Friday 16 December 2011

The croft - shed and polytunnel

Here's another shot of another key corner of our exploded abode - winter headquarters ('the great hall') on one side, bath shed (formerly known as 'the lounge', as it used to house a sofabed as well as the bath, so one could lounge, wet or dry...) on the other. In between them, the polytunnel.

What did we ever do without the polytunnel? Quite apart from salad production all year round, getting plants started in spring, tomatoes in summer etc, at this time of year it's a vital dry store of wood with chopping block for kindling production, and I store my willow in it for basket making, make felt in it, in fact I do everything vaguely messy in it, especially on wet days.

Monday 12 December 2011

The croft - studio

Continuing with a picture of the croft, for those of you curious about our 'exploded house' of scattered sheds. This is the industrious corner, with our studio (designed and built by Bernard Planterose of Northwoods on Loch Broom) and the shed behind it, which used to be our office until we built the studio, and which goes by the somewhat grandiose name of 'the library' (yes, it is full of books).

On the right of the picture you can see the power supply. We also have a solar panel, about which I cannot speak warmly enough. Heating is by wood, and sunshine.

There, now you know where I'm sending this stuff from.

Friday 9 December 2011

The croft - moving in...

I've been asked by a few folk to put some pictures of the croft on here. So I've had a rummage and over the next wee while I'll post up some shots of our various sheds and caravans to try to give a visual impression of life here.

This seems as good a place to begin as any - this is the arrival, in 2001, of our 12-foot caravan in which we spend spring, summer and autumn. It landed a bit to the left of this picture, on the shore of Loch Roe, and we have since painted it a sort of russety purple colour so it blends in with the birch trees a bit.

We got lucky that day. The helicopter was passing over Assynt on his way back to Inverness from Lewis, where it had been shifting electricity poles. We had the caravan stropped up ready at Achmelvich beach, and the whole operation from pick up to drop off took less than 10 minutes and cost us £75 - one of life's best ever bargains. Sadly the pilot wouldn't let me ride in it, because if it had started swinging, he'd have had to drop it. The skill of the pilot in lowering it into position was completely breathtaking.

One of the amusing things, ever since, has been watching people who come to visit scratching their heads beside the caravan, and eventually saying, 'How on earth did you get this here?'

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Is twitter the new oral tradition?

It has started to dawn on me, as I spend several hours each afternoon and evening tweeting about trees, that twitter is a new form of an old thing.

As part of the A-B-Tree project,  at dusk each day I'm creating what several folk have now described as a 'forest of tweets' about a tree - one tree per day, taking them in alphabetical order, according to the Gaelic tree alphabet. Today it was oak. Yesterday it was hawthorn. Tomorrow it will be holly.

I normally begin with nomenclature and botanical facts, move onto practical uses and then gravitate to snippets of folklore. I throw in links to poems from time to time, and most days I have finished with a poem.

I'm enjoying this process, although it feels a bit strange to be sitting in my shed in the dark, throwing out titbits into cyberspace to see if anything bites. But increasingly, it seems, people nibble.

The poet, former librarian of the Botanic Gardens, Colin Will (@colindwill) is hugely knowledgeable about trees and chips in most days with fascinating gems. Environmental archaeologist specialising in trees, Coralie Mills (@dendrochronicle) has shared knowledge too. I'm delighted when people ask me for sources or for clarification, or start to speculate what something might be about. It's great when people pick up on something and retweet it to their followers because they think it's interesting, or weird.

I've been corrected about several points, which is fab. For example cricket stumps are unlikely in ancient times to represent the Triple Goddess because there were only two of them until 1775, though isn't it interesting that they're called wickets (echoes of wicker and wicca...)

Then there are the jokes - and I love the banter around some of the stranger magic spells I've put up, or the just plain silly responses. I'm being heckled! Go cybercrofter!!

But most pleasing is the realisation that a lot of the stories and traditions, taboos and warnings, rhymes and spells, go right back to the oral tradition of storytelling and the bardic culture. Although this project started out as all about writing, the content of much of this stuff predates written communication and was passed on around firesides, in songs and tales. And twitter is a bit like a giant, global fireside at a giant global crofthouse, where people can drop in, listen for a bit, throw in an idea, nod or laugh or take the piss, and wander out again. I like that.

Tomorrow at dusk, thig a-steach (come away in), pull up a stool and we'll give holly a chewing over @cybercrofter. Slainte!

Sunday 4 December 2011

Panda voyeurism in Edinburgh should make us ashamed

I seem to be in a small minority of people who are dismayed about the arrival of two pandas at Edinburgh Zoo today.

Some of those expressing disquiet are upset about the underlying politics, and the diplomatic and trade ramifications of this deal between China and Scotland. There are also financial concerns about the cost of renting the pandas and paying to maintain them versus how much income the zoo will make through increased visits, and even if they pay for their keep, what any surplus will be used for. I find of these arguments against keeping pandas in Edinburgh convincing. But that's not what really upsets me.

The zoo argues that it is helping the conservation of pandas. In his book Way of the Panda, and a recent blogpost, Henry Nicholls questions the connection between keeping pandas in captivity and helping them in the wild. He concludes 'there is little, if any, overlap between the lives of captive and wild pandas'. No panda raised in captivity has ever been successfully released into the wild, so the captive breeding programme that Edinburgh will take part in will merely rear another generation of imprisoned animals. There's no convincing evidence that keeping pandas in zoos does anything to address the practical problems facing wild pandas, particularly habitat loss and poaching.

What saddens me most is what bringing the pandas to Edinburgh is going to do to people in Scotland. It will strengthen a culture of acceptance of keeping large animals as captives, on display. Children and adults will pay to experience animals behind bars, within concrete enclosures, unable to forage for food, undergoing controlled mating and with no interaction with other species except humans.

But a wild male panda has a territory of more than 10 square kilometers of habitat dense with bamboo. No bear should have to live in a small, sloping concrete enclosure without any of its natural food source. No civilised society should allow this, let alone use it as a voyeuristic form of entertainment, encouraging people to pay to look on and laugh.

The zoo's message will be that being boxed in and controlled is somehow safe, protective, even special (because pandas are so cute and rare). What's worse, they will try to pass this exploitation off as something to do with 'nature conservation'.
Bringing pandas to Edinburgh not only completely misses the point about what actually needs to be done to prevent them from becoming extinct (tackling the problem of poaching and strengthening the reserves of their natural habitat in China), but by bolstering tolerance in Scotland for keeping intelligent creatures in captivity it also chips away at our appreciation of nature and wildness and freedom.

What Scotland really needs is not caged animals from the other side of the world. We need more wild places, and more opportunities for people to experience the myriad wonders of life that exists here in its natural habitat. For every day a child spends at Edinburgh Zoo peering at bears behind bars, that's one day they haven't spent out in the woods, playing, exploring and having a real experience of nature. That's what makes me sad.

We can, and should, watch pandas on video, in the wild, not in some latter day circus on Corstorphine Hill.

Friday 2 December 2011

A-B-Tree phase 2

I have now completed 18 creative writing events, one for each tree associated with a letter of the Gaelic alphabet. The last one was willow, at Timespan Museum in Helmsdale, and as it was disgusting weather we stayed indoors - restricting our experience of the tree to some twigs I had brought, and some baskets. But the participants seemed to enjoy themselves nonetheless, and we had a fascinating discussion about the folklore of willow, including some pretty weird ritual practices associated with it - good for a laugh.

So that's phase 1 of the project complete, and now I'm getting under way with phase 2, which is to gather all of the information I have collected about the trees and write it up. Quite what form that writing will take is still pretty fluid, and I'm open to suggestions.The plan so far is...
  1. Poems. I have now written a poem about each tree. I had some already but it's been an interesting challenge to complete the set. Once they're polished, they might form a pamphlet.
  2. More poems. There are loads of really gorgeous poems about trees out there and it has been one of the pleasures of phase 1 to find these and share them at events, using them as inspiration for new writing. I realised last week, having spent a day in the Scottish Poetry Library, that there is a lack of a poetry anthology about trees. Trees Be Company was produced as part of a trilogy by Green Books about a decade ago, but it misses many wonderful poems. It would be great to work with a publisher to produce a new poe-tree anthology.
  3. Tweets. One of the things people have enjoyed most about the A-B-Tree sessions are the snippets and titbits I brought along of ecological and practical facts and folklore. At many of the sessions I handed these out on bits of paper and we all took turns to read them out. I realised that these snippets are all roughly tweet sized, so I decided to tweet some of them, taking a tree a day and going through them in alphabetical order. I started yesterday with birch. Today it was rowan. And I'll carry on until 18 December. As I go, I'll put them up on a page on the website. Birch and Rowan now have their pages. Follow @cybercrofter on twitter, and tune in at dusk each day to catch them.
  4. A report. The project has been supported by Forestry Commission Scotland and Hi-Arts, and I'll be writing them a report about the events.
  5. School materials. I've had some discussions with teachers, and I'd welcome more, about producing some of the information about the trees in a form that would be useful for children to learn from. One suggestion has been to make laminated cards for each tree, with images, facts and activity suggestions. I rather like this idea. 
  6. A book? Is there a book in all of this? Let's see how it goes.

Friday 18 November 2011

Retreat! Retreat!

We all had such a magical time on Tanera Mor in September (see my previous blog post about our week in September) that I've decided to do it again in September 2012.

A writing retreat is a special time. It's a chance to really get your teeth into a new project, to get some pages of that novel under your belt, to draft some new poems, or just to sit back, relax, wander and wonder and recharge your creative batteries.

I've been running retreats since 2006 and I've come to the conclusion that what works well is a loose, mostly unstructured week. There will be a 'creative warm-up' session, writing together for an hour in the morning, a couple of walks out and the odd other mini-workshop to stir up ideas. All activities are optional and your time is your own. I'm always happy to read work in progress and give feedback in confidence, and there'll be lots of opportunities to share your writing with others, especially around the fire in the evenings.

In terms of practicalities, the retreat will be based in one (or more, depending on numbers) of the cottages on the island. The kitchen will be stocked for us to help ourselves to breakfast and lunch and we'll have dinner cooked for us. The price includes the boat trip to and from the island and a cruise around the Summer Isles. There are different prices for different sizes of rooms.

It will be the week of 1-7 September 2012. Contact Lizzie to book or for more details see the Summer Isles website.

Hope to see you in Tanera next year. I'm looking forward to it already!

Thursday 17 November 2011

Fourth and final tiny poetry film - Two Boats

Here's the fourth and last of the four little Loch Roe films Bill has made out of my poems. It started life as a concrete poem called 'Invisible', but nobody seemed to get it, so I changed the name to Two Boats, so you can guess what it's about.

They're both Bill's boats. The dinghy is called Ripples. The big one is his fishing boat, Vigilance (side on, she's just like a Chinese boot). Although his days of making his living in Vigilance are over, he lavishes most of each summer fixing her up to get through the winter. She's an old tender to the lighthouse supply ship, the Pole Star.

two boats from Bill Ritchie on Vimeo.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Zen gardener

Another tiny poem video in honour of the loch.

zen gardener from Bill Ritchie on Vimeo.

And now, given what an utterly glorious day it is, I shall go and do a little mindful gardening myself.

We had the first real frost of the year last night, and woke to a peach cloudless sky over a starched white world. The morning walk took me past the veggie beds, and it's satisfying to see the dug soil crackling with frost. I got the last of the tatties out just in time.

Unfortunately a deer has broken through the fence and devoured the brassicas. So there's net-mending to tbe done. I shall endeavour to remain serene.

Tuesday 15 November 2011


Another video-poem in celebration of the good times to be had beside Loch Roe.

foam from Bill Ritchie on Vimeo.

Monday 14 November 2011


On a calm, warm morning like this there is nothing better in the world than to sit on the deck by the caravan at the shore and watch the loch. The season for living there is over, but we miss it, Fortunately it's just a stroll away. We put Kelly kettle in the bag, gathering some dry heather on the way down, then settle in for tea and wait to see who's about.

A curious face bobs up, then glides towards us. Snub nosed, soft eyed and alert, there's no doubt it is coming right in to give us its full attention. It feels like a greeting. It's a common seal. It reaches its body out of the water to scrutinise us. We gaze right back.

The seal sinks below the surface. Circles of ripples radiate out, glistening with sunshine. Its sleek body emerges out of the water with a porpoise's curve, then slices back in. Under the surface it must be powering along. It leaps again, another arc, right out of the water this time, before plunging back under. Then again, with another tremendous surge, as if trying to take flight. By now it's right across the loch beside the skerry. Surfacing, it splooshes into the seaweed. Playing now - a splashing backflip. Then a cruise (panting, surely), head up looking in our direction.

We clap and call 'bravo!' It sets off again, throwing itself up in virtuoso bounds back towards the shore. Its final lunge takes it up onto the bow, cushioned by bladderwrack, where it squiggles up onto the top. There it lies, back-bending into a banana-shape, scratching, flicking its flippers and twisting its tail.

It's a perfect morning for basking, but this young seal is too restless to slouch today. Perhaps it is waiting for another seal to play with, or to squabble about who will get the perfect rock spot for a low-tide snooze.

I've spent endless hours enthralled by these animals, and inevitably a few poems about them have emerged. Here is a tiny one, the first of four of my mini poems which Bill has set to film.

seals from Bill Ritchie on Vimeo.

I'll post the others up here in due course.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Neolithic, Iron Age and Clearance-period poems

I read these poems at the ceilidh in Drumbeg last night, and was asked to post them here.

Over recent years I have written stacks of poems and stories inspired by the stone remains of past inhabitants of Assynt. Last night was the grand finale of the Life and Death in Assynt's Past project (see the project diary here), and it seemed appropriate to read last night one from each of the three periods we have been looking at in this project.

Here they are. The first is about a neolithic chambered cairn I am credited with finding, and it's now known as Mandy's Cairn (or Carn a' Mhandy!) - very exciting indeed to have made an archaeological discovery! The second came from a walk to a possible Iron Age round house in Glenleraig with a very old wall, likely to be a cattle enclosure. The third was inspired by a huge fin whale washed up on Raffin beach, and the pre-clearance township ruins on the south side of Loch Druim Suardhalain.

Chambered Cairn (NC 24051450)

A shrine tumbles up from 5000 years or so ago
into this breezy secular present.

Stones offer a threshold
where dead and living crossover

a territory edge to wonder
where understanding might begin.

Trying to trick nature
to slough below the surface
asking if body-mind is divisible from spirit

I climb inside the neolithic cairn
enter a portal
allow cogs to turn.

I will re-emerge from this tomb
a ghost from the future
in an ancient time.

Were the dead known then?
Was then closer to now then?
Do these doors open?

Proof of iron age cheese

A tumbled line of dyke may tell which side is inside:-
    a wall’s steep face shows where livestock stayed;
    even faces mean winter in but summer out.

Mossy stones:-
    cattle mooing,
    grassy breath and hairy hides…


Around the lost

circumambulate the washed-up whale
make a circuit of a Clearance ruin

encircle a mystery
pay out a little awe

recognise a sofa-sized tongue
wonder at its song

reach arms out to an angel tail
to people long ago

before these houses tumbled
when trees grew not inside the walls

these heaved-together stones
like that giant baleen

still speak of home
of lives lived where we cannot go

Friday 11 November 2011

Who goes there? Mink or otter?

Great excitement this morning when we checked the footprint trap - a paw mark! Mink or otter?

This afternoon we went back with ruler, camera and mammal book. We're pretty confident it's an otter print - 7cm would be the Big Foot of the mink race. Phew!

Otters are of course very welcome and we're very grateful that one has taken an interest in what we're up to!

Tuesday 8 November 2011

How poor were the people here before the clearances?

I was on the telly yesterday (on BBC Alba, speaking English on the Gaelic news, at 13.30 minutes through the programme here). I am talking about the surprise of discovering fine pottery and wine bottles and other 'high status' objects in the dig of a 200 year old house here in Assynt.

There's a stereotype that the people who were cleared from the glens in the Highland Clearances were destitute, poverty-stricken folk who went off to find a better life in distant lands. But perhaps there's more truth in other stories, about good lives brought to an abrupt end by landlords who simply wanted to use the lands exclusively for their own ends.

The people who lived in the Glenleraig house we recently excavated seem to have had disposable income - cash to spend on luxuries like fine china, good boots and wine. The archaeologists are surprised by the wealth of the finds. Perhaps these people weren't being 'helped out of their poverty' by being made to leave their homes.

Today I spent the afternoon at Ledbeg exploring a stone that someone tripped over a few weeks ago, which was thought perhaps to be a fallen neolithic standing stone. Today a bunch of us dug back the turf to see what it looks like. It's much bigger than we expected: 3 metres long, deeper than it is wide and, to my mind, looking like a huge goddess statue. I wonder what the archaeologists will make of this?

Sunday 6 November 2011

Mink patrol

It was supposed to be wall-to-wall sunshine this morning, were the Met Office to be believed, which of course they're not. But it was dry, so we set off anyway to circumnavigate the loch system and move one of the mink traps, which had washed out completely during the big rains recently. These are just footprint traps - covered boxes of clay which are supposed to appeal to a curious mink who will enter and leave their tell-tale signature paw marks.

We have no mink here in Assynt. Or not yet. The odd sighting has been made too close for comfort, however, and animals have been caught in Loch Broom. We don't want mink. They might look cute but they don't belong here and cause havoc to fresh water ecosystems.  This corner of Scotland is the last bastion of the water vole, the national population of which has reduced by 90% since mink arrived. See the Scottish Mink Initiative for more information, and thanks to them for the picture below.

We've been monitoring two mink traps for a year now and this is the time of year when young animals will be migrating and seeking their own territories, so we need to be vigilant.

One of the traps is a floating raft, and we check it most weeks. We have never seen a footprint in it, which at one level is really good news, though a water vole footprint or two or even a frog visiting would have been nice!

The trap that was swamped is a tunnel, dug into the bank. We rescued it and carried it through the lochside woods to a safer place close to a weir where the water flows down into a brackish loch. We dug a new pit for it right next to an otter run and filled it with fresh clay, then covered it up with bracken. An otter is theoretically too big to get in, but we frequently see young otters and they could presumably check it out.

Unfortunately the spot we chose is over on the other side of the weir from here, so that's going to mean a regular trip across it to check the trap. There's a big gap in the middle of the weir where you have to jump across, from one rickety gabian to another, over the water in full flow, so winter's walks will now include a weekly scary teeter and leap - good for the soul perhaps? I hope the water voles appreciate what we're doing for them!

Saturday 5 November 2011

A plug for a bit of paganism

This is the bonfire created by Stewart Yates at Torbreck last night. He also produced a spectacular fireworks show, but it was the bonfire that made the evening for me. There's nothing quite like a burning effigy and this was something else - the actual bonfire was built as a monster, was lit by a rocket and then squatted, with blazing eyes and mouth belching flames, looking for all the world as if it would soon take to its feet and start running rampage. Fantastic. (Thanks to Helen Lockhart, who took the photo).

For thousands of years people have celebrated this time of year with fire ceremonies. Traditionally this is when the sun god Lugh dies and the earth goddess takes on the form of the crone, or Cailleach, who will protect us all through the winter. Lighting a bonfire to mark this passage was a signal to warn off evil spirits, and to burn up the final fragments of the old year. 

Now all the plants have finished their season and have made their seeds and nuts. Now is the dormant time, the long slow germination of new life. Traditionally, in the old Celtic and Wiccan view of the world, this was the start of the year. I like the idea that winter comes first, that we can begin with sleep, with rest and quietness, now that the harvest is in.