Thursday, 30 September 2010

No ravens

The tree was empty of birds and guarded by a solitary sheep.

This guardian behaviour seems to be a characteristic of sheep on the island. They will stop and stare in what is a most un-sheep-like manner, holding that stare for a disconcertingly long time. It would be easy to spend several days here just taking portraits of sheep - but that would be true of all the islands. If there is one without sheep, I'd love to see it; the difference in vegetation would set it right apart.

At low tide Colonsay is attached to Oronsay by a strip of sand, a strand. As we waited for the water to recede yesterday, a stock wagon pulled up. According to the newest book on these two islands, the quality of the sheep from this little dot in the ocean is such that the farmer does not need to take the beasts to market. Here was proof.

Looking back towards Colonsay from Oronsay shows what a calm topography the larger island has.

So many of the other islands seem almost hysterical in their topography. Given the calmness of the people here, I wonder if the inhabitants of those other islands also reflect the topography in their character.

Next: gardening on the edge.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Meeting Colonsay

William was as good as his word, waiting outside the gallery as the ferry pulled in. It took ten minutes to cover the distance from there to the farm where a familiar cooking smell hung in the air. There are sheep everywhere, as there were over on the East side; as on the East side, lamb is the meat of choice. See more sheep, eat more lamb. It's as it should be.

We spent the evening jumping from one mutual acquaintance to another in our news stories. William, of course, had a Chatsworth story to go with the catalogue I showed him. Using a scattergun approach, he slowly brought me up to speed on the setup here on the island. He and Katie have moved here permanently from softer southern climes. She seems to be in charge of the island at this moment, as her brother is in Russia for a few weeks. This keeps her away from the farm for most of the day.

They are fond of Marmite. William would like to make something of it.

The following morning I was given the conducted tour. It's easy to drive a circuit around the island; each time I do it, another detail springs out and beckons me. After my host had gone off to continue his day's work, I set off once more on the circuit, but stopping this time with the camera. First stop was the beautiful beach, curving around from rocks to rocks, a crescent in between. It's a good place to limber up with standard, camera-club shots - rocks in the foreground, receding beach, water playing over seaweed, fractal erosion - all good for getting the eye going.

I took a wrong turn off th beach and ended up on Walter's property. His sign was fierce but he was not, insisting that I look at his fifty-year-old Massey Ferguson, and guess its value. He duly astonished me with the price, and led me on to more ancient machinery, to which he gave arcane names. He was pulled up short when we were looking at a particularly obscure lump of metal.

"And what's the potato picker worth?" I asked. He looked at me, startled. "I had you down as a Londoner." From then on, we were laughing and he was happy to pose.

A beach and a golf course later, it was time for lunch in the hotel. Everyone there knows William, and he knows all of them, something that delivers a warmth the woodburner can't give.

After lunch, on a whim, I climbed a big hill with a triangulation point. Top o' the world. I didn't want to come down, but echoes from years worth of warnings kept sounding in my head; eventually, I trudged back through the heather and the bracken but not before making a couple of 360 degree passes in order to attempt a full panorama of the island later.

Tomorrow (which is really today) I'm going back to a little wind-blown tree which appears to be a raven refuge. If it works, it'll be here.

Once I'm back in sync, there will be more images.


Crossing to Colonsay takes the passenger into the light. All around the boat Phaeton's crash sites flash on the waves, with great beams of light and dark, sometimes parallel, sometimes spreading. Three layers or so of thin cloud make for that drama. Many frames shot, but here's just one for now. It's never as easy as it looks to capture these sort of atmospherics.

The crossing lasts over two hours, but the time flashes past as I keep moving from one side of the deck to the other, always seeing some new configuration of light, clouds, sea, and islands. In the middle of all this, the ferry captain decides to have emergency procedure rehearsal. The crew look as lackadaisical as anyone involved in a fire drill, the world over. The "passenger" is dumped on the top deck, is still there for all I know.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010


A good opportunity for depth presented itself as I stood high up in the ferry. Stuff is receding both upwards and backwards. I wonder about giving it a sky...


Setting off from Teanocoil yesterday, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to wonder whether the luck with the light had run out. It was grey. Just after I’d pulled onto the first section of winding road, the phone rang. It was William, giving me an errand to run in Oban before catching the ferry. It felt like two pieces of a jigsaw slotting together, the foot slipping perfectly into the boot. As the conversation ended, a patch of grey parted for a moment to reveal the blue lining, then it was closed once more.

Driving and photographing at the same time tends to be a bad thing. I had planned to stop whenever the inclination took me, and take me it did. It's hard to drive down the bank of Loch Ness without stopping at least once, as the endless food wrappers in the lay-bys  will attest to. The atmospherics were putting on a low-key show, with wisps of cloud drifting along below the tops the hills. 

I jumped out to shoot this because that wisp of cloud conveniently passes between the hill and the isthmus, creating a sense of depth in what would otherwise be a flat image. I never really know until the paper comes out of the printer whether a shot is finally going to print. The combination of subject and image contrast here augur well.

Driving down the Caledonian Canal is driving through theme-park Scotland: lochs, mountains, heather, clouds, pines (mostly non-native and in military rows) and endless little tourist operations, more guest houses than tea rooms, and more tea rooms than garages. Always fill up at any opportunity on this road. The gaps between fuel posts are enormous.  So are the atmospherics.

Looking at Ben Nevis seems a suitable place to be able to play at being Constable, with his cause and effect  light over landscape. This is a very special vantage point but it's called after itself, the Commando Memorial. It doesn't mention that it's hosting one of the very best views in the world.  More on this at another time.

Sunday, 26 September 2010


We got up at 4.30 this morning, breakfasted frugally, and set off for the loch. As soon as we'd stepped outside the White House, we knew there was a chance of finding what we'd come here for. The stars shone brightly beside the recently-full moon and there was the satisfying crunch of a light frost in the grass. 

There had been time the previous evening to get out on the loch for half an hour or so before sunset. We'd rowed as far as the lodge (which I'd last visited when Jonny and Alice were married more than two decades ago, when they had left in a rowing boat with piper standing in the stern) and then drifted back to the jetty through the sunset, Jonny occasionally flicking out a line with the casual aplomb of a lifelong fishionado.

There were no midges. There were no fish interested in the fly. There were no other people. Anywhere. In the entire glen. The silence as we allowed the clinker-built dinghy to drift was drinkable, like the water from the loch. By the time we returned to the White House, we knew that what had seemed as if it might, possibly, be a goodish wheeze, was showing all the signs of turning into a wizard wheeze.  Supper was taken, whisky was drunk, and the sleeping bag delivered sleep almost before the zip was pulled.

So there we were this morning, sizing up the chances of success. The conditions seemed right but, so far, there was no sign of what we were looking for. Unusually for this part of the world, our quarry was not a living thing, in that it neither flew, ran, or swam. We were looking for a combination of elements, the first two of which, clear skies and a frost, were present. 

Crossing the loch was smooth and quick. Soon we were climbing the hill on the other side. It seemed a little bigger than it had looked from the water. Jonny strode on. I followed, looking over my shoulder every few minutes.

The eastern horizon was just starting to glow, when we turned a corner and saw what we'd hoped for. The distant water, when we'd last seen it , had been glassy, smooth, a clean straight line. Now, it had grown an undulating white fur. 

A mist had come up, ground hugging cloud, if you will. It was the third element.

From this moment onwards, photographing at dawn becomes frantic. The light and the visibility are changing radically every minute. You need to keep looking in every direction , checking the west while you're clicking at the east. 

I won't really know whether the shots have worked until I try to print them. What is for sure is that the expedition worked. We had decided not to attempt the highest hilltop, but it had been a close-run decision. Had we done so we would have been disappointed as it was shrouded in its own little cloud for the whole morning. 

It was all too beautiful. Snipe shot up, shouting, from under our feet. Stags could  be heard from every direction. Jupiter (perhaps) shone steadily in the west. The moon continued to hold her own against the rampaging sun. And still we had the glen to ourselves. Not until we were nearly down the hill did we hear the almost shocking sound of a car engine. It was the only thing we heard until after we'd packed up and left, apart from our own oft-repeated "Aye" of appreciation.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


As I sit here in the Spoons' kitchen, family members pass in and out of the room. Iona is offering her mother some help with her quiche, saying she has pastry ready. (She once did a one month cookery course, but says that all she learnt there was how to follow a recipe, and how to slice carrots 17 different ways. She now cooks regularly for the fishing lodges in the area.) Euan, having been out on the hill for a stag at dawn, is now out with a ferret and his friend's grandfather. Rowena, having been pulling pints until three this morning , is not yet back; she stayed with her grandmother last night. Jonny has just disappeared around the corner, sitting on the back of a quad bike and trailer driven by his youngest boy. I still haven't go all their names learned, but that leaves two unaccounted for.

Jonny and I were up on a small hill hoping for morning mists at 6.30 a.m. We didn't get them, but the clouds hugged the hilltops in a friendly way. As we returned, Angus hove into sight, striding across the field to see who was about at this early hour. Behind him, his sheepdog was passing the time driving the sheep around the field. Angus's hand shake was surprising. I hadn't looked closely at the outstretched digits, so when it closed around my puny hand, it felt like an entire tanned hide was wrapping itself around.  He put the dog through its paces; as it was still really a puppy, the performance was impressive.

Since I started writing, Archie has come in and started to play a version of backgammon called AC/DC with his father. Both claim to be the best at it. Rowena has returned and is sitting on the sofa with the half-blind kitten.

It's like a cross between Swallows and Amazons and Little House on the Prairie here, the kind of life that, when described as an ideal, is usually rejected as being just a fantasy that never existed. Tonight, we set out on the big expedition, up to Affric, just Jonny and I. Preparations are being assisted by the entire family. If this is fantasy, count me in. I don't want to return to reality.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Llama karma

Heading across the country from north Yorkshire to Penrith, it becomes hard to understand why anyone in search of beauty needs to leave these shores. The sky opens up above, no matter that it is filled with clouds; somehow, there are more greys on view than seems possible. The ground rises and falls in increasingly magnificent fashion. Its character is defined not by man-made boundaries such as patch work fields and hedges, for, although those are present, the dominant feature becomes the shape of the land, here climbing and soaring, there rolling and generous.

Vanbrugh's words echo at every turn: "the tame, sneaking South of England". This landscape that I now look out on was what he was comparing it to, as he wrote to his northern patrons, bemoaning his enforced sojourn in deepest southern Britain. I'm sitting in the Llama Karma Kafe. In the environs of Hastings, that name would send me spinning on without stopping, aware that a moniker of that sort has to denote a worthy but pointless alternative to the traditional greasy spoon.

Here in the north it's just a gimmicky name for a first class cafe. The best bacon and eggs, good coffee and friendly,smiling staff.

I already feel as if a mild adventure has begun. This is a different world to that of the racing south. Even in this little roadside cafe, there is a sense of people connected to each other, a sense that's hard to find south of watford.


Tomorrow morning I set off on a short northern trip, a tour even.  It's going to be eight hours, even from here in Yorkshire. I drove here yesterday, and that took four hours.

It seems like I'm already getting into the kind of mindless numbers games that start to sprout inside my head on long drives.

Picture hunting. Inverness. Colinsay. Carlisle. Finish off by taking a diversion to the viewing day for Chatsworth's attic sale before getting home in time to see Bee. 

In between, I'll be crashing in on three different worlds: Highlands, Islands, and Borders. What'm I going to hear? What'm I going to see? What'm I going to do?

Saturday, 4 September 2010


An upsetting moment yesterday: having been to the fakes show in the Sainsbury Wing, it seemed churlish not to steer my young companion towards my favourite self-portrait (Rosa, see above - or is it below?)

It wasn't there.

Apparently, it's gone to Dulwich. I'll track it down and make sure it's still on view - it would be criminal to lock it away.