Thursday, July 27, 2006

Driftwood from Ballantrae Beach

Ballantrae is a small village in the far south of Ayrshire and - sometimes - an excellent source of the driftwood that my husband often uses in his artworks. We went down there yesterday on a fine afternoon, but winter and spring, after the storms, are much the best seasons for driftwood and now most of it has been cleared away by the council, so that the visitors won't be hindered as they amble along the beach. Ballantrae was once a thriving fishing village, with many ring netters and other boats, with the characteristic BA registration. There is a village street which more or less turns its back on the sea, a ruined castle and a picturesque harbour, with only a few tiny boats moored there. Down along the shore is a lovely little row of fishermen's cottages which have been renovated and painted in bright colours, and an old clinker built open fishing boat, drawn up on the hard. This is a beach where terns nest and from which you have views of Ailsa Craig, now a bird sanctuary, and Arran, from an unusual angle, with Holy Isle clearly visible as a separate island (It sits in Lamlash Bay and from most of the Ayrshire coast, it looks as though it is part of the main island.) On a clear day, you can see the Kintyre Peninsula, and the Antrim coastline from here and it becomes very easy to see why the so called Scottii, the Dalriadan celts, came over from Ireland to colonise this place. Yesterday though, it was all misty and distant with smudgy suggestions of other lands. The only people on the beach were two women, walking a pair of dogs, and a couple of wee boys and a girl, who had set up sea fishing rods and were hoping for big things. Children in this part of the world have summers that most city kids can only dream of. There's an optimum time, my own grown-up son tells me, when you are 'old enough to go out and about on your own and young enough to get away with it.' He remembers playing 'chases' up hill and down dale, like the legendary William Brown and his outlaws, and already thinks about that time with a certain amount of nostalgia.
Down at the harbour, a retired couple who had driven down from nearby Girvan, were perched on the sea wall enjoying the sun, while a trio of teenagers with rods were digging for lugworms for bait. We stood back, older and wiser, and agreed that they hadn't a hope. They were digging and then standing back to survey the results, thus giving the worms plenty of time to burrow back in. The technique is to dig, and then pounce on them immediately. We spent a few summer mornings in Gigha, doing just that, when our son was small but I can't recall that we ever caught many fish. It was my dad who was the lucky fisherman.
At Ballantrae, we poked about the beach for a while, gathering one or two interesting driftwood pieces, which might be useful as part of something larger, and then came home again. In due course, you might well see some of the results of our beachcombings on the Scottish Home. Driftwood is imported into the UK in huge quantities these days, but there is nothing quite like the natural sculptures to be made from the real, indigenous product. And if you aren't sculpturally inclined, these sea bleached pieces can still make an interesting addition to your garden.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Garden Sculptures in Wood

My husband, Scottish sculptor and woodcarver Alan Lees, has often been commissioned to create large, outdoor sculptures in wood. These days he finds it too physically demanding to make the ten or fifteen foot high artworks which he used to make, and he tends to create slightly smaller pieces, although his inspiration always seems to be on a large scale. If you want to see a great quantity of his work all in one place, go to the excellent Kelburn Country Park, at Fairlie, just outside Largs, on the North Ayrshire coast. He has contributed a number of extraordinary pieces to Lord Glasgow's 'Secret Forest' including a three dimensional 'Green Man' in solid oak. One other life size carving is in the Burns Centre in Alloway, although this is a source of constant frustration to the artist as well as to many visitors, since the shop manager there persists in using this life size realisation of Robert Burns' Tam O' Shanter and Meg the Mare, entirely hand carved in Scottish lime, as a 'point of sale' display piece - blocking the visitors' view of it with assorted cheap souvenir items. Yeuch. We are quite used to getting irate phonecalls about it from outraged Canadian and American visitors, but since the sculpture belongs to the council, not us, there isn't a thing we can do about it. (South Ayrshire Council are not noted for their extensive appreciation of the arts!)
Working on large carvings like this, though, can be a thankless task. People have no idea of the time and work involved and while they will pay many thousands of pounds for a mass produced item such as a car, are curiously reluctant to pay an artist or craftsman for his time. On one memorable occasion, a client (better remain nameless) asked Alan to travel fifty miles in order to estimate for carving a 40 foot high dead tree into an interesting shape. When we got there, we found they had a budget of £200! We don't have many sculpture in our own garden, but the big bird, above, is one. Now that the ivy and the honeysuckle have done their work, I think it looks wonderful - as if the bird is flying out of a big green cloud. It won't last forever, of course, but the gentle, slow decay of these outdoor pieces is a part of the process. The older they are, the better they seem to look.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Critter in the Kitchen

When describing the idylls of country living, most lifestyle magazines will tell you nothing about all the creatures who will not only share your garden, but occasionally decide to invade your house as well. This morning, when I went down to make my tea (real tea-leaves, real teapot, naturally) there was a critter in the kitchen. I heard a sudden, frantic scuffling behind the dustpan and brush, but couldn't see what it was, except that it looked quite big. Aaargh. I went out, shut the door, did something else and went back in again, wondering if I had been mistaken. But there it was again, that sudden convulsive scrabbling movement, this time in the vicinity of the dresser. Then all went quiet. I closed the interior door, opened the outside door, made my tea and hoped for the best.
Most summers, we have various specimens of the local fauna that decide that they would prefer to share our living space. There was the summer night when my son came into the living room and said that there was 'a very very very large moth' in the kitchen. It wasn't a moth at all. It was a disorientated pipistrelle bat. We put the light off and opened the back door (usually the best way of dealing with such intrusions, since they want to get out just as much as we want them to go!) But on this occasion it didn't leave. Somehow it found its way through into the study where one of my husbands woodcarvings - ironically enough a large wooden pillar, carved with bats (honestly!) - was waiting for installation in somebody's garden. The bat was found clinging to it the next day. Very gently we managed to transfer it outside, and put it well away from marauding cats, in the shade, to await nightfall.
Spring and autumn bring an annual invasion of little field mice and shrews. Sometimes young swallows fly in the windows. Once it was a blue tit that took up residence in the kitchen and definitely didn't want to leave. We have had baby hedgehogs ambling up the hallway, and rooks in the chimneys. Yesterday, standing in the kitchen doorway, I saw the flash of a mobile reddish brown sausage, marking the passage of stoat or weasel, I'm never sure which.
Worst of all, though, are the enormous garden spiders that seem to venture doggedly indoors at this time of year. I don't mind the smaller variety, but the other night's intruder was huge. I never kill them. Can't stand the squashing. I just put a glass over the top, slip a card underneath and evict them.
This morning's critter? Well, I just went out the back door myself and almost tripped over an extra large frog, making its hesitant way out, at the same time. I stood back and watched it hop off. Sighs of relief all round. I rather like frogs, which is just as well, because having a garden pond not far from the back door, we have lots of them. Oh and the wooden frog in the illustration? That's one of a pair of larger-than-life sculptures that my husband made for a country park. I'm glad my visitor wasn't quite that size!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Favourite Plants from a Lowland Scottish Garden

I went browsing around our local garden centre today, on my own, and realised how blissfully happy it made me. I've just sent back the revised proofs of my new book about the history of the beautiful little Isle of Gigha, which has also figured largely in my fiction, and I felt justified in treating myself to a coffee and some 'time out'. Later this week, if our current heatwave continues, I may take myself off to Culzean, or even as far afield as Logan Gardens, down in Galloway, all in the name of research for the Scottish Home (and garden, of course!)
As usual, I found myself driving home with an array of slightly battered plants which I had found on the half price trolley - a leggy Cotinus, with lovely golden foliage, and a couple of Prunus, Oshidori and Triloba. I do so love rescuing things and restoring them to useful life - textiles and plants. At the moment, they are having a long drink since they were completely dried out. I only intended to buy the Prunus (Pruni?) but the Cotinus more or less demanded to be rescued. Now I have to clear a space for them, which will prompt me to do the necessary work in my overgrown, summertime garden.
But it also prompted me to think about my favourite plants, ones which seem to characterise a Scottish cottage garden in summer. Roses come first, of course. Both I and my next door neighbour have a lovely old white Scottish garden rose called The Jacobite Rose, which is said to date from the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Besides that I have a Himalayan rose, Paul's Himalayan Musk, bought many years ago from rose grower par excellence, David Austin, down in England. It seems to thrive in the mild, wet climate of the West of Scotland.
Lavender is my other 'must have' - but I tend to grow them in pots. Our garden is 200 years old and the soil is a bit rich for lavenders, besides which we usually have rather a lot of rain. I grow different varieties, including the wonderful named 'fathead' in pots, so that I can keep them reasonably dry. And some of them are rather frost sensitive so I bring them into shelter (although not indoors) in winter.
I have a a huge scented jasmine, growing up the side of the house which at this time of year, July, is at its best. This originated in a tiny pot plant (another bargain) bought from a local supermarket, as a house plant. I found that it did very well outdoors, and gradually the size of the pot increased. Now, it sits on an old patio, which is covered with small and very pretty Victorian flagstones, but the roots have gone through the bottom of the pot, and through the flagstones too. At the moment it seems amazingly healthy, and the scent, which floats through my study window every evening, is wonderful, so I'm not about to tamper with it!
I love lupins too. I know people almost consider them to be weeds these days, but they are prolific, and colourful, and the smell reminds me of my childhood. And if you cut off the dead heads pretty consistently, they will repeat flower right through the summer.
One of my all time favourite summer garden flowers is the cheerful pot marigold, not to be confused with its stiffer, starchier and (in my opinion) less attractive French cousin. You should look for calendula seeds - it isn't too late to plant some even now, because they flower well into the autumn. As their name suggests, they grow very well in pots, as well as among other annuals, and if you dead head them they will flower for months. The calendula is a highly desirable herb, with lots of health giving properties - calendula ointment is particularly valued for its healing properties.
Finally borage, with its bright blue flowers, is a must. Its old name of 'bee bread' tells you how much these busy insects are attracted to it. The leaves and flowers were once used to add a cool cucumber scent and flavour to summer drinks, but - if I can find the time - I will freeze the bright blue flowers into ice cubes, one per compartment in a tray - and then keep them for Christmas. If you remember that you have them, and bring them out for Christmas drinks parties, your guests will be amazed!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Scottish Shortbread

This week, one of the listings in my Ebay "Scottish Home" Shop, is a shortbread mould, carved with a thistle. I find that these little wooden pieces of Scottish kitchenalia are always very much in demand, although I'm never very sure whether people want them to use, or simply to decorate a rural kitchen.
Shortbread is one of those deceptively simple things that can turn out as variable as the people baking it. It was one of the first things we ever made at school, right after the 'fairy cakes' I seem to remember, but it was quite tricky. Essentially though, you need good butter, fine sugar (so called caster sugar) and plain white flour, not strong bread flour, which will give your finished shortbread too coarse a texture.
I can only remember recipes in ounces. but shortbread works on proportions, ie 12 oz flour, 8 oz butter and 4 oz caster sugar. If you can use sugar which has been flavoured with a vanilla pod in the jar, so much the better.
You sift your flour into a bowl, with a good pinch of salt, and then rub in the butter until the mixture 'resembles fine breadcrumbs' as our teacher used to say! Gently stir in the sugar, and then (here's the tricky bit) carry on rubbing. You should find that the mixture gradually begins to come together, as the butter becomes softer, until - kneading it gently - you will find that you have a ball of dough. Set it aside in a cool place for a while, to firm up, before you try to roll it out, otherwise it will be a bit sticky. The trick to using the wooden shortbread mould is to roll out your shortbread quite thickly, flour your mould, and then gently lift the shortbread slab over the mould, and press it in, (You can do this with a floured rolling pin if you like) cutting off the residue round the edges with a knife, much as you would if you were making a pie. This remaining dough can be rolled out again to make more rounds. Our teacher used to tell us that shortbread was fatty, so the baking tray didn't need greasing, but if you aren't using a non-stick tray, it would do no harm to grease it a little. Prick the biscuits with a fork so that they don't bubble up during the cooking process, and if you like, you can also mark them with a sharp knife, into the little triangles known in Scotland as 'Petticoat Tails' because of their shape.
Of course you can make perfectly good shortbread without using a mould, but using biscuit cutters instead. The shortbread should be baked in a moderate to cool oven (180C or less)- you are not looking to brown it, but simply to crisp it, while keeping it a nice pale straw colour. Cooking time depends on thickness of the biscuit but can be anything up to 20 - 25 minutes. Chunky shortbread will take longer than thin biscuits, but all of them are lovely. You can also experiment with different flavourings - caraway seeds are one of my favourite traditional additions. The biscuits should be cooled on a wire tray - they will crisp up as they cool. And if you are making Petticoat Tails, the traditional way is to break the cooled shortbread into pieces by hand, rather than using a knife.
Shortbread rounds can be piled up with strawberries or Scottish raspberries and whipped cream, to make fruit 'shortcakes'. Thin biscuits are delicious with a variety of summer sweets, or just fresh fruit and good vanilla ice cream. One other use for shortbread dough at this time of year is for making a wonderful summer crumble. Stop just short of the point where the dough becomes a ball, ie 'coarse breadcrumbs' and sprinkle over stewed apricots or gooseberries, or a mixture of cooked cherries and raspberries, in an earthenware dish, with a little brown sugar on top. This pudding should be baked in a moderate oven until it is golden brown, and served with good old fashioned custard or (my favourite) Greek Yoghurt. Yum.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Rare Old Piece of Scots Tartan

One of my listings in my Ebay 'Scottish Home' Shop this week will be a wonderful old Scottish tartan shawl, something of a rarity, since most of these old shawls were eaten by moths, wore out, or were cut up and used for other purposes. But this one has survived with just one small hole - a textile miracle. Most Scots afficionados will know that named or clan tartans were an eighteenth century invention. Before that, natural dyes were used, and the wool would have been hand spun and woven, so although the Gaels were always fond of bright colours, structure and uniformity would have been impossible. Long ago, as I discovered when I was researching my new book 'God's Islanders, A History of the People of Gigha' (to be published by Birlinn in October) the Celts on both sides of the Irish sea favoured bright yellow plant dyes, to the point where, like the fate which befell tartan later on, the Irish were banned from wearing them. These were called 'saffron' dyes, although it is a moot point whether saffron was ever used, since there are a number of more readily available native plants which can be used to obtain the favoured yellow dye. When I was researching this subject, it occurred to me that for large parts of the year, the highlands and islands are covered with bright yellow gorse, so these saffron garments would have made excellent camouflage. (See my posting 'When the Gorse is in Bloom.')
Later, the old Scots plaid, the traditional and highly useful garment of the highlands and islands would have been hand woven in the simple checked pattern which is to be found worldwide, wherever climate dictates the need for a warm wrap of some sort. The wool of which these original plaids were woven would have been pretty much waterproof as well, so the plaid was a practical textile, having something of the outdoor coat, and something of the warm sleeping bag about it! It was only in the first half of the nineteenth century that the Scottish highlands became imbued with a certain romance, in the imaginations of the British public. George IV visited Scotland in 1822, and then Queen Victoria was positively obsessed with the place (although that could have had something to do with a certain handsome John Brown.) Suddenly tartan was classy and everybody seemed to want to get in on the act. At the same time the industrialisation of the dyeing and weaving processes made uniformity - and mass production - possible. Tartans began to be classified and the fashionable elite began to want to know what was the 'correct' tartan to attribute to a particular clan.
Ladies wanted to get in on the act as well, and it is probably to this period, the mid 1800s, that I would date the spectacular shawl, which I photographed hanging out in my garden to get a little genuine Scottish air. It is a huge rectangle, which echoes the large rectangles of traditional Scottish Paisley Shawls, which, in their prime, would have been used as outdoor wraps, over the voluminous crinoline shape. I'm pretty sure that this tartan probably had a similar fashionable purpose, rather than as a man's practical plaid. Sadly, no young man would have 'row'd' (ie rolled) his sweetheart in this plaid, as poet Robert Burns was wont to do, although those wonderfully romantic masculine textiles do crop up from time to time. But all the same, this huge mid nineteenth century tartan shawl is a real collector's item, and one with a multitude of modern uses as a throw or hanging, as well as a piece which you might occasionally like to wrap yourself in and imagine yourself as a Victorian heroine!

Monday, July 10, 2006

An Ancient Scottish Lintel Stone

Talking of stories in stone, as we were a couple of postings back, I saw a fascinating old stone on the Isle of Gigha when I visited the island in the spring. Some of the older cottages in the north of the island were being renovated when a strange archaeological discovery was made: a large stone, which was being used as a lintel over an old fireplace. When the workmen carefully extracted it, they realised that they were looking at a whole section of island history encapsulated in stone. The lost language of these carved stones always fascinates me. It is as though we have lost the key to it - or to most of it. Previous inhabitants of the Scottish islands may have understood these symbols much more clearly than we do, but the enigmatic quality of these things still fascinates us.
The large slab of stone was literally covered in carvings which seemed to date from many different periods. There was an ancient 'cup' mark, thought to date from Stone Age times, as well as a traditional sun symbol (shown above) There was an obviously Christian cruciform shape; early Celtic saints would often 'christianise' pagan stones by adding appropriate holy symbols, presumably as part of some ceremony of blessing , without defacing the earlier inscriptions.
There were also the faint remains of what may have been a hunting scene (possibly Mediaeval) and another strange outline which looked like nothing so much as a stylised whale. And then there was much later lettering, perhaps added by those who had incorporated this stone into their house - possibly because they recognised its age and sanctity, and thought that it might bring luck to hearth and home. Gazing at this mysterious survival of an ancient, symbolic language, I wondered just how many other magical stones may have been removed from old buildings and carelessly demolished over the years.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Stories in Stone - Scottish Cottages (1)

We are in the middle of renovating and extending a 200 year old lowland Scottish cottage (pictured before renovation, left) which used to belong to my much loved, much missed mother-in-law Fay, who died last summer. She lived there for many years and it was a wonderfully happy little house, often crammed with family and friends of all ages, who managed to squeeze in somehow and all of whom she entertained with characteristic generosity. Her 'Happy Hours' were legendary, and much as we try to replicate them, they are never quite the same in her absense.
The house was tiny: a granny cottage, adapted for one marvellous, courageous lady, although it had a large garden looking across the beautiful mixed woodlands of the nearby 'big house'. Small as it was, somebody in the village once told us that her own granny had brought up twelve children there. We couldn't begin to imagine where they all slept. My mother-in-law loved the place, and although the family occasionally suggested renovations, she could hardly be persuaded to vacate it for long enough even to let her grown up children decorate it for her. They had to resort to various subterfuges - including taking her away on holiday - to get any work done at all.
Faced with the prospect of selling the house after her death, the family decided to extend and renovate it first - partly because none of us could bear for anyone else to do it, and partly because it seemed like a good thing to do in the face of our overwhelming sadness at her passing. As it stood the house didn't meet current building regulations. We weren't in the business of spoiling the roofline, or extending it unsympathetically - just planning to turn it into a slightly bigger, more convenient cottage, perhaps suitable for a youngish retired couple. The resulting design included two bedrooms, one upstairs to take advantage of the fine view, a much bigger sitting room - also with a lovely rural view - and a brand new bathroom and kitchen as well as plenty of storage space, new central heating, plumbing, wiring and so on.
Although we are used to the vagaries of listed buildings, it has still proved to be something of a learning curve for the whole family. We dealt sensitively with the planners (after all, we no more want to ruin an old and venerable building on the edge of a conservation village than they do) and found one of the best builders we have ever had the good fortune to work with - by word of mouth, of course. He's a young man who is gaining such a reputation for reliability and fine craftsmanship at an affordable price that we doubt if he will be available when next we might want him!
But still, the bottom line is that old buildings don't much enjoy being tampered with. They are settled, and like their human inhabitants, dislike being disturbed. I have the distinct impression that they resent it, and present the unwary developer with sneaky problems.
One such problem involved settling the actual boundaries of the land itself. Old deeds can be surprisingly vague. Our own deeds on our 200 year old Scottish cottage are very precise (we spent an interesting afternoon measuring them out, a few years ago) but Fay's cottage was different. 'The land to the west thereof' could mean anything from a few feet to half an acre. Eventually we negotiated with a friendly local farmer, to buy a little extra land, which meant that the house could have its own garage, and the small stream which ran rather too close to the original building could be diverted away from the extension. It was what my own dear dad used to call 'a hell of a job' but the results will be entrancing - a cottage with a stream in its garden and a view of fields and traditional woodland, that changes with the changing seasons.
The other challenge was in dealing with the very fabric of the building. These old Scottish cottages are built with the most enormous blocks of stone, some of them granite. Installing an extra window in what had become the kitchen, involved what the builder called a 'slap-out' - one of those expressions that is so evocative that it has immediately entered the family vocabulary. Among the stones 'slapped out' were some that looked as though they may originally have been part of an even older building - we know that the village is much older than most of the present two hundred year old houses. There is a huge rectangular block, an old lintel perhaps, which might, with a little stretch of the imagination, be a section of an ancient standing stone. All these stones have been preserved, of course, and will be used somewhere on site, perhaps in the garden.
Passing the cottage the other day, I thought that Fay would have been very proud of the work. A lovely, positive lady, widowed in her early thirties, and left with four children to bring up alone, she had made a good job it. But she never lost her sense of adventure. I always think of her as being wise, loving, and up for anything. I think she would approve. The huge jobs - building, slating, plumbing, wiring - are almost complete, but the finishing off is yet to come. Bookmark The Scottish Home for more news of this particular Scottish Home as it happens.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Scottish Cottage Garden in Summer

The cottage gardens of Scotland are often deceptive, hidden places. Walk down a village street in the rural south of England, as I did a couple of weeks ago, and you will be assaulted by a wonderful amalgam of scents, and sights and sounds. But as anyone who has visited Scotland will know, many Scottish villages consist of one or two streets of terraced cottages, some long and low, some two storey, often whitewashed. There are few front gardens – although increasingly there will be hanging baskets and tubs and window boxes – and it is very easy for the casual visitor to drive past, without giving a thought to the secret gardens that lie beyond the quiet village streets.
Behind these old cottages, you will often find a wonderland of large, sheltered gardens, containing ancient apple trees, old roses, riotous flower beds and luscious vegetables. Our own sheltered, south facing garden has been cultivated for some 200 years, and the soil is almost disturbingly fertile. Plants can assume gigantic dimensions, with very little help from me. I almost never use chemicals – the occasional organic greenfly spray is the most that I allow myself – because so many of the plants are tough as old boots, and besides the garden is home to all kinds of birds, beasts and insects that I have no wish to harm or discourage. There are newts in the pond, a family of hedgehogs in the hedge, bumble bees (a threatened species now) nesting somewhere in the depths of an old stone seat and the occasional woodpecker, who pays a visit to the bottom of the garden and startles us with his tapping. Oh, and there are sparrows galore. They nest in an old swallows nest which they clean out vigorously each year, and then raise several broods, using our little glass roofed pergola beneath, as a kind of larder - I think they believe that the trapped insects are provided solely for their convenience.
I’m a passionate but rather lazy gardener – not as steady as I should be, but I get there in the end. How else would I have discovered that it is best to plant your tulips very late, in this part of the world, so avoiding the prolonged rainfalls of October which used to rot my bulbs in the ground!
The west of Scotland is warm but can be wet and windy, even in summer. This year though, has been exceptionally fine and dry so far, with just enough rainfall (usually at night) to keep the plants happy. The cottage gardens, ours, and those that we can see from our windows, are as lovely as I have ever seen them and the subtly scented Himalayan rose that clambers up through an old conifer is such a riot of pale pink that each sight of it makes my heart leap. You know the feeling – you want to grasp it, and hold onto it, but the season passes and the petals fall. Now, however, at the start of July, there are still a good many buds left, and many more blossoms still to come.