Friday, 28 September 2012


   When I first moved to Europe, I used to look up at big French cathedrals and wonder if the people who grew up with old statues of monsters walking down the walls towards them had some small, but fundamental difference about them.  Though I paint and etch very small things, I am fascinated by big art, by gigantic art that has a place in the everyday lives of a community or a city.  Even the most basic street art has a little thrill... that they managed to get their tag across the whole train(!), that this morning is a little bit unlike all the other mornings in the M├ętro, because now we are all swallowed up inside a pink belly and spat out at work, rather than just being jostled into a dirty and smelly, grey train car moving through a dark tunnel.

    In Aberdeen, there is not too much art spontaneously appearing on the streets.  We are filmed at every turn here and sometimes even voice recorded.  But, there are the lovely, old, sculpted, grey granite buildings and there's the monochromatic unity of the city, which certainly has an impact.  And in the countryside too, there are old sculpted stones that have been standing in place for longer than memory.

   A few weeks back, on one of our mushroom-hunting expeditions, we went a little further down the road to see a Pictish standing stone called the Maiden Stone.  This is a well-known sculpted stone in this part of Scotland and for a long time we'd been wanting to stop by and have a look, but sometimes not having a car does have some downsides.  These days, the stone is in a small, fenced enclosure by the roadside, but it still inspires awe.  Over a thousand years standing at the foot of a mountain and it stands firmly in the imagination of the people of this area as well.

   This stone is one of many Pictish stones in Scotland's northeast.  The front is carved with a depiction of a man standing between two fish, which may be a representation of Jonah.  Below this is a Celtic cross, and at the bottom of the stone there is an elaborate circular knot-work design.  Going down the back of the stone are centaurs and a dog, a z-rod, a Pictish beast which looks like a stylized dolphin, and then a mirror and comb.  These symbols are found on other Pictish stones, and it is possible to learn some things from them.  For example, the beast could be related to dragons found on brooches that were imported from far away lands, and we can see also that Christianity was coming into the picture and mixing with the pagan symbols.  But no one really knows what any of it meant, or why this stone was erected.  It could have been a boundary marker, maybe.

   And while the mysterious origins of this stone are very intriguing, equally interesting are the stories that have grown up about the stone.  If you listen to the the local legends, there is another origin for the Maiden Stone:  A beautiful young woman was changed into this stone as she tried to escape marriage to the Devil.  Some stories claim it was God that transformed her, more stories say it was the Devil himself, but all stories seem to agree that the cleft in the stone was made as the Devil grabbed at the woman's shoulder as she ran away.  Rather than giving summaries, two wonderful stories about it can be heard told by Stanley Robertson here and a shorter version told by Lucy Stewart here, and there are many more on that site (which has songs and stories recorded from all around Scotland). There are of course other versions on the tongues of people still living around here.

   It seems clear that art attracts more art.  I am so thankful that there are stones like this one standing out in the rain for people with sticks in their hair and dirt on their hands to look at and dream about on the way homeward.  And I wonder what ideas we will leave behind us for people to think on in a thousand years... stories, painted walls, songs, statues...

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Equinoxal Storms

   Last night the wind tore about so fiercely and so wildly it sounded as though the sea had risen to my window.  Even the bed shook when the strength of the gusts ran up against the stones of this home, and the door in the hall clattered all night.  A screaming and a whistling stole in through the gaps of these old windows and the curtains danced, though the panes were fastened tight against the rain that hissed upon them.

   The day before, down below the cliffs, we found the body of a great grey seal, which must have died only shortly before.  It was so beautiful, so almost alive that even though it was clear that it would not, it seemed all the same that it might wake up again any time.  And then we walked on homewards and night fell on the derelict school on the way, with the carved granite numbers saying the year 1904, as somewhere down the street a man hollered and wailed unhinged.

    And this morning, the people down in the old fishing town, the one the harbour never managed to swallow, they woke up to find sea foam covering everything.  It covered pavements, cars, everything, so that it seemed at first as though it had snowed.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


      Oh these pensive days!  At the end of them, if there is an end, there is only the absence of thought.  Every strand of reasoning and every hue of emotion has fled and maybe not much is remembered, the way it is when a song is over.  The mind moves like the sea, sometimes churning and frothing, other times calm... only the sea is greater.

But there are places, heron-haunted, where the air is big and fresh and blows through thoughts and moods and lifts them up, up, far from earth.  Bee-buzzing, plant-perfumed places of tansy, snap-dragons, and sweet cicely.

Forget yourself and talk in a loud voice if you like... but who needs words? There are blackberries, rowan berries, rose hips, and the first of the bright autumn leaves.

And then there are minnows at the calm edge of the river, eating the crumbs of your lunch; a crow and a heron that sit together in silent, sheltered places, and fly off together up the length of the river, loudly protesting your interloping; the green light off a low-flying cormorant's wings; a congress of swans and gulls and ducks in session on the river stones where the current runs fast; the quick legs of spiders in their many autumn webs counting down the seconds until the frosts come crawling in.  

Scotch pine, holly, oak, and ivy.  And crisp September breezes against weak, honeyed light. 

I have a love of lists, I treasure them.  At school I studied, among other things, Old Irish poetry, and I think it was maybe this tradition's great tendency toward cataloguing and alliteration that first drew me in.  A sentence might last a page, with all of the things it enumerates artfully arranged and the sounds sweeping on hypnotically with the reading of them until the richest tapestry has been created in the mind.  

So though English does not allow for that kind of poetry, I hope by naming a few of the things I have found on my rambles, to bring them back and hold them up to you, each word a sort of charm, so that you might have a little of the feeling that you have been out walking where great birds sweep and croak.