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