It's that time of year again, when my thoughts turn to putting together a calendar for next year. This year seems to have flown by. My age is creeping up on me, I suppose, and while it feels like it must only be about March-time, it's nearly the end of October and the clocks change tonight.
I had a sift through the photographs I've taken over the past year (and a few from the tail end of last year) and have been pleasantly surprised by what I have found. I tend to take a lot of photographs if I'm out and about somewhere - at the beach (any beach), out in the woods for a walk, down at Stonehaven for an afternoon, over on the west coast for a long weekend. It's easier to take pictures when you're on your own, I find. It takes more concentration than I used to imagine, to capture images that are worth looking at again later. And one tends to walk very slowly, looking at things along the way. Up through the trees, down at the shells in the sand at your feet, over at the rock formations of the cliffs or the rocky shore. The bit of the whole process I love most is the looking through the images afterwards. It's like opening presents - free ones, ones from myself to me. Gifts of memories, instants in time. The slope of a roof, the brilliant colour of flowers or leaves against an azure sky, the patterns made by lichens on old wood. With the help of friends and followers on Facebook, I've whittled the images down to twelve, for inclusion in next year's calendar. It was tempting to put two together, one of abstract images and one of purely flora, but I managed to resist. Time to get on and finalise the order - I'll let you know when they arrive! There is already a watercolour paintings calendar available for 2015, on the Store page.
I should have known better. All the signs were there. The lashing rain and howling wind which had beaten at my bedroom window all night. The fact that I had to wait for a semi-dry five minutes in which to load my luggage into the car. A small rucksack was blown across the ground and into a puddle. And then there were the fire crews pumping water out of the burn next to the butcher's shop, which is opposite the newsagents, in an attempt to stop the burn bursting its banks. The newsagent and the butcher were standing watch over some sandbags at the door to the latter's shop. Another fire crew (all volunteers) was pumping water off a the car park between the Chinese takeaway, the community centre and the local supermarket.
The burn in the left hand picture above had been just a little trickle the day before. Now it was a swollen, raging brown torrent. I was glad that the new bridge was still intact. Luckily it has been built quite high above the stream bed. The sea was frothing and churning; the first half-mile or so of it brown with peat and silt and detritus carried into it by streams and rivers. Such a contrast to the blue seas and skies of the previous days.
I discovered that the road north was blocked by a landslide, so decided to take the road south. Glad that I had checked the road conditions before setting off, I was only a couple of miles on the road when I encountered a pickup reversing along the road ahead of me (in the same direction as I was going). I followed it; not the most sensible move, as it turned out. It reversed to a point beyond the pickup in the right hand photograph above. In the middle of the road was a black minibus. Stuck. In floodwater. Attempts were made to tow it out. It seemed that there was difficulty attaching a tow rope. I waited patiently, in what appeared to be shallow water, neatly in at the side of the road. I put on my hazard warning lights and watched with slight concern as vehicles started to pull up behind me. A police car appeared. Attempts to tow the minibus were aborted. Four men pushed it along the road past my car and out of the water. I was probably about a hundred yards from where the water on the road started.
I took a mental note of where the water level was under the pickup parked in front of me. When I first drew up behind it, the water was about half way across, under the chassis. It was rising. Not that fast, but it was rising. Inexorably. And the water I could see out of my driver's window was flowing. Flowing and quite deep. Six inches, perhaps. It did not seem sensible to try to turn. The other side of the road had effectively become part of the river, which had burst its banks. I asked the policeman, as he passed in his luminous yellow/green suit, if he intended to close the road. "As a last resort" was his reply. And he told me to stay put. He started letting lorries and four wheel drive vehicles pass along the road, in the opposite direction from the way I was facing. By now the cheery chap in the pickup in the photo had headed safely through to the other side. From where I was, I couldn't see round the corner, to where a queue of traffic was building up. The Westerbus came through, a couple of Landrovers, a big lorry which went too fast and caused a great wake to slosh alarmingly at the underbelly of my wee car. It was when that happened that I realised I needed to get out of the situation as soon as I could. I could see how easily a car could end up in water that was too deep for it, and get washed away, or at least become impossible to control.
A fire crew arrived and guided me, reversing, to a place where the water was not too deep and I could turn.
I headed back to the village and waited to hear if the road reopened. It did not; not that day or the next. I took the road north, later on. It was passable with great care, after the landslide had been cleared.
But the whole episode made me think. Quite hard. We make choices all the time, every day. And those choices affect what happens. If I had set out an hour earlier, the minibus might not have been stuck, the water level would almost certainly have been lower, and I might have got through. If I had set out half an hour later, I would have seen the tailback and not been the first car in the line. If I had not followed the pickup into the water, I wouldn't have had a rather worrying hour's wait. If I had taken a stranger's advice and turned my engine off while waiting, would my engine have re-started or would I have had to be rescued? If I had listened to friend's advice, I would not have set out at all, and would not have had this tale to tell.
It's nearly the end of my week's exhibition at the GALE centre in Gairloch. People have come and gone. They visit the centre for different reasons. Some come in search of accommodation - the staff are unfailingly patient and helpful, even when requests are made quite abruptly. I guess it must be stressful to arrive in an area without any accommodation booked and not know where you will be staying that night. Stressful, unsettling, unnerving. And they are supposed to be on holiday. The headline in the local newspaper yesterday was about the lack of accommodation and long queues for ferries out to the islands. I hope this alarmist attitude doesn't put visitors off. There are often still beds available in Bed and Breakfast places which do not advertise on websites, or through official organisations. I have not heard of any tourists sleeping rough in ditches anywhere. The campsites are busy too, with tents, caravans and campervans.
Others come in to obtain information about what to do in the area. Or for directions to the campsites or the harbour or to the nearest cash machine. Or where to get fish and chips.
I've chatted to many of the visitors here this week - from those who return year after year to the area, either simply because they love it, and/or because they have family or family connections, to those who have never been here before. Everyone is positive about their experience. Even on a grey drizzly day, there are comments on the beauty of the scenery and the wildness of the landscape. On a beautiful sunny day, such as today, there are fewer people in to browse the gifts and crafts and souvenirs, or to sample the lovely homemade cakes. They are all out busy enjoying the sunshine, either on a boat trip, or on one of the many unspoilt beaches, or perhaps up a mountain somewhere nearby. And that's as it should be; that's why we come here ourselves, after all.
It's that time of year again. I am preparing for an exhibition of my paintings, to be held in the GALE centre in Gairloch, Wester Ross. The same place where I held my Local Letterboxes exhibition last year. It is a lovely place; specially designed to be energy efficient - lots of wood and glass and light. There are huge floor to ceiling windows along the front which look out over the sea towards Skye. Not just towards Skye, you can see the north end of the island. I took some photographs of the building last year, which you can see above. I'm not quite sure that whoever put the sign together in the top middle photograph had fully thought through what the finished article would look like. Perhaps I am just being childish. Not that that is such a bad thing.
I am busy framing paintings, deciding which paintings to reproduce as prints, mounting work, putting together new sets of greetings cards and generally gathering my work together. It has given me a good chance to review what I have done in the past year. I realise I have probably not been as focused as I might have been. I start out with good intentions - to paint a series of boats, or buildings, or birds. And I end up with a smattering of each, a few birds, a few sheds and houses, some more boats. Perhaps that doesn't matter. This year's exhibition is entitled "Inspired by Scotland", so all of these subjects can happily be included. It's an eclectic mix. It will be interesting to see what people think.
I could put it off no longer. The idea that had been fermenting in the back of my head for a significant period of time had come to fruition. Although if it was fermenting it should surely by now be an alcoholic beverage. Never mind the detail. I had an idea, ages ago. As you already know, I live in northeast Scotland. The referendum about whether or not Scotland should become independent from the rest of the UK is happening this year. On 18th September, to be precise.
Travelling around the country, I've noticed signs in windows, declaring the inhabitants' voting intentions. Personally, I never do this. Declare my intentions. It's an inherited trait; my parents never told each other how they were voting, in anything from local to general elections. Sometimes I haven't decided until I read the ballot paper. Sometimes I have. I don't believe it's anyone else's business. So I have been intrigued to see the signs in house windows. Playing on my own extremely indecisive nature, I thought it would be fun to create a painting incorporating the sense of history, along with the possibility that different members of one household are likely to have different opinions. A recent trip to Perthshire provided me with the source material; a photograph which I took of a quintessentially Scottish house. A large house in the country, true, but a sandstone one and typical of the area. The rest of the task involved putting pencil to paper, brush into water, into watercolour and a fair bit of time. I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labours.
Now for the next task; to decide on a title.
"So, is there anything to do round here, then?" I was asked by someone I met on the beach the other day. They had never been to the area before.
My answer at the time was a bit glib -
"Well, there are no shops or cinemas, if that's what you mean."
I meant clothes shops, department stores and multiplex cinemas, of course. There are grocery stores, a very good butcher and a rather well-stocked book shop. Since then I have been thinking.
It's all a matter of what you want to do. This is your kind of place if -
- a stroll on the beach, gathering cockle and limpet shells, empty sea urchins and the occasional starfish appeals to you
- you can stand and watch the waves crashing on the shore, without being impatient to move on
- you see the rapidly changing weather as a source of fascination and varying light conditions
- carrying a camera is a way of life
- carrying a sketch book and pencil and maybe a small box of watercolours is a way of life
- you like mucking about in boats and fishing, both fresh and salt water
- you enjoy any kind of walking - hill-walking, mountain climbing or a brisk march along a sandy beach
- you play golf
- you like horse riding
- you don't get phased by single track roads and know the appropriate polite gestures to use when driving on them.
I don't think I'm finished with this theme. To be continued.
I was lucky enough to spend a week in Andalucia in southern Spain recently. Having been there before at this time of year, I knew to expect an abundance of spring flowers. I wasn't disappointed. There were meadow flowers in abundance and around our house had been planted a wide range of familiar and unfamiliar plants. There is a lack of rain in the area, so regular irrigation is vital, to sustain any kind of vegetation. Of course we had slightly different views on precipitation while we were on holiday, but we could appreciate the work that is involved in sustaining a garden, or olive or orange grove. Let alone a whole avocado plantation. The flowers were vibrantly coloured, from the bright pink Bougainvillea to violet-blue daisies. Roses were also blooming. In April. The light and colour certainly lifted my spirits.
Spring is finally here. Daffodils and tulips are blooming. And Forsythia and flowering currants, as shown in this photograph. There are tiny fresh green leaves appearing on the trees and the birds around in the woods are very active and vocal. It feels as if it has been a long winter, despite the fact that it was not very cold. We had a few snaps of frost and flurries of snow, but that was it. Today there was a lot of sunshine. Pigeons were frolicking on the rooftops. And now, funnily enough, we have chosen to travel abroad for some Mediterranean sunshine. There will be sketching, photography and plenty of book reading, I hope. I will be keeping an eye open for the flowers that are blooming there just now.
One of the many things I love about the west coast is the light. More specifically, the way the light changes. One minute you can be walking along the beach with blue skies all around and the next, the sky is slate grey and so is the sea. And more often than not, there are wet spots on the stones and pebbles on the beach, or pock marks in the sand, if there is a significant amount of precipitation. There may be a gleaming patch of sunlight on the sea, in the distance. Not so much a patch, perhaps, as a sliver, a sliver of silver. And then there are the beams of light which come down through the clouds, a reminder that the sun is in fact still up there, waiting to put in another appearance. This rapidly changing light is great for photography, but much trickier for painting in situ (or plein air, as they say). It's a good incentive to work quickly so as to capture the moment. Soon it will be warm enough again to do some outdoor sketching and painting again - I'm looking forward to it.
Last weekend I discovered that it's not easy to take photographs with gloves on. The air was chilly, as one would expect at the start of February in the Scottish Highlands. The pale turquoise soft wool gloves I received as a Christmas present nearly worked, though I struggled to take the lens cap on and off. Still, some photographs were taken; more "source material", as I have come to call it, for my boat paintings. And also some photos which I think work well just as they are - like the ones above. They are bits of a boat which has been lying on top of the harbour in Gairloch in Wester Ross for quite a while now. It's a great subject - I've taken pictures of it before. I love the peeling paint, where layers have come off to show what lies underneath; the corroded metal, like verdigris - perhaps it is.
Before Christmas, at a little fair where I was showing some of my recent work, an American lady asked me why I was painting boats. I hadn't really thought about this; I like them, the shape of the them, the colours. But it is more than that. I only started to discover the answer when I told them that I used to sail. And now I have thought about it some more and these memories have come to me.
I used to sail a lot when I was young. I sailed at school, in the sailing club; in a dinghy, on Linlithgow Loch, on summer evenings. And then we sailed as a family, a wee blue wooden dinghy to start with, then a slightly bigger boat, a cruiser with an inboard engine and bunk beds, a gas stove for making toast and tea and heating soup. We sailed on the Firth of Forth during term time and then on the west coast of Scotland during the summer holidays The boats were towed north and then south. Long days were spent trekking the trailer down the shore, waiting for the tide to come in, floating the boat off and then mooring her safely in the bay. I was never so keen on sailing in the cruiser. There wasn't the immediacy, the closeness to the water, that one felt in a dinghy. The sound of the water lapping at the bow, the feel of the rudder in my hand, the tautness of the sheets, held against the wind. Watching the luff of the sail for any flapping, indicating that you were sailing too close to the wind. Or the homemade woolen telltales tied to the stays, showing exactly where the wind was coming from. All these memories, there in the back of my head; there whenever I paint another boat. There is more about this in there - more for another day.