A technicolour life in a dark November day

Darkest before dawn

It was quite a day today. A visit to the doctor, workplace stress, family strains, worries about the health of a loved one… This was combined with enough rain to make Noah take notice and enough cloud that it never got fully light. And I’m in the grip of one of my periods of insomnia.

The insomnia may explain the quirkiness of my thought processes – but for some reason it occured to me as I trudged on through this gloomy day that it could be summed up in a series of photos – black and white photos at that.

The photo thing is most likely to have been sparked as a result of the talk I attended on Saturday afternoon. The talk was by artist, *Nicky Bird and was arranged by  local arts organisation, Atlas Arts. Nicky is a photographic artist and she works with ‘found’ photographs. The black and white photos might have been taken  long ago and are no longer in the possession of their original owners – so the people in them are no longer identifiable. Or, the photos, although taken some time ago, are still in the ownership of the photographer, the subjects or their descendants. Either way these photos have their own very personal stories to tell – and, along with the landscape in which they’re set, are self-contained historical records. In their own way these photos are every bit as important as official portraits of ‘important’ people and events.

So what small personal history would the still, black and white shots of my day today tell?

Picture 1: Small figure – a woman –  swathed in waterproof trousers, jacket and under large umbrella walking in the rain under a dark sky.

Picture 2: Same woman in doctor’s surgery, sleeve rolled up, doctor taking blood sample. Both doctor and patient look serious.

Picture 3:  The woman – no longer in waterproofs – but in smart white blouse and navy trousers stands at a whiteboard in front of a class of primary school children.

Picture 4:  The woman now sits at a table in a classroom – no children are present. Several other adults also seated round the table. The expressions on the faces of the people tell a story of worry, pressure and stress.

Picture 5: The woman is with a man. They are sitting in a living-room. They are discussing a letter from a hospital. Their expressions are serious.

But this would not be the whole story. Because, later in the day, I was re-reading some inspirational quotes from Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian poet and I was reminded me of the importance of our attitude to events. We can’t control what happens in a day but we do at least have a measure of control over our reactions. The quote that jumped out at me was:

‘Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.’

So let’s revisit the day – but this time we’ll pick out different scenes and they’ll be in full colour.

Picture 1: The woman is seated at a table in a classroom. Five eleven-year-old children are also seated around the table. The children seem to be listening to the woman talking. She looks relaxed. She is pointing to something in a book and is smiling.

Picture 2: The woman is a corridor in a school. She is talking to another woman – a parent of a pupil. The parent is smiling at the woman and is shaking her hand.

Picture 3: Now the woman is in the living room of a house. She is sitting on the floor and playing with a baby girl who looks about a year old. A young woman sitting on the sofa looks on. The woman’s smile is that of a besotted grandparent.

Picture 4: The woman sits on a sofa beside a man. The couple are looking at an email confirmation for a hotel booking for a trip they are planning to the city at the weekend. They both look happy.

Picture 5: The woman is sitting at a desk. She is typing on a laptop. She is obviously enjoying the act of writing.

I have so much to be grateful for. Awaiting important blood test results, the worry of the other half’s imminent heart surgery, a job with a lot of stress and responsibility, a dreich November day – all formed part of the day. But, so did a bit of a breakthrough in the learning of a group of my pupils, a conversation with the grateful parent of one of my other pupils, playing with my lovely wee granddaughter and planning a shopping trip to Inverness at the weekend combined with going to see ‘Skyfall’ and a stay in our favourite hotel in the Highland capital. And then of course, there was an evening of writing.

Life is good and it sure beats the alternative…

Be happy.

* Nicky’s website  is http://www.nickybird.com

Low-flying Jets, busy bees and bickering birds

A day in the garden – part 2

'You go for a bath and I'll hoover up all this seed.'

Ah, the peaceful country life – not! Birdsong provided the backing track to my observations but there’s was lots more to be heard besides. There was the half-bark, half-cough of the ewes calling to their lambs and to each other. There was the deep bellow of a Highland (the large, ginger-haired, horned variety of cow native to these parts) heifer chastising her calves for playing a bit too roughly. This year’s little calf was winding up his brother, born last year. Junior was actually head-butting his sibling. Given that big bro’ weighs twice as much as the little one and has the beginnings of some pretty impressive headgear, I could see why mama cow was getting agitated.

'Leave me alone, little fella!'

I heard one animal noise I’m not familiar with – an intermittent sound –a cross between a snort and a throat-clearing. It came from next door. I peered over the fence. It was the new arrivals – two llamas. They seemed to graze for a wee while and then pause to snort to each other before resuming their chewing. As they stood tail to tail they reminded me of the push-me-pull-you in Doctor Doolittle. They’re a curious blend of camel and sheep – weird!

'Sheep are weird!' The llamas seem puzzled by this stumpy legged creature

The sound of intermittent squabbling between next door’s ducks and geese persisted for most of the day. There are ongoing skirmishes between the two species over water access – yesterday was no different. The geese harangued with their distinctive honking call and the ducks muttered and quacked back – in a literal flap. Also from next door came the cry of the resident peacock calling to his lady – it’s an almost eerie sound, a call full of longing – almost like human crying. I find it quite endearing.

At the bottom of the garden just over the fence, hens clucked and scrabbled in the field – tutting as they dodged cattle hooves and sheep kicks to get at grubs and seeds in the long tussocky grass. And the rooster followed his harem around, strutting like Mick Jagger in best ‘Brown Sugar’ mode, and crowing enthusiastically whenever the fancy took him.

A gannet kept watch on us all from the chimney-top, squawking out his complaints about goodness knows what. Every now and again he was buzzed by the ever-circling carrion crows and cacophonous, winged fisticuffs would ensue. I’m rather fond of crows – they are so intelligent – not the least bit bird-brained. We mainly get two varieties round here – the carrion and the hooded. The hooded lads are mostly peaceful, mind-their-own- business kinda guys – but the carrion crew are loud bully boys. I’ve seen them harry a sea eagle – apparently it’s not uncommon for them to work as a group to see off raptors who might pose a threat to their young.

As well as the chirruping of the small birds and a blackbird singing exquisitely from his perch in one of the rowan trees, the other backing track was a deep and loud hum – bees – many bees. The garden is edged all round with fuchsia which the bees adore. The hedges were full of bees as were the blue hydrangeas, the purple buddleias, the pink daisies, the mauve geraniums, the lilac hebe – yes okay – all the flowering plants. The drone was unpunctuated and I did take some time to track one of their number – what a work ethic as he systematically worked over one yellow potentilla bush.

busy bee

I couldn’t see the horses on the croft to the south of ours as the rosa rugosa bushes that grow against the drystane dyke that forms the boundary are too tall to see over at this time of year. But I could hear them snuffle and whinny – two grumpy old men having a blether.

But  all this noise wasn’t troublesome to me as I forayed through the garden. It wasn’t intrusive. I was able to think – to let my mind play and toy with all sorts of thoughts and notions, observations and reflections –  as I perched, crouched, squinted and scrutinised the plants and creatures all around me.

So when the two low-flying fighter jets materialised – with no approaching sound – roaring up the loch, below the level of the mountain ridge on the loch’s eastern flank, when that ultra-fast, earbusting, engine roar suddenly silenced every living creature on the ground, I thought I was having a cardiac episode of the terminal variety. What a fright! At the southern end of the loch they climbed and banked before turning to head back down the water and out into the Minch.

Mother Nature was momentarily silenced by Man’s fighting machines – that definitely gave me pause for thought. But soon the squabbles, skirmishes and social calling and the serious business of feeding had resumed and I got back to my safari.

Episode three to follow soon…

where the jets banked and turned

Llamas, bluetits and hairy cows

Shona, the Highland cow, and some other croft residents

The weather! They say us Brits are obsessed with it, but I was never so aware of it as I am on Skye. Unsettled, volatile and downright weird (not me, the weather) – it’s also an area of micro-climates so districts a few miles apart can experience completely different weather.

‘Eilean a Cheo’ is one of the island’s Gaelic names and it means ‘misty isle’. It’s a name the island often lives up to. Because of this, some short-stay visitors don’t get to see the mountains which dominate much of the landscape.

However, it could equally be called ‘rainy isle’, ‘windy isle’ or ‘sunny isle’ and all of these adjectives can apply within an hour – never mind a day. And whatever the weather, Skye is never less than stunningly, jaw-droppingly beautiful.

But on a sunny, blue sky day with enough of a breeze to keep the dreaded West Highland midge at home in bed, there can be few places on Earth to rival its ‘stop you in your tracks and make you gasp’ abilities.

Yesterday was such a day. The second in a row. The husband was away on a motor-biking trip, I was on holiday from work so I headed out of the house and into the garden.

The house I headed out of

Now, normally, spending time in the garden for me means  weeding, pruning, chopping – gardening of the ‘stopping the garden invading the house or becoming like Sleeping Beauty’s 100 year forest’ variety – with a little bit of creativity occasionally thrown in. But not yesterday – yesterday I just wanted to be outdoors – not labouring in the garden or going for a walk – but just being.

I didn’t want to sit passively in a chair and just gawp either. I wanted to be an active observer – to really see, hear, smell and feel (I drew the line at taste) life in the garden and on the croft and to do a bit of stopping and staring at the wider landscape that I normally take for granted.

Llamas, tits (blue and great, of the feathered variety) and big hairy cows are just some of the things I observed.

Great tit contemplates taking a bath

My next couple of posts will tell you more of what I found there…