Thursday, 28 April 2011

Westward, northward, and over the fields of blue.

   In a few hours I'll be headed back out to sea (after a meander through the Highlands and a night in an old re-purposed train carriage car).  It's the long weekend of May Day, and in addition, we peasants have a Friday holiday thanks to the royal wedding, and so we are off to the Orkney Islands with friends. 

    This Friday I will sadly be missing the opening of the Aberdeen Artists' Society 77th Annual Exhibition in the beautiful Aberdeen Art Gallery, but some of my mummers will be dancing through it in their wintry Romanian costumes.  The exhibit, which is free, will run from the 30th of April to the 28th of May, if anyone reading this happens to be passing through Aberdeen.  I am really looking forward to seeing what else is in the show.  When I went to drop off my things, I was completely overwhelmed -- the room was brimming with the many, many artworks that had been submitted, and I grew flushed and sheepish.  But the doorman wished me good luck and that must have clinched it for me.

   And now I'm off to stuff my little rucksack full!  Passing good luck wishes on to you...

Monday, 25 April 2011

Even the boats wore coats.

   Another day out in a studio by the sea with the landscape painters this past Saturday.  We returned to the little fishing town of Gamrie, a place we visited last October, and which I have written about before.  This time I felt pressured to make a landscape myself.  No one was holding a gun to my head, of course, but I sort of painted as if someone were.

A thing to line the back of a drawer.

Or maybe a thing to put above a desk as a warning: "paint for yourself only, or else you will paint other people's paintings".
  I do not like this painting.
It does its job well enough, I suppose, in that it shows the view from the window... but maybe I don't feel that it is a job worth doing, for me personally.  The colours in the photograph of the painting are bad too, which doesn't help as I look at it now, but even the original seems to me very dull and very pointless.  I had no interest in painting this, and it is meaningless to me.

As I was finishing up my little watercolour chore, the sky soured and the rain started.

When I had started painting, the morning had looked like the dream of a morning.  A light mist hovered around everything, the sky peeked out blue, the gorse almost danced on the bright greens of fresh spring growth.  The tide had been out and there were lines of black rocks on the yellow sand.  Way down the beach, the sea glowed turquoise.

By the end of the painting the sea had hauled herself back up on to the shore, where she sat motionless, as glum as the sky.  The people in the houses started fires and the smoke chased all the birds from the rooftops.  The hills turned dark and the colour went out of everything.

I had been planning to go for a walk along the coast once the painting was over.  Instead I drank tea and looked at the paintings of the others.  When the shower let up a little, I did go out for a walk, but it was a rushed one, and I felt shut off from my surroundings.

No walk is a waste though.  Wet hair and sandy boots, I made my way up past the harbour, through the little houses where people shut themselves away all day.

A group of young men was screaming at the end of the pier.

Oh, but days like that are good for something.  They are a reminder not to turn away from the things that are really important.  Passion is a thing that moves in two directions.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Foil Wrappings and Bells

   Standing eggs on end after breakfast, seeing shadows of the yolk in the sunshine through the shell.  Chocolate eggs in the sugar dish, in the matchbox, resting above the ties in the curtains and inside a pair of wooden clogs.  There was even a small chocolate egg inside the casing of a clock.  Blue skies, soft music, and open windows, a lovely day to you!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

A coating of dust a million thoughts deep.

    It is impossible to ignore this season, I think.  It has been sliding its way in through every crack and cranny, superimposing itself on top of boring daily errands.  In this city which is all built of grey granite, and often stands under grey skies, the sudden burst of spring colour seems exaggerated and the nicest kind of startling.  People here are quite clearly mad for gardens.  

   A few days ago we went to the opening of a tiny museum in an old house on a cobbled street by the university (unfortunately the camera stayed home).  It is a museum with two small rooms with display cases whose contents (from the large university collections) will rotate often, but there are also tables and chairs, set out so you could come in and sit with a friend and maybe have a snack if you like.

   Their first exhibit, called '100 Curiosities in King's Museum', was modelled on old curiosity cabinets.  Professors, children, poets, students, and many others who had visited the store rooms of the museum were asked to choose an object from these collections and write one hundred words about what made it interesting to them.

   Then, when guests to the newly opened museum arrived they were handed a little book with all of these people's thoughts on the objects being shown.  My husband was one of the contributors, so we were some of the lucky ones invited to the opening, to crawl around from display case to display case reading the little books that brimmed with excited anecdotes, recollections, explanations and reactions.

   There were paintings, charms, taxidermy animals, old scientific teaching aids, stone objects that were sculpted by the ancestors of homo-sapiens, folk art from far away places, a narwhal tusk.... everything!  A tiny Gaelic prayer book with a key tied to it sat next to a tiny note saying that the person who had acquired it for the collections had got it from a 'cunning man' who used to put the key in the book on particular pages and tie the string around it in order to work magic.  The note complained they didn't know where in the book to insert the key to make it work.

   As interesting as it is to see the notes of past curators next to the object on display, the note sort of encapsulates a lot of what can be negative about museums: the whole problem of removing things from their context (and sometimes through stealing).  This sort of re-contextualizing of the exhibit was interesting though, and it was a gesture of giving the objects back to the public.

   It also made me think of the layers and layers of meaning that are sitting on top of every object, and especially museum objects, which are seen by so many people, coming from so many places.  The tiny layers of paint on the paintings are only a foundation for the invisible paintings that sit on top of them.

But to speak of lovely objects, I should mention that the post brought in some treasures this morning.  A short while ago I was the very lucky winner of a giveaway of a batch of fabrics designed by the very talented watercolour painter, Holly, of Golly Bard.  

   I love Holly's work... lots of beautifully painted portraits of bugs and birds and branches, and I am thrilled to have these lovely patterns to feast my eyes on everyday.  My photo doesn't do them justice, they are far more lovely and delicate in person.  You can find loads more of her gorgeous artworks on her blog or in her shops.

Monday, 18 April 2011

A home has curtains of blossoms and carpets of rushing stars.

   Down a little street never taken before, there sat rows of stones and bones and explosions of flowers and bird songs.  A tiny forest clearing with sweet air and honeyed light tucked away in a city nook with walls on all sides.


Blackbirds, crows, and pigeons sat starkly in flowered branches where the petals were thicker than snow.  I said that if I were a bird I would pass my Aprils in that delight as well.  And I spent too long there anyway, my face pressed into flowers, or ducking in between the tombstones, and in standing very still, watching the little showers of petals.


All week I have been dreaming with the flowers, as I passed by them in gardens and hanging from window boxes, all their shades of blue, all their vibrant reds and purples.  But a tree like this surrounds you, pours its magic all over sky and earth.  

   And it is hard to force one's steps back towards home.  How dull to be shut up inside the same place where the long dark days of winter sat while the wind moaned and complained as it flew past the chimney. 

So much better to lay out on the grass in the park while little dogs run by, or watch a steam train pull in at the station, surrounded by clouds of old men with cameras.  To wander aimlessly until you come to the secret, shady places where ferns unfurl their fronds at that too-quick and too-slow pace that plants use to disguise their movements. 

You might even find yourself in a part of town where the houses become castle-like and the people avert their eyes quickly.  There will be the odd gargoyle up near the eaves, and behind the back garden walls there is an entire ravine locked away for the private pleasures of others.  Only, the sounds of the water rushing and the extra-abundant bird songs can not be locked away so neatly.

We went there specifically to meet with a tree that we met in the pink gloaming of another day.  It peers down from a front garden, from another world.

A little ways on, there stands a house where a lone fishing rod stands with its line spread out across the sky.  At the end of the line is a kite in the shape of a bird.

Another tiny thing to wonder at on the way home, past the tulips and through the streets, and finally up the stairs to our door.  I think the only remedy for an old, wintry, granite house is to fill your mind with all the flowers and green of a spring day, so that you can fill the house with dreams like bouquets. 

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The ship was a cockle shell floating in a pool of water.

   We have been across the waves in the land of wind, fog, and trows.  We've been up hill and down hill, around the many long and narrow glacier-carved bays, big packs on our backs, all through Shetland in every kind of weather except calm.

When we left home we brought our tent, thinking we would spend some time out with the land.  But when we crawled ashore, we quickly understood that our little tent would be no match for a wind that we could lean on as we walked.  Instead we spent our days blowing around the islands, and our nights safely tucked away into böds, which were originally little stone buildings set up for fishermen to sleep in on the nights when they were able to come ashore.  Nowadays böds are generally heritage buildings with bunks inside, sometimes with running water and electricity, sometimes without.

A home the size of daffodils.

We slept one night in the house of Betty Mouat, a woman who was accidentally swept away to Norway in the hold of a boat one day in the 1800s.  Another night we stayed in an old farmhouse surrounded by sheep, beside a long finger of the ocean.  We also slept on a pier in an old fish-salting / boat storage building / knitting factory.  But the most lovely böd of all was the former home of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, an old stone house sitting halfway up a hill with a pony and horse looking in at us through the windows as we read out poems and stories by the light of peat fire and candles.  We had the pleasure of the creaking old places all to ourselves, since no one else seemed to be interested in holiday making in early April.

Old family boats become roofs when they have finished their days on the sea.

Everywhere we went people told us stories, showed us around, brought us in for cups of tea.  We went over there expecting only to be with the hills and the coast, the seabirds, otters and seals, and we did experience that as well, but also so much more...

 A bus driver stopped us as we were getting off the bus at the end of the line, to kindly and skillfully tell us a story.  The tiny house you see floating on the sea above is a tiny boat-building workshop, and home of a friendly craftsman of astounding skill, who rowed us out for a visit one morning.  Every day was full of miracles and coincidences.

We hiked to the hill tops and found lakes up there, floating next to the sky.  The wind howled and made our eyes water constantly, shook us so that it was hard even to take a photograph.

And that is why it was a dismay to return and look through all the photos we had taken.  Out on the hill tops and down in the glens, the land was speaking, and the sky was rushing past us.  It's disappointing enough to find that a photo has not managed to reproduce the colours of a place, that the land looks flatter and duller, but such a stark loss of vitality was disturbing.  It is perhaps a landscape that should not be photographed but instead played on a fiddle, or said in a poem, or maybe danced.

And so I guess this will have to be a post of failed attempts, because I do want to share this wondrous place with you, even in an imperfect way.  So please at least imagine that these photos are howling and soaring at you, that your clothes are whipping out past you, that you are standing leaning forward past the point of balance but not falling. 

A woman who had moved to Shetland a few years earlier told me that since her arrival she had tried everything to plant some trees there, but all their leaves were shredded, their needles stripped bear, their roots torn out of the ground by the wind.  And everywhere in the fields you find mysterious-looking little rings of stone walls called plantiecrubs that people have built to plant cabbages and things inside.

One nice thing about all that biting wind is that if you get drenched walking about in a downpour, your clothes are likely to be completely dry again by the time you reach the end of your walk.

  And it does seem like just maybe all that wind can blow away dusty, wintry, old thoughts, too, giving a sort of clarity, an expansive feeling.

A fine thing when in every nook and cranny there are stories unfolding full of spring happenings...

And there was also the island of a saint, connected to the mainland by a narrow passage of sand, as if the ocean had parted just enough for those willing to plunge their feet and legs into the cold waves to cross over.

 And there were underground houses to wander through too... old, fantastic things that were revealed one night long ago, when a storm blew away all the sand that had been covering them.

The first day we arrived was a Sunday and everything was closed.  We sat on a beach in the cold eating a dinner of almonds and sharing a piece of fudge, since that was what we had.  A seal danced past.

Other evenings, mists and rains wrapped around the land, and we wrapped ourselves around stoves full of peat and driftwood, heating water for tea over the fire.  The doors shuddered, rattled, banged in their frames.  Perhaps out in the dark, trows walked in the footsteps we left in the boggy hilltops by day. 

 We spent the last day in town, tired and sad to be leaving. 

The wind was force seven when we set out from the harbour that evening, and it increased as the night went on.  Waves slammed against the windows on the top floor of the ship, everything rocked fearfully all night.  And when we reached Aberdeen in the morning, we were told there had been calm weather the whole time we were away, as if the drunken boat had been only a dream.

*   *   *

   And today I think the whole city has been out in the sun and warmth, strolling the promenade by the seaside, riding the ferris wheel, lining up for ice cream cones.  There are flowers and tiny leaves on the trees here, like a paradise has fallen on us.  We even saw dolphins jumping out of the water by the pier this morning.  The city seems to have completely transformed itself in our absence, but maybe we too have changed, ever so slightly?