Friday, 4 December 2009

Ninth Wave

Image Left: The Croft Landing
Saturday 28th November

There are no waves to count today, the bay sits like a shard of glass thrust in amongst landscape. The storm has past and the dawn has erased any memory of it as if it was somehow an unpleasant part of my psyche rather than a physicality. A couple of days ago I watched the Iona Ferry take blow after blow from a force nine, the waves crashed high over its front trailing spray down the sound, eventually it turned tail and retreated to the safety of the Bull Hole*.

I walk through kelp fronds piled knee deep at the high tide mark of Christine’s bay and think about fishing. Even today the stillness of the bay says little about the open ocean or even the sound for that matter. On my last fishing trip of the season I sat in the valleys of a giant swells and while I was momentarily becalmed the world shrank back, only to surge forward again as the engine pushed on. So my fishing rod lies idle while I pursue tracks in the sand, and the rest of the landscape.

*Bull Hole, Natural harbour in the sound of Iona

Friday, 6 November 2009


Wednesday 4th November
Image Left: Moon over the bay.

Sometimes when I close my eyes I find myself rerunning old business trips, I can almost feel the gravity of the car against the camber of the road. These are the interludes of my old life, as if somehow I am reliving the spaces between events, the boredom. I know the junctions, the by-passes and lay-bys but the rest is lost to me as dull ache. Memory is hardly a reliable witness, all that remains of my childhood Sundays at church is a feeling that religion is about passively restraining people in their seats. How may hours of preaching, communions given and taken , hymns sung and demons exorcised to be left only with the resonance of fidgety legs?

This evening I walked the island’s small street of cottages tapping on living room windows and inviting the occupants to watch the moon rise out of cliff faces and mountains of Mull. People hung in the warmth of doorways while the brave made it onto the street their camera flashes flickering in the dusk.
At the last house I collected my son and wrapping him in a sling walked down to Christine’s bay. The rising tide had reclaimed the estuary for the sea but the ocean swells had not been invited. On the edge of the sand I watched the moon in its mountain home and traced a pillar of light over stillness.

Later at dinner people thanked me for the moon and I wondered whether somehow I was responsible for its presence.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

bible black

Image left: A flautist brings in the Dusk at the Sanctuary
Location: Isle of Erraid, Mull

Bible Black
Sunday 18th October
The sun, sea and wind have scorched my already over-sensitive eyes; I retreat under a hat pulling it down to seal my blindness. A reaction to a hand cream has brought me a temporary secession from the visible world, so I hang up my eyes and enjoy the painlessness of the dark while strolling arm in arm with my wife over the sand. We are walking back from the far end of the Narrows* and I am measuring steps out against my visual memory. Already the white noise of breaking waves has begun to fade to be replaced with the compression of sand under my footfall. Without clues to my position I loose faith and peek out from beneath the hat. Three hooded crows pick amongst the wind scattered debris of the beach; when I close my eyes again they are gone and I am back with crunch, crunch beneath my feet. Today the crows only exist is the visual world, their crawks and scratchings have been carried away on the breeze. I wonder if the crows could blank me out similarly; just as I have my world I suspect they too enjoy their own.

Slightly ahead of me and to my left I hear the clap of thousand tiny hands applauding the wind and remember the line, “willows whiten aspens quiver”** . My eyes confirm the words of the poet, the cliff faces like football terraces hold a swaying crowd of yellow gloved aspens. In the spring I greet even the smallest bunch of daffodils by reciting to myself the opening verse of Wordsworth’s most popular work. Just as Adam or Karl Linnaeus got to name everything so too the poets own my emotional responses. The call of a buzzard brings me back as it echoes between opposing rock faces. A visitor to the island who had worked in the film industry told me this was the standard sound used to accompany shots of wilderness. I imagine all that it is to be wilderness, all that it has meant to those who new of it, who lived within and without and then see the distillation of that intangible vastness to an image of mountain and the call of a hawk. I suppose no one has the whole bible as a bumper sticker, just the sign of a cross or a fish. So I have become a blind man wandering in the wilderness with half remembered poems and snatched conversation with which to build my world.

* a narrow stretch of sand that separates the tidal island of Erraid from Mull
** taken from The Lady Of Sharlott, Tennyson

Monday, 10 August 2009

Coming Up For Air

Saturday 8th August
Coming Up For Air
Image Left: Bottlenose Dolphin

The sky has already begun to darken. I watch an orange glow fill the spaces between the cloud on the horizon. The swell is hitting a small reef on the other side of a wide gully that runs through Erraid’s outer skerries. Pleasant domes of water draw themselves up into foaming monsters before petering out in the backwash of other islets. The sea is a mess, in the distance the mast of yacht swings like the arm of a metronome as it motors its way towards the shelter of Tinker’s Hole.

I cut the engine and put my faith in the ocean and Archimedes. My fishing line drops to the sea bed and I wind the reel up a little before jogging the lures up and down. The fish come thick and fast, mackerel and saithe of equal size. I toss them into a fish box while they are still flicking their tails against the air. And then the fins come and I forget the fish and watch as a pod of dolphins bounce out of the gully through the crests. In the turbulence they appear and disappear as if by magic sometimes within an arms reach of the boat then away as tail lost on the far side of a wave. This is too easy, fish on the line and dolphins for company.

I can’t be sure but this is probably the same pod we saw yesterday out in the Sound of Iona. At the time my oldest son temporarily forgot his sea sickness as they neared the boat. The weather had been better and sea more readily gave up its secrets. At a guess I would say there was between ten and fifteen dolphins in the group including a couple of juveniles. Close up their fins and skin give up detail in form of nicks, bite marks and blemishes; its a hard life being a dolphin despite the fixed grin. They moved through the sound gathering a flotilla of pleasure craft drawn from both shores; we left them to the crowd.

Tonight I have the ocean and the dolphins to myself, so I drift under a darkening sky. A grey seal joins the fun stretching his head out of the water to view the contents of my boat as it tilts on a wave. The dolphins eventually move off out into the larger swells beyond the island. I start the engine and turn tail for home leaving a phosphorescent wake in the darkness of the sound.

Image Below: Coming up for Air (Bottlenose Dolphin)

Sunday, 28 June 2009


Image Left: Sitting with the stones

Space , Friday 26th June

My wife walks on ahead to the spiral and her sitting stone. I scramble through the bracken lifting patches of roofing felt, hoping to catch a lizard taking in the last of the days warmth. I have no luck and follow my wife to the spiral. The sun is making its evening descent towards Iona and has already begun to shoot out colour into the horizon. As my wife sits, I bounce round the rocks of the spoil heap photographing orchids, ferns, thyme and tight bunches of stonecrop.

The island is one mile by one mile, but what surface and what intricacy. Living here is like unfolding a lung. I have to ask myself what scale should I use to measure? Do I run a tape over points of the boulders or down into the crevices where hard ferns and stonecrop shelter? Maybe the surface of a leaf counts or the delicate inlayed scales that surround a lizards eye. If I look closely these details too give up their own structure and inversely the space that marks out their components. I once tried to grasp the size of mountain; in the dark of a winter evening I drove over its shoulder and understood the blackness against the streetlights of the villages and towns that clung to its foothills. Here there are few lights to give contrast and daily tidal surges make the ocean a less reliable yardstick.

Some days I go a little deeper viewing the world under a microscope and finding red splashes of blood in the body of a tick, blood that was once mine. Is everything just membrane, there are only boundaries and separation. When I draw caricatures two circles with dots at their centre become breasts or eyeballs dependant on viewer; a simple act of defining space. Am I only interested in defining space?

Image below: Common Lizard

Saturday, 13 June 2009

A Rare Thing

Image left: Common Sandpiper
Sunday 7th June
A Rare Thing

I turn into the Narrows under a sky filled with the siren like calls of oystercatchers. I quickly find the empty cup of their nest seated in a heather topped boulder: It had originally held three eggs, but two of these had been lost early on leaving only a single chick to face the rigors of life on the beach. I move off and their calls subside.

The recent run of neap tides have failed to dampen the expanse of sand leaving it littered with sea borne debris. Even the small tidal stream that skirts island’s side of the sand has disappeared leaving only the fossilised indents of running water. On the opposite bank the oaks of John’s Wood have filled out their canopy still holding to the glass ceiling created by the prevailing winds. Below on the edge of the sand a patch of Irises are just beginning to flower, the distance lending them the feel of impressionist’s sketch with hastily thrown yellow dashes amongst the green fuse.

For the island’s rocky margin life has also moved on apace, the low cliffs hold wooded tufts, with oak, birch, aspen and hazel all in leaf while the rowans had started to blossom. Even the shear faces of rock are dotted with tight bunches of thrift like unfurled anemones. Where ledges and fissures afford some shelter ferns, penny royal and heather bring their own colour to the patina of lichens. I drew myself into this world with deep breaths , someone had painted over the surfaces with life.

From a low stand of birch the call of a bird brought my attention in from the beach. The tone was melodious enough to be a songbird but it had a distinct resonance that marked it out from the thrushes and warblers. Its calls pulled me from bush to bush while my quarry gave up only tantalising glimpses. I was been played for a fool and when the bird had taken me far enough from its nest it made a long arc back to were the game had began. I too returned to the start but instead of replaying the chase, I waited. A small wading bird emerged from the thicket calling to its mate who answered from the top of rock on the edge of the beach. It flitted off the ground and threw its legs forward to grapple with a low branch on which it intended to perch, it took a couple of second to find its balance. I waited with them as they moved from branch to rock through the small valley dipping their tails and calling all the time. What I took to be the female made occasional sorties to the base of a hazel, where I assumed her nest lay. The species of the bird was only something I could guess at and these guesses ranged from rare passage migrants to species I had seldom found the need to look up in my field guide. I suppose life is a rare thing in itself and intimacy with it, rarer still.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

On The Street Where I Live

Image Left: The Island

Monday 1st June

On The Street Where I Live

I woke early to full sunshine and the thinnest of breezes. In the summer here, daylight begins about the time nightclubs are sending patrons home, darkness becomes a brief interlude in an endless summer day. My neighbour remarked yesterday that she could live another whole day after dinner, and I remembered I had a whole day to live before breakfast.

I met the small party on the street about half past six and we found coffee and a clear blue sky framed in the small panes of the kitchen window; we made our way down to the pier. I hauled on the mooring ropes breaking the inertia of the boat and the day in general. The engine sprang to life primed by the warmth of the sun and we idled out into the breeze of the sound. Ahead, Iona’s cliff faces hung like a wall in the distance and behind us Ben More crested out of a blue mountain haze. I felt a little uneasy about breaking through the quiet presence of the island and ocean with the rattle of hum of the engine at full throttle. We eventually turned towards Tinker’s Hole and found a small flotilla of yachts moored across the narrow gap, their masts glinting scimitar like against the horizon.

Overhead terns called as they flitted between the islets occasionally diving almost butterfly like to meet the water. Where the falling tide had exposed a long stretch of white sand on Easter Island, the striking patterns of male eider ducks jarred at my vision as they sat with their drab mates in the sun. We glided into seal bay finding a single grey seal hauled out on the rocks, he quickly dismounted and slipped back into the sea. I cut the engine and we drifted a little downwind of Seal island, the smell of seal’s breath still tainting the morning air. After a few minutes the seal reconsidered and returned to its perch lumbering out of water and the grace afforded by that medium. We sat hushed by the presence of the seal as if waiting on a guru for some words of wisdom, none were forth coming.

Our little boat trip was to give a couple long term guests a last look around the island and so far all the actors had willing taken to the stage. Leaving the seal, we cut back into the sound and visited Jimmy’s lagoon, a large sea trout bolted over the sand as we navigated through the monoliths. The tide was too low to afford the boat access to main lagoon. I took us out and hugging the opposite shore from the island made my way down to our jetty on Mull. I tied up and we stepped out to look back to the island, the summer sun was still lighting the face of the street, picking out the brightly coloured doors with a frame of shadow.

The distance hid any of the morning’s activities giving the place the look of a model village. My eye moved from the pier and sheds past the tractors and up the hill towards pier cottage and the byre. Above, the sanctuary topped the small wood and higher still the quarry and observatory. My eye took me back to the street and gardens, a perfectly formed miniature world that rested motionless in the morning sun.

When we finally returned to the island we found the world had woken, I handed the boat over to Phil and the children for the school run. The cows were already making their way back along the track their udders a little lighter after milking while their calves called from the front garden of number two. On the street two empty chairs, a laptop and a guitar looked to have been hastily abandoned by a unlicensed busker , while doorways held guests and residents that had come to look out over the bay at the wider world beyond.

Image above right: Street Life

Thursday, 28 May 2009

A Shallow Scrape In The Sand

Image Left: Oystercatcher chicks

A Shallow Scrape In The Sand
Wednesday 27th May

After dinner we walked onto the low grassy headland above the arc of the beach, the Oystercatchers where already up swinging around us with alarm calls while keeping some distance. I had found the nest earlier today on a walk across the bay to collect some guests who had been visiting Iona for the day. At three o’clock the shallow scrape in the sand was occupied by to two fluffy chicks and a single undamaged egg. At five, on the way back from a visit to the croft a small beak could be seen as it broke through the shell.

I guessed by now the chick would be out but wasn’t entirely sure if the little brood would be mobile enough to have scarpered. Once on the move finding highly camouflaged wader chicks becomes almost impossible especially when their parents’ warning calls seem to encourage them to remain as motionless as any of the other three million pebbles on the beach. A couple of years ago I nearly flattened a lapwing chick that had decided to patrol a stretch of road next to a Pennine moorland. What had been conspicuous while running on flat surface of the loose road completely disappeared when seated.

After walking backwards and forwards over the same ten feet of road for five minutes and finding nothing I glanced down at my feet and saw what I thought was frog that had been unlucky enough to encounter a car. Realising it was the chick I took a deep breath before bending down, luckily the flat appearance was partially an optical illusion created by the mottled pattern of its down. I lifted the chick and its legs dropped down like the oversized landing gear of an aeroplane. When I placed it back in contact with the ground it new its cover was completely blown and made a break for it in style of Road Runner.

I took the precaution of checking and setting my camera before we neared the nest so as not to spend anymore time than necessary disturbing the chicks and their parents. We dropped onto the beach cautiously studying the ground before every step. We found three chicks safe and well with half an egg shell in a small cup of sand. The latest hatchling was still sporting the wet look and nestling into the down of its slightly older siblings. All in all we stayed at the nest for a little over a minute before walking the short distance back to the street and out of danger zone for the worried parents.

Image Above Right: Nest Amongst The Pebbles
Image below: The Conception

Monday, 25 May 2009

A Toilet At The End Of The World.

Image Above: The compost toilet

A toilet at the end of the world.
Sunday 24th May

The weather could only be described as ‘bank holiday weekend’, weather. I was milking in the morning and then supposedly heading round to the other side of the island by boat to collect rubbish from a group of beach cleaners. The sea, having picked up over the course of the morning was shrouding the feet of Iona’s cliffs with breakers making a boat trip out of the question. I contemplated braving the drizzle for a walk down to the narrows before wisely deciding against it.

In the end I spent the afternoon in the compost toilet annoying two queen wasps that have begun nest building. For most visitors to the island the idea of having to use a compost toilet is enough to get used to without sharing the space with a burgeoning population of stingy things. Having personally come to consider the flush toilet as a luxury item to be marvelled at when visiting the mainland I must admit I am still not in favour presenting these creatures such an easy yet vulnerable target.

The huts are not exactly air tight and every year a queen or two starts out under the illusion that they have picked out the best location on the island for a nest. While I may share a toilet with my next door neighbour, sadly at some point I will have to withdraw the welcome to my striped friends. In the meantime I got to spend a wet afternoon photographing wildlife from the comfort of the throne.

Image right: Wasp Queen and Nest
Image below: The Other Queen and Nest.

Sunday, 17 May 2009


Image Above: Cormorant’s skull, found by Sarah

Saturday 16th May

The day was bright but a strong south-easterly had brought with it a chill while managing to whip up the bay into a chop. Today’s job was transport, saying good bye to guests and hello to some new faces as well as ferrying the island’s long-term residents to the shop, collecting post, laundry, and delivering candles. I suppose I am not in the hotel and catering business, the guests generally go a little deeper joining the community if only for a week or two. Just as they take from the island they also contribute, whether that be energy, humour, new skills, perspective or challenges. But then I am also a guest here of sorts.

A poem brought by a guest

The Song Of Amergin

I am the wind that breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combats,
I am the vulture upon the rocks,
I am a beam of the sun,
I am the fairest of plants,
I am a wild boar in valour,
I am a salmon in the water,
I am a lake in plain,
I am a word of science,
I am the point of a lance in battle,
I am the god who creates in the head the fire of thought,
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who teaches the place where couches the sun?
Who brings cattle from the house of Tara?

Irish Poem 1000bc Approx

Thanks Judith, get well soon

Friday, 15 May 2009

Log Run

Image Left: Log Run
Monday 11th May

I followed the tractor across the bay, foregoing a lift on the trailer to enjoy the afternoon sun. The tides are still running under the influence of the recent full moon, pulling and pushing the water to both extremes at the highs and lows. The huge pan of sand the tide had exposed acted as a giant reflector removing the little shelter afforded by my hat. In the shallows a pair of herons hunted for flat fish and sand eels, the ripples from the sound barely making it up to their knees. Overhead a squadron of mergansers raced in tight formation while plovers and oystercatchers browsed the wet sand.

I paddled over a stream that meanders through the bay and serves as a dividing line between the island’s sands and those of Mull. Phil took the tractor around a longer route to the woodpile while I made a direct line through the rocks of the foreshore. In the Sound of Iona a cruise liner was occupying the main channel on a course to anchor mid way between the island of the abbey and Fionnphort the nearest point on Mull. I watched a kayaker who was following a parallel course only a little closer and laughed at the juxtaposition.

Looking back to Erraid, the little street, pier and gardens seemed equally absurd but still vital to my sense of the place. The lighthouse builders had brought Victorian order and industry, but had only imposed their will within the bounds of the settlement. Beyond the walls the wilderness and beauty of the island almost laughs at mans folly, like a leaning tower in the Grand Canyon. We loaded the trailer with logs, grunts, groans and the odd strain. The timber is the community's primary fuel and was felled about twenty miles away on Mull at a Forestry Commission plantation. We leave it a year at the pile to season before carrying it onto the island and chopping it into fire sized pieces. Phil left to collect the children from school and I drove the tractor back stopping to check on oyster catchers’ and lapwings’ nests from my portable hide.

Image Above: Broken Tap
Image Left: Oystercatcher on nest

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Sheep Round Up

Image Left: Hunter and hunted

Sheep Round Up

Tues 28th

I round the headland above the window,(a small cave that opens onto the sea) with three other volunteers. John the shepherd has taken his dogs over the dome of granite above, to search for sheep. This is a full scale round-up of the island’s flock and my job is to lead a small group around the worst of islands terrain pushing sheep ahead of us or just blocking off gullies, while John works with his dogs. We started over an hour ago as a line of about twenty people moving like beaters over the heather and the island’s high point. We passed as a wave pushing the sheep ahead like foaming crests. After descending into the central valley we formed a human corral before the group separated and our small team headed off up the side of Balfour Bay. In our absence the flock and the corral move along a side valley towards the eastern edge of the island where the await our return.

The main task for me, is not finding sheep but keeping pace with the shepherd. With only a year on the island against a lifetime’s experience I struggle. It seems at times that John and his sheepdogs almost flow through the landscape. As I trudge over rock and stumble through heather gullies the pack disappears only to remerge or overtake us as if somehow toying with the constraints of time and distance. Occasionally I find a route that enables me to dance over boulders, running on a earth of sharp points as if a little part of me belongs to the sky rather than the land. After another hour in the island’s labyrinths we come in sight of the human corral. I spot an unmanned flock a little further on and try and move around the rise they have chosen, unseen. They have moved while I am out of sight and I am not in the best position as they run on and I have no choice but to follow. While weaving through the terrain I loose my group of volunteers and have to push on alone. Soon they slow enough for me to catch my bearings and begin to turn them towards the route the rest of the flock will take to pier. I run, walk, jump and come to a halt like a dog spreading my awareness to the flock and the tiny movements that hint at direction. We sweep forward onto the gentle slope behind the croft and I pick up another couple of stragglers and a mother with new born lamb. Behind the corral and flock are on the move and I slow my sheep until they catch up. The two flocks are drawn to each other almost like drops of rain on a window.

We hold the flock behind the croft while John brings in another small group and then move off towards the beach before walking them along the track to the fold above the pier. In the afternoon the sheep receive the second part of their Blue Tongue vaccinations and a dose to discourage ticks. They slowly disperse over the afternoon to dot themselves once again amongst the rocks and heather.

Image Right: Holding the line in the heather

Sunday, 26 April 2009


Image Left: Pinnacle rock
Wednesday 22nd April

Sadly the recent run of calm weather has come to end making the boat a last resort for a morning’s escape. I head out early on foot for otter island, the street is empty, even the milking crew have yet to clang churns and buckets. Only Val has stirred for a baking shift in the community kitchen, the smell of fresh bread leaks from around the doors drifting down the street. I leave the cottages in sunlight and take the track up to the quarry before dropping again past the derelict blacksmiths forge.

The sunlight feels harsh and almost wintry in the stiff breeze. From the crest of a small ridge my silhouette is projected by the low sun onto a canvas of heather. I follow a chain of outcrops which until today I have completely overlooked, it carries me to a vantage point that offers a clear view of the otters’ regular haunts. I scan between breaking wave crests, kelp fronds exposed by the falling tide and sea birds. I pick out the shape of an otter’s snout trailing a small wake, it is joined by another and I scramble down over the rocks and heather. The wind is behind me and part of me acknowledges this disadvantage. The otters are still away off shore, I make use of their dives to move between the wave worn boulders playing a game of musical statues with my quarry. As they near their unease with my scent becomes apparent as they dive and fail to resurface. I wait ten or fifteen minutes but they are gone so I set off to retrieve my hastily abandoned camera bag and tripod. In the cleft of rock I find a clump of primroses hiding from the island’s sheep. Having moved a little way back from the shore I pick out the squeaks of an otter cub,the sound ringing between the faces of stone . I chance another close encounter but the wind is not with me today and once my scent reaches out from the shore they disappear.

I retrace my steps toward the blacksmiths and the quarry stopping to photograph a small stone pinnacle that lies half hidden in the network of rock, bogs and heather that cover most of the island.

Image Right: Primroses in the cleft of a rock

Monday, 20 April 2009

Into The Blue Again

Image left: Porpoise and Soa Island
Friday 17th April

Today the sea is quicksilver infilling the space around the islands while its movement is arrested by its density. I am out beyond hell's kitchen heading towards Soa Island and a horizon that is obscured but hangs as a vagueness in the heat. The surface is alive with small groups of sea-birds, eiders, razor bills, guillemots, cormorants, shags and even great northern divers. I catch site of a fin and then part of tail as a porpoise does exactly what the name suggests. These are dainty almost delicate animals, although it is never easy to judge the size of anything from a moving boat. One eventually surfaces close by with a hiss from its blowhole before it disappears. It is hard to gauge numbers or even whether I am looking at a pod or one or two rapidly moving individuals. They move off and I follow short way before turning into the sound of Iona.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


Image left: Collecting and cleaning mussels in the bay

Wednesday 15th April

So the sea is flat, and I make it through Tinkers Hole to meet the ocean and swell. I was here last night and for a moment I saw what I thought was outlying rock in the wrong position. It turned out to be the arch of a whale’s back; what the swell had revealed it quickly swallowed. I come out here to get wrapped in ocean, to be held by an intangible vastness. Some days the ocean is benign and the boat sits like a feather on water, buffeted by the gentle talk of the gods. There is no certainty and Tinkers Hole is more often a gateway to the maelstrom, a place to turn back from. As the granite walls open up a single swallow rises on the updraft of a swell; things are on the move.

I take the boat to Hell’s Kitchen and find my favourite fishing mark by following the line of a fault through the island and into the depths. The swell is confused by the skerries making the boat pivot on every axis. I drop some lures over the side and gently nod them up and down in the knowledge it is probably too early for fishing; never mind.

This is the end of my holiday, I never went anywhere in particularly, it came to me. Two of my sisters arrived a few days apart and brought my son with them. The weather improved for Easter we collected mussels, oysters and in the evening drank whisky while singing Dolly Parton songs. My son, Louis, ran feral with the rest of children on the island, he appeared at intervals either damp, dirty or just hungry. Occasionally we managed to persuade him to join in with our more ‘constructive’ pursuits but this is an island. It is almost traditional for children to go a little wild, there are no cars or ‘strangers’. Even the lighthouse keepers’ children had a reputation which often made it into the Northern Lighthouse Board’s official records and the island’s history. Coal must be thrown and garden walls must by walked on; adults who grew up on the island often follow these patterns of behaviour on subsequent visits. On Easter Monday most of the island’s residents and guests made it out to Easter Island for our annual picnic and barbeque. The island is named after the event rather than as a reference to any primitively carved monoliths. We hunched down in patch of grass amongst the primroses and granite boulders like a troop of mountain gorillas. A small fire powered the kettle, coffee pot and two frying pans of sausages. In the afternoon the tide dropped low enough to expose an almost pure white beach from the turquoise waters.

Today the sun is still trying to break out of the low clouds as I push on beyond the outer islands into pure swell. Above skeins of geese are moving north maybe in search of an artic summer and its unending light. Soon the mackerel will return to the sound and fishing will cease to be a sport and become a harvest.

Image right: Easter island

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Too wet to play

Image Left: Otter tracks, mother and cubs
Location: The narrows, Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland
It was too wet to play
29th March

I sit with the remnants of a meal eaten as a snack, the coffee table littered with candles, cups, butter and plates bearing toasted crumbs. The ever present wind dances within the stove searching for gaps to pull or press against. I wonder about the world beyond the front door and run scenarios that combine wind and rain to unprofitable ends.

Last Sunday I walked up the narrows following the prints of the otters between pools. My wife lay down in sands as I searched for the clearest tracks to photograph; the ravens hung back unsure if a large meal had presented itself to within a flap and glide of their nest. Later at the bay where the narrows end, we both lay down on the thin turf between the boulders and tried to spark the interest of the local seals with a tune. They largely ignored the songs from the shows preferring the Sex Pistols and Beach Boys. When the sun emerged shooting rays through the water, their bodies glided over the sand with the smoothness and uncertainty of scattering electrons. Seals are easily distracted, we drew a small audience from the rocky islands in the bay.

Today I am trapped behind the windows. Out in the estuary, banks of rain have obscured the cliffs of Burg and Ben More.

Image Right: Greenhouse, Salen, Isle of Mull

Friday, 20 March 2009

Jimmy's Lagoon

Image Left: Juvenile Cormorant

Wednesday 18th March

Jimmy’s Lagoon

It seemed like I had spent the best part of the afternoon travelling backwards and forwards over the bay in Ella, our smallest boat. The island had largely emptied of guests and residents; the guests had gone to Iona for the day and the residents on a shopping trip to Oban. As ferryman I stayed behind and took advantage of a lull in passengers to visit Jimmy’s lagoon. Spring had swept in with clear skies and a gentle breeze that began to die as the afternoon wore on. The small swell out in the sound was almost a welcome percussion after the flat waters inside the bay. The sun was already hovering out over the Atlantic just high enough above the haze to render fully the contrast between the white sands, turquoise waters and the dome of a blue sky.

The lagoon or lagoons sit amongst humpback monoliths of granite giving the effect of an oversized zen garden. The rocks open via sandy channels directly onto the sound of Iona allowing the passage of the swell. I lifted the outboard onto its shallow setting and navigated a course around any patches of weed that broke the surface. I struggled to gauge the depth of water, its clarity was no help neither was the featureless sandy bottom. Cutting the engine, I drifted for a while, the breeze pushing me gently in the direction of a sunbathing cormorant perched on a rock. I wondered how close the boat would drift before it took flight, the answer came as one of the fenders began to gently rub on the rock. The cormorant a juvenile, watched me fish around for the boathook before it disembarked with a half hearted flap and graceless dive. Up until I had begun to wield a boat hook, the cormorant had probably decided I was somehow part of the boat, maybe a more vital extension but a part all the same.

When I take the tractor across the sand to collect logs the wading birds and geese in the bay seldom pay any heed until I am on top of them. Creatures that would skitter at the distant site of lone human, can almost completely ignore four ton of moving tractor. As a species we have managed at least to imprint ourselves within the DNA of other species as a threat but as yet we have not added the tractor. Maybe it is not the form that animals respond to but the ego, when I drive I am part of the machine the steering wheel or outboard gives me feedback like limbs and my awareness extends to width and depth of my larger body; I am a giant clad in metal or timber. Does the cormorant look on me as a benign giant? When I hold the boat hook does the mirage slip? Maybe he sees the ghost in the machine; I am man, destroyer of worlds. I spotted some returning guests making their way over Jimmy’s fields and headed back out into the sound and then turned towards the bay and the jetty.

Image Right: Kelp in shallows

Friday, 13 March 2009


Image Left: Jefferson, Cleaning Mussels
Tuesday 10th March

I dropped Jefferson outside the Iona ferry terminal and bus stop in Fionnphort, he was heading in the other direction for an evening in Oban before travelling on to Forres. We walked onto the slipway and I pointed out the abbey while explaining that St. Columba its founder was supposed to have been the first missionary to bring Christianity to Scotland. Our conversation was interrupted by a middle-aged man who stepped in to correct me, apparently St. Ninian beat Columba by a hundred years in the race to convert the pagan Scots. The man was obviously employed as a minor official in the corrections and errors department of the government. I imagined they had flown him in to stand on the slipway and correct any of the inaccuracies within the conversations of passers-by. We left the strange slipway man with his trench coat and brown leather brief case to point out errors for others, like the local fisherman who tie up here to unload their catches.

Jefferson had been staying for a week’s work exchange from another community based at Newbold House near Findhorn. Originally from Brazil he had lived in America for a while before moving to Italy and eventually Scotland. Having found out he was supplementing his income by working for an Italian restaurant we persuaded him to spend a bit of time in our kitchen. The results were almost too good and one point we thought about burning the boats to hinder his departure. When you have spent the best part of the winter eating at least four meals a week that include cabbage and then somebody comes along who makes it taste new and fresh, then praise is never enough. Before his departure he cooked a lunch for the community of fresh mussels and rice. We had collected the mussels from the bay on yesterday’s low tide and then cleaned them before leaving overnight in fresh water. With a morning of clear skies and light breezes it seemed appropriate to enjoy an alfresco lunch.

I warned Jefferson not to drink the local coffee before heading back to the small boat moored at Fidden jetty. In my absence the tide had raced in lifting the boat to the height of the stonework. I started the engine and chortled out into the becalmed estuary wondering whether to chance a fishing trip out in the sound. Instead I decide to spend what was left of the afternoon fixing the decking in reliance our main boat, which is still out the water for repairs and a much needed paint job.

From the shade of pier boat shed the beaches and small lagoons shone in the afternoon sunlight. I worked with my back to landscape occasionally catching glimpses between saw strokes. At four o’clock I was back in the boat to collect Phil and the children from the school run. A photography student we had been expecting had also arrived with her friend and mound of equipment, I made two trips and then showed them a place to camp. Inspired by the presence of another photographer on the island I took an after dinner stroll to the observatory as a full moon rose over the heather.

Image Above Right: Heather painting Reliance
Image below: Full moon at the observatory

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Clockwork Cows

Image Left: Bran
March 8th

Sometimes I wish the seasons could fast forward a little; I long for mornings when the sun cuts the room with blades of light focused through a gap in the shutters. Today it feels as though the world beyond the window has been replaced by a accountant’s office, leaving a phosphorescent glow of strip lighting to creep round the frame. If I don’t wake to sound of the wind dancing about the windows and doors, I lie a little uneasy wondering who’s bed I have woken to. I pick out the shape of a buzzard’s forewing clutching a medicine wheel pendant as they both hang over a joint in the wallpaper and know that I am home.

This morning I am out early to milk and muck out the ‘clockwork cows‘. A gate at the end of the small row of cottages marks the point where the street becomes the track; from here its course descends in a long curve past the woods and byre before straightening to meet the pier and sheds. I pass through with the milking bucket, vegetable peelings for the cows and leftovers for the chickens. The byre cats generally take their cue from the clang of the latch to roll at my feet and test my balance with full hands. Then the chickens emerge from woods and gaps in the fences looking for breakfast and spurred on by the group dynamics of the flock. The island’s longest resident Gustav Gans, a goose who’s age is reckoned to be somewhere between twenty five and thirty begins his lazy descent on foot from the meditation sanctuary he guards on the hill.

For the winter months the island’s cows spend their evenings in the byre bedded down in straw and safe from the squalls the North Atlantic is fond of dishing up. I click the latch and work through the pens and loft, shunting, cleaning, feeding and if the cows are happy with the rhythm they respond with gentle movements taking up their part in the dance. Milking is a brief affair, at the moment we are only milking Movern, the head of the herd, Jeanie, our other milk cow is drying off as her calf is weaned. The heifer Jessie joins the two calves to forage on the hill while I take to the stool and bucket. I call them the clockwork cows, but some times in a forgetful moment I half close a gate or a misplaced spade throws a spanner in the works and the pattern is lost. Today Movern left the byre and headed in the wrong direction; despite my words of encouragement and cajoling manner I had to wait for her to see the error of her ways. A friend of mine maintains that if cows had brains they would easily take over the world.

The chickens are in moult and finding eggs for breakfast is more of lucky dip than a guarantee. I drop a handful of corn on the track for Gustav and he responds with mock attempt to get airborne like Howard Hughes’s spruce goose. When the cows are out and the feed buckets washed I get to stop, take a moment to look down to the pier and the stretch of water that confirms I live on an Island. Today the landscape is grey, its shadows removed by the diffusion of a blanketed sky. The cliff faces of the Burg appears to be dropping mist like the foam spray of a waterfall. Ben More is lost in a ring of cloud its mass still palpable. Out in the sound the heads of seals bob up and down like creel floats as they too satisfy their own curiosity about the shape of the world this morning.

Monday, 2 March 2009

John`s Wood

Image Left: John’s Wood
Location: Ross of Mull
February 22nd

At the entrance to the Narrows I met Phil and Celia who where trailing their children Beau and Isaac over the sand. I offered to show them some otter prints I had found earlier that morning and a holt that appeared to be in regular use. The otter had made use of a natural cavity under a jumble of rocks that had fallen from the small cliff-face above, they had scraped the floor clean leaving a patch of bare earth visible from the opening. The small terraces of grass that covered the shortest route to the sand below had been marked with piles of spriants, the most recent of which looked to be less than a day old. The tracts lead away some distance, always hugging the rocky edge of the island before they disappeared into the high tide mark. Further on I found other prints, rather than a lone adult it looked like the marks a family group had left, the mother’s larger gait and less hurried movements set against the scramble of smaller cub prints. I could almost see the mother sat in the sand watching her cubs at play.

I left Phil and Celia and the kids after pointing them in the direction of the local ravens’ nest which had been topped up with fresh twigs for the spring. Crossing the stretch of sand to Mull I wandered up to the small wood that shelters another rock face. Here the trees form a canopy that fills out what would otherwise be shear side to a rock outcrop, the flow of the wind almost creates the impression of a glass ceiling to the wood. Oak makes up the bulk of the trees leaving the margins and more rocky places to the hazels and birches. The long arch of branch forms what seemed like a natural gateway to place that was more redolent of another world. Every surface in the wood had been soften and padded by deep carpets of lichens, ferns, mosses and liverworts even the braches trailed the fronds and tufts of these hangers on. From inside, the network of limbs pushed back the landscape beyond the wood and held my senses within the space they had created. Above the call of a buzzard rang out and I looked up as it hung in the air flexing its wings like the arms of body builder while it maintained its position overhead until it had satisfied its curiosity. I
ambled up to the rock face which like the rest of the wood had been softened, the giggling call of kestrel echoed of the stone as it left its perch and headed out into the fields.

Image Right: Otter Print

Wednesday, 18 February 2009


Image Left: Common Seal Pup

Sunday 15th February

Much like myself the day had so far struggled to get going, the sun limped weakly between fog and low cloud never really fulfilling its promise of good day’s sunshine. I decided to take advantage of the light breeze and flat water out in the sound with a boat trip. The boat in question Ella was named after the medium Ella Horsey, who had it built when she lived on the island in the 1950`s. Whether any of her former owner’s powers have rubbed off is hard to say, she at least gives me a sense of confidence beyond my normal competence. The only problem with Ella is that someone has fitted a 5hp two stroke engine to her , having spent two days of the week taking a two-stroke chainsaw to be repaired, I have little faith in anything that requires an oil and petrol mixture for fuel. Today surprisingly the engine started first time and I headed out into the sound towards Iona and then half a mile out made a turn to the left heading for Tinker’s Hole. I stopped into the small lagoon where our resident population of common seals hauls out and cut the engine. A single adult and pup which looked to be one or two months old lay perched on their sides and doing their best to ignore me. I drifted past on a light breeze and out of curiosity the pup decided to follow me watching as I failed to restart the engine and began to fumble with some impossibly large oars. I rowed back into the lagoon passing Seal Island with my companion in tow and sheltered in the stillness of tidal pool. The engine eventually restarted and I made it out into the main channel that leads to Tinker’s hole, a fog descended briefly obscuring the world beyond Easter Island and rather than push on into the unknown I turned round and headed for home. The engine took this opportunity to go on strike again, I tried as best as I could to restart negotiations and then opted to sneak up on it before descending into words or encouragement that are generally offered by fish wives and Dockers. In the end I rowed back hugging the shoreline past Otter Island and picking a course between the shallow reefs. To the north, Iona’s cliff tops emerged from the fog creating the illusion of an island in the sky, and I drifted a little peering through the turquoise water to the white sandy bed of bay.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Full Circle

Image Left: Otter Cubs in the Kelp

Sunday 8th February

Full Circle

Sometimes I look for signs and wonders but more often they find me: the arch of a mountain peak, a line in the sand or the flicker of a hawk’s wing over the heather. I don’t like the word omen it sounds too wishy-washy, too subjective; I tend to think of these small moments as tracks or way markers. When I look for otters it isn’t the big splashes but the tooth marks found in the discarded bodies of crabs or the scats and trails through the wet grass that give proof of life. I collect and compare incidents hoping to eek out some meaning or understanding of the world based on experience rather than the fall of the cards or patterns left by tea leaves.

When I have collected and sorted then I weave my own world, which is no less ethereal than that of other mystics. Yesterday I found a circle in the sand carved by a single blade of grass that had been spun around its anchor point in the wind, I took as a sign. I once photographed the side of barn that bore similar markings left by a sycamore that had been felled prior to my visit. Once on a mountain I found solid rock cut by the same process and again while waiting in a motorway traffic jam my eye was drawn to a grime covered concrete embankment, scoured by trailing brambles . I have a history with patterns, sometimes it works in my favour and then it doesn’t.

A permaculturist once told me that when dealing with a new garden or landscape the best practice is to do nothing for a year and just observe; get to know your land before turning it under the plough. In a couple of weeks I will have lived on the island for a year, I don’t know whether I have served my apprenticeship but I have a feeling it is an on going process. Before I came here I was following other patterns that led to other places, dark places and an end that I didn’t want. I left and chose life in a new landscape, with new possibilities and new patterns. So I take this circle as a sign, a proof of life.

This morning I walked into a world of patterns and in amongst the familiar nodding of kelp fronds on an ebbing tide I spotted the flick of an otter’s tail as it dived. The sun broke through the cloud as I scrambled over the rocks to watch a female otter and her cubs hunt the rocky margins of island.

Image Above Right: Ghost Sycamore
Image Below: Circle in the Sand

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Going To Meet The Mountain

Image above: Sheep fank (fold) and Ben More

Location: Isle of Mull, Scotland

Sunday 1st February

I used to have a mountain but the ownership was unclear although, I always assumed it had laid claim to me. The mountain was the Black Hill and I said good bye to that landscape over a year ago. After skirting its foothills for eight years I climbed only once into the cloud base that normally haunts its summit and exchanged a few parting words in the silence.

Now I have an island and once again it exerts a claim over me, but sometimes I miss the density of mountain. Today I went to meet Ben More, a peak which dominates the small estuary the separates the island from Mull. It often lures me from the cottage doorway and sometimes in the dark of a winter’s evening, if the moon hangs low enough it seems to rest within the mountain’s shoulder. If I need another mountain there would be little reason to look any further but the ritual dictates a proper courtship, there will be know marching to summit and planting a flag.

The route from the island to base of the mountain is a little over ten miles, obviously once you have made it onto Mull. This morning the weather had made a change for the better, a stiff southerly wind had cleared all but a few patches of cloud from sky. I paddled through the ebbing tide at the narrows and then made the short climb to the barns at Knockvologan; the winter home for the van. From the comfort of the vehicle the world passed by at an easy pace, each bend bringing a new vista or a change in perspective. Occasionally I spotted a herd of deer out in the autumn tinted grasses or a buzzard hunting from a post. In the flat sunlight the cresting sea had taken on a steely blue tone flecked with white breakers or the flash of a seagulls wing. From the Ross of Mull the mountain shows its best side, its snow capped ridge half hidden in shade throughout the morning renders some form to its presence. I drove past Pennyghael and the turning for Salen to view it from the other side.

Just as I began to lose sight of the mountain in my rear view mirror I stopped and turned back to meet it again. Back at Pennyghael I found an empty sheep fank and left the warmth of the van to make some images. Is it my mountain? I don’t know maybe I will kept the island instead.

Image Above Right: Buzzard