Writing can be a lonely profession – all that sitting at the desk – alone with your own thoughts. So it’s good to get away from time to time – and it’s even better to be able to combine that with talking about your work and getting to meet readers and prospective readers.
So I was delighted recently to get an invitation to do just that.
I was invited to do an author talk to the Primary 5, 6 and 7 children on the 5th November at Broadford Primary School on the Scottish Isle of Skye. And not only that I was also invited to deliver a writing workshop to the Primary 7 children later on the same day. And of course I would be appearing as my children’s author alter-ego, Anne McAlpine – author of The Silver Locket (for 9 to 12 year-olds), rather than Anne Stormont writer of adult fiction.
I lived and worked as a teacher on the island for many years and the invitation came from a friend who is also a former colleague.
And it was lovely to have a reason to go back. I miss Skye so much that I hadn’t felt able to return during the (almost) three years since I left. But this offer to talk about my work as a writer and to share TheSilver Locket with some of its intended readership, was the perfect opportunity to get over myself and return to the place where I left a big part of my heart.
The children listened so well during my talk about the background to The Silver Locket, how I got the idea for it and how I went about putting the story together. And the questions afterwards were brilliant and some of the suggestions for sequels were amazingly clever.
And the writing workshop with the Primary 7s (age 11) was great fun and highly productive. We began with several warm-up exercises, and then the children went on to make a start on writing their own 3 or 5 chapter novels – to be adapted/completed at a later date. Some opted for a timeslip story like The Silver Locket, others went for adventure/thriller or crime or mystery. Two of the girls even started to explore doing a manga style graphic novel. But the most rewarding thing was that not one of the pupils said they couldn’t do it or had no idea what to write. They all just went for it.
As for my adult author identity it was also wonderful to be back where I got the inspiration for my Skye set series of romantic fiction novels Displacement, Settlement and the soon to be published Fulfilment. I half-expected to meet Jack or Rachel, from the books, going round Portree Co-Op.
So, all in all, a successful and hugely enjoyable time away from the desk for me. And it came with the added bonus of an extra few days seeing old friends and soaking up the autumn sunshine as I reacquainted myself with all my favourite places on the most beautiful island in the world.
It’s that time of the month – rant and rave week here on the blog – as well as time for my BLOG OF THE MONTH nomination.
I’m going to get the rants off my chest first and then we can end on a happy note.
First off –it’s buying clothes – specifically blouses. Now, me and clothes buying don’t normally get along. I’m very little – only four foot ten and a half in my socks – so trousers, skirts, dresses and coats can be a bit on the long side. But you’d think blouses wouldn’t be problematic and usually they aren’t.
I need some new blouses for work. Nothing fancy – just plain or stripey – cotton – in white or blue – or maybe even pink or green. A three quarter length sleeve is better for my wee short arms, but full length is fine as they can be turned back. Can I find anything remotely fitting the above description? No, I can’t. It’s not size that’s the problem. They just don’t seem to exist. There are plenty sleeveless, or little puff sleeved creations in flimsy, floaty material but no sensible work blouses. Apparently it’s not the season for such garments. Okay – so how come men’s work shirts are available all year round? I rest this case here.
Next up it’s blunders. Firstly, John Lewis – oh dear – they’re normally so reliable. Living relatively remotely, I do a lot of shopping online. And I often buy from John Lewis. Until recently they’d never let me down. So it was disappointing and frustrating when, having ordered a garden table and chairs, the chairs arrived promptly – but no table. I did get a text saying the table was coming and to expect it the next day. And the courier did arrive with a delivery. However, I could tell as the delivery men unloaded an enormous box from the van that it probably wasn’t my small, folding, round table. It was in fact a big, plastic, outdoor Wendy house. It was reloaded and taken back to the warehouse. It took many phone calls, two re-orders and three promised, but non-arriving, deliveries before I finally got my table. I did get a 20% goodwill repayment afterwards, but it’s left me truly hacked off with the company. I had to do all the phoning (at 40p a minute on my mobile – as I can’t make personal landline calls at work) and all the chasing up and spent a lot of time on hold. To rub salt in the wound, whilst on hold, I had to listen to an impossibly cheery wifie burbling on about how to get free next day delivery. Argh!!!
Second blunder – I had to go to hospital recently to have an investigative procedure carried out. The consultant, though competent at carrying out the procedure, was a bit of a numpty. He didn’t introduce himself when he came into the theatre. I wasn’t having anaesthetic, just sedation, so at that point I was wide awake. He dumped my notes on top of me, stood behind me where I couldn’t see him and talked to the nurse. He referred to me as the possible (sinister) diagnosis that the procedure might uncover, rather than by name. And then, after it was all over he didn’t, as I’d been promised he would, discuss what he’d found. I endured a week of worry waiting to be contacted by letter at the very least. In the end I had to contact my GP and ask her to find out the outcome. She said that she’d received notification the day after the procedure that the tests were clear and that the notification said I’d received this information. So I’m relieved but also annoyed. My GP has since received an apology from the great man to relay to me.
Third blunder – that recent budget – granny tax, pasty pickle, the rich reprieved – no don’t get me started…
So let’s move on to more pleasant rave-worthy stuff. First off it’s the weather. Our island seems to have had the best April weather of the whole UK. Lots of warm sunshine and, most unusually, for here, very little rain. Nature is bursting out all over. There’s a local cuckoo cuckooing – as they do – and I spotted my first two swifts of the season whilst out walking yesterday. Skye is at its stunning best at the moment and it’s still pre-midgie time.
Secondly, I’m delighted to have secured tickets for Bill Bailey’s show at the end of the month. He’s coming to our small and humble community centre – as he did last year. It was so brilliant to have such a famous and talented entertainer come to us. Normally we have to travel to Glasgow or Edinburgh to see such a big name, but he has said how much he likes playing small venues and how he appreciated the welcome he was given last year. So he’s returning. Can’t wait!
AND NOW – BLOG OF THE MONTH AWARD goes to Mr London Street – I’m guessing this is not his real name. I ‘met’ Mr L. S. on Twitter and have followed his blog for a while. He recently took a month’s sabbatical from Twitter in order to concentrate on writing. And he didn’t waste his time. The month’s posts are WONDERFUL. It’s terrific, honest, moving, thought-provoking stuff. Well worth a look. You’ll find his blog here http://mrlondonstreet.blogspot.co.uk/
And a wee PS – a shoutout for another Twitter friend, Alison Wells, whose new book, ‘Housewife with a Half-Life’ is available on Kindle from today and as a paperback from June. See blurb below –
A Housewife’s answer to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! In this lively space comedy, Susan Strong and her spaceman guide Fairly Dave dodge entropy hoovers, Geezers with Freezers, the Super Gnome and the Spinner’s cataclysmic converter on a mission to retrieve the lost pieces of the housewife’s disintegrating self across parallel universes. Can they save us all from Universal Devastation?
I got to read a preview of chapter one – it’s brilliant, funny and clever.
No regrets. Me and Mr Anne lived in a lovely, spacious and
comfortable house. We’d spent a fair bit of money getting it up to 21st
century standards and put in hours of work creating a wonderful, wildlife
First time visitors often panicked as they drove ever
northwards to try and find us. They’d arrive grumbling about us living in the
back of the back of beyond. And then they’d walk into the living room and see
the view from the large window. Then, silence. We learned not to expect any
sensible conversation from our first-timers for quite a few minutes as they
just stood and gawped. Then they’d say, “Now I understand why you live here.”
The utter beauty of our location really defied description. The crofting
township where we lived is small. Around thirty houses sitting on the
characteristic long narrow strips of land known as crofts. Each croft providing
the ground for subsistence farming. Our crofting neighbours kept sheep, goats,
highland cattle and hens.
Sea eagles, golden eagles, and hen harriers could all
be spotted soaring above the loch and dolphins, porpoises and minkes regularly
swam in its waters. Roe deer would run along the bottom of the crofts as dusk
fell – making light work of the deer fencing.
And the winter skies – were big
and bright with stars. No street lighting meant the Milky Way, the
constellations and the planets were clearly visible. What’s not to like?
Being there wasn’t a problem. It was at times idyllic and, even
in the worst of Atlantic gales and storms, it could be exhilarating. No, being
there was fine – but the trouble was we couldn’t always be there. We work in
the main town (population 2500) which is a 30 mile drive – 10 of them on single
track road – from where we lived. The nearest supermarket is in the town along
with all the other necessities of modern life. The winter drive on unlit,
ungritted, narrow twisty roads was a challenge – especially when tired after a
long day at work. And the monthly petrol bill was around £250.
So we’ve moved to town. And we’re loving it. We can walk to
the shops, to work, to the pub. I have a social life. I can relax at work and
not fret about what the weather’s going to be like for the journey home.
No, we don’t have a house yet. We’ve moved 4 times in 4
months – short let to short let – lived with the minimum of stuff and lived out
of bags and boxes. And you know what – it wasn’t as stressful as it sounds.
I was quite proud of myself – that I could make a home out
of only the most basic stuff – and live in relatively small spaces – and be
perfectly happy. In some ways it was quite liberating to realise that if some
catastrophe took away everything I owned, I’m capable of surviving – even without
But, yes, now it is nice to be in a bigger rental place, to
know we’re settled for six months and to have some of our stuff out of storage.
And yes, it would be nice to once more have a place of our own. But in the
meantime I know I can cope.
I love being here. The decision to move was difficult – but it
was right. I’m not missing the old place at all – much as I loved it at times.
But woman cannot live by view alone. So no – no regrets.
Strange noises in the night – like a sliding door opening and closing – turned out to be snow avalanching off the roof. We awoke to our most substantial fall so far this winter. Six to ten inches depending where you place your wellies. The track has been ploughed, but a wall of snow means the car is trapped. We’re officially snowed in. I took some photos around the garden. I hope you enjoy them.
The season’s changing – the weather is distinctly autumnal. According to the BBC, autumn will be late this year – I beg to differ. This year summer never really got started in Skye and I think we’ve missed that particular window. The dark is deep enough now for the stars to be visible again and Venus is shining brightly once more in the eastern night sky – as the planet that’s first up and last to bed, it’s both the evening and morning ‘star’. There have been berries on the rowan trees in the garden for several weeks now – much earlier than normal.
And of course school’s now back. There’s also a severe weather warning in place for the Hebrides this evening and overnight. All ferry sailings are cancelled as a force eight blows out in the Minches and gusts of up to 70mph are expected. The wind is roaring down the chimneys and the rain is battering at the windows. The lights are flickering and I hope the power stays on – at least long enough for me to finish this post. We expect this sort of weather in the winter – but in August??
For me the start of a new school year always emphasises that summer’s over. As a teacher my life is marked out in school terms – so I’m always very aware of the passing of the year and it’s seasons. August is my New Year – more so than January. It’s been a hectic first week back – lots of meetings and planning and preparation. I’ve made my new year resolutions to stay on top of the paper work and not to get stressed – we’ll see.
It’s been good to catch up with colleagues and exchange holiday stories. It’s also been great to see the children again. They all seem to have grown and are pleased to be on the next rung of the primary school ladder. The children in the Primary One class have settled in already and are so sparky and enthusiastic – real bright wee buttons. At the other end of the school, the new Primary Sevens are very pleased and proud to be the top dogs and they all appear just that bit more mature than they did in June. And it seems strange without our ‘graduated’ – last years Primary Sevens who’re now at high school. There’s a real buzz and energy about the place as my 33rd – OMG! – year in teaching gets underway.
Every class has a new teacher – so there’s a lot of ‘getting to know you’ stuff going on. As a learning support teacher, I work with children from Primary One to Primary Seven in both the English and Gaelic streams of the school – so I have a good overview of the pupils and am called on as the ‘continuity’ person as teachers and new classes get acquainted. we also have a new curriculum to get acquainted with – Scotland now has a ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘ – I don’t know what that means we had before – and it remains to be seen just how excellent this new one is. Our schools are facing a lot of changes so it’s probably fitting that the new year begins with a whirlwind…
Part two was all about the sounds I heard while spending the day in the garden – but what of the sights?
It’s amazing what you miss when you’re ‘busy’. Weeding, digging, planting, pruning are all rewarding activities if you’re into gardening, and you do get a pleasing result for your efforts. But how often do any of us take the time to really look at what we’ve created and to raise our eyes beyond the fence to what lies beyond?
This is what I saw when I stopped and stared…
The garden is terraced – three levels in all. The top two levels are buttressed by beautiful, dry-stone walls built with sandstone reclaimed from the original croft buildings. The lowest level can’t be seen from the house and it’s at the lowest level that you will find the pond – an amazing, little, bio-diverse ecosystem.
Every spring the pond is a romantic rendezvous for zillions of toads and frogs. The massive bonkathon which takes place over several days is sound-tracked by the loud chorus of bullfrogs singing to their lady-loves. Afterwards these amorous amphibians disappear as suddenly as they came (so to speak) peace returns – only the trickle of the waterfall from the filter pump to be heard – and the pond is filled with spawn a foot deep. A few weeks later baby frogs and toads emerge and disappear just as their parents did – to where, I don’t know.
The pond is one of my favourite areas of the garden – but I hadn’t been down there for weeks. You see I was in mourning. All our fish –about fifteen, gorgeous, fat, golden and blue orfe – which have thrived on our neglect for years, had died. Seen off either by the extremes of last winter, despite the husband making air holes in the two-feet thick ice that persisted for weeks – or, when Spring eventually came, taken by the heron which lurked at the pond’s edge for hours, days on end, biding his time till one of them swam into view. By June I was sure they were gone – sure that if they’d emerged from their winter stasis at the bottom of the pond, as they’ve done every other year, they’d ended up in the heron’s belly.
However, as I was on a mission to take in everything in the garden, I braced my self and descended the steps to the pond’s edge. waterlilies spread out across the surface – plump and indolent, red-hot pokers stood to attention on the bank at the far end, pond-skaters skimmed the surface of the water – and then I saw it – a flash of orange, then another and another, followed by the darting of two creamy-coloured shapes. Just by the lily pads – five fish! Three golden and two ‘blue’ (a misnomer as they are in reality cream) orfe.
I did a little jig of celebration, punching the air, and shouting ‘yes!’ What survivors these little fish are – well some of them at least. Seeing them was at least as exciting as seeing a pod of about fifteen of common dolphins swim up the loch two days earlier – but that’s a tale for another post…
All the time that I was outside, I was aware of two sorts of fluttering on the periphery of my vision. Butterflies – Small Whites (also known as Cabbage Whites, I think) bobbed and weaved through the plants and, overhead, swallows swooped and soared constantly.
A little field mouse chancing her luck also darted into vision a few times – scrambling out from between the stones of the rockery wall to grab some bird seed from the slab of rock that serves as a bird table.
A colourful line of washing clapped in the stiff breeze – it would be dry within a couple of hours of being hung out. I know I’m probably a bit sad for feeling this – but I get a deep sense of satisfaction when surveying a washing line of clean laundry.
And, out on the loch, ferries heading to and from the Outer Hebrides made regular appearances while several fishing boats trawled for mackerel and shellfish. As it was a clear day the mountains on the island of Harris were easily visible when I looked north – dark purple against the blue sky and to the south the triangular peak of Ben Tianavaig was the distant focal point.
Overhead the sky was gentian blue and cloudless, the blue marked only by high vapour trails.
But just as it was the birds who provided the predominant sounds for my day outdoors, it was also the garden birds who were the predominant sight. True the plants came a close second in all their attention- grabbing glory but the birds were just so entertaining – as well as being in their glorious full HD colours. At one stage I counted fifteen different species all present at once. The most numerous were the chaffinches but there were also plenty greenfinches, siskins, blue tits, great tits, starlings, sparrows, thrushes, blackbirds and, the perpetually airborne, swallows and swifts. However, it was the appearance of a single robin that really made me smile. These little birds with their optimistic and heartwarming song are dear to many. We usually have a couple of breeding pairs in our hedges, but, while they’re raising their young, these always rather solitary creatures become even more withdrawn from bird society , so it was pleasing to see the return of at least one of their number.
Whole families appeared – parents and fat fledglings – the latter still flapping urgently, beaks agape, demanding to be fed – in spite of being larger than their mums and dads. At one point two parent sparrows and their four young lined up on the front wall – the parents flitted back and forth to the seed feeders and painstakingly filled their lazy youngsters bellies.
From my garden I’ve seen golden eagles, sea eagles, sparrowhawks, peregrines and I’ve even had a hen harrier sitting on the lawn –and awesome though those magnificent birds are, it’s their little garden cousins who really do my heart good.
By three o’clock in the afternoon, cloud began building – the northerly breeze replaced by the stronger and prevailing south-westerly. There was rain in the air by four. So it was time to gather in the washing and retreat indoors.
That night before going to bed I looked out at the garden and loch. Both were bathed in the light of the big, bright yellow moon that peeped from between the fast-moving clouds. I realised the nights have got darker in the last couple of weeks – only a month ago it was still light at bedtime. I felt a slight pang that summer – like life – speeds past so quickly but I also felt glad to have been blessed with the time to stand and stare at my corner of our beautiful, precious world.
If you want to see a full-screen slideshow of the photos (plus extras) in these last three posts click on this link to FlickrA day in the garden July 2010
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
My next couple of posts will tell you more of what I found there…
I decided it was time for a revamp of the blog as I want to broaden its appeal.
I hope you like the new look. I’ve updated the ‘about me’ page as well.
I’ll still be posting about how my writing’s going but I’ll be posting about lots of other things too.
I live on the Inner Hebridean island of Skye – which is off the north-west coast of Scotland – and I want to record what life is like living in such a beautiful place. And along the way I’ll look beyond my island home and reflect on’life, death and the whole damn thing…