreaded move, almost homelessness and rescue from my tent by Morag-Ann of Balushare, with whom I spent two happy weeks immersed in outdoor lambing, aided by Betsan, her Kelpie (well 90%) and her new rescue, border collie, Pip. Morag-Ann, another amazing farming woman, runs the croft single-handedly since she lost her brother Archie, two years ago to motor neurone disease. She has about a hundred Blackface and Cheviot sheep and eleven Aberdeen Angus and Limousin cows.  Deep respect, Morag-Ann

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To be immersed in crofting and farming life is an exercise in living minute by minute by minute, hour by hour, responding to each crisis with patience and humour and kindness and good grace. Whilst the birth of new lambs is magical, there is also a dark side. Black-backed gulls (Greater or Lesser, who cares) taking the tongue out of young lambs, is a sight hard to bear, but it is all part of the rich tapestry of rural working life.

The return to the coalface of sheep has given me a fresh perspective on my felt making. I have overcome my own recent trauma in carding, having in good faith purchased a mechanized drum carder, but found it not to suit me. I am now the proud owner of a beautiful hand-operated jumbo machine made by Classic Carder and we are getting on well.

Recent meetings and a workshop in Stornaway with helpful mentors, Pamela, Fiona and Avril from Emergents, http://www.emergents.co.has has helped me to assess the felt vessel (pod?) collection and push me forwards. I must keep going, keep faith, charge properly. Include profit (what’s that?)

So there will be an exhibition at ‘The Cowshed’, Claddach Balushare, starting June 19th for three weeks only. Please come to my international launch or at the very least see the link to Art on the Map 16 on this blog.

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And I have started a new FB page about my felt making practice under ‘Rebecca Cotton, North Uist’.

Oh yes and I just found out I have secured a new ‘real’ job; helping to run the Uist ‘Local Food for Local People’ Project, which I’m very happy to be part of. (This does not necessarily mean I have given up molluscs entirely) Having several jobs is a normal part of crofting life, so let’s hope I can carry on felt making.

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January savings

 

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Life is now measured in units of £2.50. This is the current price for a kilo of large winkles. A short (in theory depending on latest hurricane) single crossing to the mainland for dog, car and me equals 13 kilos or 1.5 large sacks. Winkles, for those interested or worried about the connotations, are ‘edible sea snails’, gastropod molluscs, periwinkles, delicious (to some) with butter and garlic and homemade dulse bread as suggested by  Tracey  of foodandforagehebrides.wordpress

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Winkles are hard won at the expense of cold, salt raw hands parting seaweed, an aching back after carrying a well-travelled and memory-laden ruck sac with 15-20 kilos, all dressed up in neoprene waders, a couple of miles across the estuary. Location unspecified. (And secret)

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And there is learning the tides and working against a bastard, beating wind, remembering Slapton Sands biology field trip to investigate the intertidal zone aged seventeen. (Set the course of my personal history?) Plus sorting and taking them in to be checked: 16 winkles per 100g. Less and they are rejects. Have I made the grade? Heart in mouth moments. I’m averaging 10-15 kilos for one tidal cycle. Could do better.

Felt is not forgotten. Just a case of earning some cash, post Christmas, knowing that developing ‘a creative business’ out here is never going to be easy and decent part time jobs are hard to come by. I manage to pay rent, food, fuel and take on other temporary work with pride…. beating out small furry innocent birds in Uist pinewoods, cleaning hen houses with geological timescale layers of shit and learning to cut marram grass for thatching, which wins Sprout’s vote every time

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It feels good to have a working body again. Who needs the gym in January?

What of my old profession: a once upon a time landscape architect in a busy local authority, building schools, roads, libraries. Long days at the drawing board, a slave to the computer, ‘CADing it up’, dusty hours on building sites, on the alert, checking for contractor shortcuts, safe guarding urban trees and planting thousands of new ones, avoiding violent-looking men with staffies in dodgy areas. I left at the pinnacle of my career, having designed the main roundabout into Leicester from the East, just as the department was on the cusp of collapse through yet another round of cuts. It’s all gone now, that way of working, those good people.

And there were those beautiful, lovely gardens I made in my other life on ‘grand’ country estates, now being edited by others and hopefully not all turning into municipal parks.

Another life, another world away from Uist.

Uncle Peter, my no1 blog fan is undergoing chemotherapy. Should I send music, chocolate brownies, Hebridean crime novels? It’s hard to be out here when those I love are ill and far away. And my own Dad, about to become an octogenarian, still looking like a film star and inventing new ways to cut the long grass in the orchard back ‘home’. I miss the daily closeness of family and recent weather madness makes the journey tricky.

I think about my training and building on what I know now, feeling eternally grateful for having acquired new skills (alongside plain Uist survival specialisms like fixing peat-fired rayburns) Landscape and habitat management has long been a passion and being actively ‘in it’ and working ‘with it’ makes it real.

If I am honest I am afraid of a full time return to the office, of being continuously trapped indoors, of new and ever more bureaucratic project management and CDM systems, of feeling CAD dazzled. Am I past it now?  I did twenty years in the profession, not a bad record, but am I ready to give it up? And can I afford to?

Remembering why I came to Uist: the hope of working somewhere truly ‘wild’, a place to paddle the kayak among otters and sea eagles, following a childhood dream. (‘Seal Morning’ has a lot to answer for) Three and a bit years a project manager for a bird charity was a huge and amazing life-changing experience, but some might say it also spat you out at the end like an owl pellet….

It’s coming up five years! I was never sure if I would stay beyond ‘the Project’. But here I am. What next? Carry on winkling for now. Reassess in the spring. Enjoy the view. Make no promises.

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Winter Blues

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Let me tell you about living with the wind on Uist. I am now staying in a house on a hill with a ‘posh’ address: “Upper Town, Carnish”.  Well I suppose twenty or so houses on a circular track is a settlement.   So far this is the most exposed house I have lived in.

The wind is driving me crazy. When I first arrived on Uist four years ago, the gamekeeper told me it puts all animals on edge. And we are no different. It roars like traffic noise every night and assaults you outdoors with a hail of horizontal bullets. It blows away things you love, like my best buoy and I recently found my wheelbarrow  up ended on the shore. A kind friend has delivered me a replacement beach windfall, a new buoy. The wind giveth and the wind taketh away.

It’s normal to have a 40-45 mph wind blowing (that’s a Force 8) but we seem to be having 55 +s (that’s a Force 10) three times a week. And don’t forget there are no trees to break this up. However I do battle and get out in it with the dog and try not to be short-tempered and weather beaten, in all senses of the word.

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Hibernation and visits to the mainland are part of the remedy. In October I went back to ‘Rutlandshire’ and picked berry mountains to make sloe gin and pressed my parents windfalls into apple juice. We are fruit deficient here, only rhubarb grows happily on Uist. My rhubarb chutney is maturing nicely, ready for the Christmas cheese bonanza.

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As a special treat I went last week to London and watched designer dogs on Hampstead Heath and ate real spaghetti bolognaise and later tapas of sautéed baby squid and gremolata at Salt Yard. I swam in the lido on December 8th and nearly expired. It was colder than my mad winter sea baths. I was hoping for a respite from the wind on my return but it was not to be.

I am not working officially as most people define it. I have failed  at several interviews to secure a ‘proper’ job here and things are getting tight. I work instead at making felt and woolly things and just surviving. The natural woolly works evolve with the weather, my collecting and drawings. This winter I will learn to make more dyes from crotal. It’s a magical alchemy.

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The night sky is still full of stars and a rare calm day tricks you into falling in love again. But I am wise to this cycle. I’m staying on isle for my first Christmas and will make game casseroles and share mulled wine and paddle my kayak. Then I’ll decide whether to go away to look for a job I really want to do, rather than one I don’t. This would be some sacrifice, but perhaps my need for tlc, shelter and trees and the possibility of a river in which to dabble my flies and a railway line out to see family and old friends will overcome the loss of my island life. We’ll see what the New Year brings…

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