Monday, June 27, 2011

Making Old Fashioned Pot Pourri.

Today, I've been gathering old fashioned scented rose petals and spreading them out to dry in our conservatory, so that I can make pot pourri for the winter months  - it's like preserving a little bit of summer. If I can make enough, I'll give some as gifts, too. Our problem here in Scotland has been the rain - really you need a dry, sunny day to pick your flower petals to make pot pourri, but I'm persevering! 
There's no great mystery to making this traditional mixture for scenting a room, and you can add whatever you like to it, experimenting with different herb leaves and scented flowers. I favour a very old fashioned mixture of various rose petals and a few tiny rosebuds which look very pretty, with dried lavender and - this year, because they are so prolific and so heavily scented - some sweet peas as well. I leave them on a tray to dry in the sunshine, and hope to carry on gathering the flowers for some weeks yet. I buy orris root powder in small quantities on eBay, which I use as a fixative, to stop the pot pourri from getting damp, and also to carry the scent. I mix a small amount of this with my dried petals, and a little rose and lavender essential oil, both of which have a wonderfully calming and cheering effect - another reason why home made pot pourri is so much better than the synthetic bought kind!
Once the dried petals, oils and orris root have been combined, I've found that the most effective way of 'curing'the pot pourri is to put it in an old fashioned paper bag, shake it up gently, and leave it for a few days to mature. Avoid plastic, which encourages mould. After that, you can use your imagination in finding a container for your pot pourri. My own favourite is a big, antique Mason's Ironstone bowl that used to belong to my mother. It seems like the perfect container, and you'll certainly see bowls like this containing pot pourri in country houses. But in fact you can use any bowl or dish, ornate or simple. If you're short of antique or vintage dishes, your local charity shop or car boot sale will usually have a good selection at bargain prices! Even the odd crack or chip doesn't really matter. Those single, fragile Victorian or Edwardian china cups you sometimes find, make excellent little containers for pot pourri. If you want to give your pot pourri as a gift, you can package it prettily in small cellophane bags, tied with ribbon and sealed with flower stickers - or even assemble a little collection of vintage cups and dishes and give them ready filled with your pot pourri.

Although I generally favour rose and lavender pot pourri, it's interesting to experiment. I've got so many different varieties of mint in pots this year that I'm thinking of trying a herb pot pourri with pineapple and spearmints, marjoram flowers, and maybe some scented geraniums.I've made a successful 'seaside' pot pourri in the past, with lots of little shells and pebbles, and those tiny white pieces of driftwood you sometimes find on the beach. ('The bones of a Goddess', as one of my artist friends calls them!) There are some lovely, astringent 'seaside' type oil mixtures on the market, but you could also try coconut - anyone who lives close to the sea will know that when the gorse bushes are in full bloom (or whins as they are called in Scotland) they smell very strongly and sweetly of coconut and for me, at least, it's a scent that always reminds me of the West of Scotland and one that I've used in the past to evoke that particular landscape in a novel. I've often had ideas of trying gorse flowers in a a seaside pot pourri, but the spines have usually deterred me!

 Cones, large and small, are good carriers for pine or cinammon scented oil, and can be mixed with dried leaves and seed heads to make a spicy winter pot pourri. I still bring out an old Christmas pot pourri I made some years ago, with dried orange slices, little fir cones, shiny brown horse chestnuts, cloves and cinammon sticks along with the spicy essential oils (a mixture of cinammon and orange is particularly good) which most shops stock around Christmas time. That - mercifully - is a long way off at the moment but you could bear it in mind if you see any pretty seed heads that could be dried and added to the mix. 
Finally, pot pourri keeps for a very long time. The only thing that spoils it is dust and damp but if the scent fades, as it will, over time, you can simply refresh it with a few drops of whatever oils you prefer.  

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Little Snippet of Gigha, Willie McSporran, and a memory of Vie Tulloch

Here's a little snippet of the wilderness at the north end of the Isle of Gigha - we were there last weekend, staying with our friends Willie and Ann McSporran for a couple of nights. If you listen carefully, you can just catch the plaintive note of the oystercatcher down on the shore. The weather was wet and windy when we arrived and stayed showery all weekend, but it didn't matter too much. We still made our usual pilgimage the length of the island, and also visited the grave of another old friend, woodcarver Vie Tulloch, who died earlier this year. I left a little posy of wild flowers there, which seemed a suitable offering.
Vie was a wonderful, vibrant, astringent personality, and what she didn't know about the flora and fauna of this little island wasn't worth knowing. We miss her still, miss those lovely long lunches down at her tiny cottage at Gallochoille, her seashore garden, her gorgeous dog - a whippet - (I vividly remember him stealing and eating a half pound pack of butter, which didn't seem to phase her at all!) her spinning wheel, her fabulous paintings, and her even more wonderful carvings. The cottage was simply furnished, tumbledown, by no means luxurious, and yet it seemed to suit Vie to a tee. She always reminded me of the Lady Artist, in Marie Hedderwick's Katie Morag books.
She was still carving well into her eighties, and she and my woodcarver husband, Alan, used to enjoy talking about the intricacies of the craft. Her eyesight and strength were gradually failing - but you would never have known it. Her mind was sharp, and you would still arrive to find her yomping over the heather with some seashore find to show you. She once astonished us by producing a collection of the wings of the birds of Gigha, garnered from the seashore over the years - wings and dried bones which she would examine in order to lend accuracy to her amazing wooden sculptures - I later used the scene in a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet.
Vie had lived on Gigha for many years and she will be sadly missed on the island. Never afraid to speak her mind, she had many loyal friends, was present at every community occasion, every celebration, dancing, laughing, always forthright but never intentionally unkind.
Meanwhile, last weekend, we had time to listen to the incomparable storytelling of the redoubtable Willie McSporran MBE, (below) many of whose accounts of life on the island in the old days, I have included in another book, a piece of non-fiction this time, God's Islanders, my history of the people of Gigha. There is nobody who can relate a story quite like Willie McSporran - long may he continue to tell them!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Flowers From My Garden

It's a lovely time of year for cutting flowers from our cottage garden - lupins, peonies, an old rose, some philadelphus and I think there's a bit of salvia lurking at the back. The combined scent of these is absolutely gorgeous. I don't think people always consider lupins as good cut flowers but they last reasonably well, and the peppery scent mixes nicely with other things. Also, if you cut off the blooms before they start to die, the plant can carry on flowering for a surprisingly long time, well into the summer. I really ought to make pot pourri and sometimes I do, but it depends upon the weather and whether I can find the time to cut roses and other flowers when it's nice and dry. Scotland, this year, has been very wet.  
I'm always rather sad when the spring flowers are over, the daffodils and narcissi and hyacinths and tulips, but the early summer flowers are just as attractive in their own way. This garden posy reminds me of one of the brightly coloured embroidered tablecloths which are so popular with my customers!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Kirkmichael Community Shop and Jock's Cafe

If you're looking for somewhere to spend a few tranquil hours, you could do worse than visit the Ayrshire conservation village of Kirkmichael, have lunch and browse in the not-for-profit shop and cafe there. This became a community-run concern just over a year ago, when the proprietor of the shop and restaurant decided to retire, which would have left the village effectively without a shop. With the help of grants and loans from the local community, from the Plunkett Foundation, the Leader Fund and the Co-op bank and with a great deal of hard work and energy on the part of many volunteers, both shop and cafe have grown in popularity.
 The cafe is pretty, cosy, and inviting. It serves simple but excellent country cooking, and truly scrumptious home baking which can also be bought  to take away. There are cafetieres of good quality coffee and freshly baked croissants, for those who want to linger over a newspaper or magazine (or select a book from the little Book Exchange, and leave a donation). There are various teas, and a full range of soft drinks. There are freshly baked croissants and scones and home-made soups as well as sandwiches with locally sourced meat and salads. The shop has a nice line in local produce, including fresh fruit and vegetables (luscious Ayrshire tatties are in at the momen, Epicures from Dowhill near Girvan!) jams, local honey, meats, and free range eggs.

You can see Jock in the picture above - he was the village blacksmith and handyman, and the cafe is situated in the building which was once his workshop. He knew everything there was to know about all the old houses in the village, and there are some who say that he's still around, keeping an eye on things! 

Kirkmichael itself is a fascinating old Carrick village, a picturesque conservation village nestling at the foot of the Galloway Forest Park, with many of the houses dating from the eighteenth century, and a few buildings even older than that. The Kirk in particular is believed to stand on the site of a 13th century building and there are many archaeological remains round about. The current church has a fine Arts and Crafts window by Christopher Whitworth Whall. There is a famous Coventanters Grave, in the idyllic kirkyard, and an intriguing story to go with it. The Kirkmichael Village Renaissance group is currently working on a series of 'walks' to encourage people to explore the beautiful countryside round about, and a history leaflet is being written, which will allow visitors to walk around the centre of the village and learn a little about the place as they go. The Kirkmichael Arms pub, closed for some years, is undergoing extensive renovations and is due to open later on this year (2011), while the village has just got the go ahead for an eco friendly new school, which will be built over the next few years.

A Himalayan Rose in One of the Village's Amazing Back Gardens.

The very active Three Village Garden Club (Kirkmichael, Crosshill and Straiton) has managed to secure funding for a new art project which will allow a major artist to work with village children in the near future to design and install a set of unique and intriguing signs for each of the villages. The garden club is also responsible for planting and maintaining the pretty flowering tubs which adorn the village, summer and winter alike, and a special community garden is planned for the new school. Last year, (2010) Kirkmichael hosted a hugely enjoyable 'Garden Snoop' (much less formal than an open gardens event) to allow visitors to have a special peek inside the variety of stunning back gardens which lie hidden behind so many of these cottages. The event was so successful that it will be repeated every second year, with a big Garden Bring and Buy sale planned for later this year. Watch this space for more news - Kirkmichael is certainly going places! And meanwhile, please visit and 'like' the shop's page on Facebook for lots more information, updated on a regular basis.

 A view from the bridge over the picturesque Dyrock Burn which runs through the village

Monday, June 06, 2011

A Village Kirkyard, Carved Stones and Running Water

There's something quite magical about an ancient village graveyard, and I spent a little while walking round ours with some visiting friends last week. There has been a church on this site for many years - our eighteenth century building was by no means the first and many of the gravestones predate the present building, including - I think - the one below, which follows the old custom of carved emblems to tell us something about the deceased. There's a wheel, on this one, which looks like a mill wheel, and there were certainly plenty of mills of one kind or another in this area, but I'm not sure what the other symbols represent. It's a deeply impressive piece of art, though.

Meanwhile, as we wandered about the kirkyard, I took the photograph below of the burn that runs through the village. For some reason, I've never taken a picture from this angle, nor even peered over the wall at this point in the kirkyard - probably too busy looking at inscriptions - but the view over the old wall is very beautiful and very soothing - a little piece of woodland which probably hasn't changed for many years.